The Mad Stroke of Fortune That Was Charles V’s Inheritance

How multiple randoms deaths caused one man to end up ruling roughly half of Europe and a bunch of colonies in the Americas — and how Ferdinand of Austria deserves a shout-out.

Laura / L.E. van Altfeldt
May 25 · 12 min read
Peter Paul Rubens made this striking allegory on Emperor Charles V as ruler of vast realms

In the sixteenth century, people shared a common belief that Fortune was a force to be reckoned with, as you could win or lose its favour at a random turn of events. This was perfectly compatible with their Christian beliefs, and it made for an interesting comparison between thanking Fortune and recognising one’s debt to it versus whatever God was to be thanked and owed for. Usually these two things went hand-in-hand. Providence, Divine or otherwise, was as mighty as Atlas carrying the celestial heavens on his shoulders.

Emperor Charles V, the human embodiment of ‘Caesar’s Luck’ in many respects. Caesar’s Luck was to a greater or lesser extent the belief that emperors were especially in Fortune’s favour — separate from Divine favour which they already had purely because God anointed them to be in their exceptional position to begin with. For Charles of Ghent ‘who thinks he is emperor’, as a rebellious German Elector and Landgrave used to call him in their correspondence, this started in a not so common childhood.

Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, and What Was Left of the Burgundian Possessions

His mother was Juana (know to history as Juana or Joanna the Mad), daughter of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. His father was Philip (the Handsome) of Habsburg, son of Emperor Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy. Mary was the heiress to (among others) the Low Countries and the Duchy of Burgundy, though the latter was annexed by France when she was still a little girl after her father had been killed in battle. She was one of the most sought after bachelorettes in (Western) Europe at the time because of her great inheritance, and Maximilian would later tell his grandson Charles of his knightly quest for her hand with all the undertakings he had to commit by himself to get there.

Maximilian himself was of the house of Habsburg, which had possessions in Austria and had through wealth and tactical marriages managed to buy itself into consistent election for the office of Holy Roman Emperor — a remnant from the Middle Ages. Though Maximilian and Mary would have only two children as Mary died young after being thrown from a horse with the horse falling on top of her in a ditch, which broke her back and caused her much agony, these two children would go on to change the face of Europe through son Philip’s children and daughter Margaret’s strong personality and ways of raising her nieces and nephew. (The children born in the Low Countries — Ferdinand and Catalina were born in Spain.)

Emperor Maximilian with some of his family members. This includes his wife Mary of Burgundy on the right, their son Philip behind her, grandson Charles in the middle and grandson Ferdinand holding onto Maximilian’s arm, and their grandson-in-law Louis of Hungary (married to granddaughter Marie). Maximilian, his son, and both grandsons all show the prominent Habsburg lip/jaw for which their dynasty would later be known

The Habsburg Union with Spain

This brings us to Philip and Juana’s marriage. Juana was not an eldest daughter, nor would she have otherwise been heir to the crowns of Aragon and Castile. She had an older brother, who simultaneously with her marriage to Philip had married Maximilian and Mary’s daughter Margaret. Maximilian and Mary’s heir would marry into the united Spanish crown as Isabella and Ferdinand’s heir would marry into the houses of Burgundy and Habsburg. There was no reason to suspect that this wouldn’t work out, as all children were legal adults and similar in age. Not only that, but most had the fortune of being smitten with their spouse. For Juana, Margaret, and John, their marriages were love matches as well as political ones. Only Philip seemed to have had some trouble staying faithful to his wife, but this did not impede their ability to have children. For Margaret, a tragic figure in her own right, her marriage would end in heartbreak. Though her husband John (Juan) was much in love with her and she adored him in return, their union did not last.

Ferdinand and Isabella at the time of their marriage

Scarcely a year into the marriage, John would die (presumably of tuberculosis) in 1497, and Margaret gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Ferdinand and Isabella had lost their heir, and Isabella was reportedly so shattered by the loss of her only son that she kept his dog with her for the rest of her days. They still had another daughter older than Juana. This daughter would have a son in 1498, but bad luck would strike once again for the both of them, and this eldest daughter (also named Isabella) would die before Charles was born to Juana and Philip. Her son would die at almost two years of age in 1500, a month shy of half a year after Charles’s birth. It so happened that this little boy, if he’d lived, would have united the Iberian peninsula as he was also heir to the crown of Portugal long before Charles’s son Philip II would press his claim later in the century.

Charles Becomes Heir Through Both of His Parents

After baby Miguel’s death, the mentally unstable Juana was left as her parents’ heir. At this point, she’d had two children, and four more would follow. All would live to adulthood, and two of these were boys. After the death of her mother in 1504, she and her husband Philip would become king and queen of Castile. The issue was that this forced them to travel to Spain, leaving their four eldest children in the care of Philip’s sister Margaret after her second and last husband had died that same year. Her nephew Charles was now not only second in line to his grandfather’s Austrian possessions and his father’s Burgundian Netherlands, as well as presumed to get elected Holy Roman Emperor after his father would become one, but he was also heir to the throne of Castile. At this time, he was only four years of age. This would be the last time he’d ever see his father.

