Rudolph was already an elderly man of fifty-four when he was chosen as King. But he was a brave soldier, kindly and simple, yet full of wisdom. All the princes gave their votes for him except Ottocar, King of Bohemia. He had hoped to be chosen himself, for he was a mighty King, ruling not only over Bohemia, but over many lands around, which by one means or another he had brought under his sway. A great King himself, he was angry that a mere Count had been chosen, and he refused to acknowledge him.
Rudolph was crowned at Aachen with great and solemn ceremony. But when after the coronation the princes came, as was the custom, to touch the tip of the sceptre, and take the oath of allegiance to the new King, the sceptre could not be found. In the troubles of the Interregnum it had been lost.
At once there arose an angry tumult. Without the sceptre, said some, the ceremony could not be held binding, and both King and vassals might deny their oath. "How could we be sure," some asked, "that the land we do fealty for is certainly ours if the ceremony be not properly performed?"
Hotter and hotter the tumult waxed, then in the midst of it Rudolph went quietly to the altar, and took from it a crucifix. "See," he cried as he held it aloft, "behold the sign by which we and the whole world are saved. It opens all heaven to us; surely it may serve to ensure our little bits of earth." Then reverently he kissed the crucifix, and, turning, again took his place upon the throne, ready to receive the homage of his nobles.
The tumult was stilled at once. All were pleased at Rudolph's ready wit, and the ceremony ended peacefully. Then, as the people crowded about the King, cheering and rejoicing, he cried aloud, "To-day I forgive every one who has done me ill. All prisoners who languish in my prisons shall go free, and I swear from this day forward to be a protector of the country's peace."
When the people heard these words they were right glad, and it seemed to them that with their new King a new and better time was coming for them.
Already, it was said, swords began to rust, the peasants once more brought out their ploughs, and the merchant passed through the land no longer in fear of robbers.
But the new King had one bitter enemy. This was Ottocar, King of Bohemia. He would not acknowledge Rudolph. Three times he was called upon to do homage. Three times with many scornful words he refused to bend the knee to this "miserable count."
Rudolph then resolved to fight against his rebel vassal. He had scarcely any army, it is true, and all his kingly treasure was five bad shillings. But he was a brave soldier, and had no fear of defeat.
And as Rudolph marched through the land, soldiers from every town and village flocked to his banner. Many of the rebel lords who had joined with Ottocar yielded to him, and everywhere the common people welcomed him as a deliverer.
With ever-growing fear, proud Ottocar saw the great army which had gathered about the despised count, and when at length Rudolph reached the Danube, and made ready to cross it, Ottocar yielded.
Upon a meadow by the Danube Rudolph and his vassal met. The King, clad in a plain grey robe, sat upon a three-legged stool to receive his homage. Ottocar, proud and splendidly handsome, came dressed in glittering robes, sparkling with gems and gold. Behind him followed a great train of knights and vassals almost as gorgeous as their master.
When the Germans saw this glittering procession approach, they begged Rudolph to array himself in his kingly robes, so that he should not be outdone in magnificence by the King of Bohemia. But Rudolph only laughed.
"The King of Bohemia has scoffed often enough at my grey robe," he said. "Now my grey robe shall scoff at him. German fame is won by good armour, not by clothes."
The November sky was dark, and creeping mists spread over the plain as slowly the glittering procession approached. It paused, and the King, in his resplendent robes, bent his knee before the tall lean figure in the shabby grey coat. It was so strange a sight that shouts of rude laughter burst from the crowd of onlookers.
Ottocar's face flushed red at the insult. Yet he curbed his anger for the moment, and knelt to give back to this grey-clad man all his mighty possessions, Austria, Syria, Corinthia, Carniola, Moravia, and Bohemia. Rudolph received them all, giving back only Moravia and Bohemia to be held as fiefs of the Empire. Then, the better to bind Ottocar to the Empire, he commanded that the young prince, his son, should be married to Ottocar's daughter.
But Ottocar rose from his knees with hatred and wrath burning in his heart. The scornful laughter of Rudolph's followers still rang in his ears, and he turned from his King, no humble vassal, but a rebel more bitter than before.
Ottocar determined that his daughter should not marry the King's son, and to prevent her doing so he sent her to a convent, and once more he declared war against his liege lord.
On August 26, 1278, a great battle was fought at Marchfeld, near Vienna. It was a glorious sunny morning, and the Germans dashed to battle crying "Rome and Christ! Rome and Christ!"
A knight in Ottocar's army had sworn to kill Rudolph,and as the battle raged he galloped wildly towards the King. He aimed a mighty blow at him. It missed the King but struck his horse, which stumbled and threw its rider into a river which flowed near by. Quickly the King recovered himself. With one hand he grasped the branches of an overhanging tree so that he might not be swept away. With the other he defended himself, dealing mighty blows to right and left. The King was in great danger of his life until a young knight, seeing his evil plight, fought his way to him, drew him out of the stream, and set him upon a fresh horse.
Still the battle raged, swaying now this way, now that. At length, from the German side arose the cry, "They flee! They flee!"
It was true. Yet, though all about him fled, surrounded by a faithful few Ottocar still fought on. Great deeds he did, mighty blows he dealt, and man after man went down before him.
But he was worn out by the heat of the day, and by the long fighting. At length he could make a stand no longer, and, well-nigh dazed, he too turned and fled.
