Charles V

Charles V (Holy Roman emperor)

Charles V, 1500–1558, Holy Roman emperor (1519–58) and, as Charles I, king of Spain (1516–56); son of Philip I and Joanna of Castile, grandson of Ferdinand II of Aragón, Isabella of Castile, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and Mary of Burgundy.

Early Years

Born at Ghent, Charles was brought up in Flanders by his aunt, Margaret of Austria, who was regent for him in the Netherlands. She and his tutor, Adrian of Utrecht (later Pope Adrian VI), were the chief influences in his youth. Charles inherited a vast empire. The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Artois, and Franche-Comté (or Free County of Burgundy) came to him on the death (1506) of his father. Aragón, Navarre, Granada, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Spanish America, and joint kingship with his mother (who was insane) over Castile devolved upon him at the death (1516) of Ferdinand II.

Arriving in Spain in 1517, Charles was distrusted as a foreigner. His initial actions only heightened the resentment against him. He brusquely dismissed Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, who was regent of Castile after Ferdinand's death, appointed Flemish favorites to high office, and increased taxation to finance his imperial ambitions. On the death (1519) of his grandfather Maximilian I he inherited the Hapsburg lands in Austria. After bribing the electors, he was chosen Holy Roman emperor in succession to his grandfather, and in 1520 he departed for Germany.

Struggle for Empire

Charles sought to become leader of a universal empire. His imperial dreams were encouraged by M. A. di Gattinara, whose influence replaced that of Charles's Flemish advisers. The chief problems Charles faced were the Protestant Reformation in Germany; the dynastic conflict with King Francis I of France, particularly for supremacy in Italy; and the advance of the Ottoman Turks.

Shortly after his election Charles began his lifelong struggle with France (see Italian Wars), which required immense expenditures. In 1520 he signed the Treaty of Gravelines with King Henry VIII of England, and in 1521 he invaded N Italy, then controlled by France. The fiscal onus for the war rested on Spain and provoked violent reaction, particularly in Castile, which resented Charles's high-handedness in obtaining funds from the Castilian Cortes. Toledo, Segovia, and other Castilian cities revolted in the brief war (1520–21) of the comuneros. Initially aimed at limiting the royal power, the uprising was later marked by violent class warfare. It was put down at the battle of Villalar; Juan de Padilla and other leaders were executed. Charles later won the loyalty of his Spanish subjects.

In Germany, at the fateful Diet of Worms (see Worms, Diet of) in 1521, Charles secured a satisfactory compromise regarding the Reichsregiment but unyieldingly opposed the doctrines of Martin Luther. In his written opinion, Charles declared himself ready to stake his dominions, friends, blood, life, and soul on the extinction of heresy. Late in May, 1521, he signed the Edict of Worms, outlawing Luther and his followers. However, Charles's preoccupation with the war with France prevented him from checking the spread of Luther's doctrines. Also, Charles was not always supported by the popes, who were concerned with the threat to their temporal power and independence posed by imperial domination of Italy.

After the French defeat at Pavia (1525) and the capture of Francis I, Charles seemed triumphant in Italy; Francis signed (1526) the humiliating Treaty of Madrid, by which he renounced his Italian claims and ceded Burgundy to Charles. On his release, however, Francis repudiated the treaty and organized the anti-imperial League of Cognac. The pope, Venice, Milan, and Florence joined the league. Charles sent an imperial army to Italy composed mostly of German Lutherans. Led first by Georg von Frundsberg and then by Charles de Bourbon, the army defeated the league and then marched on Rome, where the force sacked (1527) the city and besieged Pope Clement VII. Although the "German Fury" was disavowed by Charles, he profited from the outrage, extorting large sums of money from the pope.

The Treaty of Cambrai (see Cambrai, Treaty of) with France and the Peace of Barcelona with the pope (both 1529) confirmed Charles's position in Italy and secured his coronation as Holy Roman emperor at Bologna (1530). Charles was the last German emperor to be crowned by the pope. His brother Ferdinand, king of Bohemia and Hungary (later Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I), was elected king of the Romans, or German king, in 1531. Charles, who had awarded Ferdinand the Austrian duchies in 1521, delegated increasing authority to him in Germany, which was then torn by religious and social struggles. The rebellion (1522–23) of Franz von Sickingen was followed by the more serious Peasants' War (1524–26), and the Swabian League in 1531 made way for the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League. The Reformation progressed, and the breach between Catholics and Protestants widened.

