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Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors

The first Habsburg connexion with the Empire was short. Because the elector-princes of the Holy Roman Empire generally preferred a weak, dependent emperor, the powerful Habsburg Dynasty only occasionally held the imperial title in the 150 years after Rudolf's death in 1291. Two Habsburg Emperors Rudolph and Albert (the uom senza fede of Dante) reigned in succession, and then the Luxemburg dynasty supplanted that of Habsburg. For more than a century there was no third Habsburg Emperor. In 1438 a Duke of Austria was once more chosen by the Electors, and from that date till 1740, when male heirs failed in the family, through all revolutions and transformations of Germany and Europe it remained a fixed rule that the German King and Roman Emperor should be a Habsburg or Austrian prince. After the election of Frederick III in 1452 (r. 1452-93), the dynasty came to enjoy such a dominant position among the German nobility that only one non-Habsburg was elected emperor in the remaining 354-year history of the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs' near monopoly of the imperial title, however, did not make the Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire synonymous.

The Habsburg line of Emperors had for a long time little distinction. It did not outshine the House of Luxemburg, much less emulate the Hohenstauffen. It marks in fact in the fifteenth century the lowest decline of the Holy Roman Empire. In more modern times, for instance in the eighteenth century, it was usual to speak of the Empire as a nullity, but the Emperors of the eighteenth century were in their own way, though not as Emperors, sovereigns of great power. Charles VI, Joseph II, Leopold II, were incomparably more important personages than the Habsburg of the fifteenth century, for example Frederick III. Even in the time of the last Luxemburg it had become usual to speak of Germany as actually governed by the Electors, and a historian writes, 'In the same year the Prince Electors with a great army made war upon the Bohemians". Nor was the weakness of the Emperor in the fifteenth century compensated, as it was in the eighteenth, by a great hereditary Power (Hausmacht) possessed by him in other capacities. Frederick III and Maximilian I were not kings of Hungary and Bohemia as the later Habsburgs were. Their Hausmacht was more purely German, but much less imposing: it was confined to the duchy of Austria and a few lordships in Switzerland and in Alsace.

On the death of Conrad IV there was an interregnum, nominally broken in 1257 by the election of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and a little later of Alfonso X of Castile, who theoretically were rival emperors, but, while Richard was crowned at Aachen, neither he nor Alfonso was ever crowned as emperor at Rome. During this time conditions in Germany were frightful, and in an attempt to cope with the disorganization, the electors in 1273 chose Rudolf, Count of Hapsburg, founder of the house of Austria, as the occupant of the imperial throne. He, too, was crowned at Aachen, but not at Rome. Dying in 1291, he was succeeded in 1292 by Adolf, Count of Nassau, who was killed in battle (1298) by Rudolf's son, Albert of Hapsburg, Duke of Austria. Albert was thereupon chosen king of Germany and crowned at Aachen. Pope Boniface VIII refused at first to recognize him, but subsequently, in 1303, became reconciled to him, and invited him to Rome to be crowned, an invitation of which Albert never availed himself. He was killed in 1308 by his nephew John. Henry VII, Count of Luxemburg, was then chosen king, and in 1310 was crowned emperor at Rome by the legates of Pope Clement V, who in 1305 had removed the papal court to Avignon in the then kingdom of Arles.

On Henry's death in 1313, a double election took place, Lewis IV, Duke of Bavaria, and Frederick, Duke of Austria, being chosen by different sections of the electors. A civil war followed. Lewis defeated Frederick at Mühldorf in 1322 and took him prisoner. In 1324 Lewis came to an open rupture with Pope John XXII, who excommunicated him. Nothing daunted, however, Lewis marched on Rome (1327), where he was welcomed by the Roman people and was crowned emperor in 1328 by four lay syndics named for that purpose by the people. Lewis soon afterward was obliged to quit Rome and Italy, and on his return to Germany he endeavored to conciliate the Pope, who, however, insisted on absolute submission, but this Lewis was not prepared to give. In 1343 Pope Clement VI set up Charles IV, king of Bohemia, as rival emperor and his selection was confirmed by a majority of the electors.

