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Ernest, Duke of Austria

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Duke of Austria
Ernest the Iron.jpg
Portrait, c. 1580
Bruck an der Mur, Styria
Died(1424-06-10)10 June 1424
Bruck an der Mur
Noble familyHouse of Habsburg
Spouse(s)Margaret of Pomerania
Cymburgis of Masovia
Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor
Albert VI, Archduke of Austria
Alexander of Austria
Rudolf of Austria
Catherine of Austria
Leopold of Austria
Anna of Austria
Ernest of Austria
FatherLeopold III, Duke of Austria
MotherViridis Visconti

Ernest the Iron (German: Ernst der Eiserne; 1377 – June 10, 1424), a member of the House of Habsburg, ruled over the Inner Austrian duchies of Styria, Carinthia and Carniola from 1406 until his death. He was head of the Habsburg Leopoldian line from 1411.

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He was one of the longest reigning monarchs in history, sitting on the Imperial throne for nearly 68 years. He ascended to the throne during a time of revolution and his reign ended during a time of global war. And on this day 100 years ago, he died in a time of crisis for his empire. I’m speaking of none other than the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Josef. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War bio special episode about Emperor Franz Josef. Erzherzog Franz Josef Karl von Österreich, Archduke Franz Josef Karl of Austria, was born August 18th, 1830. He came to power in a time of great political turmoil. The February revolution in France in 1848 that would see Napoleon III become first President, then Emperor there, was just the beginning of the civilian unrest that turned to open revolution throughout Europe. In Austria-Hungary, Emperor Ferdinand would stand on his balcony and watch the masses marching toward his palace. Ferdinand was a weak monarch, and his Minister-President Felix zu Schwarzenberg, the 6th of the year, persuaded him to abdicate in favor of his nephew, Franz Josef. I’m not going to go in to detail on the 1848 actions here and the fall of Metternich, but your homework is to look it up, because it’s good to know. On December 2, 1848, the 18-year-old Franz Josef became Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, and King of Croatia. The violent revolt at his doorstep had convinced the young Emperor that the military would be the key to his empire’s continued existence. And that empire was consolidated into a centralized state with the March 1849 constitution and the help of the Russian army to quell rebellion in Hungary. Over the first part of his reign, Franz Josef hoped to invigorate his monarchy with a reactionary approach, centralizing power in Vienna, though this antagonized the elite in Poland and Hungary. After his defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, he gradually realized that his neo-absolutism, though strong theoretically, would not secure the political and financial support of the elite in a multi-national empire. He opened negotiations with Hungary, the most powerful and most disgruntled ally about a new constitution that would see fruition in 1867, giving Hungary special status in the now Austro-Hungarian Empire. In return the Hungarian parliament offered Franz Joseph the crown of Hungary, which they had denied him before in 1848. From this point on he opened his arms to his people in the east with the motto “viribus unitis”, with united forces, and perhaps nowhere displayed this more then during his famous Kaiserreise in 1880 through Poland and Galicia. By allowing political power to flow from Vienna to the provinces and freeing Polish culture he transformed the dissatisfied Polish into ardent patriots. He also gave the large Jewish population full citizens’ rights and acknowledged them publicly. I do have to point out though, that when ethnic Romanians in Transylvania petitioned for political power alongside that of the minority Hungarian population there, he turned a deaf ear to them. But he was generally quite well-loved. “Knightly and at the same time impressive as a courteous personage, the adored monarch has awakened in the hearts of all his subjects true patriotic inspiration, from which arises true love of throne and monarchy, promising to bring forth at each moment the most beautiful fruit of unshaken submissive loyalty.” In terms of his personal life, in 1852 he had traveled to Berlin partly to find a wife, partly to built stronger ties with the northern German states. Both failed due to Prussian influence. He would marry Elisabeth from Bavaria, known as “Sissi”, and though the marriage was not unhappy, it was distant. Elisabeth hated the stiff nature of the Austrian court, while Franz Josef was devoted to his duties. He believed it to be his God given duty to run the empire. He awoke each day at 4 AM to attend to affairs of state. Though he did meddle in all those affairs, he was never really a despot. He would never be ironhanded like the Russian Tsars, but he would also never identify himself with the Germanic people of his empire like, say, Kaiser Wilhelm. It wasn’t other monarchs, though, that were most dangerous to the Austrian state back then, though, but rather future German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck - at the time Prussian Minister President and Foreign Minister. Bismarck saw that in a coming German Empire, the multi-cultural Austria-Hungary had no place and Prussian dominance had to be established, if need be on the battlefield. Even after losing to the French, Franz Josef felt his army could go toe to toe with Prussia, but its lack of modernization in terms of weapons and tactics showed on the battlefield at Königgrätz in 1866. This ended the seven-week war between Austria and Prussia and resulted in Austria losing Venetia, but also its voice in the Deutsche Bund, the German Confederation created in 1815. Franz Josef was now cut off from German politics. Many of his generals urged revenge, perhaps through an alliance with France, and timing certainly suggested that as France and Prussia headed for war in 1870, but he did not want another “brotherly” war, and Franz Josef detested Napoleon III. You can decide for yourself if this was a missed opportunity or not, but you can see how one person sets the course for an empire. But this was the thing; Franz Josef’s empire didn’t have many friends. France or Britain might have been a viable partner, since Austria had no intercontinental colonial aspirations, but Franz Josef was looking to the Balkans, which was growing to be quite the tinderbox. The Austrian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 provoked a lot of anti-Austrian sentiment down there, which Russia was happy to exploit, and over the last couple of decades of the 19th century, Austria ended up growing more and more dependent on what was now the German Empire as its ally. And Franz Josef grew more fatalistic in outlook. Much of this stemmed from disasters in his personal life. Over the years his daughter died, his mother died, his two brothers died. A huge tragedy was the suicide of his son and heir to the throne Rudolf in 1889, and then Elizabeth was murdered by an Italian anarchist. Franz Josef, though he loved his son, had hated his son’s liberal policies, and Rudolf’s successor as heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared himself the strongest opposition to the emperor, and Franz Josef became increasingly isolated. By the time of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and the July Crisis in 1914, the old emperor had no one to rely on but the voices of his military high command, particularly his Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had repeatedly urged him to wage war in the Balkans. By repeatedly, I mean dozens of times. He still wasn’t goaded into war with Serbia, though, and only issued his ultimatum to Serbia after he was personally convinced that other nations would not intervene. He was way wrong about that. He felt that he was going to war not in anger, but what he saw was Austria’s rightful place in the world. During the war, he left military decisions to his general staff. What he did was endorse war funds and work to help war widows, orphans, the hungry, and the homeless. As long as he lived, he was the public symbol of the unity of the Empire, and his soldiers had a common beloved father figure. In fact, many soldiers from various ethnicities of the empire, Polish, Hungarian, Ruthenian, and so forth, still felt that they owed their rights to him, and many identified loyally to the Empire with loyalty to Franz Josef. It was an enormous blow to the nation and the war effort when he died November 21st, 1916, aged 86, of pneumonia of the right lung. He was very much a man of the 19th century, and it’s not a stretch to say that his policies and visions did not really have a place in the world of the 20th century. He saw his power as Divine Right, and hated political innovations and more modern liberal ideas. He was no politician, but he did love his people and wished only to preserve his empire, which had been deeply scarred by the events of his youth. However, he couldn’t compete with Bismarck’s genius and he was unwilling to drag his country out of its political isolation, which led to its eventual dependence on Germany as its major ally, his personal dependence on his military leaders, and the events that culminated in the First World War.



