Duke of Austria

Duchy of Austria
Herzogtum Österreich
State of the Holy Roman Empire

Flag Coat of arms
Austria (Marchia Orientalis in blue)
before its separation from the Bavarian lands
Capital Vienna
Languages German
(Central Bavarian)
Religion Roman Catholicism
Government Feudal monarchy
Duke of Austria
 -  1141–1177 Henry II
(first duke, from 1156)
 -  1230–1246 Frederick II
(last Babenberg duke)
 -  1278–1291 Rudolf I
(first Habsburg duke)
 -  1330–1358 Albert II²
(last nominal duke)
Historical era Middle Ages
 -  Privilegium Minus 1156
 -  Archduchy recognised
    by the Empire
1: Jointly duke until 1344, firstly with Otto, Duke of Austria, then with Leopold V, Duke of Austria.

The Duchy of Austria was a state of the Holy Roman Empire established in 1156 according to the so-called Privilegium Minus, when the former March of Austria (Ostarrîchi) was ultimatively detached from the Duchy of Bavaria and became a duchy in its own right.


In the beginning, the duchy was comparatively small by area, roughly comprising what is today the Austrian state of Lower Austria, on the northern and southern shore of the broad Danube River east of ("below") the Enns tributary. It was the site of the Carolingian Avar March. It was established by Charlemagne in about 800, lost to the invading Magyars in the 907 Battle of Pressburg, and re-established as a Bavarian march upon the victory of King Otto I of Germany in the 955 Battle of Lechfeld.

Drosendorf, Raabs, Laa and several other fortifications along the Thaya River in the north of the historic Waldviertel and Weinviertel regions, separated by the Manhartsberg range, marked the border with the Duchy of Bohemia (elevated to a Kingdom in 1198) and the Moravian lands, both held by the Czech Přemyslid dynasty. In the east, the border with the Kingdom of Hungary (present-day Slovakia) had been gradually shifted towards the plains of the Morava (March) River and the Vienna Basin. On the right shore of the Danube, the lower Leitha River would mark the Imperial–Hungarian border for centuries. In the south, Austria bordered on the Styrian lands, which were elevated to a duchy in 1180 and then also comprised the area beyond the Vienna Woods around later Wiener Neustadt and Neunkirchen (the former County of Pitten) up to the Semmering and Wechsel Pass.


House of Babenberg

Although today closely associated with the Habsburg dynasty, until 1246, Austria was a feudal possession of the (younger) House of Babenberg. Margrave Leopold the Generous (1136–1141) was a loyal liensman of the Imperial House of Hohenstaufen in the struggle with the Bavarian Welf dynasty. In 1139 King Conrad III of Germany deposed the Welf duke Henry the Proud, he gave the Bavarian duchy to his half-brother Margrave Leopold. Even Leopold's brother and successor Henry Jasomirgott was enfeoffed with Bavaria in 1141. In 1156 the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick Barbarossa approached a settlement with the Welfs. At the 1156 Imperial Diet in Regensburg, Henry Jasomirgott had to renounce the Bavarian duchy in favour of Henry the Lion. In compensation, the Babenberg margraviate was elevated to an equal duchy, confirmed by numerous privileges granted by the Privilegium Minus issued on 17 September.

The new Austrian duke took his residence at Vienna at the site of the later Hofburg Palace. He also founded Schottenstift Abbey as the Babenberg proprietary church, settled with Irish monks. The Austrian lands prospered due to the favourable location on the Danube as an important trade route from Krems and Mautern via Vienna down to Hungary and the Byzantine Empire. For a short time, the Babenbergs came to be one of the most influential ruling families in the Empire, peaking under the reign of Leopold V the Virtous (1177–1194) and Leopold VI the Glorious (1194–1230). In 1186, they signed the Georgenberg Pact with the first and last Otakar duke Ottokar IV of Styria and upon his death in 1192 acquired the adjacent Styrian lands in the south, which were to be ruled in personal union until 1918. They also expanded their territory into the old Bavarian lands west of the Enns River, along the Traun, down to the city of Linz, the future capital of Upper Austria.

Duke Leopold V joined the Third Crusade and the Siege of Acre in 1191, where he picked a fierce quarrel with King Richard the Lionheart, allegedly over Leopold's raising of the Austrian flag. On his way home through Austria, the English king was abducted and arrested at Dürnstein Castle, and only released against an enormous ransom, which the duke used to lay out the Wiener Neustadt fortification near the Hungarian border. His son Leopold VI, sole ruler of the Austrian and Styrian lands from 1198, married the Byzantine princess Theodora Angelina and was able to marry his daughter Margaret to Henry of Hohenstaufen, son of Emperor Frederick II. Notable minnesingers like Reinmar von Hagenau and Walther von der Vogelweide were regular guests at the Vienna court and Middle High German poetry flourished, the Nibelungenlied poem probably arose in the Austrian lands.

