Frederick III (1415-1493), Holy Roman emperor and German king from 1440 to 1493, was one of the longer-reigning and weaker of the Hapsburgs. His misfortunes spurred his family to strengthen their position. He was the last German emperor crowned by the pope in Rome.
Frederick III was born on Sept. 21, 1415, in Innsbruck. His father was Ernest, Duke of Austria, a title to which Frederick succeeded (as Frederick V) in 1424. The young prince developed interests in jewels, which he collected, and astrology, and study which did little to further his fortunes. Frederick was raised to the imperial office in June 1440, when he was crowned king of the Romans (that is, the Germans; the German king was not officially emperor until crowned by the pope) in Aachen to succeed his cousin, Albert II. Frederick was noted for his lack of leadership in the internal affairs of Germany. Rejecting the appeals of princes and cities for imperial reform, he rarely attended a meeting of the Imperial Diet. In his absence princes and cities organized or strengthened existing confederations, slowly undermining what was left of German unity and enhancing a princely power that no future emperor would ever overcome. And when princes fought and cities rebelled, Frederick again refused to intervene.
Despite this indolence, Frederick continued to collect precious stones and dignities. In 1452 he married Leonora of Portugal, and on March 16 he was crowned in Rome by Pope Nicholas V. The Pope had good reason to favor this Hapsburg. In 1448 Frederick and Nicholas had concluded the Vienna Concordat, which strengthened the power of Rome in the German Church, while it was beginning to wane elsewhere. Unwittingly, Frederick thus eased the way for that future collaborator with princely particularism, the German Reformation.
The Emperor did perform one positive act for his family. In order to head off aggressive moves by Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy (1474), he arranged that his son, Maximilian, should marry Charles's daughter Mary. Charles died 3 years later; the French moved to absorb his heritage, but the richest Burgundian provinces in the Low Countries were preserved for Maximilian by his timely conclusion of the wedding arrangements. And it was this expansion to the West that created the nucleus of the future empire of Charles V.
Frederick was not so fortunate in the East. There, the Bohemians shook off his rule, while the Hungarian leader Mathias Corvinus actually occupied the Hapsburg capital of Vienna in 1485. Frederick had reached the end of his rope, and so had the Germans. They forced him to allow Maximilian to be elected king of the Romans. Frederick maintained the imperial office, but the empire was now in somewhat more capable hands. Frederick died at Linz on Aug. 19, 1493.
Further Reading on Frederick III
For the history of the empire during Frederick's reign see Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (1947), and Denys Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1966).