|Austria Table of Contents
The Habsburg Dynasty in the Late Medieval Era
Although the Duchy of Austria was just one of the duchies and lands that the Habsburgs eventually acquired in the eastern Alpine-Danubian region, the Habsburgs became known as the House of Austria after the Swiss peasantry ousted them from their original family seat in Habichtsburg in the Swiss canton of Aargau in 1386. The name Austria subsequently became an informal way to refer to all the lands possessed by the House of Austria, even though it also remained the proper, formal name of a specific region. Thus, through the legacy of common rule by the House of Austria, the lands that constitute the modern state of Austria indirectly adopted the name of one region of the country as the formal national name in the early twentieth century.
Because the elector-princes of the Holy Roman Empire generally preferred a weak, dependent emperor, the powerful Habsburg Dynasty only occasionally held the imperial title in the 150 years after Rudolf's death in 1291. After the election of Frederick III in 1452 (r. 1452-93), however, the dynasty came to enjoy such a dominant position among the German nobility that only one non-Habsburg was elected emperor in the remaining 354- year history of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Habsburgs' near monopoly of the imperial title, however, did not make the Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire synonymous. The Habsburg Empire was a supernational collection of territories united only through the accident of common rule by the Habsburgs, and many of the territories were not part of the Holy Roman Empire. In contrast, the Holy Roman Empire was a defined political and territorial entity that became identified with the German nation as the nation-state assumed greater importance in European politics.
Although the succession of Holy Roman Emperors from the Habsburg line gave the House of Austria great prestige in Germany and Europe, the family's real power base was the lands in its possession, that is, the Habsburg Empire. This was because the Holy Roman Empire was a loosely organized feudal state in which the power of the emperor was counterbalanced by the rights and privileges of the empire's other princes, lords, and institutions, both secular and ecclesiastical.
Habsburg power was significantly enhanced in 1453, when Emperor Frederick III confirmed a set of rights and privileges, dubiously claimed by the Habsburgs, that paralleled those of the elector-princes, in whose ranks the family did not yet sit. In addition, the lands the Habsburgs' possessed in 1453 were made inheritable through both the male and the female line. Because feudal holdings usually reverted to the emperor to dispose of as he wished when the holder of the fief died, the right of inheritable succession measurably strengthened the Habsburgs. The lands they held in 1453 became known collectively as the Hereditary Lands, and--with the exception of territories possessed by the archbishops of Salzburg and Brixen--encompassed most of modern Austria and portions of Germany, France, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress