1486–1618

The birth of the Austrian line: Ferdinand I

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Ferdinand I pales beside his brother Charles V. Nevertheless, he initiated the Austrian line of the house of Habsburg and laid the foundations for the Danube monarchy.

Most principally, Maximilian, I am more worried about you than about any other, as I have to my great vexation many times seen and noted things that suggest an intention on your part to fall away from our religion and go over to the new sect. May God grant that I am doing you an injustice and that it may not be so; for God knows that no greater suffering or grief could befall me than if you, Maximilian, my eldest son, were to abandon the faith.

Ferdinand I to his son and successor Maximilian II

After Charles V had become King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, several contracts concluded at the beginning of the 1520s provided a solution for his brother Ferdinand. Although Ferdinand had grown up in Spain and spoke little German, he was made ruler of the Habsburgs’ Austrian hereditary lands and the deputy of the Emperor in the Holy Roman Empire. However, Charles denied him the satisfaction of seeing Austria made a kingdom.

Ferdinand met with difficulties right at the beginning of his rule in Austria. In 1522 a rebellion of the Estates was brutally suppressed, with the leaders being brought before the Wiener Neustädter Blutgericht, a summary tribunal which made full use of its authority to impose death penalties and thus put an end to opposition from that quarter. Further internal conflicts followed in the form of the Reformation and rebellions amongst the peasantry. He also met with resistance in his moves to extend Habsburg power in the Danube area. When his brother-in-law Louis II was killed at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, Ferdinand succeeded him as king of Bohemia. A more difficult task was the takeover of power in Hungary, where Ferdinand was not the only one to be proclaimed king: the Hungarian Estates refused to recognize Ferdinand’s claim and elected the nobleman John Zápolya in his stead. Furthermore, from this point the fact of a common border with the Ottoman Empire constituted a permanent threat, with Vienna being besieged by Ottoman troops for the first time in 1529. Ferdinand’s limited financial means meant that he was unable to wage a successful war against the Turks; increasingly, he expressed dissatisfaction at the ungenerous support afforded him by his wealthy brother Emperor Charles.

At home Ferdinand devoted himself to organizing the administration of the Austrian lands. In 1527, his new ordering of state affairs created the Privy Council (Geheimer Rat), the Aulic Council (Hofrat), the Court Chancellery (Hofkanzlei) and the Court Exchequer (Hofkammer), through which he consolidated his position as ruler and laid the foundations for efficient administration.

Ferdinand was elected King of the Romans in 1531 and Emperor in 1556 following his brother Charles’s abdication. He died only eight years later. Although it had been intended that Charles’s son Philip II should succeed Ferdinand as emperor and that the imperial crown should alternate between the Spanish and the Austrian line, it finally remained with the Austrians. Ferdinand distributed the Austrian lands amongst his three sons.

Stephan Gruber