Archduke Leopold Wilhelm: a Baroque prince of the Church par excellence

Jan van den Hoecke, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm praying to the Madonna, painting, c. 1650

Leopold Wilhelm represents an extreme case of an accumulation of ecclesiastical offices and sinecures. Without ever having received major orders as a priest, he became the holder of no fewer than six bishoprics.

Jan van den Hoecke, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm praying to the Madonna, painting, c. 1650

Born in Wiener Neustadt on 5 January 1614, he was the sixth of seven children of Ferdinand II and his first wife Maria Anna of Bavaria. The archduke was a gifted and intelligent child but as a later-born son he had little prospect of succeeding to the throne or ruling as a secular prince.

He was therefore intended for a career in the Church and educated accordingly, not because he was personally suited to this but because it was common practice for later-born sons of important Catholic dynasties in order to guarantee them an income that befitted their rank and status.

In the case of Leopold Wilhelm, however, this assumed what seems from a present-day perspective to be almost absurd dimensions: the archduke was a prince of the Church several times over and held a large number of bishoprics, even though this contravened the reforms of the Council of Trent, which were intended to counter Protestant criticism of simony in the Catholic clergy. A bishop was intended to be present in his see and attend to his pastoral duties. In reality, however, bishops continued to be primarily secular potentates, being possessed of their own territories over which they presided as prince-bishops and sovereign rulers. Many of the diminutive lands that made up the colourful jumble of the Holy Roman Empire were ecclesiastical states.

There follows a list of the ecclesiastical offices and titles held by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm:

In 1626, when he was only twelve, he became the official successor to his uncle, Archduke Leopold V, as bishop of Strasbourg and Passau.

His installation as bishop of Halberstadt (1627) and archbishop of Magdeburg (1629) was more problematic, since these territories lay in the predominantly Protestant north of the Empire and the Catholic infrastructure was effectively no longer in place. Leopold Wilhelm’s appointment should be seen in the context of the interests of his father, Emperor Ferdinand II, who in 1629, exploiting the favourable situation that obtained at that time for the Catholic imperial party, was demanding the restitution to the Catholic Church of all ecclesiastical territories that had fallen into secular hands after 1522 during the course of the Reformation.

In these two bishoprics Leopold Wilhelm was the last Catholic prince-archbishop, as the territories were subsequently allocated to adjacent secular Protestant states. Halberstadt was given to Brandenburg in 1648, while in Magdeburg the archduke had in any case only been nominally appointed archbishop without having ever actually assumed the regency. In 1635 the archbishopric was officially secularized and given to Duke August of Saxony.

In 1637 Leopold Wilhelm was appointed bishop of Olmütz. No sovereign rights were attached to this office, as the diocese was located within the Margraviate of Moravia, which belonged to the Habsburg Monarchy. The bishopric was however exceptionally well endowed. Similar motives also played a role in the case of the bishopric of Breslau in Silesia, where he was appointed bishop in 1655.

In addition, Leopold Wilhelm had been Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights since 1641. The position as head of this chivalric Catholic order came with religious and military duties. 

Martin Mutschlechner