Monday, February 25, 2013

Monarch Profile: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

Emperor Charles V is an historical figure somewhat difficult to approach. His background was so diverse; a Spanish King and German Emperor born in Belgium of an Austrian family with Swiss roots and one could go on. He is a colossal figure in European history and a man with a rather colorful life story. Charles V was reflective of the Renaissance in his knowledge and tastes, he could discuss religion or art with the best of them. Charles V had several mistresses and a few illegitimate children, yet is still seen today as the Catholic champion of Europe. Hailed ever after as the most ardent defender of Christendom, he nonetheless made peace with the Protestants and waged war against the Pope. His was the first empire upon which it was said that “the sun never set”. In World War II he was featured on a special postage stamp by the Nazi SS as a German historical figure who dominated so much of the world and yet, at the end of his life, he willingly gave up his power and saw to it that no one member of the House of Hapsburg would hold such vast territories again. Charles V is a fascinating individual, probably not as well known in the English-speaking world as he should be, but throughout most of his lifetime practically every major event in Europe happened because of or in reaction to him. Emperor Charles V was, and is, a giant figure on the pages of history.

He was the son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad, born on February 24, 1500 in Ghent, Belgium and, given the rather tragic fate of his parents, he was brought up in the “Low Countries” to a large extent, looked after by his aunt Margaret in Burgundy. It was only 1506 when he inherited the Burgundian lands of his father and this, combined with the upbringing of his aunt, impressed upon him the terrible responsibilities of power. Throughout his life, especially for a man of the Renaissance, he would have a very Medieval view of government and monarchy with limitations on power, important decisions made by councils and keeping power on the local level where possible. He had to grow up very fast as he was still only a youth when he began to inherit his most lofty crowns. On January 23, 1516 he became King of Spain and on June 28 1519 he became Holy Roman Emperor of the German nation. He had his German coronation at Aachen on October 26, 1520; was crowned King of Italy on February 22, 1530 in Bologna and on February 24, 1530 was crowned Emperor of the Romans by the Pope making him the last German Emperor to be crowned by the Pope and thus officially “Holy Roman Emperor” rather than “Holy Roman Emperor-Elect” as most actually were.

Religious matters would dominate a great deal of his reign and one of the first problems he had to address was the growing controversy over a certain man named Martin Luther. At the famous Diet of Worms the Emperor met Luther face to face and listened to him make his case. Needless to say, the Emperor was not impressed and gave a quite eloquent response based on history and tradition, saying, “For it is certain that a single monk must err if he stands against the opinion of all Christendom. Otherwise Christendom itself would have erred for more than a thousand years”. Luther, we now know, did not actually say, “Here I stand, I can do no other” but, in any event, he refused to recant his beliefs and the Emperor refused to break his word and have him arrested on the spot. So, Luther was free to go and continued to spread his new religious ideas, which would ultimately lead to the creation of the Lutheran church, the Protestant movement and the further splitting of Christendom. This was, obviously, a major concern for Charles V who, as Emperor, saw himself as the chief guardian of Christendom and while he did not try to rule everyone directly, he would take swift action against any threat to his authority. The spread of Protestantism was definitely such a threat and he wanted the Church to do something about it.

The problem with that was that the Catholic Church, which had been around for a while, had seen or thought they had seen people like Martin Luther before. They would rise up, preaching some novelty but eventually fade away and be forgotten. But Luther could point to very real problems and corruptions in the Church with simony, absentee bishops, the selling of indulgences and so on which were having a real impact. This was particularly true in Germany where nationalism was a useful tool as well. It was often easy to convince people to support a German church founded by a German man rather than to pay tithes to an Italian prince far away in Rome. To head-off this problem, Emperor Charles V wanted the Pope to call a council to sort these problems out. Today it seems obvious, especially in light of what happened later at the Council of Trent, and the Popes seem criminally uncaring or lazy not to heed the advice of the King of Spain and German Emperor. However, to be fair to the Pontiffs, history is always close at hand in Rome and throughout the history of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, when an Emperor started calling for a council of bishops it was usually intended to end in the forced removal of the Pope in favor of a more pliable candidate. After this happened several times, the Popes became rather reluctant to call councils together, especially when a German Emperor was the one pushing for it. It was certainly a mistake for the Catholic Church overall that the Emperor was not listened to but one can see why the Popes would have been inclined to put him off and wait for Lutheranism to fade away.

In 1522 pro-Lutheran nobles rose up in the Knights’ War which Charles V had to put down, followed by the even nastier Peasants’ Revolt in 1524 which even Luther was horrified by. To make matters worse, as far as the Emperor was concerned anyway, while Protestant rebellions were becoming a major problem in Germany, the Catholic south was coming under renewed attack by the Ottoman Turks who were never more effective than at that time under the skilled leadership of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1522 they launched a massive attack on the island of Rhodes, defended by the Knights of St John. The island fell and Emperor Charles allowed the Knights to relocate to Malta. On land, by 1526 the Turkish armies had penetrated far into Europe, wiping out the Hungarian army and killing King Louis of Hungary at the battle of Mohacs. And if that was not enough bad news for Charles V, German possessions in northern Italy were attacked by the French under King Francis I in 1524. The Emperor moved to meet this threat in person, aware of the fact that Pope Clement VII had allied with the King of France in an effort to prevent the German domination of Italy. The result was the battle of Pavia which was a smashing success for Emperor Charles V who totally defeated the French army and took Francis I prisoner. He gave up claims to imperial territories while in captivity but, after being released, said he was not bound by agreements signed while he was a prisoner and renewed his campaign against Charles V in alliance with the Pope.