Before dealing with the religious problem, Charles had to make peace abroad. Ottoman assaults in Austria and Hungary and along the Mediterranean coast posed a serious threat to the Hapsburg lands. In 1535, Charles launched a successful expedition against Tunis. In E Europe, Ferdinand attempted to hold back the Ottomans. In 1536, war broke out with Francis I over the succession to Milan. Intent on recouping in Italy, Francis allied himself with the Ottoman sultan, Sulayman I. Although a truce ended the fighting with Francis in 1538, the Ottomans continued their assaults on the Italian coast. A second expedition by Charles, this time to Algiers, was unsuccessful (1541). In 1542, Francis, again allied with Sulayman, renewed warfare. Charles joined (1543) with Henry VIII and in 1544 forced Francis to make peace at Crépy.

A subsequent truce with the Ottomans, however humiliating, gave Charles and Ferdinand some respite. At last the way opened for the Counter Reformation, ardently desired by Charles and forwarded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, when the Council of Trent (see Trent, Council of) convened in 1545. Turning on the Protestant princes of Germany, Charles split their ranks by winning over Maurice of Saxony and others, attacked the Schmalkaldic League in 1546, defeated (1547) John Frederick I of Saxony at Mühlberg, and imprisoned Philip of Hesse. At the Diet of Augsburg (1547) he secured the incorporation of the Netherlands into the Hapsburg hereditary possessions and forced through the Augsburg Interim (1548), a compromise profession of doctrine that he then tried to impose on the Protestants with the help of Spanish troops. In 1552, Maurice of Saxony changed sides again, called in Henry II of France, Francis's successor, and even attempted to capture Charles at Innsbruck.

Withdrawal from Power

Balked in his efforts to recapture Metz, which had been seized by Henry II, and realizing the necessity of compromising with Protestantism, Charles preferred to empower Ferdinand to treat, and he left Germany, never to return. Ferdinand negotiated the religious Peace of Augsburg (see Augsburg, Peace of), but war with France continued. It ended after Charles's death, with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), a triumph for Spain.

In his remaining years Charles made a series of abdications that left the Hapsburg dominions divided between Austria and Spain. In 1554 he gave Naples and Milan to his son Philip, whom he married to Queen Mary I of England; in 1555 he turned over the Netherlands to Philip, and in 1556 he made him king of Spain and Sicily as Philip II. In 1556 also, he practically surrendered the empire to Ferdinand, and in 1558 he formally abdicated as emperor. Although he retired (1556) to the monastery of Yuste, he took an active interest in politics until his death. Two of his illegitimate children were Don John of Austria and Margaret of Parma.


During Charles's rule the Spanish Empire was tremendously expanded in the New World. In Italy, Spanish power had become paramount. Even England seemed about to fall to Spain through Philip's marriage, and Charles's own marriage with Isabella of Portugal brought the Portuguese crown to Philip in 1580. Yet Charles failed in his purpose to return the Protestants to the Roman Catholic Church, and the human and financial cost of constant warfare drained Spanish resources; moreover, Charles's hopes for a universal empire were thwarted by the political realities of Western Europe. His integrity, strength of will, and sense of duty were conspicuous. His appearance has been made familiar by two portraits by Titian.


The classic works on Charles V are the biography by K. Brandi (1937, tr. 1939, repr. 1968) and R. B. Merriman, The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and the New, Vol. III (1926, repr. 1972); see also biographies by G. von Schwarzenfeld (tr. 1957) and O. von Hapsburg (tr. 1970).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Charles V: Selected full-text books and articles

The Emperor Charles the Fifth By Royall Tyler George Allen and Unwin, 1956
Charles V, Father of Europe By Gertrude von Schwarzenfeld Henry Regnery, 1957
Great Leaders, Great Tyrants? Contemporary Views of World Rulers Who Made History By Arnold Blumberg Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: "Charles V 1500-1558" begins on p. 45
Spain, 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict By Henry Kamen Longman, 1991 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Charles V and Empire 1516-1558"
Imperial Spain: The Rise of the Empire and the Dawn of Modern Sea-Power By Edward Dwight Salmon Henry Holt, 1931
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Charles V-- Empire Established"
The European Dynastic States, 1494-1660 By Richard Bonney Oxford University Press, 1991
Librarian's tip: "The Ascendancy of Charles V" begins on p. 109
Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy By Sydney Anglo Clarendon Press, 1997 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. V "The Imperial Alliance and the Entry of Charles V into London: June 1522"
Sixteenth-Century Europe By Leonard W. Cowie Oliver & Boyd, 1977
Librarian's tip: Chap. 12 "The Problems of Charles V"
Why Did the HABSBURG-VALOIS Conflict Last for So Long? By MacDonald, Stewart History Review, March 1999
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