Bishops, farmers, princes
During the Middle Ages ecclesiastical and secular powers struggled for dominance in Tyrol. The Tyroleans took on the armies of Napoleon alone.
Monasteries at San Candido/Innichen, Novacella/Neustift, Montemaria/Marienberg and Gries became spiritual and cultural centres. An impressively large number of Romanesque buildings and art have survived, for example the collegiate church of San Candido/Innichen and the Iwein fresco cycle in Rodeneck Castle. They testify to the wealth of the nobility and clergy and their willingness to donate vast sums to produce beautiful buildings and art. From the 11th century the bishops of Bressanone/Brixen and Trento ruled over large areas effectively as secular sovereigns on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor who relied on them to keep the transport routes open and safe. However, exercising worldly power was not compatible with their ecclesiastical function and they devolved considerable power to vassals. The ascendency of the Counts of Tirol began in the 12th century when they became administrators of the two bishoprics. From their powerbase, their ancestral castle overlooking Merano/Meran, they acquired extensive lands from the bishop of Bressanone in 1248, as well as territories owned by the Counts of Görz (now Gorizia in Friuli).
By 1271 they had practically replaced ecclesiastical power in the area. In that year the two brothers Meinhard and Albert divided their father’s inheritance. Meinhard II inherited the county of Tyrol, while his brother Albert received Görz. This event is generally regarded as the dawn of Tyrol, when a family name became the name of an important province. Meinhard promoted trade between Germany and Italy and consistently increased his power. On the death of the last male of the line, Count Henry of Tirol in 1335, the province was inherited by his daughter, Margarete ‘Maultasch’. On the death of her only son in 1363 Tyrol passed by prior arrangement to her relative Rudolf IV of Habsburg. The Habsburgs had been dukes of Austria since 1282. Various scions of the Habsburg dynasty – or House of Austria as they became known – divided the Austrian territories and ruled relatively autonomously until 1720.
One of the most colourful personalities in medieval Tyrol was the knight and troubadour Oswald von Wolkenstein. He was an adventurer and diplomat in the service of the emperor and at the beginning of the 15th century he travelled throughout Europe and even the Middle East. His lyrical works were war far ahead of his time and Oswald is regarded as having laid milestones with his songs of courtly love.
Meran was the capital of Tyrol until 1420, after which the seat of government was moved to Innsbruck because of its strategic position at the junction of the great trade routes from Italy to Germany via the Brenner Pass and from Switzerland and western Europe. The Tyrolean diet met there, comprising representatives of the nobility, the church, the middle classes and the peasantry who had fought for a voice in government affairs since the 14th century. The Archduke Maximilian, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, ruled Tyrol as sovereign from 1490. He developed Innsbruck as the seat of his court and extended the provinces’ territory considerably. In 1511 Maximilian granted the Tyroleans the right to defend their homeland independently and released them from the obligation of serving in the military in times of war. The document is known as the Tiroler Landibell.
The Reformation brought about an uprising (1524-1525) of peasants in Germany and also in Tyrol called the Peasants’ War, partly inspired by Luther's teachings. In spite of a bitter struggle the peasants failed in their objective of abolishing privileges accorded the nobility and clergy. After this event the Counter Reformation effectively Catholicised Tyrol (the Council of Trent was held in what was then South Tyrol, Trento being the modern name for Trent). With the acquisition of Hungary and Bohemia in the 16th century Austria became a great power. This extension of territories towards the east and the consequent shift in the centre of gravity left Tyrol a peripheral region in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From 1720 onwards it was administered by the central government in Vienna.
In 1805 Austria lost Tyrol to Bavaria, which had joined the war on the side of Napoleon. The new Kingdom of Bavaria intended to implement reforms in Tyrol based on the principles of the Enlightenment. The name Tyrol was abolished. Being an independently minded and proud people, on the outbreak of war between France and Bavaria (1809) the Tyroleans rose up against Bavarian authority. Their leader was Andreas Hofer, an innkeeper from the Val Passiria/Passeiertal and under him the peasants succeeded in driving the foe out of Innsbruck. Austria lost the war of the Fifth Coalition against France and Tyrol was returned to Bavarian rule. However, the Tyroleans continued the struggle but were overpowered by numbers. Andreas Hofer was captured and executed on Napoleon’s orders.
Tyrol was subsequently divided between the Kingdom of Italy and Bavaria before being reunified and returned to Austria in 1813. For the remainder of the 19th century Tyrol’s history was relatively uneventful.