Matthias: an ambitious archduke as political adventurer

Lucas van Valckenborch: Emperor Matthias as Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major, 1580

Matthias was born to Emperor Maximilian II and Maria of Spain in Vienna on 24 February 1557. As the third of their six sons he initially had little chance of coming to power. However, driven by great ambition, he was not willing to settle for a role in the background.

Lucas van Valckenborch: Emperor Matthias as Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major, 1580

Matthias had little prospect of being entrusted with a regency by his father, Emperor Maximilian II, as the latter wanted to prevent further divisions of territory after his brothers had received sub-dominions (Inner Austria and Tyrol) and founded their own dynastic lines.

For Matthias a future was thus envisaged as a prince of the Church or governor in the service of his elder brother Rudolf, who was to assume the regency over his father’s dominions together with the imperial crown. Another option would have been for him to enter the service of the Spanish line of the dynasty. However, Matthias was very critical of Spain, which spared no opportunity of making the Austrian line feel its financial and political dependence as the junior partner in the Habsburg clan, an attitude he had inherited from his father.

Another thing he shared with his father was his moderate position in the religious conflict of the times. Like Maximilian II, Matthias also opposed the militant version of the Catholic Counter Reformation.

Matthias entered the political stage as an ambitious risk-taker in a hazardous adventure. Aged not even twenty, he came into contact with representatives of the Estates-General of the Netherlands, which were engaged in a war of independence with Spain. The moderate party among the Netherlandish Estates thought they had found in Matthias a suitable compromise candidate for the office of governor. The archduke was a member of the dynasty but had liberal ideas and was opposed to Spain.

In 1577 Matthias travelled to the Netherlands to take up the office of governor, against the will of the Spanish king Phillip II and without having informed his brother, Emperor Rudolf II, an act that constituted an unprecedented affront.

This political adventure took the young archduke into one of the most sensitive centres of conflict of the time. The venture failed: lacking any political experience or diplomatic talent Matthias stirred up a hornets’ nest. His position had become so insecure within only a few weeks that he was forced to seek protection from William of Orange, the radical opponent of Spanish rule in the Netherlands.

Although he was still nominally governor-general, his room for manoeuvre was very limited. Matthias was not opposed to the emerging division of the Netherlands into an independent Protestant north and a Catholic south that would remain under Spanish rule. Unrecognized by Spain and outmanoeuvred by his brother Rudolf, who was now attempting to mediate between the two fronts, Matthias was ultimately left without supporters. The archduke had accumulated large debts and it took great efforts on his part to reduce the financial burdens incurred by his ill-considered adventure. In 1581 he resigned from his office as governor-general. 

Martin Mutschlechner