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House of Habsburg

The double House of Habsburg, against which the Coalitions of Europe were to be directed in the seventeenth century and the disappearance of which was to convulse Europe in the eighteenth, was a great aggregation of power that was in the main a new feature in Europe. Something similar had been witnessed in the great times of the medieval empire, especially when Frederick II was at the same time emperor and king of Naples and Sicily. But by the middle of the fifteenth century such aggregations were scarcely to be seen. At that time the Emperor was a needy and powerless prince, almost a stranger to Germany, and the Iberian peninsula was divided among several independent sovereignties. Nor was Italy at that time subject either to a Spanish King or, more than nominally, to an Emperor. Burgundy had but recently been united to the Low Countries, and it had as yet no sort of connexion with Spain or with Austria.

But then with great rapidity a vast aggregation sprang into existence, similar to the great empires which have so often been founded by conquest. Yet no conquest took place, nor was the aggregation devised by any statesman. It was the result of natural circumstances which, at the outset at least, were certainly accidental. It was the result of a series of marriages. Henceforward this aggregation was the principal feature of the European system. First a single aggregate, the dominion of Charles V, then two aggregates, one bearing the name of Spain, the other that of Austria. Of these the former, the complex Spanish Monarchy, was in the times of Elizabeth and James I the greatest Power in the world.

Bella gerant alii, tu,felix Austria, nube! (Let others make war; you, fortunate Austria, marry). This verse, prompted by Habsburg marriages of 1477 and 1496, so invariably quoted when the Habsburg Ascendency is in question, may deceive those who gather from it either that the method of aggrandisement was peculiar to the House of Austria or that it was employed by this House rather through luck and occasionally than systematically and for a long time. Accident did indeed reveal, in the case of Charles V, what immeasurable results might proceed from a method so simple, but when the discovery had been made a system was speedily founded upon it, which was adopted by other royal Houses, and in some cases with scarcely less success.

This system of royal marriage reigned in international politics, and vast consequences flowed in many states, and often were intended to flow, from royal marriages, so that one should cease to think of the system as Austrian, but should regard it as almost the established system of foreign politics in the greater part of Europe. England before and through Elizabeth's reign had to guard not merely against the armies and navies of foreign Powers, but against new marriages, by which either the Habsburg might be still further aggrandised or the Valois might emulate the Habsburg. Such marriages might swallow up England or Scotland or both, as the Low Countries had already been swallowed up, and as Portugal was absorbed a little later, in the Habsburg Empire or in a Valois Empire. Hence we shall see it as a natural consequence of the success of the Habsburg system that in England too in that age the great questions of foreign politics are marriage questions, the marriage of Mary Tudor, of Mary Stuart, the proposals of marriage for Elizabeth and of remarriage for Mary Stuart.

It had long been held to be almost as improper for Kings and Queens to marry their subjects as for angels to marry the daughters of men. A purer and bluer blood ran in their veins than in the veins of their subjects; and to adulterate that blue blood with red blood was to degrade it. They must, therefore, seek their brides and bridegrooms within the magic circle. A series of marriages of cousins, continued through generation after generation, invariably and inevitably tells. The family in which such unions are the rule develops peculiarities - a special, readily recognisable, physiognomy. In addition to the "Habsburg jaw" - underhung lower jaw and the large lower lip, the Habsburg physiognomy presented the following characteristic features : excessive length, and, sometimes, excessive size of the nose; 'exorbitism,' more or less pronounced, with a forehead often of considerable height. One would say that the head, squeezed in by lateral pressure, had undergone a concomitant vertical allongation, and had been stretched, and pulled up and down at the same time. It was the cumulative effect of what is technically called "in-breeding"-of a long succession of inter-marriages among comparatively near relatives.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the chief international events either are, or flow from, marriages. The marriage of Margaret Tudor to James IV laid the foundation of the union of England and Scotland, as the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain. Later the marriage of Louis XIV to the Infanta Maria Theresa laid the foundation of the European House of Bourbon and of the family alliance of France and Spain; the marriage of William and Mary made possible the Revolution of 1688 and the Alliance of the Sea Powers; the marriage of Elizabeth Stuart to the Elector Palatine founded the dynasty and the union with Hanover.

Owing to premature deaths and/or childless marriages within the Burgundian and Spanish dynasties into which his grandfather, Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519), and his father had married, Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-56) inherited not only the Hereditary Lands but also the Franche-Comt and the Netherlands (both of which were French fiefs) and Spain and its empire in the Americas. Many small states have swelled into mighty dominions by some warlike energy in the people, or some genius in a ruler. The Habsburg Power also was to grow till it overshadowed Europe, but not through any similar cause. The first Habsburg prince who foresaw and desired this result was assuredly not one of the commanding figures of history; Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519) was no Philip of Macedon, no Pepin, no Sultan Othman or Orchan. But he married Mary of Burgundy, heiress of Charles the Bold, and had by her a son, Philip the Handsome. By this marriage the hereditary dominion of the Habsburg was vastly increased and in such a way as to illustrate in a startling manner the potency of that simple political engine, royal marriage.

