Rudolf I

Rudolf I (ca. 1218-1291), or Rudolf of Hapsburg, was Holy Roman emperor-elect from 1273 to 1291. He was the first of a long line of Hapsburg emperors.

The struggle between the emperor Frederick II and Pope Innocent IV had shattered the power of the imperial office in both Germany and Italy. The "emperors" who reigned between 1250 and 1273— William of Holland, Alfonso X of Castile, and Richard of Cornwall—were powerless because of their absenteeism and the lack of cooperation they had received in Germany. When an imperial election was called in 1273, the German princes whose responsibility it was to elect the new emperor wanted neither a powerful nor an ambitious ruler, and their choice fell on Rudolf, a wealthy but not potentially dangerous German noble.

However, not only did Rudolph's reign enhance the wealth and power of the minor Hapsburg house, but it also gave his dynasty a foothold in the imperial office, which was eventually secured in the 15th century and not relinquished until the 19th. In the face of considerable opposition, Rudolf managed to impose a temporary peace upon the warring German Estates and princes, to subdue the powerful Premysl dynasty of Bohemia, and to heal the rift between the imperial office and the papacy, which had destroyed imperial power 25 years before.

Rudolf was a compromise candidate for the imperial office. In 1273 the strongest prince in the empire was the Premysl line's Ottocar II, King of Bohemia. In order to block Bohemian power, the electoral princes turned to Rudolf. Rudolf's first task as emperor was to quell Bohemian power, which he accomplished in 1276 at Vienna and again at the battle of Marchfeld in 1278, thus permanently defeating the possibility of Bohemian domination of Germany and the imperial office. After these victories, Rudolf made Vienna the Hapsburg capital, which it remained until the 20th century.

The Emperor's second step was to heal the wounds of the Church, still smarting after its long bout with the imperial Hohenstaufen dynasty. In 1279 Rudolf renounced many of the imperial claims in Italy, gave the Romagna to the Pope, and thoroughly subordinated the powers of the imperial office and its incumbent to the authority of the Church in matters spiritual and temporal.

Rudolf's accomplished effectiveness as both diplomat and general gave Germany nearly 2 decades of peace. His next undertaking—and that of the Nassau, Wittelsbach, and Luxembourg dynasties, which each provided emperors in the century following Rudolf's death—was the extension and increase of his family power and wealth, for only by this method could any imperial dynasty sustain itself in the troubled 13th and 14th centuries. Ecclesiastical fear of the public resources of the imperial office had grown so great, and the imperial office had become so fragmented, that only the private family resources of individual emperors could sustain imperial power. From 1282 to 1286 Rudolf worked for the increase of the house of Hapsburg. His favor toward his son Albert of Bavaria, his lack of sufficient resources to quench the rivalry between German princes and cities, and his rivalry over Burgundy with the French king Philip IV troubled the last years of his reign. His eldest son, Rudolf, died at the age of 20, and Rudolf I then turned toward the advancement of the fortunes of his second son, Albert, later King Albert I.

Rudolf's reputation as a capable and intelligent ruler, well aware of the limits of his real power, yet successful in the imposition of peace upon a torn Germany, stood him in good stead. Although his son did not succeed him directly, Rudolf worked for his succession up to the time of his own death. Rudolf died on July 15, 1291, at Speyer, attempting to the end to establish the house of Hapsburg on the throne, which it would, within 2 centuries, make a virtual family possession.

Further Reading on Rudolf I

There is no biography of Rudolf I in English. Adam Wandruska, The House of Habsburg (1964), is a history of the dynasty with several chapters on early Hapsburg history, including one on Rudolf. The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 7 (1936), gives considerable information, as do Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (1946; 2d rev. ed. 1966), James Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (1956), and Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (1969).

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