Frederick III: The Struggle for the Crown

Frederick ‘the Fair“, statue, second half of 16th century

The efforts of the Habsburgs to continue the ascent of their young dynasty were concentrated on Frederick. Following the murder of his father he was intended to succeed him as ruler in the Empire. However, Frederick was unable to assert himself against his rivals.

Frederick ‘the Fair“, statue, second half of 16th century

Frederick was the second son of King Albrecht I and Elizabeth of Gorizia-Tyrol. After his elder brother Rudolf III had been enfeoffed with the crown of Bohemia following the extinction of the Bohemian royal Přemyslid dynasty in 1306, the way was clear for the younger son to take over the rulership of Austria and Styria.

When Rudolf died shortly afterwards in 1307, Albrecht attempted to secure the crown of Bohemia. This would have decisively increased the standing of the Habsburgs within the Holy Roman Empire. However, the attempt was thwarted by the murder of Albrecht I in 1308.

This plunged the Habsburgs into a deep crisis: aspirations to the Bohemian crown receded into the distance, and in the Holy Roman Empire the electors chose Henry VII from the House of Luxembourg, a candidate from a hitherto second-rank dynasty.

Henry exploited the momentary weakness of the Habsburgs following the death of Albrecht I, putting his own son John on the Bohemian throne. The Habsburgs were forced to relinquish their claims to Bohemia in order to retain their dominion over the Austrian lands, Henry having made this a condition of the enfeoffment. Internal unrest and the circumstance that Albrecht’s sons were still young – Frederick as the eldest was just twenty, and his brothers Leopold, Albrecht, Henry and Otto were teenagers or even still children – and their rule as a consequence unconsolidated, forced them to back down.

It was not until after a phase of consolidation that the Habsburg chances of rejoining the struggle for the royal title started to increase again. With the death of Henry VII in 1313 the question of the election of the Roman-German king was once more on the table. Here the young dukes came into conflict with their rival for the imperial crown, the Wittelsbach duke Louis of Upper Bavaria, Count Palatine of the Rhine, who was a cousin and had been a political ally of the Habsburg brothers’ father.

The election of 1314 did not bring a clear result, since the opposing parties denied each other the right to vote; there was as yet no binding regulation of the electoral process as later laid down in the Golden Bull. In the end two elections were held: some of the electors declared Louis the victor while others favoured Frederick. Both adversaries were crowned: while Frederick had the imperial insignia under his control, the city of Aix-la-Chapelle, traditionally the place of royal coronation during the Middle Ages, denied him entry. Louis on the other hand was able to insist on his coronation taking place in the Palatine Chapel at Aix-la-Chapelle but did not have the imperial crown at his disposal.

Described as weak and lacking in drive, Frederick was merely a pawn in the plans of his incomparably more resolute mother Elizabeth and above all of his younger brother Leopold, the two masterminds behind him, even though he was titular head of the family according to the Habsburg dynastic rule.

Martin Mutschlechner