Charles I of Austria or Charles IV of Hungary (Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Marie; 17 August 1887 – 1 April 1922) was, among other titles, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the last Emperor of Austria, the last King of Hungary, and the last monarch of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. After his uncle Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, Charles I reigned from 1916 until 1919 when he “renounced participation” in state affairs, but did not abdicate. He spent the remaining years of his life attempting to restore the monarchy until his death in 1922. Following his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2004, he has become commonly known as Blessed Charles of Austria.
Charles was born 17 August 1887 in the Castle of Persenbeug in Lower Austria. His parents were Archduke Otto Franz of Austria and Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony. At the time, his granduncle Franz Joseph reigned as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and his uncle Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive two years later.
As a child, Archduke Charles was reared a devout Roman Catholic. He spent his early years wherever his father’s regiment happened to be stationed; later on he lived in Vienna and Reichenau an der Rax. He was privately educated, but, contrary to the custom ruling in the imperial family, he attended a public gymnasium for the sake of demonstrations in scientific subjects. On the conclusion of his studies at the gymnasium, he entered the army, spending the years from 1906 to 1908 as an officer chiefly in Prague, where he studied law and political science concurrently with his military duties.
In 1907, he was declared of age and Prince Zdenko Lobkowitz was appointed his chamberlain. In the next few years he carried out his military duties in various Bohemian garrison towns. Charles’s relations with his granduncle were not intimate, and those with his uncle Franz Ferdinand were not cordial, with the differences between their wives increasing the existing tension between them. For these reasons, Charles, up to the time of the assassination of his uncle in 1914, obtained no insight into affairs of state, but led the life of a prince not destined for a high political position.
In 1911, Charles married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. They had met as children but did not see one another for almost ten years, as each pursued their education. In 1909, his Dragoon regiment was stationed at Brandýs nad Labem (Brandeis an der Elbe) in Bohemia, from where he visited his aunt at Franzensbad. It was during one of these visits that Charles and Zita became reacquainted. Due to Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic marriage in 1900, his children were excluded from the succession. As a result, the Emperor severely pressured Charles to marry. Zita not only shared Charles’ devout Catholicism, but also an impeccably royal lineage. Zita later recalled:
“ We were of course glad to meet again and became close friends. On my side feelings developed gradually over the next two years. He seemed to have made his mind up much more quickly, however, and became even more keen when, in the autumn of 1910, rumours spread about that I had got engaged to a distant Spanish relative, Jaime, Duke of Madrid. On hearing this, the Archduke came down post haste from his regiment at Brandeis and sought out his [step]grandmother, Archduchess Maria Theresa, who was also my aunt and the natural confidante in such matters. He asked if the rumor was true and when told it was not, he replied, “Well, I had better hurry in any case or she will get engaged to someone else.”
Charles became heir presumptive after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the event which precipitated World War I. Only at this time did the old Emperor take steps to initiate the heir-presumptive to his crown in affairs of state. But the outbreak of World War I interfered with this political education. Charles spent his time during the first phase of the war at headquarters at Teschen, but exercised no military influence.
Charles then became a Generalfeldmarschall in the Austro-Hungarian Army. In the spring of 1916, in connection with the offensive against Italy, he was entrusted with the command of the XX. Corps, whose affections the heir-presumptive to the throne won by his affability and friendliness. The offensive, after a successful start, soon came to a standstill. Shortly afterwards, Charles went to the eastern front as commander of an army operating against the Russians and Romanians.
Charles succeeded to the thrones in November 1916, after the death of Emperor Franz Joseph.
On 2 December 1916, he assumed the title of Supreme Commander of the whole army from Archduke Friedrich. His coronation occurred 30 December. In 1917, Charles secretly entered into peace negotiations with France. He employed his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, an officer in the Belgian Army, as intermediary.
Although his foreign minister, Ottokar Czernin, was only interested in negotiating a general peace which would include Germany, Charles himself went much further in suggesting his willingness to make a separate peace. When news of the overture leaked in April 1918, Charles denied involvement until French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau published letters signed by him. This led to Czernin’s resignation, forcing Austria-Hungary into an even more dependent position with respect to its seemingly wronged German ally.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was wracked by inner turmoil in the final years of the war, with much tension between ethnic groups. As part of his Fourteen Points, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson demanded that the Empire allow for autonomy and self-determination of its peoples. In response, Charles agreed to reconvene the Imperial Parliament and allow for the creation of a confederation with each national group exercising self-governance. However, the ethnic groups fought for full autonomy as separate nations, as they were now determined to become independent from Vienna at the earliest possible moment.
