Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Holy Roman Empire

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Hailing from the influential House of Habsburg, Charles V (1500-1558) was arguably the most powerful person in the world during his reign. His Holy Roman Empire covered the length and breadth of Europe, stretching from the states in Germany to the northern states in Italy. He also had dominion over Spanish Kingdoms, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and the vast stretches of Hapsburg hereditary lands in the Low Countries.

Fast Facts: Charles V

Empire: Holy Roman Empire (HRE)

Reign: June 28, 1519 – August 3, 1556

Born: February 24, 1500

Place of birth: Prinsenhof of Ghent, Flanders

Died: September 21, 1558

Place of death: Monastery of Yuste, Crown of Castile, Spain

Father: Philip I of Castile (also known as Philip the Handsome)

Mother: Joanna of Castile (also known as Joanna of Trastámara)

Paternal grandparents: Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor (also the Archduke of Austria) and Mary of Burgundy (aka Mary the Rich)

Maternal grandparents: Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile

Famous Siblings: Ferdinand (later Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor); Catherine, Eleanor of Austria; Maria of Hungary

Spouse: Isabella of Portugal (daughter of Manuel I of Portugal) – married in 1526

Children: 7 legitimate, including – Philip II of Spain, Maria (later wife of Maximilian II, Holy roman Emperor), Joanna

Religion: Roman Catholic

Predecessor: Maximilian I

Successor: Ferdinand I

Most known for: Defending the Catholic Faith; fighting numerous times against France and the Ottoman Empire

Other titles and crowns: King of Spain (Castile and Aragon) – 1516-1521; Archduke of Austria (1519-1521); Lord of the Netherlands (1506-1555)

Also known as: Charles I in Spain

Brief history of Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire came into existence after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. It was born out of the union between the Germanic warlords and the Popes in Rome. The first title holder of Holy Roman Emperor was Charlemagne (the King of the Franks); he was crowned by Pope Leo III.

The empire was a loose confederation of European states and kingdoms, which included large areas in modern-day Eastern France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, and The Netherlands.  It also stretched to Belgium, Hungry, Croatia, Poland and western Ukraine.

In its more than 1000-year history, Holy Roman Emperors always had an uneasy relationship with the papacy. The emperor held close to Caesar-like authority while the popes had the spiritual authority in Europe.

The empire had it fair share of challenges. For example, the emperors often struggled to raise an army. They also had difficulties imposing direct taxes on the various states and kingdoms in the empire. And unlike the French and English kingdoms, the empire lacked some sense of nationalism, making it a very difficult job to handle.

Charles V: Birth Story

The Prinsenhof in Ghent was the birthplace of Charles V. The name means “Princes court”

In the County of Flanders (the Prinsenhof of Ghent), this future Holy Roman Emperor was born on February 24, 1500 to Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Trastámara (also known as Joanna the Mad). His birth place was in the Burgundian Low Countries. His paternal grandparents were Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

He was baptized at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and named after Charles I of Burgundy. His parents chose John III of Glymes and Charles I de Croy to be his godfathers. His godmothers were Margaret of York and Margaret of Austria.

Early dominions and titles

Charles was basically raised by Margaret of York as his parents spent most their time in Spain. His family did everything they could to position his mother as the Princess of Asturias – the inheritor of Spain following Miguel da Paz’s death in 1498. And following the death of Isabella of I of Castile, his mother went on to become the Queen of Castile, making her the holder of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon.

The death of his father in 1506 caused his mother to go into a serious depression to the point of insanity. Shortly after, Charles became known as the Duke of Burgundy and the prince of Asturias. He was also widely considered heir presumptive of both Spain and Austria. As duke of Burgundy, his dominion included modern-day Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.


Charles V was tutored by Adrian of Utrecht | Portrait by Bernard van Orley, 1519

He was tutored by very prominent people, including Adrian of Utrecht (later Pope Adrian VI) and William de Croy. Adrian was an active member of devotio moderna – a educational body that focused on eliminating illiteracy among the masses.

Growing up in Brussels, Charles was part of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece; he spent quite some time learning disciplines of the medieval knights. He even went on to become a grandmaster of the order.

Rebellions of 1520s

Due to his mother’s mental illness, he was made co-monarch; thus he reigned as Charles I of Castile and Aragon. As Charles I of Spain, he had access to astute Spanish military commanders as well as the Spanish infantry known as tercios.

Some of his subjects in Spain were a bit irritated by the fact that he was raised all his life in Flanders. His inability to speak the language initially caused tensions with the Germanies and the comuneros. For example, Charles had to put down two massive rebellions in the 1520s from those two groups. The agitators were angered by the fact that Charles channeled resources out of the region to fund wars that the Spanish were anything but interested in. They were also fed up with Charles’ constant selection of Flemings for top positions in Castile and the New World (i.e. the Americas).

He nipped the crisis in the bud by interacting more with the counselors, who he had initially given top positions. Charles also committed himself to spending more of his time in Spain and learning the language. This proved extremely beneficial as Castile for example provided financial support to his vast empire. He drained their purse so much so the region went broke during the reign of his son, Philip II.

What territories did Charles V have dominion over?

