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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.

The Spanish branch dies out in 1700, provoking the War of the Spanish Succession. But the Austrian empire remains securely in Habsburg hands until its demise, along with the separate German empire, at the end of World War I.

The story of Austria blends, from 1556, with that of a wider Austrian empire. This empire, ruled from Vienna, includes many long-established German-speaking Habsburg territories and two important kingdoms acquired in the early 16th century - Bohemia and Hungary. Holding this disparate realm together is the main concern of the Austrian Habsburgs. The first serious threat follows the eviction of their administrators from Bohemia in 1618. (Narrative continues as Austrian Empire)

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