Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Titian: Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, 1548

Emperor: it’s an arresting title. And the concept looks simple. If it means a ruler over vast lands and numerous peoples, then Charles V eminently qualifies. Through the accidents of fecund marriages and mortality among other prospective claimants, he held sway over a multitude of territories across much of Europe—from the Straits of Gibraltar and Sicily to the North Sea and the Baltic—and over American colonies newly conquered and settled. Yet things are not quite what they seem. As monarch of Spain, his richest possession, he famously signed himself “Yo el Rey”—“I the King”—and was known as Charles I. So why do we remember him as Charles V?

No one could be more aware of the complexities of Charles’s situation than Geoffrey Parker. Emperor is a meticulous and comprehensive account by a master of traditional biography, the powerful narrative of a military and political career like no other. Charles enjoyed his share of fortuna, of triumphs like that when, as a young man in 1525, he destroyed the army of his French adversaries at Pavia, and even took their king, François I, prisoner on the battlefield. Increasingly, however, there were disasters too, such as the catastrophic sieges of Algiers in 1541 and Metz in 1552; Charles himself was almost captured the same year during an insurgency of former client princes in Germany. Success predominated, according to Parker, but his reign ended in “downfall” (the last part of the book bears that heading), when the bankrupt emperor could no longer settle even small debts. Hence, perhaps, Charles’s dramatic abdication in 1556 and his retirement to a remote Spanish monastery.

It’s a vast canvas, but most memorable for Parker’s love of small descriptive or corroborative details. Indeed, at the heart of his presentation he places Charles’s person: his measured and stylish manner, his winsome blond hair, conspicuous projecting lower lip, and mouth always lolling slightly open, his politesse and affability in public, and his forbearance with detractors (“kynges be not kinges of tonges,” he conceded). Many less attractive traits are also recorded: Charles could be uncommunicative and dilatory, evasive and mendacious, refractory, vindictive, obstinate, even outright wicked, though self-delusive about the motives of others.

He was contradictory in his cast of mind too: a slow and reluctant reader, mainly of romances and books of devotion, but quite bright (none other than Erasmus said he had “plenty of brains”). Charles was selectively inquisitive, for example about the indigenous cultures of the New World, and later about clocks to the point of obsession. He was likewise selective in the crucial imperial skill of language acquisition: he learned French, then Spanish and Italian by immersion; he spoke German and Dutch with bare adequacy, and struggled over a lifetime with Latin. Increasingly he became preoccupied with his own physical sufferings, especially piles and gout, and by the end his body was often racked with pain.

How do we know so much about him? Parker enlists a host of wonderful witnesses, for Charles was never alone. Particularly rich are the observations of Englishmen, from early diplomats like John Stile and Sir Thomas Spinelly to the perceptive scholars Roger Ascham and Sir John Mason, who can all be quoted in their own vivid language. Mason, for instance, is Parker’s correspondent at the abdicatory farewell in 1555, when Charles’s “heart seemed overwhelmed by grief, and his sobs prevented him from speaking, while tears poured down his cheeks, provoked”—the envoy thought—“by seing the hole company to doo the lyke before [him], being in myne opynion not one man in the hole assemblee” that during “his oration poured not owte habondantly teares.” Besides interrogating the vast array of printed sources, built up over centuries, from official correspondence to private diaries, Parker has conducted an exhaustive trawl of the archives too. Moreover, Charles himself created an extensive and revealing paper trail, notably the “secret document” to instruct his son Philip II, the future king of Spain, from 1543 and the “political testament” five years later.

All this evidence yields remarkable insights into the everyday life of the emperor, with many intimate particulars and sometimes earthy language. The wealth of material fails, however, to convey much sense of Charles’s principal preoccupation: his endless warring. As one example, here he is, in that programmatic statement (Parker calls it his “grand strategy”) to Philip, about their chief adversary, the king of France: “I intend to defend myself from him…. But if I find that he has not attacked me, I will attack him.” If readers feel they are losing the thread of causation, that seems to be exactly what happened to Charles and his advisers. The same is true of all the marital permutations, pursued in series and in parallel between the Habsburgs and other ruling families, that litter Parker’s text.


Yet the ultimate rationale for both aggression and conjugation was as clear then as it is now. Dynasticism, the dynasty as a principle of rule—in its Habsburg version—made possible Charles’s authority through the windfall of inheritance (much of it contrived by his grandfather Emperor Maximilian I) and was the vehicle for further strategic marriages. The Habsburgs had built on or usurped the familial networks of their rivals—Trastámaras, Valois, Luxemburgs, Jagiellons—yielding unions of crowns across the continent whose operations depended on the genes and brains of siblings.

