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Charles V 1500–1558 King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor

Charles V
1500–1558
King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor

Charles V became the most powerful monarch of his day, ruling over an empire that included what is now Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, parts of Italy and central Europe, and large areas in the Americas. He spent much of his reign trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church and fighting the two greatest threats to its power: Islam and Protestantism.


Rise to Power. Charles's father was Archduke Philip I of Austria, son of Holy Roman Emperor* Maximilian I. His mother, Joanna of Castile, was the daughter of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. From his illustrious family, Charles inherited a large number of titles and lands—a legacy that would bring him both power and frustration during his reign.

Charles had little contact with his parents. His father died when Charles was six, and his mother suffered from mental illness. The young prince grew up at the court in Brussels, then part of Burgundy, under the guidance of his aunt, Margaret of Austria. One of his tutors later became Pope Adrian VI.

Charles inherited the Netherlands and other territories in Burgundy upon his father's death in 1506. When his grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon died ten years later, Charles also acquired the throne of Spain and the Spanish lands in Italy. In 1519 Maximilian I died, and Charles saw the chance to add Holy Roman Emperor to his titles. Despite opposition from the kings of France and England, Charles won election as emperor unanimously—due in part to large bribes to the electors. These combined titles placed Charles in control of an enormous European empire.

Charles saw himself as the leader of the Christian world. He hoped to drive Muslim invaders from Europe and crush the Protestant challenge to Catholicism. However, his Spanish subjects wanted him to focus on their problems rather than spending time and money crusading far from home. In 1520 the towns of Castile revolted, leading Charles to put down the uprising by force. This rebellion was only the first of many social and military conflicts the young ruler would face.


Struggles for Control. Charles's rise to power occurred at the same time that Martin Luther was leading the Protestant Reformation* in Europe. Although strongly opposed to Luther, Charles supported reforms within the Catholic Church. But the papacy* resisted the emperor's calls for reform and feared his political power. Pope Clement VII struck back at Charles by signing an alliance with France's king Francis I, who hoped to acquire Spanish territories in Italy. Charles responded by supporting an English invasion of France and a rebellion by the French nobleman Charles de Bourbon.

Both the invasion and the rebellion failed, but Charles's forces captured the French king at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. Charles forced Francis to give up French claims to Naples and Milan as well as its holdings in Burgundy. Once released, however, Francis refused to honor the terms of the surrender and the war resumed. Charles's troops sacked* Rome in 1527, taking Pope Clement VII prisoner. Since Charles was not there, it is not clear how responsible he was for the brutal destruction of the city. Charles and the pope finally signed a truce in 1530.

Charles had also hoped to use his military might against German princes who had become Protestants. However, the forces of the Ottoman Turks* were putting pressure on Austria, and Charles needed the Protestant princes to help him fight the Turks. After defeating Turkish attempts to seize Vienna in 1532, Charles attacked and captured the Ottoman port of Tunis in North Africa. However, he and his Christian allies were unable to take the city of Algiers or to stop Turkish pirates operating in the Mediterranean. To make matters worse, the French were helping the Ottoman cause. In 1544 Charles finally convinced France to make peace and end its support to the Turks. A truce with the Ottomans came soon afterward.

The break in fighting provided an opportunity for a council to reform church practices. The Council of Trent in 1545 addressed many of the abuses that had caused Protestants to reject the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Charles took this chance to attack the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Protestant princes in Germany. He defeated the league in 1547 and compelled them to accept the Interim of Augsburg, a religious compromise between Catholic and Protestant practices.

Unfortunately for Charles, his victory was short lived. The Turks, the French, and the Protestant princes all went to war against the emperor again. In 1552 he had to flee from the city of Innsbruck to avoid being captured by the new French king Henry II. The French also seized several cities of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany. Charles tried to put his son Philip II on the English throne by marrying him to England's queen Mary I. The English accepted the marriage, but they refused to crown Philip as king.

Frustrated by setbacks on all sides, Charles decided to abdicate*. He gave the Netherlands and Spain to his son Philip and yielded the title of Holy Roman Emperor to his brother Frederick. He assembled a group of close friends and courtiers and retired to a villa* in Spain, where he died in 1558. During his life Charles had successfully kept the Ottoman Turks out of western Europe and protected Spain's interests in Italy. However, he was unable to pass his empire intact to his son or to stop the spread of Protestantism in Europe.


Artistic Patronage. Charles was a great patron* of the arts, especially music. His chapel singers accompanied him on all his travels and stayed with him in his retirement. Charles also formed a chapel choir for his wife, Isabella of Portugal, and gave his son Philip a suite of musicians and composers for his twelfth birthday. The excellence of Charles's singers upheld the reputation of Flemish* music throughout the 1500s. His court also employed such famous composers as Josquin des Prez.

Artists also benefited from Charles's patronage. He was a great admirer of the Venetian painter Titian, to whom he awarded a knighthood. Some of Titian's greatest works were produced for Charles, including his famous portrait of the emperor, Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg. Charles also supported sculptors and brought a poet and a painter along on his campaign against Tunis.

Interestingly, Charles may have had the greatest impact on the course of Renaissance art with his troops' sack of Rome in 1527. At the time, Rome was the center of artistic activity and patronage in Italy. After the attack, the focus of patronage moved to Venice and other northern Italian cities.

(See alsoAustria; Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Councils; Habsburg Dynasty; Holy Roman Empire; Isabella of Castile; Music; Netherlands; Patronage; Popes and Papacy; Protestant Reformation; Revolts. )

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* sack

to loot a captured city

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

Building an Empire

Although he failed to achieve many of his goals in Europe, Charles V oversaw great Spanish ventures overseas. He encouraged the Spanish explorers who conquered large portions of the Americas and sponsored the plans of Ferdinand Magellan to sail around the world. Magellan and many of his crew died along the way, but one of his ships managed to complete the first round-the-world voyage. Charles helped build a global empire for Spain, and under the rule of his son Philip II the country was a major world power.

* abdicate

to give up the throne voluntarily or under pressure

* villa

luxurious country home and the land surrounding it

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

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