Rudolf of Habsburg and Ottokar II

Rudolf I, Holy Roman Emperor

In the Great Interregnum that lasted from 1250 to 1273, all semblance of government evaporated. Since there was no agreement on who should succeed Frederick II, unlikely outsiders forced an entry. For reasons that even his latest biographer cannot fully explain, the Spanish Alfonso X of Castile put himself forward as ruler, but he never bothered to visit the empire. The rival Richard of Cornwall, younger son of England’s King John, had the broad support of the three archbishops and of the dozen or so lay lords that chose him as their king in 1257. But his interest was to outmanoeuvre the last of the Staufens to make good the fantastical English claim to Sicily. Richard was effective on those four occasions on which he visited the empire, but he stayed too briefly to leave any lasting mark.

The death of Frederick II in 1250 was followed by the wholesale destruction of the Staufen lands, offices, and revenues in Swabia. The Staufen possessions were invaded, and even the imperial lands that the Staufen rulers had held as emperors and not as family estates were seized. What was not taken was often given away by Frederick II’s hard-pressed heirs. Plundering soon gave way to feuding as quarrels arose over the spoils. In the general free-for-all, properties that had never been part of the Staufen patrimony were grabbed, illegal tolls collected, and many minor landowners dispossessed. ‘The days of evil approach, and the evil is growing,’ wrote one chronicler about 1270. Across the pillaged countryside, processions of penitents moved, whipping themselves to appease God’s wrath and rehearsing older heresies.

Foremost among the beneficiaries of the collapse of the Staufens was Count Rudolf of Habsburg (lived 1218–1291). The grandson of Rudolf the Old, Count Rudolf inherited the main body of the Habsburg lands upon the death of his father, Albert the Wise, in 1239. Much he obtained with the semblance of legality, convincing Frederick II’s heirs to assign him lands, revenues, and rights. Even so, he took advantage of the breakdown in authority to rob the widow of the last of the Kiburgs of her dowry. His greed earned him enemies, on which account Rudolf fought no fewer than eight feuds with his rivals. Although feuds were supposed to be conducted according to an etiquette, with days off and due concern shown for the vulnerable, Rudolf was, by his own admission, an insatiable warrior. The contemporary Annals of Basle give us a glimpse of him: in 1269, he slew some knights in Strasbourg; in 1270, he besieged Basle for three days; in 1271, he levied unprecedented taxes, burnt down a monastery, and seized villages; in 1272, he destroyed Tiefenstein Castle and marched on Freiburg, killing and burning the crops on the way; in 1273, he razed the village of Klingen, and so on.

The death of Richard of Cornwall in 1272 gave the electors an opportunity to reconvene and begin at least to consider the restoration of order. Notwithstanding the crowded circumstances of Richard’s election in 1257, it was generally held that there should be seven electors, but quite who they were was uncertain. Under intense pressure from Pope Gregory X, the leading lords of the empire agreed in advance that the vote should be unanimous, for a split threatened to throw the country into civil war. The problem was that there was no obvious candidate for the throne.

Holy Roman Empire was the king of Bohemia, Ottokar II

The most powerful prince in the Holy Roman Empire was the king of Bohemia, Ottokar II. He sought to become ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and considered that, since Bohemia was a part of the empire, he should have a vote for the next king of the Romans. But Ottokar was widely distrusted, and his Slavonic ancestry was invoked as a disqualification, on which account the duke of Bavaria took his place as an elector. Among the other great lords, there was not much interest in the office. For more than two centuries, the office of sovereign had been caught up with the politics of Swabia and the neighbouring duchy of Franconia, to such an extent that these two duchies were now considered synonymous with imperial affairs. Brandenburg and the Saxon duchies were remote from this heartland, and their rulers preoccupied with their own affairs and with expansion eastwards. The Wittelsbach dukes of Bavaria and the Palatinate were brothers, who were sufficiently at odds to sabotage each other’s interests.

