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The Habsburg Dynasty: Dominating Europe by Monarch

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 9/17/2015

Call them “Hapsburg" or “Habsburg," this family controlled vast European regions from 1273 to 1918. They were a monarchy (hereditary head of state), an empire (a group of states ruled by an emperor), a dynasty (a sequence of rulers from one family) and one of Europe’s oldest leading ruling houses.

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    The Dark Ages

    The Habsburg Dynasty- Dominating Europe Stepping back in history to examine the occasions and contingencies of this era provides a better understanding of the Habsburg beginning and this period. After the Roman Empire collapsed, persons of wealth and power put the feudal system (fiefdom) into place. These “lords" usurped the land as sovereign property and had civil and military authority over its inhabitants, the “vassals." The vassal in turn pledged mutual support and military service for the king or lord and, in return, received land of his own.

    People for the most part lived rurally, were illiterate and uneducated and lived by their wits, which usually meant compliance and heavy labor. The lords granted land to the industrious among them, but they became tenants and stayed that way under the royal prerogative of the lord, baron, duke, count or whoever received the land from the king, monarch or emperor. Tenants made payments to the lord during times of festivities, mainly harvest-time.

    The workers were serfs. They all had obligations, which included military service, castle defense, working the land or hospitality of the main house. Mostly, their lives were in agricultural production. One could call them “peasant farmers." They would receive a portion of the crop yield for themselves. They often gave a portion of their foodstuffs and bounty to the church.

    In addition, the lords’ powers were absolute and included dispensing law, the coining of money, the fixed standards and weights, granting safeguards, military force, imposing taxes and sometimes even the power of life and death.

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    Hierarchy of Rights

    The Lord of the Manor also had rights with other benefits: the right to pass fiefs to their heirs (including the workers), the right of primogeniture (their first-born inheriting the estate), sovereignty of crown vassals (read this as “authority"), and subinfeudation (leasing the land). After the fall of Rome, the ancient Carolingian rulers, descended from the great Frank dynasty of Charlemagne, are the link here. They connected the ancient past with this modern history, united Roman jurisprudence with German tribe laws, and mixed law of civil obligation (recognized by the community) with the law of tenure (person enforcing the law).

    The Christian Church also owned vast estates, and bishops, abbots and the inhabitants of the monasteries were on the obligation track. They established their own canon laws, such as who could marry, and were often corrupt in selling ecclesiastical offices. The underlings who worked their land never received land. It always belonged to the Church.

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    The Great Interregnum

    The clergy had castles, cities and even provinces bestowed to them. Why? Because the monarch or king hoped that the church would civilize the barbarous countries over which they reigned and would in turn secure a body of loyal men for him.

    The clergy took their power seriously and a new Pope deposed Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, head of the House of Hohenstaufen and kingdom of Prussia: Innocent IV, a member of a noble Imperial family in 1245. Frederick was a threat to them because in 1220 at age 25, he was crowned emperor in St Peter’s, Rome, by Pope Honorius III. Philosophically, this made him the earthly head of Christ’s people on earth and overlord of northern Italy. He had originally gained rule of southern Italy and Sicily at age 14 on Rome’s doorstep, which put him in the sights of the popes.

    Innocent IV was elected in June 1243. The emperor was initially happy with this election but soon became Frederick’s fiercest enemy. That very summer, Frederick stood to lose his main stronghold near Rome and besieged the city. Innocent convinced the rebels to sign a peace treaty, but after Frederick withdrew his garrison, a cardinal had them slaughtered. Frederick was incensed. Innocent IV set a plot to kill Frederick in motion, but the plotters were unmasked and then blinded, mutilated and burnt alive or hanged. Frederick sustained many attacks after that.

    When Pope Innocent IV heard about the death of Frederick II in Germany, he was delighted. “Let heaven exult and the earth rejoice," he proclaimed in a message to the Sicilian bishops.

