August 26th in German History: The Battle on the Marchfeld

Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Die Schlacht Rudolfs von Habsburg gegen Ottokar von Böhmen.jpg
Battle of Rudolph of Habsburg against Ottokar of Bohemia by Julius Schorr von Carolsfeld.

The Habsburg dynasty is commonly the object of ridicule and humor for their slow decline that began in the 17th century and ended with the destruction of Austria-Hungary at the end of WWI. However, for nearly a millennia they were the preeminent force in Central Europe and at times held sway over entire continents. The Battle on the Marchfeld, fought on August 26th, 1278, saw the beginning of the rise of the Habsburg dynasty and the weakening of its enemies.

The middle of the 12th century saw a succession crisis in the Holy Roman Empire. Ottokar II, King of Bohemia, had experienced a quick rise in power, acquiring numerous territories outside his homeland. The death of the emperor in 1250 had led to a series of powerless candidates. However, Ottokar’s rise frightened the German electors and in 1273 they made Rudolph of Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. Ottokar did not accept this decision, as it had been made in his absence, and refused to appear at the Imperial Diet in 1275. In response, Rudolph confiscated his new territories and besieged Ottokar in Vienna. Ottokar was forced to surrender in 1276 and was left with only Bohemia and Moravia as fiefs. Ottokar looked to regaining his lost lands and allied with Brandenburg, Poland, and Lower Bavaria and invaded Habsburg territory. Rudolph marched out of Vienna and met with his Hungarian allies to give battle. Ottokar had 1,000 heavy cavalry and 5,000 light cavalry. Rudolph had 300 heavy and 4,000 light cavalry. In addition, he had 5,000 Cuman horse archers. The battle began with attacks by the Cumans on the heavy Bohemian horses. Despite initial losses, the Bohemians did well when the armies first collided. However, three hours of fighting on a hot summer day exhausted the heavily armored Bohemians. To make matters worse, Rudolph ordered a fresh unit of heavy cavalry that he had concealed to attack Ottokar’s flank. Ottokar tried to attack this unit in the rear, but the maneuver was interpreted as a rout by his men. The Bohemian lines collapsed and in the ensuing panic Ottokar was killed.

The destruction of the Bohemian Army and the death of Ottokar secured Rudolph’s position as Holy Roman Emperor. He was relatively merciful to his enemy. He displayed Ottokar’s body in Vienna, and he did allow the dead king’s son to rule Bohemia. He installed his sons as Austrian dukes and their descendants would control Austria until 1918. In one day, the Battle on the Marchfeld elevated a dynasty that would rule for the next seven centuries.

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