There was no-one, therefore, among the electors with either the interest or support to muster a unanimous vote. Rudolf of Habsburg seized the opportunity. His interest was precisely the one that dissuaded others: the connection between the imperial office and the south-western part of the Holy Roman Empire, into which the Habsburgs were already expanding. But there was more to his ambition than just territorial politics. As the godson of Emperor Frederick II, Rudolf considered himself next in line to the throne, now that all of Frederick’s natural heirs had died. He was, moreover, the greatest lord in Swabia, which was the home of the Staufen rulers, and thus uniquely qualified to pursue the succession. In this respect, he stood not as an outsider but as the ‘continuity candidate.’

As far as the electors were concerned, Rudolf was a good choice. He was already fifty-five years old and so an improbable threat in the long term. Having pilfered from the Staufen lands, Rudolf was unlikely to demand that the lands that the other great lords had seized be returned. Cynical considerations aside, Rudolf looked the part. He was tall—one account gives his height at seven feet, at a time when the German Fuss was slightly longer than today’s British foot (30.48 cm)—and his appearance was distinctive. As one jibe put it, his nose was long enough to obstruct the traffic. Moreover, at a time when most princes only talked about going on crusade, Rudolf had actually taken the cross, fighting during the 1250s in the fastnesses along the Baltic shore against the pagan Prussians (albeit as penance for having burnt down a nunnery). Rudolf was elected in Aachen on 29 September 1273 and crowned the next month with the royal diadem.

Contemporaries recorded several scores of anecdotes about Rudolf, pointing to his wit, courage, piety, and wisdom. Doubtless, many of these emanated from Rudolf’s propaganda, but they hint at a man of exuberant character, who was the very reverse of how his tame clerks chose to depict him—‘as moderate in his eating and drinking and in all things.’ The most important lesson he had learned from a lifetime of soldiering and rapine, however, was patience and strategy, in which respect it may be no accident that he also played chess. The speech he gave immediately after his coronation in Aachen was a masterpiece of contrived modesty: ‘Today, I forgive all those wrongs that have been done to me, release the prisoners suffering in my gaols, and I promise from now on to be a defender of peace in the land, just as I was before a rapacious man of war.’

Rudolf was so far only a king. To become emperor, he needed to be crowned by the pope in Rome. Even so, Rudolf spoke in elevated terms of ‘We and the Empire’, and he added to his title the phrase that would remain a part of the ruler’s style until the nineteenth century—‘forever an enlarger of the Empire.’ Rudolf also stuck pretty much true to his coronation address. He settled his feuds, albeit on terms advantageous to himself, and joined with the cities of the Rhineland to eliminate the brigands’ nests in the Rhine valley. The ruins of Sooneck Castle, near Rüdesheim, although partly rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style of the nineteenth century, still bear witness to the order he brought; likewise the legend of how Rudolf hanged the robber knights of nearby Reichenstein, with the wood from their gallows being recycled to build a chapel, where masses were said for their souls.

No less significant was Rudolf’s reorganization of the administration in the service of order. Many rulers had previously proclaimed a ‘peace of the land’, prohibiting all violence, and had ordained harsh penalties for any violation. Few, however, had established adequate mechanisms to police it, with the result that feuding and the ‘law of the fist’ had soon returned. Rudolf, however, linked the peace of the land to the appointment of ‘protectors of the land’ or Landvogts, who were charged with maintaining order by military means. In order to provide the cash for them, Rudolf ordered in 1274 a general tax on all the cities of the empire, which he repeated eight years later. The division of the empire into regions, each of which was responsible for maintaining a local peace, prefigured what became after 1500 the system of ‘imperial circles’ and of an institution of law enforcement that would last until the nineteenth century.

The Landvogts were not only charged with the maintenance of order but with the recovery of all imperial lands that had been given away after 1245. The policy, backed up by force, was implemented with moderate success in Swabia and neighbouring Franconia. The properties so recovered went straight to Rudolf, since he, as king, was considered their rightful owner. Rudolf, however, neither relinquished the imperial lands that he had merged into his own private domain nor surrendered the other territories that he had seized illegally. Nor did he think it worthwhile to inflame relations with the Wittelsbach dukes of Bavaria and the Palatinate by obliging them to disgorge the properties that they had seized.