However, Leopold's son Duke Frederick II the Warlike soon after his accession in 1230 entered into fierce conflicts not only with the Austrian nobility, but also with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia, King Andrew II of Hungary and even with Emperor Frederick II for the alleged entanglement in the rebellion of his brother-in-law Henry of Hohenstaufen, which earned him an Imperial ban and his expulsion from Vienna in 1236. Though he could later reconcile with the Emperor, the border conflict with Hungary culminated in several clashes of arms from 1242 onwards, after King Béla IV of Hungary had marched against Austria to reconquer the occupied lands. Frederick was killed in the 1246 Battle of the Leitha River, whereby the Babenberg line became extinct in the male line.

Fortune and fall of King Ottokar

The extinction led to an interregnum, a period of several decades during which the status of the country's rulers was disputed. According to feudal law, the heritable fees fell back to the suzerain, the Holy Roman Emperor. However, Emperor Frederick II in the last years of his rule was decisively enfeebled by the struggle with Pope Innocent IV and stuck in the Italian Wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. He died in 1250 and with the death of his son King Conrad IV of Germany in 1254, the line of Hohenstaufen rulers ended, only eight years after the extinction of the Babenberg dynasty. While in the following years of the "Great Interregnum" several candidates were elected King of the Romans, none of them able to actually control the Empire, the Austrian and Styrian laid vacant.

It was the ambitious Přemyslid ruler Ottokar II of Bohemia, son of King Wenceslaus I, who took the occasion to take over the rule in the lands of late Duke Frederick the Warlike. Referring to the Privilegium Minus, Pope Innocent IV against the feudal principle of patrilineal inheritance had confirmed the hereditary rights of Frederick's sister Margaret, widow of Henry of Hohenstaufen, and his niece Gertrude, who had married the Přemyslid margrave Vladislaus of Moravia, Ottokar's elder brother who died in 1247. Upon the death of Gertrude's second husband Margrave Herman VI of Baden in 1250, Ottokar invaded the Austrian lands, acclaimed by the local nobility. To substantiate his claims, he married Margaret (about 30 years his senior!) in 1252. Though contested by King Béla IV of Hungary, who referring to the Gertrude's third marriage with his relative Roman Danylovich occupied the Styrian lands, Ottokar prevailed, defeating the Hungarian troops at the 1260 Battle of Kressenbrunn. Bohemian king since 1253, he now was sole ruler of the Bohemian, Moravian, Austrian and Styrian lands—an anticipation of the Early Modern Habsburg Monarchy from 1526 onwards.

From 1269 Ottokar also effectively controlled the Duchy of Carinthia with Carniola and the Windic March further in the south, overall a Central European realm stretching from the Polish border in the Sudetes towards the Adriatic coast in the south. When he failed to be elected King of the Romans in 1273, he contested the election of the successful candidate, the Habsburg scion Rudolph I of Germany. Rudolph was able to secure his rule as the first actual German king after the "Great Interregnum" (1254–1273) following the death of the last Hohenstaufen king Conrad IV, and by his Imperial authority seized Ottokar's "alienated" territories. King Ottokar was finally defeated and killed in the 1278 Battle on the Marchfeld, and his Austrian domains were granted to Rudolph's sons and heirs, who added them to their already extensive homelands in Swabia.

House of Habsburg

Austria was ruled by the House of Habsburg for the next 640 years. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Habsburgs began to accumulate other provinces in the vicinity of Austria and Styria, which they had acquired from Ottokar. The Duchy of Carinthia and Duchy of Carniola came under Habsburg rule in 1335, the County of Tyrol in 1363. These provinces, together, became known as the Habsburg Hereditary Lands, although they were sometimes all lumped together simply as Austria.[1]

The history of the following two centuries were fairly turbulent for the duchy. Following the brief yet eventful rule of Duke Rudolf IV, his brothers Albert III and Leopold III divided the duchy between themselves, in accordance with the Treaty of Neuberg, signed in 1379. Albert retained Austria proper, while Leopold took the remaining territories. In 1402, there was another split in the Leopoldinian line, when Duke Ernest took Inner Austria (Styria, Carinthia and Carniola) and Duke Frederick IV became the ruler of Tyrol and Further Austria. The territories were eventually reunified by Ernest's son, Emperor Frederick III, when the Albertinian Line (1457) and the Elder Tyrolean line (1490) had become extinct.

In 1438, Albert II of Germany was chosen as the successor to his father-in-law, Emperor Sigismund. Although Albert's reign spanned only one year, the Habsburg line was elevated to the Imperial throne, and only two non-Habsburgs reigned during the period from 1438 until 1806, when the Empire was dissolved by Emperor Francis II.

See also


de:Geschichte Österreichs#Herzogtum Österreich unter den Babenbergern (1156–1246)
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