Foreign minister Baron Istvan Burián asked for an armistice 14 October based on the Fourteen Points, and two days later Charles issued a proclamation that radically changed the nature of the Austrian state. The Poles were granted full independence with the purpose of joining their ethnic brethren in Russia and Germany in a Polish state. The rest of the Austrian lands were transformed into a federal union composed of four parts: German, Czech, South Slav, and Ukrainian. Each of the four parts was to be governed by a federal council, and Trieste was to have a special status. However, Secretary of State Robert Lansing replied four days later that the Allies were now committed to the causes of the Czechs, Slovaks and South Slavs. Therefore, autonomy for the nationalities was no longer enough. In fact, a Czechoslovak provisional government had joined the Allies 14 October, and the South Slav national council declared an independent South Slav state 29 October 1918.
Since the beginning of his rule he favored the creation of third Croatian political entity, in his Croatian Coronation oath from 1916 he recognized the union of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia with Rijeka and during his short reign supported trialist suggestions from the Croatian Sabor and Ban, but the suggestions were always vetoed by the Hungarian side which did not want to share power with other nations. After Emperor Karl’s manifesto of 14 October 1918 was rejected by the declaration of the National Council in Zagreb. President of the Croatian pro-monarchy political party Pure Party of Rights Dr. Aleksandar Horvat, with other parliament members and generals went to visit the emperor on 21 October 1918 in Bad Ischl, where the emperor agreed and signed the trialist manifest under the proposed terms set by the delegation, on the condition that the Hungarian part does the same since he swore an oath on the integrity of the Hungarian crown. The delegation went the next day to Budapest where it presented the manifest to Hungarian officials and Council of Ministers who signed the manifest and released the king from his oath, creating a third Croatian political entity (Zvonimir’s kingdom) After the signing, two parades were held in Zagreb, one for the ending of the K.u.K. monarchy, which was held in front of the Croatian National Theater, and another one for saving the trialist monarchy. The last vote for the support of the trialist reorganization of the empire was, however, too late. On the On 29 October 1918, the Croatian Sabor (parliament) ended the union and all ties with Hungary and Austria, proclaimed the unification of all Croatian lands and entered the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. The curiosity is that no act of Sabor dethroned king Karl IV, nor did it acknowledge the entering in a state union with Serbia, which is today mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution of Croatia.
The Lansing note effectively ended any efforts to keep the Empire together. One by one, the nationalities proclaimed their independence; even before the note the national councils had been acting more like provisional governments. Charles’ political future became uncertain. On 31 October, Hungary officially ended the personal union between Austria and Hungary. Nothing remained of Charles’ realm except the predominantly German-speaking Danubian and Alpine provinces, and he was challenged even there by the German Austrian State Council. His last Austrian prime minister, Heinrich Lammasch, advised him that he was an impossible situation, and his best course was to temporarily give up his right to exercise sovereign power.
After the second failed attempt at restoration in Hungary, Charles and his pregnant wife Zita were briefly quarantined at Tihany Abbey. On 1 November 1921 they were taken to the Hungarian Danube harbor city of Baja, were made to board the British monitor HMS Glowworm, and there removed to the Black Sea where they were transferred to the light cruiser HMS Cardiff. They arrived at their final exile, the Portuguese island of Madeira, 19 November 1921. Determined to prevent a third restoration attempt, the Council of Allied Powers had agreed on Madeira because it was isolated in the Atlantic and easily guarded.
Originally the couple and their children, who joined them 2 February 1922, lived at Funchal at the Villa Vittoria, next to Reid’s Hotel, and later moved to Quinta do Monte. Compared to the imperial glory in Vienna and even at Eckartsau, conditions there were certainly impoverished.
Charles did not leave Madeira again. On 9 March 1922 he had caught a cold walking into town, which developed into bronchitis, and subsequently progressed to severe pneumonia. Having suffered two heart attacks, he died of respiratory failure on April 1, in the presence of his wife (who was pregnant with their eighth child) and nine-year-old Crown Prince Otto, remaining conscious almost until his last moments. His remains except for his heart are still interred on the island, in the Church of Our Lady of Monte, in spite of several attempts to move them to the Habsburg Crypt in Vienna. His heart and the heart of his wife are in the monastery of Muri, Switzerland