Charles of Habsburg, born in Ghent on the 24th February 1500, was the son of Philip I of Habsburg (known as the Handsome) and Joanna I of Castile (known as Joanna the Mad), monarchs of Castile and Aragon. Philip was the son of Emperor Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy while Joanna was the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs. He had one brother Ferdinand and four sisters Eleanor, Isabella, Mary and Catherine. He married Isabella of Portugal in 1526 and had five children: Philip, Mary, Joanna, John and John. He also fathered another five illegitimate children: Isabella, Margaret, Joanna, Thadea and John known as Jeromín as a child and later as John of Austria.
As a child he showed an inclination towards politics and strategy, standing out also in his physical training. He had an innate passion for music and mastered the spinet and the flute, together with other instruments; and he was a good singer. He did not like Latin, never paid much attention to Greek and was hardly ever seen reading classical literature. Nevertheless, and due to his demanding political life (and his many travels) he was fluent in several languages (French, Spanish, Flemish and German) and could also speak some Italian and Latin.
Even as a young man, he was known for his charisma and his court could see in him a leader greater than other sixteenth century monarchs. Inculcated to be understanding, he would give his servants permission to oppose his opinions and criticize his politics and decisions. He aimed for direct contact with his adversaries, when he would strive for an atmosphere to discuss delicate issues without causing offence to anyone. In defeat he was greater than everyone else, and his good judgement would save his troops and gain him their trust and admiration. He was good-natured, courteous and attentive, winning the devotion of those who served him. Indifferent to glory, he became tired of power and started to yearn for peace before the twilight of his career. As soon as he could, but without deserting his duty, he isolated himself from the world and abdicated in favour of his son Philip II.
His physical features are widely known thanks to the portraits, both in painting like the portraits by Titian and sculpture such as those by Leone Leoni, and the descriptions of his contemporaries. The Venetian ambassador Gasparo Contarini described him in detail when he was twenty five years old:
"He is of medium height, not too tall or short, fair skin, pale rather than rubicund; his body, well proportioned, graceful legs, good arms; the nose is slightly aquiline, but not in excess; eager eyes, with a serious gaze, but not cruel nor stern; no part of his body can be accused, except the chin and his lower jaw, which is so wide and so long that does not seem natural of this body and seems false, and so it happens that, closing his mouth, he cannot join the lower and upper teeth, since they are separated by a space of the size of a tooth, and when he talks, all the more when ending the clause, stutters one or other word, which is therefore not well understood".
He lived a very interesting life from the time of his childhood, which he spent in Flanders. There, he received a typical Flemish education, away from his parents. When his father died in 1506, he inherited the Netherlands although, being a minor, the position was taken by his grandfather Maximilian who in turn appointed his daughter Margaret of Austria who was also the tutor of Charles V and his brothers as regent. When he came of age, in 1515, he was named Lord of the Netherlands.
In 1516 his maternal grandfather Ferdinand the Catholic named him Governor of Castile and Aragon in the name of his mother, deemed unfit by her illness. In 1516 he travelled to Spain to take possession of his kingdoms, landing in Tazones (Villaviciosa, Asturias). His grandfather Emperor Maximilian died in 1519, so he had to travel hastily to Germany to take part in the Imperial election. He gathered the Cortes in La Coruña to defray the costs of the election as Emperor and left Adrian of Utrecht as regent. The Castilian cities, very unhappy with how the king's Flemish officers were governing the country, opposed these new taxes and demanded the presence of the king in Castile. This led to the uprising of the communities (Comunidades), a revolt that was supressed in the Battle of Villalar (Villalar de los Comuneros, Valladolid). But in addition to the Revolt of the Comuneros, Charles V had to face the Revolt of the Brotherhoods in Valencia, where he still had not been able to pledge his oath. The popular revolts lasted until 1523. Taking advantage of the situation, Henry II of Navarre tried to reclaim his kingdom under the protection of Francis I of France. The uprising was soon supressed, although Lower Navarre was lost to France.
