Government and Politics

The Holy Roman Empire


The Habsburgs were Europe’s most powerful royal family. Even if one chose to argue the point of power, there can be no arguing the longevity of the house of Habsburg: They supplied Europe with a nearly uninterrupted stream of rulers for more than 600 years.

Also spelled Hapsburg (which is closer to the pronunciation, HAPS-berg), the name came from the castle of Habichtsburg (meaning “Hawk’s Castle”), built during the early eleventh century in Switzerland. The first member of the family to bear the name was Count Werner I (who died in 1096). It was Werner’s descendant, Rudolf I (1218–1291), who was elected king of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire in 1273. When Rudolf conquered Austria three years later, he established that country as the family’s new home. Austria, Bohemia, Germany, Hungary, and Spain were among the European states ruled by the house of Habsburg. With only one exception, the Habsburg family also ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1438 (when Albert II was elected) until 1806.

It was the reign of Emperor Charles V during the sixteenth century that the Habsburg influence reached its high-water mark. When in 1496 Spain’s Philip I (called Philip the Handsome; 1478–1506) married Joan of Castile (1479–1555), it assured that their son Charles V (1500–1558) would inherit the crown of Spain, which he did in 1516. (Charles was grandson to Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.) He also inherited the rest of what by then was a vast empire, and he ruled as Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 until 1556.

Charles V is considered the greatest of all the Habsburgs, though he did face problems. Chief among these were the Protestant Reformation; opposition from his lifelong rival, Francis I (1494–1547), king of France; and the Ottoman Turks, who were at the height of their power during his reign. Nevertheless, he was a successful ruler and his accomplishments included Spain’s conquest of lands in the New World—Mexico (at the hands of Hernán Cortés, 1485–1547) and Peru (by Francisco Pizarro, c. 1475–1541).

In 1867 the Habsburg empire was reorganized as the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. That monarchy was dissolved in 1918, after World War I, with the Treaty of Versailles establishing new boundaries for the successor states.


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