As a result of the marriage politics of his ancestors (from four different dynasties), Charles V inherited a vast and very heterogeneous territory.
Aunque se encontró con una herencia territorial inmensa, el título imperial no le llegó por herencia, sino por elección. El Sacro Imperio Romano Germánico mantenía el principio electivo en la determinación del orden sucesorio. Al morir su abuelo paterno, el emperador del Sacro Imperio, Maximiliano, se procedió a la elección imperial. Desde el año 1438 todos los emperadores habían pertenecido a la casa de Habsburgo y Carlos era el heredero de la familia.
In 1519 there were serious difficulties for his election, since he himself was not German and was not a fluent speaker of the German language. There were also other great candidates, such as Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England and Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. Francis could not raise enough money for his election, while Charles, thanks to the regularized finances of the Kingdom of Castile, was granted the loans he needed from several German and Genoese bankers.
It was in the sixteenth century when absolute monarchies appeared, setting the grounds for the modern state, when the monarch held all the power to rule, as opposed to medieval monarchies, when power was restricted by the nobility, the guilds and the cities.
However, this desired election lead to many problems for the Emperor. In Castile he had to face the Revolt of the Comuneros due to the refusal of some cities to defray the costs of the imperial election, and in Germany he had to adopt a resolution on the Lutheran dissent. Outside his territories, the old friendship with France became a rivalry that would turn into several wars. With the advice of his council, Charles V tried to reinforce the imperial title by replacing the legal bonds by a common ideal. Under this ideal, in his mandate, every part of the Empire would contribute with its own originality; although the circumstances forced him to transform the original crusade against the Turks into a dynastic project.
His European politics changed throughout the years, so we cannot speak of a single idea. Charles received an education based on humanities and religion. From a Flemish origin although cosmopolitan, he mastered up to four languages. As he expanded his territories, both by inheritance and by election, he started to grasp with his council how and to what purpose he could use the power granted to him by his land possessions, the universality and the many places he could consider as the centre of his Empire (Burgundy, Castile, Germany, Italy): the expansion of his empire (the Spanish colonization of America, North of Africa, Eastern Europe), his allies (England, Portugal) and his enemies (France, Ottoman Empire, Lutherans, Papacy).
His European vision was based on his conviction of his mission to become the political head of Christianity, a belief he developed at a continental level. He thought that as an Emperor he was responsible for Christendom in its entirety and not only a part of it, as opposed to other western European monarchs like Francis I of France or Henry VIII of England, who felt bound only to their own territories. No other monarch of Early Modern Europe felt European unity as he did, and that is why the different nations he ruled recognise his reign as part of their own history.
The imperial vision of Charles V has been explained in many different ways by modern historiography. For some scholars, the Emperor was the last representative of medieval Europe, determined to fight for the Universitas Christiana; for others, he was the last crusader defending Christian Europe from the infidels, the Turks; and last, several historians interpret the figure of the Emperor as a cosmopolitan ruler who governed a large number of nations with different cultures and customs. In this last group we can find M. Fernández Álvarez. For him, the Emperor was the most suitable monarch for sixteenth century Europe: a king who dreamt of the peace of Christianity although the circumstances forced him to make war over and over again. No doubt he was a man of his time: humanist and catholic, statesman and prominent warrior.
Charles Vs imperial idea was not approved by his main counsellors, like Adrian of Utrech, Chancellor Gattinara, Pedro Ruiz de la Mota, Antonio de Guevara and Alfonso Valdés. And of course, both the internal oppositions (Revolt of the Comuneros and Lutheran Reformation) and the external (rivalry with the Ottoman Empire and France, and ambiguous position of the Papacy), were key for the formulation of his European vision.
The foundations of his politics changed throughout the years so, instead of speaking of a single idea, we should consider several ideas influenced by his councillors, who formulated the problem in different ways. As he expanded his territories by inheritance and became an emperor, he shaped ideas on how or to what purpose he could use this immense power.
The first pro-European idea was developed by his Grand Chancellor Mercurino Arborio Gattinara (1465-1530). Gattinara was a statesman with broad political views. His humanist ideas on a Christian Republic were rooted in Dante Alighieris De Monarchia. The Chancellor aspired to establish a universal catholic monarchy, ruled by Charles V, which had to maintain its possessions and also expand them. The Emperor should not be subject to the Papacy, contemplating the defence of faith in political terms, not religious. The Emperor's great mission (with Spain in the lead) would be to achieve a European Union, of Catholics and Lutherans, to fight against Islam.
In the political realm, he encouraged Charles V to present his candidacy for the Imperial election. He maintained a hostile attitude towards France, his great enemy even advising the Emperor to divide the country, and he promoted the expansion towards Italy to obtain permanent peace.
The next formulation of Charles Vs imperial idea came from Pedro Ruiz de la Mota, a prominent statesman and bishop of Palencia. In the Cortes of La Coruña in 1520, convened to raise funds for the Holy Roman Emperor election, Charles V delivered a speech which seems to have been inspired by Ruiz de la Mota's ideas. This speech presented his imperial vision: Charles of Habsburg describes himself as king of the Romans and Emperor of the world. According to said imperial conception, Spain is the heart and centre of the Empire, and its mission is to defend the faith. Fray Antonio de Guevara held an approach very similar to the ideas of Ruiz de la Mota. This court preacher and imperial chronicler also mentioned the catholic monarchy and the defence of the faith in a speech in 1528.
