Charles V was the most powerful man in Europe for 35 years. Despite this he was forced to divide his kingdoms between his son and brother before his death and his Holy Roman Empire was left split between Protestant and Catholic Princes and remains so to this day. The reasons for this lie in the huge problems involved in ruling Spain, parts of Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and most of Eastern Europe and the cancerous fire of reformation that spread throughout his lands.

                Joanna the Mad (Juanna) = Philip I, King of Castille (Philip the Fair)
                               Castille | Habsburg
                            (1480-1555) | (1478-1506)
               Isabella = Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, (I) King of Spain     
               Portugal | Habsburg                                              
            (1503-1539) | (1500-1558)                                           
        <--- = Philip II, King of Spain
               Spanish Habsburg

Born in 1500 in Ghent in the Netherlands Charles was the son of Philip I (Philip the Fair, Sovereign of the Netherlands) and Joanna the Mad (Juana). Throughout his life Charles remained very attached to his home city even saying,

I could fit Paris in my Ghent.1 - Charles V
He was brought up in Flanders by his aunt, Margaret of Austria and his tutor, Adrian of Utrecht (later Pope Adrian IV). Upon the death of his father in 1506 he inherited the Netherlands but at 6 years of age was obviously unable to rule it. His aunt, Margaret, acted as his regent until he came of age in 1515. Along with Margaret and Adrian the main influence on Charles in his youth was Lord of Chièvres, Guillaume de Croy. Chièvres advised Charles in Spain before his death in May, 1521.

It was only a year later that Charles' maternal grandfather, Ferdinand II, died and he became King of Spain, supposedly in joint status with his mother who was, in practice, so barmy that they didn't even let her pick her own clothes. Charles immediately travelled to Spain to take his place at court. He was unpopular from the outset, he spoke little Spanish and his Flemish ways seemed strange to the Spanish nobles. He appointed Flemish friends to high office and increased taxation to prepare for his imperial ambitions. Later Charles remarks of this time,

I was managed and governed by M. de Chièvres, and I was not old enough to know these Kingdoms or experienced enough to govern them. And as I left immediately for Flanders, having spent very little time there, and what is more, being still unmarried and without and heir, it is not surprising that there was scandal and disturbance. - Charles V, 1529

In 1519, upon the death of his paternal grandfather, Emperor Maxmilian I, Charles put himself forward for the election of the new Emperor, as would be expected. Unusually there was a challenger in the election, King Francis I of France. The Pope, Leo X, backed Francis I but they were unable to successfully out bribe Charles' bought Electors (as was the custom) and so in 1520 Charles succeeded to the title of Holy Roman Emperor. With this huge inheritance Charles saw himself as the defender of Catholicism and the uniter of Christendom. This was a view shared by others,

Sire, God has been very merciful to you: he has raised you above all the Kings and Princes of Christendom to a power such as no sovereign has enjoyed since your ancestor Charles the Great (Charlemagne). He has set you on the way towards a world monarchy, towards the uniting of all Christendom under a single shepherd. - Mercuni Gattinara, Imperial Chancellor, in a letter to Charles upon his election to Emperor, 1519.

As the most powerful man in Europe Charles looked to expand his territories, particularly in Italy. In the Early Modern Period Italy was not the country we know today. It was a disjointed collection of city states, principalities and Papal lands. As well as this Spain, France and the Empire all had land there under their control. This meant that Charles could challenge French power and expand his empire without the full risks of an invasion of France. Despite this desire to expand his empire Charles refuted the claim that he wanted to rule the world,

There are those who say that I wish to rule the world, but both my thoughts and my deeds demonstrate the contrary. - Charles V talking to the Pope and Cardinals, 1536

His wars in Italy went well, too well. The Pope failed to give him enough help in his plan to defeat the threat of Lutheranism in the Empire due to fear of Imperial domination of Italy. As one historian says,

Successive popes were not sorry to see Charles V ruined by the problem of heresy whose resolution might have greatly increased his power. - N M Sutherland
His constant distraction with French wars meant that he was unable to pay full attention to the astonishing growth of Lutheranism in the Empire. In 1525 Charles defeated the French at Pavia and captured Francis I. Francis I signed the humiliating Treaty of Madrid, renouncing his Italian claims and ceding Burgundy to Charles. However Francis I repudiated the treaty and formed an alliance between the Pope, Venice, Florence and Milan in the form of the League of Cognac. Charles sent another army, this time a Lutheran one that he obtained through giving in to a series of compromises at the Diet of Speyer, 1526. The army was hugely successful and after routing the Leagues' armies they sacked Rome in 1527 in what became known as the 'German Fury'.

