Emperor: A New Life of Charles V 
by Geoffrey Parker.
Yale, 760 pp., £25, May 2019, 978 0 300 19652 8
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In late​ 1555 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the house of Habsburg, returned to the Low Countries, where he was born: there, he began the long, slow process by which he abdicated in favour of his son Philip and brother Ferdinand. It was abundantly clear why such a transfer of power was necessary. It was a cold winter and Charles, white-haired, with shrunken gums exposing blackened teeth, his joints so crippled by gout that he was unable to sign documents with his bandaged hands, was exhausted, infirm and, in his mid-fifties, prematurely aged. The act of renouncing power seemed to bring relief. The following March, he told a Venetian ambassador that he felt better. Many people, he told the ambassador, had said that ‘I wished to make myself monarch of the world,’ but such a thought, ‘I assure you, never came into my mind’.

Detail from ‘Charles V at Mühlberg’ (1548) by Titian.

Detail from ‘Charles V at Mühlberg’ (1548) by Titian.

Charles protested too much. Over the preceding four decades, he had attained power on a scale unparalleled in medieval Europe, ruling an area covering modern-day Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, half of Italy, most of the Czech Republic and a slice of Hungary. His ascendancy also coincided with the dawn of a new age: of religious tumult, reformation and counter-reformation; and of colonialism, with Spanish adventurers massacring and pillaging their way through Mexico, Peru and the Caribbean islands in the name of God and Charles, in the process creating the first transatlantic empire. Charles, as his imperial motto had it, was ruler ‘a solis ortu ad occasum’: from the rising to the setting of the sun.

Born in the Flemish city of Ghent in 1500, Charles was the oldest son of the glamorous Philip, duke of Burgundy, and Joanna of Castile, the oldest daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and the sister of Catherine of Aragon. Imperial ambition ran in Charles’s veins. His Habsburg grandfather, Maximilian I, was ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, an agglomeration of lands that at its peak had stretched from the Baltic Sea to Sicily. The marriage of Charles’s maternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella – the ‘Catholic Kings’ – had effectively unified Christian Spain. After completing the Spanish reconquest in 1492, the pair set about expelling Jews and Muslims with an unbending, Inquisition-fuelled fervour.

When Charles was six, his father died during a trip to Spain to lay claim to his wife’s inheritance. Thereafter, the boy’s upbringing and outlook were shaped by his Habsburg family: his paternal grandfather, Maximilian, and his aunt Margaret of Austria, who was Charles’s guardian and – until he reached his majority – governor of the Netherlands. While Charles showed little enthusiasm or aptitude for formal learning, the materials for his princely education were all around him, in the aggrandising, expansionist values of the Habsburgs, filtered through the chivalric ethos of the Burgundian court. Maximilian’s own conquests had been fuelled by the old dream of a universal monarchy – Habsburg, naturally – that would span all of Christendom. The immediate obstacle to the realisation of this quixotic vision was the Habsburgs’ loathed neighbour and rival for European supremacy, France. The young Charles was quickly dragged into the three-cornered diplomatic dance that had shaped the politics of northwestern Europe for generations. Aged eight, he was betrothed to Mary, daughter of Henry VII of England, France’s other old enemy. (Like so much in the wavering alliance between England and Burgundy over the centuries, this planned marriage eventually ran into the sand.)

By the age of 19, Charles had come into his inheritance. Co-ruler of Spain with his mother, he was also Holy Roman Emperor: Maximilian had, before his death, wangled his grandson’s election to this semi-divine office by the expedient of huge bribes to the various ‘electors’. To many observers, however, the young emperor seemed to possess neither the physical nor the mental attributes necessary for such an exalted role. He displayed signs of physical weakness, and even compliant courtiers struggled to portray him in a flattering light. Dilating on his blond hair and beautiful blue eyes, they passed over Charles’s prognathism: the pronounced lower ‘Habsburg jaw’ which was so out of alignment that his teeth couldn’t meet, with the result that he slurred his words and couldn’t chew his food properly. One Venetian ambassador described the effect with brutal honesty: ‘his mouth is always open, which makes him look very unbecoming.’ Others thought he seemed passive, ‘bossed around’ by corrupt advisers; to one English representative, he was ‘but an idiot’. Yet Charles would prove them all wrong.

