Reign of Maximilian I Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the reign of Maximilian I, the House of Habsburg greatly increased its influence and power by vigorously pursuing a policy of dynastic marriages that led to the establishment of Habsburg power in Burgundy, Bohemia, Hungary, and the possessions of the Spanish crown.

Summary of Event

After the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1493, his son and successor Archduke Maximilian continued to pursue policies aimed at strengthening and extending the holdings of the house of Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty . His marriage in 1477 to Mary of Burgundy, the daughter and heiress of Duke Charles the Bold (r. 1467-1477), had projected Habsburg interests into the center of European power politics and compelled Maximilian to defend Mary’s Burgundian heritage against French claims, resulting in a conflict with France that dragged on for fifteen years. After Mary’s death in 1482, Maximilian became embroiled in protracted conflicts with the heads of the provincial estates of the Netherlands, who favored their own regency government over that of his infant son, Philip the Handsome. However, by 1494, the Netherlands had been brought firmly under the control of the young Duke Philip. Maximilian I Philip I Frederick III (1415-1493) Ferdinand I (1503-1564) Frederick III (Holy Roman Emperor) Mary of Burgundy Philip I (king of Spain) Sforza, Bianca Sforza, Ludovico Charles VIII (king of France) Joan the Mad Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Louis XII (king of France) Francis I (king of France) Berthold of Henneberg Vladislav II (king of Hungary) Sigismund I, the Old Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor) Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)

Maximilian, Mary of Burgundy, and their son Philip, the future king of Castile, in a fifteenth century illustration.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Maximilian’s obligations and duties as head of the Habsburg Dynasty and as Roman king (the traditional title of German kings) required considerable resources. As de facto emperor, albeit without papal coronation (which would not occur until 1452), it was one of his principal concerns to safeguard imperial interests in Italy. When Maximilian married Bianca Sforza of Milan in 1494, he invested her uncle, Ludovico Sforza, with the dukedom of Milan. The sizable dowry of his new wife was of some help in financing his operations against Charles VIII of France, whose invasion of Italy Italy;French invasions of in 1494 threatened imperial fiefs and the Spanish holdings there. Responding to the French threat, Maximilian allied himself with Spain, Venice, Milan, and the pope in the Holy League Holy League of Venice (1495). Fearful of a French domination of Italy, Maximilian agreed to a dynastic marriage alliance proposed by Ferdinand II, king of Aragon. In 1496, Maximilian’s daughter, the Archduchess Margarete, married Prince Juan, the son of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Of greater significance was the 1497 marriage of their daughter Juana, later known as Juana the Mad, to Maximilian’s son, the Archduke Philip of Austria and Burgundy. It was the couple’s eldest son Charles who in 1516 would become known as Charles I in Spain and on Maximilian’s death would become Emperor Charles V.

While his dynastic marriage alliance provided some check on French ambitions, Maximilian soon faced serious problems in Italy again. After the Swiss gained their independence from Habsburg rule in the Peace of Basel Basel, Peace of (1499) (1499), Maximilian lost a major supporter when, in the following year, the French king Louis XII conquered the Duchy of Milan and took Ludovico Sforza prisoner. Prevented by Venetian and French forces from crossing the Alps and going to Rome for his coronation, Maximilian had himself proclaimed emperor-elect with the consent of Pope Julius II at Trent in 1508. The conflict over control of Italy continued as several leagues and alliances played their parts until Maximilian could at last be persuaded to make peace in 1516 with the new French king, Francis I. Throughout his various campaigns, Maximilian had been unable to obtain any meaningful support from the German princes, instead having had to resort to loans from German merchant-bankers like the Fuggers and the Welsers, to whom he had to turn over the rich silver and copper mining operations in the Tyrol.

Maximilian’s plans for the reform of the empire were to a considerable extent guided by his vision of restoring the empire of Charlemagne (r. 800-814) and of leading a crusade against the Turks, as well as by his need for troops and money. While the German princes duly recognized Maximilian as Roman king and Holy Roman Emperor, they opposed his centralizing efforts and refused to support his foreign wars, suspicious that they were designed principally to further his dynastic goals. The various imperial diets supported instead a smaller army to maintain the domestic peace. Maximilian’s principal opponent in this prolonged struggle was the archbishop of Mainz, Berthold of Henneberg, chairman of the Electoral College and arch-chancellor of the empire, who proposed an alternative solution to the anarchy in Germany. Whereas Maximilian favored a strong monarchy on the Burgundian model giving him the right to impose taxes, to maintain a strong army, and to decide on questions of war and peace, the archbishop envisioned a system in which the great princes would remain autonomous in their own lands while lending their support to the emperor only in pursuit of common goals.