It was while holding Francis I in Spain that Charles married Isabella of Portugal, his first and only wife, in 1526. This was one of the important steps he took in regaining his control over Spain. He had matured since the earlier revolts and he gained respect in Spain, an English diplomat saying of him,

Very wise and well understanding his affairs, right cold and temperate in speech with assured manner couching his words right and to good purpose when he doth speak.
Charles left Spain with Isabella pregnant and a subdues nobility, a great achievement and a vital one considering his numerous other problems.

Thanks to this decisive victory Charles was now able to sign a permanent treaty with France, the Treaty of Cambrai, that confirmed his Imperial dominions in Italy. Despite this Charles was still not free to deal with the growing religious problems at home. The Turks were attacking the Habsburg lands along the Mediterranean, Austrian and Hungarian borders. Charles could not allow his own family lands to be compromised in this way and this lead to further religious concessions at the Diet of Regensburg, 1532, in the form of the Religious Truce of Nuremburg. With his expanded army Charles scored a good victory against the Turks at Tunis in 1535 and his brother, Ferdinand, held the Eastern borders successfully.

This period of respite was only short and in 1541 a second expedition, this time to Algiers, was a failure and Ottoman Sultan, Sulayman the Magnificent, regained the upper hand. Francis I seized the opportunity and made an alliance with Sulayman first in 1536 and again in 1542. Both alliances were made with aim of regaining Italian lands, particularly Milan. However despite the alliance Francis I was defeated again, this time with the help of King Henry VIII of England, and he made peace at Crépy.

At last the time had come for Counter Reformation. Since Charles saw it as his duty to defend Catholicism and unite Christendom, it was extremely important to him to defeat Protestantism.

To settle this matter (heresy), I am determined to use my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul. - Charles V
In 1545 the Council of Trent met for the first time and at last the religious initiative seemed to lie with Catholicism again. At the Battle of Mühlberg, 1547, Charles defeated the Protestants of the Schmalkaldic League and captured Elector John Frederick of Saxony, the political leader of the Protestants. The resulting Diet of Augsburg, 1547, saw Charles gain the Netherlands as a hereditary Habsburg dominion and in 1548 the Confession of Augsburg was produced. The Confession was a compromise statement of Lutheran faith but despite attempts to use his Spanish troops to enforce it Charles was never able to impose it. He had simply underestimated the deep roots that Protestantism and Lutheranism had put down throughout the Empire.

Charles' ally in the Battle of Mühlberg, 1547, had been Maurice of Saxony, a powerful rival to the Elector of Saxony. However in 1552 he changed sides yet again and allied with Henry II (successor to Francis I) and attacked Charles. He, in combination with the French, succeeded in captruing Metz and nearly in capturing Charles himself.

However Charles was becoming tired and his gout was affecting him badly. He felt he had failed in his duties of uniting Europe under Catholicism and defeating the Turks. He returned to the Netherlands, his homeland, and designated the running of the Empire to his brother Ferdinand from 1555 onwards. By now Charles knew that if he wanted to keep all his lands in the family he must divide them between at least two rulers having found out himself how difficult it was to rule such a large area. This began with the handing over of Naples and Milan to his son, Philip II, in 1554. The next step, in 1555, was his abdication in the Netherlands, which he handed over to Philip as well. Finally in 1556 he abdicated Spain to Philip II and the Empire to Ferdinand. It was thus that Charles divided his lands between the Spanish Habsburgs (Philip getting Spain, the Netherlands and Italian dominions) and the Austrian Habsburgs (getting what was left of the divided HRE). This proved to be an admirable decision despite his son's inability to handle even the downsized Empire that he was given. Charles left Philip II with the instruction to,

Exterminate heresy, lest it take root and overturn the state and social order. - Charles V to his son, Philip II
this may go some way to explaining Philip's own fixation with heresy,
Before suffering the slightest damage to religion and the service of God, I would rather lose all my states and an hundred lives if I had them, because I do not propose to be the ruler of heretics. - Philip II, 1566

After dividing his lands Charles retired to a monastery at Yuste, in Spain. He took an active interest in Politics until his death in September 1558.

Charles' decision to abdicate is looked upon kindly by historians and contempories alike,

He took the highly unusual step of abdicating voluntarily, feeling that his reign had been a failure, which in itself shows his integrity. - Katherine Brice
The emperor gave a rare example to his successors . . . in so doing, he proved himself to be a true Christian prince . . . may the Lord in all His goodness now grant the emperor freedom. - St Ignatius of Loyola
It not only his decision to abdicate that receives approval. He was astonishingly un-inbred for the period, his parents coming from completely different families, and despite having the trademark Habsburg Chin (see and he showed a degree of wit and intelligence rarely seen among rulers. This can be seen from his most famous quote,
To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse - German. - Charles V
which was then used by a descendant,
I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountant, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse. - Frederick the Great of Prussia
In addition Charles believed,
A man who knows four languages is worth four men. - Charles V
This maybe due to the fact that he himself spoke more than four languages, as was necessary for numerous dominions. Despite the humerous nature of these statements there underlies the fact that it was necessary for Charles to speak so many langauges as in his lands over 7 different individual langauges were spoken, not allowing for dialects. It was the size and spread of Charles' empire that largely contributed to his difficulties, he supposedly spent one quarter of his reign travelling and said,
My life has been one long journey. - Charles V
Historians are kind to Charles as well
His personal character towered far above that of the princes of his age. - H Holborn
His weaknesses do not diminish the genuineness of that gesture which was of a piece with his lifelong attitude to his work. Charles' own attitude towards his office revived respect for the religious side of the imperial dignity. - Francis Yates
Charles can content himself that history has judged him kindly, however his son, Philip II, was not so lucky. However he was inbred, his parents were first cousins.

1500 - Born in Ghent

1506 - Charles' father, Philip I, died and Charles inherited the Netherlands. His aunt, Margaret of Austria, acts as his regent until he comes of age.

1516 - Charles' maternal grandfather, Ferdinand II, dies and Charles inherits Spain and all of her territories, including the New World.

1519 - Charles' paternal grandfather, Maxmilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, dies and Charles inherits the Habsburg lands in Europe. Later that year Charles is elected Holy Roman Emperor.

1520-21 - Revolt in Spain stemming from Spanish resentment of their funding Charles' Italian Wars.

1521 - Diet of Worms and resulting Edict of Worms.

1522 - Charles' illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Parma is born.

1524-26 - Peasants war in Holy Roman Empire is a sign of increasing Protestant influence.

1526 - Charles marries Isabella of Portugal, daughter of Manuel I, King of Portuhal

1527 - Imperial army sacks Rome and imprisons Pope Clement VII. Charles' only legitimate son, Philip, is born in Spain.

1536-44 - Sporadic fighting with Francis I of France and Turks.

1545 - Charles' illegitimate son, Don John of Austria is born.

1547 - Victory over the Protestants at the Battle of Mühlberg, 1547.

1548 - Confession of Augsburg.

1555 - Peace of Augsburg is signed essentially dividing the Empire between Catholics and Protestants. Charles abdicates in the Netherlands and his son, Philip II, inherits the territories.

1556 - Charles gave the Holy Roman Empire over to his brother, Ferdinand I, and Philip II becomes King of Spain. Charles retires from all government to the monastery of Yuste.

1558 - Died

1This is a pun on the French word Gant (sounding like Ghent) meaning glove. So 'I could fit Paris in my glove'.

A new King in a foreign land

     Born in 1500, Charles Habsburg's destiny awaited him in the year 1515. Upon the death of Ferdinand of Aragon, fate beckoned him from his home city of Ghent in Flanders to travel south past his enemy-in-waiting France, finally to arrive in Castile. When he arrived in the land to take up his inheritance, his subjects did not take immediately to the awkward seventeen year-old whom they were to call Majestad. Many harboured doubts about whether it was God's will for him to sit upon the throne while his mother, Joanna the Mad, still lived. Joanna famously kept the head of her long-dead husband (whom history has labelled Philip the Handsome) as a courtier for a full ten years after his death, and Charles and his entourage set about governing their new land with no reference to her (or, presumably, the head).

     The power and influence of this entourage of Burgundian advisors did not stick well with the Spanish people, who were immediately suspicious of their language and customs. It is reported that almost as soon as their arrival they set about the age-old business of corruption, selling the interests of the native Spaniards for their own wealth and affluence. Hence it is not surprising that the Spanish people feared this apparently foreign King would sacrifice their interests to his wider concerns (Charles possessed a great Empire across Christendom, comprising of the Burgundian Lands, Italy, the New World and Spain).

     And in the first few years of Charles' reign, their fears appeared to be taking form. The Cortes (parliament) of Castile and the Cortes of Aragon greeted the new King with rudeness, informing him that he was in their service; but at least they did accept his rule, and issued an initial monetary grant (a servicio). However, fearing the degradation of their fueros (traditional rights), they made Charles promise that in his absences he would not appoint a foreigner to govern them.

     Charles was soon to break this promise. His ancestors had traditionally held the position of Holy Roman Emperor, a position which was not hereditery but elective. When the position became vacant upon the death of his paternal grandfather Maximilian I, Charles wished to waste no time in securing the position for himself. Again the Spanish people were riled as their ruler sought to expand his territories and obligations, presumably at their expense. Charles convened the Cortes of Castile to a remote location, where be bullied them into granting another servicio. He would use this money to bribe the electors for the title of Holy Roman Emperor, the traditional and respected method of obtaining the position.

     Charles left the Iberian peninsula in 1520 to travel around the electorships and deliver his Spanish money to German princes. Perhaps not aware of the consequences his action would have, Charles appointed Adrian of Utrecht as regent in his absence. Adrian was one of the Burgundians that had travelled with Charles at the start of his reign, and the Spaniards were none too pleased at having the promise of not being subjected to foreign government broken. After only a few months, the major towns in Castile were up in revolt. They formed a league, known as the Communeros, which opposed Habsburg rule. They turned their wrath to the Crown's officials, expelling them and refusing to pay their taxes towards the servicio.

     And so it might have continued, with Charles in absentia and the nobility initially unwilling to turn their might against the Communeros. However, as the leaders of the towns grew more confident, their ideas for reform grew more extreme, and it was not long before the Castilian nobility began to feel threatened - in 1521, the nobility put down the rebels at the Battle of Villalar. Such was not done for love of Charles Habsburg, but for love of their own position. Charles soon realized the importance of the nobility in his security, and he was careful throughout his reign to irk them little - never did he think to encroach on their exemption from taxation.

     So it was that Charles returned to a Spain in 1522 that was much more unified and stable than the one he had left. Never again would Charles be threatened by an army composed of his own subjects - such was left to his son, who was broken by the Dutch Revolt decades later. The period of Charles' reign 1522-56 (when he abdicated) was tranquil and uninteresting. Indeed, it has been remarked that it seemed Spain had no internal history at all during this period. As he reached manhood the boy King grew in stature and charisma, and he achieved the adoration of his subjects. He did not irk his subjects by intervening unduly in their affairs - the nobles of Aragon retained their right to wage war at will, and the relative poverty of the place did not give him much reason to encroach on their fueros.

     Spain, and Castile in particular, became the heartland of Charles' Empire. It was a rich land, and Charles needed immeausurable riches to fight the many wars his Imperial and religious commitments brought to him - against the Valois dynasty of France, the German Protestants and the Ottoman Empire. In Charles' reign France proved itself the trojan horse of Christendom, allying with the infidel Turk to further its own ends in a dynastic feud. Charles, forever the chivalrous knight, challenged Francis I of France to a duel following him breaking provisions of the Treaty of Madrid, as dictated by already outdated feudal custom. This pious, brave and dedicated man was to usher in a Golden Age for Spain, and the Spanish people were justified in looking back gladly at the failure of the Communeros.

     As a note of esoterica, Charles' full list of titles ran as follows: "Roman King, future Emperor, semper augustus, King of Spain, Sicily, Jerusalem, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, the Indies and the mainland on the far shore of the Atlantic, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Luxembourg, Limburg, Athens, and Patras, Count of Habsburg, Flanders and Tyrol, Count Palatine of Burgundy, Hainault, Pfirt, Roussillon, Landgrave of Alsace, Count of Swabia, Lord of Asia and Africa."

     He is most commonly known as "Emperor Charles V."

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