The Habsburg run

Went to the Hofburg, the palace of the Habsburgs, twice — once to cruise its outside, on an afternoon Old Town tour, the other to see the apartments of Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth, the most famous Habsburg … except maybe for her son Archduke Franz Ferdinand who made that ill-advised trip to Sarajevo in June 1914.

Rudolf IV was the first Habsburg Duke of Austria. Rudolf came from the southwestern German border country, near the family’s Swiss stronghold. At the age of 55 Rudolf was elected King of the Romans, sometimes called King of Germany and in later centuries styled Holy Roman Emperor. He put in a claim to territories that King Ottokar II of Bohemia had seized. Long story short, Rudolf was a bold one. He went out and thrashed Ottocar. That was in 1278. Result: a dynasty that lasted 640 years. For Viennese Habsburgs, Rudolf was Ground Zero, I think.

The family grew into the pre-eminent power of Europe, neither state nor corporation but sui generis, a familial multinational empire. Their genius for mergers and aquisitions manifested in marriage alliances that brought the family whole kingdoms. They extracted tributes, taxes and plunder with ruthless efficiency for maximum profit. For three and a half centuries, Vienna was their base and capital. Vienna fairly drips with priceless treasures.

Albrecht Dürer, artist of Nuremburg, ancient home of the Diet, commemorated the double child-marriage of the Habsburg and Jagello families on July 22, 1515 in the printed engraving The Congress of Princes at Vienna:

Habsburg bnetrothal 1515 Durer

At L is Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria; Vladislaus II, King of Hungary and King of Bohemia, is 4th from L. Maximilian’s granddaughter Mary, age 9, 2nd from L, married Vladislaus’s son Louis, age 9, 3rd from L;  Vladislaus’s daughter Anna, 5th from L, age 12, married Maximilian’s grandson Ferdinand, age 11 (not shown; he was the future Habsburg monarch Ferdinand I); Vladislaus’s brother Sigismund I, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, is at R.

The image was one of 192 woodcuts that Maximilian I commissioned Dürer to assemble into the monumental (11 feet by 9 feet) printed Arch of Honour, one of the first pieces of imperial propaganda to use the still-novel printing press. Maximilian reportedly made 700 copies of the advertisement of himself and circulated them widely. I haven’t been able to translate the Latin text. It was written, according to The British Museum, by Dürer’s friend and Vienna-based monk Benedictus Chelidonius. A later printing has German text in place of Latin, for which there is this recent translation:

The Hungarian, Bohemian, Polish Kings / All pay homage at his gatherings. / They visited him on [sic] their own accord / To honor him, his crown, and his sword. / New marriages and alliances soon / For all Christendom provide a boon.

Marketing Maximilian: The Visual Ideology of a Holy Roman Emperor by Larry Silver (Princeton University Press, 2008), p 241, footnote 58.

These three kings of Middle Europe signed or witnessed a mutual-succession agreement. Should either the Habsburg (family of Maximilian) or Jagello (family of Vladislaus and Sigismund) fail to produce a male heir, their in-laws’ incumbent would succeed to their throne. The original agreement dated from 1506 and was affirmed in 1515. “It became a turning point in the history of central Europe” (“First Congress of Vienna,” Wikipedia). Vladislaus II died not a year later. His successor to the thrones of Hungary and Bohemia, Louis II, died childless in 1526, and Ferdinand I, made Archduke of Austria in 1521, became king of Bohemia and Hungary.

During Ferdinand’s watch, Vienna was besieged by the Ottoman army, led by sultan Suleiman the Magnificent himself.


In 1533 Ferdinand and the whole Habsburg court took up residence in Vienna for the first time. Kaiser Ferdinand I was the one who built up the Hofburg, the Imperial palace; here’s his famous gate, Schweizertor, the Swiss Tower, the moat and drawbridge removed:

1055 gate

The grand gold-on-red inscription at the top is in abbreviated Latin, with V for U — which, if my source is correct, fills out as follows:

Ferdinandus Rom[anorum] German[iae] Hungar[iae] Boem[iae] zc Rex Infa[ns] Hisp[aniae] Archi[dux] Austr[iae] Dux Burgund[iae] zc Anno MDLII

Can’t find an English translation for looking; here are my best guesses:

Ferdinand, King of the Romans, Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, etc., Infanta of Spain, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, etc., in the year 1552.

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