Last, the contributions of the humanist Alfonso de Valdés are also important for the formulation of the imperial idea. This enthusiast of Erasmus of Rotterdam started working at Gattinara's service in 1522 and later became chancellor of Charles V.
In his writings, this humanist defended the imperial politics. His Christian ideal based on Erasmus ideas covered all aspects of life, including hierarchies and the states of society. Due to his utopic and reformative ideas, he advocated a new world that had to be ruled by an emperor and a pope. The objective of this ideal empire was the fraternity of all Christian nations ruled by one emperor.
The Papacy studied these ideas with ambiguity, and at times even allied with the enemies of the Emperor. This led to the sack of Rome in 1526. Valdés justified this as the judgement of God on the corruption of the Church hierarchy and accused the pope of not performing his duties as he should.
Charles V sent a statement to Pope Clement VII, written by Alfonso de Valdés, explaining his plan to defend the faith. This plan considered a war against the Turks, whose defeat would put pressure on Luther and his followers to become part of the Catholic Church again, or otherwise they would end in the same way. If the Pope opposed said plans, the Emperor would appeal to the judgement of an Ecumenical council, that is, of the entire Christendom. In 1528, Charles V recognised that the papacy was above the imperial figure and the Pope crowned him Emperor. After he was crowned, in an interview with the ambassador Cantarini, Charles V said that he did not aspire to become a universal monarch, but to Hispanicize Europe, in the sense of fighting the infidel as had happened in the Reconquest.
The trajectory of this imperial idea is often considered a failure, embodied in the many times he had to surrender. He had to compromise on the religious and political field with the Lutheran princes (Diet of Worms and Augsburg) and he gave some of his titles to members of his family: the Archduchy of Austria to his brother Ferdinand in 1520, and when he abdicated in Brussels in 1555-1556 the Empire to his brother Ferdinand and the Spanish kingdom (Spain, Milan, Naples, Burgundy and Flanders) to his son Phillip II.
In 1521, Emperor Charles V called the Diet of Worms aiming for reconciliation, but Luther kept his views and was condemned. Prince Frederic of Saxony kept him safe for a year, when Luther translated the Bible to German. Luther wrote to the German princes stating how the Church had to return to its primitive purity and therefore the need to seize its riches and lands. With this he obtained the support of many German princes who then kept said lands.
On the other hand, although he did conceive the imperial idea as a pan-European project at an early stage, he never achieved a consolidated continental empire. He was the king of many nations and territories that only had the Emperor and the Council of State as a common administrative institution. For the administration of the most important territories he resorted to his close family, who acted on behalf of the king and satisfied the king's orders.
The politic of Charles V encountered many limitations and obstacles, but the most important were the confrontations with other monarchs, such as Francis I of France or the Ottoman Empire, in addition to the German Lutheran princes.
The rivalry with France, a country almost completely surrounded by Charles's possessions, lasted two decades, from 1521 to 1541. In the first decade they fought for control over Milan (Italian Wars), when Charles V achieved the consolidation of his Italian domains. Once that goal had been achieved, the Emperor went after Barbarossa in the North of Africa and the Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, who was approaching Vienna. After several victories, he suffered two consecutive defeats: one in Provence in 1536, for the control over Marseille, and in 1541 the assault on Algiers, Barbarossas military headquarters. After these disasters, Charles V had to renounce to his hegemony over the western Mediterranean.
The disaster in Algiers meant, in addition to withdrawal from the Mediterranean, the deterioration of the military prestige of the Emperor and his enemies thought it would be easier to act against him. First, an uprising took place in Ghent his town of birth, which was harshly repressed, and then the last two wars in France developed without a clear advantage for either of the rivals, the last one ending in 1544 with the Treaty of Crépy. Once the wars against France were over, he tried to solve the Lutheran problem.
As for the Lutherans, his position shifted throughout the years. At first he did not want to hasten in the use of repression. His strategy was based on dialogue and he worked hard to achieve an agreement. In the Diets of Worms (1521), Spyre (1526-1529) and Augsburg (1530), he kept a conciliatory disposition that did not yield the expected results. In the early rulings of the Council of Trent, he asked the Christian princes to fight for the union of the Church, but this caused unrest among the Lutheran princes, who had joined in the Schmalkaldic League and rejected the councils rulings.
In 1546, without any active fronts, he started a war against the Lutheran princes. In 1547 he won the Battle of Mühlberg but, in spite of the harsh defeat, the Lutheran princes soon recovered. Duke Maurice of Saxony joined the Protestant forces that, at the same time, had formed an alliance with Henry II of France, Francis Is successor. Charles V was defeated at Innsbruck, where he was almost captured. This made him sign the Peace of Augsburg (1555). This treaty established that each of the German princes, almost three hundred, could choose between Catholicism and Protestantism for their territories which had to be followed also by their subjects although Catholics could continue practising their religion in Protestant states.
This treaty represented the official recognition of Protestantism embraced by almost half of the Germans while displacing the old concept of a united Christian community in Western Europe. Finally, Charles V, conscious of his failure, initiated the long process of his abdication, in favour of his brother Ferdinand, who inherited the Empire, and his son Philip, who inherited most of his possessions, including Spain.