The emergence of Austria

Austria is the name bestowed on the lands of the upper Danube valley. These were once part of the Roman Empire but were invaded by a succession of tribes following the collapse of Roman authority in the west, including Vandals, Visigoths and Huns .At the end of the sixth century the area was occupied by the Slavic Corutanes, after which it fell under the control of the Avars and then at the end of the eighth century Charlemagne succeeded in establishing his authority over the area.

Hence the upper Danube Valley became recognised as part of the Holy Roman Empire, where it formed part of the Duchy of Bavaria. In the year 955 the emperor Otto the Great defeated the Magyars at the battle of Lechfeld and drove them out of Bavaria and around the year 960, appointed one Burchard as margrave of a border territory within the duchy.

As this particular territory was located in the south eastern corner of the duchy it became known as 'Ostarrichi' (or Österreich) the 'eastern reich' or 'realm', and rendered into English as Austria. 1

From Margrave to Duke

On Burchard's death, Leopold became the first of the family of Babenberg to hold the title of margrave of Austria, and gradually over the succeeding generations the Babenberg dynasty shifted the border east and accumulated further territories in the area, steadily increasing their power and influence.

In the year 1156 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was faced with a dispute over the succession to the Duchy of Bavaria. There were two claimants, the first Henry the Lion and the second another Henry, Henry of Austria/Henry II Jasomirgott who was the margrave of Austria and also Frederick's uncle.

Frederick Barbarossa therefore affected a compromise, and gave Bavaria to the first Henry, but designated Austria as a new duchy and gave it to the second Henry. To further assuage the feelings of his uncle he also granted to the dukes of Austria certain additional privileges, which effectively granted them far greater independence than was normal for subordinate rulers within the Empire.

From Babenberg to Habsburg

In June 1246 the duke Friedrich III was killed in battle by the Hungarians and with his death the Babenberg line became extinct. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II claimed that duchy as a vacant fief of the Empire and bestowed it upon Otto II the duke of Bavaria. However Herman VI the margrave of Baben, who had married a niece of the late Friedrich III also claimed Austria and received the support of Pope Innocent IV (who had his own disputes with Frederick and was keen to cause him as much trouble as possible).

Herman never quite got to grips with Austria and the duchy slid towards anarchy. In any event in 1250 both he and the emperor Frederick II were dead and the opportunity arose to effect another solution to the question of the succession.

The estates of Austria decided to offer the job to Ottakar, the son of the reigning king of Bohemia. The Pope was in favour and Ottakar duly accepted the offer and even married a sister of the late duke Friedrich III to demonstrate his enthusiasm. In due course Ottakar became king of Bohemia in 1253, wrested control of Styria back from Hungary in 1261 and in 1269 inherited the duchy of Carinthia, which placed him in a powerful position and led Ottakar to aspire to become Holy Roman Emperor himself.

But in 1273 the electors preferred the (then) more insignificant figure of Rudolph of Habsburg, which naturally Ottakar wasn't happy about. Ottakar challenged Rudpolph and Rudolph challenged Ottakar's rights to hold Austria, war resulted and Rudpolph won. Therefore in November 1276 Ottakar submitted to Rudolph, and renounced the three duchies of Austria, Styria and Carinthia.

Rudolph now controlled Austria himself, but only in his capacity as Holy Roman Emperor and in order to ensure that control stayed within the Habsburg family, on the 27th of December 1282, he bestowed the duchies of Austria and Styria on his two sons Rudolph II and Albert.

And thus Austria became the hereditary possession of the family of Habsburg.

Habsburg Austria

The Habsburgs were originally Swiss and took their name from the castle of Habichtsburg in the Swiss canton of Aargau, but were thrown out of Switzerland in 1386, but long before then they had transferred their centre of operations to their new acquisition of Austria.

Austria itself was strictly speaking one single dukedom, but the name came to applied in an informal way to all the lands possessed by the Habsburgs in the eastern Alpine-Danubian region. These comprised not only Austria proper but also the neighbouring duchies of Styria and Carinthia and the various other districts that the Habsburgs acquired; the Tirol in 1363, Carniola in 1364, most of Istria in 1374 and Triest in 1382.

