(vĭ'təlsbäkh), German dynasty that ruled Bavaria from 1180 until 1918.
The family takes its name from the ancestral castle of Wittelsbach in Upper Bavaria. In 1180 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I invested Count Otto of Wittelsbach with the much-reduced duchy of Bavaria, of which he had deprived the Guelphic duke, Henry the Lion. In 1214 Otto's son, Otto II, also received the Rhenish Palatinate. After Otto's death (1253) the Wittelsbach possessions were divided between an elder branch, which received the Rhenish Palatinate and W Bavaria, and a younger branch, which received the rest.
The Wittelsbachs reached their zenith under Duke Louis III, of the elder branch, who became Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV (reigned 1314–47). Louis IV temporarily (1324–73) attached Brandenburg to his dynasty and through his second marriage added Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland. In 1329, Louis IV subdivided the Wittelsbach lands; the elder branch, descended from Louis's brother Rudolf, received the Rhenish and the Upper Palatinate, while the younger branch, descended from Louis's first marriage, received Bavaria proper.
The electoral dignity at first was to alternate between the two branches but was settled permanently on the Palatinate branch by the Golden Bull of 1356. Both branches underwent several subdivisions, but in the early 16th cent. Bavaria was reunited by Duke Albert IV, who introduced succession by primogeniture. (For the subdivisions of the Palatinate branch, which is not treated here in detail, see Palatinate.)
In 1443 Philip the Good of Burgundy seized Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland from Countess Jacqueline, his first cousin. In the 16th and 17th cent. the Bavarian Wittelsbachs championed the Roman Catholic cause while the Palatinate branch were the leading Protestant princes. After the defeat of the elector palatine, known as Frederick the Winter King of Bohemia, his electoral voice was transferred (1623) to Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria, who also received the Upper Palatinate. A new electorate was created in 1648 for Frederick's son, to whom the Rhenish Palatinate was restored.
Elector Charles Albert of Bavaria was chosen (1742) Holy Roman emperor as Charles VII; with the death (1777) of his son, Maximilian III, the Bavarian branch of the Wittelsbachs died out, and the Palatinate-Sulzbach line acceded in Bavaria in the person of Elector Charles Theodore, who died in 1799 without issue. He was succeeded by the duke palatine of Zweibrücken, senior member of the Palatinate branch, who thus united all Wittelsbach lands under his sole rule and who in 1806 became king of Bavaria as Maximilian I. His successors as kings of Bavaria were Louis I, Maximilian II, Louis II, Otto I, and Louis III, who was deposed in 1918.
Empress Elizabeth of Austria, wife of Francis Joseph, and Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians, consort of Albert I, issued from a collateral line of the dynasty, and the Wittelsbachs have intermarried for centuries with all the royal families of Europe. A line of the Palatinate branch (see Zweibrücken) ruled Sweden from 1654 to 1741. Crown Prince Rupert (d. 1955), son of King Louis III and claimant to the Bavarian throne (the family never renounced their claim), also inherited, through a complicated succession, the claim of the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.