Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Charles V—Holy Roman Emperor

The sixteenth century was an age of splendid monarchs, who vied with each other in the luxury of their courts, the chivalry of their bearing, and the extent of their possessions.

Francis I was a patron of the New Learning, the pride of France, ever devoted to a monarch with some dash of the heroic in his composition. He was dark and handsome, and excelled in the tournaments, where he tried to recapture the romance of the Middle Ages by his knightly equipment and gallant feats of arms.

Henry VIII, the King of England, was eager to spend the wealth he had inherited on the glittering pageants which made the people forget the tyranny of the Tudor monarchs. He was four years the senior of Francis, but still under thirty when Charles the Fifth succeeded, in 1516, to the wide realms of the Spanish Crown.

This king was likely to eclipse the pleasure-loving rivals of France and England, for he had vast power in Europe through inheritance of the great possessions of his house. Castile and Aragon came to Charles through his mother, Joanna, who was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Naples and Sicily went with Aragon, though, as a matter of fact, they had been appropriated in violation of a treaty. The Low Countries were part of the dominions of Charles' grandmother, Mary of Burgundy, who had married Philip, the Archduke of Austria. When Maximilian of Austria died in 1519, he desired that his grandson should succeed not only to his dominions in Europe, but also to the proud title of Holy Roman Emperor, which was not hereditary. With the treasures of the New World at his disposal, through the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, Charles V had little doubt that he could obtain anything he coveted.

It was soon evident that Charles' claim to the Empire would be disputed by Francis I, who declared, "An he spent three millions of gold he would be Emperor." The French King had a fine army, and money enough to bribe the German princes, in whose hands the power of "electing" lay. Francis' ambassadors travelled from one to another with a train of horses, heavily laden with sumptuous offerings, but these found it quite impossible to bribe Frederick the Wise of Saxony.

Charles did not scruple to use bribery, and he hoped to win Henry of England by flattery and by appealing to him as a kinsman; for his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, was Henry's Queen at that time. The Tudor King had boldly taken for his motto, "Whom I defend is master," but he had secret designs on the Imperial throne himself, and thought either Francis I or Charles V would become far too powerful in Europe if the German electors appointed one of them.

The Pope entered into the struggle because he knew that Charles of Spain would be likely to destroy the peace of Italy by demanding the Duchy of Milan, which was then under French rule. He gave secret advice, therefore, to the German electors to choose one of their own number, and induced them to offer the Imperial rank to Frederick the Wise of Saxony. This prince did not feel strong enough to beat off the attacks of Selim, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, then threatening the land of Hungary. He refused to become Emperor and suggested that the natural resistance to the East should come from Austria.

Charles, undoubtedly, had Spanish gold that would assist him in this struggle. In 1519 he was invested with the imperial crown and began to dream of further conquests. A quarrel with France followed, both sides having grievances that made friendship impossible at that period. Charles had offended Francis I by promising to aid d'Albert of Navarre to regain his kingdom. He also wished to claim the Duchy of Milan as the Pope had predicted, and was indignant that Burgundy, which had been filched from his grandmother by Louis XI, had never been restored to his family.

Francis renewed an ancient struggle in reclaiming Naples. He was determined not to yield to imperial pride, and sought every means of conciliating Henry VIII of England, who seemed eager to assert himself in Europe. The two monarchs met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1513 and made a great display of friendship. They were both skilled horsemen and showed to advantage in a tournament, having youth and some pretensions to manly beauty in their favour. The meeting between them was costly and did not result as Francis had anticipated, since Charles V had been recently winning a new ally in the person of Cardinal Wolsey, the chief adviser of the young King of England.

Wolsey was ambitious and longed for the supreme honour of the Catholic Church. He believed that he might possibly attain this through the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. He commended Charles to his master, and in the end gained for him an Austrian alliance. There was even some talk of a marriage between the Emperor and the little Princess Mary.

A treaty with the Pope made Charles V more sanguine of success than ever. Leo X belonged to the family of the Medici and hoped to restore the ancient prestige of that house. He was overjoyed to receive Parma and Placentia as a result of his friendship with the ambitious Emperor, and now agreed to the expulsion of the French from Milan on condition that Naples paid a higher tribute to the Papal See.

These arrangements were concluded without reference to Chievres, the Flemish councillor, whose influence with Charles had once been paramount. Henceforward, the Emperor ruled his scattered empire, relying only upon his own strength and capability. He naturally met with disaffection among his subjects, for the Spaniards were jealous of his preference for the Netherlands, where he had been educated, and the people of Germany resented his long sojourn in Spain, thinking that they were thereby neglected. It would have been impossible for Charles to have led a more active life or to have striven more courageously to retain his hold over far distant countries. He was constantly travelling to the different parts of his empire, and made eleven sea-voyages during his reign—an admirable record in days when voyages were comparatively dangerous.

Charles changed his motto from Nondum to Plus ultra as he proceeded to send fleets across the ocean that the banner of Castile might float proudly on the distant shores of the Pacific. But the war with France was the real interest of the Emperor's life and he pursued it vigorously, obtaining supplies from the Spanish Cortes or legislative authority of Spain. He gained the sympathy of that nation during his residence at Madrid from 1522-9 and pacified the rebellious spirit of the Communes which administered local affairs. His marriage with Isabella of Portugal proved, too, that he would maintain the traditions of the Spanish monarchy.

In 1521 the French were driven from the Duchy of Milan and in 1522 they were compelled to retire from Italy. In the following year the Constable of Bourbon deserted Francis to espouse the Emperor's cause, because he had received many insults from court favourites. He had been removed from the government of Milan, and was fond of quoting the words of an old Gascon knight first spoken in the reign of Charles VII: "Not three kingdoms like yours could make me forsake you, but one insult might."

Bourbon was rebuked for his faithlessness to his King at the battle of La Biagrasse where Bayard, that perfect knight, sans peur et sans reproche, fell with so many other French nobles. The Constable had compassion on the wounded man as he lay at the foot of a tree with his face still turned to the enemy. "Sir, you need have no pity for me," the knight answered bravely, "for I die an honest man; but I have pity on you, seeing you serve against your prince, your country, and your oath."

Bourbon may have blushed at the rebuke, but he took the field gallantly at Pavia on behalf of the Emperor. Francis I had invaded Italy and occupied Milan, but he was not quick to follow up his success and met defeat at the hands of his vassal on February 24th, 1525, which was Charles V's twenty-fifth birthday. The flower of France fell on the battle-field, while the King himself was taken prisoner. He would not give up his sword to the traitor Bourbon, but continued to fight on foot after his horse had been shot under him. He proved that he was as punctilious a knight as Bayard, and wrote to his mother on the evening of this battle, "All is lost but honour."

The Emperor's army now had both France and Italy at their mercy. Bourbon decided to march on Rome, to the joy of his needy, avaricious soldiers. He took the ancient capital where the riches of centuries had accumulated; both Spaniards and Germans rioted on its treasures without restraint. They spared neither church nor palace, but defiled the most sacred places. The very ring was removed from the hand of Pope Julius as he lay within his tomb. Clement VII, the reigning Pope, was too feeble and vacillating to save himself, though it would have been quite possible. He was made a prisoner of war, for political motives inspired the Emperor to demand a heavy ransom.

The Ladies' Peace concluded the long war between Charles V and Francis I. It was so called because it was arranged through Louise, the French King's mother, and Margaret, the aunt who had taken charge of the Emperor in his childhood. These two ladies occupied adjoining houses in the town of Cambrai, and held consultations at any hour in the narrow passage between the two dwellings. The peace, finally drawn up in August 1529, was very shameful to Francis I, since he agreed to desert all his partisans in Italy and the Netherlands. He had purchased his own freedom by the treaty of Madrid in 1526.

In 1530, the Emperor, who had made a separate treaty with the Italian states, received the crown of Lombardy and crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the hands of the Pope at Bologna. On this occasion he was invested with a mantle studded with jewels and some ancient sandals. Ill-health and increasing melancholy clouded his delight in these honours. His aquiline features and dark colouring had formerly given him some claim to beauty, but now the heavy "Hapsburg" jaw began to show the settled obstinacy of a narrow nature. The iron crown of Italy weighed on him heavily, for he was stricken by remorse that he had disregarded the entreaties of the Pope for the rescue of the Knights of St John, whose settlement of Rhodes had been attacked by the Turkish infidels. He gave them Malta in order that he might appease his conscience. Religion claimed much of his attention after the long conflict with France was ended.

Heresy was spreading in Germany, where Luther gained a vast number of adherents. Charles issued an edict against the monk, but there was national resistance for him to face as a consequence. In 1530 he renewed the Edict of Worms and was opposed by a League of Protestant princes, who applied for help from England, France, and Denmark against the oppressive Emperor. He would have set himself to crush them if his dominions had not been menaced by Soliman the Magnificent, a Turkish Sultan with an immense army. He was obliged to secure the co-operation of the Protestants against the Turks that he might drive the latter from his eastern frontier.

Italians, Flemings, Hungarians, Bohemians, and Burgundians fought side by side with the German troops and drove the invader back to his own territory. When this danger was averted, France suddenly attacked Savoy, and the Emperor found that he must postpone his struggle with the Lutherans. A joint invasion of France by Charles V and Henry VIII of England forced Francis to conclude humiliating peace at Crespy 1544. Three years later the death of the French King left his adversary free to crush the religious liberty of his German subjects.

The Emperor, who had declared himself on the side of the Papacy in 1521, now united with the Pope and Charles' brother Ferdinand, who had been given the government of all the Austrian lands. All three were determined to compel Germany to return to the old faith and the old subjection to the Empire. Their resolve seemed to be fulfilled when Maurice, Duke of Saxony, betrayed the Protestant cause, the allies of the German princes proved faithless, and the Elector of Saxony and the Landgrave of Hesse were taken prisoners at Muhlberg in April 1547.

