Rudolph I (1 May 1218 – 15 July 1291) was the first King of the Romans (King of the Germans) from the House of Habsburg. The first of the Count-Kings of the Germans, he reigned from 1273 until his death.
Rudolph was born on May 1, 1218 at Limburgh Castle near Sasbach am Kaiserstuhl in the Breisgau region of present-day southwestern Germany. He was the son of Count Albrecht IV of Habsburg and of Hedwig, daughter of Count Ulrich of Kyburg. Around 1232, he was given as a squire to his uncle, Rudolph I, Count of Laufenburg, to train in knightly pursuits.
Count of Habsburg
At his father’s death in 1239, Rudolph inherited from him large estates around the ancestral seat of Habsburg Castle in the Aargau region of present-day Switzerland as well as in Alsace.
In 1245 Rudolph married Gertrude, daughter of Count Burkhard III of Hohenberg. He received as her dowry the castles of Oettingen, the valley of Weile, and other places in Alsace, and he became an important vassal in Swabia, the former Alemannic German stem duchy.
That same year, Emperor Friedrich II was excommunicated by Pope Innocent IV at the Council of Lyon. Rudolph sided against the Emperor, while the forest communities sided with Friedrich II. This gave them a pretext to attack and damage Neuhabsburg. Rudolph successfully defended it and drove them off. As a result, Rudolph, by siding with the Pope Innocent IV, gained more power and influence.
Rudolph paid frequent visits to the court of his godfather, the Hohenstaufen Emperor Friedrich II, and his loyalty to Friedrich and his son, King Conrad IV of the Germans, was richly rewarded by grants of land. In 1254, he engaged with other nobles of the Staufen party against Bertold II, Bishop of Basle.
When night fell, he penetrated the suburbs of Basle and burnt down the local nunnery, an act for which Pope Innocent IV excommunicated him and all parties involved. As a penance, he took up the cross and joined Ottokar II, King of Bohemia in the Prussian Crusade of 1254. Whilst there, he oversaw the founding of the city of Königsberg, which was named in memory of King Ottokar II.
Rise to Power
The disorder in Germany during the interregnum after the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty afforded an opportunity for Count Rudolph to increase his possessions.
His wife was a Hohenberg heiress; and on the death of his childless maternal uncle Count Hartmann IV of Kyburg in 1264, Rudolph seized Hartmann’s valuable estates. Successful feuds with the Bishops of Strasbourg and Basel further augmented his wealth and reputation, including rights over various tracts of land that he purchased from abbots and others.
These various sources of wealth and influence rendered Rudolph the most powerful prince and noble in southwestern Germany (where the tribal Duchy of Swabia had disintegrated, enabling its vassals to become completely independent).
In the autumn of 1273, the prince-electors met to choose a king after Richard of Cornwall had died in England in April 1272. Rudolph’s election in Frankfurt on October 1, 1273, when he was 55 years old, was largely due to the efforts of his brother-in-law, the Hohenzollern burgrave Frederick III of Nuremberg. The support of Duke Albrecht II of Saxony and Elector Palatine Ludwig II had been purchased by betrothing them to two of Rudolph’s daughters.
As a result, within the electoral college, King Ottokar II of Bohemia (1230–1278), himself a candidate for the throne and related to the late Hohenstaufen king Philipp of Swabia (being the son of the eldest surviving daughter), was almost alone in opposing Rudolph
Other candidates were Prince Siegfried I of Anhalt and Margrave Friedrich I of Meissen (1257–1323), a young grandson of the excommunicated Emperor Friedrich II, who did not yet even have a principality of his own as his father was still alive. By the admission of Duke Heinrich XIII of Lower Bavaria instead of the King of Bohemia as the seventh Elector, Rudolph gained all seven votes.
King of the Germans
Rudolph was crowned King of the Germans in Aachen Cathedral on October 24, 1273. To win the approbation of the Pope, Rudolf renounced all imperial rights in Rome, the papal territory, and Sicily, and promised to lead a new crusade.
Great Seal of Rudolph I, King of the Romans, Count of Habsburg
Pope Gregory X, despite the protests of Ottokar II of Bohemia, not only recognised Rudolph himself, but persuaded King Alfonso X of Castile (another grandson of Philipp of Swabia), who had been chosen German (anti-King) in 1257 as the successor to Count Willem II of Holland, to do the same. Thus, Rudolph surpassed the two heirs of the Hohenstaufen dynasty whom he had earlier served so loyally.
Rudolph I, was among several rulers were crowned King of the Romans (King of Germans) but not emperor, although they styled themselves thus, among whom were: Conrad I and Heinrich I the Fowler in the 10th century, and Conrad IV, Adolph and Albrecht I during the interregnum of the late 13th century.
Rudolph’s election marked the end of the Great Interregnum which had begun after the death of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Friedrich II in 1250. Originally a Swabian count, he was the first Habsburg to acquire the duchies of Austria and Styria in opposition to his mighty rival, the Přemyslid king Ottokar II of Bohemia, whom he defeated in the 1278 Battle on the Marchfeld.
In 1281, Rudolph’s first wife died. On February 5, 1284, he married Isabella of Burgundy, daughter of Duke Hugh IV of Burgundy, the Empire’s western neighbor in the Kingdom of France.
In 1291, he attempted to secure the election of his son Albrecht as German king. The electors refused, however, claiming inability to support two kings, but in reality, perhaps, wary of the increasing power of the House of Habsburg. Upon Rudolph death they elected Count Adolf of Nassau.
Rudolph died in Speyer on July 15, 1291 and was buried in Speyer Cathedral. Only one of his sons survived him: Albrecht I. Most of his daughters outlived him, apart from Catherine who had died in 1282 during childbirth and Hedwig who had died in 1285/6.
Rudolph’s reign is most memorable for his establishment of the House of Habsburg as a powerful dynasty in the southeastern part of the realm. In the other territories, the centuries-long decline of Imperial authority since the days of the Investiture Controversy continued, and the princes were largely left to their own devices.
The Austrian territories remained under Habsburg rule for more than 600 years, forming the core of the Habsburg monarchy and the present-day country of Austria. Rudolph played a vital role in raising the comital House of Habsburg to the rank of Imperial princes.