The areas he inherited from his four grandparents and parents included: Burgundy and the Low Countries (mainly modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and some parts of Eastern France); Castile and Aragon (the Spanish Kingdoms); and the Americas (the New World).

The Crown of Aragon was made up of Valencia, Naples, Catalonia, Aragon, Sicily and Sardinia (the Italian territories). The Crown of Castile comprised of regions in the Iberian Peninsula and the West Indies (territories in the Americas).

The New World territories were obtained by Spanish conquistadores such as Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés. Those two men ravaged the empires of Inca and Aztec, leaching of the resources of the region. Those new colonies – known as New Spain and Peru – quickly became Spain’s bread basket so to speak.

Rise to the title of Holy Roman Emperor

Upon the death of his grandfather – Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor – on January 12, 1519, Charles went on to inherit the Austrian territories controlled by the House of Hapsburg, thus he became Charles I of Austria. His hereditary title placed him in pole position to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.

Although he easily shook off claims from France and England to the title, Charles still had to contend with the German princes because of his strong Catholic faith. Over the decades, the German princes had increasingly adopted Lutheranism and Protestant doctrines in their various states. As a result, Charles felt very alienated from them. To appease them and keep things civil in the Austrian lands, Charles often resorted to deliberative assemblies (known back then as Imperial Diet) to negotiate or iron out tensions. Those forums were vital in maintaining unity across the empire.

From Germany, he could count on the German Catholics and the House of Nassau to provide ample military support and money during his wars against France and the Ottoman Empire. He came to rely heavily on the Imperial Landsknechte – a solid force of German mercenaries (mainly pikemen and foot soldiers) whose choice of formation was usually pike and shot formations.

What was Charles V’s goal for HRE?

Holy Roman Emperor

Coat of Arms of Charles I of Spain, Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor

Owing to the fact that he was from the House of Hapsburg, Charles V grew up a very ambitious man. He spent almost half of his reign painstakingly moving from one territory to another in a bid to expand his family’s influence and dynasty.

Another goal of Charles V was to halt the advances made by the Protestants. A staunch Catholic, Charles V considered Lutheranism and Protestants heretics to Catholicism. For example, he fought very hard to prevent any of the Protestant German princes from getting elected Holy Roman Emperor.

Finally, Charles considered himself the defender of the Catholic faith and Europe at large from the incursions made by the Ottoman Empire. On numerous occasions, he invested heavily to fight off threats from Turks who had often allied themselves with France, Charles’ bitter rival.

Major problems Charles V faced

It is interesting to note that many of the goals Charles V pursued moved in opposite direction. And pulling of anyone of those goals cost him absolute fortune, in terms of the wars he had to wage against France and the German princes. Such was his mounting debt that his subjects in Spain came to dislike him because he failed to develop the Spanish Kingdom. He also failed miserably at effectively protecting the Spanish territories in Europe from the Ottomans. Charles V simply busied himself trying to defeat the French and Protestantism in Germany and the Netherlands.

In the end, he failed. Protestantism kept on flourishing all throughout his reign. Ultimately, and after a pile of debts, he sought an amicable deal with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. His Spanish Empire bore the brunt of his failures; Spain’s economic woes got worse and worse during his reign.

Charles V’s wars against France

Basically, Charles V spent the bulk of his reign warring against the French. France was terrified owning to the fact France feared it was surrounded by Holy Roman Empire.

Charles solicited the help of Henry VIII of England – his in law. Charles’ aunt was Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.

The first war against Francis I of France came in 1521. Together with England and Pope Leo X, Charles fought against the French and the Venetians.

He even forced France out of Milan. At the Battle of Pavia, he captured Francis in 1525. Francis was even captured. He was only released after a treaty (the Treaty of Madrid, 1526) that he most likely signed under duress. As part of the treaty, Francis gave away Burgundy to Charles. Upon his release, the French Parliament quickly denounced the treaty, stating that Francis was under duress.

Sack of Rome

In May, 1527, Charles marched his troops against the papacy and sacked Rome. He imprisoned Pope Clement VII. The Catholic’s leader had gone into an alliance with France and formed the League of Cognac. The league also included Milan and Florence.

Another goal of his was to prevent the pope from succumbing to marriage annulment pressure from Henry VIII of England. The king of England was bent on annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragorn, who was by the way Charles’ aunt. Henry VIII responded to this by breaking away from the Catholic Church, thereby kick starting the English Reformation.

Fight over the Duchy of Milan

Upon the death of Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Charles quickly made his son Philip the Duke of Milan. This renewed confrontations with Francis I of France. In spite of his best efforts, Francis was unable to capture Milan. The French king then turned his attention to one of the allies of Charles – the Duke of Savoy. France captured vast possessions of Savoy, including his capital Turin. Peace was briefly restored with the Truce of Nice in 1538.

The Franco-Ottoman Attack

In 1542, Charles V faced off an alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire. Charles was supported by Henry VIII of England in defending Milan against the Franco-Ottoman fleet. The latter had earlier conquered Nice. Charles and Henry VIII did have some level of success in northern France.

Francis I and Charles I

Francis I and Charles V briefly restored with the Truce of Nice in 1538.

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Charles V and the Ottomans

Another problem he faced came from the Ottoman Turks, who usually raided his lucrative shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. Led by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire’s conquest in Hungry and Bohemia (at the Battle of Mohács in August 1526) made a lot of European nations concerned. The Turks even killed the king of those areas – Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia.

Charles was able to marshal an European coalition to stop the Ottomans in their track at the Vienna in 1529. Charles and his army then made a counter attack into central and southern Hungry. It fizzled out by 1541 as those areas fell into the hands of the Ottomans. Charles and the Holy League (coalition of Italian states and Spanish Kingdoms) consistently had to contend with Ottoman attacks on the Spanish and Italian coast areas.

Charles even tried to enter an alliance with the Safavid Empire (in the Persian region) so as to keep the Ottomans busy to their east. Although the alliance never materialized, the Ottoman Empire attacks on Charles’ empire lost a bit of steam as they were occupied in the Ottoman-Safavid War.

The Diet of Worms

After issuing his 1517 Ninety Five Theses, Martin Luther popped up on the radar of Catholics in Europe and Charles V. In 1521, the staunch Protestant was summoned to meet with Charles at the Diet of Worms (at the city of Worms).

At the deliberation, Luther highlighted the abuses perpetrated by the Catholic Church. Charles was concerned that Luther could tear apart his empire; therefore, he demanded that Luther either renounce or defend his ideas at the Diet.

Shortly after, Charles issued the Edict of Worms, rejecting Luther and Protestantism. An arrest warrant for Luther followed shortly after the edict.

Protestant Reformation and the Schmalkaldic League

As Luther left the city, he was taken into custody by John Frederick I (also known as Frederick the Wise), elector of Saxony. Frederick placed Luther in a castle at Wartburg. It was during this time that Luther took to the task of translating the bible into German.

After Charles’ interaction with Luther, princes in the various German states started turning their backs on the Catholic faith in favor of Lutheranism. Frederick formed the Schmalkaldic League in 1531 to defend Lutheranism against Charles V. The league also wanted to free their states from the Empire.

Meanwhile, Charles was busy warring against France and the Ottomans in the Mediterranean. As a result he did not pay any attention to the turmoil brewing in those German states. The League and the Protestant movement flourished in Germany and other places in Europe.

Around 1546, fearing for the worse, Charles diverted his focus to the Protestant movement  and began fighting against the Schmalkaldic League. Charles successfully defeated Frederick and pushed them out of their base in southern Germany. Frederick and Philip of Hesse were both imprisoned at the Battle of Muhlberg. However, this only led to more and more Protestant princes rebellions. Some formed alliances with Henry II of France, which ultimately led to the break out of the second Schmalkaldic War in 1552.

Peace of Augsburg

After a number of near escapes and losses, Charles had grown very exhausted. Slightly ill and gout-ridden, he went to his home in the Low Countries. Not wanting to sink further resources into the war, he went ahead and signed a treaty – the Peace of Augsburg – with the League in 1555.

As for the Protestants, they continued to make huge headways as they amassed lots followers in the empire. England’s breakaway from the Catholic Church put further winds in their sail. It became an official religion in the empire; and German princes could choose to have it in their states.

The Peace of Augsburg did bring some modicum of peace across the Empire; however, it could not stop the other sects of Protestantism (other than Lutheranism) from fighting for recognition. Charles successor Philip II had to contend with violence and war across Europe for a while.


Holy Roman Emperor

Dominions of the House of Habsburgs at the time Charles V’s abdication in 1556

Due to ill health, as well as mounting financial problems and attacks by the Ottomans, Charles V began a process of giving up control of the empire to his son and brother starting around 1554.

His son Philip inherited Sicily and Naples in 1554 and the Hapsburg Spanish Empire in 1556. Philip went on to become the most powerful king in Europe. His power was increased due to Spain’s conquests in the Americas. The Spanish had vast territories in not just Europe, but Asia, North and South America, making them a formidable nation.

Additionally, Charles V successfully lobbied for his brother Ferdinand to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. The Imperial Diet initially refused to endorse his abdication; however, they later accepted it in February 1558.

In 1557, Charles retired in Spain at the Monastery of Yuste of Extremadura.

Death of Charles V

After spending a year or so in retirement and seclusion, he died on September 21, 1558 at San Jerónimo de Yuste, Spain. The cause of the 58-year-old monarch’s death was believed to be malaria. Prior to that he was barely mobile, as he suffered from gout.

Charles V and the slave trade

Charles V was the first monarch to ship slaves from Africa straight to the New World. Prior to that the slaves were sent to Spain first and then later shipped to the Americas. His strategy made slave trade become an extremely profitable business venture, bringing in enormous amount of money to the empire.

Notable Accomplishments

  • Charles V sometimes admonished his governors in the New World for using excessive force when dealing with the indigenous populations.
  • He held Valldolid debates on universal human rights to tackle the extreme abuses meted out by his Spanish conquistadores to Native Americans in New Spain. Those discussions were most likely the first of the kind in Europe. Some historians even state that, Charles V floated the idea of ending slavery for many.

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