In 1519 he became Holy Roman Emperor, defeating Francis I. This involved a very high cost, defrayed by Castile and some German bankers, and great rivalry with Francis I of France, who from that moment onwards became his greatest enemy. Between 1521 and 1544 he held four wars against France to retake Burgundy. France also aimed to control the Duchy of Milan, under the Emperor's control. In the first two (the Italian Wars) the Emperor achieved a clear advantage, with important battles such as the Battle of Pavia (1525), where Francis I was captured, and the Sack of Rome (1527). In the last two wars, the result was more even. It is also important to mention the 1537 Revolt of Ghent, the Emperor's home town, when the city refused to pay the taxes that were used to pay for the war; a revolt that was severely suppressed. In 1544, the exhausted contenders signed the Treaty of Crépy: Spain lost the territories in the north of France and France lost Italy and the Netherlands.
He also held wars against north-African pirates and the Turks over the control of the Mediterranean. In 1516, the pirate Aruj Barbarossa expelled the Spanish from Algiers. The Spanish governor of Oran defeated and killed Barbarossa in Tlemcen but his brother Hayreddin also called Barbarossa became king of Algiers. The Emperor tried to retake this city but was defeated by Barbarossa in 1532. That same year he travelled to Vienna to help his brother Ferdinand, besieged in the Austrian capital by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who was forced to withdraw from the city. Barbarossa and the Turkish Sultan became allies and Suleiman appointed him admiral of the navy, conquering Tunis in 1534.
This city was retaken by the Emperor in 1535, but he failed in retaking Algiers in 1441 due to a storm that destroyed part of his fleet. The Algiers debacle undermined his military prestige, and forced him to concede the control over the western Mediterranean, settling for a relative peace with the Turkish Navy, who regularly raided the Spanish and Italian Mediterranean coast.
The first half of the sixteenth century saw a major religious crisis, which lead to the schism of western Christianity between Catholics and Protestants. Initiated by the German monk Martin Luther, this schism began in the centre of the Empire and challenged the Emperor, who believed he was the leader of Christendom and had to defend the faith from the unfaithful. Luther rose against the Papacy in 1514 for many reasons, although the trigger was the sale of indulgencies to pay for the construction of the Vatican. Due to the new doctrines he formulated, the Pope excommunicated Luther in 1520, and the monk was forced to separate definitively from the Catholic Church.
With the progress of Luther's doctrines, the Emperor summoned in 1521 the Diet of Worms, where Luther was condemned. Nevertheless, his doctrines soon found new followers among the German princes, since Luther believed that the Church had to get rid of its land possessions. In 1529, at the Diet of Speyer, the Emperor tried a conciliatory line towards Lutherans, accepting a Lutheran Church in those regions where it was already established, but it could not extend to other regions of the Empire. This decision was not approved by Lutheran princes, who from then onwards were called protestants. At the Diet of Augsburg, in 1530, the Emperor tried to attract Lutherans to Catholicism by conciliation, although he failed.
In 1531 the Lutherans created a political party, called the Schmalkaldic League, which had its own army and joint finances. Trying to solve the Protestant problem, and acknowledging the need for reform, the Pope and the Emperor convened the Council of Trent. The initial objective of the Council was to ask the Christian princes to fight for the union of the Church. The Lutheran princes refused to accept the Council, which led to the 1546 war. In 1547, the Lutherans were defeated in the Battle of Mühlberg, although they regrouped and formed an alliance with Henry II of France, almost taking the Emperor prisoner at Innsbruck in 1552. The war ended in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg. The Emperor gave religious freedom to the Lutheran princes, recognizing the ownership of the lands that had been secularized from the Church, but he prohibited new secularizations and Catholicism could still be practised in Protestant states.
The Emperor did not achieve a universal empire, failed to retake Burgundy and could not prevent the consolidation of Lutheranism. But he consolidated the Spanish control over Italy, and Castile conquered and colonised many American territories.
The Emperor, sick and prematurely aged due to his eventful life and unhealthy eating habits, abdicated in Brussels. The process took place between 1555 and 1556, leaving Spain and its possessions to his son Philip and the Empire to his brother Ferdinand. In 1557 Charles landed in Laredo (Cantabria) to travel to his definitive retreat in the Monastery of Yuste (Cuacos de Yuste, Extremadura).
Charles of Habsburg died at the Monastery of Yuste on the 21st September 1558. He was 58 years old.