By Martyn Rady
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LIST OF MAPS
Southern Swabia, c. 1200
Habsburg Territories in Europe, 1555
Habsburg Possessions in 1600
Habsburg Territories in Central Europe, 1648
Austria-Hungary in 1914
THE HABSBURG FAMILY TREE
A NOTE ON NAMES
All names of places are given by reference to their current names in use. The exception is Budapest, where Buda and Pest are used separately up until 1873, when the two cities merged.
The names of people follow no consistent scheme. Generally, the names given are the ones most often used in the current historical literature—so Archduke Ludwig but Archduke John. Where there is no consensus, names have been anglicized. The German -f ending in proper names has generally been rendered -ph.
CASTLE HABSBURG AND THE ‘FORTINBRAS EFFECT’
At the beginning of the last century, an unusually diligent student set himself the task of establishing the descent of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was at that time Emperor Franz Joseph’s heir. The genealogy he established ran to thirty-three tables and listed more than 4,000 of Franz Ferdinand’s ancestors, going back to the sixteenth century. On account of intermarriage, however, there were so many overlaps that the student found only 1,500 separate individuals, for many husbands were also cousins, and wives were often nieces several times over. So Franz Ferdinand was related to the sixteenth-century Emperor Ferdinand I through more than a hundred separate descents and to Ferdinand’s distant cousin, the unmemorable but deeply pious Renate of Lorraine, by twenty-five.1
Dedicating his research to Franz Ferdinand, the student glossed over the extent of Habsburg intermarriage by demonstrating statistically that all the ruling families of Europe had in the past been equally incestuous. He also apologized that he had been unable to take his investigations further back into the Middle Ages. But had he tried to track the archduke’s descent back to the eleventh century, he would have had to fill in the names of several hundred thousand ancestors, for every generation back yields double the number of forebears. Even so, our student’s task would in some ways have been made easier the further back he dug, for the written record becomes correspondingly sparser and the blanks accumulate. By the tenth century, the ancestry of the Habsburgs contracts from, in theory, the hundreds of thousands to, in practice, just a few shadowy individuals.
Books on early Habsburg history often read like mystery thrillers, with speculations that trace a Habsburg bloodline back through the shadowy Etichonid family of Alsatian counts to the French Merovingian kings, whose mythical fifth-century progenitor was a quinotaur, or bull with five horns. In fact, the earliest Habsburgs can only be tracked back to the late tenth century, when they lived in the region of the Upper Rhine and Alsace, on the present border between France and Germany, and in the Aargau, in today’s northern Switzerland. All this territory constituted a part of the Holy Roman Empire, belonging to the duchy of Swabia, and was divided into largely self-governing counties or gaus, each with several counts. The first Habsburg of whom we have definite knowledge was a certain Kanzelin (sometimes given as Lanzelin), who is associated in later accounts with a small fort at Altenburg, near the town of Brugg in the Swiss Aargau.2
On Kanzelin’s death around 990, his two sons, Radbot (985–1045) and Rudolf, divided up his lands. Among Radbot’s possessions was the village of Muri, twenty-five kilometres (fifteen miles) south of Altenburg. Upon his marriage, Radbot gave Muri as a wedding gift to his bride, Ita (Idda), who in 1027 founded there an abbey of Benedictine monks. Ita’s piety was rewarded with a resting place next to the altar of the abbey church. Notwithstanding the sack of the abbey by Protestant Berne in 1531, Ita’s grave survives to this day. She is joined there in death by the partial presence of the last Habsburg emperor and empress, Karl and Zita, whose hearts are kept in urns in a chapel by the altar. Since it was not allowed to be returned to Austria after the First World War, the rest of Karl’s body is on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where he died in 1922, although Zita’s is in the Capuchin Crypt in Vienna.
