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As the Treaty of Senlis had resolved French differences with the Holy Roman Empire, King Louis XII of France had secured borders in the north and turned his attention to Italy, where he made claims for the Duchy of Milan. In 1499/1500 he conquered it and drove the Sforza regent Lodovico il Moro into exile.

After his wife’s Duchess Mary of Burgundy’s death (1482) Maximilian was forced to allow the States General (representative assembly) of the Netherlands to act as regent for his infant son Archduke Philipp but, having defeated the States General in war, he reacquired control of the regency in 1485. Through marriage of his son Philipp the Handsome to eventual queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, Maximilian helped to establish the Habsburg dynasty in Spain, which allowed his grandson Charles to hold the thrones of both Castile and Aragon.


Maximilian’s second marriage was to Anne of Brittany (1477–1514) — they were married by proxy in Rennes on December 18, 1490, but the contract was dissolved by Pope Innocent VIII in early 1492, by which time Anne had already been forced by the French King, Charles VIII (the fiancé of Maximilian’s daughter Margaret of Austria) to repudiate the contract and marry him instead.

This breech of contract brought France into conflict with Maximilian. On March 16, 1494 Maximilian married Bianca Maria Sforza, a daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, by his second wife, Bona of Savoy. However, despite supporting the Duke of Milan Maximilian was unable to hinder the French from taking over Milan. The subsequent prolonged Italian Wars resulted in Maximilian joining the Holy League to counter the French. In 1513, with Henry VIII of England, Maximilian won an important victory at the battle of the Spurs against the French, stopping their advance in northern France. His campaigns in Italy were not as successful, and his progress there was quickly checked.

The situation in Italy was not the only problem Maximilian had at the time. The Swiss won a decisive victory against the Empire in the Battle of Dornach on July 22, 1499. Maximilian had no choice but to agree to a peace treaty signed on September 22, 1499 in Basel that granted the Swiss Confederacy independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan

In 1496, Maximilian issued a decree which expelled all Jews from Styria and Wiener Neustadt. Similarly, in 1509 he passed the “Imperial Confiscation Mandate” which ordered the destruction of all Jewish literature apart from the Bible.

Within the Holy Roman Empire, Maximilian faced pressure from local rulers who believed that the King’s continued wars with the French to increase the power of his own house were not in their best interests. There was also a consensus that deep reforms were needed to preserve the unity of the Empire. The reforms, which had been delayed for a long time, were launched in the 1495 Reichstag at Worms. A new organ was introduced, the Reichskammergericht, that was to be largely independent from the Emperor. The new organ proved itself politically weak and its power returned to Maximilian in 1502.

Due to the difficult external and internal situation he faced, Maximilian also felt it necessary to introduce reforms in the historic territories of the House of Habsburg in order to finance his army. Using Burgundian institutions as a model, he attempted to create a unified state. This was not very successful, but one of the lasting results was the creation of three different subdivisions of the Austrian lands: Lower Austria, Upper Austria, and Vorderösterreich.

Years later, in order to reduce the growing pressures on the Empire brought about by treaties between the rulers of France, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and Russia, as well as to secure Bohemia and Hungary for the Habsburgs, Maximilian met with the Jagiellonian kings Ladislaus II of Hungary and Bohemia and Sigismund I of Poland at the First Congress of Vienna in 1515. There they arranged for Maximilian’s granddaughter Mary to marry Louis, the son of Ladislaus, and for Anne (the sister of Louis) to marry Maximilian’s grandson Ferdinand (both grandchildren being the children of Philip the Handsome, Maximilian’s son, and Joanna of Castile). The marriages arranged there brought Habsburg kingship over Hungary and Bohemia in 1526. Both Anne and Louis were adopted by Maximilian following the death of Ladislaus.

Thus Maximilian through his own marriages and those of his descendants (attempted unsuccessfully and successfully alike) sought, as was current practice for dynastic states at the time, to extend his sphere of influence. The marriages he arranged for both of his children more successfully fulfilled the specific goal of thwarting French interests, and after the turn of the sixteenth century, his matchmaking focused on his grandchildren, for whom he looked away from France towards the east. These political marriages were summed up in the following Latin elegiac couplet: Bella gerant aliī, tū fēlix Austria nūbe/ Nam quae Mars aliīs, dat tibi regna Venus. Translated: “Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry; for those kingdoms which Mars gives to others, Venus gives to thee.”

Maximilian’s policies in Italy had been unsuccessful, and after 1517 Venice reconquered the last pieces of their territory. Maximilian began to focus entirely on the question of his succession. His goal was to secure the throne for a member of his house and prevent Francis I of France from gaining the throne.

In 1501, Maximilian fell from his horse and badly injured his leg, causing him pain for the rest of his life. Some historians have suggested that Maximilian was “morbidly” depressed: from 1514, he travelled everywhere with his coffin.

Maximilian died in Wels, Upper Austria, on January 12, 1519 at the age of 59. The death of Maximilian seemed to put the succession at risk. However, The Fugger family provided Maximilian a credit of one million gulden, which was used to bribe the prince-electors. However, the bribery claims have been challenged. At first, this policy seemed successful, and Maximilian managed to secure the votes from Mainz, Cologne, Brandenburg and Bohemia for his grandson Charles.

Maximilian’s son, Philipp the Handsome (King Felipe I of Castile by right of his wife) had died in 1506. The resulting “election campaign” was unprecedented due to the massive use of bribery. Within a few months the election of his grandson as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was secured. Charles had also succeeded his maternal grandfather, King Fernando II-V of Aragon and Castile in 1516 and became King Carlos I of a united Spain. With his election as Emperor, Charles V ruled an empire as vast and as powerful as that of Charlemagne ‘s centuries earlier.


Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor
Charles I as King of Spain
Charles I as Archduke of Austria
Charles II as Duke of Burgundy