Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor

Maximilian I of Habsburg (March 22, 1459January 12, 1519) was Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 until his death, but had ruled jointly with his father for the last ten years of his reign, from circa 1483. He expanded the influence of the House of Habsburg through both war and marriage, but also lost the Austrian territories in today's Switzerland in the battle of Dornach 22 July 1499, where the Swiss won a final decisive victory. King Maximilian I had no choice but to agree to a peace treaty signed on 22 September, 1499 in Basel granting the Swiss Confederacy de facto far-reaching independence from the Habsburgs. He is often referred to as "The Last Knight".

Life and reign in the Habsburg hereditary lands

Maximilian was born in Wiener Neustadt as the son of the Emperor Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal. He married (1477) the heiress of Burgundy, Mary, the only daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Through this marriage, Maximilian obtained the Burgundian Netherlands and the Free County of Burgundy, although he lost the Duchy of Burgundy to France upon the death of his wife.

In 1491, he bought Tyrol and Further Austria from his cousin Sigismund, the last member of the Elder Tyrolean Line of the House of Habsburg. Upon the death of his father in 1493, he inherited the rest of the Habsburg possessions and thus reunified all Habsburg territories. That same year Maximilian married Bianca Maria Sforza (d. 1510), the daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan as he had been a widower since the death of his first wife in 1482.

Reign in Burgundy and The Netherlands

Maximilian governed his first wife's vast inheritance in the Low Countries, and he prosecuted a war over them with Louis XI, King of France on her behalf. Upon the Duke of Burgundy's death in 1477, the Duchy of Burgundy had been claimed by the French crown under Salic Law. Louis further attempted to expand his control into the Burgundian Netherlands. Mary, who was only 20 and yet unmarried, refused a proposed marriage to the Dauphin as a way to settle the dispute, and when she married Maximilian less than a year after her father's death, she used his power to try to take back the parts of her father's lands Louis had acquired. Maximilian was successful in the war and in stabilizing the Netherlands, but some of the Netherland provinces were hostile to him, and when Mary died unexpectedly in March 1482, they signed a treaty with Louis in 1482 which forced Maximilian to give Franche Comté and Artois to Louis. Louis dPOOPe. Maximilian continued to govern Mary's remaining inheritance in the name of their young son, Philip the Handsome. After the regency ended, Maximilian and Charles VIII exchanged these two territories for Burgundy and Picardy in the Treaty of Senlis (1493). Thus ultimately much of the Netherlands became and remained a Habsburg possession.

Reign in the Holy Roman Empire

Elected King of the Romans in 1486 at his father's initiative, he also stood at the head of the Holy Roman Empire upon his father's death in 1493. After he married Bianca Maria Sforza, a daughter of the Duke of Milan on 16 March, 1494, Maximilian sought to expand his power in parts of Italy. This brought French intervention in Italy, inaugurating the prolonged Italian Wars. He joined the Holy League to counter the French and lost, but after his death the Empire had ultimately won. Maximilian was also forced to grant independence to Switzerland, where he had tried to re-establish the lost Habsburg dominance.

He is possibly best known for leading the 1495 Reichstag at Worms which concluded on the Reichsreform ("Imperial Reform"), reshaping much of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 1499 Treaty of Basel, Maximilian was forced to acknowledge the de-facto independence of the Swiss confederacy from the Empire as a result of the Battle of Dornach.

In 1508, Maximilian, with Pope Julius II's assent, took the title of Erwählter Römischer Kaiser ("Elected Roman Emperor"), thus ending the centuries-old custom that the Holy Roman Emperor had to be crowned by the pope.

Tu felix Austria nube

As part of the Treaty of Arras, Maximilian betrothed his three-year-old daughter Margaret to the Dauphin (later Charles VIII), son of his adversary Louis XI. Louis had attempted seven years earlier to arrange a betrothal between the Dauphin and Margaret's mother, Mary. Under the terms of Margaret's betrothal, she was sent to Louis to be brought up under his guardianship. Despite the death of Louis in 1483, shortly after Margaret arrived in France, she remained at the French court. The Dauphin, now Charles VIII, was still a minor, and his regent until 1491 was his sister, Anne of France. Anne's first betrothal, to the Duke of Lorraine, had ended when the Duke broke it off in order to pursue Mary of Burgundy (and died shortly afterwards). Despite Margaret's betrothal and continued presence at the French court, Anne arranged a marriage between Charles and Anne of Brittany. She, in turn, had been betrothed in 1483, and actually married by proxy in 1491, to Maximilian himself, but Charles and his sister wanted her inheritance for France. The final result of all of these machinations was that Charles repudiated his betrothal to Margaret when he came of age in 1491, invaded Brittany, forced Anne of Brittany to repudiate her unconsummated marriage to Maximilian, and married her. (They had four children who all died in infancy, and after Charles died, his widow married his cousin and successor, Louis XII.) Margaret still remained in France until 1493, when she was finally returned to her father. She married twice more.

In 1493, Maximilian contracted another marriage for himself, this time to the daughter of the Duke of Milan, whence ensued the lengthy Italian Wars with France. Thus Maximilian through his own marriages (and attempted marriage) sought to extend his sphere of influence against that of France. The marriages he arranged for both of his children more successfully fulfilled the same goal, and after the turn of the Sixteenth century, his matchmaking focused on his grandchildren, for whom he looked opposite France towards the east.

