The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power 
by Martyn Rady.
Allen Lane, 397 pp., £30, May, 978 0 241 33262 7
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PhilipHabsburg landed at Southampton on 20 July 1554 and married Mary Tudor five days later at Winchester Cathedral, where he was declared king ‘de jure uxoris’, though Parliament refused to let him be crowned, to his considerable annoyance. If Mary had borne him a son, there would have been a Habsburg dynasty in England. Unfortunately, her ghastly gynaecological difficulties, which may have shortened her life, meant that her much awaited pregnancy turned out to be a delusion. A fed-up and unpopular Philip soon departed to fight his Continental wars, returning only in March 1557 to plead for English military support. Parliament gave it unwillingly, rightly so, since Calais was lost as a result.

A few weeks after Philip’s arrival in London in 1554, he had received from Titian the latest in a series of Poesie, pictorial romances based on Ovid. This was the Venus and Adonis, now in the Prado, but at this moment returned to London for the unique reunion of the Poesie at the National Gallery. It must be the most sensuous post-coital image in Western art. Titian’s friend Lodovico Dolce, who translated the Ovid for him, could not stop rhapsodising over the treatment of Venus’s squashed buttocks as she turns to cling to Adonis after their night of love. Titian himself, in his letter to Philip, congratulated the young prince on becoming King of England and drew his attention to the posture of Venus: in his previous Poesia, the scarcely less sensuous Danae was seen from the front; this time, he wanted to vary the composition ‘and show the other side’.

While Philip was enjoying the other side, he was also egging Mary on with her programme to reconvert England to Catholicism and stamp out heresy. Martyn Rady, in his irresistible history of the Habsburgs, accepts the calculation that during his four years as sort-of-king, Philip was at least complicit in the ritual murder of almost three hundred Protestants – one of the most intense episodes of persecution in 16th-century Europe, though certainly not the only one on Philip’s record. After resigning his English throne on Mary’s death and returning to Spain as a proper king, he burned Protestants in Valladolid and Seville, and even sent an expedition all the way to Florida to destroy a Huguenot colony. As he repeatedly said: ‘Rather than suffer the least injury to religion and the service of God, I would lose all my states and a hundred lives if I had them, for I do not intend to rule over heretics.’ Despite more sympathetic recent treatments such as Henry Kamen’s in The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (1997), in Protestant minds the Inquisition remains Philip’s lasting memorial, and not without reason.

Philip’s English reign has been virtually erased from national memory. Rady himself, in his gallop through a thousand years of Habsburg rule, finds space for only a couple of sentences on it. What the English do remember is the defeat of the Armada, sent out thirty years later. Alas, its fate is here dismissed in a sentence: ‘the great invasion fleet … foundered uselessly in the North Sea.’ No mention of Drake and the fireships, let alone the bowls on Plymouth Hoe. Nor is there a word about the further Armadas that Philip sent against England in 1596 and 1597, nor about Drake’s disastrous counter-Armada to La Coruña in 1589, which English historians managed to airbrush out of our island story for several centuries.

All this is, I think, worth alluding to, not simply to show the extreme marginality of England to the Habsburg story, but also because it demonstrates, if only in miniature, the extraordinarily persistent characteristics of the Habsburgs over the centuries: their combination of fierce devotion to the Catholic faith with a furtive venery, their matrimonial energy, their peevish tussles with every local parliament they had to deal with, their itch to wage war on all fronts, and their readiness to move on to more promising pastures when the game was up.

All dynasties have sought to gain territory by negotiating advantageous marriages, but none was pushier than the Habsburgs. The match between Philip and Mary was made by the Emperor Charles V, his father and her first cousin. Philip himself proved no slouch in this department. On Mary’s death, he immediately looked into the possibility of winning the hand of her half-sister, Elizabeth. Don John of Austria, Philip’s illegitimate half-brother, later to achieve immortality at Lepanto and the son of a scullery maid at a hotel in Regensburg where Charles had once stayed, also fancied his chances at bringing England back to the True Faith, offering himself as a suitable husband first for Elizabeth and then for Mary Queen of Scots. The Habsburgs liked to put a benign gloss on these insatiable matrimonial ambitions, bridling prettily at the wisecrack of the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus: ‘bella gerant alii, tu, Felix Austria, nube!’ – ‘Let others wage war, you, happy Austria, marry!’

