Rudolf of Habsburg, German king, b. May 1, 1218; d. at Speyer, July 15, 1291. He was the son of Albert IV, the founder of the Habsburg line, and Countess Heilwige of Kiburg. After the death of his father in the Holy Land, Rudolf pursued an independent line of politics. In the conflict between the papacy and the empire he supported the Hohenstaufens, and, during the interregnum, strove to increase the power of his house, especially in Switzerland. In his extensive domains, of which Swabia formed the center, he showed himself a good, if stern ruler, and especially in the south won many friends. At the instigation of Gregory X, who threatened to appoint a regent to govern the empire if steps were not taken to restore order to the country by the election of a prince who would exercise an effective rule, Rudolf was chosen emperor October 1, 1273. Towering but lean of stature, with bony cheeks and hooked nose, he was a courageous warrior, a skilled diplomat, and distinguished alike for unrelenting sternness and genial kindness. Six electors voted for Rudolf; the seventh, Ottakar of Bohemia, abstained from voting. This powerful king ruled from Meissen and the mountains in the north of Bohemia as far as the Adriatic, having added Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Krain to his inherited domains. When Ottakar was summoned to answer for this alienation of the imperial fiefs, Rudolf proved himself an astute politician in the proceedings against Bohemia. Recognizing that it was impossible to force the German princes to the position of vassals, he utilized every opportunity to enhance the power of his house, for only the possession of great domains could ensure for a German king a position of prominence. Supported by the Church, Rudolf began the war in 1276, and on the August 26, 1278, Ottakar lost his throne and his life. The ancient possessions of the Bohemian royal house were left to Ottakar’s son Wenceslaus, who was still a minor, but the Austrian lands had to be given up and were formally granted by Rudolf to his own sons, as according to the prevailing laws of the empire, the sovereign could not retain confiscated lands. In this manner Ostmark came permanently into the possession of the Habsburgs. Whether the downfall of Ottakar was a German success or not, is still an open question among scholars. In recent times, the opinion has prevailed that, far from being hostile to the Germans, Ottakar favored German immigration into Bohemia, and that, with the possession of the Austrian lands, he might perhaps have completely germanized Bohemia; and, had he secured the imperial crown, this powerful prince might have given a new importance to the imperial authority. The creation of a strong central power was also the object of Rudolf’s politics. For the consolidation of his kingdom about the Danube, peace and stability in Germany were necessary, and these only a strong imperial power could guarantee. There was no fixed imperial constitution, and the development of such would have been resisted by the territorial princes. Rudolf was shrewd enough to abstain from attempting forcibly to increase his constitutional powers, and contented himself with preserving such domains and rights as were still left to the crown. He sought to recover the many imperial possessions which had been lost since 1245, moreover he saw to it that the taxes laid upon the imperial cities and towns were duly paid; although he failed to establish uniform system of taxation owing to the resistance of many cities which had to be put down by force of arms before they came to an agreement with the Emperor.
With Rudolf began a period of national peace for Germany which was to last for two hundred years. Taking as his model the pacific settlement made by the Emperor Frederick II, in the Landfrieden at Mainz, in 1235, he drew up a number of agreements which, though often broken, were the chief means of protecting commerce and trade. But here also he had to be content, if the princes and towns really carried out these settlements to do which they claimed as their right and if they really checked the system of robbery, which, under the form of “feuds”, prevailed more and more. This however was not always the case. Even in such cases Rudolf did not take vigorous measures and prove practically that the maintenance of public peace was the duty of the Emperor. Lesser peace-breakers he punished; greater ones only in case they threatened his dynastic interests. In Swabia his governor (Landvogt), Count Albert of Hohenberg, fought without much success against Count Eberhard the Illustrious of Würtemberg; against Siegfried, the ambitious Metropolitan of Cologne, he proceeded by force of arms. But it was not the warlike measures of Rudolf, but the defeat of Siegfried near Worringen in 1288 by the Duke of Brabant in the quarrel concerning the inheritance of Duke Walram of Limburg that curbed the ambitious efforts of the archbishop. Rudolf was more successful in his efforts (1289) to settle the disputes in the House of Wettin. But his chief ambition, to secure the imperial crown for his house, he failed to realize. The electoral authority grew stronger during his reign, and the system of electing its kings remained the canker of the German Empire. Until the very last he endeavored to increase the power of his family; indeed, in the east of the empire, he created for his family such a position that a little later it developed into a decisive factor in the subsequent historical evolution of the German Empire. Meanwhile, considering the difficult conditions, he did very much to restore the unity of the empire. By his wise moderation he secured for himself general recognition, being the first emperor for a long period to achieve this end. The many diets which he held must also have strengthened the feeling of the unity of the empire. His foreign policy showed the same wise moderation. He abstained from taking any action in the Italian question, without however resigning the rights of the empire. However much the pope strove to secure the support of the German king against the powerful Charles of Anjou in order to check his power in the south of the peninsula, Rudolf was always able to skillfully avoid the overtures; even the attractions of the imperial crown were of no account in the eyes of this sober and calculating prince. In Burgundian affairs he interfered only as far as his action was likely to increase the power of his house, by strengthening it on the imperial frontiers towards Burgundy. Otherwise his policy in the West was guided by the principle of preserving peaceful relations with France. The death of this upright and popular monarch was received with lamentations throughout the empire. He was buried at Speyer.