The Dream of World Monarchy

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.