The abbey at Muri prospered from the generosity of the faithful and of its founders. It accumulated property in more than forty neighbouring villages as well as a treasury of relics, which included the bones of over a hundred saints and martyrs as well as fragments of the True Cross, of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written, and of the pillar beside which Pontius Pilate had judged Christ. Radbot and Ita’s descendants considered all this, however, to be their own. Established and made rich by their family, the abbey counted as a ‘proprietary monastery’—a place of burial where masses were said for their forebears and over which they appointed an abbot of their choosing. They also assumed the duties of protector or Vogt (sometimes rendered as ‘steward’ or ‘advocate’), in return for which they extracted an income from the abbey.3
Radbot’s son, Werner (1025–1096), later called ‘the Pious’, was alert to the new trends in monastic life emanating from the great abbeys of Cluny and Hirsau, which favoured obedience, continuous prayer, and disengagement from the world. Disappointed by the brothers of Muri, who (we are told) came and went as they pleased, Werner brought to Muri disciplined monks from the Black Forest to set an example. But Werner’s reverent act backfired. The monastic reform movement was never concerned only with monkish morals. It also stressed the right of ecclesiastical superiors to oversee religious houses, and it opposed the practice of having laymen treat monasteries as their own private property. This directly affected the interests of Werner, who foresaw that he would lose all control over a monastery in whose foundation his family had invested.4
During the mid-1080s, Werner forged a charter, which he pretended had been written six decades earlier by his uncle (or possibly, great-uncle), Bishop Werner of Strasbourg. The charter gave its alleged author, the bishop, credit for founding the abbey and vested the office of Vogt in perpetuity in his family. The fake charter was recorded at an assembly of the principal men of the Aargau and later confirmed in Rome by the College of Cardinals. To add credence to their story, a group of monks loyal to Werner composed a necrology, which listed the dead for whom masses should be said. The necrology highlighted in red Bishop Werner but omitted Ita entirely. The foundation of the abbey was thus linked not to Ita but to the bishop and so, by implication, to the rights enumerated in the charter that had been forged in his name.5
The terms of the fake charter were approved in 1114 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. On this occasion, however, the emperor added the proviso that the abbey’s protectors should neither profit from their duties nor interfere in the running of the abbey. From this point onwards, Werner’s heirs were gradually stripped of their powers over the abbey. In order to make sure that they did not go off with the abbey’s property in the meantime, the monks composed a detailed list of their lands and itemized their precious relics. They also put together an account of Muri’s early history, which depicted its founding family as plunderers and thieves, who had given land to the abbey to relieve their guilty consciences. Although there may be some truth in the stories the monks of Muri told, their work fostered the belief that the earliest Habsburgs were no more than robber barons, who in one modern description ‘rode across the countryside, murdering and looting.’6
Landowners founded monasteries as prayer factories where masses would be endlessly rehearsed to speed their souls through Purgatory. To protect themselves on this Earth they built castles. Whereas fortifications had in the past been mostly earthworks, the fashion from the eleventh century onwards was for keeps of wood and stone. Their purpose was to defend, dominate, and overawe the surrounding countryside, but castles also stood as symbols of the increasingly independent power of counts and lords. The Swiss Aargau had one of the densest concentrations of castles in medieval Europe. One late-nineteenth-century antiquary counted no fewer than seventy stone forts, most of which had their origin before 1300, in an area of just 1,400 square kilometres (550 square miles). The Aargau needed them, for its rich pastures and control over the roads leading through the Alps made it the prey of avaricious neighbours.7
