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The Privilegium Maius was a medieval document forged in 1358 or 1359 at the behest of Duke Rudolph IV of Austria (1358–65) of the House of Habsburg. It was essentially a modified version of the Privilegium Minus issued by Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa in 1156, which had elevated the former March of Austria into a duchy. In a similar way, the Privilegium maius elevated the duchy of Austria into an Archduchy of Austria.

The privileges described in the document had great influence on the Austrian political landscape, and created a unique connection between the House of Habsburg and Austria.

Rudolph IV, Duke of Austria


The House of Habsburg had gained rulership of the Duchy of Austria in 1282. Rudolph IV (1339–1365) attempted to restore the Habsburg influence on the European political scene by trying to build relations with Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (of Luxembourg) and increasing the respect of the Austrian rulers.

However, Rudolph IV did not belong to the seven Imperial Prince-Electors, who—as dictated by the Golden Bull of 1356—had the power to choose the Emperor. In the same way Charles IV had made Prague the center of his rule, Rudolph IV did the same for Vienna, giving it special privileges, launching construction projects and founding the University of Vienna.

All this aimed at increasing the legitimacy and influence of the House and its Austrian lands. For this purpose, in the winter of 1358/1359, Rudolph IV ordered the creation of a forged document called Privilegium maius (“the greater privilege”).


The Privilegium maius consists of five forged deeds, some of which purported to have been issued by Julius Caesar and Nero to the historic Roman province of Noricum, which was roughly coterminous with the modern Austrian borders. Though purposefully modeled on the Privilegium minus, the original of which “got lost” at the same time, the bundle was already identified as a fake by contemporaries such as the Italian scholar Petrarch.

In the Privilegium Maius, Rudolph IV declared Austria an “archduchy”, endowed with rights similar to those of the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire such as:

Inseparability of the territory

Automatic inheritance of the first-born (primogeniture), later extended to female heirs in the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 in favour of Archduchess Maria Theresa.

Independent jurisdiction and legislature, without any possibility to appeal to the Emperor (privilegium de non evocando)

Permission to display certain symbols of rule
Rudolf also created the title Pfalzerzherzog (“Archduke Palatine”), similar to the Elector Palatine of the Rhine, the holder of an electoral vote.

The first Habsburg ruler who actually used the title of an archduke was Ernst of Iron, ruler of Inner Austria from 1406 to 1424. From the 15th century onward, all princes of the Habsburg dynasty were called Erzherzöge (Archduke).


Emperor Charles IV refused to confirm the Privilegium maius, along with the refusal to recognize the title, as did his immediate successors. However, Emperor Charles IV did accepted some claims. The discoverer of the forgery was his advisor, the poet and scholar Petrarch.

Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III, Duke of Austria

However, Emperor Friedrich III, a scion of the House of Habsburg, having become Holy Roman Emperor, was able to confirm the document and made it part of imperial law, thus making fiction become fact.

From then on, the status as claimed by the document became widely accepted. Emperor Friedrich III also extended the Privilegium Maius by granting the power of ennoblement for his family as hereditary rulers of Austria (this power was normally reserved for the emperor). Thus, the act of confirmation by Emperor Friedrich III was what elevated the House of Habsburg to a special rank within the Empire.

The Privilegium Maius had great influence on the Austrian political landscape. The Habsburg Archduke arrogated an almost king-like position, and demonstrated this to outsiders through the usage of special insignia.

The Habsburgs gained a new foundation for their rule in these lands; in a way, the House of Habsburg and Austria became a single unit. The family subsequently published special editions of the documents, and forbade all discussion of their authenticity.

With the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the Privilegium maius finally lost its meaning. In 1852, it was proven a forgery by historian Wilhelm Wattenbach.

Although Emperor Friedrich III recognized Privilegium Maius, he himself used just “Duke of Austria”, never Archduke, until his death in 1493. The title was first granted to Friedrich III’s younger brother, Albrecht VI of Austria (died 1463), who used it at least from 1458.

In 1477, Emperor Friedrich III granted the title Archduke to his first cousin Sigismund of Austria, ruler of Further Austria. Emperor Friedrich III’s son and heir, the future Emperor Maximilian I, apparently only started to use the title after the death of his wife Mary of Burgundy in 1482, as Archduke never appears in documents issued jointly by Maximilian and Mary as rulers in the Low Countries (where Maximilian is still titled “Duke of Austria”). The title appears first in documents issued under the joint rule of Maximilian and Philipp (his under-age son) in the Low Countries.

Archduchess Anna of Austria, Queen of Spain

Archduke was initially borne by those dynasts who ruled a Habsburg territory, i.e., only by males and their consorts, appanages being commonly distributed to cadets. These “junior” archdukes did not thereby become independent hereditary rulers, since all territories remained vested in the Austrian crown.

Occasionally a territory might be combined with a separate gubernatorial mandate ruled by an Archducal cadet. From the 16th century onward, Archduke and its female form, Archduchess, came to be used by all the members of the House of Habsburg (e.g., Queen Marie Antoinette of France was born Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria.