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Emperor Charles V

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Born at Ghent, 1500; died at Yuste, in Spain, 1558; was a descendant of the house of Hapsburg, and to this descent owed his sovereignty over so many lands that it was said of him that the sun never set on his dominions. Charles was the son of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, by Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Burgundy was the first heritage to which he at his led, on his fathers death in 1506. As he was a minor at that time, his aunt, Margaret of Austria, undertook the regency for him. William of Chièvres, his father's chief counsellor, had charge of the prince's household; Adrian of Utrecht, the Humanist and professor of theology at Louvain, who undertook his education, appears to have exercised a deep and lasting influence on the opinions and convictions of his pupil.

Like many princes of his house, the boy developed slowly, showing no signs of a strong will. In January, 1515, he was declared to be of age, through the influence of Chièvres, who sought to destroy the power by which Margaret was forcing the Burgundian nobility into a too dynastic policy regardless of the country's need of peace. The peace of the country demanded an alliance with France, even though France should thus gain considerable influence in the internal affairs of Burgundy. Charles at once acceded to the wishes of the nobility (Treaties of Paris, 24 March, 1515, and Noyon, 13 August, 1516). Upon the death of Ferdinand of Aragon in January, 1516, Charles was named as his successor; but as the Duchess Joanna was still living, and Charles' brother Ferdinand, educated in Spain, was popular in that country, the realization of this arrangement was still in doubt. Of his own motion Charles immediately assumed the title of King of Castile, and announced his intention of going to Spain as soon as possible. It was not till the autumn of 1517 that he effected this purpose, and the Spanish opposition had mean while been silenced. But the power left in the hands of Chièvres, and the Burgundians provoked the uprising in Castile known as the War of the Communidad. It was a movement of the cities. In Castile the discontentment of the ruling classes was joined to that of the handicraftsmen and labourers, in Valencia the movement was exclusively one of mechanics and the proletariat. The rebellion failed because the commercial cities of Southern Castile took no part in it, and because Charles, acting upon his own judgment, placed Spaniards, instead of foreigners, in positions of authority.

In 1520 Charles left Spain to take possession of the German Empire to which he had been elected. The French king, Francis I, had been his rival for the dignity; Leo X thought that his interests in Italy were endangered by Charles' election. The Kingdom of Navarre was already a matter of contention between France and Spain, while France and the Netherlands wrangled over the original Dukedom of Burgundy as well as Tournai, Flanders, Artois, and some lesser territories. War had not broken out over these questions, and nothing indicated that Charles would be a warlike prince; but he had broken the alliance with France made under Chièvres. The Holy See opposed the election of Charles even more vigorously than France. As King of Aragon, Charles was heir to the Kingdom of Naples, a papal fief; the investiture had not yet taken place, but it could not be withheld. If he should also become emperor, and thus obtain a title to Milan as well, there would result a political condition against which the popes since Innocent III had constantly fought the union of Milan and Naples in one hand.

In spite of the opposition of Rome and France, Charles was elected (28 June, 1519), and everywhere received the title of "Emperor Elect". Leo X put no difficulties in Charles' way at Naples. The foundation had been laid for his universal empire. Not yet twenty years of age at the time of his election, he had shown a marked precocity of development. During a stay in the Netherlands of several months, after his return from Spain, and on his arrival in Germany, it became apparent that he had taken the reins of government into his own hands. His chief counsellor, Chièvres, died in May, 1521, and thenceforward Charles was practically free in all his decisions.

