It was on this day in 1552 that Rudolf von Habsburg, the future Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation, was born in Vienna, Austria to Emperor Maximilian II and his Empress Maria of Spain. He came to the various Habsburg thrones from 1572 to 1576 as King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia, King of Germany and finally as the Emperor-Elect. Today, when Emperor Rudolf II is remembered, he tends to be remembered as one of the oddballs of the Habsburg dynasty at best and at worst he is blamed for the outbreak of the horrific Thirty Years War which devastated central Europe for decades and left Germany in ruins for many decades to come after. It was one of the most truly devastating events in all of German history and probably nothing like it was seen until the utter destruction of defeat in 1945. Emperor Rudolf II will certainly not make my list of “favorite Habsburg monarchs” but the fact that he is so ridiculed or outright despised by so many people on both ends of the political spectrum means that I cannot help but at least have some sympathy for him.
What is the problem with Emperor Rudolf II? Why is so much ridicule and blame heaped on him? There is certainly, if most accounts are believed, much in him worthy of criticism. However, I think the reason why so much is heaped on him is, at least to a large extent, because he managed to alienate both ends by trying to steer a middle course in his policies. One will also notice that, to justify opposition or a negative opinion of Emperor Rudolf II, critics will more readily address his personal life rather than his policies because, if one looks at his policies, I think it becomes much more difficult for the “left” and the “right” (so to speak) to criticize him without more than a bit of hypocrisy or revealing their overreach. People want to look for scapegoats, they want to find a “villain” for every story and for many on both sides of the political spectrum, Emperor Rudolf II was an obvious target. What can make the disinterested observer feel some pity for Rudolf II is that, in modern times, he will be attacked from the right for doing certain things, attacked by the left for doing other things yet never praised by the left or the right for doing the things that the other side attacks him for.
There are, of course, people on the left today who will criticize Emperor Rudolf II simply for being an emperor, pointing to him as a totally unfit person who came to power simply because of an accident of birth who was inept, corrupt and tyrannical. Yet, few right-wing monarchists will defend Emperor Rudolf II because of his policies or personal life and much of this comes down to the religious divide in western Christianity between Catholics and Protestants. Each have some valid points to make yet, I would say that the fact that these divisions existed in his own lifetime to such an extent, even within his own family, that this rather disproves the notion that blame for the Thirty Years War could be laid solely at his doorstep. Catholics dislike Rudolf II because, honestly, he was not much of a Catholic, he certainly was not devout or personally pious and if certain accusations about him are to be believed, he was very far from that. He also made concessions to the Protestants which angered the Catholics immensely. However, this did not, in turn, win him much loyalty from the Protestants since, after all, no matter how nominally, he was still a Catholic and the head of a traditionally Catholic dynasty and leader of an officially Catholic empire.
In this regard though, I think Rudolf II was a victim of bad timing and those who heap undue amounts of blame on him, I think, tend to forget the historical context of his life. For example, Emperor Charles V, Rudolf’s great-uncle, also made concessions to the Protestants and, as those familiar with the horrific ‘Sack of Rome’ know, even used Protestant soldiers to make war on the Pope. Yet, Emperor Charles V was known to be a very staunch Catholic personally and, as a champion of Christendom, Catholics tend to forgive him for these things. Yet, it highlights the precedent that he set. Charles V had fought the Protestants to be sure but he ultimately made concessions to them because he considered it more important to have peace and at least some degree of unity in Germany so that he could focus on fighting the French, the Italians and the Turks. His younger son and heir to the German half of his continental empire, Emperor Ferdinand I (Rudolf’s grandfather), also opted for a policy of religious neutrality between the Catholics and Protestants in order to maintain the peace in Germany. He pushed for reform in the Catholic Church, was generally tolerant of Protestants but allowed them no further power, hoping that the division would be solved by reconciliation.
Finally, Emperor Rudolf’s father, Emperor Maximilian II, went even farther with trying to bring both sides together. He was more generous toward the Protestants, so much so that some suspected him of having Protestant sympathies, yet he still refused to give them access to the ‘top tier’ as it were of imperial power by allowing Protestant prince-bishops. However, at the same time, he pushed for the Catholic Church to change in ways that would make it more acceptable to the Protestants, again, in the hope that the religious division could be ended by finding a middle ground that would accommodate both the Catholic and Protestant camps. Obviously, he was not successful but, given the actions of his predecessors, it should hardly come as a surprise that Emperor Rudolf II would not have the makings of a religious zealot about him. Emperor Rudolf II was, in my view, simply not very religious at all, which is not to say he was an atheist or completely uncaring about the subject but that the theological divisions between the Catholics and Protestants were on a level that simply did not interest him and I can imagine him being baffled as to why the two sides could not just stop arguing about such things and get on with other business.
