Europe that we are all familiar with today was a collection of kingdoms, empires, and borderlands (called marches centuries ago) headed by different rulers and royal authorities. One of the most important marches in European history is Austria’s Margraviate (also called the Eastern March, Ostarrichi or Markgrafschaft Osterreich).
It was a frontier march in the Middle Ages and was based along the famed River Danube stretching across the Enns River and the forested highlands known as the Vienna Woods. This portion is now in the provinces of Lower Austria and Upper Austria in the modern European state that bears the same name. The Margraviate of Austria had its existence dating from around 972 to 1156.
Background of the Margraviate of Austria
The Eastern March can be traced to the earlier frontier structures that were first established to defend the borders of eastern Bavaria because of the vicious attacks from a collection of various Eurasian nomadic tribes known as the Pannonian Avars. The Avars were earlier defeated and subjugated by Charlemagne.
The initial marches covered the area that we now call Austria and Slovenia and they were known as the Avar March and the March of Carantania (later referred to as the March of Carinthia), which was towards the southern portions. The two marches came into being upon Charlemagne’s orders in the late 8th century when he made moves against the invasions from the Avar tribes.
West Slavs filled the gap left by the disappearance of the Avars in the 820s, and they established themselves to some degree inside the state of Great Moravia. There would be waves of invasions, but following the defeat of Bavarian margrave Luitpold in 907 at the Battle of Pressburg, every part of the East Frankish Empire beyond the River Enns was lost to the enemies.
All through the Frankish Empire, the whole area was controlled by the Eastern Frankish lords. They governed Bavaria and even saw to the appointment of the counts who acted as the military commanders of these frontiers in the eastern areas.
The Magyars invaded the area in the early 10th century, but they met defeat in 955 during the Battle of Lechfeld. This was followed by a steady reconquest of the area by German forces. By 972, the borderlands on the River Danube edges were rearranged to form a frontier county or another name for a Margraviate.
King Otto I of Germany (Otto the Great) commenced his reconquest in 955 upon his victory at the Battle of Lechfeld. He would later proceed to have a new Eastern March and put Burchard in place as a margrave in 972. Historians believe that the Margraviate of Austria reached its highest level of influence under Leopold III (also known as Saint Leopold III or Leopold the Good, and he reigned as the Margrave of Austria from 1095 to 1136 when he died). Leopold IV would inherit Bavaria in 1139, unlike his successor Henry Jasomirgott who ruled as the last margrave of Austria but the first Duke of Austria.
This Margraviate was referred to as the Bavarian Eastern March or Ostarrichi in German. Control of margraves from 976 was done by Franconian nobles belonging to the House of Babenberg, a well-respected noble dynasty composed of Austrian dukes and margraves. This noble house originated from Bamberg under the Franconian dukes and ruled over the Imperial Margraviate of Austria from 976 AD until 1156 when it was elevated into a duchy.
Becoming a Duchy
The Margraviate’s primary function was that it served as a bulwark of protection for the eastern flanks of the Holy Roman Empire in the direction of modern-day Hungary, which stood just next door. The march became an Imperial State (a section of the Holy Roman Empire that had representation and the right to vote in the Imperial Diet) in 1156.
This was possible because the Austrian margraves were elevated to the position of Dukes of Austria. The Duchy of Austria was one of the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. The formation of the Duchy of Austria meant the detachment from Bavaria. That also signaled an end to the rule of the dukes from the House of Babenberg.