In an essay on Maximilian I (1459-1519), the celebrated English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper relates how at his death in 1519, the Habsburg Emperor was “generally regarded as a complete failure.” The lack of achievement and the succession of bad luck could indeed strike anyone as almost singular.
After the death of his first wife Mary of Burgundy, the richest heiress in Europe, the Burgundian nobles lost no time in kicking Maximilian out of the country. At some point, he was even imprisoned and had to be saved by his father. The poor man lost custody of his own two children with Mary and had to leave them behind.
From there on, he occupied himself chiefly with wars – extremely expensive ones, which he almost invariably lost. The vast ambitions of some of his projects make the failures even more visible. Maximilian’s constant talk of a crusade against the Turks came to nothing. His rather bizarre plan of becoming Pope never materialized either. He even proposed to write 130 books and claimed that 30 out of them had been written!
The Emperor must have been an embarrassment to those around and in an attempt to brighten the picture a bit, some of his contemporaries paid him the compliment of being “one of the greatest hunters of all times.” The comment of Julius II, the Pope at the time, was that it was exactly because of trivial pursuits as these that the Emperor never had money for serious things.
And yet, it was Maximilian I, who was largely responsible for turning a relatively minor noble family into the greatest power in Europe. In the sixteenth century, the Habsburgs spread from Spain in the South to Flanders in the North. Milan and Naples were theirs, as were Bohemia and Hungary. How did this happen?
Not through wars, as this was not where Maximilian’s strengths lay, but through dynastic marriages. In other words, it’s not as a great warrior, but as a great match-maker that Maximilian shines. What makes his match-making any different from that we encounter in a Jane Austin novel is its huge political and historical implications. The marriage of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, however important for them, is not the stuff of world history as the union that Maximilian arranged between his son, Philip the Handsome, who was already Duke of Burgundy (so present-day Belgium, Holland, and parts of France), and Joanna of Castile, who would eventually inherit Spain, nor his own, second marriage this time into the Sforza family of Milan. `Not a bad achievement for someone who had seemed a “universal failure.”