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The Holy Roman Empire

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was also King Charles I of Spain. Charles divided his Spanish and central European lands between two family members. His brother Ferdinand would rule the empire as Ferdinand I. Although the formal transfer of power did not take place until 1556, Ferdinand had already been ruling the Austrian Hapsburg lands for thirty years.

Ferdinand’s major foreign-policy goal was to withstand the constant threat of Turkish invasion. In 1529, the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna. The next seventeen years saw repeated Turkish invasions that the Austrians managed to repel; however, the Turks could always be counted on to come back and try again. In 1547, a peace treaty divided Hungary into three zones: Royal Hungary under Ferdinand’s rule, Transylvania under its own rule, and the rest—the largest share—under Turkish control.

As Holy Roman Emperor and also king of both Bohemia and Hungary, Ferdinand ruled over a diverse population that included ethnic Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians. His subjects were also religiously mixed, including both Lutherans and Catholics. Ferdinand believed that the only way to manage such a varied population was to maintain a centrally controlled, efficient civil service. He established three councils of government: one executive, one administrative, and one judicial. He retained the loyalty and cooperation of the great landlords by allowing them most of the responsibility for day-to-day government at the local level. He also allowed his subjects freedom of worship; as a Catholic, Ferdinand would have preferred to rule a Catholic realm, and as Holy Roman Emperor he was obliged to favor the Catholic cause. However, his attempts to do so involved persuasion rather than force, and he certainly preferred Lutheranism to the Islam practiced by the Turks. Like other successful monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ferdinand realized that no government would ultimately succeed in dictating the personal faith of its subjects.

Ferdinand I had laid the foundations of a united Austrian state. Although he divided his lands among his sons on his death in 1564, Austria would emerge from the Thirty Years’ War as a relatively strong, unified empire.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Europe in 16th Century Practice Test

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