Still, Maximilian’s efforts did bear some fruit in the form of a ban on private warfare and in the creation of an imperial tribunal to enforce the ban. By 1505, he enjoyed a brief triumph that reaffirmed his imperial stature. When he became involved in a dispute over a succession within the Bavarian dynasty, he pronounced the ban of the empire against one of the parties and with the help of the Swabian League defeated his opponents decisively. As a result, he could add some strategically important territory in the Tyrol to the Habsburg holdings.

The last of Maximilian’s dynastic marriage arrangements, prompted by the need to secure the empire in the East against persistent threats by the Ottoman Turks, involved the crowns of Bohemia and of Hungary. After the Bohemian ruler, the Jagellonian Władisław II (1456-1516), was chosen king of Hungary in 1490 as Vladislav II, Maximilian arranged for a mutual succession in Austria and in Bohemia and Hungary in case either line should die out. At a meeting in 1515 between Maximilian II, Vladislav II, and King Sigismund I of Poland, the parties confirmed a double marriage compact which provided that Maximilian’s grandson Archduke Ferdinand would marry the daughter of Vladislav II, Anna, while his granddaughter, the Archduchess Mary of Habsburg, would marry Vladislav II’s son Louis. The result of this marriage alliance proved to have far-reaching consequences. Following the disastrous defeat of the Hungarian army by the Ottoman Turks in 1526 and the death of Louis, the diets of Bohemia and Hungary decided to make common cause with the Habsburgs. They conferred both crowns on Archduke Ferdinand, who would henceforth rule the bulk of the Habsburgs’ Central European possessions. In 1558, Ferdinand also became Holy Roman Emperor after the abdication of his brother, Charles V.


Maximilian was often referred to as “Last Knight,” and his vision and lofty goals reflected the universal aspects of the Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire . As head of the Habsburg Dynasty, he laid the foundations upon which his successors could build an empire of global dimensions. That many of his undertakings failed resulted from the fact that his ambitions often exceeded his resources.

Maximilian realized his dynastic ambitions through skillful diplomacy and through a policy of dynastic marriages. Thus he was able to set a course that would enable his grandson, the Emperor Charles V, to rule over an empire stretching from the Danubian plains to all the lands claimed by the Spanish crown. After the division of the empire, the European branch of the Habsburgs carried on the imperial tradition and played a major role in the power politics of Central Europe. Here the Habsburgs served as a major stabilizing factor and guided the Danubian region through the turbulent years of nationalism, well into the first decades of the twentieth century.

In contrast to his successful marriage policies, many of Maximilian’s reform proposals to shore up the Holy Roman Empire foundered on the narrow and special interests of the German princes. Suspicious of his dynastic ambitions, they had little sympathy for his centralizing efforts or for his foreign military campaigns, needed to protect the integrity of the empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benecke, Gerhard. Maximilian I, 1459-1519: An Analytical Biography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. A brief and vivid biography of Maximilian and a social and political history of his time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berenger, Jean. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1273-1700. Translated by C. A. Simpson. New York: Longman, 1994. Emphasizes how the empire functioned and how it contributed to the European equilibrium. See chapter 10, “The Work of Maximilian.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fichtner, Paula Sutter. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Focuses on the Habsburg rulers, territorial states, and religious institutions. See chapter 1, “The Pattern of Empire.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hale, J. R. Renaissance Europe, 1480-1520. 2d ed. London: Blackwell, 2000. Presents Maximilian within the broader context of the attitudes, beliefs, and culture of the period. See chapter 2, “Political Europe.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire. London: Viking Press, 1995. Lively account of Habsburg imperial ambitions. Excellent maps and comprehensive genealogical charts.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

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

September 22, 1504: Treaty of Blois

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

1508: Formation of the League of Cambrai

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

Aug. 18, 1516: Concordat of Bologna

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

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

Categories: History