Meet the Habsburgs: 10 Members of Europe’s most powerful dynasty

Maximilian I

As the only surviving son of Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal, Maximilian was carefully groomed to succeed his father as Holy Roman Empire. As a young boy, Maximilian suffered from a speech defect as a result of the deformation of his lower jaw. His delayed speech resulted in apprehensions that Maximilian might be seen as intellectually impaired or mute.

Maximilian I is remembered as Europe’s “last knight”

Though accounts of his childhood were sanitized in the later account, Weißkunig, Maximilian’s upbringing was far from idyllic. His boyhood had witnessed bitter dynastic rivalries, often erupting into military conflict, sieges, and imprisonment. Naturally ambitious, however, Maximilian succeeded his father as King of the Romans and in 1508 declared himself Holy Roman Emperor. He was never crowned by the Pope, breaking the ancient tradition of requiring a papal coronation to formally assume the imperial title (his descendants, beginning after Charles V, would dispense with the formality altogether). 

Maximilian I’s reign marked a period of expansion through strategic alliances, military campaigns, and advantageous political unions. His marriage in 1477 to Mary of Burgundy, the heiress of the Burgundian State, helped to expand the House of Habsburg’s influence on a global scale. Maximilian is said to have harboured genuine affection for Mary, who tragically predeceased him in 1482 as a result of internal injuries sustained from a fall from her horse.

Maximilian I died on January 12, 1519, in Wels, Austria. His reign and accomplishments left a lasting impact on the Habsburg dynasty, and his descendants would go on to occupy significant roles in European history, including his son, Philip of Burgundy, whose marriage to Queen Juana of Castile established the Habsburg dynasty in Spain. 

Juana of Castile

Juana of Castile, also known as Juana the Mad or Juana la Loca, was queen regnant of Castile from 1504 until 1555. She was born on 6 November 1479, in Toledo, Spain, and was the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain.

Juana of Castile was the wife of the Habsburg Philip I of Castile

Though she was not initially anticipated to inherit the thrones of Castile or Aragon, Juana’s fortunes took a turn after the deaths of her brother and eldest sister. While Juana had received a comprehensive education, her formal training primarily focused on her responsibility to form a marital alliance with a foreign royal power. Her marriage to Philip the Handsome, the son of Emperor Maximilian, was arranged for political reasons and produced six children, including Charles V, who would become one of the most powerful rulers in European history. All four of the couple’s daughters also became queens. 

After the death of her mother, Isabella, Juana’s mental stability deteriorated, and she became increasingly isolated. Following the sudden death of her husband, Philip, Juana was declared unfit to rule and was confined to various castles and residences, initially refusing to part with Philip’s body. Despite her confinement, Juana maintained her claim to the throne of Castile and was often a focus of political intrigue and manipulation.

Juana’s son, Charles V, eventually became the Holy Roman Emperor and consolidated power over the Spanish territories. She spent the remaining years of her life in virtual imprisonment until her death on April 12, 1555, in Tordesillas, Spain. Juana’s blood would flow in the veins of the Austrian and Spanish Habsburg dynasties for the next several centuries. 

Charles V

Charles V, born on February 24, 1500, in present-day Belgium, was one of the most influential figures in sixteenth-century Europe. Charles became the King of Spain in 1516, on the death of his maternal grandfather, Ferdinand II of Aragon, and his maternal grandmother, Isabella I of Castile. He inherited a vast swath of territories, extending into Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and parts of Central and South America.

In 1519, Charles V was elected as the Holy Roman Emperor, succeeding his grandfather Maximilian I. This title bestowed upon him considerable influence and authority over a vast portion of Europe. As the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles faced numerous challenges, including conflicts with France, the Ottoman Empire, and the rising tide of Protestantism. 

A portrait of young Charles V, in which his clean-shaven Habsburg jaw is on display

Initially intending to marry his cousin Mary Tudor, Charles later repudiated his alliance with England and instead married another first cousin, Isabella of Portugal. Unusually for the time, Charles displayed a deep devotion to Isabella, and was devastated by her death in 1539. 

In 1556, Charles V abdicated from his various titles and divided his imperial territories between his brother, Ferdinand I, and son, Philip II. He retired to the Monastery of Yuste in Spain, where he lived until his death on September 21, 1558. 

Identifiable by his protruding Habsburg jaw – and what one Italian diplomat described as ‘a long, cadaverous face’ – the genetic consequences of dynastic inbreeding would only increase with Charles’s descendants, culminating in the eventual extinction of the Spanish Habsburg branch. 

Margaret of Parma

Margaret of Parma was a member of the Habsburg family who served as the Governor of the Netherlands during the mid-16th century. She was born on July 5, 1522, in Oudenaarde, in present-day Belgium, and was the illegitimate daughter of twenty-two-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his mistress, Johanna Maria van der Gheynst. Through her two marriages, Margaret was a Duchess of Florence and a Duchess of Parma and Piacenza. 