The often dysfunctional and increasingly inbred Habsburg clan dominates this book. It included Charles’s deranged mother, Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who, although technically still queen of Castile and Aragon, was disempowered and held in seclusion for decades by her son. But other relatives were capable—some more so than Charles—diligent, and often supportive beyond the call of duty, especially his aunt Margaret of Austria and his sister Maria. They built up solid administrative practices across his realms, in loose and desultory liaison with the itinerant warrior and his chief advisers.

Charles showed little affection for his kin, and regularly indulged in moral blackmail. That shines through both his major male relationships, with his son Philip and his brother Ferdinand, whom Charles rarely dealt with face to face (the brothers didn’t meet at all until Ferdinand was in his teens). Philip turned out cool and calculating, though he owed more to his father than he wanted to acknowledge. Charles micromanaged his education and trained him to be heir to all his lands. Ferdinand could be pliant, even submissive, and Charles took advantage, envisaging him as some kind of auxiliary ruler. Actually, however, Philip became a “true prince of Castile,” a ruler rooted in Spain, whereas Charles gradually came around to accepting Ferdinand’s authority in Germany. For decades he periodically contemplated a future partition of his lands but could never quite bring himself to it; that progressively poisoned relations with his brother and culminated in bitter estrangement later.

Alongside the bonds of dynasty, Charles committed himself to a particular kind of courtly conduct and style of rule. The inspiration came not from Spain or Germany, but from the terrain of his upbringing, Burgundy. We might wonder today what was so special about this failed state, which had been based in what is today northeast France, Benelux, and adjacent parts of the Rhineland. But it was Charles’s native soil, “his owne patrymonye”; he spent half his life there and was always reluctant to leave it; he long hoped to be buried in its soil. He bore the name of his ancestor Charles the Bold, independent Burgundy’s last and most memorable ruler, and was always mindful that it had been the heartland too of an earlier and still more illustrious namesake, Charlemagne. Charles, needless to say, fought over these lands, added some provinces to them, and had all of his Low Countries established as a separate administrative unit (“circle”) in 1548.

Yet the Burgundian traditions to which Charles clung were already a wasting asset. He espoused a world of chivalry, of joust and pageant, of duel and heraldic challenge, of aulic refinement—his court was already over three hundred strong as he entered his teens, and he took over six hundred retainers with him to Spain in 1517—and the ideal courtier. The famous Libro del Cortegiano of his protégé Baldassare Castiglione was one of his favorite texts. That meant frequent histrionics: extravagant ceremonies for his majority in 1515; the ceremonial entrance into Bologna and coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1529–1530; the triumphal procession to Rome in 1536 after a successful campaign to recapture Tunis from the Turks; a grand reconciliation with the king of France in 1539; the penance of the seditious burghers of his birthplace, Ghent, in 1540. Just to unfurl his standard before yet another battle could be a highly symbolic act.

Reputation was all: “I do not want to disappear from the world without leaving something memorable behind”; “the day that a man loses his honour, he should die.” Such civilian virtues as financial competence or simple rectitude had little appeal for Charles. He was a military man to the core: brave, even reckless; marching at the head of his troops even into old age, “wearing full armour with a tunic made of cloth-of-gold, to make himself look good,” “reconnoitr[ing] enemy positions with his own eyes,” tackling mutineers head-on, and exercising the personal command needed over “almoost a dousen diverse nations…in myn armey.”

The abdication too, proclaimed in Brussels, possessed Burgundian echoes. His grandfather Maximilian I had already toyed with such a step in Charles’s youth. It was an emotional occasion for all concerned, but Parker shows it to have been not a coup de théâtre or admission of failure, as it is often portrayed, but rather a pragmatic calculation and strategic withdrawal. Charles chose the seclusion of Yuste in Extremadura for his final residence, but he still desired some share in the affairs of state (Philip denied him that), and his cloister certainly did not become a locus of otherworldly meditation. Moreover, despite all those ailments the emperor was not a really sick man until—Parker’s ultimate irony—the monastery’s pestilential mosquitoes caused his death.


