Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Emperor: A New Life Of Charles V

I'm in the middle of reading: 
Emperor: A New Life Of Charles V by early modern historian, Geoffrey Parker, which was published in 2019, so this isn't my usual book review as I haven't finished the biography yet. However halfway through (on page 332 with 200 pages to go!) I can say it's meticulously researched and compelling to read. The section I'm on is where the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor is intent on wrangling in all those rebellious Lutheran German Princes who have broken away from Rome (and thus labeled Protestants) and taken theirs, as well as, Charles' subjects with them. As you might imagine, Emperor Charles is thinking, "What the hell! Those pesky heretics!!! Not gonna happen on my Christian watch!!!" So he's organizing talks and campaigns to deal with the German problem in his realm.

Charles of Habsburg was born on February 24, 1500, in Ghent, then called the Low Countries in the Netherlands, which today is Belgium. Son of Joanna of Castile and Philip of Habsburg, Charles was the grandson of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragan (present-day Spain), Mary of Burgandy (Belgium and the Netherlands) and Maximillian I of Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, as well as, the elected Holy Roman Emperor of the Germanies before Charles campaigned and won the title in 1519 at age 19 (upon Maximillian's death).

After the death of his grandparents, Charles V ruled over Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as, much of Italy, Central, and South America. He was an Emperor with a capital ''E." -- conquering, reorganizing, and protecting what the book calls the "world's first and most enduring transatlantic empire."

An artist's images of what Charles and his wife, Isabella would look like if they lived today.
I can't grasp doing the colossal research for this book. The author had to turn to documents and primary sources written in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Burgundian, English, Latin, Hungarian, as well as, the regional dialects in these languages like Castilian in Spain and Flemish in the Low Countries. 


Likewise, Charles V had to become proficient in many languages to rule over his vast lands, and of course, he had an overall fine education in philosophy, theology, the arts and was taught jostling, hunting, shooting, fishing, good manners, chivalry, to play music and dancing in his role as heir to the throne. His two closest in age sisters took classes with him. He studied mathematics as an adult to "escape the burden of affairs" of state for a few hours at night.

A lesser ruler with a weaker intellect and will couldn't have held such a diverse and enormous empire together for 40 years. At the time monarchs believed their roles were divinely ordained, and, the grandson of 4 sovereigns carried out his duty with conviction and gratitude to God. Charles worked tirelessly and constantly traveled throughout Europe attending to conflicts and ensuing problems by negotiating, writing up, and signing over 100,000 documents, edicts, and treaties. He asked for what he wanted  -- in point-by-point terms -- and got much of it. He called forth and oversaw major councils and diets of the day, as well as, met privately and publically with townspeople, officials, kings, and Popes. And when talking didn't lead to peace and agreement, he took rulers prisoner until they came around, as Charles was a capable and successful military commander and also lucky since the weather or an advisory's blunder often favored him. Moreover, Charles V strategized and knew how to seize an advantage.

Painted by Peter, Paul Rubens
It's a long, serious detailed biography. The nitty-gritty of the long-ago battles get somewhat tiring, yet you do come away with knowing what a brilliant, comprehensive mind Charles V had and why he came out on top. As Emperor, he appointed smart, capable people as regents during his absences. Regents included his wife, Empress Isabella over Spain; his aunt Margaret of Austria (and later when Margaret died) his sister Maria of Hungry over the Netherlands; and his brother, Ferdinand over Germany. Emperor Charles married his sister, Eleanor to King Francis I of France although the marriage didn't stop the rivalry or wars with France; a sister Isabeau to Christian II of Denmark; and another sister Catalina to the King of Portugal. 

Emperor Charles is a complex historical character. He was dutiful, patient, conscientious, dogmatic (i.e., inclined to lay down principles), a seeker of advice, a good listener, but also selfish, dogmatic (this time meaning opinionated and domineering), and a ruler who always settled scores. Like many leaders and diplomats of a country, he told the truth, but not necessarily all of the truth, nor all of the time.👑

Habsburg siblings: Eleanor, Isabeau, Ferdinand, Maria, and Catalina

It's impossible to overlook how Charles manipulated Joanna I, his mother. She was the Queen of Castile, inheriting the Kingdom jointly with Charles, but he made sure she was left in the dark, and he ruled Spain solo. It's possible he thought she wasn't capable of statesmanship but the ends didn't justify the means. Periodically he visited his mother but kept her secluded from the world and secretly took her treasures for himself and his sister, Catalina's dowery which is appalling!
Eleanor, Charles, and Isabeau were born and raised in the Netherlands and took lessons together, sharing a tutor.

On the other hand, as Emperor, he never demanded more sacrifice or hard work from his family than he was already doing himself. At times he pressed some of his sisters into service to govern as his trusted regents over Habsburg territories when they wanted to step down. He administered hands-on leadership over his armies and subjects. Charles rode into battles and fought alongside his troops. He motivated and spent time with the men ... once staying on his horse in full armor for 21 hours; and to the extent possible he was accessible to his many subjects, those born aristocratic and lowly in his kingdoms whenever he visited. 