The programme of recovering the lost imperial lands extended to legal rights and entitlements. None had infringed upon these more than King Ottokar of Bohemia (lived circa 1232–1278). While still heir apparent to the Bohemian throne, Ottokar had occupied the duchy of Austria, which had fallen vacant upon the death in 1246 of the last of the Babenberg line, Duke Frederick II. Ottokar had rested his claim upon the invitation of the Austrian nobility, and it does seem that he had a good measure of support in the duchy. To cement his rule, Ottokar married Duke Frederick’s sister, Margaret. Margaret had form. She had previously been married to the son of Emperor Frederick II, the leper Henry, and upon widowhood had become a nun, but she had relinquished the cloister to argue her own claim to the dukedom of Austria. Nearly fifty, she was almost thirty years older than Ottokar. Besides the obvious problem that no heir could come of their union, Ottokar had a further difficulty. As an imperial fief, Austria should have reverted to the crown upon the expiry of the Babenberg line and been apportioned to whomever the ruler chose. Notwithstanding the decision of the Austrian nobles and his own marriage, the duchy did not belong to Ottokar.

In the decades that followed, Ottokar extended his rule to Styria, which had previously been occupied by the Hungarian king, and to the neighbouring duchies of Carinthia and Carniola, both of which he claimed by a dubious right of inheritance. He also became king of Bohemia in 1253 upon the death of his father. The issue of the Babenberg inheritance remained, however, unresolved. Richard of Cornwall had in 1262 recognized Ottokar as the rightful heir, but Richard’s rule was contested, and what little influence remained to him vanished after his final departure for England in 1269. Moreover, Ottokar had after a few years of marriage repudiated Margaret and taken instead as his wife a sixteen-year-old Hungarian princess. The toothsome Kunigunda gave Ottokar the heir he wanted but was of no value in prosecuting Ottokar’s rights to Austria.

Ottokar was not only a usurper but also dangerous. In terms of territory, he was foremost in the empire, ruling a bloc of lands that reached across its eastern flank. His wealth was prodigious, being mostly derived from his Bohemian mines and from the lucrative mints he owned. His treasure lay, according to a contemporary account, piled up in four strong castles, and amounted to no less than two hundred thousand silver marks and eight hundred golden marks, held in coin, plate, and jewel-encrusted goblets. Ottokar’s annual income from Bohemia is further estimated at around a hundred thousand silver marks, to which may be added an equivalent sum from his Austrian possessions. To put these figures in context, the entire income of the archbishop of Cologne amounted at this time to fifty thousand silver marks and of the duke of Bavaria to twenty thousand of the same. The imperial revenues consisted then of just seven thousand silver marks. Rudolf’s celebrated remark that he had no need to employ an imperial treasurer because all he had was five shillings in bad coin was not entirely fanciful, nor the contemporary description of Ottokar as ‘the Golden King.’

Like Rudolf, Ottokar had also taken the cross—not once but twice—and the crusading Teutonic Knights of the north had named in his honour the city he helped found on the Baltic shore, Königsberg (literally ‘King’s Mountain’, now Kaliningrad in Russia). For Ottokar, Rudolf was a nobody who was unworthy of the royal title—and Ottokar did not hesitate to tell the pope so. Ottokar had opposed Rudolf’s election and continued to claim that it was illegal, since he had been denied a vote. Publicly, Ottokar flaunted his ambition, imitating in the style of his correspondence the forms of imperial charters and using the imperial eagle as one of his own devices. Although Bohemia was, like Austria, a fief of the empire, Ottokar ignored this, proclaiming that he held power not of the ruler but ‘by the grace of God, by whom kings reign and princes rule.’

Rudolf outmanoeuvred Ottokar. He reconciled himself with his enemies, binding them to him by marriages to his daughters, of whom he had no fewer than six to spare. He also presented Ottokar’s actions as a slight not against him but against the dignity of the Holy Roman Empire. Shortly after his election as king, Rudolf persuaded a court diet to condemn Ottokar’s retention of land that belonged by right to the empire. When Ottokar refused to submit to the diet’s decision, he was put under a ban of outlawry, which in the contemporary description reduced him to the status of a wild bird (Vogelfrei)—to be cared for by nobody, forced to dwell in the woods, and even killed at will. To press home the point, the archbishop of Mainz excommunicated Ottokar, absolved his subjects of their oaths of allegiance to him, and forbade the celebration of the sacraments in Bohemia. Throughout Ottokar’s kingdom, religious life came to a halt.