His first important service to the empire was to affect the successful issue of the Diet of Worms, exhibiting his entire independence and intellectual maturity. The Lutheran movement had extended so widely over Germany, that Aleander, the papal representative at the imperial Court, strenuously urged its suppression. Charles had already told him, in the Netherlands, that the affair seemed to him to be settled by the papal Bull of 15 June, 1520. But in Germany he was convinced that the opposition to the Roman Curia was widespread and that this opposition helped the monk, even among those who did not hold heretical doctrines. Still, as he told Aleander, Charles did not think it right to mix up his affairs with those of the pope. He promised the constituent estates of the empire a hearing for the monk before the imperial diet and in return received their promise that if Luther persisted in his heresy they would abandon him. Thus he gained time to turn his attention to temporal politics. He meant to bring to a successful conclusion the efforts which for a generation had been making to give the empire a better constitution, and increase its financial and military strength. An agreement was reached as to how the estates of the realm should share in its government, according to a scheme called the Reichsregiment—how the expenses of the imperial chamber etc. were to be met and how the estates were to furnish the emperor military assistance in war. In April, 1521, Luther appeared before the diet, but did not retract. Next day Charles in person appeared against him before the estates, and expressed his own views with an emphasis not expected from so taciturn a youth. On the 8th of May he prepared the ban against Luther, but it was not published until the 26th. In accordance with the promise given by the estates in February, he spoke for them all.

Had Charles had his way, he would have devoted himself for some time to the pressing internal needs of his country. The constitution especially needed improvement; the finances were so disordered, and the debt so large, that the monarch was hampered in whatever he did, and could provide for the foreign interests of the empire only by very careful management. Owing to the primitive development of means of communication, he could not keep watch over the whole empire, which he therefore decided to divide into districts. Already convinced that he must make Spain the centre of his dominions and the mainstay of his politics, he for that reason determined to make it his personal charge, and went thither in the summer of 1522. Once in Spain, remote from Germany and his hereditary Hapsburg estates, he at first purposed to make them almost entirely independent of him, although he was more dissatisfied with the conditions there than with those of any other part of his empire. Reserving to himself only the general policy of the empire as a whole, he gave his Austrian possessions to his brother Ferdinand, in 1522, making him, at the same time, his representative at the head of the imperial government. The Reichsregiment having been abrogated in 1525, he had Ferdinand chosen King of Rome at the next opportunity (1530). He kept a firmer hold on the government of the Netherlands, but established a permanent regency for them also (1522), selecting for this function two able and thoroughly loyal women: first (till 1530), the faithful Margaret, and next his sister Maria of Hungary, who held the regency till Charles himself abdicated. Naples had been ruled by viceroys under his grandfather, and he continued this policy.

While Charles was completing these dispositions, he became involved in a great war. On the 8th of May, 1521, the date of the edict against Luther, an offensive alliance against France was signed by representatives of the pope and the emperor. Charles had desired only a defensive alliance, but Leo X, long an ally of Francis I, was now bent upon war against him, because Francis had prevented an extension of the papal territory which Leo desired. War would assuredly have broken out between Francis and Charles on the score of Navarre and Burgundy, even if Leo had not hastened the conflict; though it probably would not have attained such dimensions, nor would have lasted so long as it actually did; for Francis I was an irritable and fickle prince, not a man of strong will, and cared more for pleasure than for war. But, as a matter of fact, the main issue to be decided in the ensuing struggle (1521-29) was the extent of the papal power in Italy — the question, that is, whether the papacy or some foreign dynasty should be the dominant political power in the Peninsula. In the first year of this war Charles' generals won only a few minor victories in Spain and the Netherlands. In 1522 they took Milan from the French. To complete their victory they invaded France, in alliance with the Constable of Bourbon. But the army had been weakened by the siege of Milan, and the French succeeded in again invading Lombardy. Meanwhile Clement VII, who had succeeded Leo X, after the short pontificate of Adrian VI, feared that Charles might become too powerful in Italy, and, when the French returned, prepared to transfer his friendship to them. But before he came to a decision, the Spaniards completely defeated Francis at Pavia (24 February, 1525) and took him prisoner. Francis was carried to Spain and, to obtain his freedom, was forced to sign the Peace of Madrid (44 January, 1526), the terms of which greatly weakened the power of France and gave Charles a free hand in Italy. Charles believed that this peace would be lasting. But Clement VII exerted every effort to at once form a coalition against Charles, and to induce Francis to recommence the war. Under these circumstances Charles directed his army against Rome. The result of this action was the frightful sack of Rome by the imperial troops in 1527, which the emperor had never intended, but his generals were powerless to prevent, since discipline had vanished in presence of constant privations. After the sack, Charles' army was placed in a dangerous position, as the French advanced to relieve Rome and then besiege Naples. By superior generalship, however, the imperialists once more triumphed. The smaller Italian States, recognizing the hopelessness of opposing the imperial power, made an alliance with Charles. Clement also concluded a treaty of peace at Barcelona, 29 June, 1529; France at Cambrai, 5 August. The Peace of Cambrai settled the political situation of Western Europe for a long time, especially that of Italy.

