The Hapsburg Dynasty


The Habsburg dynasty is descended from a line of Alemannic counts from the Aargau (today in Switzerland). After Rudolf I of Habsburg had been elected Roman-German King in 1273, he enthroned his sons with the former Babenberg archduchies of Austria and Styria in 1282. This date marks the beginning of Habsburg hegemony in Austria, which was to last more than 630 years from the late 13th century to the end of the First World War in 1918.
Shrewd and energetically pursued policies ultimately led to the small possessions on and around the Danube and in Styria developing over the course of the centuries into a global empire stretching from central Europe to South America.

Frederick III (1415/1452-1493) was the first Habsburg to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope at Rome. From then on the imperial title was to remain in the possession of the Habsburgs (with one brief interlude from 1741 to 1745) until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick legalized the title of archduke for the Austrian dynastic lands, a title which the Habsburgs bore right to the end of the monarchy.

Maximilian I (1459/1493-1519) was the initiator of the Habsburg marriage policy: "Other lands may wage war, but thou, oh happy Austria, marry". Maximilian, "the last knight", married Mary of Burgundy in 1477, heiress to the rich duchy of Burgundy to which the Netherlands also belonged. His son Phillip "the Fair" married Joan "the Mad", heiress to Castile and Aragon, as a result of which Spain together with its rich colonies in South America now belonged to the Habsburg empire. His grandson Ferdinand then married Anne, heiress to the kingdom of Bohemia and Hungary. Thus within the space of only three generations the global empire of the Habsburgs "on which the sun never sets" had been created by a shrewd marriage policy.

Charles V (1500/1519-1558) devoted his reign chiefly to the campaign against the Reformation. In order the better to administer his heterogeneous empire he divided up the Habsburg lands and their attendant functions between himself and his brother Ferdinand, so founding the Austrian and Spanish line of the Habsburgs with their respective residences in Vienna and Madrid.

The 17th century was dominated by the defensive campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. In 1683, during the reign of Emperor Leopold I (1640/1658-1705), the second siege of Vienna took place which ended in victory for the imperial forces and put an end to the threat from the East.

With peace secured, the imperial dynasty developed an increased need to express their status outwardly, which resulted in grandiose building projects. From 1693 Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach began designing for the heir to the throne, Joseph, a hunting lodge on the site of the dower residence of Empress Eleonore of Gonzaga which had been destroyed during the Turkish siege of Vienna. At first this was only intended to be a small hunting lodge, but in 1697/98 these plans were altered to encompass a stately imperial residence for the future "Sun King" Joseph I, in deliberate rivalry with the French Sun King, Louis XIV. The brief reign of the oldest son and successor of Leopold I was dominated by this rivalry with France as well as by the War of the Spanish Succession. Joseph I died suddenly in 1711from smallpox at the age of 33. His widow, Wilhelmine Amalie, was granted Schönbrunn as her dower residence and spent the summer months here until she died in 1722 .

At the beginning of the 18th century the Habsburgs lost their Spanish possessions in the War of the Spanish Succession, including Spain and its South American colonies, to the French Bourbon dynasty. Charles VI (1658/1711-1740), who had spent his boyhood in Spain, returned to Vienna as emperor and extended the Vienna Hofburg in the Baroque style but showed little interest in Schönbrunn. As "only" two of Charles VI's daughters had survived into adulthood, the emperor was compelled to make great concessions towards his political adversaries France and Prussia in order to get the Pragmatic Sanction recognized which provided for female succession.

In 1740 Charles's elder daughter, Maria Theresa (1717/1740-1780) followed him as successor to the Habsburg empire. During the early years of her reign Maria Theresa successfully defended her inheritance against France and Prussia, although she had to surrender the rich province of Silesia. Her reign was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, and she took the first steps towards reforming the administration, introduced compulsory elementary education and abolished torture. Married to Franz I Stephan of Lorraine, she continued the traditional Habsburg marriage policy and married off the majority of her 16 children to members of various royal houses in Europe, thereby earning herself the epithet of "the mother-in-law of Europe". During her reign Schönbrunn became the official summer residence of the imperial court and thus had to be adapted to accommodate the members of the court household, which numbered more than 1,500. Numerous outbuildings were erected and the interior decoration of the palace was renewed, parts of which are still preserved today. 

