The Habsburgs were a European dynasty that ruled much of central Europe for six centuries (1273–1918). During this period, they ruled over Hungary, the Czech lands, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Austria.
Consequently, they were known as the House of Austria. Through a series of fortuitous marriages, they ascended to the monarchy in Spain after 1516 (including Spanish possessions overseas and in Italy) and in Hungary and Bohemia after 1526.
The Habsburgs attained preeminent European status with Maximilian I (1459–1519). His fortune was made when he married the heiress of Burgundy in 1477, thus securing the rich inheritance of the Netherlands and the county of Burgundy for the family. As he now held all of the Austrian possessions as well as Alsace, the family was now a dynasty on a par with the Valois dynasty of France.
More energetic than his father, Maximiliam tried to make the Holy Roman Empire a functioning entity rather than a collection of 300 independent principalities. For a time, he succeeded, but, overall, the Empire remained divided, due in part to the jealousy of other dynasties, such as the Houses of Bavaria and Saxony, which felt eclipsed by the Habsburgs.
Maximilian secured the fortune of his house when he married his son and his daughter, Philip and Margaret, to the son and the daughter of Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain. Although the Spanish heir, Juan, soon died, the progeny of Philip and Juana—the eldest son Charles—inherited the whole of the Spanish possessions including the overseas possessions in the Americas as well as in Italy.
Charles V strode the globe as a colossus and was the most dominant figure in European history since Charlemagne. Inheriting all Habsburg and Spanish possessions, he had as his main concern during his reign to preserve the integrity of the Empire.
He was able to do so although beset by the Turks, France, and the Protest Reformation. On his abdication in 1555, the Habsburgs split into a Spanish line (1555–1700) and an Austrian line (1555–1740). After 1740, the Habsburgs ruled through a female line, the House of Habsburg-Lorraine.
The period between 1525, when Spanish troops defeated the French at Pavia, and 1643, when the French returned the favor at Rocroi, is known as the golden age of Spain. Enriched by the precious metals from the Americas and with an impressive military, Spain dominated Europe especially during the reign of Philip II (1556–98).
Attempting to add England through marriage with Mary I, he saw his dream die with her in 1558. Her successor, Elizabeth I, ultimately became hostile, leading to the Spanish Armada’s defeat by the Dutch and English in 1588. His attempt to put down the Reformation led to a revolt of the Dutch that ultimately succeeded.
His annexation of Portugal in 1580 led to tensions that led to revolt in 1640. His intervention in France was an attempt to aid Catholics; the attempt to put his daughter on the throne as a daughter of a French princess was in vain.
Ultimately, Habsburg Spain under Philip II tried to do too much. In terms of family solidarity, Spain was the leader under Philip II, the money source under his next two successors, and the duke under the last ruler of the line. Philip embarked on a series of marriages between the two branches of the Habsburgs.
The resulting lineage was weakened by inbreeding. Philip III (1598–1621), the product of the marriage of Philip and his niece, was a rather feeble ruler. Phillip IV (1621–65) was more capable but also somewhat lazy.
He was a patron of the arts however and his age was the age of El Greco and Velázquez. His son, Charles II (1665–1700), another product of an uncle-niece marriage, was somewhat feeble-minded and physically weak. On his death, the subsequent War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) led to the loss of Spain to the Habsburgs.
The Austrian Habsburgs made peace by acquiring the Habsburg possessions in the Netherlands and in northern Italy. They had survived by having successive missions in Europe. In the 16th century, Austria was a bulwark against the Turks. In the 17th century, it supported the Counter-Reformation and tried to make a real state out of the Holy Roman Empire.
When the latter failed, Austria found a new mission in expanding along the Danube and into the Carpathians, which included Hungary, Transylvania, Bohemia, and Galicia in Poland. For a brief time, the Empire also included northern Serbia.
Ferdinand I (r. 1556–64) and Maximilian II (r. 1564–76) were rulers who governed moderately and wisely the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand, through his marriage to the heiress of Hungary and Bohemia, added these lands to the family. Rudolf I (r. 1575–1612) was less capable and was deposed, and his successor, Mathias I (r. 1612–19), was not effective.
A member of a cognate line, Ferdinand II (r. 1619–37), faced with rebellion by Protestants in both Bohemia and Austria, put these revolts down and came close to enforcing a revocation of the Treaty of Augsburg. For a while, it seemed that he would reach his goal in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).
Nonetheless, Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III (r. 1637–57) devoted their energies to Austrian expansion. Leopold I (r. 1657–1705) was the most dogged opponent of Louis XIV and the Turks. He was succeeded by Joseph I (r. 1705–11), who in turn was succeeded by his brother, Charles VI, who was the Austrian candidate in the War of the Spanish Succession.
The death of Charles VI in 1740 led to the War of the Austrian Succession, as he left no male descendants. However, his capable daughter, Maria Theresa (1740–80), held the dominions together with the exception of Silesia. She was considered an enlightened despot, as she instituted civil reforms. Her son, Joseph II, tried to institute reforms too soon. His successors Leopold II (r. 1790–92) and Francis II (r. 1792–1835) were more conservative.
The 19th and early 20th centuries saw new challenges as rising nationalism threatened to break up the multinational empire of the Habsburgs. The last ruler of the dynasty was Franz Josef, who ruled from 1848 to 1916. However, Austria lost territories to Italy and Germany despite gaining land in the Balkans.
The end came in World War I when the Emperor Charles was forced to abdicate in 1918–19. Today, of the Habsburg descendants, the only monarchs are the ruling family of the tiny municipality of Liechtenstein sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland.