Rudolf I of Germany


Rudolf I († July 15, 1291 in Speyer) was Count of Habsburg as Rudolf IV from about 1240 and the first Roman-German king from the Habsburg dynasty from 1273 to 1291.

The death of Emperor Frederick II in December 1250 marked the beginning of the so-called interregnum (“inter-royal period”), during which royal rule in the empire was only weak. This period saw Rudolf”s rise to become one of the most powerful territorial rulers in the southwest of the empire. With his election as Roman-German king (1273), the interregnum ended. As king, Rudolf attempted the recovery (revindication) of the imperial property that had been almost completely lost, primarily since about 1240. He was particularly successful in Swabia, Alsace and the Rhineland. The north of the empire, on the other hand, remained largely beyond his grasp. In the face of the powerful Bohemian King Ottokar, Rudolf had to militarily enforce the recognition of his kingship and the revindications. His victory at the Battle of Dürnkrut (1278) established Habsburg rule in Austria and Styria. The House of Habsburg rose to become an imperial dynasty. Rudolf recognized the importance of the cities for his own kingship. However, his taxation policy generated considerable urban resistance. In vain, Rudolf strove to gain the imperial dignity and to install one of his sons as successor in the Roman-German Empire during his lifetime.

Origin and youth

Rudolf came from the noble family of the Habsburgs. The family can be traced back to a Guntram living around the middle of the 10th century. Among Guntram”s grandsons were Radbot and Bishop Werner of Strasbourg. One of them is said to have built the Habichtsburg

Rudolf was born of the marriage of Albrecht IV of Habsburg with Heilwig, a countess of Kyburg. The assumption that Rudolf”s birthplace was Limburg is based on an arbitrary statement by Fugger-Birken. In 1232, Rudolf”s father Albrecht IV shared the dominion with his brother Rudolf III, from whom the Laufenburg line of the Habsburgs derived. According to the chronicler Matthias von Neuenburg from the middle of the 14th century, the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II was Rudolf”s godfather. However, Rudolf was not educated at the royal court. He knew neither the Scriptures nor Latin. With Albrecht and Hartmann Rudolf had two brothers and with Kunigunde and one of unknown name two sisters. Albrecht was destined for a clerical career at an early age. Rudolf”s father Albrecht IV went on a crusade in the summer of 1239. When news of his death arrived in 1240, Rudolf assumed sole rule of the main Habsburg line. Hartmann moved to northern Italy in late 1246 or early 1247 to fight for Emperor Frederick II. He died in captivity between 1247 and 1253.

Count of Habsburg (ca. 1240-1273)

Rudolf continued the Habsburgs” close ties to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. In the bitter disputes between Emperor Frederick II and the papacy, Rudolf and his younger brother Hartmann were on the Hohenstaufen side. In 1241 Rudolf stayed at the court of Emperor Frederick II in Faenza. In the early 1240s he led a feud with Hugh III of Tiefenstein

The double election of 1257 brought the empire two kings, Alfonso X of Castile and Richard of Cornwall. The period between the death of Frederick II and the election of Rudolf of Habsburg as king in 1273 is referred to as the so-called interregnum (“inter-royal period”). However, the term, which did not become common until the 18th century, does not mean a period without a king or emperor; rather, this period was characterized by a “surplus of rulers” who hardly exercised any ruling power. The long-prevailing image of the interregnum as a particularly violent and chaotic period compared to other epochs was subjected to a revision by Martin Kaufhold (2000). Kaufhold referred to arbitration and other mechanisms for resolving conflicts during this period. In contrast, Karl-Friedrich Krieger (2003) adhered to the traditional assessment and relied on the perception of contemporaries who perceived this period as particularly violent. According to Krieger, the “tendency to violent self-help” was particularly strong in the Upper Rhine region and in northern Switzerland. Count Rudolf of Habsburg also used violence as a means against weaker competitors in the expansion of his territorial rule. In fierce disputes with Heinrich III, the bishop of Basel, he was able to secure the bailiwick (secular patronage) over the Black Forest monastery of Sankt Blasien in 1254. In alliance with the citizens of Strasbourg, Rudolf prevailed against the Bishop of Strasbourg, Walter von Geroldseck, in the Battle of Hausbergen in March 1262. With the extinction of the Kyburg dynasty of counts, Rudolf claimed the inheritance in 1264 in bitter conflicts against Count Peter of Savoy, who was also related to the Kyburgs and laid claim to the inheritance. The towns of Winterthur, Diessenhofen, Frauenfeld and Freiburg im Üchtland as well as the county of Thurgau thus came into his possession. In comparison to the Staufers or the overpowering Bohemian Ottokar II, however, Rudolf remained a poor count despite these territorial successes.