Emperor Rudolf II did make even further concessions to the Protestants but it was not because he agreed or sympathized with them but rather that he wanted to stop them from rebelling and if some greater degree of rights and privileges would do the job, he would give those to them. The reason why the outbreak of the Thirty Years War is so often laid at his feet is that it was these concessions which seemed to be threatened by his successor and which the Protestants rose up to demand be honored that led to the initial outbreak of hostilities. However, as well as what happened under the emperors before him, people also tend to forget what happened after him as his end ultimately came when his brother Matthias rebelled against him and ultimately deposed him, fearful that Rudolf was diminishing the imperial power. However, to gain the support of the Protestants in order to take power from his brother, Matthias too had to make further concessions to them and he too carried on the tradition of trying to find a middle path that would, if not reconcile, at least keep the peace between the Catholic and Protestant factions. Things only really boiled over when Emperor Matthias died and was succeeded by Emperor Ferdinand II who, for a change, was a very serious Catholic and who was most intent on seeing religious divisions ended in the empire by restoring Catholic supremacy.
As we know, that never quite worked out either and ultimately both sides eventually had to learn to live with each other. Emperor Rudolf II did do something which, I would think, traditional Catholics would applaud him for, yet it is more often a source of criticism against him which was to push for another crusade. He hoped that he could unite the Christians of Germany and, perhaps, Christendom as a whole, by another war against the Ottoman Turks. The Muslims, after all, saw no difference between a Catholic infidel and a Protestant infidel so, perhaps, Rudolf reasoned that this would bring the bickering Christians of Europe together against a common enemy. Unfortunately for him, this did not work and the war was a long, grueling affair which ultimately accomplished almost nothing. Spain made some contribution as did most of the Italian states to this frustrating conflict known as “the Long War” but it proved to be a bloody stalemate with neither side gaining a clear advantage. For Rudolf II, it was a drain of men, resources and brought no greater Christian unity as, in order to prosecute the war, as emperors almost invariably had to do, he was compelled to make concessions to the various subsidiary princes to contribute men and resources to the ultimately fruitless conflict.
So, his religious policies angered Catholics while still not earning any great loyalty from the Protestants and his foreign policy proved to be ineffective and costly. All of these concessions to various groups also encouraged opposition from within the Habsburg family ranks as they saw imperial power being diminished further and further yet, as mentioned above, the younger brother who ultimately dethroned him would find that he would have no choice but to do the same. Most, however, choose to focus on the personal life of Emperor Rudolf II and he was an unusual and rather colorful character to be sure. As monarchs do not tend to make a public issue of their sexual proclivities, I prefer to avoid the subject, to the frustration of some readers I have noticed. Rest assured, I am well aware that many regard King Frederick the Great of Prussia or King James I of Great Britain as homosexuals, I simply do not care. I think one could argue the point and I do not see how it could be proven with any degree of certainty one way or the other and, while I certainly think it matters in moral terms, as long as they keep it to themselves, it does not matter *to me*. Were they so inclined and were they to make a public issue of it, trying to push this as acceptable or praiseworthy behavior, then I would certainly have a problem with it.
As with a growing list of historical figures, Emperor Rudolf II has now also been deemed by many to have been a homosexual. Personally, I do not know what his sexual preferences were and would rather keep it that way. There are some such royals about whom I have no doubts, some prominent cases which most accept but which I tend to disbelieve but with Rudolf II, I really have no idea one way or the other. There seems to be just as much “evidence” to me that he was as there is that he was not. He talked about marriage a lot but never went through with it, there are rumors of some homosexual relationships yet there are even more rumors of heterosexual relationships and illegitimate children that he produced. My only conclusion is that he does seem to have been a rather lustful man which is hardly uncommon. Rumors of affairs are things I put very little weight in as gossip is often spread maliciously but the, sometimes rather explicit, erotic artwork Rudolf collected is the primary basis for my admittedly banal assessment of his private life. Was he or wasn’t he? I don’t know but Emperor Rudolf II did seem to be a bit of a pervert.