In order to reduce the growing pressures on the Empire brought about by treaties between the rulers of France, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and Russia, as well as to secure Bohemia and Hungary for the Habsburgs, Maximilian I met with the Jagiellonian kings Ladislaus II of Hungary and Bohemia and Sigismund I of Poland at the First Congress of Vienna in 1515. There they arranged for Maximilian's granddaughter Mary to marry Louis, the son of Ladislaus, and for Anne (the sister of Louis) to marry Maximilian's grandson Ferdinand (both grandchildren being the children of Philip the Handsome, Maximilian's son, and Juana la Loca of Castile). The marriages arranged there brought Habsburg kingship over Hungary and Bohemia in 1526. Both Anne and Louis were adopted by Maximilian following the death of Ladislaus. These political marriages were summed up in the following Latin elegiac couplet: Bella gerant aliī, tū fēlix Austria nūbe/ Nam quae Mars aliīs, dat tibi regna Venus, i.e., "Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry; for those kingdoms which Mars gives to others, Venus gives to thee."

Death and legacy

Maximilian died in Wels, Upper Austria, and was succeeded as Emperor by his grandson Charles V, his son Philip the Handsome having died in 1506. Although he is buried in the Castle Chapel at Wiener Neustadt, a cenotaph tomb for Maximilian is located in the Hofkirche, Innsbruck

Maximilian was a keen supporter of the arts and sciences, and he surrounded himself with scholars such as Joachim Vadian and Andreas Stoberl (Stiborius), promoting them to important court posts. His reign saw the first flourishing of the Renaissance in Germany. He commissioned a series of three monumental woodblock prints - The Triumphal Arch (1512-18, 192 woodcut panels, 295 cm wide and 357 cm high - approximately 9'8" by 11'8½"), and a Triumphal Procession (1516-8, 137 woodcut panels, 54 m long) which is led by a Large Triumphal Carriage (1522, 8 woodcut panels, 1½' high and 8' long), created by artists including Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Burgkmair.

Maximilian had appointed his daughter Margarete of Austria as both Regent of the Netherlands and the guardian and educator of his grandsons Charles and Ferdinand (their father, Philip, having predeceased Maximilian), and she fulfilled this task well. Through wars and marriages he extended the Habsburg influence in every direction: to the Netherlands, Spain, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and Italy. This influence would last for centuries and shape much of European history.


Maximilian's ancestors in three generations
Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor Father:
Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor
Paternal Grandfather:
Ernest, Duke of Austria
Paternal Great-Grandfather:
Leopold III, Duke of Austria
Paternal Great-Grandmother:
Viridis Visconti
Paternal Grandmother:
Cymburgis of Masovia
Paternal Great-Grandfather:
Siemowit IV, Duke of Masovia
Paternal Great-Grandmother:
Alexandra of Lithuania
Eleanor of Portugal
Maternal Grandfather:
Edward of Portugal
Maternal Great-Grandfather:
John I of Portugal
Maternal Great-Grandmother:
Philippa of Lancaster
Maternal Grandmother:
Leonor of Aragon
Maternal Great-Grandfather:
Ferdinand I of Aragon
Maternal Great-Grandmother:
Eleanor of Alburquerque

Marriages and Issue

Maximilian was married three times, of which only the first marriage produced issue:

  • Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482). They were married in Ghent on August 18, 1477, and the marriage was ended by Mary's death in a riding accident in 1482. The marriage produced three children:
  • Philip the Handsome (1478–1506) who inherited his mother's domains following her death, but predeceased his father. He married Joanna of Castile, becoming King-consort of Castile upon her accession in 1504, and was the father of the Holy Roman Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand I
  • Margaret of Austria, (1480–1533), who was first engaged at the age of 2 to the French Dauphin (who became Charles VIII of France a year later) to confirm peace between France and Burgundy. She was sent back to her father in 1492 after Charles repudiated their betrothal to marry Anne of Brittany. She was then married to the Crown Prince of Castile and Aragon John, Prince of Asturias, and after his death to Philibert II of Savoy, after which she undertook the guardianship of her deceased brother Philip's children, and governed Burgundy for the heir, Charles.
  • Francis of Austria, who died shortly after his birth in 1481.
  • Anne of Brittany (1477–1514) — they were married by proxy in Rennes on December 18, 1490, but the contract was dissolved by the Pope in early 1492, by which time Anne had already been forced by the French King, Charles VIII (the fiancé of Maximilian's daughter Margaret of Austria) to repudiate the contract and marry himself instead.
  • Bianca Maria Sforza (1472–1510) — they were married 1493, the marriage bringing Maximilian a rich dowry and allowing him to assert his rights as Imperial overlord of Milan. The marriage was unhappy, and they had no children.

See also


  • Pausch, Oskar, Imperator. Kaiser. Cyesars. Die dreisprachigen Vokabulare für Ladislaus Postumus und Maximilian I, Wien, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2004, 352 p., 28 pl. (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse Denkschriften, 321. Band, Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Schrift- und Buchwesen des Mittelalters reihe IV, Monographien, Band 3).

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