Ernest was born in Bruck an der Mur in Styria, the third son of Duke Leopold III of Austria (1351–1386) and his consort Viridis Visconti (d. 1414), a daughter of Bernabò Visconti, Lord of Milan. Shortly after his birth, his father and his uncle Albert III divided the Habsburg lands by the 1379 Treaty of Neuberg: while Albert and his Albertinian descendants would rule over the Duchy of Austria proper, the Leopoldian line received the Inner Asutrian states of Styria, Carinthia and Carniola with the remaining March of Istria, as well as Tyrol and the Further Austrian possessions. After Leopold's death in the 1386 Battle of Sempach, young Ernest and his brothers William, Leopold IV and Frederick IV remained under the guardianship of their uncle Albert III.

Coat of arms of Duke Ernest of Austria (1627)
Coat of arms of Duke Ernest of Austria (1627)

In 1401 Ernest accompanied King Rupert of Germany on his campaign to Italy. When their elder brother William died in 1406, the remaining three sons of Leopold III agreed about the partition of their patrimony: In the separation agreement of 1406, Ernest received Styria, Carinthia and Carniola, and jointly with his elder brother Leopold IV (the current head of the Leopoldian line) held the guardianship over their minor nephew Albert V of Austria, grandson of Duke Albert III. Tyrol and Further Austria passed to the youngest brother Frederick IV.

In 1407, however, conflicts between Leopold and Ernest resulted in a civil war that lasted until May 1409. When Leopold died without male heirs in 1411, Ernest finally became the uncontested head of the Leopoldian branch. In 1414, he became the last Duke to be enthroned according to Carantanian traditional rite at the Prince's Stone in Carinthia, and from that time on called himself 'archduke'. He was the first Habsburg to actually use this title, which had been invented by his uncle Duke Rudolf IV.

Ernest was made a member of the Order of the Dragon and of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1414, however, he became bitter with the Luxembourg king Sigismund from 1412 onwards. When his brother Frederick IV, a supporter of Antipope John XXIII at the Council of Constance, was banned by the king in 1417, Ernest first attempted to gain control over Frederick's territories himself, but then came to an agreement with him and successfully defended Tyrol against Sigismund's pretensions. Ernest turned out to be a capable ruler of the Inner Austrian lands; his eldest son Frederick V would become sole heir of all Habsburg lines, elected King of the Romans in 1440 and crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1452.

Ernest died at Bruck an der Mur, and was buried in the Cistercian monastery of Rein near Graz. His nickname the Iron only came into use after his death.

Family and children

Ernest the Iron and his sons
Ernest the Iron and his sons

On 14 January 1392, Ernest married his first wife, Margaret of Pomerania. She was a daughter of the Griffin duke Bogislaw V of Pomerania and his second wife, Adelheid of Brunswick-Grubenhagen. They had no children. She died in either 1407 or 1410, according to contradictory necrologies.

Margaret of Pomerania
Margaret of Pomerania

On 25 January 1412, Ernest married his second wife, the Piast princess Cymburgis of Masovia, who was his equal in vitality and with whom he had nine children:

As the ruler of Inner Austria and founder of the older Styrian line of the Habsburgs, which, by their son, Frederick III survived the Albertinian (Austrian) and Tyrolean lines, Ernest and Cymburgis became the ancestors of all later emperors of the Habsburg Monarchy.


External links

Ernest, Duke of Austria
Born: 1377 Died: 10 June 1424
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Duke of Styria, Carinthia and Carniola
Succeeded by
Frederick V &
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