Margaret, Duchess of Parma was the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V

Margaret was raised in Mechelen under the careful guardianship of her aunts, Archduchess Margaret of Austria and Mary of Austria, and received an excellent education. Her early life followed a strict routine devised by her father, who intended to utilize Margaret to further his ambitions.

At the age of five, Margaret was betrothed to Alessandro de’ Medici, the nephew of Pope Clement VII. This union served Charles V’s goal of expanding his influence into Italy. Recognised as her father’s legitimate daughter, she assumed the name Margaret of Austria and traveled extensively across Italy, where she developed a lifelong preference for the Italian language and immersed herself in local culture.

A year after their marriage, on January 6, 1537, Margaret’s husband, the Duke of Florence, was assassinated. A funeral was held for him in Valladolid, Spain. In 1538, at the age of fifteen, Margaret entered into a second marriage. Although her union with Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, resulted in the birth of twin sons, Charles and Alexander Farnese, it was predominantly an unhappy relationship.

In 1555, Margaret left Italy and relocated to the Netherlands, leaving her surviving son Alessandro in the care of her half-brother, Philip of Spain. In 1559, Philip II appointed Margaret as the Governor of the Netherlands, continuing the long-standing tradition of Habsburg rulers appointing their sisters as Regents.

Margaret died in Ortona in 1586 and was laid to rest in the church of S. Sisto in Piacenza, having led one of the most colourful and dramatic lives of the era.

Philip II 

Philip II of Spain, born on May 21, 1527, in Valladolid, Spain, was King of Spain from 1556 to 1598 and King of Portugal – under the regnal name Philip I – from 1580 to 1598. He was the son of Emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal and is considered one of the most influential rulers of his time.

Following the gradual abdication of his father Charles V, Philip ascended as King of Spain, inheriting a wide-ranging empire that included crowns across Europe and a roster of colonies in the Americas. During his reign, the Spanish empire flourished, reaching unprecedented heights of power, territorial expansion, and global influence. 

Philip II of Spain inherited a vast imperial empire from his father Charles V

Though a prosperous reign overall, a significant portion of the riches amassed during Philip II’s rule stemmed from the harsh subjugation of indigenous communities and relentless looting in the New World. His forty-year reign witnessed costly wars and bitter defeats that marked the initial phase of Spain’s decline as an indomitable empire. His reign was characterized by his staunch Catholicism and the pursuit of centralization and control. 

Philip II is perhaps best remembered for being the husband of Mary I of England, and for his role in the Spanish Armada campaign against Elizabeth I in 1588. The failed invasion marked a turning point in European history and the decline of Spanish naval dominance. Despite the crushing defeat, Philip’s unwavering faith in royal authority and his deep sense of personal responsibility enabled him to establish himself as one of the most diligent and industrious monarchs in history.

His later years were marked by financial difficulties, military setbacks, and the burdens of governing a vast empire. Nevertheless, his reign left a lasting impact on European history and the Spanish Empire’s global influence. Philip II died of cancer at El Escorial in 1598.

Philip IV

Philip IV, born on April 8, 1605, in Valladolid, Spain, was the son of Philip III of Spain and Margaret of Austria. He ascended to the throne in 1621 at the age of 15 and reigned as the King of Spain until his death in 1665.

Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velázquez

Under Philip’s rule, the Spanish empire experienced a devastating economic crisis, recession, repeated epidemics, crop failures, and high taxation, all strongly linked to continual warfare. During his reign Spanish foreign power declined; he failed to regain control of the north Netherlands and lost numerous wars against France.

While Spain’s diminishing role on the world stage has become emblematic of Philip’s reign, his rule also witnessed a Golden Age of the fine arts, literature, and theater. Philip proved to be a remarkable patron of the arts; his support for artistic and cultural achievement contributed to a vibrant artistic landscape during his reign.

Philip IV was was also known for his patronage of renowned painters, including Diego Velázquez, who produced many famous works during the period. The king himself was depicted in several notable portraits by Velázquez.

Philip IV died on September 17, 1665. His son, Charles II, succeeded him, and the decline of the Spanish Empire continued into his reign. Philip IV left a complex legacy, with his rule symbolizing both cultural enterprising and the challenges faced by a diminishing empire.

Mariana of Austria

Mariana or Maria Anna of Austria, born on 24 December 1634, was the Queen of Spain by her marriage to her uncle Philip IV of Spain. She was the daughter of Maria Anna of Spain and Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor. Aged 11, Maria Anna was betrothed to her first cousin, Balthasar Charles, the only son of King Philip IV. However, the engagement came to an abrupt end only three months later when the Spanish heir to the throne died in October of 1646.

