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Maximilian I (April 17, 1573 – September 27, 1651), occasionally called “the Great”, a member of the House of Wittelsbach, ruled as Duke of Bavaria from 1597. His reign was marked by the Thirty Years’ War during which he obtained the title of a Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire at the 1623 Diet of Regensburg.

Maximilian I, Duke and Prince Elector of Bavaria, Prince Elector Palatine of the Rhine.

Maximilian was a capable monarch who, by overcoming the feudal rights of the local estates (Landstände), laid the foundations for absolutist rule in Bavaria. A devout Catholic, he was one of the leading proponents of the Counter-Reformation and founder of the Catholic League of Imperial Princes. In the Thirty Years’ War, he was able to conquer the Upper Palatinate region, as well as the Electoral Palatinate affiliated with the electoral dignity of his Wittelsbach cousin, the “Winter King” Friedrich V. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia affirmed his possession of Upper Palatinate and the hereditary electoral title of Elector Palatine of the Rhine, though it returned Electoral Palatinate to Friedrich’s heir and created an eighth electoral dignity for them.

Maximilian I was born in Munich, the eldest son of Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria and Renata of Lorraine to survive infancy. He was educated by the Jesuits, and upon his father’s abdication, became Duke of Bavaria and began to take part in the government in 1591. In 1595 he married his cousin, Elisabeth Renata (also known as Elizabeth of Lorraine), daughter of Charles III, Duke of Lorraine in his marriage to Claude of Valois, the second daughter of King Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici.

Elisabeth Renata of Lorraine

His first marriage to Elisabeth Renata was childless. A few months after the death of Elisabeth Renata, Maximilian married, on July 15, 1635 in Vienna, his 25-year-old niece Maria Anna of Austria (1610-1665), the daughter of Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor and Maximillian’s sister, Maria Anna of Bavaria (1574-1616).

The main motivation for this swift remarriage was not so much political grounds as the hope of producing a prince to inherit his titles. In contrast to the Elector’s first wife, Maria Anna was very interested in politics and well instructed about developments. She was not bound to the Habsburgs, but rather completely advocated the Bavarian standpoint.

Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria

Maximilian refrained from any interference in German politics until 1607, when he was entrusted with the duty of executing the imperial ban against the free city of Donauwörth, a Protestant stronghold. In December 1607 his troops occupied the city, and vigorous steps were taken to restore the supremacy of Catholicism. Some Protestant princes, alarmed at this action, formed the Protestant Union to defend their interests, which was answered in 1609 by the establishment of the Catholic League, in the formation of which Maximilian took an important part.

Under his leadership an army was set on foot, but his policy was strictly defensive and he refused to allow the League to become a tool in the hands of the House of Habsburg. Dissensions among his colleagues led the duke to resign his office in 1616, but the approach of trouble brought about his return to the League about two years later.

Having refused to become a candidate for the imperial throne in 1619, Maximilian was faced with the complications arising from the outbreak of war in Bohemia. After some delay he made a treaty with Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor in October 1619, and in return for large concessions placed the forces of the League at the emperor’s service.

The Arms of Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria, Arch-Steward and Prince-Elector

In February 1623 Maximilian was formally invested with the electoral dignity (Elector of Bavaria) and the attendant office of imperial steward, which had been enjoyed since 1356 by the Counts Palatine of the Rhine. After receiving the Upper Palatinate (becoming Elector Palatine of the Rhine) and restoring Upper Austria to Ferdinand, Maximilian became leader of the party which sought to bring about Albrecht von Wallenstein’s dismissal from the imperial service.

Early in 1632 Gustaf II Adolph of Sweden marched into the duchy and occupied Munich, and Maximilian could only obtain the assistance of the Imperial troops by placing himself under the orders of Wallenstein, now restored to the command of the emperor’s forces. The ravages of the Swedes and their French allies induced the elector to enter into negotiations for peace with the Swedes and Cardinal Cardinal Richelieu of France. He also wooed the Protestants by proposing modifications to the Edict of Restitution of 1629, but these efforts were abortive.

In March 1647 Maximilian concluded the Truce of Ulm (1647) with France and Sweden, but the entreaties of Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor led him to disregard his undertaking. Bavaria was again ravaged, and the elector’s forces were defeated in May 1648 at the Battle of Zusmarshausen. The Peace of Westphalia soon put an end to the struggle. By this treaty it was agreed that Maximilian should retain the electoral dignity, which was made hereditary in his family, Upper Palatinate. Maximilian had to give up the Lower Palatine, (Elector Palatine) which was restored to Charles Ludwig, Friedrich V’s son and heir.

The Duke died at Ingolstadt on September 27 1651 aged 78 . He is buried in St. Michael’s Church, Munich. In 1839 a statue was erected to his memory at Munich by King Ludwig I of Bavaria.