After him dashed his foes. One by one his few remaining followers were struck to the ground. At last he too fell, sorely wounded. Helpless, swooning, all but dead, he lay upon the ground. Then his enemies, forgetting all knightly courtesy, killed him where he lay. One thrust a sword through his heart, another a dagger at his throat. Then they rode quickly away, leaving him dead. And there some camp-followers, seeking for plunder, found the once proud and splendid King. They robbed him of his rich armour and clothing, and left his body all naked and blood-stained upon the field.
Soon it was known through all the camp that Ottocar was slain, and many who had trembled before him in life gathered round to scoff at his dead body. But Rudolph looked upon his fallen foe with sorrowful eyes. He commanded that the dead King should be clad in robes of befitting splendour and be reverently buried.
Thus Rudolph of Hapsburg conquered. Ottocar's son, Wenceslas, made peace with him, and married one of his daughters. But Wenceslas was shorn of much of his land, for Rudolph took the dukedom of Austria and gave it to his own son Albert. It is interesting to remember that the house of Hapsburg still rules in Austria.
And now Rudolph, having conquered his great enemy at home, might have turned his thoughts to Italy. But instead of trying to extend his sway over Italy, as so many rulers of Germany before him had done, he gave up all his time to bringing peace and order into disordered Germany. "Italy," he said, "is for Germany but the den of the sick lion. I see many footsteps leading into it, but none leading out from it." So Rudolph left Italy alone, thereby avoiding fierce and useless warfare with the Pope, and the loss of many brave soldiers and much money. He did not even go to Italy to be crowned.
Having no wars with Italy, Rudolph had all the more time to give to ruling Germany. He rooted out the robber nobles. "No man who lives by robbery and dishonesty," he said, "is fit to be a knight." And in one year he hanged twenty-nine of these free-booting lords, and razed sixty-six of their castles to the ground.
Rudolph was very stern to these unruly nobles, but he was very kindly to the poor, and no poor man ever sought his help in vain. "In God's name," he cried once, when his courtiers would have driven away a poor man, "let every one come to me. I did not become a King to be shut up in a cage. Nay, but that all who need my help might come to me unhindered."
Rudolph's soldiers had to suffer many hardships, for at the beginning of his reign the King was very poor, and both he and they were often in want of food. But the King shared all the hardships with his men. Once it is said, when every one was crying aloud for bread, Rudolph went to a field of turnips. Pulling one up he peeled and ate it. "As long as we have these," he said, "we can do without bread."
Another time, as they were besieging a city, a captain came to him asking what he was to do for food, for his men had nothing to eat. "If we take the town," replied Rudolph calmly, "we shall find food enough within it. If we are killed we shall have no more need of food. If we are taken prisoner our captives will feed us. Take your choice."
The King's men took the town, and as Rudolph had promised, they found plenty of food within it.
Rudolph loved a jest too, and many stories are told of him. Once when he lay encamped near Mainz the weather became very cold and he could not get warm, in his tent. So in the early morning he went to a baker's oven to warm himself. He was dressed, as usual, in his old grey cloak, and the baker's wife was angry when she saw this loafer hanging around, looking out for a chance to steal anything he could lay hands on, as it seemed to her. So in an angry voice she bade him be off.
"Don't be so angry, good wife," replied the King. "I am an honest soldier, and if I'm poor, why that's because King Rudolph is poor too."
"Be off with you to your Beggar-King, "answered the woman. "You deserve all you get, coming into our land, and stealing the bread out of poor folks' mouths."
"What has the poor King done that is so very bad?" asked Rudolph.
"Done!" cried the woman; "is it not enough that all the bakers have become beggars through him and his war? Done! indeed! be off with you, or I will send you packing a way you won't like."
But the King was very comfortable by the warm fire. He was amused, too, at the old woman, and he refused to go, in spite of all her scolding. So, as nothing would make him move, she suddenly seized a pail of cold water and flung it over him. Dripping wet, the King at length turned and fled.
At mid-day, when the King sat at dinner, he called a page to him and commanded him to take a dish with all the choicest meats, together with a bottle of good wine, and carry it to the old dame. "Say to her," he said, "that it is from the old soldier, with his best thanks for the cold bath she gave him this morning."
As soon as the messenger had gone, the King, with much laughter, told the assembled company of his adventure of the morning.
But when the baker's wife heard that it was the King she had railed at, and drenched with water, she was filled with fear. With a heavy heart, knowing not what would become of her, she went at once to him where he sat at table, and throwing herself on her knees, begged forgiveness.
"Nay, my good dame," said the King, with a laugh, I will not forgive you unless you repeat all the words you said to me this morning."
The poor woman trembled on her knees; fear robbed her of speech. Dumb with terror, she looked at the King. Then she saw the merry twinkle in his eye, and taking heart she rose to her feet. And there, before all the knights and nobles, amid roars of laughter, she poured forth a torrent of abuse upon the King, even as she had done in the morning.
From such stories we learn that there was little of the splendour of the Hohenstaufens about Rudolph. But he was brave and kindly, and in an evil time he ruled well, he wrought order out of disorder, he crushed the lawless great, and befriended the poor. So the people loved him.
To the end he faced life as a soldier should. At the age of seventy-four he fell ill. And when his doctors told him that he had little longer to live, he did not blench. "Up then to Spires," he cried, "where my kingly forbears lie. No man shall carry me thither. I shall myself ride to them." And thus Rudolph set out for the last resting-place of the Emperors, and all the way was lined with sorrowing people who came to snatch one last look at their King.
He had his last wish indeed, and reached Spires, but only as a dying man, and there, on July 15, 1291, he died.