I only mention this at all because it is something that Rudolf II does tend to be criticized for and yet, I have noticed that this is usually a red herring. Particularly among those who think there should be no limit to sexual practices, partners or proclivities at all, there is a noticeable habit of always trying to paint those you dislike as some sort of sexual deviant. Everyone knows, for example, that Eva Braun was the mistress of Adolf Hitler and everyone knows that Clara Petacci was the mistress of Benito Mussolini. Does anyone know the name of Franklin Roosevelt’s mistress? Does anyone know of any affairs by Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin? I doubt this is an accident. Consider also, if you live in the west, how many times you have seen those photos of Vladimir Putin riding a horse without a shirt splashed across the media. This, I think, illustrates my point well enough. Everyone knows who Eva Braun was but I bet no one reading this could name FDR’s secretary he had the affair with without looking.
Aside from this issue though, Rudolf II was also accused of being so devoted to intellectual and artistic pursuits that he neglected government. This may actually be true, however, I have not failed to notice that be it Emperor Rudolf, Britain’s King Edward VIII, President Trump or President Obama, people seem to complain the most about rulers who shirk their duty even though they think those exact rulers are ruling badly. If they are not good at their job, one would think you would be happy to see them abdicating, playing golf or, in the case of Rudolf II, devoting himself to art, music and certain currently discredited fields of science. Again, it is certainly true that Rudolf II spent a great deal of time and money collecting works of art, however, criticism for him over this may be more due to the fact that it can no longer be appreciated. Unlike other monarchs whose art collections became great national treasures, that of Emperor Rudolf was lost, sold or destroyed in the years and reigns after his death so that it cannot be appreciated but it is still easy to criticize him for accumulating it.
Perhaps the thing about Rudolf II that seems the most odd today, however, is his fascination with two particular subjects which have been discredited and those are astrology and alchemy. Now, to be fair, the Emperor was rather obsessive, particularly in regards to alchemy and I think it is safe to say allowed the subject to occupy much more of his time and attention than he should have. Rudolf was positively obsessed with alchemy, even having a private alchemist laboratory of his own and spent his life trying in vain to find the elusive “Philosopher’s Stone”. He even hired two brothers named Edward and Alphonse to, ..no, wait, never mind (inside joke). Today, of course, people regard astrology and alchemy as so much superstitious nonsense, completely absurd and unscientific. I would agree that the Emperor spent rather too much time on the subject, however, I would push back on criticism of the Emperor on this front almost more than any other. Today, we view astrology as basically a swindle for the superstition but, at the time of Rudolf II, astrology was considered scientific “fact”. Practically every European government embraced it and every monarch, even the Pope in Rome, had an official court astrologer.
Astrology is something I point to frequently today in comparison to the evolutionists or the global warming/climate change phenomenon. We are told that these things are scientific facts by the scientific community and yet, once upon a time, the scientific community also said that astrology was a scientific fact and that one could concoct an elixir that would turn lead into gold (maybe they never got their Transmutation Circle just right). My point being that, while I think it is fair to criticize Rudolf II for going overboard on these subjects and allowing them to monopolize his time, it is completely unfair to portray him as some sort of occultist lunatic for doing so. Interest in astrology may have led some to a better understanding of actual astronomy and we know as a matter of historical fact that the study of alchemy was a step along the process of developing scientific understanding and played a part in the establishment of modern chemistry and medicine as we know them today.
In the end, it is safe to say that Emperor Rudolf II was not a successful monarch. He never married or produced legitimate offspring, imperial power was diminished under his rule, his foreign policy won no great victory and he provided no lasting stability as evidenced by the fact that he was ultimately overthrown by his younger brother. His critics are many and there is much in him that can be validly criticized. However, I do think some of the criticism of him is unfair and much of it, even if fair, is certainly unfortunate and does not cast his critics in a very favorable light either. In regards to the most serious accusation against him, that he must bear responsibility for the Thirty Years War is, I think, a considerable overstatement and lays too much blame on him for a disaster which was caused by the cumulative policies and events spanning the reigns of a number of German emperors. He certainly was not one of the best, but he was also far from being the worst national leader the world has ever seen.
Those interested may wish to read…
My Favorite Habsburg Emperors
MM Mini-View: The Habsburg Emperors