- Multinational European ruling family, originally regional counts in the duchy of Swabia. Their importance increased greatly when they inherited the frontier mark of Austria in 1246, but their broader importance began with the election of Count Rudolf as Holy Roman Emperor in 1273 at the end of the Interregnum, a period of nearly a quarter-century when no claimant to the imperial throne gained general recognition. By 1273, the actual power of the emperor outside his hereditary principalities was very limited. As emperor, Rudolf so skillfully exploited the imperial office that the high-ranking nobles who made imperial elections refused to choose another Habsburg.With one exception, the electors avoided the Habsburgs until 1438, when Albert II became the third Habsburg emperor. When he died after only a year in office, the electors turned to his cousin, Duke Frederick of Styria, whose long reign (1440-1493), though inglorious in many respects, marks the beginning of an incredibly successful series of dynastic marriages that eventually transformed the dynasty into the most powerful ruling family in Europe. Frederick Ill's son and heir Maximilian (emperor, 1493-1519) was wed to the richest heiress of 15th-century Europe, Duchess Mary of Burgundy. She had inherited not only the Franche-Comté of Burgundy but also the richest and most economically developed part of northern Europe, the Netherlands. The only child of Mary and Maximilian, Prince Philip (nicknamed "the Handsome"), married Juana, daughter of the first king and queen of a united Spain, Ferdinand I and Isabella; the eldest son of Philip and Juana in 1516 succeeded his Spanish grandparents as king of Spain, and then in 1519 was elected emperor with the title of Charles V. Charles's accession to the imperial throne meant that the Habsburg dynasty now spanned Europe, including Spain (and its dependency the kingdom of Naples, plus its emerging colonial empire), the Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands), the archduchy of Austria, and a large number of other German principalities. This vast Habsburg empire posed an acute threat to other European rulers, especially the kings of France, whose realm was almost entirely surrounded by Habsburg-dominated territories.The major limitation on Charles V's power was the unwieldiness of the collection of principalities that he had inherited, the difficulty of mobilizing his theoretically vast resources in one place and at one time for decisive action. Charles himself, despite his genuine devotion to duty, found his vast empire burdensome and ultimately frustrating. Long before his abdication in 1555 and retirement in Spain, he arranged that his territories would be divided. The hereditary Habsburg lands in southern Germany and eastern Europe, together with the imperial title, went to his younger brother Ferdinand, while the Spanish throne, along with its attached principalities in Naples and other parts of Italy, and the Burgundian and Netherlandish territories, went to his son, Philip II. This division into a German / Austrian branch and a Spanish branch continued down to the extinction of the direct line of Spanish Habsburgs in 1700.Long after the Renaissance period, the Habsburgs controlled the imperial title, with one partial exception in the 18th century, until the old empire was abolished by Napoleon in 1806 and the Habsburgs were consoled with the new title of emperors of Austria, a title they held until the monarchy was abolished in 1918 at the end of World War I. In reality, the last Habsburg emperor who conducted a truly imperial policy in Germany was Ferdinand II (1619-1637), whose sponsorship of the Catholic cause during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was in part an attempt to reduce the other German princes to subjection and to revive imperial power in Germany. After the defeat of that effort, the later Habsburgs, first as titular Holy Roman emperors and later as emperors of Austria and kings of Hungary, developed the old archduchy of Austria and the contiguous hereditary provinces into the nucleus of a powerful multi-national state, dominated by ethnic Germans.Throughout their long history, the Habsburgs were consistent defenders of the Roman Catholic faith, in some cases out of personal devotion but also for political reasons, since their major role in Germany after the Reformation was as leader of the portions of the country that had remained Catholic.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.
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