As I promised last week after my poll, this week is dedicated to the "Illustrious House of Habsburg", as it was known back in the day. The house of Habsburg was quite possibly the most important and influential house of the Early Modern era. At their height, their domains encompassed officially and titularly most of the known, and even unknown, world. Yet with every great dynasty, there are secrets...
First things first, the house of Habsburg is extinct. There are no surviving male-line members of the family, although the Grand Dukes of Baden may or may not descend from an ancient collateral line. In an odd twist in dynastic politics, though, the War of the Austrian Succession of the 1740s established that the descent of Maria Theresa, Queen of Bohemia & Hungary, would continue under the name Habsburg or Habsburg-Lorraine. The family was dead but the name continues to the present in numerous branches of the Habsburg-Lorraine family. This practice was very common in the nobility of the Early Modern era. Men who married the heiresses of important families would often either drop their own surname or hyphenate theirs with that of their wife to establish the connection to the more important dynastic titles. A great example of this is the family of Winston Churchill, which is actually Spencer-Churchill. When the Churchill Duke of Marborough's descent died out in the mid-1700s, the spouse of the heiress, a Spencer, decided to hyphenate the name. Thus Winston Churchill should actually have been Winston Spencer, same family as Princess Diana Spencer, had this merger not occurred. But I digress.
The other assumption that HAS to be addressed and is the topic of this post is the infamous Habsburg Jaw. When people think about the Habsburgs, their first thought is often to either the inbreeding or the jaw. Neither really has a thing to do with the family as a political entity, but it is the most well-known aspect of the Habsburgs. Like most families in Europe, the Habsburgs have married many first and second cousins. This practice became excessively common following the division of the family in 1556. Where most royal families will alternate their marriage choices and choose first cousins from different branches of the family, the Austrian and Spanish Habsburg branches married each other often, including two uncle-niece marriages. Some will argue that even this was common, but the frequency and repetitiveness of the inbreeding was not common. The Habsburg Jaw, despite many years of scientific research and analysis, is mostly a debunked myth now. The jaw isn't the myth, but the thought that it was a Habsburg-related phenomena. Tradition blamed Cymburgis of Mascovia, the wife of Duke Ernest the Iron of Austria, for introducing the genetic anomaly into the bloodline. Yet analysis of earlier Habsburg ancestors, as well as unrelated individuals whose descendants would later marry into the family, has suggested that the trait was already present in the Habsburg blood and would only be strengthened through numerous outside and inbred marriages.
I know, that's not the news you want to hear, but it's true! Hundreds of people distantly or not even descended from the Habsburgs have the jaw. And it was mostly gone from the European bloodlines by the 1800s. Well, at least visually. The trait is still present and numerous European royals have been diagnosed with various jaw-related problems, but overall the visual problem of the jaw is gone. Additionally, it took more than just a jaw to create Charles II of Spain. His family tree rings around wreaths in numerous parts and his traits include diseases completely separate from jaw problems. The jaw may be quite obvious in the Habsburg line from 1450 until 1800, but it wasn't something the Habsburgs were ever famous for during their lifetime.
So what, then, is so special about the Habsburgs? I stand by my earlier statement that they are one of the most important dynasties of European history. There are numerous important and famous Habsburgs in history, but only a few really need further analysis. The rest just inherited or followed in their predecessors' footsteps. The first important Habsburg was Rudolf I who was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1273 after two decades of civil infighting between potential claimants to the Holy Roman Imperial throne. The position gave him the power to conquer Austria which was currently in the midst of a civil war between rival claimants to the extinct House of Babenberg. Prior to that time, the Counts of Habsburg ruled a small principality in modern-day Switzerland that they soon after lost to rival factions.
Jump ahead two centuries to the 1478 birth of Philip the Fair. Philip's mother, Mary, was heiress of the Burgundian Inheritance, a huge territory of land that stretched from the Low Countries in the north to the borders of Savoy and Provence in the south. It had once been its own kingdom called the Kingdom of Burgundy and then the Kingdom of Arles. But the territory was never unified. It was composed of dozens of small countries, duchies, and other administrative units that had slowly been inherited through mostly marriage into the Burgundian Inheritance. Mary was the heir of that territory and married the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg. Their son, Philip the Fair, then married the heiress of Spain, Juana (oft called the Mad), daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile of Columbus fame. Thus, Philip from his parents inherited the entirety of the Habsburg and Burgundian lands, and from his wife became co-sovereign of Spanish Empire, which after 1493 included everything in the New World. Then in one moment it was all gone. Philip the Fair died before his father leaving both inheritances to his son, Carlos, who became known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles, primarily through marriage, became ruler of nearly half of Europe. His claims stretched from Spain, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Bohemia & Hungary (which his brother ruled), Naples, Sicily, England (which his son ruled with Mary I from 1553 to 1558), Croatia, and many smaller principalities. He certainly used regents and confidants wherever possible but at least in name, he ruled it all.
Charles smartly split the empire prior to his death leaving the Austrian lands to his brother, Maximilian II, and the Spanish, Italian and Burgundian lands to his son, Philip II. While Max and his descendants fought the Turks, the Prussians, and others for the next two hundred years, Phil fought the English and Portuguese. Well, actually he conquered the Portuguese. The Spanish Habsburgs expanded the Habsburg empire once more in 1580 when the contested throne of Portugal was claimed by Phil. That meant that the other half of the world, Asia and Africa, was now controlled by the Habsburgs, at least in name. Little else can be said about either branch of the Habsburgs after this point. Inbreeding became extremely common, especially in the Spanish line, leaving Spain without a ruler in 1701. William of Orange in England and Louis XIV in France both tried to avoid the war, but when the Spanish heir died only a year before Charles II, and Charles named Louis' grandson heir, things went to crap. The war was fought for over a decade and ended with Louis' grandson, Philip V, inheriting Spain and the Italian possessions, and the Austrian Habsburgs inheriting the Low Countries. Now only the Austrian branch of the family was left, but things didn't last long.
In 1740, despite attempts to secure the succession, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died leaving the entire Austrian inheritance to his daughter Maria Theresa. The problem was that Maria had a cousin who was the daughter of a previous emperor, and that cousin thought she should rule. Also, Prussia didn't really agree with letting a woman inherit Austria. This lead to another long war fought over eight years called the War of the Austrian Succession. It ended slightly better than the previous war since Charles VI actually left heirs, unlike Charles II of Spain. But Austria still lost a bunch of land. Luckily for them, they retained the majority of the Habsburg possessions and these continued to be inherited by Maria's descendants, the house of Habsburg-Lorraine.
Thus the Habsburgs are a complex family with many nuances, and they truly helped solidify the European states from separate entities to solid states. Spain was a combination of ancient Reconquista counties and kingdoms but with Charles V, they finally became one single country. The Low Countries, for a short while, were united under one person and even after the Dutch Revolt of 1578, the remaining Spanish (later Austrian) Netherlands formed the backbone of the Kingdom of Belgium created in 1830. With the addition of Bohemia and Hungary, the Habsburgs created a large multinational state in the east that would remain an important power until World War I when it was finally dissolved. But even then, the states of Czechia, Hungary, and Austria all owe their current shapes to their Habsburg monarchs.
The Habsburgs may be misunderstood and much has been said and made of them, but they were a powerful and influential family that ruled much of Europe for a short while in the 15- and 1600s. Their legacy can be viewed on any map of Europe even today. Through dynastic marriage and political warfare, the Habsburgs proved that they could rise above their genetic deformities and become the first truly world leaders.
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