The trouble was that these strategic marriages, often between cousins or partners of unequal ages – Philip was 27, Mary 38 – were often childless or produced severely handicapped heirs. The Spanish Habsburg line expired on the death of the hermaphrodite Charles II. Ferdinand I of Austria suffered from hydrocephalus and crippling epilepsy, which prevented him from reigning effectively – he was forced to abdicate in the revolution of 1848. If you were a member of this increasingly inbred family, you were lucky to escape with only a Habsburg jaw.

Kingdoms left heirless or with a disputed succession drew greedy neighbouring powers into complex and often bloody and prolonged wars, those of the Spanish Succession and the Austrian Succession being by no means the worst. The religious wars fought by the Habsburgs were more terrible still. The Thirty Years War left five million dead in the Holy Roman Empire, 20 per cent of the population, proportionately worse than the world wars of the 20th century. The slaughter of thirty thousand in the Lutheran stronghold of Magdeburg led to a new word being coined, ‘Magdeburgisierung’. Invaders bombarded cities with shells of poison gas, a fetching compound of arsenic and henbane. After the war, France and Germany signed the Strasburg Agreement of 1675, the first treaty to ban the use of chemical weapons. Habsburg hegemony was not all minuets and onion domes (the sign that a parish had returned to Rome). Rady’s index lists 42 Habsburg wars as against 21 significant Habsburg marriages.

No less conspicuous throughout history was the Habsburgs’ restless pursuit of the main chance. The paradox is of a dynasty which boasted of ruling for a thousand years, but didn’t do so for long in the same place or over the same people. The family began in the Aargau, a corner of Switzerland just over the border from Swabia. A smallish landowner called Radbot built himself a castle overlooking the river Aare and called it Habichtsburg – hawk’s fortress – though the family were curiously slow to adopt the name. They finished a millennium later with the last emperor, Karl, having lost Austria, vainly trying to re-establish himself on the throne of Hungary, five hundred miles to the east. At the peak of the family’s territorial control in the 16th century, Charles V led a vagrant life, never establishing a fixed capital, and, according to modern historians, spending about half his life in his native Low Countries (he was born in Ghent), nearly twenty years in Spain and less than a decade in the empire’s German-speaking heartland (if that elusive entity could be said to have had a heartland). In his last public speech before his abdication, Charles may have been the first celebrity to make the gruesome boast, correct in his case, that ‘my life has been a long journey.’

Austria was supposed to be the central Habsburg idea. On the frescoed ceiling of the Hofburg Library in Vienna, three classical goddesses hold a banner on which is inscribed: AEIOU. The acrostic stands for Austria Est Imperare Orbi Universo; or more brutally, in German: Alles Erdreich Ist Österreich Untertan – ‘the whole earth is Austria’s subject.’ To this whopping claim, the hyper-pious Habsburgs of the Counter-Reformation added a near anagram, EUCHARISTIA, to be unravelled as Hic Est Austria. Yet when Habsburg rule appeared to be at its most Austrian in the 1580s, Rudolf II unceremoniously shifted his capital to Prague, as if to show that the Habsburgs were bigger than Vienna.

