The Holy Roman emperor Charles V (1500-1558) inherited the thrones of the Netherlands, Spain, and the Hapsburg possessions but failed in his attempt to bring all of Europe under his imperial rule.
Born in Ghent on Feb. 24, 1500, Charles V was the oldest son of Philip the Fair of Hapsburg, Lord of the Netherlands, and Joanna the Mad of Aragon and Castile. When Philip died in 1506, Charles was in line for the rich inheritance of the Netherlands as well as Hapsburg Austria and possibly the office of emperor. Spain—the product of the rather recent union of Aragon and Castile under the Catholic Kings—fell to him because of a series of deaths in the Spanish family, which made his mother, Joanna, the legal successor to the Spanish throne.
Charles's maternal grandfather, Ferdinand of Aragon, who had long tried to block a Spanish-Hapsburg union, favored the succession of Charles's younger brother, Ferdinand, to the Spanish crown. But the grandfather died in 1516 before he was able to alter the succession. Charles, who in 1515 had already taken over the government of the Netherlands, became regent of Aragon and Castile for his mother, who was confined because of mental illness to the castle of Tordesillas. In 1517 Charles went to Spain, where he met his brother, Ferdinand, for the first time. The 17-year-old Charles acted with remarkable authority and self-confidence
and firmly rejected the suggestions of his family that he give his brother either Spain or the Netherlands.
Although the medieval idea of universal empire captured Charles's imagination only later, he was already determined to play a major role in the European scene. When his paternal grandfather, the emperor Maximilian I, died in 1518, the elective imperial crown as well as the Hapsburg patrimonial lands (Austria) came within Charles's reach, and he again acted strongly. To suggestions that Ferdinand be elected emperor, Charles replied that the duties of emperor would be too much for his brother. But Charles had a dangerous rival for the imperial crown in the French king, Francis I, who had offered huge bribes to the seven electors. Charles, however, was able to outbid him, and on June 28, 1519, he was elected king of the Romans, or emperor designate. (His actual coronation as emperor by the Pope took place in 1530 in Bologna.)
With each of his crowns Charles inherited enormous problems. Each country had a peculiar internal structure which gave rise to constitutional opposition to the ruler, and furthermore most of the countries had a tradition in foreign policy related to their specific interests and situation in Europe. As an Austrian prince, Charles inherited the continuous struggle against the Turks in Hungary and the Balkans. As emperor, he was directly involved in the preservation of imperial power against the German semi-independent princes; moreover, he had to defend the remnants of imperial suzerainty that were being challenged by France in northern Italy. As king of Aragon, he had to protect the commercial Mediterranean interests of his subjects and their traditional involvement in southern Italy. The Castilians wanted him to carry the conquest of the Moslems into North Africa; and the huge Castilian possessions in South America also made demands upon him. Traditionally, the Burgundian-Netherlands princes had been the foes of France, but now the majority of the Netherlands leaders wanted a policy of peace with both France and England, which would be advantageous to trade. Charles had to find a way to integrate all these interests, essentially an impossible task. Moreover, the jealously guarded privileges of his various lands did not allow him to create a universal imperial policy.
Wars with France
Charles V derived unparalleled power from his vast empire, "upon which the sun never set," but at the same time he was the victim of its conflicts. He spent most of his reign combating enemies in one section of his empire, thus allowing his enemies in other parts to organize. Among the foreign powers that opposed him, the most stubborn and dangerous was France under Francis I and later Henry II. Since the late 15th century France had tried to get a foothold in either Naples or Milan (which had been conquered by Francis I in 1515); later it attacked Alsace as well.
A series of French-Hapsburg wars (a continuation of the wars of Maximilian I) started in 1521. In that year the French king, Francis I, attacked Lombardy, but this conflict ended with a resounding Hapsburg victory. Francis was captured near Pavia and was forced to conclude a very unfavorable peace (Madrid, 1525). In 1526, however, he was back in the field, now supported by the Pope and other Italian powers. But again Charles's forces prevailed. In 1527 his predominantly Protestant armies sacked Rome, and in 1529 they recaptured Milan. Charles's domination of Italy was guaranteed by the treaty ending the war (Peace of Cambrai, 1529).
In 1526 Charles married Isabel of Portugal, and their son, Philip (later Philip II of Spain), was born in 1527. Before his marriage Charles had sired two illegitimate children: Margaretha, later Duchess of Pavia, and John of Austria, the future victor of Lepanto.
Conflict in Germany
The victory in Italy seemed to be convincing proof of Charles's power. During the same period, however, the deterioration of his position in Germany had all but offset this success. The main elements in the German situation were the continuous advance of the Turks in Hungary (in 1529 they even appeared before Vienna), the organization of the anti-Hapsburg princes, and the involvement of the forces of the Reformation with Charles's political opponents. Although Charles took literally his oath to protect the Church, he was a religious moderate and not averse to compromise with the Protestants. After the Diet of Worms (1521), when he had taken the unprecedented step of hearing Luther himself, he had continued a policy of moderation.
But Charles's continuous absence from Germany (1521-1529) gave the anti-Hapsburg princes the opportunity to consolidate their opposition to the Emperor. Although the princes were not in general concerned with theological subtleties, they used religious issues as a means of breaking with the Emperor. In 1526 Charles ordered Ferdinand to assert his authority in religious matters. But Ferdinand was constantly harassed by the Turks, and he left the settlement of disputes on religion to the discretion of the princes "until a general council" was convened.
