Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor

(1459-1519; emperor from 1493)
   The first member of the Habsburg dynasty to gain a pan-European reputation, he brought his family to unprecedented power through a series of brilliant dynastic marriages. Maximilian was the son of Frederick III, one of the most futile of the weak em-perors of the later Middle Ages. He received a careful education that raised his sights above the goal of merely preserving Habsburg rule over their hereditary principalities in Germany. Although he was fre-quently short of cash and never able to mobilize power comparable to that of the kings of France, England, and Spain, Maximilian be-came a major figure in European political life. The key to his success was a series of advantageous dynastic marriages, beginning with his own marriage to Mary of Burgundy, heiress of the powerful state of Burgundy, which included the Netherlands, the wealthiest region in northern Europe. After Mary's death in 1482, Maximilian retained control of the Burgundian lands as regent for their son Philip the Handsome. He then arranged a marriage between Philip and Juana, a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The child of that mar-riage, Charles of Habsburg, succeeded his Spanish grandfather as King Charles I of Spain in 1516, became ruler of the scattered hered-itary states of his family in Germany after Maximilian's death, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) in 1519.
   Maximilian also began a financial relationship with the Fugger banking firm of Augsburg, based on using the royalties from mines (mostly of copper and silver) located on Habsburg lands in central Europe as collateral for loans that financed his wars and other politi-cal actions. In his time, this relationship was on a small scale, but af-ter his grandson Charles became ruler of Spain, the Habsburg / Fug-ger relationship was secured by the revenues from the new Spanish colonies, especially from silver mines in Mexico and Peru.
   Maximilian appreciated the political usefulness of a well-conceived cultural policy that presented him as a restorer of Germany's lost greatness. His patronage of humanists and especially of artists such as Albrecht Dürer associated him and his dynasty with a growing national self-awareness among the educated classes of Germany. In this case, too, the great beneficiary of what he began was his grand-son Charles, who was elected emperor in 1519 over the rival con-tender, Francis I of France, in part because the Habsburg prince was regarded as "German" even though he spoke no German and had spent most of his life at the French-speaking court of the Netherlands and in Spain.
   During his own reign, Maximilian faced many problems. In the east, he pursued ambitions to win the throne of Bohemia and made treaty arrangements that in the next generation brought the throne of that kingdom to the Habsburgs. He also tried unsuccessfully to be-come king of Hungary but arranged a dynastic marriage that once again paid off in the next generation, when his grandson, Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg, managed to salvage the western section and the title of king of Hungary after the death of his brother-in-law Louis of Hungary in battle against the Turks in 1526. In the west and northwest, Maximilian faced border disputes and dynastic claims against the kings of France, as well as political unrest and one seri-ous uprising in the Netherlands, a collection of provinces which had long traditions of local self-government and resisted any efforts either to assert close control over them or to subject them to taxes. Finally, Maximilian was one of the rulers involved in the series of international wars in Italy precipitated by the French attempt to claim their king's in-heritance of Naples in 1494. In Germany itself, he faced war against the Swiss, who had become independent in all but name.
   As emperor, Maximilian had very limited power over any territory except the scattered hereditary lands of his own dynasty. He tried with only limited success to persuade the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) to ac-cept some direct taxation, but they insisted that each state would col-lect the "common penny" itself. He did establish a central judicial court that gained some recognition throughout the country, and he pro-claimed an internal peace intended to end warfare among the states and brigandage in the countryside. The electoral princes and other great no-bles, however, though they talked about the need to establish internal peace and to strengthen the kingdom, had no intention of letting Max-imilian centralize power in his own hands, and since he was chroni-cally short on cash and already overcommitted by the expense of his military efforts in Italy, he was unable to remedy the inherent weakness of the imperial office. His greatest success in Germany did not come to fruition until after his death, when his grandson Charles V became em-peror and with the ability to draw on his Netherlandish and Spanish re-sources was able to play a more powerful role in German politics.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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