Ferdinand III

Ferdinand III (1608-1657) reigned as Holy Roman emperor from 1637 to 1657. He unwillingly presided over the triumph of Protestantism in Germany.

Ferdinand of Hapsburg was born in Graz in Styria on July 13, 1608, son of the later emperor Ferdinand II and Maria Anna of Bavaria. Family tradition dictated his Jesuit upbringing. As heir to the newly reunited Hapsburg patrimony in central Europe, he was elected king of Hungary in 1626 and king of Bohemia in 1627. From 1626 onward his father brought him into the councils of state. Ferdinand was intrigued by military affairs and coveted a field command. Frustrated by his father's dependence on Albrecht von Wallenstein, he became an ardent opponent of the Bohemian mercenary. After Wallenstein's murder, Ferdinand commanded nominally at the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 and won reflected glory. In December 1636 he was elected king of Rome and succeeded as Holy Roman emperor when his father died on Feb. 15, 1637.

Ferdinand III shared his father's deep piety relying constantly on the advice of his Jesuit confessors. He firmly upheld the Catholic restoration in Bohemia and Austria but showed more willingness to negotiate with the established Protestant states of Germany. Twice during the protracted peace negotiations, in 1645 and in 1647, he took personal command of his armies in an effort to win on the battlefield what he could not gain at the bargaining table. Both times he blundered disastrously, and thereafter he remained in Vienna at the center of the administration.

The Westphalian treaties of 1648 were a great disappointment to him, and Ferdinand had to be forced by his supporters to accede to them. Although he never lost sight of the goal of restoring Catholicism, he turned his attention thenceforth more to the dynastic interests of his family. In 1653 he engineered the election of his oldest son, Ferdinand Maria, as king of Rome, only to have his hopes dashed with his heir's sudden death in 1654. The last years of his reign were largely taken up by his ultimately successful efforts to secure the imperial throne for his second son, the Archduke Leopold.

Aside from his passion for the hunt, Ferdinand III had a love of learning and a special fondness for music which became a family tradition. Unlike his father, he was a gifted linguist and spoke the languages of all his subjects: German, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, Spanish, and French as well as Latin. Frugal, stolid, and rather shy, he grew mistrustful and ill-tempered in his later years. He died in Vienna on April 2, 1657.


Further Reading on Ferdinand III

Ferdinand III has never attracted a good biographer. The main source is in German. For general works on the period see C. V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (1939); S. H. Steinberg, The "Thirty Years War" and the Conflict for European Hegemony, 1600-1660 (1966); Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (1967; trans. 1968); and H. G. Koenigsberger, The Habsburgs and Europe, 1516-1660 (1971).