In 1526 Charles married Isabella of Portugal, daughter of King Manuel I, whom he loved and adored and had many children with. He was not a flawless man when it came to women but the illegitimate children he had were born before his marriage or after the death of Isabella who passed away after giving birth to their sixth child. The birth of Don John of Austria notwithstanding, Charles V was greatly saddened by her death and wore black for the rest of his life thereafter. However, all of that would come later. In 1527, only a year after his marriage, Charles V launched the invasion that would result in what must be the one really shameful mark on his reign, a horror almost unsurpassed in history. Gathering a motley force of Spanish and German troops (many of whom were Lutheran Protestants), Charles V launched an invasion of Italy aimed at destroying the alliance arranged by Pope Clement VII and bringing papal Rome firmly under his control. The Pope had counted on the King of France to come to his rescue but that did not happen and soon his other allies abandoned him as well. On the other side, because of the seemingly endless wars and the many rebellions in Germany, the Emperor was cash-strapped and when his troops approached Rome they were tired, hungry, impoverished and angry.

The result was the horrific “sack of Rome” in which the Swiss Guard were wiped out, fighting to the last man to defend the Pope, who was himself nearly killed. Clement VII barricaded himself inside Castel Sant Angelo with as many Roman refugees as could be fit in while the imperial troops went on the rampage, committing acts of destruction, pillage, murder and sacrilege that are truly too terrible to repeat. It was worse than anything the barbarian invaders of Imperial Rome had ever done and a witness who was a veteran of the wars against the Muslims remarked that no Muslim was ever so cruel or vicious toward an enemy as the imperial troops were toward the helpless Romans. It was sadism and bloodlust run rampant. Now, to be fair, it must be said that Charles V could not have known that such an infamy would have happened, he certainly did not order it and he was horrified in the aftermath when he learned of the details. However, as it was he who sent the army to conquer Rome in the first place, he must accept the ultimate and theoretic responsibility for that. Still, he was aghast at what happened but still enough of a man of the world to use it to his advantage and in the aftermath of such an atrocity Pope Clement VII agreed to all of his demands and was then released from captivity by the end of the year. His power was unquestioned but, that being so, he was able to be magnanimous and restored the Papal States to Clement VII and Florence to the Medici family. Some may say it was largely symbolic but it was something a vindictive man would never have done and something he did not have to do in light of his victory.

In the aftermath, things continued to go well for Charles V. He worked to make peace with the Protestants in Germany, ending finally in 1532 with the Peace of Nurnberg that granted freedom of religion to the Protestants. In 1535 the Emperor led an attack on the Muslim forces in North Africa, capturing Tunis and the following year defeating French forces in Italy and repelling a French attack on the Low Countries. And, in the meantime, the Emperor reformed the legal system, financed Ferdinand Magellan in his voyage to circumnavigate the globe and saw the Spanish empire in the Americas continue to expand. However, the religious divide in Germany continued to be a problem with war flaring up again in 1547. The Emperor was again victorious but allowed the Protestants to keep what lands they had gained and to continue their religious practices in the peace that followed. It was a short-lived peace though as rebellion broke out again under the leadership of Maurice of Saxony. After more fighting Charles V decided the best way to restore order would be to enact a new law called the Peace of Augsburg which stated that the land and people would adopt the religion of their local noble lord. If he were Catholic, his people would be Catholic and if Protestant the people would be Protestant.

With peace again secured in Germany in 1555, by the following year Charles V was weary of his crowns and decided to abdicate. However, rather than leave everything to his heir to carry on as he had done, Charles V decided to divide the responsibilities and left his German crown to his brother Ferdinand and his Spanish crown (including the Low Countries) to his son Philip. In giving up power, he advised his son to trust God, maintain the Catholic faith and to respect the rights of his subjects. That done, the most powerful man in the western world walked away from it all and retired to a palace-monastery in Spain, devoting himself to prayer and reflection, where he lived the rest of his life, passing away a few years later in 1558. To his son and heir King Philip II, he apologized for not being able to do better and handing him a Europe that was torn by division, however, were it not for his stamina and determination, Europe would have looked considerably different. He had faced constant threats on almost every side and while not always totally successfully (especially in Germany) he could at least say that he had never been totally defeated. Through victory on the battlefield or negotiated concessions, he had maintained all he had inherited, even expanded it a little and left behind a Spain that was riding high, expanding in the New World, allied to England and a Germany that, while divided, was still at peace, dominant in Italy and which had seen the Turkish threat driven back from the gates of Vienna. Truly, Emperor Charles V had left a mark on the pages of history that few others, before or since, could hope to match.


  1. A great profile, MM.

    I want to ask your opinion on the following issue, because i am a bit undecided. If a monarch breaks the law (HIS OWN laws) he can be judged?, and by who?.

    Hi from Argentina.

    1. In general I don't "do" abstract questions, I prefer specifics. In general, a monarch is not subject to the law as being the source of all law and authority there is no court lofty enough to sit in judgment of such a case. It is called "sovereign immunity" and is a principle employed by republics today as well as monarchies. I don't know the legal situation in Argentina but in the United States certainly there is sovereign immunity for the federal government and, on the next lower level, "state sovereign immunity" which means, basically, that you cannot take the federal government to court or a state to federal court unless the government chooses to allow it.

  2. True, a monarch is the source of all authority, but in the case of a monarch murdering her wife like the crime of Henry VII, shouldn't anyone, not even the Crown Prince, i agree for obvious reasons with the sovereign inmunity, but the question is if case that he is busted in fraganti.

    1. Henry VII (of England I assume you mean) never hurt his wife, she died from pregnancy complications. If you meant Henry VIII he never murdered a wife either. It may have been unjust but everything went through the legal process, no one could then say he broke his own law. And in his case there was no crown prince and never would be an adult one. But as none of this has anything to do with Carlos I, I think that should be the end of this theoretical scenario.


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