The Habsburgs: the dynasty that wouldn’t die

Not even madness, alcoholism and bloody wars of religion could deny the Habsburgs their status as one of the great powerhouses of Europe. Martyn Rady shares the survival secrets of a family that, for 900 years, displayed a remarkable capacity for self-preservation

Habsburg dynasty: Maria Theresa, her husband Francis I

If the great dynasties of central Europe have one thing in common, it is that they don’t know when they’re beaten. They are history’s great survivors. The German Wittelsbachs ruled Bavaria and the Palatinate from the 12th to the 20th centuries – a 700-year lifecycle that encompassed everything from the High Middle Ages to the First World War.

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The Guelphs of Hanover and Brunswick, whose line can be traced with some certainty back to the ninth century, were just as resilient, acquiring the British throne (through King George I) in the 18th century, and subsequently marrying into the Greek, Danish and Spanish royal families.

Yet of all Europe’s dynasties, surely none displayed a greater capacity for self-preservation than the Habsburgs. From inbreeding and infighting to ruinous religious schisms, all manner of calamities threatened to drive this remarkable family into extinction. Yet nothing could stop it dominating swathes of central Europe and beyond from the Middle Ages into the modern era.

We can confidently trace the Habsburgs’ origins to 10th-century Switzerland, where among their earliest possessions was the Castle Habsburg that gave the family its name. Then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Aargau region was lush, watered by the Alpine rivers, and it straddled the commercial routes that later joined northern Italy to the great fairs of Champagne and Flanders. Its wealth was the starting-point for the Habsburgs’ rise to power.

Chance played a part in their ascent, too, since the Habsburgs outlived most of their neighbours and, on their expiry, went off with their lands. In the general chaos that attended the collapse of the Hohenstaufen line of emperors in the mid-13th century, Count Rudolf of Habsburg was elected king of Germany. In his own description, an “insatiable man of war”, Rudolf used the opportunity to capture Austria and what is now Slovenia. His successors pushed towards the Adriatic and took the Tyrol in the 14th century. They became Holy Roman Emperors in the mid-15th century, and shortly after-wards took possession of the Low Countries.

Philip the Handsome and Juana of Castile
Philip the Handsome and Juana of Castile shown in a relief in the Royal Chapel of Granada. (Image by Alamy)

Pulled east and west

That wasn’t the end of the Habsburgs’ expansion. In the 16th century, they exploded outwards, obtaining Spain by way of a lucky marriage between Philip the Handsome, son of the future Habsburg emperor Maximilian (ruled 1508–19), and the Spanish princess Juana of Castile in 1496. Along with it came an overseas empire that would eventually include much of the New World, the Philippines, northern Taiwan, Guam and outposts on the Chinese, west African and Indian coasts. The Habsburgs were the first European rulers to found an empire upon which the sun never set or, as was said at the time, where the mass was in continuous celebration. Philip and Juana’s son, Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, was the first “world monarch”, whose dominions extended across four continents.

The Habsburgs were the first European rulers to found an empire upon which the sun never set

But with great power came new threats. Keeping Hungary and Bohemia out of the double clutches of the Turks and Protestants preoccupied the Habsburgs for centuries. The acquisition of their large central European territory pulled the Habsburgs in two directions, westwards and eastwards. Following the abdication of Emperor Charles V in 1555–56, one branch, headed by Charles’s son Philip II, ruled Spain and the Low Countries, while a second, led by Charles’s brother Archduke Ferdinand, presided over the Holy Roman Empire (including Austria and Bohemia) and Hungary.

Wine and women

To survive and prosper, all dynasties need a little good fortune, and the Habsburgs certainly had that – especially in the realm of biology. On average, princely and noble dynasties in premodern Europe had a 15 per cent failure rate every 25 years. In other words, about a half perished through a lack of male heirs every century.

With so much at stake, many Habsburgs took care to have plenty of children. The first Habsburg rulers of Austria, in the 13th and 14th centuries, generally aimed for a dozen, while Empress Maria Theresa (ruled 1740– 80) had no fewer than 16 in just two decades.