Legend has it that Radbot was out hunting one day when he lost his favourite hawk. Searching for it, he came by chance on a rocky outcrop, next to the River Aare, on the very edge of his properties, which seemed an ideal site for a stronghold. Radbot named the fort that he built there the Habichtsburg or Hawk’s Castle (in Old High German, a hawk is a Habicht or Habuh). This, in the contracted form of Habsburg, became its name and thus, over time, the toponymic embraced by Radbot’s heirs. Centuries later, the tale of Radbot’s hawk and of the castle’s origins still excited the romantic imagination. The earliest English historian to write a history of the Habsburgs, Archdeacon William Coxe (1748–1828), ascribed his own inspiration to the sight of Castle Habsburg and likened himself to Edward Gibbon surveying the ruins of the Roman Forum.8
Set on a steep escarpment, Castle Habsburg is still an imposing structure, notwithstanding its conversion into a restaurant, with parasols on the battlements. The story, however, of Radbot’s hawk is plainly borrowed from elsewhere. The name of Habichtsburg first occurs only in the 1080s. In origin, it probably had nothing to do with a hawk, but instead with a ford or Hafen, the castle being located close to a crossing point on the River Aare. Moreover, ‘Habsburg’ in its various early forms (Havechisburg, Havichsberg, Havesborc, and so forth) was only one of several places referred to in the family’s preferred list of titles. Once the family began to accumulate properties elsewhere, reference to the Habsburg slid down the list, eventually to be lost in the thicket of the family’s other properties and possessions. The name of Habsburg was revived only in the eighteenth century, at a time when it was fashionable to recall ancestral origins, and it became common currency with Schiller’s popular historical ballad, ‘The Count of Habsburg’ (1803). Until that time, the only family to have consistently embraced the name of Habsburg were the earls of Denbigh from Warwickshire in England. Complete parvenus, they made up ambitious descents and cultivated spurious foreign titles in the hope of adding lustre to their name.9
Castle Habsburg was not a ‘robbers’ nest’ but intended to be a home as much as a military stronghold. The original heart of the castle was a rectangular stone keep, measuring over eighteen metres by thirteen metres (sixty by forty feet), with walls almost two metres (six feet) thick at the base. Over this was later built a four-storey residence, which was connected on its north-eastern side to a square tower. In the late twelfth century, both the keep and the tower were surrounded by a long flanking wall, which served also to create a courtyard. A second tower was constructed around this time to the west of the main keep, which subsequently became the kernel of a separate complex, to which a hall and living quarters were attached. It is this more recent construction that tourists now visit, the rest consisting only of heaps of stones.
During the second half of the thirteenth century, the Habsburgs relinquished the castle, preferring the Lenzburg, which lay ten kilometres to the south. But they also had seats at Brugg, where Werner’s great-grandson, Albert the Rich (died 1199), had previously built the so-called Black Tower (which survives) and later the hilltop castle at Baden in Aargau (which is a ruin). Both Brugg and Baden were preferable to Castle Habsburg as residences, since their proximity to marketplaces made their provisioning easier. Meanwhile, the old Castle Habsburg was assigned to vassals of the Habsburgs, being subsequently divided into two separate redoubts. It was finally captured by the city of Berne in 1415.
The Habsburg heartland lay around the confluence of the Aare, Limmat, and Reuss, all of which were in the Middle Ages navigable rivers. The region was also situated at a crossroads that connected the mountains of Inner Switzerland to the lowlands of the plain. The opening of the Alpine St Gotthard Pass at the beginning of the thirteenth century drew the commerce of northern Italy through Lucerne and the Aargau to the great fairs of Champagne and Flanders. Altogether, the Habsburgs owned several dozen toll stations which milked this trade, which was at this time mostly in wool, cloth, metals, and fish. The table land of the Aargau was also agriculturally lush, and the peasants who worked its fields paid the Habsburgs rents, in cash and kind, as well as dues for rights to forage, milling, and pasture. Hence, from one early fourteenth-century register for a village close by Castle Habsburg, ‘The two crofters at Windisch shall give annually as rent two pecks of rye each, making a bushel, two pigs, one of which shall be worth eight shillings and the other seven shillings, two lambs, each worth eighteen pennies, four hens and forty eggs.’ (Twelve pennies make one shilling, and one bushel is sixty-five pints or thirty-five litres).10