Charles the Bold himself had been a great European prince, and how? Because by an earlier marriage his Duchy and County of Burgundy had been united with the Netherlands. Maximilian then could not but perceive the law of aggregation that was at work. Burgundy had been added to the Netherlands on the one side; on the other Austria had already been added in a similar manner to Tirol. And now these two considerable aggregates were by the same simple process blended into one. If Philip himself should make no similar marriage he could not fail by mere inheritance to be the greatest potentate in Europe, and as he would probably acquire the imperial Crown, it was already evident that a vast change impended over Europe.

But now Philip himself married. It is to be remarked that this marriage, the greatest of the whole long series, was not contracted with any view to the prodigious effects which flowed from it. It cannot be said that the heir of Austria and Burgundy married the heiress of Castille and Aragon, for Juana, when she married Philip, was not yet, and had little prospect of becoming, heiress of the crowns of Ferdinand and Isabella. They had a son and they had also a daughter older than Juana. But these disappeared, and a boundless prospect now opened. Aggregation was already far advanced in Southern Europe. The united Crowns of Castille and Aragon had not merely, as it were, created Spain by the conquest of the Moors, they had also obtained possession of Naples and Sicily. But in the persons of Philip and Juana Central and Southern Europe would now be aggregated together with Spain and Italy. Austria, Burgundy, and the Low Countries would be united. The same Power to which Columbus had so lately given a world beyond the Ocean would now rule the Mediterranean on the one side and the North Sea on the other. Barcelona and Antwerp would own the same allegiance.

From 1503, when Isabella the great Queen of Castille died, to 1519, when Charles was elected Roman Emperor, is the period of the gradual formation of the Habsburg power. First occurs the temporary separation of Castille and Aragon and the discord between Philip and Ferdinand, which produces the effect that so long as Ferdinand lives the Habsburg cause is rather checked than advanced in Spain. Philip dies in 1506, Juana soon afterwards sinks into hopeless alienation of mind, and Charles grows up a Burgundian, regarded with jealousy by his Spanish grandfather. But in 1516 the whole of the Spanish inheritance falls in to Charles by the death of Ferdinand; then follows the Austrian inheritance. The legal principle of inheritance has received its greatest illustration. Election is now called in to complete the work, and Charles becomes German King and in all but crowning by the Pope (which took place in 1530 at Bologna) Roman Emperor.

A new chapter opened in international history. The Habsburg Power was created, which may be said to have three times oppressed Europe by its ascendency, once under Charles V, a second time in the later years of Philip II, a third time in the earlier part of the Thirty Years' War. As it filled about a century with its greatness, the better part of a second century was occupied with its decay. The personal reign of Charles V was continued until Mary Tudor sat on the throne of England, and he lived (and as long as he lived he in some sense reigned) till within three months of the accession of Elizabeth.

About this time the Divorce began to be agitated in England, which already it could be perceived that the network of marriages had begun to entangle. Catharine of Aragon was an aunt, and the Lady Mary a cousin, of Charles V. It was one of the circumstances that made the difference of Henry with the Papal See so incapable of arrangement that Clement VII was intimidated by Charles. Thus the new Habsburg Power contributed to bring about the Reformation in England. Charles however does not interfere in behalf of his relatives in England. Catharine retires and dies unavenged, and Mary is branded with illegitimacy, as though no Charles V reigned in Europe, and the Catholic Church, which half a century later was to display such relentless and irresistible might, sees an independent Anglicanism establish itself without striking a blow.

The vast monarchy of Charles V disappeared, and gave place to two monarchies, each directed by a Habsburg prince. During a great part of his reign Charles had delegated to his brother Ferdinand the German part of his inheritance, and the Electors had given to Ferdinand the title of King of the Romans. Meanwhile the same Ferdinand had been elected to the thrones of Hungary and Bohemia after the death of Louis, his brotherin-law, at Mohacz. Accordingly in the midst of the great aggregate, but also stretching beyond it, a minor aggregate had formed itself. The Habsburg Power had extended beyond the dominions of Charles so as to include a great Slavonic territory, and by the custom of many years this Slavonic territory had been connected with the Habsburg estates in South Germany and to some extent also with the Imperial Dignity. This temporary arrangement was now at the abdication of Charles, made permanent, and thus was formed an aggregate which under the name of Austria will henceforth often engage the world's attention.

The last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II, died childless in 1700, and rule of Spain passed to the Bourbon, Philippe of Anjou (King Philip V of Spain). Moreover, following the War of Austrian Succession (1740 to 1748), Prussia began to first match, and eventually displace, the Habsburg Empire as the dominant power in German affairs.

Here then begins one of the Great Powers of modern Europe. Austria was, as it were, detached again from the dominion to which it had belonged since the death of Maximilian I in 1519. But Austria since 1556 was by no means a mere revival of the Austria of Maximilian I. It had acquired a new limb in the Slavonic kingdoms. It also occupies a different position in the European system. For on the one side the responsibility of guarding the Christian frontier against the Ottoman rested upon it; on the other side it was connected by a permanent family alliance with the great Habsburg Power of the West, in Spain. It was thus much greater in many respects than the Austria of the fifteenth century. And it was to stand out in later times more than once with great prominence in Europe, for instance, in the days of Wallenstein, in the days of Eugene, in the days of Maria Theresa and Joseph. Additionally, their victories over the Ottoman Turks in 1526 at the Battle of Mohacs, and again in 1683 at the siege of Vienna, eventually brought Hungary and Bohemia (the area that is today the Czech Republic) under Habsburg control.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:47:34 ZULU