Charles V (also known as Charles I)

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Charles V (also known as Charles I)

February 24, 1500,
Ghent, the Netherlands
September 21, 1558
San Jeronimo de Yuste, Spain

Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain

"Therefore I am determined to pledge for this cause all my realms, my friends, my body, my life and my soul … to defend the Catholic Faith."

Charles V.

During his reign as Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, Charles V became the ruler of one of the largest empires in world history. A member of the powerful Habsburg family based in Austria and Spain, he inherited far-reaching territories: the ancestral Habsburg family estates; the Spanish Empire; the kingdoms of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Naples, and Sicily; the duchy of Milan; the Netherlands; and possessions in North Africa and the Americas. His empire was so vast that he owned roughly twice the amount of land as the king of France. Charles V dominated the stage of European and world politics from 1516 until his death in 1558. A man of enormous military talent, he endeared himself to his soldiers, and eventually even his Spanish subjects, by his courage and love of action. Next to him, Francis I, the king of France (1494–1547; see entry), and Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry), the king of England, were but minor players on the political chessboard of Europe.

A teen-age ruler

Charles was born in Ghent, Netherlands, in 1500 to Philip I (the Handsome) (1478–1506), archduke of Austria, and Joanna (called the Mad; 1479–1555) of Castile—a province of Spain and seat of the empire. Charles was the heir to a glittering collection of European titles and lands. His maternal grandparents were King Ferdinand II (1452–1516; ruled 1468–1516) of Castile and Queen Isabella I (1451–1504; ruled 1474–1504) of Aragon. His paternal grandparents were Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519; ruled 1493–1519) and Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482). When Charles was only six, his father died. Joanna suffered from mental problems, which grew worse after Philip's death, and forced her to remain in her native land of Castile. Charles, along with three of his sisters, was transported to the household of his paternal aunt, Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), in the Netherlands. Charles spent his early years guided by two mentors, Margaret and his chamberlain (bedchamber attendant), Guillaume de Croy, the sieur de Chievres. The prince's guardians also assigned a priest, Adrian Florensz Boeyens (Adrian of Utrecht; 1459–1523), to serve as his spiritual guide. Adrian later become Pope Adrian VI (reigned 1522–23). Charles enjoyed hunting, music, singing, art, and architecture, but he despised learning Latin, Greek, or any other ancient language.

When his father died Charles inherited the Burgundian lands of the Netherlands and Franche-Comté. At the age of fifteen he became ruler of the Netherlands. In 1516, upon the death of his grandfather Ferdinand II, he inherited Spain and its vast empire. A year later, when he visited Castile, the immature monarch brought with him a group of Flemish advisers, which caused much resentment among the Castilians. They felt the Flemish advisers would promote the interests of the Habsburgs in the Netherlands over the welfare of the king's Spanish subjects. Although he stayed in Spain until 1520, he was young, unsure of himself, and utterly unfamiliar with the language or customs of his proud Spanish subjects. Spain, and especially the province of Castile, however, remained the heart of his far-reaching realm for the remainder of his life.

A young king, a growing empire

When his other grandfather, Maximilian, died in 1519, Charles bid for the vacant throne of the Holy Roman Empire, which his Habsburg ancestors had ruled for centuries. Although Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England were also vying for the position, Charles was able to count on vast sums in bribe money. A loan of 850,000 florins, or European gold coins, had been secured as bribe money from the wealthy Jacob Fugger (1459–1525), head of a banking syndicate in Germany. (Some historians put the figure closer to 500,000 florins.) Military blackmail was also used to sway the electors (noblemen appointed to select an emperor). In June 1519 Charles was unanimously elected emperor, but he was not officially crowned by the pope until 1530 when the hostilities between Charles and the pope had ended. The rivalry initiated among Charles, Francis I, and Henry VIII was to last for the balance of the young kings' natural lives.

During this time Mercurino Gattinara, Charles's grand chancellor (chief secretary), had told Charles that God had set him on the path to world monarchy. Gattinara also said that he who sat on the imperial throne was the leader of all Christendom (Roman Catholic Europe), ordained by God himself. There is no doubt that Charles had come to see himself as the defender of Christianity against Islam in the Ottoman Empire to the east and, later, Protestants in Germany. This exalted role did not sit well with many of Charles's Spanish subjects, however, who believed that he ought to be spending his time and efforts on the throne of Spain. In 1520, Castile erupted in the Revolt of the Comuneros over resentment of the Flemish influence at Charles's court.