Her eldest son and successor, Joseph II (1741/65/80-1790), who was also influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, continued the reformist policies of his mother.
At the beginning of the 19th century, in reaction to the coronation of Napoleon as emperor of France in 1804, Emperor Franz II proclaimed the hereditary empire of Austria, thus becoming first emperor of Austria as Franz I. In 1806, against the background of Napoleon's military victories, he finally dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, which having been the supranational empire of Christendom for over a thousand years then ceased to exist.

Under his successor, Ferdinand "the Good-natured", who suffered from epilepsy, the state chancellor, Metternich, developed a system of repression, police informers and censorship. Nevertheless, this epoch - known as the Biedermeier era - was to witness an almost unprecedented flowering of the arts in Austria.

Franz Joseph I (1830/1848-1916) was born at Schönbrunn Palace in 1830. At the age of 18 he succeeded his uncle, Ferdinand I, as emperor of Austria after the latter had been forced to abdicate during the course of the suppressed bourgeois uprising in 1848, and Franz Joseph's father, Archduke Franz Carl, had relinquished his right to the throne. With a population of 56 million, the empire had developed over the course of the centuries into a multi-ethnic monarchy in which many different nationalities, including Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Rumanians, Slovakians and Italians, lived under the one crown. The early years of Franz Joseph's reign were dominated by military defeats which saw the loss of the Italian possessions of Lombardy and Venetia as well as Austria's dominant position in the German League following the Battle of Königgrätz against Prussia. Franz Joseph continued the conservative policies of his predecessors, but found himself confronted with the growing tensions between the various nationalities in his empire. 1867 saw the Compromise with Hungary which laid the foundations of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and ensured extensive independence for the Magyar nation. In the same year the emperor was crowned king of Hungary.

In 1854 he married his cousin, the sixteen-year-old Wittelsbach princess Elisabeth, known to her family as Sisi. Empress Elisabeth developed into a beautiful and extravagant woman whom Franz Joseph worshipped his whole life long.

The emperor and empress had four children; their first child, Sophie, died at the age of two, their surviving daughters Gisela (1856-1932) and Marie Valerie (1868-1924) both married and had several children, from whom there were numerous descendants. Their only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, born in 1858, took his own life in 1889 together with that of his mistress, the seventeen-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his hunting lodge at Mayerling. His marriage to Stephanie of Belgium had produced a daughter, Elisabeth - known as Erzsi -, who after her divorce from Prince Windisch-Graetz joined the Social Democratic Party and married the socialist Adolf Petznek, going down in Austrian history as the "Red Archduchess".

The end of the monarchy
After the tragic suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf one of the emperor's nephews, Franz Ferdinand, became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. However, he was also to meet a tragic end: in June 1914 he was assassinated together with his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, an act that triggered the outbreak of the First World War. During the war, in November 1916, Franz Joseph died at the age of 86, after a reign that had lasted 68 years. He was succeeded by his great-nephew Karl I, the last emperor of Austria. The end of the First World War also spelled the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. On 11th November 1918 the First Republic of Austria was proclaimed after the emperor had renounced any share in the affairs of state. However, since he had refused to renounce his claim to the throne he had to go into exile with his family. In 1922 he died at the age of 35 on the Portuguese island of Madeira. His wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, also refused to relinquish her claim to the throne and thus spent the rest of her life in exile, latterly in Switzerland, where she died in 1989. Her body was transported to Vienna and she was buried as the last Austrian empress in the crypt of the Church of the Capuchin Friars.

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