The king election of 1273

Alfonso of Castile never came to the empire. Richard of Cornwall did have himself crowned in Aachen, but his few sojourns in the empire were concentrated on the territories west of the Rhine. After Richard”s death in 1272, the princes wanted to raise a new king despite Alfonso of Castile”s existing claims. Alfonso tried in vain to prevent a new election and to obtain recognition of his kingship by means of a legation to the Pope. Pope Gregory X was open to a new beginning in the empire. According to the pope”s ideas, a generally recognized ruler should take over the leadership of a new crusade as emperor. However, the pope wanted to leave the decision to the princes and only approve the chosen one, i.e. confirm his suitability for the emperorship. However, a candidate who would have met with strong opposition from the Curia would not have been enforceable. Given the bitter conflicts between the popes and the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the Curia would not tolerate a candidate with close ties to that lineage. Similar to previous royal elections, there were numerous contenders for the royal crown. Charles of Anjou, as ruler of southern Italy and Sicily, tried to impose his nephew, the young French king Philip III, as Roman-German king on the pope. Pope Gregory X, however, refused, for this connection of France with the Empire would have given the papacy a powerful opponent north of Rome. Ottokar also sent an envoy to the pope to recommend himself as a candidate for king. Both candidates assumed that the pope would make the binding decision and not the princes who had disagreed in the past. However, in the following negotiations, the princes managed to create consensus among themselves and reach collegial and thus binding decisions, whereupon the pope left the decision to them.

Ottokar of Bohemia was unable to secure the support of the pope, but given the impressive position of power he had created through territorial acquisitions, the princes could not simply overrule him. After the extinction of the Babenbergs in 1246, Ottokar had taken over the Duchy of Austria in 1251. In the following years, the Duchy of Styria (1261), the Egerland (his possessions stretched from the Ore Mountains to the Adriatic Sea.

From the end of the 12th to the middle of the 13th century, a narrower circle of special king electors (electors) had emerged, who succeeded in excluding others as electors. The king electors included the three Rhenish archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, as well as the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg and the King of Bohemia. Throughout 1272, intense negotiations were held over a candidate for king. The Landgrave of Thuringia Frederick I the Free aroused great hopes for a third Frederick among the Staufer supporters in Italy because of his name. However, his relationship to the Hohenstaufen dynasty discredited him in the election of the king. His candidacy would not have been able to prevail against the Curia. The Wittelsbach Duke of Upper Bavaria, Louis the Austere, was also ruled out as a supporter of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. In August 1273, in view of the ongoing election negotiations, the pope issued an ultimatum to the princes. The Archbishop of Mainz, Werner von Eppstein, then brought two new candidates into the election negotiations, Count Siegfried von Anhalt and Rudolf von Habsburg. The electors agreed on Rudolf in September 1273, but could not obtain the consent of the Bohemian king. Instead, they allowed Duke Henry XIII of Lower Bavaria to be elected. The Bohemian king stayed away from the election, being represented by Bishop Berthold of Bamberg. Rudolf had received the news of his upcoming royal election during a feud with the Bishop of Basel. He waited for the election itself in Dieburg, south of Frankfurt am Main.

On October 1, 1273, Rudolf was unanimously elected by the electors assembled in Frankfurt, and on October 24 he and his wife were crowned king by Archbishop Engelbert II of Cologne in Aachen. With very few exceptions due to special circumstances, it became customary after the end of the interregnum to crown king and queen together in Aachen”s Marienkirche, today”s cathedral. To legitimize their claims, medieval dynasties liked to refer to their predecessors. On the occasion of the Aachen coronation, Rudolf had the name of his wife Gertrud von Hohenberg changed to Anna and that of his daughter Gertrud to Agnes. Thus Rudolf placed himself and his house in the Zähring tradition. Anna and Agnes were the names of the sisters and heiresses of the last Zähringian Duke Berthold V.

Ottokar tried in vain with his envoys to the pope to prevent Rudolf”s approbation. The Curia had misgivings about Rudolf, who had long been a loyal supporter of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Rudolf met these concerns in many ways. Thus, he refrained from resuming Hohenstaufen politics in Italy. On September 26, 1274, the pope also recognized Rudolf as the rightful king. Alfonso of Castile gave up his claim to kingship in the empire only in 1275 in personal negotiations with the pope.

Peter Moraw”s view that the voters had seen in the already 55-year-old Rudolf only a “transitional candidate” was rejected by Kaufhold and Krieger. Since the princes had decided against the overpowering Bohemian King Ottokar, the future king had to assert himself against this powerful competitor by force if necessary, and even if Rudolf did not belong to the rank of imperial princes, as count he had risen to become the most powerful territorial ruler in the southwest of the empire. Armin Wolf”s thesis of a Guelph-Ottoman descent, which would have given Rudolf special dynastic legitimacy in the election of the king, was not accepted by experts.

Marriage Policy

Rudolf”s marriage to Gertrud (Anna) von Hohenberg, who was descended from the Counts of Hohenberg, a collateral line of the Hohenzollern dynasty, resulted in the marriage of Mathilde (ca. 1254


From Rudolf as the new king, the electors expected the return (revindication) of the estates and rights that had been alienated from the realm since the late Baptist period. Many nobles had helped themselves to imperial property during the reigns of Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso of Castile, who had little or no presence in the empire. With the exception of Ottokar of Bohemia, however, legally questionable acquisitions by the electors were to remain unaffected by Rudolf”s reclaims. In future, the electors had to give their consent to royal disposals of imperial property. These deeds of consent, also called letters of will, appeared more regularly under Rudolf of Habsburg as a means of granting consensus. From his accession to power, they were issued only by the electors. From the 12th to the 14th century, the circle of persons who had a share in the realm with the king was determined more and more precisely. Since Rudolf, the right to have a say in imperial affairs was related to the right to elect the king.

