The history of Schoenbrunn and the previous buildings that stood on this site goes back to the Middle Ages. The whole estate was referred to as the Katterburg from the beginning of the 14th century and belonged to the manor of the monastery at Klosterneuburg. Over the following centuries the names of numerous tenants are documented, including a few prominent figures such as, in 1548, Hermann Bayer, who was mayor of Vienna and who extended the buildings, transforming the whole into a manorial estate.
In 1569 the estate came into Habsburg possession through Maximilian II, and according to the title deeds included a house, a watermill and stabling as well as a pleasure garden and an orchard. This laid the foundations for an imposing residence and formal gardens as well as a deer park. A few years earlier, Emperor Maximilian, brought up in the Spanish court with a keen interest in the natural world, had introduced the breeding of Spanish horses, and this practice had a significant influence on the building of the royal riding school in Vienna in 1572. His successor, Emperor Matthias, used the Katterburg estate for hunting, and according to a legend is supposed to have come across the Schöne Brunnen ('fair spring'), which eventually gave the estate its name, while on a hunting excursion in 1612.
The name "Schoenbrunn"
After the death of Emperor Ferdinand II in 1637, the estate became the dower residence of his art-loving widow, who needed the appropriare architectural setting for her busy social life. She therefore had a château de plaisance built around 1642, which was accompanied by the renaming of the Katterburg to Schoenbrunn, a change of name first documented in the same year. In 1683 the château de plaisance and its deer park fell victim to the depredations of Turkish troops during the siege of Vienna. From 1686 the estate was in the possession of Emperor Leopold I, who decided that he would make the estate over to his son and heir Joseph, and have a splendid new residence built for him.
Soon afterwards the architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, an architect who had received his training in Rome and had been recommended by patrons from the nobility, arrived at court. In 1688 he presented the Emperor with a preliminary set of designs for a new palace, the so-called Schoenbrunn I-Project, and in 1693 Leopold I commissioned concrete plans for the construction of a grand hunting lodge, on which work started in 1696. The new edifice was partly built on the existing foundations of the château de plaisance that had been destroyed by the Turks. The construction of the lateral wings was delayed from 1701 owing to the War of the Spanish Succession and the attendant financial constraints, and came to a complete halt after Joseph's sudden death.
The rebuilding of the riding school, which had also been destroyed by the Turks, was subject to similar delays; it was only when the Winter Riding School in the Vienna Hofburg was built between 1729 and 1737, commissioned by Charles VI to a design by Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, that the riding school had a new home.
The unfinished palace then became the dower residence of Wilhelmine Amalie, who had her walls hung with the portraits of noble horses which can still be seen today in the so-called Rösselzimmer (literally 'horse room').