Alfred Kohler. Ferdinand I. 1503-1564: FÖ¼rst, KÖ¶nig und Kaiser. Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2003. 377 pp. EUR 29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-406-50278-1.
Reviewed by James D. Tracy (Department of History, University of Minnesota)
Published on HABSBURG (October, 2003)
Redressing the Balance: Ferdinand I and Charles V
Redressing the Balance: Ferdinand I and Charles V
As a biographer of Charles V, Prof. Kohler is well aware of the difficulties facing a biographer of the emperor's younger brother: "Auch gegenwärtig ist Ferdinand - zum Leidwesen der HistorikerInnen - ein wenig bekannter und vor allem in seiner Bedeutung unterschätzer Herrscher . . . Unterschätzt zunächst deshalb, weil er neben seinem älteren Bruder, der sich im Gegensatz zu Ferdinand zum sinnstiftenden Ahnen Europas vorzüglich zu eignen scheint, förmlich verblasst" (p. 317), he writes.
To give Ferdinand his due, the author sets out to provide an account of his accomplishments as a ruler. Above all, he contends, Ferdinand was the "founder" of a Danubian monarchy that wrote a Habsburg ending to a centuries-old struggle for preeminence among the powers of Central Europe (Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland). True enough, one might say, but surely a matter of Ferdinand's good fortune, not of achievements on his part. His claim to the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary followed on the death of King Louis II at the battle of Mohacs (1526), according to the terms of the Habsburg-Jagellio marriage treaty of 1515. Moreover, as Kohler acknowledges, Ferdinand kept his hold over a rebellious Bohemia only because of Charles V's victory at nearby Mühlberg (1547), and he was able to preserve the Habsburg portion of Hungary only because of a series of five-year truces with the Ottomans, beginning the same year. One might add that this policy of accommodation with the Porte was more Charles's idea than Ferdinand's.
Nonetheless, Kohler supports his claim for Ferdinand's pivotal role in the history of Central Europe by showing how his reign left each of the principal components of the Danubian monarchy with a more cohesive central government, and thus a greater capacity to withstand the centripetal pressures that were endemic in lands where the separate political traditions of the provinces were anchored in representative institutions.
The Austrian patrimony that Ferdinand received when the two brothers ivided their inheritance was made up of six duchies plus the Vorlande, joined in three loose groupings. Here the territorial estates, having developed in recent decades a high conception of their own prerogatives, were more than ready to challenge the claims of a young and inexperienced ruler, with foreign advisers at his side. With some help from Charles, Ferdinand was able to face down claims by the estates that governing authority following Maximilian's death devolved to them, not to the new Archduke. In Austria below the Enns, where the opposition movement had been strongest, twelve leaders of the estates were convicted of capital crimes and put to death; while this application of force majeure was seen by liberal historians of the nineteenth century as a "bloodbath," Kohler argues that contemporaries saw it rather as an instance of the severity by which rulers had to maintain their authority.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand's finance minister, Gabriel de Salamanca, made himself hated by his rigor in demanding crown revenues, partly to pay off Ferdinand's share of the mountain of debt left by Maximilian. At a General Diet of the Austrian lands, convened in Augsburg (November 1525), Ferdinand agreed to dismiss his foreign advisers, in return for promises by the estates to raise extraordinary subsidies of 100,000 gulden a year for four years, plus 50,000 for defense against the Ottomans. The fact that the 'native' councillors Ferdinand now installed formed a Privy Council on the Low Countries model was in Kohler's estimation a "turning point" (p. 88) of the reign. Envoys to the court in Vienna - notably those sent by Charles V - often characterized members of Ferdinand's inner circle as venal and avaricious. Kohler suspects that the true problem with these men was they blocked access to the gregarious Archduke; since the complaints of foreign emissaries were "interessenbezogen" (p. 143), they need not be taken too seriously. The real significance of the Privy Council, led initially by Bernhard von Cles (d. 1539), and in Ferdinand's years as Emperor by Georg Seld (d. 1562), was that it gave the Austrian lands a new and coherent sense of direction from the center.
Rather like the Austrian patrimony of the Habsburgs, the crown of Bohemia was comprised of five distinct principalities: Bohemia proper, Moravia, Silesia, and Upper and Lower Lusatia. Following recent scholarship on the Bohemian lands available in German, Kohler notes that under the easy-going rule of a Jagellonian dynasty based in Buda, the royal council itself had become a "ständisches Kollegium"(p. 157). Also, Zdenek Lev von Rozmital, who had been Administrator (Landesverweser) in the king's name since 1512, presided over a patronage network independent of and in competition with that of the crown. Most crown lands acquiesced without difficulty in Ferdinand's succession, but in Bohemia proper, where the two branches of the Hussite movement remained strong, the estates demanded and got an acknowledgment by Ferdinand of the kingdom's elective character.