This intertwining of the Habsburg family with Austria and with the Holy Roman Empire (until Napoleon demolished the fantasy in 1806), was not accomplished without tireless intrigue and repeated setbacks. Only a century before Frederick III became the first Habsburg emperor in 1452, the family had been omitted from the college of electors and relegated to the second rank of princelings. It was this humiliation which prompted them to up sticks from Swabia and make Austria their goal. Rady says that the Habsburgs ‘achieved greatness by luck and by force’. He might just as well have said ‘by marriage and by fraud’. The English family of Feilding, later earls of Denbigh, became notorious as the ‘Perhapsburgs’, for their insistence, on the basis of documents that turned out to be forged, that they were descended from the ancient Habsburgs. The Habsburgs were perfectly capable of forging their own documents. Radbot’s son Werner the Pious was the first fabricator in the family, forging a charter that confirmed him as the hereditary abbot of the local abbey (where the Emperor Karl’s heart rests today). But this was small potatoes compared to the heroic efforts of Rudolf the Founder, who had his scribes concoct five interlocking charters claiming that previous emperors had confirmed the Habsburgs as hereditary archdukes of Austria, bolstered by letters supposedly written by Julius Caesar and Nero. The most outrageous of these fakes, the ‘Pseudo-Henry’, was immediately denounced as a forgery, by Petrarch among others, but the emperor of the day grudgingly went along with most of it. Archduke Rudolf soared on, rebuilt St Stephen’s cathedral and proceeded to concoct another fake charter, which added the Tyrol to his domains. He died in 1365, aged only 25, having brought off a coup that Rady describes as ‘the most ambitious work of forgery in medieval Europe since the eighth-century Donation of Constantine, which had appointed the pope as the ultimate ruler of Christendom’.

The Habsburgs’ collaboration with the papacy in driving the Counter-Reformation was undoubtedly their most remarkable and enduring achievement. Rady reminds us what an extraordinary effort of will was required to reverse the Protestant tide. By the mid-16th century, almost all the cities and most of the nobility in Austria and the neighbouring Habsburg duchies had gone over to the Protestants, who had taken over the parish churches and started their own schools, demanding that the Mass be said in German and distributed in both kinds. There was unrelenting political pressure too. In order to secure grants of four million ducats from the local diets, the Habsburgs had formally to concede religious freedom. Force was the only answer. The reconversion of Austria and the Tyrol was a brutal business, leading eventually to an all-out war which drew in most of Europe and spilled across the world.

Yet not all Habsburg rulers were devout. Maximilian II and Rudolf II had both been lukewarm if not agnostic and had both refused the Mass, even on their deathbeds. Two centuries later, Joseph II began his reign by making marriage a civil contract and suspending the edicts persecuting non-Catholics that had been introduced by his mother, Maria Theresa. For a time in the 1780s, the Habsburg lands were the most generous to nonconformists of anywhere in Europe. This was the age of the Freemasons and The Magic Flute. Leopold, who briefly succeeded his brother Joseph in 1790, even welcomed the outbreak of the French Revolution as the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy in France, a hope that was, after all, also entertained by Pitt the Younger and many others.

None of this could survive the Terror, and soon the Habsburg dynasty was back on the Maria Theresa road to an absolutism that Francis I and his faithful Metternich nurtured for forty years. Rady is a professor of Central European history and a specialist in Hungary and Romania. His immersion in the political culture of Central Europe gives his book a depth and flavour lacking from histories that concentrate on the high politics of the Great Powers. His brief chapters, each exactly ten pages, take the centuries at a fair lick, but never without scattering the most delicious asides: Cymburga, the Polish mother of Frederick III, renowned both for her beauty and for her ability to drive nails into planks with her bare fists; Frederick the Slothful, who travelled his realm with his own hen coops to save on buying eggs; the Habsburg knights who had to cut off their fashionable long toe-pieces when forced to fight the Swiss infantry on foot; Margaret of Parma, another illegitimate child of Charles V by a different serving wench, who grew and carefully trimmed a moustache to provide her with an air of authority when her father made her governor of the Low Countries; Princess Stephanie of Belgium (the betrayed wife of Crown Prince Rudolf who shot himself at Mayerling), who invented the hostess trolley.

