Charles V: Europe's Last Emperor?

By Chamberlin, Russell | History Today, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Charles V: Europe's Last Emperor?


Chamberlin, Russell, History Today


`I SPEAK GERMAN TO MY HORSE, French to my ministers and Spanish to my God', Charles V once remarked, neatly encapsulating the complexity of his inheritance. The city of Ghent, his birthplace in modern Belgium, is currently celebrating the 500th anniversary of his birth on February 24th, 1500. The lottery of birth placed Charles at the centre of a genealogical network which covered half Europe. His father, Philip, was Duke of Burgundy. His grandfather was Emperor Maximilian of Austria. His mother, the wretched Joanna the Mad, was daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, Spain's redoubtable `Catholic Monarchs'. Through his mother he would inherit Spain and the bloodstained kingdom of Naples as well.

He was heir also to the fabulous possessions of the New World, and through his father he would become one of the great magnates of France as Duke of Burgundy. In due course, aged nineteen, he added the imperial crown to his glittering regalia. To be exact, he purchased it, backed by the great banking dynasty, the Fuggers, to outbid his two powerful contemporaries, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. Henry accepted his defeat with good grace - there was no way he could raise the colossal stakes.

Francis, by Contrast, was bitterly resentful, triggering off the tragic chain of events that led to the Sack of Rome in 1527, when Charles's troops - variously Spanish and Italian Catholics and German Protestants, and led by a French renegade, pillaged the `Mother of Christendom' and took Pope Clement VII hostage. An ironic by-product was that Clement personally crowned Charles, the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by a pope.

Irony often attended Charles. Although he was the intellectual and moral superior to his rival rulers Henry and Francis, he cut a poor figure compared to them. While they cavorted in renaissance splendour as Bluff King Hal and Francis the golden, Charles appears a bureaucrat and worse. His dazzling inheritance also bequeathed him, less happily, the notorious Habsburg jaw. Gonrat Meit's bust of the young Charles depicts him as almost retarded: the brutal realism of Lucas Cranach's portrait of him aged thirty-three seems to exaggerate the jaw, and even Titian was hard put to mask it.

The deformity caused him acute physical problems. The pitilessly observant Venetians whispered that he was unable to close his mouth. He found difficulty in chewing and so swallowed his food in lumps. To wash it down, he drank copious quantities of wine and beer, making him appear a glutton.

The paradoxes continued. The Emperor who considered abolishing the Pope's temporal powers sat in judgment over Martin Luther. The most powerful man in a fast-changing Europe harked back to a medieval past, even challenging Francis to a knightly single combat. The ruler of a huge empire treated it like a private fiefdom, eventually dividing it between his brother Ferdinand and his son, Philip II of Spain. Yet in the end he had the moral courage to abdicate in 1556, retiring to a monastery and earning the praise of no less a person than Ignatius Loyola: `The Emperor gave a rare example to his successors and proved himself to be a true Christian prince'. Exhausted, Charles died in the monastery in 1558.

Charles's birthplace, Ghent, was to play a role almost as confusing and equivocal as the man himself in European history. …

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