The Habsburg Empire’s - Europe's most historic family

For more than five centuries the House of Habsburg (often spelt Hapsburg) was the greatest ruling family in European history and their influence stretched into the 20th Century.

Ironically Europe’s greatest ever Ruling Family originates from intensely republican Switzerland. Between 1020-1030 Count Radbot (985-1045) constructed Habsburg Castle in his feudal lands of Aargau and for almost four centuries this Medieval estate was home to Europe’s most powerful and ambitious dynasty. Through marriage and politics the Habsburgs acquired a growing collection of titles and from 1273 till its end in 1806, the Habsburg family came to dominate the elected throne of the Holy Roman Empire with its capital in Vienna. In 1415 Aargau joined the Swiss Confederation forcing the Habsburgs to relocate their seat of power to Vienna. In 1477 Archduke Maximilian I married Mary of Burgundy bringing her realms of the Low Countries and parts of France under Hapsburg rule and his son Philip the Handsome married into Spain’s ruling family in 1496 bringing Castile, Aragon and their Italian possessions under Hapsburg control.

In 1521 the vast and scattered domains of the Habsburg’s were amicably split between the dynasty’s two eldest brothers, Charles V, ruling Spain, the Low Countries, their Italian territories and briefly Portugal, while his brother Ferdinand I was awarded Austria, their German territories, Bohemia and Hungary. The Austrian branch continued their domination of the Holy Roman Imperial crown.

Modern research shows the Habsburg’s suffered genetically from inbreeding and in 1700 the Spanish branch of the family came to a dramatic and sudden end when the last Habsburg King, Charles II, died having failed to provide the throne with a male heir. This ignited the War of the Spanish Succession which resulted in the weakening of Spain’s power and the end of Habsburg influence in Spain. The last male Austrian emperor died in 1740 leaving the throne to Empress Marie Therese who proved to be one of the empire’s greatest monarchs. She reinvigorated the Habsburg line, by marrying a relation, the Duke of Lorraine and technically forming a new dynasty, the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. However the tradition of the Habsburg’s survived unchanged.

In 1806 Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and seriously reduced the influence of the Habsburg’s in their traditional German heartland. At the same time, the empire’s Balkan and Central European territories began to require more attention. In 1848 liberal ideas in Europe erupted into Revolution throughout the continent with Hungary a particular hotbed of discontent. In 1849 Austria required Russian help to suppress the revolt. In 1866 Austria was defeated by Bismarck’s Prussia and forced to relinquish its last domains in Germany and in 1867 Austria permanently agreed to share power with Hungary as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its full title actually being ‘The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Crown of St Stephen’.

The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was a veritable family of 11 officially recognised nationalities kept in union by the Habsburg Monarch who functioned as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary simultaneously. The 19th Century was a time of national or ethnic awakening throughout Europe and tensions within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were intense. Poles yearned for a separate and united homeland, Croats demanded autonomy, Serbs conspired to join the Kingdom of Serbia and ethnic Germans were concerned they were losing influence to liberal and non-German forces. As well as the recognised national groups the empire was also home to large populations of Jews, Muslim Bosniaks, Gypsies and numerous other groups including Albanians, Turks, Circassians and Aromanians. The potential for trouble was understood by the authorities who attempted to share power equally with everyone under the unifying and benevolent overlordship of the Empire’s grandfatherly figure Emperor Franz Josef.