The revindications began two days after Rudolf”s coronation. At a court day on October 26, 1273, with the consent of the princes, all customs duties unlawfully levied since the reign of Frederick II were declared invalid. If necessary, the decision was enforced by military force against unauthorized customs sites. This applied to the Margrave of Baden, for example. After a military conflict, he had to renounce his customs in Selz, which had not been recognized by the king. At a court meeting in Speyer in December 1273, it was announced that all illegally acquired crown property was to be surrendered. The implementation was difficult, because there was no reliable information about the illegal property changes. Unlike the English Treasury (Exchequer) or the French Chamber of Accounts (Chambre des Comptes), Rudolf had no financial authority. The king had to rely on affected persons or coincidences for his information. Rudolf relied on the bailiwicks for revindications. The Swabian-Franconian region was organized into new administrative units, with the exception of the Burgraviate of Nuremberg. For example, Swabia and Alsace were each divided into two bailiwicks. At the head of these administrative units was a bailiff. He exercised royal rights in his administrative area as deputy of the king. The duties of the imperial bailiff included, in addition to reclaiming lost imperial property, the administration of financial revenues, the preservation of the peace of the land, the supervision of customs duties and the care for the protection of monasteries and Jews. As imperial bailiffs, the king resorted to relatives and confidants. According to Krieger, Rudolf”s success in revindication policy is difficult to assess. The revindications were apparently successful mainly in Swabia, Alsace and the Rhineland. At a court meeting in Nuremberg on August 9, 1281, the objects of revindication were specified. Dispositions of imperial property that had been made since the papal deposition of Frederick II in 1245 were to be considered null and void if no princely consent had been given.

In the immediate vicinity of his ancestral lands, Rudolf used the revindications to expand territories loyal to the Habsburgs. However, the Duchy of Swabia was not re-established. In the inner-Swabian region, he built up a new landgraviate around the administrative center of Mengen from 1282 to 1291. In the north, however, the late medieval kingship was only weakly present. Rudolf was dependent on the territorial lords there for the recovery of the lost imperial estates. As governors or vicars (administratores et rectores) appointed by the king, Duke Albrecht II of Saxony, Albrecht I of Brunswick and later the margraves of Brandenburg were to take care of the lost imperial property in Saxony and Thuringia. In carrying out the revindications, the princes pursued their own territorial-political goals and attached little importance to the interests of the empire. After the death of Duke Albrecht of Brunswick, Rudolf awarded the care of the imperial estates in Saxony and Thuringia as well as the administration of Lübeck to Albrecht II of Saxony and the three margraves John II, Otto IV and Conrad I of Brandenburg of the Johannine line on August 24, 1280.

Fight against the King of Bohemia (1273-1278)

At the Court Day in Nuremberg in November 1274, Rudolf opened a trial against Ottokar of Bohemia. In all his actions, the Roman-German king submitted to the consent of the princes. In disputes between the Roman-German king and an imperial prince, Ludwig, Count Palatine of the Rhine, was appointed judge. As king, Rudolf had to present his complaints to the Count Palatine and to all princes and counts present. Within a period of nine weeks, Ottokar was to answer to the Count Palatine at a court day in Würzburg. The Bohemian king let this deadline expire, trusting in his power. In May 1275 he sent his envoy Bishop Wernhard of Seckau to the court day in Augsburg. The bishop questioned Rudolf”s election and his kingship. As a result, the princes stripped Ottokar of all imperial fiefdoms. On June 24, 1275, the imperial sentence was pronounced on the Bohemian king. Ottokar still did not show any understanding. In June 1276, after a year of his failure to break away from the oath, the Bohemian king was put under the oath. The archbishop of Mainz pronounced an ecclesiastical ban and imposed the interdict on Bohemia. A military decision would end the conflict for both sides as a judgment of God.

Rudolf and Ottokar tried to gain allies for the upcoming confrontation. Rudolf secured the support of Counts Meinhard and Albert of Gorizia-Tyrol through a marriage alliance between his son Albrecht I and Elisabeth of Gorizia-Tyrol. The territorial focus of the Counts of Gorizia-Tyrol was in the southeastern Alpine region and thus in close proximity to Carinthia. Rudolf enfeoffed Philip of Spanheim, the brother of the last Carinthian duke, with the duchy of Carinthia, thus drawing him to his side. Ottokar had only granted Philip the title of governor of Carinthia without any real influence. Rudolf also allied himself with Archbishop Frederick of Salzburg, who was being harassed in his territory by the Bohemian king. In Hungary, hostile noble factions faced each other and fought for influence and guardianship over the minor king Ladislaus IV. Rudolf succeeded in drawing part of the Hungarian nobility to his side. Relations with Duke Heinrich of Lower Bavaria had become more problematic since Rudolf”s election as king. Heinrich felt that his efforts in the election of the king had not been sufficiently rewarded. For the upcoming conflict, the Duke of Lower Bavaria with his control over the Danube access to Austria was of decisive importance. By confirming his right to vote, Rudolf was able to bind the duke to himself. Rudolf”s illegitimate son Albrecht of Löwenstein-Schenkenberg also took part in the war campaign against Ottokar.

