The accession of Maximilian I marked the beginning of the rise of the Habsburgs as a great power in Europe. He united the Habsburg patrimonial lands and was of all rulers the one who had the most formative influence upon the continent at the close of the Middle Ages.
Although Emperor Frederick III reigned over the Holy Roman Empire for over fifty years, he was a comparatively weak regent. His limited abilities as a ruler earned him the derisory epithet of ‘arch-sleeping cap’. Nonetheless, Frederick did achieve two immensely important things for the history of the dynasty: he fathered Maximilian, and arranged the latter’s marriage to Mary of Burgundy.
During the 1470s Frederick set about cultivating friendly relations with Duke Charles ‘the Bold’ of Burgundy. The latter was one of the most powerful and wealthiest princes in Europe: his territories, which lay along the present-day border between France and Germany and in the Low Countries, were economically far superior to the Austrian lands.
In order to strengthen this alliance, Frederick was anxious to marry his son Maximilian to Charles of Burgundy’s daughter Mary. After initial difficulties and a military conflict between Austrian and Burgundy the marriage was agreed. When Duke Charles fell in battle against the Swiss Confederation in 1477, Maximilian inherited Burgundy and all its riches. However, in order to secure this inheritance he was forced to wage a fifteen-year war against rebel Netherlandish forces. During this war he suffered the temporary humiliation of being taken prisoner by the burghers of Bruges in 1488 and kept captive for several months. His father, by then aged over 70, was compelled to raise and personally lead an imperial army to come and liberate him.
Maximilian also succeeded in reunifying the Habsburg lands, which had been ruled by three different lines of the dynasty for over a hundred years: Tyrol was ruled by Duke Sigismund ‘the Rich in Coin’ – his byname indicating that he lived far less modestly than for example Emperor Frederick III. Sigismund was faced with problems of succession: despite having allegedly fathered more than 50 illegitimate children, he had no legitimate issue. This meant that Tyrol was in danger of falling to Bavaria. However, at the beginning of 1490 Maximilian persuaded Sigismund to abdicate and hand over his territories. Thus, following the death of Frederick III all the Habsburg lands were once again united under Maximilian’s rule.