When Rudolph IV faced the disappointment of failing to gain electoral status for the duchy of Austria from his father-in-law the emperor Charles IV and king of Bohemia, he compensated himself by claiming the title of archduke in 1361 and seeking to make Austria into an independent state, free of any ties to the Holy Roman Empire.

Rudolph IV was only partly successful in his attempts, as Austria continued to exist as a patchwork of feudal patchwork of tenure with the various constituent duchies and other territories being held by different branches of the family at different times in an often confusing pattern of succession - inheritances were often divided and then re-united once more.

However all the various Habsburgs tended to act together to further the family interest and continued to seek to expand their influence within Germany and beyond. The archduke Albert V was able to extend his reach to include the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary but he died shortly afterwards and his son Ladislas Posthumus was unable to quite secure the succession to either kingdom.

But by the time the Friedrich V became archduke in 1458 the Habsburgs had established for themselves a dominant position among the German nobility and were not only able to achieve the elevation of Friedrich V to the status of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III but to establish a virtual monopoly of that dignity for the Habsburgs for the next three and a half centuries.

Friedrich took the opportunity to further extend the privileges of the family and made all the various Austrian lands inheritable through both the male and the female line, which thereafter became known as the Hereditary Lands.2

The crowns of Bohemia and Hungary

On the death of the emperor Maximilian in 1519 he was succeeded by his son Charles V, who thanks to a number of well arranged marriages ended up with not only the Hereditary Lands but also the Burgundian holdings in the Franche-Comté and the Netherlands as well as Spain and its American Empire. Charles decided this was to much for one man and in 1522 placed the Hereditary Lands in the control of his brother Ferdinand who was subsequently to succeed him as Holy Roman Emperor in 1556.

Ferdinand married a sister of the Jagiellon king Louis, ruler of both Bohemia and Hungary, so that when Louis died fighting the Ottoman Empire at the battle of Mohács, fought on the 28th August 1526, Ferdinand naturally claimed the right of succession in both Bohemia and Hungary.

Ferdinand managed to get himself elected as king of Bohemia, but faced opposition in Hungary from both John Zapolya of Transylvania as well as from the advancing Ottoman Empire. In the end Ferdinand had to settle for control of the kingdom of Croatia (formerly an Hungarian dependency) and some northern and western districts of Hungary that became known as 'Royal Hungary'.

Hence the Habsburg archdukes of Austria ceased to be mere rulers of a German Austria, and became rulers of a multi-cultural hodge-podge of kingdoms, including Slavic Croats and Czechs as well as Magyars and Germans as well as a smattering of other races and nationalities.

The Thirty Years War and the Siege of Vienna

The addition of both Bohemia, Croatia-Slavonia and parts of Hungary further extended the power and influence of Habsburg Austria, and naturally the archdukes formed the ambition of making themselves the masters of all of Germany.

The Thirty Years War which began as a religious war between the Protestant and Catholic powers of Germany, ended up as being a war to prevent the Habsburg rulers of Austria from adding the rest of Germany to their collection of subject nations. The war effectively killed the Holy Roman Empire as a meaningful political structure but it lingered on as a largely symbolic entity, useful because it provided the Austrian archdukes with the opportunity of flaunting themselves as emperors.

With Germany denied them the Habsburgs devoted themselves to their Austrian interests and in particular the defence of their central European domains from Turkish encroachments. The failure of the Turks to capture Vienna in 1683 signalled the eclipse of Ottoman Power and 1686 the Habsburg forces moved into central Hungary and captured the city of Buda. By the following year they controlled all of Hungary and Transylvania a fact which the peace of Karlowitz of 1699 merely confirmed.

From Habsburg to Lorraine-Habsburg

Inevitably the time came when a Habsburg failed to produce a son. When it did the archduke Karl II promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 by which title to the various Habsburg lands were to pass to his daughter Maria Theresa. This did not however, prevent the War of the Austrian Succession breaking out on his death in 1740, during which the elector of Bavaria, one Charles Albert, took control of Bohemia, was crowned king in 1741 and subsequently elected as Holy Roman Emperor in 1742.