On the death of Lewis in 1347 the electors chose in turn Edward III, king of England, who because of the objection of his Parliament declined the honor; Frederick, Marquis of Meissen, who was bought off by Charles; and Günther of Schwartzburg, who accepted but died soon afterward. Charles was then rechosen and recrowned at Aachen. In 1354 he was crowned king of Italy at Milan and finally emperor at Rome by the cardinal-bishop of Ostia, who was deputed to perform that function by Pope Innocent VI. In 1355 Charles IV gave up to the Pope all the territorial rights over Rome and Italy which his predecessors had claimed and asserted in arms.

In 1356 Charles IV promulgated the celebrated Golden Bull (Áurea Bulla), which settled the composition of the electoral college, the proceedings at elections, and the privileges of the electors. Seven electors were named: the Archbishops of Mainz, Trêves, and Cologne; the King of Bohemia, cupbearer; the Count Palatine of the Rhine, seneschal; the Duke of Saxony, marshal ; and the Margrave of Brandenburg, chamberlain.

Charles IV died in 1378, and was succeeded by his son Wenzel, who had been elected and crowned two years earlier. In 1400 Wenzel was pronounced deposed by a majority of the electors, who chose Rupert of Wittelsbach, Count Palatine of the Rhine, in his stead. Wenzel, however, retained his title and his kingdom of Bohemia until 1410-11, when a disputed election took place between Wcnzel's brother, Sigismund, king of Hungary, and Jobst, Margrave of Moravia. On the death of Jobst, Sigismund was again chosen in 1414 and crowned at Aachen and in 1431 he was crowned king at Milan and in 1433 emperor at Rome.

On the death of Sigismund in 1437, his son-in-law, Albert II of Hapsburg, Duke of Austria and king of Hungary and Bohemia, was elected (1438) king of the Romans. Albert died in 1439 without having received the imperial crown. He was succeeded in 1440 by Frederick III, of Hapsburg, Duke of Styria, who was crowned emperor at Rome in 1452. His was the last imperial coronation that took place there. In 1493 Frederick died and was succeeded by his son Maximilian I of Hapsburg (1493-1519)( who had been already elected. On Maximilian's death in 1519 his grandson Charles V (1519-58), king of Spain, was elected emperor and was crowned at Bologna, not at Rome. Charles abdicated in 1555, and on his death in 1558 was succeeded by his brother Ferdinand I (1558-64), who had been already elected. He in turn was succeeded by his son Maximilian II (1564-76), Maximilian by his son Rudolf II (1576-1612), and Rudolf by his brother Matthias (1612-19).

On the death of Matthias his cousin Ferdinand II, of Styria, became emperor and reigned from 1619 to 1637. Ferdinand made a change in the electoral college in 1623 by taking away the electorate from Frederick, Count Palatine, and bestowing it upon Maximilian of Bavaria. The Count Palatine recovered his electoral rights in 1648, thus making eight electors, and a ninth was created in 1692 when the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg was given the electorate of Hanover.

From the election of Albert II in 1438 to the death of Charles VI in 1740, the empire had remained in the possession of the Hapsburg family. With the decease of the lastnamed monarch, the male line of the Hapsburgs became extinct, and Charles VII, Elector of Bavaria, was selected to fill the vacant throne (1742-45). When Charles died, Francis I, duke of Lorraine, husband of Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI, was elected emperor and crowned at Frankfort, and reigned from 1745 to 1765. In the person of his son, Joseph II (1765-90), already elected in his father's lifetime, the Hapsburg line was restored. Joseph was succeeded by Leopold II, who reigned from 1790 to 1792.

On Leopold's death, Francis II, the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, ascended the throne at the fateful period of the French Revolution. In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor of the French and regarded himself as the successor of Charlemagne in the empire of the West. In 1805 he overthrew Austria and Russia at Austerlitz and formed the Confederation of the Rhine under the protection of France. By the act establishing the Confederation (17 July 1806), Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and 13 other states withdrew from the empire and repudiated its laws, and on 1 August the French ambassador announced to the Diet at Regensburg that Napoleon no longer recognized the existence of the empire. Thereupon Francis II, by a declaration of 6 Aug. 1806, in which he stated that, finding it impossible to carry out the obligations taken at his election, he considered the bonds which attached him to the Germanic body as dissolved, that he released the states of which it consisted from their allegiance, and that he retired to the government of his hereditary dominions under the title of emperor of Austria, resigned the imperial dignity. Thus, in fact, if not perhaps in theory, the Holy Roman Empire came to an end 1,006 years after it had been established by Pope Leo III and Charlemagne.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:59:55 ZULU