Frederick the Peaceful (or Arch-sleepyhead of the Holy Roman Empire) was the first Holy Roman Emperor from the House of Habsburg; not to be confused with Frederick III (or Frederick the Fair/Handsome) who was King of Germany (and also a Habsburg) from 1314 until 1330. Note that our Frederick III was the fourth Frederick, King of Germany who reigned with that title from 1440 until 1493. Now that we have that cleared up, let us focus on the Holy Roman Emperor.
Born on September 21, 1415 to Ernest the Iron, of the Leopoldian branch of the house, and Cymburgis of Masovia in Innsbrook, Austria. When Ernest died in 1424, Frederick inherited the title of Duke of Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, which forms what was known as Inner Austria, when he was only 9 years old. Being so young Frederick required a regent to rule with him and so his uncle Frederick V, Duke of Further Austria served with him until 1435 when Frederick came of age and ruled alone.
Note: Inner Austria was the duchies of Styria, Carinthia, and Carninola. Further Austria was the duchy of Swabia (South-western Germany) and county of Tyrol, and the third is the archduchy of Austria (which includes upper Austria and lower Austria) with Vienna as its capitol.
In 1440, Frederick’s luck began. Albert (or Albrecht) V, who was Frederick’s cousin on the Albertinian side, died leaving open the positions of Archduke of Austria, King of Germany (as Albert II) and king of Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia. Albert left all these titles to his unborn son, Ladislaus the Posthumous, but no one wanted a child to hold the title as these lands were already threatened by other European powers. Ladislaus I became Duke of Austria at his birth with his mother and Frederick acting as regents. Frederick became sole regent after Ladislaus’ mother died in 1442.
In 1446, Frederick was released of his duties as regent but refused to free the boy so he could extend his his own role as the king of Hungary and Bohemia. Six years later Ladislaus was finally released from Frederick’s guardianship.
The same year that Frederick released Ladislaus, he went on a journey to Italy where he was to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. It is unclear how Frederick became Emperor other than he was good friends with Pope Nicholas V, he went on a pilgrimage in 1436 to the Holy Land, and he and the pope made Vienna a bishopric and diocese in its own right. All of these dealings with the pope seem to have played a hand in Frederick becoming Emperor. The coronation ceremony took place on the morning of March 19, 1452, the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned in Rome by a pope.
During his trip to Rome, Frederick was presented with his betrothed, Eleanor of Portugal, he was 37, she was 15. The two were married on March 16, 1452, 3 days before the couple were both anointed. Eleanor, being the daughter of King Edward of Portugal was rumored to have been offered a marriage with Louis (who would become Louis XI of France) but Eleanor chose Frederick because she preferred the title of Empress over Queen, or so that is the story. Eleanor would die in 1467.
The following period was rife with conflict. Ladislaus died before he reached age to rule the archduchy of Austria in 1457. The archduchy was then passed down to Frederick as Frederick V, Duke of Austria but not without competition from his younger brother Albert. Albert VI, Archduke of Austria, co-ruled the duchies of Austria with Frederick until his death in 1463.
Sixteen years after Ladislaus was freed, Frederick was still trying to become king of Bohemia, Croatia and Hungary. From 1468 until 1478 the Bohemian War took place where Frederick failed to secure the titles, and then again was defeated in the Austrian-Hungarian War from 1477 until 1488 by King Matthias Corvinus who was king of all three countries; Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia. King Matthias would also take Vienna in 1485. The Ottoman Empire even took advantage of the empire that was both financially and militarily weak; Constantinople was conquered in 1453.
There was an ongoing struggle between Frederick and Matthias ever since a faction of noblemen in 1439 elected Frederick as king of Hungary. Matthias did receive the majority vote but the damage had ultimately been done. Matthias had taken lower Austria, Moravia and Silesia before Vienna in 1485. No action to retrieve these lands was ever done by Frederick, all he did was live longer than Matthias.
King Matthias died in 1490, and upon his death all of Frederick’s lands were returned when Maximilian, Frederick’s son, conquered Austria for the family.
During all of this tension, Frederick and Eleanor were able to produce five children, two of whom would survive infancy: Maximilian in 1459 and Kunigunde in 1465. Both children would prove to be important players in the game of kings and emperors. Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in 1477 securing the large duchy for the Habsburg dynasty and making the family a power in Europe that was well on its way to becoming an Empire.
It wasn’t so easy to obtain the hand of Mary though, Frederick had to fight Charles the Bold during the Siege of Neuss from 1474 until 1475 where Frederick came out the victor and only a few years later Maximilian and Mary would marry. The occurrence of the wedding between the two gave rise to the motto of the Habsburg Dynasty, which was “Let others wage war, but you, happy Austria, shall marry”.
From 1486, Frederick and Maximilian co-ruled, both as Holy Roman Emperors. Maximilian I became emperor on February 16 and ruled as sole emperor 7 years later upon his father’s death.
At the age of 77, Frederick had to have his left foot amputated after it had become gangrenous but once the foot was removed, the infection spread to his left leg. His left leg was then amputated as well but it was not as successful as he had supposedly died from blood loss after the surgery in 1493 at the age of 77. He was the longest reigning German monarch lasting 53 years.
The nicknames “The Peaceful” and “Arch-Sleepyhead of the Holy Roman Empire” seem duly fitting since war and combat were the last ways in which Frederick wanted to handle conflict. His loses far outweigh his wins but that doesn’t mean he was not successful, he was patient and therefore ended up building the foundations for future Habsburgs to build upon. He has even been touted as being a successful leader by historians today.