Butwhat Rady never lets the reader forget is that there was always another world beyond this peculiar family with its insatiable ambitions, its forgeries and religious devotions, its dwarves and wenches, its crazes for automata and Freemasons, and its snobberies, which were as baroque as its onion domes. For Habsburgia was the headquarters of quarterings, the devoted preserver of the morganatic marriage. Underbred consorts were left with no more rights after their wedding nights than to their dowries, the Morgengaben, or morning-after gifts. When Franz Ferdinand wanted to marry Countess Sophie Chotek, who came from an ancient but not princely family, his uncle Franz Joseph insisted that the marriage be morganatic, denying royal status to her and her children and forcing her to sit in a different box at the opera. (At Sarajevo, the assassin’s bullets made no such distinction of persons.) When Charles Stuart said on the scaffold that ‘a Subject and a Sovereign are clean different things,’ any Habsburg would have agreed.

Yet the reality was that all over the lands the Habsburgs ruled at different periods, there were vigorous political assemblies: the diets of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, for example. Ferdinand I managed to become king of Bohemia only by accepting the right of the assembly to choose the monarch, and by permitting Communion in both kinds. In Spain, the king could not disregard the Cortes, or in Aragon the Corts – the system of co-operation known as pactismo. In Brabant, as in many other places, the principle of no taxation without representation was long established. Maximilian’s campaigns in Italy were constantly hampered by the refusal of his German diets to vote enough funds. In his brilliant personal account of negotiating at Bolzano on behalf of the Dieci in Florence, Niccolò Machiavelli explains to his somewhat naive boss, Francesco Vettori, that though Maximilian has plenty of good soldiers it is not clear that he will be able to keep them in the field, being so short of cash. Florence could drive a hard bargain, offering so many thousand ducats in return for being left alone when and if Maximilian reached Italy.

On his return to Spain as king, Philip II might have seemed to command all the riches of South America, but his vain efforts to bring the rebellious Dutch to their knees bankrupted the Spanish Treasury four times. Even in his months in England, he found Parliament a recurring obstacle to his plans. On the Continent, some of the diets were restricted to noblemen, others included representatives from the leading cities. The terrifying Hungarian diet might be attended by ten thousand or more, including not only every count and squire but also peasants and armed Gypsies. Whatever their class composition, these assemblies did perform in one way or another the classic functions of redressing grievances and voting or refusing to vote taxes. Almost uniquely, Maria Theresa managed to reduce the diets to impotence, writing to them brusquely, ‘the Crown expressly commands you to grant these sums voluntarily.’ But for most of the time and in most places, Habsburg rule was not nearly as unqualified as they wished. As late as the 1850s, Franz Joseph returned from a brief exile and abolished the constitution, restoring absolute rule. But soon Austria was virtually bust, and the banks would not lend to an unaccountable monarch. As Anselm Rothschild explained bluntly: ‘No constitution, no money.’ Again and again, the Habsburgs tried to neuter or even abolish the diets. Again and again, they found that they could not make war, or even love, without them.

By the same token, Rady’s fascinating lapidary chapters should deter us from thinking of the history of the Habsburgs or any other dynasty as straightforwardly linear – from rise to fall, from absolutism to democracy. There was almost always an internal conflict of some sort, between pre-existing institutions and uppity incomers. It is this contestedness rather than the dwarves and the onion domes which lends The Habsburgs its sustained piquancy.

There were certainly Habsburg rulers who laboured long and hard to do what they thought was best for their peoples. Their interest in the Enlightenment was genuine, but only in so far as the new ideas offered the prospect of scientific government, never popular government. Franz Joseph rose at 5 a.m. every morning to attend to the endless business of the empire. This ramshackle polity did not usually press its people too hard; there were always worse places to live; even the notorious censorship was a fairly laid-back business. But I cannot find in Rady’s chapters any example of a Habsburg who, of his or her unconstrained free will, surrendered an ounce of power. The only possible exception might have been Crown Prince Rudolf, who did have socialist sympathies, if only he hadn’t shot himself. The idea that the people themselves might know what was best for them was the most profoundly unHabsburgian idea of all. Which may be why, when the Habsburgs fell, they fell utterly and for ever.

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