Juan de Padilla (c. 1490–1521), a representative from Toledo, Spain, had organized leaders in other cities into a "Holy League of Cities." Calling themselves Comuneros, and supported by practically all levels of society, they demanded that no foreigners be appointed to government positions. They also declared that Spain's foreign policy must promote Spanish interests. Charles learned that they resented him for leaving the country so early to seek the German title of Holy Roman Emperor (he had been in Spain for only three years) and for the financial burdens he had levied on them. Charles had left Adrian behind as Spanish regent, (one who rules in place of a minor or an absent monarch) but the uprising required the personal attention of Charles. Upon his return from Germany in 1522, Charles brutally crushed the rebellion and executed more than 270 people. From that time on he was regarded mainly as a "Spanish king," and the people of Spain adopted him with an uncompromising affection.

When Spain was once more at peace, Charles faced two immediate challenges: the growing Lutheran movement and the threat from France to his possessions in Italy. Charles addressed the Lutheran problem by supporting the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church but allowing for reform, as long as it was done without heresy (violation of the laws of God and the church). He believed it was his job to evaluate whether or not religious reform was heretical. This was Charles's intent when he called the German reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry) to defend his religious positions at the Diet of Worms in 1521 (see accompanying box). Luther was a German monk who had sparked the reform movement in 1517 when he presented his Ninety-Five Theses, a list of grievances against the Catholic Church, at Wittenberg, Germany.

Spain at war with France

Charles's other problem was the Spanish war with France in Italy. Called the Italian Wars (1494–1559), this conflict involved a dispute between France and Spain over territory in Italy. Spain and France had a long history of warring with one another, most recently over the rich and divided Italian principalities. An early key battle came in 1499, when Ferdinand II of Aragon had defeated Louis XII of France (1462–1515; ruled 1498–1515). Spain had established a reputation for an invincible infantry (soldiers trained to fight in the front line of battle). In fact, Spain's famed land troops did not lose a pitched battle for 150 years. Francis I, however, threatened Italy. In 1515 he had triumphantly defeated Massimiliano Sforza (1493–1530; ruled 1512–15), duke of Milan, at the Battle of Marignano. Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) and Charles V came to the aid of Sforza. The result was the tremendous victory of Spanish forces over the French at Pavia in 1525. Francis was humiliated when he was captured and removed to Madrid as a prisoner for more than a year. In 1526 he agreed to leave his two sons as hostages and married Eleanor, Charles's sister and the dowager queen of Portugal. Once he was safely home, Francis rejected the terms of the treaty he had signed in Madrid, and ransomed his sons for two million florins. Thus the war between Spain and France continued to rage in Italy.

Emperor Confronts Reformer

When Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was only seventeen, an obscure German monk named Martin Luther presented his Ninety-Five Theses at a Catholic church in Wittenberg, Germany. In a now-famous attack, Luther listed his grievances with Roman Catholicism and initiated the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Among other issues, Luther attacked the church practice of selling indulgences (forgiveness of sins) in order to finance the construction of Saint Peter's Basilica, the main Catholic church, in Rome. The reformer also criticized the corruption of the clergy and challenged traditional interpretations of scripture (text of the Bible, the Christian holy book). Luther's charges caused considerable controversy, pitting the pope and clergy as well as kings, noblemen, and common people against one another. Charles was preoccupied with his bitterly fought election as emperor and with the Comuneros' revolt in Spain, so he dismissed Luther as an insignificant heretic. This was a mistake. During the crucial years of 1517 to 1521, the Lutheran movement gained much momentum, especially in Germany and the Netherlands.

Finally, in 1521 Charles summoned Luther before the Imperial Diet (conference of representatives of the Holy Roman Empire) at Worms, Germany, to explain himself. In an epic face-to-face confrontation with the emperor, the German priest refused to budge on his controversial views. Charles, in turn, rejected Luther's doctrine and thereafter considered him a heretic beyond the scope of rehabilitation. Declaring Luther an "outlaw of the church," Charles accused Luther of having misguided ideas and single-handedly trying to overturn Christian teachings, which had existed for a thousand years. The emperor vowed that he would do everything in his power to defend the Catholic religion.

Elsewhere in Europe, Charles was being threatened on yet another front by Süleyman I (1494–1566; see entry), sultan of the Ottoman Empire, a vast Muslim kingdom in Asia and parts of North Africa. Süleyman challenged Charles's authority in the area around the Mediterranean Sea as well as the Habsburg possessions in central Europe. In 1526 King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia (1506–1526; ruled 1516–26) died at the Battle of Mohacs in Hungary, and Charles inherited these thrones. Charles married Isabella of Portugal in the same year. The emperor was then confronted with more problems in Italy, when Pope Clement VII (1478–1534; reigned 1523–34) joined Francis I and Henry VIII in the League of Cognac to oppose Charles's attempts to expand his empire. Charles's Spanish and German troops stationed in Rome, angered by repeated delays in the payment of their wages, brutally sacked the holy city in 1527. This action demonstrated the massive power at Charles's disposal and the limited ability of sixteenth-century monarchs to fully control their soldiers. Clement, who had been locked away in a tower for his own safety, was horrified and quickly came to terms with Charles, as did Henry. Deserted by his allies, Francis was also forced to make peace by 1529. When the Turks (another name for the Ottomans) continued to menace Europe, most of Christendom's desperate rulers turned to Charles V for protection. In 1529, and again three years later, Charles's imperial forces united with armies headed by his brother, Ferdinand I (1503–1546), to defeat the Turks.

Hailed hero of Christendom

With their hostilities behind them, Clement VII officially crowned Charles as Holy Roman Emperor at Bologna, Italy, in 1530. Negotiations continued between the emperor and those of his subjects who had embraced the Protestant faith, but no headway was made. In 1535 Charles became the hero of all Christendom when he triumphantly captured a Turkish stronghold at Tunis (now Tunisia, Africa) and liberated thousands of Christians who had been held prisoner by the Turks. A year later he appeared before the college of cardinals (a committee of church officials, ranking directly below the pope, who elect the pope) and Pope Paul III (1468–1549; reigned 1534–49) in Rome to challenge Francis I. Charles thought the two should decide the fate of Italy through personal combat. Francis, who fancied himself a chivalrous knight throughout his entire reign, abruptly refused. Charles then invaded Provence, France, but operations quickly bogged down. Paul III interceded and brought about a temporary truce in 1538. That same year Charles rushed to Ghent, Netherlands, to quash a rebellion of local elites under the rule of his sister, Mary of Hungary (1505–1558). Again the emperor exhibited little tolerance for challenges to his authority as he executed thirteen of the rebels. Three years later Charles suffered a major disappointment when a large-scale amphibious (land and water) assault on the Ottoman base of Algiers, Africa, had to be aborted due to inclement weather.

In 1542 Charles struggled over the question of whether to renounce his claim to Milan, Italy, in the interest of peace with Francis I, or to give the duchy to his son Philip II (1527–1598; see entry). In the end he decided on Philip, and a fresh war between the German house of Habsburg and the French house of Valois began. Charles defeated the French king and then agreed to terms. Finally in 1543 Paul III convened the long-awaited Council of Trent to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within. The council ended with a basic reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine, but with a decidedly more tolerant tone. Despite the compromise, the troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Europe were only in their infancy. Charles's enemies, the German Protestant princes, sought collective protection from Spanish power by banding together in an elaborate alliance known as the Schmalkaldic League. Charles would not stand for any alliance aimed at limiting his kingdom.

In 1547 Charles won perhaps his greatest victory. Seventy thousand imperial soldiers annihilated the forces of the German Protestant princes at Mühlberg, Germany. Although hostilities ended for a time, by 1551 the German princes had found another ally in the new king of France, Henry II (1519–1559; ruled 1547–59). Efforts to defeat Charles became more intense. One German elector even came dangerously close to capturing the emperor himself. After the Battle of Mühlberg, Charles V concentrated more on foreign policy through marriage than through war. In 1554 he engineered a shaky Spanish-English alliance by arranging a marriage between his son Philip II to the Catholic English queen, Mary Tudor (1516–1558; ruled 1553–58). England reluctantly agreed to the marriage, but Parliament (main ruling body of Great Britain) would ultimately refuse to recognize Philip as an independent monarch. When no heirs were born by the time of Mary's death in 1558, all of the emperor's work was for nothing.

Patron and retiree

Throughout his reign Charles was a great lover of the arts, especially music. He ruled at the height of the Renaissance, a cultural revolution that began in Italy in the mid-1300s. The Renaissance was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist ideals were soon influencing the arts, literature, philosophy, science, religion, and politics in Italy. During the early fifteenth century, innovations of the Italian Renaissance began spreading into the rest of Europe and reached a peak in the sixteenth century. Like all Renaissance monarchs, Charles sought to enhance his power by being a generous patron of the arts. Yet he was not the easiest of patrons to please. He took his famous chapel singers with him when he traveled and even kept them by him after he abdicated, or left, the throne. The groups's fame helped maintain the reputation of Flemish music for the rest of the sixteenth century. Charles also built a chapel for his wife and gave his son Philip, when he reached the age of twelve, a suite of musicians that included singers, instrumentalists, and composers.

