The Habsburg empire is the informal and unofficial term used by many people to refer to the central European monarchy that ruled over a collection of lands from the 13th century to 1918.
Although the Habsburgs trace their 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 King of Germany 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 ever-reliable negotiating tactic of waving a 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 long 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, unofficially or otherwise. 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 this “empire” (and the relationships between them) 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 traditional hereditary lands: much of modern-day Austria and Slovenia, with adjoining bits of Bavaria and Italy thrown in. This core group of dominions 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 of these Habsburg lands often depended on the state of relations with the Ottoman empire further out to the east (the Ottomans even laid siege to Vienna twice; once in 1529 and once in 1683).
In summary, this Habsburg “empire” incorporated much of what we think of as central and eastern Europe for significant periods of time.
Other bits of Europe also drifted in and out of the “empire”. For most of the 18th century, for example, the Habsburgs ruled the Austrian Netherlands, an area covering much of modern Belgium and Luxembourg.
And, just to confuse matters, some of the other monarchs in Europe also bore the Habsburg name. A branch of the family ruled Spain, for example, from 1516 to 1700.
(Map of the Southern (Austrian) Netherlands, Joachim Ottens, 1719. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
An empire, but not in name
Until 1804, however, this collection of central European lands was never formally a single entity or empire at all. The term “empire” is simply a convenient word to describe all the disparate states ruled by this particular Vienna-centered branch of the Habsburg family.
(Vienna was the de facto capital – the “imperial city” – for almost the entire period of Habsburg hegemony.)
But you can’t think of these Habsburg lands as a single state run from an administrative center, even though all the various dominions shared a common Habsburg monarch. Each land enjoyed various degrees of autonomy, for example.
For most of history, a Habsburg monarch was never King or Queen (or Emperor or Empress) of a conglomerate of Habsburg lands at all. Instead, they held a long list of distinct titles made up of the local titles given to the sovereign in each of the various states throughout their territories.
So the Habsburg monarch might call himself Archduke of Austria, King of Dalmatia, Duke of Lorraine, Grand Prince of Transylvania, Prince of Brixen, Lord of Triest… (and a whole lot more).
Knowing this, you would be right to wonder why nearly all the Habsburg monarchs you see mentioned throughout Vienna seem to have the title, Emperor. After all, we just said there was no formal, unified “Habsburg empire” as such.
The first part of the answer covers the period leading up to the very early 1800s. The Emperor title back then derived from the fact that the Habsburgs were usually also head of an actual empire: the Holy Roman Empire.