This apparently ordinary teenager faced extraordinary challenges. He was the junior of the ‘three young puissant princes’ who swaggered across the European stage, trailing clouds of martial glory. But whereas Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France inherited the kingdoms they had been born in, Charles knew next to nothing about his new dominions. Arriving in Spain for the first time in 1517 to take up the crowns of Castile and Aragon, the teenage king was ignorant of the country, the people and the language; besides which, his councillors were fighting among themselves and Castile was on the brink of popular revolt. And Spain was only one of his problems.

As if governing these disparate lands, with their markedly different systems of government, societies, cultures and languages, wasn’t challenging enough, in an age in which, as Fernand Braudel put it, ‘distance was public enemy number one,’ Charles had other difficulties to contend with. Besides France, with which the Habsburgs were in a state of more or less constant conflict, Christendom itself was under sustained attack, both from without – the formidable Ottoman armies of another young prince, Sultan Suleiman, who styled himself Sahib-kiran or ‘world conqueror’ – and within, in the form of the Martin Luther-inspired religious reform which threatened to tear the Holy Roman Empire apart.

Charles would rise to all these challenges. That he might be the monarch who would not only keep Christendom together but project it into new corners of the globe was an idea instilled in him from birth. As a boy, he inhaled the sense of his own glittering destiny along with stories of his illustrious forebears and of the great heroes of antiquity and myth, whose deeds he was expected to emulate and surpass. Wherever he turned, the idea was driven home. His influential councillor Mercurino di Gattinara presented him with a manuscript entitled ‘A Dream of the Last World Monarchy’, which, after enumerating the superior resources available to Charles, proposed how his young master might convert this dream into reality. Prophecies, foretelling his conquests of England, Italy and Jerusalem, stated that he would gain ‘the universal dominion of the earth’; pageants celebrating his entry into Bruges compared him with Christ. All of this left its mark on the apparently unremarkable Charles. As a teenager, alone in his chamber, he took a knife and scraped his newly acquired chivalric motto, ‘plus oultre’ – ‘still further’ – onto a windowpane. The phrase would define his existence: one of almost incessant motion, war and conquest. He became a ruler of iron will and ambition, who shaped the politics and culture of not one continent but two.

Geoffrey Parker’s​ biography begins with a potential hostage to fortune. ‘Does the world,’ he asks, ‘really need another book about Charles V?’ There have been, he writes, more than five hundred books with Charles V in the title ‘this century’ (he presumably means the 20th rather than the 21st). The colossus that still ‘sets the standard by which all other works about Charles should be judged’ is the German historian Karl Brandi’s whopping Kaiser Karl V. Embarking on it in 1907, Brandi published Volume 1 thirty years later. It was translated into English two years after that: just in time for Anne Frank to read it in her secret Amsterdam annexe and to note, impressed, that Brandi had spent ‘forty years’ writing it. (It was, she hinted, tough going – ‘I read fifty pages in five days’ – but ‘Very interesting!’)

Many eminent historians have skirted Charles V. Braudel noted that biographising him was all but impossible because of the sheer profusion of material: ‘Looking for the emperor’s personality amid the mass of papers is like looking for a needle in a haystack.’ Others were defeated by the search – though defeat is an ungenerous word to apply to the man who assembled much of that haystack. This was Gustave Bergenroth, the great 19th-century German historian (and sometime political radical – during the upheavals of 1848, he helped engineer the jailbreak of the revolutionary poet Gottfried Kinkel from Berlin’s Spandau prison). In the 1860s, Bergenroth transcribed and deciphered an astonishing 18,000 folios of documents from archives and libraries across Europe, many of which he found mouldering in the Spanish royal archives at Simancas. One Englishman, visiting Bergenroth at his labours there, discovered him in a state of privation: ‘None of the decencies of life are to be found … Nothing but the strongest desire to do service to history could reconcile any man to so much hardship.’ It was hardly an exaggeration: in Simancas, Bergenroth caught the typhus that eventually killed him.