By the spring of 1743 the Habsburgs were back in control of Bohemia and Maria Theresa was duly crowned queen but Charles Albert remained as emperor until his unexpected death in the January of 1745. Being a woman Maria Theresa was not eligible as a Holy Roman Emperor so that dignity was taken by her husband Franz or Francis I, who was not strictly speaking a Habsburg, but the next best thing in the circumstances.

Maria Theresa however remained the monarch of all the various component nations of the Habsburg Empire, although following her husbands death and the promotion of her son Josef I or Joseph I as Holy Roman Emperor in 1765, it was Josef I who was effectively in charge.

When Josef I finally came to rule in his own right he adopted the family name of Lorraine-Habsburg to emphasise the continuity with the past.

From Archduke to Emperor

Whilst the Holy Roman Empire may not have amounted to much in practice, the Habsburgs rather enjoyed the dignity of being emperors and the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte and his subsequent domination of Germany gave rise to the threat that Napoleon might seek to get himself elected as Holy Roman Emperor and deny the Habsburg family their now traditional privilege.

The archduke Franz I (or Francis II) decided therefore in 1804 to adopt the new title of 'Emperor of Austria' and subsequently in 1806 he renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. (Hence Napoleon could not become an emperor of something that did not exist.)

Once Napoleon was finally out of the way, as a replacement for the old Empire the Habsburgs invented the German Confederation of which the Emperor of Austria was naturally president, and by which means their leadership of Germany could be continued. However the influence of Prussia was growing and following the rapid Prussian victory in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the German Confederation was abolished and replaced with the North German Confederation led by Prussia and from which Austria was excluded.

The end of the Austria monarchy

By this means the old Austrian/Habsburg leadership of Germany came to an end, Prussia and Germany became virtually synonymous (unified into a new German empire by Bismarck in 1871) and Austria became to be seen as somewhere quite different and reconstituted as the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 under the emperor Franz Josef (and also known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Now that Prussia was firmly in command of Germany, Austria looked to the east for expansion and in particular to the Balkans where the decline in Turkish power promised rich pickings. Hence in 1908 Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a somewhat fateful decision as it turned out, as it brought Austria into conflict with Serbian nationalists intent on creating an independent Balkan Slav state. In June 1914 one particular Serb patriot by the name of Gavrillo Princip assassinated the Austrian emperor's nephew in Sarajevo; Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia declared war on Austria and so on and so on, leading to World War I and the deaths of millions.

At the conclusion of World War I the old Habsburg empire was dismembered; the Republic of Austria was created, shorn of all its former dependencies, as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia were all formed as newly independent states and former Habsburg territories were rolled back into Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

Karl I who succeeded his father in 1916 lingered on, shorn of his old imperial and regal dignities, nominally still king of Hungary but practically ruler of nothing in exile in Switzerland. Karl survived only for a further three years, dying from pneumonia in 1922 at the tragically young age of 34.

The various Austrian monarchs, from magraves through to dukes and archdukes are all numbered sequentially until 1804 when they become emperors and decide to start again. Hence there is an archduke Charles I/Karl I and an emperor Charles I/Karl I.

Those monarchs that served as Holy Roman Emperors are indicated by the addition of HRE after their name. An entirely different set of ordinals applies Holy Roman Emperors and many of these Austrian rulers are better known under those names.


Margraves of Austria



Dukes of Austria





Archdukes of Austria


Interegnum 1439-1440 Interegnum 1457-1458

Lorraine-Habsburg (Baudemont)

Emperors of Austria

Lorraine-Habsburg (Baudemont)


1 The word was first used in a charter of 996, which contained a reference to regione vulgari nomine Ostarrichi - 'the region commonly known as Austria'

2 A significant right as land normally reverted to to the Holy Roman Emperor to dispose of as he sought fit on the failure of the male line - the right of absolute inheritable succession served therefore to strengthen the Habsburg grip on the lands in their possession.

3 And hence the division of the Habsburg Dynasty into two branches the Spanish Habsburgs, descended through Charles V, and the Austrian Habsburgs, descended through Ferdinand I.


History of Austria at
A Short History of Austria-Hungary and Poland London: The Encyclopedia Britannica Company, Ltd., 1914. at Information on the emperor Karl I from

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