His two siblings that were born in Spain after his parents left he would not meet until he was an older teenager. This included his brother, who was taken under the wing of his grandfather and namesake Ferdinand II of Aragon for a time after Philip died in 1506. Ferdinand was the one who took control of Castile in his daughter’s name. Juana was ever the respectful child, and neither challenged her father’s authority nor would she challenge her son later claiming the kingdom of Spain in her name. If she had, Charles would not have been able to rule Spain for most of his life. (In theory, they ruled jointly for all but the last year of Charles’s reign in Spain.) His mother died in the year 1555, the same year Charles would have his public abdication ceremony where he gave the Low Countries to his heir, following later with lands in Italy and the crown of Spain (1556), leaving his brother as the new emperor and with the family’s lands in Austria.

Emperor Charles V by Titian

The Empire

That conveniently takes us to the question of the Holy Roman Empire. The title of Holy Roman Emperor could not be inherited. Emperors were elected by German princes, but the Electors weren’t commonly above being persuaded to vote for someone. The way this would usually work was that the current emperor would use monetary or otherwise lavish gifts in combination with his own influence to scheme and ensure that his chosen heir (usually the emperor’s own eldest son) would be elected King of the Romans — a title which would become vacant once the previous King of the Romans was crowned by the pope. However, there had been an oversight: Emperor Maximilian I had been permitted to call himself emperor, but he had never been crowned.

To rectify this, which gained a sense of urgency after his son Philip’s death in 1506, Maximilian aimed to have the pope crown him so that he could ensure grandson Charles would be elected King of the Romans. Charles, conveniently born on 24 February 1500 to make his age almost perfectly in sync with whatever year we happen to discuss, was only a six-year-old boy at the time of his father’s death. Maximilian now involved himself in his heir’s upbringing, particularly considering that his other grandson Ferdinand was being raised in Spain, far from his general sphere of influence. Maximilian aimed to make Charles a Burgundian knight as well as a son of his Austrian side of the family. This made Maximilian instil in his grandson a sense of chivalry and importance of learning the languages of the lands he would rule over.

Maximilian was very particular about his grandson being a new son of sorts to him, and he had some arguments with his daughter Margaret as to his grandchildren’s upbringing through their correspondence. Still, with political squabbling throughout the Empire never ceasing and when it calmed down enough to permit Maximilian to visit his grandchildren, on occasion hunting with little Charles and once showing him a good joust in Brussels’s famous market square, he never had the opportunity to meet with the pope and be crowned. In January 1519, when Charles was almost nineteen, he died without being able to secure Charles’s election. This, however, had been preceded by Ferdinand II’s death in January 1516, making an almost sixteen-year-old Charles the king of all of Spain, as well as already being Lord of the Netherlands.

Lord of All

Now Charles had to somehow tear himself in two to please his subjects in both the Low Countries and Spain. The issue of his status as a foreigner in Spain would be the first problem of his inheritance there. Spain knew his little brother Ferdinand, who spoke the language after all and had been raised by the king of Aragon. Charles on the other hand spoke French and could as of his arrival not speak a lot of Spanish. Though he did learn languages relatively swiftly, the Revolt of the Comuneros was a big hit to Charles’s reputation until it at last was crushed after at least a whole year of fighting.

In the 19th century, Antonio Gisbert painted this portrait of the execution of the ‘Comuneros of Castille’

After Charles left the Netherlands, his subjects asked that his little brother Ferdinand be send to the Netherlands in Charles’s absence. His Spanish subjects, some of whom had tried to give Ferdinand significant power, were reluctant to see him go. Charles determined that it was better to have Ferdinand leave the country so that his authority would remain unchallenged. Ferdinand had been lead to believe that he would have some power to rule, rights which Charles did not dispute. (They’d been named joint heirs in their father’s testament.) He did however want to keep Spain and the Low Countries for himself, so therefore their massive inheritance would be split amongst them in a different way:

Ferdinand would get their Austrian lands, and once there he would marry the daughter of a Hungarian king and his sister Marie (who was raised with Charles) would marry her brother, who would be king of Hungary. This way, Ferdinand could expand the family’s influence in Austria, and Charles also promised that once he was crowned emperor, he would strive to have Ferdinand chosen as King of the Romans. Now, Ferdinand was in every way Charles’s heir, since Charles was not yet married and thus had no legitimate offspring. The money which had to be raised in taxes not only to fund Charles’s wars, travels, and other family expenses but also to fund his bribes to have himself elected to become the emperor in the first place would serve to aggravate subjects across Spain throughout his rule. (Through Ferdinand II of Aragon, the brothers also had some inheritance in the Italian Peninsula, which prominently featured the Kingdom of Naples. Later, Ferdinand of Austria would believe that he would rule over family possessions in Italy, which he essentially never received.)