Rudolf had committed himself to Pope Gregory X to a trip to Rome with the aim of crowning him emperor. As a result, military planning came to a standstill in 1275. Due to the unexpected death of the pope on January 10, 1276, Rudolf”s priorities shifted again to the dispute with the Bohemian king. The Burgrave of Nuremberg Frederick III invaded the Egerland. In Carinthia and Carniola, the Bohemian rule collapsed immediately after the invasion of the Tyrolean counts. Rudolf decided to change his tactics at short notice and to lead the main attack not against Bohemia, but against the weak Bohemian rule in Austria. The new tactics also offered the advantage that Duke Henry of Lower Bavaria, whose attitude remained opaque, could not attack Rudolf”s army from behind in case of a change of parties. Under pressure from the royal army in Regensburg, the Duke of Lower Bavaria clearly declared his allegiance to the Habsburgs in return for appropriate concessions. Rudolf had to agree to a marriage union between his daughter Catherine and Henry”s son Otto. In return, Rudolf henceforth received free access on the Danube and was thus able to reach the Austrian lands relatively quickly with his troops by ship. The Habsburgs were able to take these quickly, with only Vienna offering prolonged resistance. In Bohemia, the nobility used the situation for an uprising, so that Ottokar had to give in.

In Vienna Ottokar had to make peace on October 21, 1276. On November 25, Rudolf accepted Ottokar”s homage in street clothes and on a wooden stool. In doing so, Rudolf deliberately humiliated the Bohemian king, who was intent on public recognition, since the latter had appeared for the act of enfeoffment in splendid robes and a large retinue. This scene was particularly humiliating for Ottokar and his wife Kunigunde. For them, Rudolf was only a petty count who arrogated to himself the dignity of king. Ottokar had to recognize Rudolf as king and surrender his legally questionable acquisitions, the duchies of Austria, Styria and Carinthia with Carniola and Pordenone. He was to be enfeoffed with the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Margraviate of Moravia. The feudal act expressed a hierarchy between the enthroned king and the imperial princes. Ottokar received his fief from the king with bended knees in the presence of numerous ecclesiastical and secular princes. This was the first time in the empire that bended knees were documented without any doubt during the act of enfeoffment. In return, Ottokar was freed from eight, excommunication and interdict. The peace was to be secured by a double marriage between Ottokar”s daughter and a son of Rudolf and between Ottokar”s son Wenceslas II and Rudolf”s daughter Guta.

The peace was short-lived. Both sides had reasons for renewed military confrontation. The Bohemian king did not forget the humiliations suffered in Vienna. The provocation was intensified by the fact that Rudolf maintained contacts with the noble opposition, especially the Rosenbergs, in Bohemia and Moravia. Ottokar, in return, continued to have contact with his former confidants in the Austrian lands. Rudolf wanted to replace the Bohemian king in the southeast with the Habsburgs. In June 1278, war broke out again. However, support for Rudolf had diminished. Except for the Count Palatine, Rudolf had found no supporters for the fight against Bohemia among the electors. The Archbishop of Cologne had established friendly relations with the Bohemian king. In addition to Margrave Otto V of Brandenburg, the Bohemian was able to win over Duke Henry XIII of Lower Bavaria with considerable monetary payments. Henry closed his land to Rudolf”s troops and allowed the Bohemian to hire mercenaries in Lower Bavaria. The Silesian and Polish dukes also supported Ottokar. Rudolf at least received the support of the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV. It was no longer the princes but the Habsburg house power and the Hungarian troops that Rudolf offered against Ottokar.

On August 26, 1278, the Battle of Dürnkrut took place northeast of Vienna. Rudolf himself took part in the battle at the age of 60. He fell from his horse and could only be saved by a Thurgau knight who put him on a new horse. In the battle Rudolf had held back a reserve unit of about 60 knights in the fray. The flank attack of these knights had devastating consequences for the Bohemians and brought victory to Rudolf. The Bohemian army was divided into two parts and lost order. The light Hungarian cavalry pursued the enemy. Many thousands of Bohemians perished. Ottokar was not captured, contrary to the traditional knightly ideas of honor, but was slain by some Austrian nobles in revenge. Rudolf had Ottokar”s embalmed body demonstratively displayed in Vienna for several weeks. In gratitude for his victory over the Bohemian king and his salvation from mortal danger, Rudolf founded a monastery in Tulln. It remained his only monastery foundation.

Homeland Power Politics in the Southeast

The battle was of European significance. It created the basis for the later Danubian Empire, in which the Austrian lands were to form the center of power politics. The Habsburg dynasty rose to become a royal and great dynasty. The Bohemian royal dowager Kunigunde feared that Rudolf would seize Bohemia and Moravia as well. Therefore, she summoned Margrave Otto V of Brandenburg as guardian for her minor son Wenceslas II. The imperial princes also did not want to establish an overpowering imperial dynasty with the Habsburgs instead of the Přemyslids. In view of the balance of power, Rudolf was content with what he had achieved at the time. Ottokar”s son Wenceslas was recognized as successor in Bohemia and Moravia. The marriage projects already planned at the first peace of 1276 were carried out. Rudolf”s daughter Guta was married to Wenceslas II and Rudolf”s son of the same name Rudolf II was married to Kunigunde”s daughter Anna. Bohemia was withdrawn from the Habsburg grasp by the Brandenburg patronage. The marriage connections at least provided the room for maneuver to be able to access Bohemia later. Duke Heinrich of Lower Bavaria, who was fickle in his attitude toward Rudolf, could be bound more closely by a marriage project: Rudolf”s daughter Katharina was married to Henry”s son Otto III.

