Tuesday, 20 April 2021

The Habsburgs by Andrew Wheatcroft


A book about the Habsburgs is certainly going to be a thick one. A family with a long history and part of the European history for over 1000 years. In spite of this, Wheatcroft has been able to give an account of the family in just under 300 pages (not including footnotes and timelines). Considering the number of Habsburgs that have passed by during this time span, it is a thorough historical account of their lives and deeds. Some gets a little bit more space and some less, and rightly so. It starts with the first Dukes of Austria, originating from, what is today, south of Switzerland, in 1020 and continues to the last emperor, Karl I who was dethroned in 1919.  

I will not even try to make a summary of this interesting family and its input on the history of Europe. As with most ruling dynasties, it is a matter of wars, conquering of land, survival through intrigues, influence as well as personal lives through marriage, children and the fight for survival of the dynasty. As regards the latter part there were both good and bad sides of the motto of Austria: Felix Austria Nube.

"The impact of this Spanish fixation with blood and race on the Habsburgs remains conjectural. But their marriage patterns in the century and a half of the 'Madrid-Vienna axis' are unique in the history of Western Europe. 'Happy Austria marries': and it is a matter of record that the Habsburgs had gained their patchwork of lands by marriage alliances underestimates the intense military activity undertaken, especially in Italy to sustain and consolidate their holdings. It also, wrongly, suggests that other families did not use marriage in the same way to cement of consolidate political alliances. But what distinguished the Habsburgs' marriage strategy especially after the death of Charles V, was its inventiveness and capacity to adapt to new circumstances. No other royal house had developed so coherent a notion of 'the power of the blood'."

Royal marriages have always been a political game, and did most of the time, but not always, lead to unhappy marriages. However, many of the Habsburgs seemed to have loved their spouse and their children, in a way which was not common at the time. 

"Many Habsburg marriages seemed despite their political origins to have turned into genuine love-matches, and the anguish that Habsburg parents felt at the death of their children, even as tine infants, also seems unfeigned, even if expressed in terms of a dutiful resignation to the divine will."

One of the most famous of the emperors, and the man who consolidated and extended the then rather small empire of the Habsburgs, Maximilian I, was very much in love with his first wife, He married Mary of Burgundy, a request by his father, Frederick III. The union turned out to be a union of love from both sides. They were married in 1477 and Maximilian was devastated when she died in a riding accident in 1482. Fate does not always turn out that good. In 1493 he married Bianca Maria Sforza who brought a rich dowry and rights as imperial overlord of Milan. It was an unhappy marriage and they had no children. It generated a huge number of bastards though, and he seemed to have been very fond of them and provided for them. 

Maximilian died on 12 January, 1519, and is buried under the altar steps of the church of St George at Wiener Neustadt. "Where he was buried, he said, he would feel the priest stand on his chest when he raised the host during the mass. But his chest was an empty cavity, for his last command had been that his heart be embalmed, carried to Bruges, and reunited with the body of his first wife, Mary of Burgundy." I find this terribly romantic, and not typical for the time. 

The other face, and not such a nice one, of the Habsburg's marriage policy was the inbreeding. 

"Ferdinand III dutifully produced a total of eleven children, but only two sons who survived infancy. The death of his elder son, Ferdinand, from the universal scourge of smallpox in 1654 brought the younger brother Leopold to the fore, as the senior surviving male in the Austrian branch of the house of Habsburg. After 1665, he was the only surviving male member of his immediate lineage. Thus despite all this prodigious begetting, the twin Habsburg thrones (in the male line) depended on two sickly cousins, Leopold and Carlos. Although much has been made of the dire genetic effects of inbreeding, much more dangerous for the Habsburgs was the devastating rate of infant mortality, and the prevalence of epidemic disease in the close confines of the courts, in Madrid and in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck. Numerically, the Habsburgs seemed to produce a great many more daughters than sons, and these daughters tended to survive longer than their seemingly more vulnerable brothers. Of course, the life expectancy of Habsburg women was drastically reduced by early marriage, repeated pregnancies, and death in childbirth or from puerperal fevers."

The inbreeding (in the Spanish line) came to and end with Charles II of Spain. He suffered from ill health all his life, but did survive until the age of 39. His disabilities were more physical with the famous Habsburg jaw, where the lower jaw outgrows the upper one. The English ambassador, Stanhope, reported in 1697:

"His constitution is so very weak and broken much beyond his age that it is generally feared what may be the success of such another attack. They cut his hair off in his sickness, which the decay of nature had almost done before, all his crown being bald. He has a ravenous stomach, and swallow all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands so much out, that his two rows of teeth cannot meet; to compensate which, he has a prodigious wide throat, so that a gizzard or liver of a hen passes down whole, and his weak stomach not being able to digest it, he voids in the same manner."

The last in the Spanish line of the Habsburgs, he died in 1700 without an heir, and chose Louis XIV's grandson Philip of Anjou as successor. France was no friend of the Habsburgs, during most of their history, and it did not go down well in Vienna. It led to the War of the Spanish Succession.  

I have chosen to mention a few notes dealing with the more personal side of the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs is so much more. It is a well researched and easy accessible biography over a family that fought for political control of their dominions for more or less a thousand years. Through the book we get to know the great and not so great achievements, their struggle for power and glory, for family and legacies. It is a tour through European history. Andrew Wheatcroft writes with knowledge and compassion and presents a fascinating story of a family's rise and decline.


  1. I have a book on my shelf called Danubia that I keep meaning to move more to the top of the pile. It might be a good intro before I get into the more intense study of this remarkable family. Thanks for the recommendation on this one. It looks very good!

  2. I am not familiar with the book, but it might refer to the area where the Donau flows. It is indeed an interesting family and history.