The Privilegium maius (German: Großer Freiheitsbrief, "greater privilege") was a medieval document forged in 1358 or 1359 at the behest of Duke Rudolf IV of Austria (1358–65) of the House of Habsburg. It was essentially a modified version of the Privilegium minus issued by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in 1156, which had elevated the former March of Austria into a duchy. In a similar way, the Privilegium maius elevated the duchy into an Archduchy of Austria.
The privileges described in the document had great influence on the Austrian political landscape, and created a unique connection between the House of Habsburg and Austria.
The House of Habsburg had gained rulership of the Duchy of Austria in 1282. Rudolph IV (1339-1365) attempted to restore the Habsburg influence on the European political scene by trying to build relations with Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg and increasing the respect of the Austrian rulers. However, Rudolph IV did not belong to the seven Prince-electors, who - as dictated by the Golden Bull of 1356 - had the power to choose the King. In the same way Charles IV had made Prague the center of his rule, Rudolph did the same for Vienna, giving it special privileges, launching construction projects and founding the University of Vienna. All this aimed at increasing the legitimacy and influence of the House and its Austrian lands. For this purpose, in the winter of 1358/1359, Rudolph IV ordered the creation of a forged document called Privilegium maius ("the greater privilege").
The Privilegium maius consists of five forged deeds, some of which purported to have been issued by Julius Caesar and Nero to the historic Roman regnum Noricum province similar to the modern Austrian borders. Though purposefully modeled on the Privilegium minus, the original of which "got lost" at the same time, the bundle was already identified as a fake by contemporaries like the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca.
- inseparability of the territory
- automatic inheritance of the first-born (primogeniture), later extended to female heirs in the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 in favour of Archduchess Maria Theresa
- independent jurisdiction and legislature, without any possibility to appeal to the Emperor (privilegium de non evocando)
- permission to display certain symbols of rule
Rudolf also created the title Pfalzerzherzog ("Archduke Palatine"), similar to the Elector Palatine of the Rhine, the holder of an electoral vote. The first Habsburg ruler who actually used the title of an archduke was Ernest of Iron, ruler of Inner Austria from 1406 to 1424. From the 15th century onward, all princes of the Habsburg dynasty were called Erzherzöge.
Emperor Charles IV refused to confirm the Privilegium maius, the forgery being recognised by his advisor, the poet and scholar Petrarch. However, the Habsburg Frederick V of Austria after his election as Holy Roman Emperor was able to grant himself permission to assume the archducal title, later again confirmed by his descendants Rudolf II and Charles VI. It did not, however, involve the electoral dignity itself and in 1519 Archduke Charles I had to borrow an enormous sum (almost 3 tonnes of gold) from Jacob Fugger to bribe the Prince-electors to secure his succession as rex Romanorum against his rival for the position, Francis I of France.
The Privilegium maius had great influence on the Austrian political landscape. The Habsburg archduke arrogated an almost king-like position, and demonstrated this to outsiders through the usage of special insignia. The Habsburgs gained a new foundation for their rule in these lands; in a way, the House of Habsburg and Austria became a single unit. Thus, the forgery was a success. The family subsequently published special editions of the documents, and forbade all discussion of their authenticity.
With the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the Privilegium maius finally lost its meaning. In 1852, it was proven a forgery by historian Wilhelm Wattenbach.