Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Wittelsbach & the War for Southern Germany (The Wittelsbachs)

Greetings everyone and welcome back to another episode of Dynastology. After a rather poor turnout on my last Monarchy Poll, it came out as a tie between the Wittelsbach and Capetians. However, my girlfriend's sister had a standing vote for Wittelsbach so they win the day. Sorry Capetians, your massively extended and inbred family will have to wait for another poll. Now, onto one of the most important understated dynasties in European history:

As it has become rather clear from these case studies, there are many dynasties in European history and the majority of them are not well known by your average non-historian. The Wittelsbach are no exception. If you have heard of them, however, it was probably in their capacity as Kings of Bavaria during the 1800s and 1900s. That title, however, only appeared in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, today there are only two branches of this once-sprawling family remaining. The senior branch is known as the Zweibrücken branch while the younger branch is the Birkenfeld branch. They split way back in 1506.

Unlike many European dynasties, the Wittelsbach are important for many reasons. The foremost is that they provided monarchs to around a dozen different regions in Europe throughout their existence. Between 1180, when one became the Duke of Bavaria, and 1918, when the last king was forced to abdicate his titles, the Wittelsbach possessed at some point the titles of Holy Roman Emperor, King of the Romans, King of Hungary, Anti-King of Bohemia, King of Denmark & Norway, King of Sweden, King of Greece, King of Bavaria, Elector of Bavaria, Elector Palatine, Elector of Brandenburg, Elector of Cologne, Duke of Bavaria, Duke of Jülich & Berg, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Margrave of Brandenburg, Count of Holland, Count of Hainaut, and Count of Zeeland. Mind you, many of these titles were rather short-lived but those of Duke of Bavaria and Elector Palatine were their most important and provided the most definitive separation of the family.

For the most part, only Bavaria and the Palatinate matter in regard to the Wittelsbach. The other titles drifted in and out of the family at the Holy Roman Emperor's will or through marriage and different succession laws. For those of you who don't know where these two places are, allow me to assist. The County Palatine of the Rhine refers to an Imperial county (directly accountable only to the emperor, making it higher than all other counties) found north of Württemberg (in Germany), east of Luxembourg and south of Hesse (in Germany). Bavaria is the region east of the Palatinate with its capital at Munich. To make it really easy, look at a map of Germany: pretty much the entire eastern part of the region that kind of hangs low on the southwest side of Germany comprises the Palatinate and Bavaria.

Those two major branches of the family split in the Treaty of Pavia of 1329. Thus the family became divided and remained so until 1777. There were, however, some titles that were indivisible and those went to the senior line. While Count Palatine of the Rhine, the title inherited by the elder line, appears to be a lesser title than Duke of Bavaria, the first counts actually held the additional title of Dukes of Upper Bavaria (which was, of course, lower than Lower Bavaria, geographically speaking). In 1356 the Palatinate became an Imperial Electorate, meaning that they got a vote in all Imperial politics including the election of new Holy Roman Emperors. This solidly put this family in a leading position over their Bavarian cousins who didn't receive their electoral titles for two nearly hundred more years.

The problem with the Palatine Wittelsbach was that they just kept producing too many kids. In 1410 the family broke into six branches and never fully reunited again. Each son took with him a fragment of the Palatinate and the Count Palatine of the x title. Thus if you ever see a title somewhere that is Count Palatine of the x, it is one of these Wittelsbach lines. All except the Birkenfeld line have since expired but they all served to distract and divide the senior branch of the Wittelsbach. When the family went Protestant before the Thirty Years War and the Elector Palatine tried to get elected King of Bohemia, they earned an expulsion from the Empire by the Holy Roman Emperor. The Bavarian branch swept in and grabbed the electoral titles and all the lands of the Palatinate. At the end of the war, the Counts Palatine got their titles and lands back, but the Bavarians kept their electoral titles and the Emperor had to grant them a new issuance...conveniently lower in rank than the Bavarian Wittelsbach.

The Bavarian branch of the family was junior in status but descended from Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV. In addition, for a number of generations the branch possessed the title of Margrave of Brandenburg. In 1356, Brandenburg, alongside the Palatinate, became an Imperial Electorate, placing the still closely-related family in possession of two electoral titles. Unfortunately, within a few generations the Bavarian branch of the family lost Brandenburg and started its slow descent into obscurity. Early on, in 1349, the branch had sub-divided into four branches dispersing the Bavarian power-base. Fortunately for them, they were able to come back together by 1505, many years before the Palatine branch decentralized.

The Bavarian Wittelsbach were very influential in the region and championed themselves as protectors of the Catholic faith once the Reformation began in the 1520s. It was for this reason that they succeeded so well at the expense of their relatives during the Thirty Years War. Once they became an electorate with better status than the Palatine branch, they started to become more powerful in the Empire as a whole. So much so, in fact, that one of them was elected the only non-Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor since the 1400s in 1742. But that was their high point. In 1777, the last male member of the Bavarian Wittelsbach died, leaving the electorate in the hands of the Palatine line.

Following the short War of the Bavarian Succession, it was determined that the Palatine branch would inherit the entirety of the Bavarian estates. In 1799, all but one of the other Palatine sub-branches died off, leaving the entire Wittelsbach estate in the hands of Maximilian, who would be crowned the first king of Bavaria in 1806 with permission from Napoleon. The Palatinate and Bavaria were now one and were independent, the Holy Roman Empire being dissolved that same year. Unfortunately the next seven decades were not kind to them. Ludwig I abdicated during the 1848 revolutions. His son, Maximilian II, sided with the wrong side in the Austria-Prussia conflict that dominated Germany in the mid-1800s. His son, Ludwig II, was considered "Mad" and spent most of his time building fairy-tale castles in the Bavarian Alps, leaving rule to his relatives. From 1871, Bavaria became a client kingdom in the new, Protestant-run German Empire. Having adopted the Catholic faith following the merger of the family back in 1777, the Wittelsbach were looked on with suspicion by the German Emperors. When the Bavarian king attempted to secede from the German Empire during World War I, it only validated those suspicions. The king failed, though, and was forced to abdicate in 1918 at the end of the war. The family which had ruled in Bavaria for 738 years was finally without a throne.

The Wittelsbach family still exists today in many branches but all descended from the royal family save one. The senior line call themselves Dukes of Bavaria while the junior line, the Birkenfeld branch which split off way back in 1506, call themselves Dukes in Bavaria…to not confuse things, ya know? The current titular king is still quite wealthy and still lives in Munich today, his family having returned to Germany a generation ago.

Overall, the dynastological importance of the House of Wittelsbach cannot be overlooked. The size and extent of their family and its holdings throughout the past 850 years is enough alone to merit it some importance in dynastological research. However, the sheer amount of daughters married off to prominent other royal families, as well as the number of wives from those families who married Wittelsbach suggest that this family was, without question, a central part of the European royal marriage scheme in the Early Modern era. The House of Hanover in Great Britain descended through a Wittelsbach princess, Sophia, who was the only Protestant member of all the Stuart distaff (female) lines. While today their territories may have been consumed in the larger German Republic, their legacy remains in the culture and heritage of the Bavarian region of Germany which still considers, both legally and culturally, its capital to be the former royal city of Munich.

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