In 1529 Charles V tightened his orthodox position (second Diet of Speyer), but the only result was the defiant "Protest," which gave the name to the dissenters. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 both the Emperor and the Protestants were in a mood for compromise, but attempts at reconciliation failed. Because of his plan to move against the Turks, however, Charles could not proceed with force against the Protestants. He tried instead to persuade the Pope to call a general council and meanwhile hoped to enlist the support of the German princes against Islam in Hungary and northern Africa. During the 1530s the situation did not improve. Charles lost the support of Henry VIII of England, who divorced Charles's aunt Catherine in 1533 and was subsequently driven into separation from Rome. In Germany the Protestant princes, led by Philip of Hesse, allied with France to wage a new war (1536-1538) against the Emperor. Charles's stubborn imperialism also alienated his brother. Charles had arranged for Ferdinand's election as emperor-designate (1531) but tried afterward to change the succession to his own son Philip, thus causing much resentment on Ferdinand's part.
The decade after the inconclusive 1530s showed more dramatic reversals. In Germany nothing had been solved, and the need for help against the Sultan had forced the Emperor to continue negotiations with the Protestants (Worms, 1541). Charles still hoped for a general council, but the Pope did not intend to convoke one unless he could control it himself. In 1542 Charles found himself opposed by the unlikely combination of France, Turkey, the Pope, and the Dutch Duke of Guelders. The Peace of Crépy (1544) ended this inconclusive war. The treaty, however, contained a secret clause in which Francis I promised support for the forceful eradication of German Protestantism, and in 1545 the Pope offered his support in this undertaking. Charles V also secured the support of the Protestant Duke Maurice of Saxony (the house rival of the electoral dukes of Saxony) by bribing him with the promise of the office of elector.
In 1547 the army of the Protestant Schmalkaldian League was beaten by Charles and his allies at the battle of Mühlberg. At last Charles appeared to have attained success; his plan for a new universal imperial authority, based on a unified Catholic Germany, seemed near fulfillment. But as before, fear of a universal empire under the Hapsburgs made his allies desert him. Henry II, who became king of France in 1547, pursued an anti-Hapsburg policy, and Pope Paul III again defected from the Hapsburg coalition. The Pope moved the general council from Trent to Bologna in order to escape the Emperor's influence. In Germany it soon became apparent that the victory had no real results; Charles's proposals of constitutional reform and of the creation of a more centralized German league were opposed by all the German powers, Protestant and Catholic alike. In religious matters Charles again had to be satisfied with compromise (Interim of Augsburg, 1548).
Charles's efforts to guarantee the unity of his empire after his death also ended in failure. He tried in vain to persuade Ferdinand to give up his right of succession to the imperial crown, and Charles's relations with Ferdinand and his son Maximilian grew strained. In 1551, however, a compromise was reached that established Charles's son Philip, rather than Maximilian, as the legal successor of Ferdinand. But neither Ferdinand nor his son felt bound by this agreement, and the Austrian lands and the imperial crown were lost for Charles's descendants.
At the beginning of the 1550s a formidable coalition— France and the German Protestant princes, including Maurice of Saxony, who had rejoined the party of the princes— rose against the Emperor. In early 1552 Maurice of Saxony penetrated into Austria, forcing Charles to flee. Ferdinand remained inactive, obviously sympathetic to the princes' party, and in 1552 Charles V was forced to sign the Treaty of Passau. This agreement, which was finalized by the Treaty of Augsburg (1555), gave Lutheranism equal status with Catholicism and left religious matters in the hands of the German princes, who were ultimately the victors in their long struggle with the Emperor.
The negotiations of Passau and Augsburg had been left mostly to Ferdinand, while Charles withdrew to his native Netherlands. In 1553, however, he achieved one last diplomatic success: the marriage of his son Philip to Queen Mary of England. This marriage created the possibility of a future union of England and Spain under one monarch. But Mary died childless in 1558, and thus England's independent existence under the Tudor monarchy was assured.
Abdication of Charles V
From October 1555 to January 1556, in the midst of another war with the French, Charles V abdicated his many crowns. He bequeathed the bankrupt states of the Netherlands and Spain to Philip and Austria and the empire to Ferdinand. He then left the Netherlands for Spain, where he lived near the monastery of Yuste until his death on Sept. 21, 1558. He had witnessed the total failure of his dream of a Catholic Europe united under his imperial rule. Charles's ideal was an anachronism, however, since Europe had become too complicated to be so governed. But the extraordinary willpower and dedication with which Charles pursued his impossible goal establish him as a man of impressive character.
Further Reading on Charles V
The most useful recent survey of the empire of Charles V is the book by H. G. Koenigsberger, The Habsburgs and Europe, 1516-1660 (1971). Royall Tyler, The Emperor Charles the Fifth (1956), is a useful chronology of Charles's life and travels. Other biographical studies are Francisco López de Gómara, ed., Annals of the Emperor Charles V (trans. 1912); W. L. McElwee, The Reign of Charles V, 1516-1558 (1936); and Karl Brandi's classic study, The Emperor Charles V (1937; trans. 1939). For a scholarly, well-written account of the situation in Spain during the reign of Charles V consult the relevant chapters in J. H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 (1963). Background information is also available in Leopold von Ranke, History of the Reformation in Germany (1905; trans. 1966); R. B. Merriman's masterful The Rise of the Spanish Empire, vol. 3 (1926); and Hajo Holborn, A History of Modern Germany, vol. 1 (1959).