Elsewhere on the Habsburg estates in the Aargau, the obligations of the peasants included a payment of three shillings to the lord ‘for the wife’s first night.’ Nationalist historians need villains, and in Swiss accounts the Habsburgs have traditionally played the role. So much was later made of the three shillings by Swiss historians, who saw it as a demeaning tax levied upon them by their former Habsburg masters in lieu of a degrading sexual right. The droit de seigneur is, however, the prurient invention of later generations. The three shillings were simply a payment given upon marriage and no different from the Lenten gift that marked the end of Carnival. It was common enough elsewhere in the Swiss lands. In fact, Habsburg charges on the peasantry were seldom pursued with much vigour, and many lapsed over time. The crofters of Windisch were hardly burdened.11
By the thirteenth century, the bulk of Habsburg income derived from tolls, particularly those raised on the bridges at Baden and Brugg. Further income came from the administration of justice. In the register of properties and incomes drawn up at the start of the fourteenth century for the Habsburg estates, this was the right that was usually first enumerated—‘to fine and compel, and to judge theft and violence.’ Since fines and confiscations often went to the lord, this was an important source of revenue. With their wealth, the Habsburgs attracted other landowners into their service. In return for serving as vassals, they were given or allowed to build castles, which they held on behalf of their Habsburg overlords. By the fourteenth century, the Habsburgs had about thirty castles stretching from Lake Constance to the left bank of the Rhine and Alsace, to each of which were attached villages, manors, and farms. The Habsburgs were emphatically not the ‘poor counts’ of some historians’ imagination.12
To begin with, the Habsburgs were just one of many lordly families in the Swiss Aargau. Historians usually attribute their rise to politics. In the twelfth century, they backed Emperor Lothar III (1125–1137) against his Staufen rivals, on account of which Lothar gave them a bundle of new properties in Upper Alsace as well as the prestigious title of landgrave. Then, in the middle of the century, the Habsburgs swung round to supporting the Staufen. Werner II, the grandson of the first Werner, died near Rome in 1167 while fighting for the Staufen emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa. His son, Albert the Rich, and his grandson, Rudolf the Old (also the Kind or Good, died 1232), supported respectively the claims of the Staufen heirs, Philip of Swabia and Frederick of Staufen. Rudolf later bankrolled Frederick’s military campaign that resulted in Frederick taking power in the Holy Roman Empire in 1211, subsequently becoming Emperor Frederick II. Rewards followed—marriage into the Staufen line, Frederick II’s gracious decision to stand as godfather to Rudolf the Old’s grandson, and further swathes of territory in the south-west of the Holy Roman Empire.
The rise of the Habsburgs owed more, however, to what may be called ‘the Fortinbras effect.’ In the final scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, all the protagonists lie dead, at which point Prince Fortinbras of Norway arrives to claim the vacant throne, to which he recalls ‘some rights of memory.’ Like Fortinbras, the Habsburgs swept up after everyone else had perished. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they intermarried with the neighbouring lordly families in what is now Switzerland and south-western Germany. When their lines faltered, the Habsburgs claimed their own rights of memory, obtaining either fully or in part the vacant estates of the Lenzburg, Pfullendorf, and Homburg families. Although to begin with the Habsburgs took over only a part of the Lenzburg inheritance, the land obtained in the 1170s brought with it the title of count. Hitherto, the Habsburgs had only held the title honorifically.13
But the most significant addition to the Habsburg properties in the south-western part of the Holy Roman Empire came with the extinction of the Zähringen and the Kiburg lines in 1218 and 1264 respectively. The Zähringen were old foes of the Staufen, and their possessions were extensive, reaching from the Black Forest to Savoy. On the death without heir of the last duke, Berthold V, the Zähringen property was divided up. Much of it went to the Kiburgs by virtue of the previous marriage of Berthold’s sister to a Kiburg. But in 1264, the Kiburgs also died out in the male line. Since his mother was a Kiburg, Count Rudolf of Habsburg (1218–1291), who was the grandson of Rudolf the Old, took the bulk of their patrimony, which lay between Zurich and Constance. With the Kiburg estates came the Zähringen lands and that part of the Lenzburg inheritance that the Habsburgs had missed out on a century before.