Instead of Bohemia, the Habsburg wanted to create a new power base in the southeast of the empire. Rudolf stayed in the southeast of the empire almost without interruption from 1276 to Whitsun 1281. This unusually long stay served the purpose of consolidating the situation in Austria and Styria for the Habsburgs. Analyzing the introductions of the royal charters (Arengen), Franz-Reiner Erkens was able to establish that since Rudolf”s long stay in the practice of charters, formal and stylistic reference was made to late Staufer models. The continuity to the Staufers was supposed to bring additional legitimacy to Rudolf”s kingship. After protracted negotiations, in the summer of 1282 he obtained the consent of the electors in letters of will to the succession of his sons in the Austrian lands. At a court meeting in Augsburg on December 27, 1282, Rudolf enfeoffed his sons Albrecht and Rudolf with the lands of Austria, Styria, Carniola and the Windisch Mark in their entirety, i.e. jointly. The two dukes were thus elevated to the status of imperial princes. However, this enfeoffment met with resistance from the Austrian lords. Six months after the enfeoffment, Rudolf was forced to leave the Austrian duchies to his son Albrecht alone in the Rheinfeld House Rules of June 1, 1283. The focus of the Habsburg dynasty”s rule thus shifted from Upper Alsace, Aargau and Zürichgau to the southeast. In Austria, the Habsburgs continued to rule until the early 20th century.

Rudolf”s policy of domestic power, however, also endangered consensus rule and fueled fear among the princes of a power-hungry king. For the sons to succeed to the throne, the king needed the consent of the electors. Rudolf therefore had to reduce his house power: Albrecht and Rudolf renounced the Duchy of Carinthia in 1286. Meinhard II was enfeoffed with the duchy.

Court and rulership practice

In his court conduct and ruling practices, Rudolf often continued the Hohenstaufen tradition. However, he had the acts of government of his immediate royal predecessors William of Holland and Richard of Cornwall declared invalid insofar as they had not met with the majority approval of the electors. As a sign of continuity with the Hohenstaufen, one of Rudolf”s first acts was to reoccupy the office of court judge created by Frederick II in 1235.

Until well into the 14th century, medieval kingship in the empire was exercised through ambulatory rulership practices. Rudolf had to travel throughout the empire and thereby establish validity and authority for his rule. Late medieval kingship could not cover all areas of the empire equally. Peter Moraw has therefore divided the empire into zones of varying proximity to or distance from the king. The southern and western German regions as well as central Germany were considered “close to the king” at the time of Rudolf. The north of the empire, which Rudolf did not enter, was considered “far from the king. Contacts there were limited to legations. Rudolf tried in vain to assert his authority in the north with the help of the imperial city of Lübeck. Longer stays with only short interruptions are recorded between 1276 and 1281 for Vienna and from December 1289 to November 1290 for Erfurt. Hagenau, Rudolf”s favorite late-Baptist palace, ranks second after Basel (26) with 22 stays. In Basel, Rudolf created a lasting memoria for his house with the burial of his wife Anna and his sons Karl and Hartmann in the cathedral there. However, the ruler still had no fixed residence. The court formed the “organizational form of rule”. It was “within reach of oral orders” and thus largely eluded writing. Personal relationships at court were therefore of great importance. The “difficult path to the ruler”s ear” led only through the intercession of the Habsburg”s closest confidants. The greatest influence at his court was exerted by Frederick of Zollern, Henry of Fürstenberg and Eberhard of Katzenelnbogen.

For Rudolf”s reign, 16 court days have been handed down. The court days are regarded as the “most important political consolidation points” in the empire of the 12th and 13th centuries. The number of princes gathered at a court day made the strength and integrative power of the kingship clear. As political assemblies, the court days depicted the hierarchy of king and princes in the empire. The recognition of the rank and status of the princes at the assemblies had considerable significance for the political-social order in the empire. The long period without court days due to the interregnum increased the pressure on the princes to assert previous or new claims to rank. Through their personal appearance, the princes were able to express their position in the power structure of the empire in a representative manner. Since Rudolf”s accession to power, the sources regularly record seat disputes at court days. The court day thus offered Rudolf the best opportunity to stage his kingship. Although the Habsburg court no longer had the attraction for culture and science that Frederick II”s court once had, it retained its importance for deliberation and consensual decision-making.

Rudolf invited to his first court day in 1274 by using the metaphor of the king as head (caput) and the princes as members of the empire, which was common in the Hohenstaufen period. Rudolf also used the rhetoric of head and members in the Arengen, the introductions to his charters. It showed that in his decrees in the empire he was bound to the consent of ecclesiastical and secular princes. The Habsburg”s court days were usually attended by the princes only out of personal interest or on special occasions. Rudolf”s reign reached a climax with the very well-attended Christmas Court Day in Erfurt in 1289. Rudolf held his last court day in Frankfurt am Main on May 20, 1291.

Urban policy

Under Rudolf”s reign, the term imperial cities (civitates imperii) became common for the royal cities. During the interregnum, the cities increasingly gained independence, and the king”s power of disposal declined. Nevertheless, the imperial cities became a pillar of royal power due to their military potential and financial strength. The regular flat-rate city tax was an important source of income for Rudolf. In addition, the cities increasingly served Rudolf as royal lodging places. Rudolf tried to enforce the royal right of hospitality against the ecclesiastical princes. In response to the resistance of the bishops, Rudolf demonstratively favored the cities. Of his 2223 charters, 662 went to a city and among the 943 recipients were 222 cities. He allowed the imperial cities to have a council constitution and thus a certain internal independence. In addition, Rudolf promoted the development of the bishop”s towns into free cities. For example, Rudolf granted generous freedoms to the city of Colmar in 1278. The citizens could receive fiefs and form guilds. They were also exempted from death duties. However, his taxation measures generated considerable resistance in the cities. In 1274 and 1284, Rudolf tried in vain to impose direct individual taxation on the townspeople. Nevertheless, Rudolf succeeded in systematically integrating the rising urban bourgeoisie into imperial politics for the first time.

Occurrence of “false Friedrichs

Since 1257, the belief in a return of Emperor Frederick II has been documented and, in parallel, the hope for a new Emperor Frederick. Under Rudolf of Habsburg, there was a boom in the “false Frederics” in the 1280s. The distant grave was decisive for the appearance of persons claiming to be the Staufer emperor in Germany until the end of the 13th century. The “false Friedrichs” show the popularity of Frederick II and the hope for a return to Hohenstaufen conditions, which research interprets as a reaction to current social crisis phenomena caused by famines, crop failures or dearths. In contrast, Krieger attributes the “false Frederics” solely to Rudolf”s controversial tax policy.

In 1284 a hermit named Heinrich appeared between Basel and Worms, who called himself “Emperor Friedrich”. The “false Friedrich” disappeared without a trace when Rudolf approached in July. The most successful “false Friedrich” was Dietrich Holzschuh (Low German Tile Kolup). Around 1283

Land Peace Policy

A generally recognized king had to remedy the lack of peace and justice perceived by contemporaries. In Franconia, the imperial administration was reorganized. At the district court of Rothenburg, records in court books began in 1274. They are among the oldest of their kind. Rudolf began a royal land peace policy, which was initially limited to regional and temporal agreements. In 1276 a land peace limited to Austria was issued. This was followed in 1281 by truces for the regions of Bavaria, Franconia, the Rhineland and again Austria. The north, which was far from the king, could not be included in the same way; the individual territorial lords took over peacekeeping there. In Würzburg, on March 24, 1287, the peace was extended to the entire empire for a limited period of three years, following the example of the imperial land peace of Mainz in 1235.

In Rudolf”s last years, the focus was on settling disputes and safeguarding imperial interests, especially in Thuringia. From December 1289 to November 1290, he stayed in Saxony and Thuringia to restore the king”s authority. With the residences in Erfurt and Altenburg, he followed Hohenstaufen models. In the winter of 1289

Reaching out to Burgundy and contacts with France

After the end of the warlike conflicts with the Bohemian king and the acquisition of the Austrian lands for the House of Habsburg, Rudolf concentrated on Burgundy, which was far from the king, from 1283. Burgundy in this context means the southwestern part of the empire bordering on France, which included Provence, the so-called Free County of Burgundy, the Dauphiné (County of Vienne) and the Counties of Mömpelgard and Savoy, but not the Duchy of Burgundy with its capital Dijon, which belonged to France. Derived from the coronation city of Arles, the Burgundian part of the empire is often referred to in historiography as the regnum Arelatense or Arelat. However, the imperial power in Arelat was always weak.

Count Rainald of Mömpelgard had taken the Elsgau from the Basel bishop Heinrich of Isny, a close partisan of Rudolf. Rudolf decided to intervene militarily. Count Rainald could not count on any major support and entrenched himself in Pruntrut. After Rudolf had besieged the city for a month, the count had to give up his claims on April 14, 1283, but without having to swear an oath of fealty to Rudolf. Subsequently, Rudolf made an advance against Count Philip I of Savoy. The Counts of Savoy had strategically important possessions to which Rudolf wanted to secure access as part of his Burgundian policy. Hostilities began as early as 1281, but it was not until the summer of 1283 that the king took action against the count on a larger scale. After a long siege of the city of Peterlingen, Count Philip surrendered; in the peace of December 27, 1283, he had to surrender the cities of Peterlingen, Murten and Gümminen to Rudolf. In addition, he had to pay a war indemnity of 2000 marks of silver.

The French expansion policy concerned imperial territory along the Scheldt, Meuse, Saône and Rhone rivers. A marriage union with the ducal house of Burgundy was intended to ensure better relations with France. In February 1284, at the age of 66, Rudolf married the 14-year-old Isabella of Burgundy, a sister of Duke Robert II of Burgundy, the brother-in-law of the French King Philip III. His first wife Anna had died in 1281. Through the marriage, Rudolf sought to increase his influence in Arelat. Robert was enfeoffed with the county of Vienne. Despite kinship ties and an imperial enfeoffment, Rudolf was unable to weaken his opponents, the Counts of Savoy, Count Palatine Otto of Burgundy and Count Rainald of Mömpelgard, through Robert II. Nor did his hopes of linking up with the French house come true. Robert II sided with the French king Philip IV, who had succeeded his late father in October 1285. Philip IV considerably extended the French sphere of influence in the border region and also pursued interests in the Arelat, where several territories subsequently fell to France. Among these was the attempt to gain control over the Free County of Burgundy. In 1289, Rudolf forced the homage of Otto of Burgundy, who had aligned himself with France, through a campaign. After Rudolf”s death, however, Count Palatine Otto concluded a treaty with Philip IV in 1295, which stipulated that the Free County would become French property through a marriage union and in exchange for monetary payments.