A few interesting facts about Charles V on the personal side:

1) He had 4 illegitimate children -- 3 before and 1 after his marriage to Isabella of Portugal (born in 1503). Yet during his marriage, there is no record of the Emperor ever having extra-marital affairs ... rather moral considering his immense power, lots of travels, and what powerful rulers could get away with during the 16th century.

2) The Habsburgs watched each other's backs. Sometimes Emperor Charles appealed to (critics might say shamelessly exploited) his siblings' loyalty and love for him to get them to act as regents for the Habsburg dynasty. The siblings cooperated and even spent time together after Charles abdicated and went into retirement. They managed to stay cohesive and put dynasty above ego, as well as, be close in their later years. 

3) Charles attended mass daily and without fail took a week off to participate fully in Holy Week devotionals every Easter. 

4) As devout as Charles V was to Catholicism (and indeed, he was pious all his life) when the Pope crossed the line into politics by siding with Francis I of France and sent troops against him (1535 - 1536), Charles defeated those armies and took the Pope hostage! It's the reason why Henry VIII of England was not granted his annulment against his popular Queen of 25+ years, Catherine of Aragon, to marry a woman who would have faired better as his mistress. Queen Catherine of England was Charles V's maternal aunt ... and with the pope as his prisoner, Henry was not going to get his divorce. In fact, it was a term the Pope had to agree to in the peace treaty to gain his freedom.

5) Charles had an enlarged lower jaw (mandibular prognathism) a congenital deformity that got worst in later Habsburg generations due to inbreeding.

Charles' and Isabella's surviving children: Philip II of Spain, Maria, and Joanna

6) When his wife, Empress Isabella, died from a fever after childbirth in 1539, Charles was so devastated, he locked himself away in a monastery for 2 months to grieve her. He never remarried and wore black for the rest of his life.

7) I haven't gotten to the part of the book where Charles abdicated as Emperor in 1556, but I find the fact that he knew when to relinquish power interesting, as well as, admirable. Due to acute arthritis (called gout) and his declining health, Charles knew he couldn't travel and reign as effectively as before, and the burden of ruling and traveling non-stop for 40 years exhausted him. The man was tired!!

8) Realizing it was too much for one person, Charles V divided the Habsburg Empire into two parts, giving Spain, the Netherlands, and parts of Italy and America to his son, Philip II to rule ... and Austria, and the German states to his brother, Ferdinand I -- the next elected Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V's daughter, Maria, married her 1st cousin, Maximillian II, who also became the Holy Roman Emperor (= Charles' nephew and brother, Ferdinand I's son). Charles and Isabella's other surviving child, Joanna, married another 1st cousin, Prince (later King) John Manuel of Portugal. Joanna became the Regent of Spain during her brother, Philip II's absence and marriage to Queen Mary Tudor, Philip's 1st cousin. All the family intermarriages occurred for the purpose of keeping the territories in Habsburg hands, but over the generations, it also weaken the dynasty as defects in recessive genes lead to horrible birth defects including the inability to produce healthy heirs in Spain.

Photo by Alonso de Mendoza of His Majesty's bed and the room where he died.

After his public abdication in the Netherlands in October 1556, Charles V left for Spain persuading his two widowed sisters, Eleanor of France and Maria of Hungry to accompany him. He lived in lovely quarters at the Monastery of Yuste from January 1557 until September 21, 1558, dying from malaria at the age of 58 while clutching the same cross that his wife, Isabella, held in her hands when she died.

Pantheon of the Kings

Well, it's back to page 332 for me. I think reading 10 - 15 pages per sitting is about right to keep a myriad of historical details straight. Common sense and intuition tell me Charles isn't done with the Germans, French, or Turks, and none of them are done with him either. What's more, the "taming of America" is coming up in a later chapter. Oh, taming Americans, eh ... I'd like to see him try.😁 

For sure, this biography of a remarkable Emperor is a riveting read for a history buff!

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  1. Fascinating reading, Debbie. I love history, and would like to know more about Charles V. His name crops up frequently in all sorts of things I read. I really enjoyed the pictures and your clear description of all the relationships. We went to the Habsburg palace in Vienna, and I wished I knew more at the time!

    1. Oh I'd love to travel and see those historic sights too, Trish! I've never been to Austria, Spain or Belgium -- only Southern Germany. I remember how prominently Charles V was featured in my university Western Civilation class, but honetly over the years one can't quite remember what one learned. So it's great to learn "new" history ... or in my case, ''again" -- "new" again to me. :)

    2. Yes, so good to keep learning our history. G and I discuss our books during bedtime reading, as we both love history. I just bought this book on Kindle. Can't wait to start reading it.

    3. Oh Trish, once you get into the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Charles V. He could be quite ruthless, but was he more so than his contemporaries? Or more so than other men with his colossal power and beliefs in protecting both his ream and the Catholic Church? Was he just doing what he had to do to succeed and held his empire together? Was he fair? Could he have done some things differently during those times? Oh, let's discuss down the line.

    4. Well, I am into Chapter one as we speak :)