However, Ottokar refused to admit defeat, exploiting the discontent among the established princes of the Empire who were not interested in a strong Habsburg power base. Rudolf’s alliance started to crumble when several of his supporters left his camp.
In Austria, too, the local elites such as the powerful lords of Kuenring and also the Viennese patriciate resisted the efforts of the Swabian count to bring the land under his control.
The final decision was to fall on the battlefield. On 26 August 1278 the armies of the Habsburg and his allies confronted the forces of Ottokar on the Marchfeld, the broad plain east of Vienna, between the villages of Dürnkrut and Jedenspeigen. Rudolf’s victory was narrow but made final by the death of Ottokar, who was evidently murdered in the tumult of battle by personal enemies.
After the victory, often stylised in patriotic historiography as a national battle of decision, Rudolf installed his sons as rulers in Austria and Styria. Enfeoffment followed in 1282 and also included the lands of Carinthia and Carniola. However the latter two territories were immediately pledged to the counts of Gorizia, the Habsburg’s most important allies in the region, and did not revert to the House of Habsburg until the extinction of this comital dynasty in 1335.
As an act of reconciliation with the Bohemian Přemyslid dynasty marriages between the two families were arranged. Rudolf’s daughter Guta married Ottokar’s son Wenceslas II – then just seven years old – and his youngest son, Rudolf II, was betrothed to Ottokar’s daughter Agnes.
The pragmatic Habsburg was well aware of his limitations as head of the Empire: his dynasty was still too new, and so he concentrated on slowly and cautiously consolidating his position, trying to ensure continuity by following Hohenstaufen traditions. In one point, however, he diverged from the Hohenstaufen emperors in striving to achieve reconciliation with the pope. Nonetheless, his plan of processing to Rome to gain the imperial title through a papal coronation failed despite years of efforts.
His attempts to keep the title of Roman-German king in the family and to found a dynasty were also unsuccessful. Rudolf’s son Albrecht I did not succeed in gaining this title for himself until seven years after his father’s death, in 1298. However, Albrecht was assassinated in 1308. The next aspirant to the throne from the House of Habsburg, Rudolf’s grandson Frederick the Handsome, was unable to assert himself against his rivals. Subsequently the Habsburgs were limited to expanding their new power base in Austria and distracted by intrafamilial inheritance disputes.
Rudolf died in 1291 at the ripe old age of seventy-three. Knowing his end was approaching, he set off for Speyer so that he could die at the traditional burial place of the Salian emperors, where he also wanted to be interred.
There are a number of historical anecdotes about Rudolf that demonstrate his pragmatism and down-to-earth approach. Like most feudal lords of his time he was illiterate, and demanded that even important documents be written in ‘honest’, i.e., vernacular German, not in Latin, which he did not understand.
In the Austrian lands Rudolf – and also the first generations of his successors – were perceived as Swabians, and as foreigners were accepted only slowly.
Nonetheless, his later glorification in patriotic historiography elevated him to the status of a leading figure in the dynasty. His outstanding qualities were said to be the modesty and humility he showed towards his high office, his straightforward nature and strength of will allied with his strong religious faith: numerous legends paint a colourful picture of Rudolf’s deep veneration for the Cross and the Eucharist. The historical figure of Rudolf became associated with a whole catalogue of virtues that were then attributed to the family as if they were hereditary qualities.