Futile efforts for the imperial crown and succession

During Rudolf”s 18 years of rule, eight popes held office. Pope Gregory X had held out the prospect of the imperial crown to Rudolf if he took over the leadership of a crusade. Gregory”s unexpected death scuttled plans for an imperial coronation and the crusade enterprise. The following popes, Innocent V, Hadrian V, and John XXI, exercised their pontificates only from January 1276 to mid-1277. Pope Nicholas III officiated from 1277 to August 1280, but did not give priority to the crusade project. Negotiations between Rudolf and his successors Honorius IV and Nicholas IV were unsuccessful. Despite the numerous changes of persons, concrete dates for a coronation could be agreed upon at least three times (1275, 1276 and 1287). Rudolf”s daughter Clementia was married in 1281 to Charles Martell, the son of Charles II of Anjou. This marriage union between the houses of Habsburg and Anjou was part of an overarching plan that had been significantly advanced by the Curia since 1278. In this context, Rudolf was promised the imperial crown. An independent kingdom was to be formed from Arelat under the rule of the House of Anjou, and the Empire”s claims to Romagna were to be dropped. Apart from the marriage, however, the plan was not realized. Only Rudolf”s later successor Henry VII was to receive the imperial dignity in Rome again in 1312.

Rudolf”s pursuit of the imperial dignity was primarily to ensure succession for his son and thus establish a dynasty. As emperor, he could have raised a fellow king. With the Ottonians, Salians and Hohenstaufen this had always been the imperial son. At first Rudolf wanted to make his son Hartmann his successor. However, Hartmann drowned in the Rhine in December 1281. In the last years of his life, Rudolf was left only with his sons Albrecht and Rudolf. Rudolf tried to build up his son of the same name as a candidate for king. He confirmed the Bohemian course vote to his son-in-law Wenceslas in 1289 and again in 1290. In return, Wenceslas agreed to the royal succession of Rudolf”s son on April 13, 1290, at a court day in Erfurt, but the latter died unexpectedly in Prague on May 10, 1290. The only surviving son of the king, Albrecht, did not meet with the approval of the electors at a court day in Frankfurt on May 20, 1291; only Count Palatine Ludwig stood up for him. Instead of the Habsburg Albrecht, Count Adolf of Nassau from the Middle Rhine was elected in 1292.


At the beginning of the summer of 1291, Rudolf”s health deteriorated considerably. Shortly before his death, the seventy-three-year-old king decided to move from Germersheim to Speyer. The imperial cathedral in Speyer was considered the memorial place of the Salisch-Staufer dynasty and was the most important burial place of the Roman-German kingship. Rudolf wanted to place himself in the Salisch-Staufer tradition and clarify the rank of the Habsburgs as a royal dynasty. One day after his arrival in Speyer he died on July 15, 1291, probably of old age in connection with a gout. Rudolf was buried next to the Hohenstaufen king Philip of Swabia in Speyer Cathedral. The still preserved tomb slab was made by an artist during the king”s lifetime. It is considered one of the first realistic depictions of a Roman-German king ever.

Late medieval judgments

In the late Middle Ages, Rudolf as a dynasty played the role of a top fountainhead for the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs owed their rise to the rank of imperial princes and their ability to become kings to Rudolf.

The royal court and the Habsburg domestic power centers in northern Switzerland and Alsace actively carried out ruling propaganda for Rudolf. Even more important for the spread of his fame were the bourgeois elites of the city of Strasbourg and the South German Minorites and Dominicans. The citizens of the city of Strasbourg saw an ally in the Habsburg since the battles with their bishop (1262). On the Upper Rhine, the mendicant monks spread numerous anecdotes about Rudolf. In the spirit of the ecclesiastical poverty movement, he was staged as an unassuming king, humble towards God and the church.

As a result, a large number of contemporary stories and anecdotes about Rudolf von Habsburg, some of them instrumentalized for propaganda purposes, have come down to us, many of which have been attributed little source value by historians. Karl-Friedrich Krieger has given greater importance to the anecdotes. According to Krieger, through them “one comes as close to Rudolf”s individual personality as to that of hardly any other king of the 13th century”. A total of 53 narrative motifs could be reliably identified. Rudolf is characterized “as just, shrewd, sometimes cunning, sometimes even audacious, but never brutal or tyrannical.” On a campaign to Burgundy, for example, he is said to have pulled turnips out of the field with his own hands and then eaten them, or to have mended his tattered doublet himself on a campaign. In Erfurt he is said to have advertised the beer of Siegfried von Bürstädt. According to John of Winterthur and John of Viktring, no one could pass by Rudolf”s long eagle nose (“Habsburg nose”). A man had claimed that he could not pass him because of the long royal nose. Rudolf had thereupon pushed his nose aside with a laugh. In numerous other stories, the king was in mortal danger and was saved by loyal followers.

Contemporary accounts and medieval historiography described Rudolf as humorous and popular. His portrait on the tomb slab was praised by contemporaries of the late 13th century for its closeness to reality. According to Martin Büchsel, the grave slab does not show the character image of a sullen and resigned ruler, but the new royal image after the end of the interregnum. The tomb figure was lost for centuries and was damaged. Its restoration in the 19th century is problematic, as it differs from the painting of the tomb slab, which Hans Knoderer was commissioned by Maximilian I to create. Now it is located in the pre-crypt of Speyer Cathedral.


