1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Matthias (emperor)
MATTHIAS (1557–1619), Roman emperor, son of the emperor Maximilian II. and Maria, daughter of the emperor Charles V., was born in Vienna, on the 24th of February 1557. Educated by the diplomatist O. G. de Busbecq, he began his public life in 1577, soon after his father’s death, when he was invited to assume the governorship of the Netherlands, then in the midst of the long struggle with Spain. He eagerly accepted this invitation, although it involved a definite breach with his Spanish kinsman, Philip II., and entering Brussels in January 1578 was named governor-general; but he was merely a cipher, and only held the position for about three years, returning to Germany in October 1581. Matthias was appointed governor of Austria in 1593 by his brother, the emperor Rudolph II.; and two years later, when another brother, the archduke Ernest, died, he became a person of more importance as the eldest surviving brother of the unmarried emperor. As governor of Austria Matthias continued the policy of crushing the Protestants, although personally he appears to have been inclined to religious tolerance; and he dealt with the rising of the peasants in 1595, in addition to representing Rudolph at the imperial diets, and gaining some fame as a soldier during the Turkish War. A few years later the discontent felt by the members of the Habsburg family at the incompetence of the emperor became very acute, and the lead was taken by Matthias. Obtaining in May 1605 a reluctant consent from his brother, he took over the conduct of affairs in Hungary, where a revolt had broken out, and was formally recognized by the Habsburgs as their head in April 1606, and was promised the succession to the Empire. In June 1606 he concluded the peace of Vienna with the rebellious Hungarians, and was thus in a better position to treat with the sultan, with whom peace was made in November. This pacific policy was displeasing to Rudolph, who prepared to renew the Turkish War; but having secured the support of the national party in Hungary and gathered an army, Matthias forced his brother to cede to him this kingdom, together with Austria and Moravia, both of which had thrown in their lot with Hungary (1608). The king of Hungary, as Matthias now became, was reluctantly compelled to grant religious liberty to the inhabitants of Austria. The strained relations which had arisen between Rudolph and Matthias as a result of these proceedings were temporarily improved, and a formal reconciliation took place in 1610; but affairs in Bohemia soon destroyed this fraternal peace. In spite of the letter of majesty (Majestätsbrief) which the Bohemians had extorted from Rudolph, they were very dissatisfied with their ruler, whose troops were ravaging their land; and in 1611 they invited Matthias to come to their aid. Accepting this invitation, he inflicted another humiliation upon his brother, and was crowned king of Bohemia in May 1611. Rudolph, however, was successful in preventing the election of Matthias as German king, or king of the Romans, and when he died, in January 1612, no provision had been made for a successor. Already king of Hungary and Bohemia, however, Matthias obtained the remaining hereditary dominions of the Habsburgs, and in June 1612 was crowned emperor, although the ecclesiastical electors favoured his younger brother, the archduke Albert (1559–1621).
The short reign of the new emperor was troubled by the religious dissensions of Germany. His health became impaired and his indolence increased, and he fell completely under the influence of Melchior Klesl (q.v.), who practically conducted the imperial business. By Klesl’s advice he took up an attitude of moderation and sought to reconcile the contending religious parties; but the proceedings at the diet of Regensburg in 1613 proved the hopelessness of these attempts, while their author was regarded with general distrust. Meanwhile the younger Habsburgs, led by the emperor’s brother, the archduke Maximilian, and his cousin, Ferdinand, archduke of Styria, afterwards the emperor Ferdinand II., disliking the peaceful policy of Klesl, had allied themselves with the unyielding Roman Catholics, while the question of the imperial succession was forcing its way to the front. In 1611 Matthias had married his cousin Anna (d. 1618), daughter of the archduke Ferdinand (d. 1595), but he was old and childless and the Habsburgs were anxious to retain his extensive possessions in the family. Klesl, on the one hand, wished the settlement of the religious difficulties to precede any arrangement about the imperial succession; the Habsburgs, on the other, regarded the question of the succession as urgent and vital. Meanwhile the disputed succession to the duchies of Cleves and Jülich again threatened a European war; the imperial commands were flouted in Cologne and Aix-la-Chapelle, and the Bohemians were again becoming troublesome. Having decided that Ferdinand should succeed Matthias as emperor, the Habsburgs had secured his election as king of Bohemia in June 1617, but were unable to stem the rising tide of disorder in that country. Matthias and Klesl were in favour of concessions, but Ferdinand and Maximilian met this move by seizing and imprisoning Klesl. Ferdinand had just secured his coronation as king of Hungary when there broke out in Bohemia those struggles which heralded the Thirty Years’ War; and on the 20th of March 1619 the emperor died at Vienna.
For the life and reign of Matthias the following works may be consulted: J. Heling, Die Wahl des römischen Königs Matthias (Belgrade, 1892); A. Gindely, Rudolf II. und seine Zeit (Prague, 1862–1868); F. Stieve, Die Verhandlungen über die Nachfolge Kaisers Rudolf II. (Munich, 1880); P. von Chlumecky, Karl von Zierotin und seine Zeit (Brünn, 1862–1879); A. Kerschbaumer, Kardinal Klesel (Vienna, 1865); M. Ritter, Quellenbeiträge zur Geschichte des Kaisers Rudolf II. (Munich, 1872); Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Gegenreformation und des dreissigjährigen Krieges (Stuttgart, 1887, seq.); and the article on Matthias in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, Bd. XX. (Leipzig, 1884); L. von Ranke, Zur deutschen Geschichte vom Religionsfrieden bis zum 30-jährigen Kriege (Leipzig, 1888); and J. Janssen, Geschichte des deutschen Volks seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters (Freiburg, 1878 seq.), Eng. trans. by M. A. Mitchell and A. M. Christie (London, 1896, seq.).