    The emperor’s death also ushered in the Great Interregnum (1250–73), a period of internal confusion and political disorder and a period of temporary suspension of the usual functions of government or control.

    Now contests between Popes and Princes—there were six princes claiming to be emperor of Germany—reduced the empire to anarchy. Succession disputes meant that no candidate received enough votes to become emperor. This unique set of facts is referred to as the Babenberg Legacy, as Frederick was the fifth and last Austrian duke from the House of Babenberg. The beginning of this era ushers in tension between two kings: Rudolf I crowned in 1273 as the first Roman-German king of the Habsburg dynasty and Ottokar II Přemyslid, King of Bohemia, who refused to recognize him.

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    Habsburg Established

    The Habsburg Dynasty presented Emperor Rudolf I in 1273. They had taken up the name and royal status from the Habsburg’s family Castle in Switzerland in the Aargau canton near the Aare River, a tributary of the river Rhine. Otto II had built it around 1100. The castle served as the seat of the Habsburg family during the 12th and 13th centuries.

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    Habsburg’s Intrigue

    The Czech ruler, Ottokar II, administered the Přemyslid dynasty as the King of Bohemia, nicknamed the “Iron and Golden King. “He reigned in Bohemia, Moravia, parts of Hungary, Silesia, Austria and Poland. This dynasty was most powerful during the Holy Roman Empire when he had aspirations of taking over the imperial crown.

    At the Reichstag convention in 1274, a year after the election, Rudolf of Habsburg decreed that Ottokar needed to return all lands that had changed hands since the death of Emperor Fredrick II (the last Hohenstaufen emperor). Ottokar refused because he would have lost his major duchies.

    Ottokar eventually signed the new treaty and had a family betrothal to Rudolf’s daughter, but it was doomed. In the Battle on the Marchfeld, Ottokar made a last attempt to regain his lands using help from Poland and Bavaria. He was defeated and killed. Rudolf and the Habsburgs' power were enhanced as the regions of Austria and Styria fell under his control.

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    Habsburgs Accumulate Wealth and Power

    Over the centuries, the Habsburgs built an incredible base of land, power, wealth and art, overtaking countries and territories, which at one time covered most of the known world. With each acquisition came new assets and riches.

    Through war, marriage and alliances, the Habsburgs were an assembly of dukes, kings and emperors in various epochs spanning 600 years. The fact there might have been inbreeding always punctuates their legacy; for example, Leopold I was first married to Margarita Teresa from the Spanish Habsburg line. This union was to cement the Austrian Habsburgs to the Spanish throne in 1651.

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    Two Houses, Two Families

    There are two lines and families of Habsburgs: the Royal House of Habsburg and the Imperial House of Habsburg-Lorraine (Habsburg-Lothringen). In fact, the Royal Imperial Family was divided in two by Charles V in 1556. Lands gained: Spain and its empire and parts of Italy, were split between the Austrian branch run by his brother, Ferdinand I and the Spanish holdings given to his son, Phillip II.

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    The Eras

    The Habsburg empires can be divided up into these eras. They encompass hundreds of rulers and these periods of history.

    • Enlightened Absolutism 1740-1792
    • Revolutions 1792-1848
    • National Conflicts 1848-1914
    • Decline and Fall 1914-1918

    Any point in European history from 1273 to 1918 includes a Habsburg family member, and you can study any point in time to discover stories of marriages, royal appointments, war, takeovers, dominance, intrigue, succession, extravagant art and lifestyle and control.


  • McKay, John P. et al. A History of the World Societies, 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992. Book.
  • Butler, Charles. A Succinct History of the Geographical and Political Revolutions of the Empire of Germany. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster-Row, 1812. (Harvard University Library, 1941.)
  • Garraty, John A and Peter Gay. The Columbia History of the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Book.
  • Wedgwood, C.V. The Thirty Years War. New York: New York Review Book, 1938. Book.