In the 18th century, and especially in the Vormärz and Biedermeier periods of the 19th century, a large number of poems, dramas and sagas were written about Rudolf of Habsburg. Not least as the first Habsburg to be elected Roman-German king, Rudolf was a popular subject. Due to their dynastic-Habsburgian perspective, German-language dramas often glorified Rudolf von Habsburg (Anton von Klein: Rudolf von Habsburg 1787; Anton Popper: Rudolf von Habsburg 1804). In poetry, the virtues of humility and piety were often emphasized for the characterization of the Habsburg. In his 1803 poem Der Graf von Habsburg (The Count of Habsburg), Friedrich Schiller addressed “the emperorless, the terrible time” that ended with Rudolf”s election. By the time Schiller finished his poem in April, the Holy Roman Empire had become little more than a historical entity as a result of the Imperial Deputation. The adaptations by August von Kotzebue (Rudolph von Habsburg und König Ottokar von Böhmen 1815) and Christian Ludwig Schönes (Rudolf von Habsburg 1816) attempted to dramatically exaggerate the Habsburg by highlighting the negative sides of the Bohemian king. In his play King Ottokar”s Fortune and End (1825), Franz Grillparzer brought Rudolf”s conflict with the Bohemian king to the stage. Rudolf appears as a peace-bringer in a soldier”s skirt who has returned from the crusade. Grillparzer paralleled the fate of Ottokar with that of Napoleon Bonaparte.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria had a tomb erected by Ludwig Schwanthaler in Speyer Cathedral in 1843. In Vienna, Arthur Strasser created a statue of Rudolf in 1912. Near Germersheim, the four-lane Rhine bridge completed there since 1971 was named Rudolf-von-Habsburg Bridge on October 18, 2008.

Research History

Historians in Germany in the 19th century searched for the reasons for the delayed emergence of the German nation-state. The epoch of the German imperial period from 900 to 1250 was described as the Golden Age, because the German empire of the Ottonians, Salians and Hohenstaufen held the pre-eminence in Europe and surpassed the other empires in size, splendor and power. Historians viewed medieval history from the perspective of royal power. Rulers were measured according to whether they achieved an increase in power or at least prevented a decline in power vis-à-vis princes and the papacy. In this view of history, the Staufer Frederick II was considered the last representative of German imperial rule. With his death, medieval scholars have begun the Late Middle Ages, which were considered a period of decay and a dark time of powerlessness. Late medieval kings like Rudolf of Habsburg or Charles IV, who wanted to end the decline of imperial power, had failed because of the elective monarchy, in which the ruler had to buy the support of the electors with numerous concessions. Princes and popes were seen as representatives of self-interest who opposed the powerful unity of the empire. This image of history pervaded scholarly works until the second half of the 20th century. Since the 1970s, the late Middle Ages have come into greater focus through the research of Ernst Schubert, František Graus and Peter Moraw. Since then, kingship is no longer seen from the point of view of an irreconcilable opposition between king and princes, but it is emphasized that the interaction of king and princes was “part of the naturally practiced consensual decision-making structure”.

In 1903, Oswald Redlich published a monumental biography of Rudolf of Habsburg with a large German Catholic orientation. The 800-page work is still regarded as irreplaceable by experts today due to its comprehensive evaluation of sources. Redlich saw “Rudolf”s importance and his merit for Germany” in the fact that “he recognized with clear vision the downfall of the old empire, that in courageous determination he dropped all those Hohenstaufen claims, that he wanted to limit the new kingship and emperorship essentially to German soil”. Redlich”s comprehensive account could be one reason why thereafter the reign of Rudolf of Habsburg has met with little interest in historical scholarship.

Peter Moraw, in his 1989 account Von offener Verfassung zu gestalteter Verdichtung (From Open Constitution to Shaped Condensation), called the period from Rudolf”s reign to that of Henry VII the age of the “little kings.” Compared to the other European kingdoms, the structural foundations of Roman-German kingship had been inferior. On the occasion of the 700th anniversary of his death, a conference was held in Passau in November 1991. Franz-Reiner Erkens assessed the Habsburg ruler overall as a “pragmatist of conservative character” and showed how much the Hohenstaufen tradition had continued to have an effect even after the interregnum. Erkens saw innovative approaches in the reorganization of the imperial castle system, in urban taxation and in dynastic power politics. At the Passau conference, Moraw elaborated on his thesis of the “little kings” with regard to Rudolf. It met with both criticism and approval in the historical community. One hundred years after Redlich”s work, Karl-Friedrich Krieger presented a new biography in 2003. Krieger identified in Rudolf a “pragmatic attitude” that had given him the opportunity to “set signs for the future”. Accordingly, it was Rudolf”s merit to have “fundamentally reactivated the royal power of peace, which had already been largely abandoned during the interregnum, and to have brought it to renewed validity. In contrast to Moraw”s view, Krieger considers the first king from the Habsburg dynasty “due to his abilities and energy not a ”little” but an important king”, “who does not have to fear comparison with other contemporary rulers or with his late medieval successors in the empire”.

To mark the 800th anniversary of his birth, the European Foundation Imperial Cathedral of Speyer organized a scientific symposium on “King Rudolf I and the Rise of the House of Habsburg in the Middle Ages” in April 2018 under the direction of Bernd Schneidmüller and Stefan Weinfurter. The contributions to the conference were edited by Schneidmüller in 2019. The symposium is the prelude to the study of the topic, which will lead to a special exhibition on the Habsburgs in the Middle Ages at the Historisches Museum Speyer in 2023.



Encyclopedia articles and survey works


  1. Rudolf I. (HRR)
  2. Rudolf I of Germany