The Holy Roman Empire and the Duchy of Austria

Austria Table of Contents

The gradual eastward extension of the Carolingian Empire was stopped by the arrival of the Magyars--a Finno-Ugric people who form the ethnic core of the Hungarian nation--in the Danubian region in 862. Within fifty years, the Magyars had seized the Hungarian plain, conquered Moravia and the eastern Danubian marches of the Carolingian Empire, and raided deep into Frankish territory. A reorganization of the German portion of the Carolingian Empire in the first half of the tenth century enabled the Germans to rally their forces and defeat a Magyar invasion force at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. This new and essentially German empire became known as the Holy Roman Empire and eventually regained much of the territory lost to the Magyars. Nevertheless, the Magyars' continuing military strength and their conversion to Christianity during the reign of King Stephen (r. 997-1038) enabled Hungary to become a legitimate member of Christian Europe and check German expansion to the east.

Under the Holy Roman Empire, the territories that constitute modern Austria were a complex feudal patchwork under the sway of numerous secular and ecclesiastical lords. Most of the territories originally fell within the boundaries of the Duchy of Bavaria. Over the years, various territories were effectively detached from Bavaria, either becoming part of the newly established duchies of Carinthia (976) and Styria (1180) or, like Salzburg and Tirol, falling under the jurisdiction of powerful bishops. In the final years of the reign of Emperor Otto the Great (r. 936-73), a small margravate roughly corresponding to the present-day province of Lower Austria was formed within Bavaria. This margravate became known as Ostarrichi (literally, Eastern Realm), from which the modern name Austria (Österreich) ultimately derives. The Margravate of Austria was detached from Bavaria and became a separate duchy in 1156.

Between 976 and 1246, the Duchy of Austria was one of extensive feudal possessions of the Babenberg family. Through their ties of blood and marriage to two successive German imperial dynasties, the Babenbergs gradually acquired lands roughly corresponding to the modern provinces of Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Styria, and Carinthia. When the Babenberg line died out in 1246, their lands passed to the ambitious king of Bohemia, Otakar II. As king of Bohemia, Otakar was one of the small circle of "elector-princes" who were entitled to participate in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. When Otakar failed to be elected emperor in 1273, he contested the election of the new emperor, Rudolf von Habsburg. The Bohemian king met his defeat and death in battle in 1278, and the former Babenberg lands passed to the Habsburgs, who added them to their already extensive lands in present-day Switzerland, southwestern Germany, and eastern France.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress