A History of Austria - Part V

13th century: Babenberg, interregnum & a new dynasty

The first Duke of Austria was Friedrich Jasomirgott. "Ja, so mir Gott helfe!" means something like "Yo, may god help me!". Apparently, he used this phrase a lot, thus the funny nickname. He made Vienna the capital of Austria ("Residenzstadt") in 1156, built a lot and eventually Austria gained rule over the County of Styria in 1192. This was a significant territorial gain, since Styria included the Traungau, large chunks of what is central Upper Austria and partly Lower Austria today, and parts of today′s Slovenia.

Under Babenberg rule, Austria bloomed for the first time in the Middle Ages: Loads of castles and ancient monasteries prove that.

The power of the Babenberg family peaked when Leopold VI promoted Gothic culture and architecture in Austria. The duchy had turned into a blooming centre of cultural, intellectual and economic movements typical for the Middle Ages. Sadly, the Babenberg house ended with his son Friedrich II in 1246. What followed was a period of uncertainty and a bit of chaos, later called "Interregnum" ("between rules"). In 1256, the local nobility and influential aristocrats from Vienna opposed each other and the King of Bohemia, Ottokar I, gained control of Austria and supported the aristocratic Viennese.

Needless to say, the nobility was not very impressed and when Ottokar I eventually tried to establish himself as a king within the Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf of Habsburg challenged him in the battle of the Marchfeld (a plain outside of Vienna, today famous for its excellent vegetables). Rudolf won, became Duke of Austria and Styria and established what is pompously considered to be the oldest dynasty in the history of mankind (drum roll): The House of Habsburg should rule over Austria from 1278 until 1919.

Medieval Austria under Habsburg rule

What followed was another period that is not-so-interesting in political terms; cycles of consolidation, peaks and blooms, and power-struggles with crisis. The late Middle Ages were culturally and intellectually much more exciting than the early Middle Ages, politically, however, they were not very happening. The Habsburgs built a lot, strengthened the position of Vienna as a capital and steadily gained power.

The Tomb of Rudolf of Habsburg in Germany

The inherited the rule over the counties of Görz and Carinthia in 1335 and Tyrol in 1363. Duke Rudolf IV faked a document called "Privilegium Maius", transferring more rights, autonomy and independence to Austria. The Emperor refused to acknowledge it. Only Friedrich III finally accepted it after he became Emperor in 1452. He was, surprisingly, a Habsburg and Duke of Austria.

Otherwise, there was a lot of fighting about dominant roles among different branches of the Habsburg family, resulting in the division of Austria into three regions that were later re-united in the 15th century. This didn′t help the economy of the duchy, but the hassles eventually settled after Habsburgs became Emperors in the late 15th century.

Renaissance Austria: Be Merry & Marry

Being the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation was certainly great for business cards, but concerned more or less with only nominal power. The empire was not a centralised country like England under Henry VIII or France under Francois I. The Habsburgs were rulers in Austria, but as Emperors, they had to accommodate other nobility and the pope more than in other European countries at the same time.

Emperor Friedrich III was the first Habsburg to become Holy Roman Emperor

Therefore, their interests were strong on their "private" property: The Duchy of Austria and all associated lands like Styria and the Tyrol. Their original lands in today′s Switzerland (this is where the Habsburg Castle is) was lost in a war. However, they steadily tried to enlarge their possessions and influence within the Holy Roman Empire. The ace in the poker for power within the 15th-century Holy Roman Empire was inheritance.

If a house became extinct, another family would have to take over. Women could not rule as duchess or princess, therefore, their husbands would benefit from their inheritance. Emperor Friedrich III of Habsburg did not only "validate" the faked Privilegium Maius, he also consolidated Austria and outlined his big picture of a proper, territorial nation. He also enforced the close alliance of the Holy Roman Empire with the Pope - all Habsburgs after him considered themselves as sort of the Jedi knights of Catholicism. The treaty Friedrich III signed with the Pope remained valid until 1806 and was then renewed in an altered version.

His son Maximilian I took over both as Duke of Austria and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He did this at a time of change in Europe, the late 15th century: The power of the pope was fading, science started to be done with more reason and the nobility lost power to rich merchants and aristocrats. The feudal structures of the Middle Ages shivered and new inventions changed the style of warfare.

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs