Maximilian I

Maximilian I (1459-1519), Holy Roman emperor from 1493 to 1519, began the restoration of the power of the Hapsburgs. His intense interest in the arts and in public display earned him a place in legend as well as history.

Although he was never crowned by the Pope, Maximilian became king of Germany in 1486 and emperor-elect in 1493, and he won papal approval as emperor in 1508. His talent, however, lay less in his success as emperor than in his securing the imperial title for the Hapsburg house and ensuring Hapsburg predominance in European diplomacy for the next 4 centuries. The empire had become by the end of the 15th century rather an aid to dynastic ambition than an effective form of government for Germany. Maximilian I's career was more an example of manipulating the advantages afforded by the imperial title than an actual rule of the fragmented empire. He was a better knight than he was a general, and he appears to have been far more a storybook king than a hardworking 15th-century monarch. He spent a great deal of time and money perpetuating his own memory, both in works and pictures about himself and in several romantic versions of his own life which he wrote.

Maximilian's marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 plunged him into a conflict with the king of France, Louis XI, over the Burgundian territories. Holding his own against Louis, Maximilian also had to put down revolts in Flanders. His son and heir, Philip of Burgundy, was born in 1478, and his wife died in 1482. Maximilian held his Burgundian dominions, and in 1496 married Philip to Juana, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, thus linking the Hapsburg house to the most vigorous dynasty of Europe. In 1500 the future emperor Charles V was born to Juana and Philip, and by a series of dynastic accidents Charles became the heir not only of Maximilian's Hapsburg territories and claim to the imperial title but to Burgundy and Spain as well, thus laying the foundations for the power of the Spanish monarchy for the next century.

Maximilian's success in the dynastic marriage market was greater than his military and diplomatic success. He failed to defeat France on an abortive expedition to Italy in 1496 and was himself defeated by the Swiss in 1499 and outmaneuvered in Italy by Louis XII of France in 1500. Between 1500 and 1504 Maximilian was busy putting down rebellions in Germany, and after the death of his son Philip in 1506 the problems of the Netherlands regency were added to those of Germany and Italy. In 1508 Maximilian's expedition to Italy was stopped by Venetian resistance, and the Emperor retaliated by entering into the League of Cambrai with France and the papacy against Venice. In 1510, however, Pope Julius II reversed his policy and rejected the league, and from 1510 until his death Maximilian was faced with the rising power of France in Italy.

Besides external political threats, Maximilian faced the perennial administrative chaos of Germany and accomplished a number of governmental and judicial reforms, including the establishment of the Imperial Court in 1495, in which Roman law was to be used. Maximilian also urged reform of the Church, particularly in Germany. At his death in 1519 the crises which would trouble the 16th century were already evident: the rivalry between Spain and France, the use of Italy and the papacy as a battleground for the conflict, and the stirrings of anticlericalism and the questioning of ecclesiastical dogma which would usher in the Reformation. Maximilian's reputation as the "last knight" was a fitting one.

Further Reading on Maximilian I

The most thorough work in English on Maximilian is the somewhat romanticized biography by Christopher Hare (pseudonym for Mrs. Marian Andrews), Maximilian the Dreamer (1913). An older biography is by Robert W. Seton-Watson, Maximilian I (1901). Since Maximilian's reputation is so varied, the reader should also consult Glenn E. Waas, The Legendary Character of Kaiser Maximilian (1941), which provides both a good bibliography and a survey of Maximilian's legend. Useful background works are The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by J. B. Bury and others (8 vols., 1913-1936), and The New Cambridge Modern History (14 vols., 1957-1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Benecke, Gerhard, Maximilian I (1459-1519): an analytical biography, London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

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