A History of Austria - Part VI

Felix Austria: Territorial gains around 1500

This was the age in which Maximilian got married to Maria of Burgundy (in 1477, to be precise). In these days, the Dukes of Burgundy were probably the richest noblemen in Europe, owned vast lands in what is today the French Burgundy, the Netherlands and Belgium. Getting married to Maria was also a matter of love for Maximilian - the perfect match, it seems. When Maria died (which she did very young), the Habsburg possessions increased significantly.

Emperor Maximilian I was one of Austria's most important leadersMaximilian then married Princess Anne of Bretagne, the heir of the Bretagne (later the King of France prevented the Habsburgs from taking over their heritage). Maximilian realised that marriage was a much more efficient way to gain power, respect and wealth than any other strategy. He is said to have declared: "Bella gerant alii - tu felix austria nube!" which means "May others fight wars - you, happy Austria, marry!".

Maximilian started to enforce a very active "strategic marriage" policy with his many children. His son Philip married Princess Johanna of Castilia and Aragon - her inheritance consisted of Spain, the double-kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Sardinia, a whole bunch of smaller European islands as well as all Spanish colonies in the Americas. The best match of Europe. Prince Philip is called Philip der Schöne ("Philip the Handsome"), which is by modern standards perhaps the euphemism of the millennium, but beauty might have been measured differently in the 15th century.

In 1499, the Habsburgs lost their possessions in modern Switzerland in a war against Swabians. Nevertheless, with the enormous lands and privileges the Habsburgs had accumulated within basically three generations (Friedrich III, Maximilian I, Philip the Handsome), they had risen to a European power in a very, very exciting time. This was the age of discovery, science and reason peaked and the position of the church was increasingly challenged by various reformist movements and rebellious kings (such as Henry VIII).

16th century: The sun never sets in Habsburg lands

When Karl V (Charles V; Carlos V de Austria) was crowned in 1519, he became the ruler of an Empire in which - as he was said to comment it - the sun never sets, spanning all around the globe. His lands were so vast that he installed relatives as rulers for particular areas, and so his brother Ferdinand I became responsible for Austria. Later he got married to the Princess of Bohemia and Hungary and modernised the administration of Austria, whilst Karl V spent most of his life in Spain, which he liked much better (he said once that he speaks German only to his horse). If you ever make it to the Alhambra in Granada (Spain), you will note the ugly Renaissance palace in the centre of the main court. This was built by Karl V.

Emperor Karl V ruled over the Habsburg's biggest Empire ever

Back in Austria, Ferdinand I eventually inherited Bohemia (one of the oldest and most powerful German principalities, a big deal for the Habsburgs), Hungary and a bunch of dependent Eastern European counties. This created a potentially dangerous situation for the Habsburg on two fronts: The Hungarian nobility remained vigilant regarding its own privileges and rights for centuries, and the "Hungarian buffer" between the Habsburg possessions and the Turkish Empire was now absorbed.

Now there was a direct line between Habsburg and Turkish lands. In 1529, the Turkish army started the first siege of Vienna. Too bad for the Turks, they arrived to late in the year and got beaten by frost rather than by the Habsburg armies. Nevertheless, an almost constant struggle between the two forces continued in the next 200 years.

To make things worse, the reformation gained momentum mostly through the activities of Martin Luther in Germany. Whilst Karl V still increased his sphere of influence geographically (Friesland in Northern Europe, Milan in Northern Italy), his power faded within his lands. A complex struggle for power, mixed up with religious ideas that often seem to have served more or less as an excuse for an open confrontation, started in the Habsburg Empire. As a result, Karl V had to resign in 1555. This step finally formalised the split of the Habsburg family into two lines: The Austrian one, which provided almost all Emperors for the Holy Roman Empire until its end in 1806. And a Spanish one, which continued to rule Spain and its vast Empire until 1700.

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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