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Fortunate Austria marries: 1477-1526

The Habsburg marriages of 1477 and 1496 give rise to a much quoted line of Latin poetry: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (Let others make war; you, fortunate Austria, marry).

The first marriage is the achievement of Frederick III, elected Holy Roman emperor in 1440. His long reign, to 1493, is a troubled one for Austria and the Habsburgs. But the turning point is his perception that the wealth of Burgundy (whose ruler Charles the Bold has no male heir) could be linked to the imperial dignity (held by the Habsburgs) to the mutual advantage of both houses - a perception so sound that the imperial crown becomes, in succeeding generations, a Habsburg inheritance.

From 1473 secret negotiations are undertaken between the Holy Roman emperor and Charles the Bold. The proposed bargain is that Frederick III will raise Burgundy from the status of a duchy to that of a kingdom, in return for which Charles's daughter Mary will marry Frederick's son Maximilian.

When Charles dies in battle in January 1477, neither plan has come to fruition. But it suits Burgundy to clinch this imperial alliance as security against its neighbour, France. The marriage plans are hurried through. Maximilian weds Mary by proxy in March and in person in August.

Philip I, the offspring of this marriage (and thus the heir to Burgundy, which he inherits on the death of his mother in 1482), is the bridegroom in the next advantageous alliance in 1496. His father arranges for him to marry Joan, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the powerful monarchs of a newly united Spain.

The momentous result of this second marriage derives as much from good fortune as from the diplomatic skills of the Habsburgs. Maximilian is interested only in an alliance against France when he makes this link between the Habsburgs and Spain. Inheritance is not in his mind, for Joan has an elder brother and sister. The sister even has a son.

Maximilian cannot possibly intend to place a Habsburg on the throne of Spain. But he lives to see that as the astonishing outcome of the wedding. Joan's elder brother dies in 1497, followed by her sister in 1498 and her sister's son in 1500. Joan becomes the heiress to Spain and in the same year gives birth to a son, Charles.

When Charles is six, his father dies - a shock which deranges his already unstable mother, making her incapable of ruling (history knows her as Joan the Mad). The Habsburg child, Maximilian's grandson, is now the effective heir to Spain.

Charles inherits his Spanish dominions when Ferdinand, his grandfather in Spain, dies in 1516. Maximilian, the young man's grandfather in Austria, is now fifty-seven. In military terms, whether attempting to reassert Habsburg control over Switzerland or to defend imperial territories in north Italy, Maximilian's reign has seen many failures.

But he has not lost his skill as a matchmaker. In 1515 he betroths his younger grandson, Charles's brother Ferdinand, to the daughter of the king of Bohemia and Hungary. When that male line dies out (at Mohacs in 1526), these two kingdoms also fall into Habsburg hands.

Maximilian himself dies in 1519. His two grandsons Charles and Ferdinand rule a very large slice of Europe (in 1522 Charles assigns the hereditary Habsburg lands in Austria to Ferdinand). Each also succeeds Maximilian in turn as Holy Roman emperor over a span of nearly half a century, until the death of Ferdinand in 1564.

Thus the mighty Habsburg empire bestrides Europe as the most powerful dynasty of the 16th century. It has been assembled within one lifetime, that of Maximilian, and almost entirely through peaceful means. Fortunate Austria marries.

Habsburg brothers: 1516-1564

For half a century the Habsburg brothers Charles and Ferdinand are the dominant figures of southern and central Europe, from Spain to Austria. Both are much involved in the upheavals resulting from the Reformation, which severely strains already fragile loyalties in the German lands of the empire.

Outside this shared central issue, the attention of the brothers is separately focussed. Each has on his hands one of the great territorial conflicts of the 16th century.

Charles makes western Europe his priority, regarding Spain as the centre of his realm. Here the conflict is with France.

There are frequent clashes between Habsburg and Valois interests in two rich and hotly disputed regions - northern Italy and the Netherlands. There is even a direct personal clash between Charles and his French rival Francis I. The two men first compete, at vast expense, in the 1519 election of the next Holy Roman emperor.

The conflict which requires Ferdinand's almost permanent attention is on the eastern frontier of Roman Catholic Europe. From 1522 his brother delegates to him responsiblity for the family's hereditary lands in Austria and in other German-speaking regions.

In this area danger derives from the expanding Ottoman empire - though ironically, in 1526, the resounding Turkish victory at Mohacs brings Ferdinand great benefits.

The death of the young king of Hungary and Bohemia at Mohacs, without an heir, gives Ferdinand the legitimate opportunity to claim these two crowns.

Without too much difficulty Bohemia becomes part of the Habsburg dominions. Hungary, on Christendom's immediate frontier with the Turks, is harder to secure. A treaty of 1547 with the Turkish sultan leaves Ferdinand with only the western strip of the old Hungarian kingdom. Nevertheless he has significantly extended the Habsburg lands adjacent to Austria by the time he succeeds his brother in 1558 as Holy Roman emperor.

Habsburg lands divided: 1555-1556

In 1555-6 Charles V finally gives up his long struggle to govern the largest western empire since Roman times. During the space of a year he abdicates in all his territories, before retiring to live near a Spanish monastery.

In January 1556 Charles gives to his son Philip the crown of Spain and of Spanish America, together with the Habsburg possessions in Italy. Three months previously he has handed to him the rule of the Netherlands. In September he offers to his brother Ferdinand his imperial crown as Holy Roman emperor; this transfer (technically a matter of election) is ratified in 1558.

These abdications formalize a division of the Habsburg lands which has been a political reality through most of Charles's reign. Practical responsibility for the German-speaking regions has been delegated to Ferdinand since 1522. Ferdinand has himself added adjacent territories in Bohemia and part of Hungary.

Under Ferdinand, Austria and neighbouring lands become a centralized monarchy ruled by the Holy Roman emperor - by now virtually a hereditary Habsburg title.

With the capital city of the Holy Roman empire established in Vienna, and destined to remain there, the events of 1556 can be taken as the beginning of a specifically Austrian empire.

The far-flung dynastic realm of the Habsburg family (medieval in concept, although compiled by Maximilian I as recently as the 15th century) is thus split into two empires - of Spain and Austria - held by separate Habsburg dynasties. The two branches of the family usually cooperate and frequently intermarry, to their eventual genetic disadvantage. But they are from now on politically separate.

Habsburg inbreeding and Spanish succession: 17th c.

It is a historical truism that the Spanish Habsburgs become dangerously inbred through seeking wives from the Austrian branch of the family, and indeed the facts look startling. Three successive generations of Spanish kings (Philip III, Philip IV and Charles II) have Habsburgs as both parents.

Yet this is not as reckless as it seems. Indeed it is more a strange accident of mortality. The Habsburg mother of Philip III is his father's fourth wife. Three previous brides - successively Portuguese, English and French - bear sons who die as infants, or daughters, or no children at all. The Habsburg mother of Charles II is his father's second wife, after the death of a French princess. Fortunate Austria marries: Spain marries unfortunately.

Neverthless, the fact remains that nearly all the immediate ancestors of Charles II (who succeeds to the Spanish throne in 1665) are descendants of the emperor Maximilian. The famous Habsburg jaw, visible in Maximilian and prominent in Velazquez's portraits of Philip IV, is so extreme in Charles II that it amounts to a disability - one of many, for he is sickly from birth.

Charles II marries twice but has no children and is assumed to be impotent. In his thirties he is so often ill that his early death is widely expected. With no immediate heir, but powerful claimants to his great empire, the coming crisis obsesses Europe in the 1690s. The issue will be fought out in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Emperors of Austria: 18th - 20th century

The treaties in 1713-14, ending the war of the Spanish Succession, replace Habsburg with Bourbon on the throne of Spain. The great Habsburg domain assembled in the 16th century by the brothers Charles and Ferdinand is reduced to the hereditary lands of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary, together with the new addition of the Spanish Habsburg territories in Italy and the Netherlands.

The dignity of Holy Roman emperor still remains with the family (until abruptly discarded by Francis II in 1806) but it has become little more than a prestigious token. The Habsburg story, from the 18th to the 20th century, is essentially that of the Austrian empire.

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