The star of Austria was still in the ascendant, and Charles V could still quote his favourite phrase, "Myself and the lucky moment." He put Maurice in the place of the venerable Elector of Saxony, who had refused long ago to take a bribe, and let the Landgrave of Hesse lie in prison. He imagined that he had Germany at his feet, and exulted over the defenders of her freedom. There had been a faint hope in their hearts once that the Emperor would champion Luther's cause from political interest, but he did not need a weapon against the Pope since the Holy See was entirely subservient to his wishes. Bigotry, inherited from Spanish ancestors, showed itself in the Emperor now. In Spain and the Netherlands he used the terrible Inquisition to stamp out heresy. The Grand Inquisitors, who charged themselves with the religious welfare of these countries, claimed control over lay and clerical subjects in the name of their ruler.

Maurice was unscrupulous and intrigued with Henry II of France against the Emperor, who professed himself the Protector of the Princes of the Empire. A formidable army was raised, which took Charles at a disadvantage and drove him from Germany. The Peace of Augsburg, 1555, formally established Protestantism over a great part of the empire.

The Emperor felt uneasily that the star of the House of Austria was setting. After his failure to crush the heretics, he was troubled by ill-health and the gloomy spirit which he inherited from his mother Joanna. He was weary of travelling from one part of his dominions to another, and knew that he could never win more fame and riches than he had enjoyed. His son Philip was old enough to reign in his stead if he decided to cede the sovereignty. The old Roman Catholic faith drew him apart from the noise and strife of the world by its promise of rest and all the solaces of retirement.

In 1555 the Emperor held the solemn ceremony of abdication at Brussels, for he paid especial honour to his subjects of the Netherlands. He sat in a chair of state surrounded by a splendid retinue and recounted the famous deeds of his administration with a natural pride, dwelling on the hardships of constant journeying because he had been unwilling to trust the affairs of government to any other. Turning to Philip he bade him hold the laws of his country sacred and to maintain the Catholic faith in all its purity. As he spoke, all his hearers melted into tears, for the people of the Netherlands owed much gratitude to their ruler. And the ceremony which attended the transference of the Spanish crown to Philip was no less moving. Charles had chosen the monastery of San Yuste as his last dwelling on account of its warm, dry climate. After a tender farewell to his family he set out there in some state, many attendants going into retreat with him. Yuste was a pleasant peaceful village near the Spanish city of Plasencia. Deep silence brooded over it, and was only broken by the bells of the convent the Emperor was entering. He found that a building had been erected for his "palace" in a garden planted with orange trees and myrtles. This was sumptuously furnished according to the monks' ideas, for Charles did not intend to adopt the simplicity of these brothers of St Jerome. Velvet canopies, rich tapestries, and Turkey carpets had been brought for the rooms which were prepared for a royal inmate. The walls of the Emperor's bedchamber were hung in black in token of his deep mourning for his mother, but many pictures from the brush of Titian were hung in that apartment. As Charles lay in bed he could see the famous "Gloria," which represented the emperor and empress of a bygone age in the midst of a throng of angels. He could also join in the chants of the monks without rising, if he were suffering from gout, for a window opened directly from his room into the chapel of the monastery. Sixty attendants were still in the service of the recluse, and those in the culinary office found it hard to satisfy the appetite of a monarch who, if he had given up his throne, had not by any means renounced the pleasures of the table.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


A Keeper of the Wardrobe had been brought to Yuste, although Charles was plain in his attire and had somewhat disdained the personal vanity of his great rivals. He was parsimonious in such matters and hated to see good clothes spoilt, as he showed when he removed a new velvet cap in a sudden storm and sent to his palace for an old one! He observed fast-days, though he did not dine with the monks, and he lived the regular life of the monastery. The monks grew restive under the constant supervision which he exercised, and one of them is said to have remonstrated with the royal inmate, saying, "Cannot you be contented with having so long turned the world upside down, without coming here to disturb the quiet of a convent?"

Charles amused many hours of leisure by mechanical employments in which he was assisted by one Torriano, who constructed a sundial in the convent-garden. He had a great fancy for clocks, and had a number of these in his royal apartments. The special triumphs of Torriano were some tin soldiers, so constructed that they could go through military exercises, and little wooden birds which flew in and out of the window and excited the admiring wonder of the monks walking in the convent garden.

Many visitors were received by the Emperor in his retirement. He still took an interest in the events of Europe, and received with the deepest sorrow the news that Calais had been lost by Philip's English wife. He was always ready to give his successor advice, and became more and more intolerant in religious questions. "Tell the Grand Inquisitor from me," he wrote, "to be at his post and lay the axe to the root of the tree before it spreads further. I rely on your zeal for bringing the guilty to punishment and for having them punished without favour to anyone, with all the severity which their crimes demand." After this impressive exhortation to Philip, he added a codicil to his will, conjuring him earnestly to bring to justice every heretic in his dominions.