Albrecht I: rise and fall


After the death of King Rudolf I in 1291 it was evident that the efforts made by the latter to establish the title as a hereditary office in the Habsburg dynasty had come to nought. The electors chose not Albrecht but Adolf of Nassau as the new Roman-German king, hoping to nip the emergence of a royal Habsburg dynasty in the bud.

As his authority was as yet unconsolidated in the Austrian and Styrian dominions that he had so recently acquired, Albrecht was forced to recognize the choice of Nassau for the time being. In Austria he was confronted with another revolt in 1295. Simultaneously a conflict began with the Swiss Confederacy concluded as an offensive alliance to counter the expansionist aims of the Habsburgs.

Albrecht’s position, precarious by any measure, was rocked by a serious illness, which his contemporaries believed to have been caused by an attempted poisoning. Albrecht survived narrowly: the duke was treated with the primitive medical methods of the time which involved him being hung upside down in order to encourage the poison to flow out of his body. This therapy cost Albrecht the sight in one eye.

By 1297 Albrecht judged that the time had come to reach for the imperial crown. He had himself proclaimed as anti-king to King Adolf, who gradually lost support among the electors. The final decision fell on the battlefield, when Adolf was killed in the Battle of Göllheim in Rhine-Hessen in 1298. On 24 August 1298 Albrecht was crowned king at Aachen (Aix-le-Chapelle). The royal title had been won for the House of Habsburg.

As previously in the Austrian lands, Albrecht proved to be a determined and forceful ruler in the Empire. He pursued an independent foreign policy aimed at rapprochement with France and curtailed the power of the electors through effective economic measures, gaining him the support of the imperial cities.

Albrecht also sought to intervene in the developments in Hungary. He secured the support of King Andrew III, arranging a marriage to his youngest daughter Agnes. Following the Hungarian monarch’s death – Andrew was the last male member of the ruling Magyar dynasty of the Arpads – the Bohemian Přemyslids attempted to bring the kingdom of Hungary under their control. Albrecht gave his support to the opposing candidate Charles Robert of Anjou, a nephew of Albrecht who was eventually successful in his bid for the crown.

Following the extinction of the Bohemian royal Přemyslid dynasty after the assassination of King Wencelas III in 1306, Albrecht seized the opportunity offered him to enfeoff his eldest son Rudolf (III) with the crown of Bohemia. To consolidate the Habsburg claim on Bohemia he married his son to Ryksa, the young stepmother of the last Přemyslid. However, Rudolf died the following year. Albrecht’s plans to establish his next-eldest son Frederick I in Bohemia failed.

In the midst of this situation with all its complex implications for the future of the dynasty Albrecht fell victim to an assassination attempt: on 1 May 1308 he was murdered on the banks of the River Reuss in the Aargau by his nephew John (‘Parricida’). Together with a number of conspirators John lay in wait for his uncle. While crossing the river the duke became separated from his retinue and was cut down by John with a sword. The background to this bloody deed was the unresolved question of the claims to compensation by John’s father Rudolf II, Albrecht’s younger brother.

Albrecht was initially interred at Wettingen Abbey in present-day Switzerland. In 1309 on the orders of Emperor Henry of Luxembourg his remains were transferred to the cathedral at Speyer, the traditional last resting place of rulers of the Holy Roman Empire.

With the death of Albrecht the House of Habsburg lost one of its most dynamic representatives. His sudden death was a massive blow to the emergent dynasty and put an end to efforts to keep the imperial crown in the family.

Martin Mutschlechner