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Babenbergs & Habsburgs
     Austria and the Babenbergs
     Rudolf of Habsburg
     Decline and recovery
     "Fortunate Austria marries"
     Charles and Ferdinand
     Habsburg lands divided
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Austria and the Babenbergs: 976-1246

The heavily forested regions to the east of Bavaria are colonized and converted to Christianity, from the 8th century, by German pressure eastwards. Salzburg becomes a base for missionary activities. From 797 the city has its own archbishop.

In the early 10th century the region is under constant threat from Hungarians to the east, but their defeat on the Lechfeld in 955 makes consolidation possible. Territory extending east from Salzburg is granted in 976 to Leopold, of the Babenberg family. He is created margrave of Austria, owing allegiance to the duke of Bavaria.


The Babenberg dynasty steadily extends its control through Austria. Vienna is absorbed within their territory soon after 1000, becoming from 1156 their capital city. It is here that the English king Richard I is recognized, in 1192, in spite of his disguise. His ransom pays for the Babenberg fortress town of Wiener Neustadt, built from 1194 as a defence against the Hungarians.

The adoption of the new capital coincides, in 1156, with the raising of Austria to the status of a duchy, independent of Bavaria. But the male line of the Babenbergs dies out less than a century later. In 1251 the nobles elect a new duke of Austria - Otakar, heir to the crown of Bohemia. He has vast realms. But in 1273 he is passed over in an important election.


Rudolf I:1273-1291

In 1273 the German princes make a slightly surprising choice in their election of a new king. They favour Rudolf of Habsburg, even though the family's ancestral lands are at this stage quite modest - relatively small regions in the Alsace and in Switzerland. But Rudolf is a powerful leader and a German, well suited to challenge the growing power of the Slav king of Bohemia, Otakar II, whose election as duke of Austria has represented a major enroachment on German territory.

Rudolf first approaches his task by legal means. He questions Otakar's right to the Austrian duchy, summons the king to appear before an imperial diet and places him under a ban when he fails to do so. He then resorts to force.


Rudolf enters Austria with an imperial army in 1276, defeats Otakar, and forces upon him the treaty of Vienna. By its terms Otakar renounces his claim to Austria. As a vassal of Rudolf he is allowed to keep the ancestral lands of his dynasty, Bohemia and Moravia (the western part of Great Moravia, linked to Bohemia since 1029), but he is stripped of his other dignities.

Two years later, in 1278, Otakar marches west to recover Austria. His army meets Rudolf's at Dürnkrut, northeast of Vienna. Otakar is defeated, and is killed in flight from the battle.


By these means the Austrian territories, long held by the Babenberg dynasty, pass to the Habsburgs. The important region of Tirol, enriched by trade through the Alpine passes, is bequeathed to them in 1363 by Margaret of Carinthia. Thus the central region of the Habsburg inheritance, the heart of their realm until 1918, is assembled by the end of the 14th century.

During that same century their original lands, in the forest cantons of Switzerland, slip out of their grasp. In 1291, the last year of his life, Rudolf I takes measures which offend his Swiss vassals. They form a league in opposition to the Habsburg dynasty.


Decline and recovery: 15th century

At the start of the 15th century, after losing control of their Swiss inheritance during the previous hundred years, the Habsburg dynasty is in disarray. Even within Austria different branches of the family are at loggerheads. The great patrimony assembled by Rudolf I and his descendants looks like being frittered away.

1485 brings a final indignity. The Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus, captures Vienna. He moves his court to the Austrian capital, and incorporates much of Austria into the Hungarian kingdom.


Yet a mere fifteen years later, by the end of the century, the situation is transformed. The Habsburgs not only recover Austria on the death of Matthias Corvinus in 1490. They acquire rights to rich lands throughout western Europe and across the Atlantic. Austria changes, in a trice, from being a fragile coalition of feudal territories (the duchies of Austria, Styria and Carinthia, together with the county of Tirol). It becomes instead the centre of a great empire.

This transformation is the result of two wise marriages, to heiresses in Burgundy and Spain. Marriage comes to be seen, with some justification, as Austria's chief policy of state.


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.


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.


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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