Charles V `Universal Soldier'

By Richardson, Glenn | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Charles V `Universal Soldier'


Richardson, Glenn, History Review


The warrior bursts out from under cover, throwing himself with all his strength against the forces of evil. Equipped with the latest military technology, he storms into battle like an automaton. His face shows only a grim determination to destroy his terrified enemies -- the last action hero in action. No, not Arnie Schwarzenegger or Jean Claude van Damme, but Karl von Habsburg, or Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor at the Battle of Muhlberg in 1547.

This epic scene was produced not by Hollywood but by the Venetian painter Titian. It is the iconic portrait of Charles par excellence, the most famous of several which the Italian master produced. As the Carolus exhibition which toured Europe during 2000 showed, in the five centuries since his birth Charles has been portrayed by contemporaries, artists and by historians as a far-sighted visionary, as a megalomaniac and as a quixotic, even tragic, figure. Yet it remains Titian who came closest to portraying the emperor as he saw himself -- as a nobleman and a soldier.

Dynastic inheritance and ambitions

Charles was born in Ghent on 24 February 1500, the son of Archduke Philip of Burgundy, overlord of the Netherlands, and Juana of Castile. Following his father's death in 1506 and his mother's consequent insanity, he was raised by his paternal aunt, Margaret of Austria, in her household at Mechelen. His education to the age of 15 was supervised by Guillaume de Croy, lord of Chievres, who became Charles's first political advisor. His principal tutor, Adrian of Utrecht, was the future pope Adrian VI. With him Charles gained a grounding at least in the fashionable humanist curriculum. He also absorbed the chivalric traditions of the Valois dukes of Burgundy, the former rulers of the Netherlands. He became a knight of the Burgundian order of the Golden Fleece in his first year of life and its sovereign in 1516. Passionately committed to crusading ideals, Charles excelled in horsemanship and in the para-military sports of the tournament and hunting.

In 1515, the year his majority was declared by the States-General of the Netherlands, Charles began assembling an extraordinary inheritance. From Philip he inherited overlordship of the Netherlands and a claim to the duchy of Burgundy, then held by France. In 1516 he inherited from his maternal grandfather, Ferdinand of Trastamara, the kingdom of Aragon together with its Italian dependencies. He also ruled Castile, initially as regent for his mother and then in his own right. From his paternal grandfather, Maximilian of Habsburg, he inherited the family's Austrian lands. In June 1519, he was also elected to succeed Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor after paying 835,000 florins in bribes to the seven electors. This inheritance gave Charles an authority over large parts of Europe and the Americas never equalled by one man before or since.

Charles immediately determined to make a name for himself through great deeds as a knight of the Golden Fleece. His personal motto, Plus Ultra or `Further Still', used in conjunction with his emblem, the twin pillars of Hercules set at the end of the world, eloquently expressed his ambition. His Grand Chancellor Mercurino Gattinara waxed lyrical on this theme, urging upon his master a God-given duty to establish a `monarchia' of Christendom under his leadership. Much historians' ink has been spilled over what this `monarchia' or `empire' meant. There is no evidence that Charles aspired to rule the whole of Europe as its personal sovereign. On the contrary, his correspondence with his regents indicates his respect for the authority of local elites and his preference for governing his dominions individually, each according to its own laws and customs. Yet he did expect other princes to co-operate with him in making Europe in reality the Christian commonwealth it was theoretically supposed to be. Ultimately Charles hoped to do this, and to secure his own immortal fame, through a crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Islam. …

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