Babenberg, the name of a Franconian family which held the duchy of Austria before the rise of the house of Habsburg. Its earliest known ancestor was one Poppo, who early in the 9th century was count in Grapfeld. One of his sons, Henry, called margrave and duke in Franconia, fell fighting against the Normans in 886; another, Poppo, was margrave in Thuringia from 880 to 892, when he was deposed by the German king Arnulf. The family had been favoured by the emperor Charles the Fat, but Arnulf reversed this policy in favour of the rival family of the Conradines. The leaders of the Babenbergs were the three sons of Duke Henry, who called themselves after their castle of Babenberg on the upper Main, round which their possessions centred. The rivalry between the two families was intensified by their efforts to extend their authority in the region of the middle Main, and this quarrel, known as the "Babenberg feud," came to a head at the beginning of the 10th century during the troubled reign of the German king, Louis the Child. Two of the Babenberg brothers were killed, and the survivor Adalbert was summoned before the imperial court by the regent Hatto I., archbishop of Mainz, a partisan of the Conradines. He refused to appear, held his own for a time in his castle at Theres against the king's forces, but surrendered in 906, and in spite of a promise of safe-conduct was beheaded.
From this time the Babenbergs lost their influence in Franconia; but in 976 Leopold, a member of the family who was a count in the Donnegau, is described as margrave of the East Mark, a district not more than 60 m. in breadth on the eastern frontier of Bavaria which grew into the duchy of Austria. Leopold, who probably received the mark as a reward for his fidelity to the emperor Otto II. during the Bavarian rising in 976, extended its area at the expense of the Hungarians, and was succeeded in 994 by his son Henry I. Henry, who continued his father's policy, was followed in 1018 by his brother Adalbert and in 1055 by his nephew Ernest, whose marked loyalty to the emperors Henry III. and Henry IV. was rewarded by many tokens of favour. The succeeding margrave, Leopold II., quarrelled with Henry IV., who was unable to oust him from the mark or to prevent the succession of his son Leopold III. in 1096. Leopold supported Henry, son of Henry IV., in his rising against his father, but was soon drawn over to the emperor's side, and in 1106 married his daughter Agnes, widow of Frederick I., duke of Swabia. He declined the imperial crown in 1125. His zeal in founding monasteries earned for him his surname "the Pious," and canonization by Pope Innocent VIII. in 1485. He is regarded as the patron saint of Austria. One of Leopold's sons was Otto, bishop of Freising (q.v.). His eldest son, Leopold IV., became margrave in 1136, and in 1139 received from the German king Conrad III. the duchy of Bavaria, which had been forfeited by Duke Henry the Proud. Leopold's brother Henry (surnamed Jasomirgott from his favourite oath, "So help me God!") was made count palatine of the Rhine in 1140, and became margrave of Austria on Leopold's death in 1141. Having married Gertrude, the widow of Henry the Proud, he was invested in 1143 with the duchy of Bavaria, and resigned his office as count palatine.
In 1147 he went on crusade, and after his return renounced Bavaria at the instance of the new king Frederick I. As compensation for this, Austria, the capital of which had been transferred to Vienna in 1146, was erected into a duchy. The second duke was Henry's son Leopold I., who succeeded him in 1177 and took part in the crusades of 1182 and 1190. In Palestine he quarrelled with Richard I., king of England, captured him on his homeward journey and handed him over to the emperor Henry VI. Leopold increased the territories of the Babenbergs by acquiring Styria in 1192 under the will of his kinsman Duke Ottakar IV. He died in 1194, and Austria fell to one son, Frederick, and Styria to another, Leopold; but on Frederick's death in 1198 they were again united by Duke Leopold II., surnamed "the Glorious." The new duke fought against the infidel in Spain, Egypt and Palestine, but is more celebrated as a lawgiver, a patron of letters and a founder of towns. Under him Vienna became the centre of culture in Germany and the great school of Minnesingers (q.v.). His later years were spent in strife with his son Frederick, and he died in 1230 at San Germano, whither he had gone to arrange the peace between the emperor Frederick II. and Pope Gregory IX. His son Frederick II. followed as duke, and earned the name of "Quarrelsome" by constant struggles with the kings of Hungary and Bohemia and with the emperor.
He deprived his mother and sisters of their possessions, was hated by his subjects on account of his oppressions, and in 1236 was placed under the imperial ban and driven from Austria. Restored when the emperor was excommunicated, he treated in vain with Frederick for the erection of Austria into a kingdom. He was killed in battle in 1246, when the male line of the Babenbergs became extinct. The city of Bamberg grew up around the ancestral castle of the family.
See G. Juritsch, Geschichte der Babenberger und ihrer Länder (Innsbruck, 1894); M. Schmitz, Oesterreichs Scheyern-Wittelsbacher oder die Dynastie der Babenberger (Munich, 1880).