Conquistadors Expand Spanish Empire

As Charles was expanding his empire in Europe, Spanish explorers were extending his reach into the New World (the European term for the Americas). Spanish conquest had begun in 1492, during the reign of the Catholic monarchs—and Charles's grandparents—King Ferdinand II of Castile and Queen Isabella I of Aragon. Ferdinand and Isabella commissioned the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to take his now-famous voyage in search of a more direct route to Asia. After Columbus's ships went off course in the Atlantic Ocean, he "discovered" islands (present-day Watling Island, Cuba, and Haiti) in the ocean off the continent of North America. This "new world" was claimed for Spain in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella.

In 1521, during Charles's reign, conquistadors (conquerors) went onto the mainland of North America. Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), a young and handsome noble lawyer from Spain, led a group of six hundred Spanish adventurers against the immense Aztec Empire in Mexico. Ignoring an order from Cuba's Spanish governor Diego Velázquez not to sail, Cortés spurred his men forward by burning their ships (which was their only route of escape) once they had landed on the Yucatán peninsula. Velázquez was trying to prevent Cortés from leading an independent expedition to the Yucataán. Cortés set sail anyway, and he burned his ships to prevent any Velázquez sympathizers from returning to Cuba. Cortés's astounding feat of defeating the Aztecs won tremendous lands and wealth for his Spanish sovereign. This was not the only help Charles received from the conquistadors. Francisco Pizarro (1475–1541), a former indentured servant, won a spectacular victory when he conquered the fabled Inca Empire in 1533. Landing on the Pacific coast of Peru with just 2 cannons, 37 horses, and 180 men, Pizarro accomplished one of the most incredible coups (violent overthrow of a government) of all time. The enormous wealth of the Incas was to fuel Spanish foreign policy well into the seventeenth century.

Charles so admired the work of the famous Italian Renaissance painter Titian that he gave Titian the title Count Palatine. He summoned the painter to Augsburg in 1548, where Titan produced one of his most famous portraits, Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg. In this painting Charles is depicted as a triumphant knight. In 1548 Titian painted a portrait of the seated emperor and in 1554 he began the Gloria, which depicts a kneeling Charles and his wife among a group of people, all adoring the Trinity (God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the Virgin Mary. Charles also had other favorite painters and poets who enjoyed his patronage. Among them were the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega, the Italian sculptor Leone Leoni and Leoni's son Pompeo Leoni.

By 1555 Charles was seriously considering abdication and retirement. He was unwilling to accept the religious peace his brother Ferdinand had secured between the Catholics and Protestants. The principle of cuius regio eius religio (whose the reign, his the religion) not only left Charles angry and frustrated, but made him ineffective as a leader. Philip was of sufficient age and maturity to rule, and the enormous strain of directing such a massive empire had clearly taken its toll on Charles. The empire was more than solid. In America the Spaniards had established courts of law in eight colonies and had founded three universities. Tons of silver from the mines of Potosi, Bolivia, along with Mexican and Peruvian gold and gems were streaming into Spanish ports aboard giant galleons (ships). Charles had firmly consolidated the Spanish hold on an area that contained one-fifth of the world's population. Satisfied that he had accomplished his goals, in January 1556 Charles V abdicated the bulk of his vast possessions to Philip II. Charles then retired to a monastery at San Jeronimo de Yuste in Spain. He bestowed the prestigious title of Holy Roman Emperor and the traditional Habsburg feudal properties on his younger brother, Ferdinand I. On September 21, 1558, clutching a crucifix, Charles V died in Spain.

Charles's legacy

Although some scholars have pointed to the events of his last years as signs of failure on Charles's part, such a position is hardly justifiable. He ruled vast and widespread territories for forty years, adding immensely to his possessions by unparalleled successes in the New World. He kept Spain at the pinnacle of world power, a position it did not relinquish for one hundred years. Although Charles's efforts against the Turks were not completed, he had preserved Christendom far better than any of his peers. He was a dedicated fighter for the cause of Catholicism. Through his memorable victories at Pavia and Mühlberg, he thoroughly dominated Francis I and Henry VIII. Charles's later years, spent largely as an adviser to Philip, were not in vain. Just one year before Charles died, Philip decisively ended more than a half century of Habsburg-Valois conflict over Italy by demolishing the French at Saint Quentin. At Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 he signed a peace treaty that preserved Spain's preeminence in Europe. In 1571 one of Charles's other sons, John of Austria (1547–1578), settled old Habsburg accounts by crushing the Turks in one of the world's great naval battles at the Gulf of Lepanto (now called Gulf of Corinth).

For More Information


McGuigan, Dorothy Gies. The Habsburgs. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

Rady, Martyn. The Emperor Charles V. New York: Longman, 1988.

Young Charles V, 1500–1531. Alain Saint-Saëns, editor. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2000.

Web Sites

"Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor." The Columbia Encyclopedia. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

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Charles V (also known as Charles I)

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Charles V (also known as Charles I)