Habsburg men were expected to be busy in the bedroom as it was thought that wombs needed frequent lubrication to stop them from shrivelling. Since fecundity and the production of sons were believed to be related to personal piety, most Habsburg rulers and their wives were also conspicuous in their dedication to the Catholic faith.

Other methods were used to aid fertility. To make sure that his fiancée, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was up to the task, Emperor Charles VI (ruled 1711–40) obliged her before marriage to go through a humiliating gynaecological examination under the oversight of a Jesuit priest. Thereafter, he plied her with copious draughts of red wine in the belief that they were an aid to conception. The quack remedy backfired, transforming the once dazzling ‘Lily White’ (‘Weisse Liesl’) into an obese alcoholic.

Homosexuality and cross-dressing was no bar to being put on the marriage market – as Archduke Ludwig Viktor, brother of Emperor Franz Joseph (ruled 1848–1916), discovered in the 1860s. However, his reputation preceded him, and he remained a bachelor all his life.

Yet despite their best efforts to secure the succession, the Habsburgs still took enormous risks. Once they’d produced a male heir, rulers often packed younger sons into the church, having them serve as bishops and thus dedicating themselves to celibacy. Should the eldest son die, then a male sibling might be whisked from the church and appointed heir apparent – it was via this ecclesiastical detour that Emperor Leopold I (ruled 1658–1705) came to the throne. The problem was that, by putting younger sons into the church, collateral lines that might have filled eventual gaps in the main line of descent were not created.

Habsburg marriage law was only properly regulated in 1839. Until then, it rested on the principle that members of the family should only take spouses that were ‘worthy’, which in practice meant a royal or princely descent. The challenge was finding wives that fitted the formula. With the spread of Protestantism in Europe, the number of suitable Catholic brides contracted. Bavarians were one possibility, except that the Catholic Wittelsbach dukes had the unfortunate habit of generating more boys than girls. The tradition thus arose of the two branches of the Habsburgs – the Spanish and central European – intermarrying and exchanging partners every generation.

The arrangement made good political sense, guaranteeing that the two lines would support each other militarily, which paid dividends in the Thirty Years’ War (the bloody religious conflict fought across central Europe from 1618–48). Biologically, however, it was a disaster. As first and second-cousin and uncle-niece marriages became the norm, madness and deformity followed. Even the tame artists at Habsburg courts could not hide the jutting lower jaws of Habsburg sovereigns, a condition that made it impossible for them to eat comfortably. As one British envoy remarked of the Spanish Habsburg king Charles II (ruled 1665–1700): “He has a ravenous stomach, and swallows all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands so much out, that his two rows of teeth cannot meet.” By gorging his food unchewed, the ambassador explained, the king suffered from abdominal cramps and excessive vomiting.

As cousins married cousins and uncles married nieces, madness and deformity followed

All of these close intermarriages counted as incestuous and so needed papal approval, but this did not bless the unions with an abundance of heirs. In fact, the figures for infant mortality are shocking. Between 1527 and 1661, the Habsburg kings of Spain sired 34 legitimate children. Of these, 10 died before their first year and 17 before the age of 10, yielding a death rate significantly higher than the average for Spain at that time. The central European branch of the Habsburgs generally fared better. Even so, nine of Leopold I’s 16 children (by three wives) did not survive infancy. Most of these premature deaths were caused by inbreeding.

The majority of Habsburgs were capable of producing children, but even this facility was eventually lost. A post-mortem of Charles II of Spain performed in 1700 disclosed “a very small heart, lungs corroded, intestines putrefactive and gangrenous, three large stones in the kidney, a single testicle, black as coal, and his head full of water”. A modern review of the medical evidence concludes that “Charles suffered from posterior hypospadias, monorchism and an atrophic testicle. He probably had an intersexual state with ambiguous genitalia, and a congenital monokidney with stones and infections” – in other words, he had a single kidney and single testicle, and his urethra exited on the underside of an undeveloped penis.

It seems altogether improbable that the poor king could perform the sexual act. Even after 10 years of marriage, Charles’s first wife, with whom he shared a pathetic intimacy, was unable to say whether or not she was a virgin. Habitually unwashed and unkempt, the poor king drifted into insanity, gruesomely inspecting the corpses of his ancestors in the vaults of Spain’s Escorial Palace.

