Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Favorite Hapsburg Emperors

I - Emperor Charles V: Charles V was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. His coronation by Pope Clement VII in Bologna in 1530 was the last ceremony of its kind to date. As the ruler of the lands around Austria, the Low Countries and Spain, with new explorations claiming territory in the Americas, his was the first empire upon which it was said that the sun never set. He was also a man beset by enemies but had a level of determination up to the task, fighting Protestant rebels in Germany, the French in northern Italy and the Turks in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. In 1525 he won a great victory of France at Pavia, after which the King of France and the Pope allied against him. Charles later made peace with the Protestants, captured Tunis in North Africa, reformed the law code, defeated a French attack on the Low Countries and sent Magellan on his historic voyage of circumnavigation. In 1556 he abdicated and retired to a life of prayer.

II - Empress Maria Theresa: After inheriting the throne of her father in 1740, Empress Maria Theresa was immediately attacked by a large alliance of nations who meant to prevent her succession including the great Frederick II of Prussia, the finest soldier in Europe. Though she was only 23, she refused to give in or show weakness and put up a spirited struggle, losing some territory but retaining her crown. She restored the Austrian economy by taxing the nobility and lowering taxes on the common people. She reformed the army, improved the legal system and made education available to everyone. Under her rule, the peasants gained their freedom and the right to own their own land. The Empress was a devout and pious Catholic woman and gave refuge to the Society of Jesus when others (even her own son) exiled them. In 1772 she gained territory for Austria in the first partition of Poland, perhaps the only regrettable decision she ever made.

III - Emperor Joseph II: Elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1765, Joseph II was an “Enlightened Despot” in every sense of the word. He was ambitious, not very personally charming, autocratic and at the same time extremely forward thinking. He was the first to grant (limited) freedom of religion in the Hapsburg lands, freed the serfs and tried to enforce German as the official common language of the empire. His dream was to make the Hapsburg Empire the most powerful in Europe, leading to clashes with Prussia and the Turks. Joseph II was a great patron of music, most famously commissioning work from Mozart. He built the first truly public parks and housing for the poor. Because of all he did to improve their lives the common folk adored him, hailing him as the “People’s Emperor”. Unfortunately, he brought religion under state control and so earned the wrath of the clergy and many nobles. Though he heard mass every morning of his life he was suspected of being a skeptic.

IV - Emperor Francis Joseph I: Not the most successful Hapsburg emperor in history by any means, Francis Joseph was nevertheless a monarch who refused to adjust his principles, a good and upright man who always sought to do his duty to the best of his ability and to serve the best interests of his people. He came to the throne in 1848, put down the revolutions and reestablished the House of Hapsburg as the great stabilizing force in central Europe. His personal life was beset by tragedy and the international situation for Austria (later Austria-Hungary) declined after a series of diplomatic and military disasters. Nonetheless, Francis Joseph held things together by his own integrity, work ethic and devotion to duty. The country was also developing rapidly and the prestige of the monarchy remained strong until the onset of the First World War in 1914, a conflict the Emperor had deep concerns over and which he had to be deceived into declaring.

V - Emperor Charles I: Coming to the throne in the midst of World War I in 1916, the new monarch already had a reputation as a brave soldier, devoted husband and father and a sincere man of God. He saw monarchy as a sacred duty and behaved accordingly. The Emperor viewed the alliance with Germany as a prison, distrusted the Germans and devoted himself to extricating Austria-Hungary from the First World War. He showed himself willing to sacrifice considerable territories if only he could gain peace but the Allies proved implacable. He agreed to reorganizing the Hapsburg empire into a confederation of autonomous national states but was never allowed the time to carry out such a plan. When the end came in 1918 he bowed to the inevitable but refused to abdicate, viewing such a thing as a renunciation of his responsibility to God. After being forced into exile he tried twice to regain his Hungarian throne but was loathe to shed the blood of his own people.

Not so favorites: Emperor Ferdinand I for not taking religion more into account and his son Maximilian II for not making up his mind on which faith he wanted to follow and, yes, Joseph II -who makes my best and worst lists at the same time for his needless religious antagonism.

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