The Habsburg empire is the informal and unofficial term used by just about everybody to refer to the central European monarchy that ruled over a collection of lands from the 13th century to 1918.
Although the Habsburg dynasty traces its roots back into the 10th century and present-day Switzerland, the family really came to prominence in the 1270s.
To cut a long story short…Rudolf I, newly-elected German King and a Habsburg, objected to King Ottokar II of Bohemia’s refusal to accept Rudolf’s authority.
(Rudolf I defeats Ottokar II, Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, 1783. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
Like all good monarchs of the day, Rudolf took to the field and started implementing his claims using the handy negotiating tactic of a pointy sword.
When the (battle) dust settled, our early Habsburg had taken possession of a small Duchy called Austria for his crown, which included a place called Vienna. Aha!
And so began the story of Vienna and the “Habsburg empire”.
Tip: Rudolf is one of the figures that appear on the famous Ankeruhr clock in Vienna’s old town.
The Habsburg lands
Rudolf’s lands could hardly be considered an empire, frankly. He was a relatively powerful monarch for the time, but not master of much of Europe.
Across the subsequent 650 years, however, the Habsburg family accumulated more and more possessions and titles. The lands making up the “empire” (and the relationships between them) grew and changed continuously thanks to weddings, wars, inheritances, family divisions, political agreements, and so on.
(The “Habsburg Empire” in the late 19th century. Courtesy of the British Library)
Despite these changes, certain regions featured regularly throughout the period of Habsburg rule:
- What you might call the core “hereditary” lands – much of modern-day Austria and Slovenia, with adjoining bits of Bavaria and Italy thrown in. This included Vienna, of course
- Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia – most of today’s Czech Republic and southwest Poland
- Hungary – not just today’s Hungary, but also Slovakia, Romania, and northern parts of ex-Yugoslavia
The exact dimensions of the Hungarian part often depended on the state of relations with the Ottoman empire out to the east (the Ottomans even laid siege to Vienna twice; once in 1529 and once in 1683).
In summary, much of what we think of as central and eastern Europe was incorporated within the Habsburg “empire” for significant periods of time.
Other bits of Europe also drifted in and out of this empire. For example, the Habsburgs ruled the Austrian Netherlands for most of the 18th century, an area covering much of modern Belgium and Luxembourg.
These lands weren’t the only ones with a monarch from the House of Habsburg. Other parts of Europe also had Habsburg monarchs. A branch of the Habsburgs ruled Spain, for example, from 1516 to 1700.
(Map of the Southern (Austrian) Netherlands, Joachim Ottens, 1719. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
Until 1804, however, our collection of central European lands was never formally called an empire at all. Where the term “empire” was used, it was simply to describe all the disparate lands ruled by this particular “Vienna” branch of the Habsburg family.
What’s important is that you can’t think of this Habsburg monarchy as a single state run from an administrative center, even though Vienna was the de facto (or actual) capital for almost the entire period of Habsburg rule.
Each Habsburg-ruled land enjoyed various degrees of autonomy. This is one reason why Habsburg monarchs had so many different titles – they weren’t King or Queen (or Emperor or Empress) of one single area, but carried the local sovereign titles of the various lands throughout their territory.
So if there was no formal, unified Habsburg empire as such, how come so many of those Habsburgs you see mentioned everywhere still got to call themselves Emperor?
The answer is they were also head of an actual “empire”: the Holy Roman Empire.