As his final sojourn among the eremites of Saint Jerome reminds us, Christianity was central for Charles, as a rhetoric of rule and as a living faith. The two went together: Charles’s genuine—and time-consuming—piety and the sincerity of some of his personal statements (freely cited by Parker) exposed the hollowness of many of the church’s official postures. That hollowness is what generated the enormous protests initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, and the subsequent schism over which Charles had to preside. He evidently saw what came to be called the Reformation as a squarely German problem, but troubles in Central Europe coincided with signs of spiritual crisis across his entire empire.

Much depended on Charles’s relations with successive popes (he dealt with seven of them). These were often fractious and mistrustful; at times Charles could be entirely disparaging about prelatical behavior. He had a turbulent Spanish bishop tortured and murdered; then came the imperial troops’ sack of Rome in 1527 (though that was followed by another of Charles’s grand reconciliations); at the end he had to contend with the psychotic, cruel, and deeply divisive Pope Paul IV. Emperor and pontiffs agreed on the need to combat “heresy,” but that meant different things at different times and places. Charles equally sought a “council that the Germans say must be held in order to resolve the situation there,” without papal cooperation if necessary. In the event, he held aloof from the settlement reached with the Lutherans by his brother Ferdinand, but when a council friendly to Rome eventually convened at Trent in 1545 after decades of delay, he declined to endorse its doctrinal pronouncements either.

For doctrine was not Charles’s concern. Although he appealed to theologians for edification and counsel, theology itself could send him to sleep. The unity, not the purity, of Christendom was central to the legitimacy of his rule. His celebrated motto “Plus Ultra” (Still Further) blended a classical and a Christian commitment to global dominion. For both his person and his dynasty, Charles believed in providence: even his chancellor had to warn him (unavailingly) not to expect “that God will always perform miracles in your affairs.” Had not the hegemony of the first Roman emperor providentially afforded a universal political vehicle for the emergence of the Christian community at the very start?

If the vision was uniform, the reality was disjunctive. Parker graphically conveys the peripatetic life of Charles (who himself cataloged forty major shifts of location in as many years). The interminable travels, often with much discomfort, as when he first arrived in Spain in 1517 (“probably the most miserable [months] of his life,” says Parker), went with a trouble-shooting style of rule and an extraordinarily intense pursuit of personal diplomacy. We feel a sense of continual near chaos and helplessness in the face of those unprecedented challenges: “so many things happening at the same time”; “the wars that I have been forced to fight so many times and in so many places.”

Yet that somehow melded with the beginnings of bureaucracy, based on written opinions (called consultas in the Spanish administration) and genuine assiduity over business. Charles had to leave much to a small team of shrewdly chosen and often long-serving advisers (above all the Perrenots de Granvelle, father and son). Hence laborious outcomes, which could be all too closely considered, as the emperor would “take his time to think things through,” and sluggish decision-making, sometimes by his own admission “so impenetrable and uncertain…full of confusions and contradictions.” It became a quip of the time that if death came in a letter from Spain we should all be immortal—though on occasion the regime did employ express couriers.

All this worked best within the Hispanic lands. Charles first saw them when he was seventeen, and he only gradually and partially became a Spaniard. As a callow ruler there, he immediately faced a large-scale rebellion, the so-called revolt of the Comuneros, partly provoked by his own insensitive actions; but it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Thereafter Spain grew easier to govern, with its representative bodies near-dormant, and Charles could pioneer an administrative consolidation centered on Castile (“the chief among our kingdoms”), from which many of his chief counselors and confidants were drawn.

Castile also managed and strictly controlled the great American enterprise: the freshly acquired tracts several times the size of Spain, with millions of mainly indigenous inhabitants. Their governance did not much preoccupy Charles, but the implications of this “New World of gold made just for him” were huge, since the Hispanic heartland and the galvanic transatlantic opportunities enabled his imperial adventures elsewhere. His “grand chancellor,” the cosmopolitan humanist Mercurino Arborio de Gattinara, came nearest to being the ideologue of this “dream of the last world monarchy,” or “acquisition of the whole globe.” Charles himself later repudiated such an ambition, but it underpinned his aspirations to gain a real empire when in 1519 he spent 1.5 million florins to achieve election as Holy Roman Emperor.1 Henceforth, this was his highest title: that’s why we remember him as Charles V (Charlemagne seven hundred years earlier was deemed to have been the first). Prestige (“reputation”) and security alike required Charles to assume this unique dignity as the purportedly lineal successor to the universal imperium of ancient Rome.

Spain had never been part of the Holy Roman Empire, but it did include Burgundy and much of Italy. Its center of gravity lay in “Germany”—then merely a loose geographical expression for a congeries of larger and smaller principalities, free cities, and lands of the church. Through his election Charles became officially Kaiser of “the German nation” and needed to be perceived as a native ruler (for all his erratic grasp of the language). He could browbeat there, even gain temporary mastery in the 1540s, fighting a hideously expensive war against his own people. But though he claimed that “I…will not bargain with my subjects,” mostly he needed consensus, and he never built the same secure political, social, or institutional base in Germany as he did in Spain. Protected by sympathetic—and calculating—princes, Luther could challenge Charles to espouse religious reform. And menacing Ottoman garrisons were now stationed just beyond the empire’s frontiers. The leaders of the “German nation” struck back again in 1552 (that’s when they nearly managed to take Charles prisoner), revealing the extraordinary debility of the emperor’s overall geopolitical situation, exacerbated as it was by resort to loans as wars became ever costlier and supplies of New World treasure tailed off.

In the end, the “real” empire, and the unreal visions and expectations it had induced, proved to be the undoing of Charles. Yet he did leave one major legacy to Germany (unmentioned by Parker): the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, a major advance in the codification and administration of justice. Set alongside his better-remembered pioneering legislation on native rights in America, the Carolina did something to justify the confidence of his supporters that Charles would “lay down the law to all of Christendom.” However, its many hideous penalties reflected Charles’s own ideas of criminal (and international) law, which—as Parker repeatedly shows—could be both cruel and vengeful. One of the emperor’s last acts as a military commander was personally to order—with evident Schadenfreude—the total destruction of Thérouanne, not just a fortress but an entire cathedral city on the chronically contested border with France, which he reckoned contumacious.

The fate of Thérouanne was part of a much bigger picture, a token of Charles’s international legacy. Parker doesn’t make much of the “grand strategy” here, though he’s written about it elsewhere in relation to Charles’s son Philip.2 Perhaps even he is tiring by the end, and his “balance of the reign” appears rather mechanical and obvious by the supremely high standard he’s set and sustained hitherto. So let us give the word to Charles’s first serious biographer:

It was during his administration that the powers of Europe were formed into one great political system, in which each took a station, wherein it has since remained…. The great events which happened then have not hitherto spent their force. The political principles and maxims then established still continue to operate. The ideas concerning the balance of power then introduced, or rendered general, still influence the councils of nations.3

That is William Robertson, writing in 1769 (Parker calls it the earliest “standard work”). Robertson was an urbane and perspicuous commentator, just a decade before Gibbon, on the growth and rise—as it were—of another, more recent but still quasi-Roman empire.

We should beware of accounting Charles a “European” avant la lettre, but these are issues of a novel and European balance. Did Charles’s ascendancy—and that of the Turks—bring about this new diplomatic equilibrium? The Muslim threat also coincided exactly (but improvidentially?) as Sultan Suleiman, later called the Magnificent, succeeded his father Selim, the conqueror of Mecca, in the same year that Charles became emperor. Yet Charles’s engagement with the Ottomans (by contrast with his brother Ferdinand’s) proved desultory. He said that “in order to defeat the Turks he would abandon everything,” but he failed to keep his word. He did just enough to make the Turks natural partners of Charles’s other foes, especially the French, and thus to spread an alliance system continent-wide.

At least equally crucial was the newly established nexus between Iberia and Central Europe. Habsburg rule became reasonably secure in each of them, but the combination of the two bred instability, as Charles realized in his more lucid moments, and as the next generation would show, when the perilous chemin des Espagnols, or Spanish Road, between the Habsburg territories in northern Italy and the Low Countries had to be negotiated by troops (fifty years ago, Parker traveled that route closely himself and launched his distinguished career with a book about it4). The militant response of a now encircled France left the Habsburgs seriously overextended, above all in the Netherlands.

This was, at heart, the lasting problem of Burgundy, the “middle kingdom” between French, German, and English spheres of influence. Charles’s fierce loyalty to it had huge geopolitical ramifications. For centuries to come, disputes over sovereignty there continued to provoke military conflicts. Meanwhile he facilitated, while Ferdinand created, a semidetached “Austrian” subempire, never envisaged as an entity in itself until much later, and always vulnerable to international power shifts. This “monarchy” of the Habsburgs would preserve something of their imperial pretensions, as part of a European power balance. Yet the gap between aspiration and reality grew ever wider for this dynastic state. Eventually, in 1918, it would go down in war (with another Habsburg emperor Charles at its helm), four hundred years after Charles V had first staked his claim to hegemony.