Explicitly critical of a regime in which the king had been no more than an equal partner with the estates, Ferdinand found support from nobles opposed to Rozmital, and from the outer territories, not always eager to follow Bohemia's lead. By slowly building up new offices that competed with those controlled by the estates, he gave credence to the claim that the crown represented a universa respublica, a bonum commune to be maintained, if necessary, against the estates. Thus Ferdinand's accession in 1526 really did mark a Zäsur in the history of the Bohemian lands (p. 158), although not (one might add) in the negative sense in which the point has been made by Czech nationalist historians.
Hungary's estates were of course divided after the untimely death of Louis II, with the majority of nobles supporting Ferdinand's rival for the throne, Janos Szapolyai. Kohler endorses the view of recent Ottoman scholarship that the Porte's strategy in Hungary was defensive, not offensive. But even after Ferdinand abandoned his ambitions in central Hungary (following the disastrous Buda campaign of 1541), he could hardly count on the Sultan's peaceful intentions. The estates of Habsburg Hungary (roughly, modern Slovakia and Croatia) resisted efforts to control the realm's defenses from Vienna. Yet 20,000 garrison soldiers and 100 to 120 border fortresses could not be supported from Habsburg Hungary's revenues. Thus while a financial administration based (after 1541) in Bratislava funneled into Hungary needed support from other Habsburg lands, from 1557 a Hofkriegsrat based in Vienna oversaw the protection of a long and still contested frontier.
As for imperial politics, Kohler stresses Ferdinand's role in the conclusion of the Peace of Augsburg (1555). "Es ist gewiss keine Übertreibung, Ferdinand als 'Vater' des Religionsfriedens zu bezeichnen" (p. 317). One may indeed see, as Kohler does, a kind of declaration of independence from Charles in Ferdinand's decision (1552) to seek a permanent religious peace, as opposed to previous agreements, all for a term of years. No doubt the bitter family dispute about the imperial succession--in which Charles insisted on having his way--helped create a new basis for understanding between the King of the Romans and the imperial princes. Even though Charles had been living in the German lands since the First Schmalkaldic War, Ferdinand will also have understood, better than his brother, the dire consequences that a second prolonged conflict of this kind might have for the Empire.
Finally, there was a difference in religious outlook between the brothers that arguably had deeper roots. Unlike Charles, Ferdinand made it clear to his confessors that he was not interested in their political advice. Ferdinand did not give up on the possibility of a religious reconciliation until after the failure of the second Regensburg Colloquy (March 1546), but Charles had already decided on a strike against the Schmalkaldic League some months previously. If Charles had friends of Erasmus in his entourage until about 1530, but not later, Ferdinand's inner circle consistently included men who were or had been in touch with Erasmus; not unlike the Rotterdam humanist himself, these men were suspicious of the combination of Spanish and papal interests that Charles V represented. As Kohler notes of Ferdinand's years as Emperor, his advisors on questions of needed reforms in the Catholic Church included the former priest and former Lutheran pastor Georg Witzel, a man whose presence in the entourage of Charles would have been "schwer vorstellbar" (p. 147).
When a book handles so many pertinent topics as well as this one does, it may seem ungracious to demand more. But if Prof. Kohler's aim was to push back the historical shadow into which Ferdinand has been cast by his older brother, he might usefully have addressed Charles's advantages as a ruler, notably the banking networks that supported his campaigns. Kohler provides useful information about the revenues of Ferdinand's realms, but to a ruler of this era credit mattered more than revenue. To what extent were Ferdinand's options limited by a lack of the special kinds of revenues that attracted a banker's notice (like Spain's Cruzada, or its specie from the Indies), and also (especially to the east) by a lack of the credit networks that kept Charles's soldiers on the march?
Also, if Charles had particular skills in marshaling his forces and commanding his men in battle, what is to be said about Ferdinand as a military leader? Certain snatches of the correspondence between the two-- notably in the months prior to Mühlberg, when Ferdinand was unable to answer a direct question about how many men he could bring to Charles's assistance--do not seem to put the younger brother in a very favorable light. While it is true (as Kohler remarks) that Charles reneged on his promise to come to the aid of the Hungary estates, in the case of a direct Ottoman attack, one must also consider the possibility that Charles had good reason to avoid major commitments in a region far from his lines of supply, where bankers were in short supply, and where Ferdinand's record as an enterpriser of war was not one to inspire confidence.
To my knowledge, Ferdinand I is the best attempt to date at redressing the balance between the two brothers. But if there were indeed real differences between Ferdinand and Charles, they should not be seen as working against each other's long-term interests; they represented different but complementary paths, each marked by successes and failures along the way, toward a European pre-eminence of the domus Austriae.
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James D. Tracy. Review of Kohler, Alfred, Ferdinand I. 1503-1564: FÖ¼rst, KÖ¶nig und Kaiser.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.