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     Hawk's castle
     Rudolf of Habsburg
     Everlasting League
     Swiss resistance
     Decline and recovery

Hereditary emperors

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Hawk's castle: 1020

Count Radbot builds himself a castle, in 1020, on a promontory overlooking the river Aar to the west of Zürich. Perhaps because of its high position, it becomes known as Habichtsburg - 'hawk's castle'. From this fortress Radbot's family later acquire their name, as the Habsburgs.

Two centuries later Radbot's descendants are counts of Zürich, with extensive rights over the entire region around Lake Lucerne - comprising the territories of Schwyz, Uri, Unterwalden and Lucerne. These Swiss cantons, the original heart of the Habsburg inheritance, are gradually lost from 1291. But by then a Habsburg count, Rudolf, has won more extensive territories for the family.


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.


Everlasting League: 1291-1315

On the death of Rudolf I, in 1291, the three forest districts of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden openly campaign against the election of his Habsburg successor, Albert, as German king. To protect themselves against Habsburg attack, they pledge themselves to an Everlasting League of mutual defence (signing it, tradition says, in the Rütli meadow in Uri).

The pledge remains for the moment hypothetical. A rival candidate wins the crown. Albert subsequently defeats him in battle and becomes the German king, in 1298. But there is no dramatic clash between the rebellious cantons and the Habsburgs until fifteen years later, when the next escalation in the drama follows an act of aggression by the Swiss.


In 1313 the men of Schwyz attack the rich Benedictine abbey of Einsiedeln. The Habsburgs, with feudal responsibility for the abbey, take various steps to reassert their authority. When these fail, they assemble a great army in 1315 to attack Schwyz.

On the mountain slope of Morgarten, on the border of Schwyz, the glittering Habsburg array is met on November 15 by a much smaller citizen army drawn from the farmers of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. The Swiss are armed with a weapon which they make very much their own - the halberd.


The Habsburg knights, mounted and in armour, rely on the thundering weight of a charger to mow down the opposition. In the confined space of Morgarten, they find themselves at the mercy of the Swiss halberdiers.

At the end of each 8-foot halberd there is a sharp metal point; this can jab like a spear. Below the point to one side is a hook; this is used to grapple a knight and drag him from his horse. Below the point on the other side there is an axe blade; with a heavy sweeping blow, at the end of the long handle, this will cut through armour and sink into limb or neck. With this lethally adaptable weapon the Swiss footsoldiers bring down the Habsburg cavalry.


Withering of Habsburg rule in Switzerland: 1318-89

Morgarten does not immediately free the forest cantons from Habsburg influence. But the Swiss have earned a new respect.

Another great victory - at Sempach in 1386 - settles the issue. Some 1600 Swiss confederates crush a Habsburg force of about 6000 men. A treaty agreed in Zürich in 1389 effectively annuls Habsburg feudal rights over the Everlasting League, now much enlarged from the three original members of 1291. The treaty is renewed in 1394, 1412 and 1474 until the peace of Basel finally recognizes Swiss independence in 1499. (The missing name from this brief account is Switzerland's most famous character, William Tell. But alas, like England's King Arthur, he appears to be a figure of legend.)


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.


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