Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The marriage of Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy led to the creation of the Habsburg Dynasty and restructured European power for nearly 450 years. Ultimately, their descendants developed the first global empire, which remained a significant European power until the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

On the evening of August 16, 1477, Archduke Maximilian entered Ghent, the city in Flanders that housed the ducal palace. Dressed in silver gilt armor, crowned with jewels, decorated with the Burgundy cross, and blond and handsome in appearance, he was an arresting figure, a character out of a medieval romance. His mission was no less chivalric than his appearance: to rescue and marry his betrothed, Mary, the heiress of Burgundy, who had been held captive by townspeople for months in her castle. Habsburg Dynasty Maximilian I Mary of Burgundy Philip the Fair Frederick III (1415-1493) Charles V (1500-1558) Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) Mary of Burgundy Louis XI (king of France) Philip the Fair Margaret of York Joan the Mad Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy Frederick III (Holy Roman Emperor)

The marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximilian I marked the beginning of the Habsburg Dynasty in Europe, the first global empire and one that remained powerful until the twentieth century.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

That evening, they were briefly introduced, and the next day, August 17, 1477, they married, effectively establishing the Habsburg Dynasty. Even though some believe the two were devoted to each other, others consider the marriage politically expedient.

Maximilian and Mary remained in the Low Countries after marrying, and Maximilian led the defense of the duchy against the attacks of Louis XI, king of France. In June of 1478, Mary gave birth to Philip (later known as Philip the Fair). In 1480, their only daughter, Margaret, was born.

Meanwhile, Louis’s attacks grew more serious and the Burgundians were losing more people and territory to him. To settle the conflict, Maximilian and Mary first ceded to Louis much of the duchy of Burgundy Burgundy and then betrothed their infant daughter Margaret to Louis’s heir. The following year, in 1481, Mary gave birth to a second son, who lived only a few days. In March, 1482, while out hunting, Mary fell from her horse and was fatally injured. She died March 27, 1482.

Political realities were held at bay by the unexpectedly successful match between Mary and Maximilian, but politics soon reasserted itself. The people of Flanders made it clear to Maximilian that, though the widower of their duchess, his stay was not welcome. They also made clear their interest in their future leader, the toddler Philip the Fair, so the heir of Burgundy remained in Ghent under the care of Margaret of York.

Their daughter Margaret’s betrothal to the French dauphin was eventually dissolved for political reasons, so she was sent from the French court, where she had been raised as part of the betrothal agreement, to the Netherlands Netherlands;Habsburg control of . Philip became the ruler of the Netherlands in his own right when he was sixteen years old, close to the time that a treaty with the French restored most of his lands, retaining the portions inside today’s French-Belgian border only.

It could be said that Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy became the founders of the Habsburg Dynasty because their son Philip had married Joan (known as Joan the Mad), third in line for the Spanish throne. Margaret, meanwhile, had married Juan, the Spanish crown prince, but Juan and his elder sister passed away within a few years, however, leaving no children and leaving Joan, Philip’s wife, heir to the Spanish crown. Spain;Habsburg control of Spain;control of Netherlands[Netherlands] Netherlands;Spanish control of

Philip and Joan had six children. Their eldest son became Charles I of Spain and was elected Holy Roman Emperor, becoming Charles V. His election, following on the heels of his inheritance of all his family territories and thrones, formally created the Habsburg Empire of Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, and their associated colonies, and fulfilled the dream of Mary’s father.

This critical alliance between Maximilian and Mary almost did not occur, however. It was first considered in 1473, when Mary’s father, Charles the Bold, was one of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles in Europe. His duchy of Burgundy was anchored in France and extended to the edges of the Netherlands. As her father’s only child, Mary was heir to one of the largest fortunes and landholdings in Europe, rivaling the holdings of many of the royal families.

Although Emperor Frederick was impoverished compared with Charles, they spent much time negotiating a marriage contract between their children. The talks continued because Frederick possessed an imperial title, which Charles desperately wanted for himself, or at least for his heirs. The talks between the two progressed to the point where, in 1473, Frederick and Maximilian traveled to Triers, preparing to complete a betrothal. It is unclear whether the betrothal agreements were finalized at that time. Charles’s demands were high and failed to acknowledge the constraints on the title of Holy Roman Emperor. It was an electoral, not hereditary, title at the time, so Frederick could make no guarantees about whether their heirs might possess it, no matter how hard Charles pressed.

Soon after the initial betrothal talks, Charles attempted to achieve an imperial title on his own by conquering lands belonging to Louis XI and thereby restoring the medieval boundaries of Burgundy. This policy was futile, and it led Charles back to discussions with Frederick in 1476. It is unclear if at this time there was a renewal of the 1473 betrothal or whether a first betrothal was established. However, clear marriage terms were accepted by both sides. Then, Charles the Bold died in battle during his return to Ghent, just before he could agree to the wedding date.

Unexpectedly freed of Charles and his intimidations, the people of Ghent rose up against Mary. They barricaded her in the palace and exiled her stepmother, Margaret of York. They planned to ignore the betrothal contract with the Habsburgs and marry Mary to someone else, such as the heir to the French throne, who would be more helpful to them politically. Mary held firm to the betrothal her father had made, which prompted a proxy wedding between Mary and Maximilian. In this ceremony, a Habsburg representative symbolically married Mary on behalf of Maximilian, speaking the vows and lying down, fully dressed, on a bed with her. However, few took the proxy ceremony seriously; as late as June, 1477, Louis XI was still promising favors to the townspeople if they forced Mary to marry his son.

Maximilian finally arrived in August, after leaving Vienna in May. The journey was delayed not only by necessary ceremonial obligations but also by his running out of money. Margaret of York rescued him by sending him cash to make the final stage of the journey. The Habsburg’s poverty led to speculation that Maximilian was marrying simply for the sake of money, but the image of a chivalric Maximilian riding into Ghent gave rise also to romantic speculation about their relationship and coincided with popular talk about Maximilian as the last true knight.


Mary and Maximilian’s marriage could have been nothing more than romantic legend, a pretty story without impact on the map of European history. Their titles were empty, their territories were shrinking, and their treasures and lands were encumbered by debt.

Chivalric legend aside, Mary and Maximilian’s marriage established the Habsburgs in the Low Countries, for the first time expanding their territories outside Austria. Their eldest grandson, the son of Philip and Joan, inherited the Spanish and Netherlands crowns and the Habsburg lands in Austria. The Habsburg Dynasty had been established in full sight but ironically without notice.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bérenger, Jean. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1273-1700. Translated by C. A. Simpson. Vol. 1. New York: Longmans, 1994. Analyzes not only the Habsburgs but also other figures and sociopolitical movements to show how Habsburgs rose to prominence, beginning with the earliest Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brook-Shepherd, Gordon. The Austrians: A Thousand Year Odyssey. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996. Focuses on the development of an Austrian people from warring medieval tribes, not simply the rise of their rulers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fichtner, Paula Sutter. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Although its focus begins at the end of Maximilian I’s life, its comprehensive background section begins with the earliest Habsburg who was a Holy Roman Emperor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGuigan, Dorothy Guis. The Habsburgs. New York: Doubleday, 1966. Colorful, highly readable narrative of the rise of the Habsburgs.

Oct. 19, 1469: Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella

1482-1492: Maximilian I Takes Control of the Low Countries

Aug. 19, 1493-Jan. 12, 1519: Reign of Maximilian I

Nov. 26, 1504: Joan the Mad Becomes Queen of Castile

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

July 26, 1581: The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

May 2, 1598: Treaty of Vervins

Categories: History