The territorial foundations of Habsburg power were weaker than a list of their acquisitions suggests. The family’s properties and possessions were not contiguous but intersected by church lands and other lordly estates and by cities and free villages. Some Habsburg estates were pawned, while others were given over to servants and officials in place of an income. Rents and other dues had also been sold or farmed out in return for a lump sum. The complexities and changes in even small parts of the Habsburg lands make it hard to conceive of a uniform and unified lordship, for each fragment stood in a separate relationship to its Habsburg master. Even so, by the mid-thirteenth century the Habsburgs were the most powerful family in the duchy of Swabia. Their estates reached from Strasbourg to Lake Constance and from the Aare River to the wooded valleys of the Alps, so from what is now eastern France to Austria’s western border, taking in a chunk of northern Switzerland. It was from this broad band of territory that Rudolf the Old’s grandson, Count Rudolf, would launch the Habsburgs’ most ambitious enterprise yet: to capture the Holy Roman Empire itself.14
The Habsburgs were lucky to have their heartland straddling the roadways and toll places that led from northern Italy to France. They were fortunate too in their political alliances. Yet behind the early growth of Habsburg power lay their genealogical endurance. As the diligent student of Franz Ferdinand’s ancestry learned, the Habsburgs were survivors. Generation after generation, they produced heirs; if sons were missing, then cousins and nephews were always at hand. With longevity came the opportunity to take the wealth of the less-enduring families into which they had married. Over the centuries that followed, the Habsburgs would have equal biological good fortune and other Fortinbras moments of opportunity. ‘Who talks of victories when to survive is all?’ asked the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). In the case of the Habsburgs, it was their survival that brought their earliest victories.
THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE AND THE GOLDEN KING
In 1184, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (ruled 1155–1190) built a toll tower at Kaiserswerth for the purpose of taxing more intensively the river traffic on the Rhine. He dedicated it with the inscription, ‘Emperor Frederick built this splendour of the Empire to enlarge justice and bring peace to all.’ A tax demand bearing such lofty sentiments would today be scorned, but Frederick’s words tell us much about the way the Holy Roman Empire was understood at the time. It was not seen as a unified kingdom at all, but as an association of increasingly independent territories and cities, each of which had its own ‘rights and freedoms.’ The purpose of the empire was to provide the mechanisms and context whereby these rights and freedoms were protected so that, in accordance with the contemporary understanding of justice, ‘to each be rendered his due.’ Tolls justly levied by a just ruler amplified the good order that he was expected to promote. They were to be celebrated, in the same way as illegal tolls gathered by unscrupulous lords were to be deplored.1
The problem was that the Holy Roman Empire had no government with which to maintain each in their rights and freedoms. There was no central administration, no regular revenue, no capital city, and no hierarchy of courts dispensing a delegated justice on behalf of the ruler. Power rested instead with the great lords and princes, and it was they who elected the monarch as ‘king of the Romans’—only when crowned by the pope did he become emperor. The lords, churchmen, and representatives of cities, who intermittently gathered in what were known as ‘court assemblies’ or ‘court diets’, found consensus difficult. They still looked to the ruler for leadership, but he lacked the capacity to coerce. To persuade, he often had to concede, making compromises that nibbled away at what little influence he had left. In one vivid description from the late thirteenth century, the emperor was shown no longer as the eagle that he bore on his coat of arms, but as just a woodpecker on a rotten tree.2
The solution was for the ruler to build up his private wealth in order to wield public power. Historians continue to criticize this policy, accusing successive emperors of establishing their own personal power bases and of ignoring the larger need. It was, however, precisely because they developed such extensive properties in Swabia that the Staufen rulers, of which Frederick Barbarossa was the first to become emperor, were able to exert influence. But the Staufen line of emperors also looked to make their mark in Italy and to establish a territorial base there. This brought them into conflict with the popes and with other contenders for Italy’s riches. In his last dozen years as emperor, Frederick Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II, was first excommunicated and then deposed by the pope. In the two decades following Frederick II’s death in 1250, his son, bastard heir, and eldest grandson all perished in Italy—the last on the executioner’s block in the square of Naples.
In the Great Interregnum that lasted from 1250 to 1273, all semblance of government evaporated. Since there was no agreement on who should succeed Frederick II, unlikely outsiders forced an entry. For reasons that even his latest biographer cannot fully explain, the Spanish Alfonso X of Castile put himself forward as ruler, but he never bothered to visit the empire. The rival Richard of Cornwall, younger son of England’s King John, had the broad support of the three archbishops and of the dozen or so lay lords that chose him as their king in 1257. But his interest was to outmanoeuvre the last of the Staufens to make good the fantastical English claim to Sicily. Richard was effective on those four occasions on which he visited the empire, but he stayed too briefly to leave any lasting mark.3
The death of Frederick II in 1250 was followed by the wholesale destruction of the Staufen lands, offices, and revenues in Swabia. The Staufen possessions were invaded, and even the imperial lands that the Staufen rulers had held as emperors and not as family estates were seized. What was not taken was often given away by Frederick II’s hard-pressed heirs. Plundering soon gave way to feuding as quarrels arose over the spoils. In the general free-for-all, properties that had never been part of the Staufen patrimony were grabbed, illegal tolls collected, and many minor landowners dispossessed. ‘The days of evil approach, and the evil is growing,’ wrote one chronicler about 1270. Across the pillaged countryside, processions of penitents moved, whipping themselves to appease God’s wrath and rehearsing older heresies.4
- "A feat of both scholarship and storytelling.... It's not hard to see current parallels to this story.... In an era of schisms, America needs a unifying idea of itself as something greater than the sum of its parts. If the Habsburgs could last for a millennium, surely a constitutional republic can."—Wall Street Journal
- “Glory, grief, loss – and incest – are all covered in this panoramic account that makes more sense of the great European dynasty than its rulers often did.”—The Guardian
- "Martyn Rady's history of this peculiar family is deeply informed, elegantly written and a joy to read."—Evening Standard (UK)
- "Rady is a lucid and elegant writer... It is impossible to imagine a more erudite and incisive history of this fascinating, flawed and ultimately tragic dynasty."—The Times (UK)
- "A Rolls Royce of a narrative that motors through ten centuries of history with an effortlessness that belies the intellectual horsepower beneath the bonnet."—Literary Review (UK)
- "Probably the best book ever written on the Habsburgs in any language.... Lucid, comprehensive and witty, it is not merely a pleasure to read but a complete education. Students, scholars and the general reader will never find a better guide to Habsburg history."—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
- "This admirably compact, exceptionally well-written survey will probably be the standard one-volume history of the Habsburg dynasty for years to come."—Library Journal
- "This comprehensive account provides an insightful overview of seven centuries of European history."—Publishers Weekly
- "A sweeping chronicle of the rise and fall of the Habsburg dynasty."—Kirkus
- "The Habsburgs is gripping, colorful, and dramatic but also concise, scholarly, and magisterial. Martyn Rady recounts the story of Europe's greatest dynasty that ruled an empire, on which the sun never set, from Peru to the Philippines. Revealing a key player in world history for almost a thousand years, The Habsburgs is a chronicle of high politics and family intimacy involving religion, murder, incest, madness, suicide, assassination. History on an epic scale!"—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of The Romanovs
- "The Habsburgs were once Europe's foremost royal family. Rady tells their story with verve and authority, casting a curious eye over their eccentricities and peccadilloes while all the time revealing their extraordinary influence and global vision. A fascinating read!"—Alexander Watson, author of The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands
- "This is a first global history of Europe's most famous and durable dynasty, chronicling its exploits with great panache over nearly a millennium of rule across wide swathes of the continent and beyond. Martyn Rady writes incisively and judiciously, drawing on much recent international scholarship in a range of languages to illustrate multiple facets of Habsburg governance in theory and practice. At the same time his text is accessible and entertaining, his ready wit providing a delectable counterpoint to the notorious humourlessness of so many of the dynasts he examines."—Robert Evans, University of Oxford
- "A tour de force. Thorough, accessible and resolutely erudite, this is the volume that this vitally important subject so desperately needed. Rady should be congratulated."—Roger Moorhouse, author of Poland 1939
- "Martyn Rady has written a splendid account of the grandest old dynasty of Europe: the Habsburgs. Including vampires, an empress's waist size, and cocaine-laced health drinks, Rady's narrative glitters with apt quotes and telling, often ironic details."—Steven Beller, author of The Habsburg Monarchy 1815-1918
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Basic Books