Meantime Charles regulated the affairs of Spain and the Netherlands. These countries resembled each other in having been originally composed of many independent parts, gradually united under one sovereign. In both cases, too, the previously independent states had obstinately clung to their ancient interests, laws and customs, and were moreover powerful against the Crown. By centralizing the general administration, and assimilating the laws and legal procedures, he sought to counteract the force of these nationalist tendencies. To this end, he perceived, the king, or (in the Netherlands) the regent, must be the centre of activity. In reorganizing the central bureaus in Spain (1523) and the Netherlands (1531), his main object was to entirely subordinate them to the royal power, and employ in them trained men who should consider themselves servants of the king. In the Netherlands, moreover, he brought about the dependence of the judicial and fiscal officials on the central administration. Through these new and efficient agencies he created an excellent police system as well as a body of laws which fostered the social and industrial life of the people, besides promoting agriculture as no other prince ever had. His commercial legislation was restrictive only when capitalistic excesses or the growth of the proletariat demanded restraint. The edict of 1531 for the Netherlands (promulgated 1540) and the state organization for the care of the poor illustrate this. The creation of these authorities and this system of laws at the same time had the effect of limiting the power of the Cortes and the States General, both of which bodies thereafter retained only the right of taxation, in the exercise of which, moreover, Charles succeeded in accustoming them to regular annual budgets, by explaining to them his own policy and enlightening them as to the needs of the country, and thus showing them why they should contribute revenue.

With individuals Charles dealt still more effectively—in Spain chiefly with the burghers, in the Netherlands with the higher nobility. The latter he won to his support by bestowing on them the most important offices and holding out hopes of the Golden Fleece; the former he hoped to win by leaving them the control of taxation, so that they might regulate it uniformly, and therefore less oppressively. He controlled the clergy by transferring to them an almost general right to the disposal of benefices, which had been granted by the popes either to his predecessors or to himself. He strove especially to foster the progressive industrial elements of the middle class. At the beginning of the century the old cloth industries of Flanders had been seriously threatened by English competition; under Charles the industries of the Netherlands were effectually protected by an entire change in system which may be regarded as a first step towards capitalistic industry. Antwerp became the world's great centre of commerce and finance. The cloth industry was strengthened by the introduction of factory methods, the linen industry fully developed. While furthering this progress, Charles used it to give political influence in the cities of the Low Countries to the progressive classes who were loyal to himself. Judged by its results, Charles' economic policy was successful in the Netherlands, but it succeeded only indifferently in Spain, where industrial progress, though much greater during this reign than it had been, was generally slow and never so marked as to produce great political changes. In Spain the opposition to Charles' policies was found in the Cortes and in the city governments, but still more among the lesser nobility, the Hidalgueria, who resisted all agricultural progress as well as the emperor's external policy. Most of the Castilians remained under Charles' rule the same frugal, contented, rustic people as before, in marked contrast to the people of the Netherlands. Yet by industrial improvement and political training, Charles was able to make of Spain the instrument by which his son Philip, in the time of the counter-Reformation, brought effective aid to the Catholics of Europe, and under the unfavourable circumstances this result is as remarkable as the prosperity which the Netherlands attained under his rule.

No less noteworthy were his services to the great empire rapidly springing up in America. Economical considerations being, in the early period of colonization, the most important, the management of American affairs was confided to a bureau of commerce (casa de contratacion) in Seville; but at the same time he established in Spain a special political "Council of the Indies". In the colonies two viceroyalties and twenty-nine governments, four archbishoprics, and twenty-four bishoprics were gradually organized. Already of all those great problems had arisen which still vex colonial politics—the question, how far the mother country should monopolize the products of the colonies; the question colonization; the question of the treatment of the natives, doubly difficult because on the one hand their labour was indispensable and on the other it was most unwilling; the question, how Christianity and civilization might best be established; finally the question, how science might be systematically promoted by the government that opened up these new countries. On account of the great distance separating Spain and her colonies, the unsatisfactory means of communication, and his lack of funds, Charles was unable to carry out the principles laid down by his government. But be made the first, perhaps the only, attempt on a large scale to deal with colonial politics, in practical effect, from the double standpoint of political and economical interests and with the realization of a duty to promote Christian civilization.

When Charles received news of the Peace of Cambrai, he determined to go to Italy and settle Italian affairs by a personal interview with the pope. This difficult question, which had occupied him for almost a decade, was, as he thought, settled definitively. At Bologna he discussed with the pope principally two questions affecting all Christendom: the Turkish and the Lutheran. In 1521 the Turks had taken possession of Belgrade, the key to Hungary; in 1522, of Rhodes, the bulwark which had hitherto barred their way westward of the Ægean Sea. In the following year the daring pirate, Chaireddin Barbarossa, an ally of the sultan, placing himself at the head of the North African corsairs who were continually harassing the Italian and Spanish coasts, had built up a formidable power in the small Mohammedan States of the North African coast. On land the Turks had defeated the Hungarians at Mohács, and taken possession of almost the entire kingdom. Their way was thus opened to Vienna, which they entered in 1529. Equally great was the danger threatening Christianity from within. Lutheranism had boldly advanced when the edict against Luther remained unenforced, and it had been greatly stimulated by the social-revolutionary movements in Germany from 1522 to 1525. Since 1526 an independent State Church had been organized by the Protestants in several provinces with the aid of their sovereigns, and in 1529 these sovereigns declared at the Diet of Spires that they would allow no attacks on these organizations, nor tolerate any Catholic worship in their states.

As early as 1526 Charles was aware of these two growing dangers. He had thought that by the Peace of Madrid he would obtain freedom to carry on a war against the Turks, as well as to assume the regulation of religious affairs in Germany. But the new outbreak of war in Italy prevented him from giving attention to this work till 1529. On 24 February, 1530, he received the imperial crown from Clement VII at Bologna. On 1 February he had concluded a general peace with the pope and most of the Christian states. The retreat of the Turks from Vienna enabled Charles, before beginning war against them, to make an effort towards religious unity in Germany. In the summer he appeared at the Diet of Augsburg, accompanied by a papal legate, to hear the Protestants. The adherents of the new creed were disposed to approach him in a submissive temper, though on German soil Charles did not possess all the power they ascribed to him. He had disbanded his troops, and the purely political resources at his command were not great. Holding the Duchy of Wurtemburg, he could thence exert pressure on several neighbouring princes, but his title to that duchy was not clear.

Having convinced himself that Catholics as well as Lutherans were irritated against Rome, Charles informed the pope that only the immediate summoning of a general council could bring about peace. He had always desired this; henceforth it became one of his principal aims, of which he never lost sight. At Home he urged it with all his energy, using every effort to remove political obstacles. At the same time he was preparing to meet the next attack of the Turks. This came in 1532, on land. Charles was successful in forcing them back, and in recovering a large part of Hungary, but without inflicting any decisive defeat on the Turks. He transferred the war to the Mediterranean Sea. In 1530, by the advice of the pope, he had given to the Knights Hospitallers, the defenders of Rhodes, the island of Malta, which barred the approach of the Turkish fleet to the Tuscan Sea. In 1531 and 1532 Andrea Doria had sought the Turks in their own waters, but the Turkish fleet avoided a battle. The sultan now sought to prevent the return of Doria by giving the chief command of his navy to Chairaddin, thus making the cause of the pirates his own. Charles thereupon decided to clear the Mediterranean Sea of piracy. In 1555 he personally took part in the campaign against Tunis under the leadership of Doria. He had the largest share in the victory, and urged an immediate advance on Algiers to complete his success. His commanders, however, opposed this plan, as the season was far advanced. This campaign established Charles' reputation throughout Europe.

While Charles delivered the first serious blow against Islam on the Mediterranean, Paul III, the successor of Clement VII, had summoned a general council. But new difficulties prevented both the assembling of the council and the continuation of the war against the Turks. When Charles returned home from Africa it was evident that he must again go to war with France. Francis I opposed the meeting of the council and, moreover, entered into relations both with the Turks and with the Smalkaldic League of German Protestant princes formed against Charles soon after the Diet of Augsburg, while, upon the death of the last Sforza Duke of Milan, he renewed his claim to that fief. Charles, eager to push the war against the Turks, as well as to restore the unity of Christendom, was ready to partly forego his strict rights both in the Milanese and Burgundy, and to consider the question of the balance of power between his house and that of Valois. Family alliances were proposed with this end in view. A war which France nevertheless began proved abortive, and in 1539 the rivals met at Nice, and peace seemed likely. Visiting the Netherlands and Germany, Charles soon found that new troubles awaited him, once more fomented by France. In 1538 the line of the Counts of Guelders had become extinct; but the last of that line had provided that, after his death, the countship should pass to the Dukes of Cleves-Julich, the strongest temporal principality on the Lower Rhine. Guelders, accordingly, resisted annexation by Burgundy, and Charles would not consent to its annexation to the Duchy of Cleves-Julich, which was favoured by Francis I and the Smalkaldic League. Moreover, Henry VIII of England, having married Anne, daughter of the Duke of Cleves, threatened to join this coalition.

In Hungary, meanwhile, the Turks were again active, and preparations were being made to unite the French and Turkish fleets in the Mediterranean. Francis sought the aid of the Danes and Scandinavians. Charles thought it best to avoid hostilities until he could break up the too formidable coalition of his enemies. He succeeded in detaching Henry of England from the alliance, and during the Diet and religious conference at Ratisbon, in 1541, where he was present in person, he brought Philip of Hesse, the leading spirit of the Smalkaldic League, under his control. He turned then upon the Turks. He intended that the imperial army should operate in Hungary while he attacked Algiers; but both plans failed. The year 1542 was an unfortunate one for him; the French entered the Netherlands, and the Smalkaldic League, with Hesse, attacked Henry of Brunswick, Charles' only ally in North Germany, and occupied his territories. The patriotism of the Netherlands held the French in check. Charles returned from Spain and, in 1543, attacked Cleves. A few days sufficed to make Guelders a part of Burgundy, which was thus protected on the side of Germany, though still exposed on its French frontier. It was to remedy this weakness that Charles established a line of fortresses which for centuries barred the way against French invasion. In 1544 he invaded France. The strength of Francis was exhausted, and, as Charles, too, was weary of war, a peace was concluded at Crespy (17 September, 1544).

Charles had now to consider whether he would allow liberty of action to the Protestant princes of Germany, to whom, under pressure of war, he had made concessions, especially at the Diet of Spires in 1544. Up to this time he had let affairs take their own course in Germany, and his brother Ferdinand had been unable to exert effectual pressure. The power of the feudatory princes, steadily increasing since 1521, was now established on a solid basis. In the emperor's absence they had, on their own initiative, found means to suppress several disturbances which might otherwise have plunged Germany into the horrors of civil war — first the League of the Knights, then the Peasants' War, then the disorders of the turbulent clergy who had embraced Lutheranism and led the masses astray, and lastly the rebellion of the Anabaptists. By supporting Luther against Charles, the princes secured the means of maintaining the power which they had acquired by their resistance to the emperor. Charles perceived the gravity of the situation at least sufficiently to lead him to resolve upon open war against the princes. To deprive them of their religious leverage, he awaited the opening of the Council of Trent (1545). In the summer of 1546 he opened hostilities. He began by conquering South Germany, then pushed forward into Saxony, and defeated and captured the Elector at Muhlberg, 24 April, 1547. Soon after this he imprisoned Philip of Hesse. (The charges of treachery brought against Charles on this account, are not well sustained.) Charles now believed the princes to be sufficiently humbled to permit him to reorganize the empire with their help at a Diet at Augsburg, as he had previously reorganized Spain and the Netherlands. The settlement of religious difficulties was to be the basis of this reconstruction. He insisted that the council was to have the final decision in matters of doctrine; but until this decision was pronounced he wished for peace and was willing to make certain concessions to the Protestants (the Interim). His sense of justice, however, reserved from these concessions both the retention of the ecclesiastical property seized by the Reformers and the temporary abrogation of episcopal authority in the reformed districts. In consequence of this resolution the Interim lost all its attraction for the Evangelical princes. In dealing with the political reconstruction of the empire, Charles was ready to recognize the condition of Germany so far as it was the result of historical development. He required the feudatories to promise obedience to the imperial power only in specific cases affecting the general welfare, to bind themselves by certain recognized formulae, and not to seek individual profit under pretext of the welfare of the empire. He therefore made here concessions like those already made to his Spanish subjects—namely, a certain degree of autonomy to the several States, in return for their aid in the unquestioned necessities of the empire. No open opposition was made at the Diet, but nothing was done. The Catholics demanded that the Interim should apply to them also; that instrument now no longer made for harmony, and the Protestants resisted it more strenuously than before. On the other band, the German princes were as selfish and provincial as the hidalgos of Castile, and less patriotic. They procrastinated until affairs took an unfavourable turn for the emperor.

But Charles was now ready to dispose of his earthly possessions. His recent campaigns had so undermined his strength as to render it advisable for him to make his will. Warned by the grasping policy of Francis I, he determined to keep the possessions of his family together. He would not, however, leave them all to one heir, knowing how impossible it had been for even him to govern all to his own satisfaction. What his plans were is unknown, but while he was considering them the Turks and the French king (now Henry II) once more began hostilities against him (1551). In the following year some of the German Protestant princes, led by Maurice of Saxony, unexpectedly attacked the imperial forces, while Charles lay sick at Innsbruck, and Henry II occupied the Bishoprics of Metz, Tool, and Verdun. Charles escaped, but abandoned his plan for the reorganization of the imperial government. He empowered Ferdinand to conclude the Treaty of Passau with the insurgents in April, 1552, which finally gave the ascendency in the German Empire to the princes. His attempt to retake Metz, in the autumn of 1552, failed, and the war was transferred to the Netherlands, where it was waged without decisive result. In North Africa, also, and in Italy, where the Turks, the French, and some Italian States were attacking the emperor, matters became critical. Still the emperor hoped to win a final victory. For in 1553 the accession of Mary Tudor to the throne of England suddenly excited his hope that he might extend his influence in that kingdom. Mary Tudor was ready to marry his son Philip, and in 1554 this alliance became a fact. When their marriage proved childless, the emperor gave up the fight and decided to turn over the conclusion of peace to Philip and Ferdinand. Ferdinand insisted that the authority of princes in the empire, as settled be the agreement of Passan, should be legally recognized by a decree of the Diet, and the equality of the Catholic and Lutheran religions accepted. This was done at Augsburg in 1555. Charles then requested the electors to accept his abdication and to elect Ferdinand his successor. This was done on 28 February, 1558. Shortly after the final decree of the Diet of Augsburg, in 1555, Charles convened the Estates of the Netherlands, and in their presence transferred the government to Philip. Three months later (16 January, 1556) he transferred the Spanish Crown to his son. In spite of this he could not free himself from political cares. It was September, 1556, before he could leave for his long-chosen place of retirement in Spain, accompanied by his two sisters, the widow of the French king, and Maria of Hungary. But he did not live a monastic life even at Yuste. Messengers with political despatches came to him every day. However, he took no active part in affairs. He lived his few remaining months on earth amid works of art, of which he had a keen appreciation (Titian was his favourite painter), amid the books which, as a cultured man, he studied and took pleasure in, and enjoying the music which he loved, while he prepared himself for the life to come.

About this page

APA citation. Spahn, M. (1908). Emperor Charles V. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Spahn, Martin. "Emperor Charles V." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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