Habsburg Connection

I have been re-thinking the Habsburg legend, and have revised my previous opinion in certain respects.

To recap: The Hauris are said to be descended from an illegitimate branch of the Counts of Habsburg. As the story goes, the Count brought back a Muslim mistress from the Crusades. Their son took “Houri” as a surname. Houris are a kind of nymph who serve devout Muslims in Paradise. By extension, the word can be applied to any beautiful or seductive woman.

I heard this story for the first and only time about 1972 or 1973, when I was new to genealogy. I no longer have the letter. I thought I remembered who wrote it, but she denies it and courtesy requires me to accept her denial. I have asked several people who were early correspondents of mine about it. Most of them say they never heard the story. A few others have heard the story, but don’t know where they got it.

Undoubtedly more information will come out eventually about the origin and spread of the story. In the meantime, I have given it much thought over the years, and have looked for evidence for and against.

A Modern Invention

It seems unlikely that the story could be legitimately old. Legends of noble descent are common in many families, but this one is suspect because there is no evidence of a written source, however late. One would expect to find, for example, a 19th century collection of Swiss legends, or something of that sort, that mentions the story. If such a source exists, I haven’t found it. Indeed, it looks as though the story is found only among the family in North America, and then only as an oral tradition (at best).

Moreover, I find no evidence the modern Howerys and Howrys had any information about their European origins before some of them began doing genealogical research in the early 20th century. For example, at the turn of the 20th century my branch of the Howerys believed that our Howery ancestors were Scottish (and many still do). One of the earliest family historians, Charles Bowen Howry (1844-1928) mistakenly thought that the Howrys were French Huguenots, descended from the Horrys of South Carolina. Paper research since then has shown that the Howerys and Howrys are probably descended from the Swiss Hauris, and DNA testing has apparently confirmed it.

Finally, the medieval Hauris were wealthy farmers and millers living at a time when the Christian church pervaded everyday life and the far off Muslims were a demonic threat. The Hauris were prominent in their local communities, and pious enough that many served as priests. It seems rather unlikely (to me) that such a family would have preserved the story of a Muslim ancestor, even if the story were true. I also doubt that a loyal Swiss family living in the Aargau would have preserved a legend of descent from the Counts von Habsburg after the Swiss Confederates defeated them in 1415.

Improbable Elements

Setting aside the arguments against the age of the story, and granting it a very generous benefit of the doubt, the story itself contains several improbable elements:

Some of the early Counts of Habsburg and Habsburg-Laufenburg did go on Crusades, but I find no evidence that any of them had a Muslim paramour, even in legend.

The Muslim mistress has the appearance more of romance than of fact. I find a similar story in England: Rosea (or Maud) de Caen, the mother of Thomas à Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, is said to have been a Muslim woman brought back from the Crusades by his middle-class father, Gilbert de Thierceville. The story is apocryphal. It seems to have been spread by his enemies, not by his own relatives.

There is no evidence that the word houri entered Germany or Switzerland until centuries after the setting of the story, which seems to be the late 13th century. The Crusades were waged 1095-1291. Ulrich Hauri first appeared at Beromünster in 1313. The word houri is first documented in French in 1654, and in English in 1737. It cannot be much older in German.

The improbable elements in the story are all connected with the Muslim mistress. The illegitimate descent from a Count of Habsburg, although seemingly unprovable, is neither impossible nor improbable on its face. However, I suggest that any descent from the Habsburgs is more likely to have come about through the seduction or rape of a peasant girl than of a Muslim mistress.

My Thoughts

Until recently, I have taken the position that the Habsburg story is probably a 20th century, North American invention, perhaps a misunderstanding from the geographic proximity of the early Hauris to the original home of the famous Habsburg family, or perhaps a garbled account of a real estate transaction involving the von Habsburgs in 1421 (see below). I have been inclined to date the story to the period 1940-1960, when the the family’s Swiss origins had become generally known to researchers but had not yet been widely explored.

I have been skeptical that an oral tradition of limited interest survived in one family from the 13th century to the 19th century apparently without being recorded in writing. However, many of my objections to the story would be weakened if my correspondent received it from someone in Switzerland. The story could be old there, even if not old enough to be authentic.

Family stories often become confused with the passage of time. A story meant to be about one ancestor gets shifted to a different ancestor. I have not been able to find a similar story applied to any other family from whom the Hauris might be descended, but I do find a straight shot that would make some sense of the story: the first Hauri could have been a member of the von Reinach family, who became confused in legend with a Count of Habsburg.

The von Reinach family were once thought to be a branch of the Counts of Habsburg, based on the similarity of their coat of arms. That theory is currently out of favor, but has not been adequately discredited. The family were ministerialen of the Habsburgs. They governed Reinach and the upper Wynental as Habsburg deputies. The Swiss Confederates conquered Aargau, including this area, from the Habsburgs in 1415.

The Hauris had early connections with the von Reinach family and with the village of Reinach. They later settled at Reinach and became the leading family there. Rechenza Hauri received the fief of the Stiftskeller at Beromünster in 1313, shortly after the death of Ulrich von Reinach, Prior of Beromünster. The Hauris were in Reinach by 1421, Heini Hauri was Untervogt of Reinach in 1512, and his descendants often held that office.

In brief, the Hauris replaced the von Reinach family in the village of Reinach, although not elsewhere. It is easy to see how a story might have arisen that the Hauris were an illegitimate branch of the von Reinachs. The story need not be true; it fulfills a human tendency to see continuity. And, once connected in legend to the von Reinachs, it is easy to see how the story might have been abbreviated into a story about an illegitimate descent from the Counts of Habsburg.

But, Is It True?

I don’t believe it is possible to determine whether the story is true. The story is improbable because it was probably a late invention, but it is not completely impossible. True or not, it lacks documentation even from late sources, much less primary sources.

One avenue of investigation is only now becoming possible — genetics. The male line of the Habsburg family died out in 1740 with the death of Charles VI, but the Barons de Reinach still exist. The remains of members of both families will certainly be tested someday, and the results could prove or disprove our Habsburg legend.

In the meantime, I note a very slender thread of speculation. Hauri males belong to a relatively rare genetic haplogroup, G2. Current thinking is that this haplogroup displays all the characteristics of a “Founder Event.” That is, G2 might have been introduced into Europe by a man whose social prominence allowed him to leave an unusually large number of descendants. One suggestion currently being debated is that one or more of the early Frankish families might have belonged to Haplogroup G2. This line of thought is relevant to the Habsburg story because the earliest suspected ancestor of the male line of Habsburgs was a Frankish duke who ruled Alemannia in the 7th century. Time will tell whether there is anything to it.

A True Connection

Whether or not the Habsburg legend has some element of truth, the Hauris do have a valid but tenuous connection to the Habsburgs. The Swiss Confederates conquered the Aargau in 1415 from the Habsburgs. On 23 June 1421 Johannes Hauri bought from Heinrich von Willberg land at Reinach that had been recently taken from the von Habsburgs who had pawned it [Aargau, No. 144]. This property might have been the mill there. The Habsburg legend might be a garbled account of that purchase.

Conclusion

Without taking a stand on the truth of the story, I believe that the story is likely to be older than I previously supposed. In its original form, I believe the story was that the first Hauri was an illegitimate son of one of the Knights von Reinach, and that they in turn were a branch of the Counts von Habsburg. My guess is that the story came from Switzerland in the mid-20th century to a researcher in North America. The story may or may not be true, but I believe it is a post-medieval invention intended to connect the Hauris at Reinach to their political predecessors.