Rudolf bided his time, enlarging the number of his allies and fomenting rumours—that the pope had also excommunicated the Golden King; that Ottokar had banished his ten-year-old daughter to a nunnery to prevent her marrying one of Rudolf’s sons; that a hermit had dreamt of a sphinx, which had prophesied Ottokar’s imminent defeat, and so on. Finally, in the late summer of 1276, Rudolf struck, attacking down the Danube and not into Bohemia, as Ottokar had expected. Faced with rebellions at home and with his enemies already in Vienna, Ottokar capitulated. A contemporary chronicle describes how Ottokar, resplendent in his finery, submitted to Rudolf. Rudolf received the Golden King dressed only in the cheapest clothing, saying, ‘Often has he mocked my grey mantle, let him mock it now!’ Ottokar prostrated himself before Rudolf, who sat on a stool, and received back from him the Bohemian kingdom as a fief, but he did not recover his Austrian lands, which Rudolf instead conferred on himself.

The image of the overmighty and overjewelled king humbling himself before his meanly dressed adversary is a medieval trope intended to show Rudolf’s humility. Plainly, though, Ottokar had no intention of keeping faith with Rudolf. Once returned to Bohemia, he used his wealth to suborn Rudolf’s former allies and to foment discontent with Habsburg rule in Austria. Warfare recommenced in the summer of 1278, with Rudolf relying extensively on troops obtained from Hungary. The two armies met at Dürnkrut, forty kilometres (twenty-five miles) north-east of Vienna. With about ten thousand troops Rudolf’s army was numerically the larger, but most of his forces were light cavalry and infantry. So Rudolf resorted to subterfuge. Breaking the conventions of chivalry, which saw ruses on the battlefield as shameful, Rudolf hid his reserve of several hundred armoured knights. At a critical moment, they flung themselves on the enemy’s flank, routing Ottokar’s army and slaying the Bohemian king. Rudolf’s troops violated the dead king’s body, hacking at it as they stripped off the costly armour.

To ensure that no pretenders emerged claiming to be Ottokar, Rudolf had the Bohemian king’s remains eviscerated to delay putrefaction and put them on public display in Vienna for more than six months. The next year, in 1279, the corpse was carried to Bohemia, eventually to be interred in Prague’s St Vitus’s Cathedral, where it remains to this day. It is housed beneath a fourteenth-century effigy of the king that has been described in the secret language of German art historians as dumpf-erregt, which might just about be translated as ‘lumpishly animated.’ Rudolf, however, did not take possession of the Bohemian kingdom, reckoning it a hopeless entanglement, but instead married his last unwed daughter to Ottokar’s son and heir, the habitually dissolute Wenceslas II.

The remainder of Rudolf’s reign up until his death in 1291 was marked by failure. He did not manage to have himself crowned emperor by the pope but had to make do with the title of king. Like all his predecessors, he also failed to establish a hereditary monarchy in the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, he had to make do with packing the number of electors with princes whose loyalty he thought he had secured by marriage into his own family. Rudolf’s attempt to reestablish the duchy of Swabia for his heirs likewise came unstuck, not least because all but one of his four sons predeceased him.

In Dante’s Purgatory, written in the early fourteenth century, Rudolf and Ottokar are spotted together in ‘the valley of negligent princes’, which is reserved for monarchs who in return for worldly glory have disregarded their souls. Ottokar comforts Rudolf there. The epic clash between Rudolf and the Golden King determined more, however, than just their individual fates. The capture of the Austrian lands made Rudolf master of a large chunk of Central Europe and transformed the fortunes of the Habsburgs. With a solid body of territory in the east to add to the family’s Swabian lands, the Habsburgs looked ready to refashion the Holy Roman Empire, converting their private resources into public power and giving government. But it was a false dawn, both for the Holy Roman Empire and for the Habsburgs.

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