Mariana of Austria

With the King of Spain in need of an heir and Maria Anna in search of a suitable husband, their union served as a practical solution to Balthasar’s untimely death. On October 7, 1649, the 44-year-old Philip of Spain married his 14-year-old niece in Navalcarnero. Following the marriage, she was referred to by her Spanish name, Mariana. 

As queen consort, Mariana directed her patronage towards matters of religion and education. She went on to give birth to five children, though only the youngest, Charles, survived to adulthood. Centuries of inbreeding within the Habsburg dynasty resulted in a number of both cognitive and physical deformities that greatly debilitated Charles’s ability to rule effectively. At Philip IV’s death in 1665, Mariana was appointed regent over her three-year-old son. 

Due to the King’s poor health, Mariana wielded significant power during her regency and maintained her influence until her death in 1696. Her regency, however, would be overshadowed by Spain’s declining status as a leading global power, and Mariana’s eventual ceding of power to her rival John of Austria the Younger. The inability of her son, Charles, to produce an heir resulted in constant jockeying from other European powers and ultimately sparked the War of the Spanish Succession. 

The Mariana Islands, a group of 14 islands located in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, were named after her.

Charles II 

Charles II of Spain, also known as ‘the Bewitched,’ was the last Spanish ruler from the House of Habsburg. He was born on November 6, 1661, in Madrid, Spain, and reigned from 1665 until his death in 1700. Charles suffered from numerous physical and mental disabilities attributed to the extensive inbreeding within the Spanish royal family. 

Charles II of Spain’s death marked the extinction of the Spanish Habsburgs

Charles’s parents were the 26-year-old Mariana of Austria and her uncle, 56-year-old Philip IV of Spain. While it was customary for European royalty to engage in cousin marriages to keep their bloodlines pure, Philip and Mariana’s union was one of only two marriages among the Spanish Habsburgs between uncle and niece. 

Charles II’s reign was marked by significant physical and mental health issues, which severely impacted his ability to govern. He suffered from a range of ailments, including epilepsy, cognitive disabilities, and infertility. His physical and mental disabilities were likely a result of generations of intermarriage within the Habsburg family.

The King’s inability to produce an heir despite his two marriages resulted in ongoing political maneuverings throughout Europe. His death on 1 November 1700 marked the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession and the extinction of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. 

Empress Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa, born on May 13, 1717, in Vienna, Austria, was ruler of the Austrian Habsburg territories from 1740 until her death in 1780, and was the only woman to hold the position suo jure (in her own right). She was the sovereign of an impressive catalogue of dominions, including Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Milan, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parma. 

Maria Theresa was the daughter of Emperor Charles VI and his wife, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Throughout her childhood, her parents clung to the hope of having a son, and as such Maria was not raised with the expectation of becoming a ruler herself. Her education focused on skills befitting a queen consort, including music, dancing, and languages. However, when it became clear that no male heir would follow, the search for a suitable husband for Maria, who was expected to rule in her own right, began in earnest. 

The Pragmatic Sanction aimed to secure Empress Maria Theresa’s right to inherit her father’s throne

In 1736, she married Franz Stephan of Lorraine (Francis I), who had been carefully groomed as her father’s potential successor. 

Upon her father’s death in 1740, Maria Theresa assumed control of the government and introduced a series of lasting reforms that strengthened the empire’s economy, military, and enhanced its education system, decreeing that all children, irrespective of gender, should attend school. Maria Theresa also made significant investments in public health initiatives, directing efforts to the study of infant mortality, limiting wasteful and unhygienic burial customs, and promoting the vaccination of children. 

As a devout Catholic, Maria Theresa rejected the idea of religious tolerance and believed that unity was necessary for a peaceful kingdom. She and her husband had a total of sixteen children, contributing to Maria’s image of idealized maternal devotion. After Francis’s death in 1776, the Empress spent the remainder of her life cloaked in black and deeply mourning her husband’s passing. Their eldest son, Joseph, succeeded his mother as Holy Roman Emperor. 

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. She was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria, and was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1770, at the age of 14, she married Louis-Auguste, who later became King Louis XVI of France.

Marie Antoinette’s life at the French court was marked by extravagance, lavish spending, and a reputation for frivolity. Regarded as a fashion icon amongst the European courts, she was known for her flamboyant fashion choices and opulent lifestyle, which earned her criticism and fueled public resentment towards the monarchy. Her marriage to Louis XVI was initially strained, and they faced difficulties in consummating the marriage, which further added to public speculation and criticism. They would go on to have four children – all born before the French Revolution _ though only one survived into adulthood. 

Marie Antoinette was the daughter of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa

During the French Revolution and the turbulent twilight years of the Ancien Régime, Marie Antoinette became a symbol of the decadence and excesses of the monarchy. Marie would suffer much of the blame for the perceived moral decay of the French royal family.

Following the abolition of the monarchy in 1792, Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned. In 1793, she was convicted of treason by Revolutionary Tribunal and executed by guillotine at the Place de la Révolution in Paris.

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