The Habsburg dynasty was one of the most influential and powerful royal families in Europe. Beginning as landowners in Austria, they gained international influence when they were elected rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. The imperial title was bestowed on successive senior male Habsburgs from the time of Emperor Frederick III in 1452, and passed from father to son, grandson, or brother through Maximilian I, Charles V, Ferdinand I, Maximilian II, Rudolph II, and Matthias, who died without heirs, passing the Austrian lands and imperial title to the Styrian branch of the family.
Emperor Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Frederick III (1415–1493) was the founder of the Habsburg imperial line. After he was elected ruler in 1452, the title became de facto hereditary within the Habsburg family (with one significant break in the 1700s) until the fall of the empire. Frederick III’s greatest achievements were outliving King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, which allowed him to get his Austrian lands back, and securing the imperial position for his son.
Emperor Frederick III married Princess Eleanor of Portugal and they had two surviving children, the future Maximilian I and a daughter Cunegunde.
Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519) succeeded his father in 1493. He was an ambitious ruler and great warrior, and fought to get the French out of Italy and the Turks out of Europe. He also recovered lands lost to Hungary, and began centralizing administration in his growing lands.
Emperor Maximilian I married the rich heiress Duchess Mary of Burgundy, thus joining these lands to the Habsburg crown and making the Habsburgs Grand Masters of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Only two of their children survived, Philip and Margaret. Philip of Burgundy married the Spanish Princess Juana of Castile, and their sons Charles and Ferdinand both became emperors.
Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire / King Carlos I of Spain
Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) succeeded his grandfather in 1519. He had already become King Carlos I of Spain in 1516, and ruled his enormous dual empire until his abdication in 1556. During his reign, Charles V fought France, Italy, the Turks, and the Protestants. Upon Charles V’s abdication in 1556, he left his Austrian holdings to his brother Ferdinand and his Spanish holdings to his son Felipe, thus dividing the Habsburg land and dynasty.
Emperor Charles V married Princess Isabella of Portugal and they had several children, including King Felipe II of Spain and Empress Maria of the Holy Roman Empire.
Emperor Ferdinand I of the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Ferdinand I (1503–1564) was regent for his brother Charles in Austria and the Holy Roman Empire years before officially gaining the imperial title in 1558. He also became king of Hungary and Bohemia, making those hereditary titles of the Habsburgs.
Emperor Ferdinand I married Anna Jagellon, Princess of Hungary, and they had fifteen children, twelve of whom survived to adulthood, including Maximilian II and Archduke Charles of Styria.
Emperor Maximilian II of the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Maximilian II (1527–1576) succeeded his father in 1564, affirming that the imperial title would stay with the Austrian Habsburgs. He was involved with some religious controversy as he had Protestant leanings, but his reign was stable.
Emperor Maximilian II married his cousin, the Spanish Princess Maria, and they had sixteen children, nine of whom survived, including the future emperors Rudolph II and Matthias.
Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Rudolph II (1552–1612) was the oddest Habsburg emperor, succeeding his father in 1576 and promptly withdrawing to his castle in Prague to pursue such odd interests as alchemy and astrology. Although largely ignoring his governing duties, in 1609 he was forced to sign the Letter of Majesty, recognizing Protestant rights in Bohemia. In 1611, his relatives forced him to give up power, setting up his brother Matthias as regent.
Emperor Matthias of the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Matthias (1557–1619) became Holy Roman Emperor in his own right in 1612. His short reign was troubled by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, particularly in Bohemia, culminating in the Defenestration of Prague in 1618.
Emperor Matthias married his cousin Anne of Tyrol and they had no children. The Austrian lands and imperial title were thus inherited by his cousin Ferdinand II, son of Charles of Styria.
- Beutler, Gigi. Imperial Vaults of the PP Capuchins in Vienna. Vienna: Buetler-Heldenstern Publications, 2003.
- Fichtner, Paula Sutter. Habsburg Monarchy, 1490–1848: Attributes of Empire. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
- McGuigan, Dorothy Gies. Habsburgs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.
- Wandruszka, Adam. House of Habsburg: Six Hundred Years of a European Dynasty. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964.
- Wheatcroft, Andrew. Habsburgs: Embodying Empire. London: Viking, 1995.