The Last Knight - Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian

22 March 1459, 555 years ago, the King of the Romans, Holy Roman Emperor, scion of House Habsburg and Last Knight Maximilian I was born in Vienna.
“Bella gerant aliī, tū fēlix Austria nūbe/ Nam quae Mars aliīs, dat tibi regna Venus, "Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry; for those kingdoms which Mars gives to others, Venus gives to thee.” (16th century anonymous, paraphrasing Homer and Ovid)

Peter Paul Ruben’s (1577 – 1640) imagination of the Emperor wearing 
one of his famous suits of armour, the fantastically decorated 
Gothic-style armamentarium, that was later named “Maximilian” or “alla tedesca” 
in Italy (1618)

It was quite a statement, in the days when the printing press revolutionised communication, America was discovered and Constantinople fell for good and the power of nobility was checked by rich, educated burghers, to publish a courtly romance that celebrated a princely wedding, knightly adventures and even a crusade, especially when the author had a sideline job as Holy Roman Emperor. But the adventures of Sir Theuerdank and his “Brautfahrt”, his progress to wed Lady Ernreich, stand at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, contentual as well as publication-wise. The “last knight” Maximilian, a lifelong jousting champion who fenced better than he spoke Latin, the (at least co-) author of the chivalric novel Theuerdank, a highly educated Renaissance Prince, patron of Albrecht Dürer, taking full advantage of state-of-the-art technology like the printing press and acquiring debts from the mighty mercantile patricians and bankers, the Fugger, like any modern statesman, embodies the figurehead of the new age like no other European ruler.

Albrecht Dürer: "Portrait of Maximilian I" (1519)

The reign of Maximilian was marked by continuous wars and political strife with almost every state and federation great and small along the borders and in the disputed regions of the Holy Roman Empire. The last knight or the first cannoneer, as he was sometimes dubbed, since his days saw the final end of the proud armies of knights of the Middle Ages, lost more battles than he won. It was his marriage policy that secured the continued existence of the empire, his own weddings, those of his children and grandchildren. And so it came that his grandson and successor Charles V ruled an empire “on which the sun never sets” by inheriting the throne of Spain and her vast colonies in the New World and the Spanish Habsburgs came into existence as well as the alignment of the future Austro-Hungarian Empire towards Eastern Europe through his venereal approach on the Jagiellonians and Venus provided for the Habsburgs with the marriage of Maximilian’s granddaughter Mary with King Louis of Hungary whose dead at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 brought Bohemia and half of Hungary and Croatia into the folds of the Austrians.

Maximilian after his death, contemporary painting

When Maximilian felt death approaching in his late 50s, he carried a coffin in his baggage train for more than four years when he was travelling. Cancer of the intestine finally killed him at the age of 60 in Wels in Upper Austria and when he had received the last rites he ordered his body not to be embalmed but buried in a simple shroud, his hair shorn and his teeth broken out to be buried as the modest, penitent he never was during his life and times.

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