With Spain united, lands in Hungary and Austria for Ferdinand, the Low Countries still together as one (Charles even expanded his lands there by beating the duke of Guelders and asserting his authority in Frisia/Friesland), the Holy Roman Empire, some possessions in North Africa, and with expeditions through the Americas, the Habsburg family under Charles was one of the most powerful dynasties in the world. Perhaps the Ming dynasty at the height of its strength would have been more impressive, but Charles’s authority was of such prominence that it was forever challenged. Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire resented Charles’s title of ‘Caesar’, propping himself up as the heir to Alexander the Great to counter Charles’s claim to be the heir to Julius Caesar (as well following his grandfathers in terms of wanting to mount a crusade). Francis I of France was his rival ever since both struggled to be elected emperor (though Charles was a favourite since the Electors were not keen on electing a Frenchman), which continued due to the fact that the balance of power in Europe was tipping towards Charles.

This is where gaining the allegiance of the pope and Henry VIII of England were indispensable to both Charles and Francis, and Charles would keep grudges against each an every perceived betrayal. He particularly hated it when Francis and the pope would twist situations to get away with, as he stated, making promises they would not keep. Both were fond of saying they had made promises under pressure. Charles had at one point had Francis in captivity, and later Francis’s two eldest sons. Francis declared that his promises were worthless under that sort of circumstances. Charles had also once had pope Clement VII in captivity after his mercenary troops had gotten out of control and sacked Rome in 1527.

Clement cited similar reasons to King Francis I as to why he could not keep his promises to the emperor. And naturally, Charles himself was also keen to make ridiculous proposals which no ruler in his right mind could accept, such as when he wanted to marry his eldest daughter to Francis’s youngest son and give her the Low Countries as her dowry if Francis would leave Savoy and stop pressing his claim to Milan. This would have created a powerbase to the north of France which could rival the kingdom as the duchy of Burgundy had once done — the very duchy Charles wanted to claim for himself, and the duke that had wanted to create Burgundy into a kingdom was Charles’s great-grandfather whose name he shared, namely Charles the Bold.

Charles the Bold of Burgundy by Rogier van der Weyden

The Emperor’s End and Legacy Left for Son Philip

All in all, Charles would hardly ever relinquish a claim. As was custom for his century, failing to follow through on the most obscure claims one could make to inheritance would bring shame upon a person, even more so when failing to press a claim or surrendering one when the reward wasn’t high enough. This in and of itself caused quite a bit of warring between Charles and Francis, purely based on Savoy (Charles’s allies and sometimes family members due to the Habsburgs marital policies), the duchy of Milan, and as always Burgundy.

When Charles had grown old and had retired to his favourite monastery at Yuste (where he later died), when his son Philip II fought in France and had won his greatest victory at St. Quentin, Charles’s first question was, ‘Is Philip in Paris?’ Even though his son had gotten further into French territory than Charles had ever managed, the only thing on the old former-emperor’s mind was his never ceasing rivalry with Francis — even when Francis was dead and his second son Henry now ruled, the same son that had been in humiliating captivity under Charles and had been left with a hatred for Spain to make up for that fact.

In the end, Charles’s son Philip would only get his line of direct inheritance as far as a great-grandson. Where Charles was named after his great-grandfather Charles the Bold of Burgundy and would end up with one of the largest empires Europe had seen in centuries, Charles’s line would end with Charles II of Spain, famously infertile and mentally unstable, and Charles II’s death would result in the Bourbon dynasty of France getting the Spanish throne. Unfortunately for Francis and his son Henry, the Bourbons were their bitter rivals for many reasons, not in the least of which due to the first Bourbon king of France’s Protestantism.

Perhaps in an odd way, the continuation of the Austrian Habsburg line into the royal families of Europe in the present day was Ferdinand of Austria’s reward for his unceasing loyalty for the brother who was reluctant to stop pressing his claims in both his and Philip (II of Spain)’s name. When Ferdinand had done everything for him, Charles still wanted his own son Philip to become Ferdinand’s successor in the Empire. Ferdinand eventually won that argument, just as his line won the battle of supremacy between the two Habsburg lines.

A posthumous portrait of Emperor Charles V by Anthony van Dyck

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Laura / L.E. van Altfeldt

Written by

🇳🇱 | Stuck in the sixteenth century, I write of history and occasionally sprinkle life with a little fantasy.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Laura / L.E. van Altfeldt

Written by

🇳🇱 | Stuck in the sixteenth century, I write of history and occasionally sprinkle life with a little fantasy.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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