Looming extinction

The death of the heirless Charles II was followed by a war of succession across Europe. Although the central European branch of the Habsburgs hoped to capture the dead king’s inheritance, its rulers failed to keep hold of Spain, which passed to the French Bourbons. Almost immediately, the same fate of extinction as had befallen the Spanish Habsburg line threatened the central European.

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (reigned 1711–40) was the last surviving Habsburg male. His elder brother had died prematurely, and an uncle, who might have provided a substitute line, had been a bishop and so was childless. Despite the precautions Charles had taken at the time of his marriage, it was eight years before he and Lily White produced a son, and he died after just seven months. Thereafter, she only bore girls, starting with Maria Theresa in 1717.

The Habsburg possessions in central Europe had no uniform scheme of succession. Some permitted female inheritance, but others not. So Charles hatched a plan to ensure the survival of the dynasty: he changed the law of succession to allow universal female succession, first appointing his nieces as his successors and then, following Maria Theresa’s birth, his daughter as his main heir. The new scheme – known as the Pragmatic Sanction – was first announced in 1713 and over the next 10 years Charles persuaded the parliaments or diets of his central European dominions to accept it. In a further bid to future-proof his daughter’s rights, Charles also secured the endorsement of the major European powers.

All this mattered not a jot. When Charles died in 1740, Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded Silesia (now mostly in Poland), disputing Maria Theresa’s right to it (as part of the War of the Austrian Succession), while the electors of Bavaria and Saxony, supported by Louis XV of France, marched into Bohemia. Charles of Bavaria was crowned king of Bohemia in 1741 and elected Holy Roman Emperor the next year.

Frederick the Great declared that Maria Theresa was 'the only man among my opponents'

Although Maria Theresa had to relinquish all but a strip of Silesia, she saw off her adversaries, depriving Charles of Bavaria first of Bohemia, then of the Bohemian crown, and twice of his capital Munich. Even her adversary Frederick the Great celebrated her as “the only man among my opponents”, while in England pub signs were repainted in her honour. As one English wag later recalled of Maria Theresa, “the queen of Hungary’s head was to be seen in almost every street, and we fought and drank under her banner at our own expense during the whole war”.

Prophets and popes

Charles of Bavaria died in 1745. The office of Holy Roman Emperor was technically elective but had until 1740 been effectively hereditary in the Habsburg family. As a woman, Maria Theresa was ineligible to be sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire, for the Pragmatic Sanction did not apply to the empire but only to the Habsburg family dominions. In her place, the nine electoral princes chose as Charles’s successor Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine. Maria Theresa thus became empress, but only through her husband.

The Habsburgs had over centuries built a grand mythology about themselves, heaping on legends and stories that spoke to the family’s destiny as great rulers. Double-headed eagles, acrostics and ancient prophecies added lustre to the image of power foretold, along with an alleged biological connection to Old Testament prophets, Greek and Egyptian deities, 100 popes and almost 200 saints and martyrs.

But it was in the 1740s that the Habsburgs pulled off one of their greatest coups. The Habsburg male line had ended. What had taken its place was the House of Lorraine. Future heirs should have been known as Lorrainers and not as Habsburgs, in the same way as Queen Victoria of Great Britain produced (by virtue of her marriage to Prince Albert) Saxe-Coburg and Gotha heirs, and not Hanoverians.

But Maria Theresa had her way, prevailing over her husband, who customarily deferred to her. Instead of her descendants belonging to the House of Lorraine, they would, at Maria Theresa’s insistence, be considered members of the House of Austria-Lorraine or (as it was later known) Habsburg-Lorraine.

The Habsburg line had perished with the death of Charles VI but, with a sleight of title, Maria Theresa gave it a second life that would carry the Habsburgs into the 20th century. Ironically, it was a family tragedy that brought about the Habsburgs’ downfall – the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew and heir of the Emperor Franz Joseph. It plunged the Habsburgs into a war they could not win. Until then, the Habsburgs were central Europe’s great survivors – and that included their name.

Martyn Rady is Masaryk professor of central European history at University College London. He is the author of The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power (Allen Lane, 2020)

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine