The Last Knight: Emperor Maximilian I

By Peter Konieczny

At the end of the fifteenth century the most powerful person in Europe would certainly have been Maximilian I, the King of the Romans, the Archduke of Austria, and the uncrowned (but in practice) Holy Roman Emperor. Through a series of marriages and alliances, his family, the Hapsburgs, were ruling several other parts of the continent. Yet for all his power and abilities, Maximilian always seemed to be in perpetual difficulties.

There are many views about Maximilian I (1459-1519) and depending on which historian you read, this man was brilliant and innovative, or was a schemer who put family above country, or was a natural leader, or was just a politician with a mixed record. In the nineteenth century a writer dubbed Maximilian ‘the Last Knight’ due to his image as a paragon of knighthood and chivalry, an image the emperor crafted himself. Maximilian certainly wanted to be seen as intelligent, courageous, and charismatic, but others found he was full of less admirable traits too.


The son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor (1452-1493) and member of the flourishing House of Hapsburg, Maximilian seems to have had an awkward childhood, apparently not even able to talk until he was eight years old. His father even once remarked “I know very well that when he was twelve years old, I was afraid that he would be either stupid or mute.’’ But in his teenage years he began to excel at learning, including languages; eventually he spoke six. His education soon focused on all the subjects required of a king, and Maximilian was a quick learner, especially in military affairs.

However, his father now had new worries about his son. He could see that Maximilian was behaving extravagantly and recklessly, whether at parties, jousting, or in the bedroom with numerous women. The emperor tried to contain his son’s worst tendencies, but by eighteen years of age Maximilian was leading his first major military campaign.


In 1477, Maximilian was married to Mary of Burgundy, heiress to the powerful Duchy of Burgundy, which contained lands in both France and the Low Countries. With the death of her father Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy (5 January 1477), those lands were threatened by the king of France. This would prompt Maximilian to travel from Austria to the Low Countries, where he would spend the next years defending the territory of his wife and, after her death in 1482, their son Philip. Maximilian ruled in their names, and while he was able to hold off French advances, his governing of those territories was less successful.

When Frederick III died in 1493, Maximilian inherited his father’s domain, which mostly consisted of lands in Austria. He would have become Holy Roman Emperor too, but Italian enemies prevented Maximilian from travelling to Rome to be crowned by the pope. Still, he was the de facto emperor, and with that, Maximilian became one of the most powerful rulers in Europe.

Maximilian would also inherit many challenges, both externally and internally, for his empire. His European enemies included the French, Swiss, Hungarians, Venetians, and other Italians, which would lead to frequent wars. Meanwhile, his own empire was a collection of dozens of independent and semi-independent principalities, duchies, and city-states that rarely got along. Although the emperor worked to establish a more centralized government, he had mixed results.

Drawing of Maximilian by Albrecht Dürer – Wikimedia Commons

When it came to warfare, Maximilian was personally very courageous and very good at fighting. At the Battle of Guinegate in 1479, the then 20-year-old not only fought in the battle (which was something of a rarity at this point in time) but put himself in the front lines of his footmen, exposing himself to the very heart of the combat. Maximilian would do this often during his career, and on two occasions he did something unthinkable for the time – he fought in prebattle duels, as both armies watched. In both cases, he won the duel by killing his knightly opponent with a lance thrust. No doubt such tactics would have inspired his men, but they were also huge risks for the emperor.


Maximilian also had a keen understanding of military tactics and knew that warfare was changing. His early campaigns fighting for Burgundy had shown him the value of the Swiss pikemen, and as emperor he would build his own army of infantry – the Landsknechte – and make sure they were armed with the latest handguns. Maximilian also put much emphasis on gunpowder weaponry and could field an artillery of over 100 cannons. For all of the displays of chivalry, Maximilian was quickly replacing knights as the key force in military operations.

The ‘Maximilian Industry’

One of the most remarkable aspects of Maximilian’s reign was the lengths to which he went to fashion for himself a good reputation. All rulers during this period knew the importance of self-promotion and propaganda, but Maximilian went well beyond this. Historian Elaine Tennant has even called this the ‘Maximilian industry’.

The idea was to present Maximilian as a conquering hero and the ideal knight. It seems like he had another army of people who worked on doing just that: artists, poets, writers, scholars, playwrights, architects, musicians, armourers, and more. The emperor was often personally involved in the various works that were being created about him. He even dictated parts of written works. Three well-known pseudo autobiographies of his were Theuerdank, the account of his journey to wed Mary of Burgundy in 1477; Freydal, a tale of his adventures at jousting tournaments; and Weisskunig, a novel where Maximilian is the White King, overcoming his many enemies. All of these texts are at least partially fictionalized, but any contemporary reader would have known that the main character was really Maximilian himself.

Woodcut illustration from an early 16th-century copy of Theuerdank – Wikimedia Commons

The emperor was also keen to show himself off in person, and he would make sure that his entrances into towns or events were spectacles. He also organized and participated in many tournaments and was quite good at jousting. In all of these cases, he would be dressed up in beautiful and elaborate armour, which was created by his own workshops. Much of this armour has survived and can be seen in museums, the result of Maximilian giving these items away or selling them when he needed money.

Maximilian Empty-Pockets

Maximilian would fight in 27 wars – a remarkable number even for the late Middle Ages – but he was not a particularly successful commander. He won many battles and campaigns, but it often seemed that he was hampered from achieving complete victories by a lack of money. In fact, financial problems were a huge factor during the emperor’s reign. Maximilian spent vast amounts on his own personal projects, and he would need even more for his unending wars. But he did not have the resources to pay for these things. Nearly all of his revenue came from his personal domains in Austria. Although these included very valuable silver mines, it just was not enough.

Instead, Maximilian turned to lenders. He would increasingly become reliant on one particular individual, Jakob Fugger of Augsburg, a savvy merchant who was able to send huge amounts of money to the emperor in return for control of the silver mines. It has been argued that Jakob is the richest person in history, having a networth to equivalent of $400 billion in today’s dollars, most of which came from his connection to the emperor.

As for Maximilian, he would fall deeper and deeper into debt and would see many of his military campaigns cut short when he ran out of funds. The Venetians even called him ‘Maximilian Empty-Pockets’, and there are many anecdotes of just how poor the emperor really was. One German merchant would comment that “at times when he wished to set forth to war, his servants were so poor that they together with the emperor could not pay their reckoning at the inn.”


All the accounts about Maximilian describe him as an intelligent and crafty ruler, so why was he never able to figure out how to get a handle on his finances? The problem was, in fact, a much larger one for the emperor. An interesting insight into Maximilian is offered in The Prince, where Machiavelli quotes one of the emperor’s courtiers:

He consulted with no one, yet never got his own way in anything. This arose because… the emperor is a secretive man – he does not communicate his designs to any one, nor does he receive opinions on them. But as in carrying them into effect they become revealed and known, they are at once obstructed by those men who he has around him, and he, being pliant, is diverted from them. Hence it follows that those things he does one day he undoes the next, and no one understands what he wishes or intends to do, and no one can rely on his resolutions.

This characterization can help explain much about Maximilian’s fortunes and misfortunes. There were so many examples where his military and political plans were undone by a lack of resources, or by having to deal with other situations. The emperor made himself a busy man, but he lacked focus. Maximilian once remarked that he could speak with six different courtiers at the same time and give them instructions. The emperor may have believed he was doing well in this, but one can only imagine the confusion among his underlings. It must have been a hyper court, where things were always on the move but never able to get completed.

Maximilian tried to be a good ruler, tried to be a successful warrior, and tried to present himself as a hero for the world. It was just too much for one man to do, no matter how brilliant he was. He may have had some great achievements during his reign, but ultimately the emperor was unfinished, like many of his plans.

This article was first published in Medieval World, Issue 1. You can get new issues of Medieval World through our Patreon.

Top Image: Painting of Maximilian by Bernhard Strigel – Wikimedia Commons.