Parker, who is quick to acknowledge Bergenroth’s achievements, has devoted much of his own academic life to early modern Spain and the Habsburgs. His prodigious output includes not one but two acclaimed biographies of Charles’s son Philip, the products of archival mining on a Bergenrothian scale. As Parker’s travels in search of his latest subject attest, it isn’t just the quantity of materials relating to Charles V that make him a biographical challenge – by his death, Charles had signed more than 100,000 documents – but their diffuse nature: they’re written in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish. This is of course a reflection of the complexities of the Habsburg Empire, and the nature of Charles’s government: it’s estimated that he spent a quarter of his life in the saddle, traversing his territories.

Parker wants to understand and explain the way Charles behaved; the relationship between ‘agent’ and ‘structure’ (were Charles’s political failings to do with his own shortcomings or was his empire just too big for its own good?); and, quite simply, what it was like to be Charles V. The depth and breadth of his research is staggering. He has learned languages, followed physically in Charles’s footsteps, and, in his words, ‘ransacked written records’. It’s a degree of granularity that suits his method: one that lays out Charles’s life in minute detail, scrutinises his decision-making processes, and tries to allow the ‘why answers’ – why Charles behaved and acted as he did – to grow out of the ‘how answers’: how he did what he did.

Accordingly Parker gives an account of Charles’s imperial career: of his emergence as a young monarch who, aged 25, crushed the French forces at the Battle of Pavia in northern Italy, a defining victory that saw him replace Francis I ‘as the most powerful prince in Christendom – and also the most feared’; and of the forty progresses, voyages and military campaigns which – sustained by the torrent of wealth from the Americas – saw him criss-cross Europe over the following decades, from Seville to London, Wittenberg to Vienna, Rome to Palermo.

Out of this a picture emerges of Charles’s transformation, from the ‘ordinary’ and apparently easily influenced young man glimpsed by ambassadors in the 1510s to the polyglot monarch who, as an English ambassador ruefully put it in 1543, ‘may as well write to his friends, as Caesar wrote to his friends, I came, I saw, I conquered’. Parker’s Charles is a monarch of implacable drive: someone who managed to marry the ‘vision thing’ with a brutal realpolitik. Early in his reign, he preyed on the mental instability of his own mother, Joanna, in order to seize total control of the Spanish kingdoms, not simply by keeping her isolated under house arrest, but by creating an entirely fictional world: he prevented her from entering any room with a window – only candlelight was permitted – and ensured she had no way of communicating with anyone outside. He seemed equally unconcerned about his wife, Isabella of Portugal, whom he saw rarely, instead writing her soothing letters as he copulated his way round Europe on campaign. Describing how Isabella gave birth to the couple’s second daughter (another) Joanna, Parker’s laconic aside speaks volumes: ‘As usual, she did so alone.’

Charles was prepared to lie about small things and big things: once, in 1541, he denied knowing about the torture of two French ambassadors in Piedmont, dispatching a special investigator to ‘locate and liberate’ the two men while being perfectly aware that they had been murdered by his own agents. He was happy to use the ‘Luther question’ to intimidate Pope Clement VII, whom he detested: ‘Perhaps at some point,’ he observed, ‘it will turn out that Martin Luther is the one doing the right thing.’

As a military commander, Charles was remorseless. The offhandedness with which he could brush aside the loss of thousands of soldiers to disease, hunger and, on occasion, cataclysmic strategy – his ill-fated assault on Algiers in 1541 cost the lives of roughly half his army, 22,000 men – was redolent of his forebear Charles the Bold of Burgundy. (This same drive saw Charles campaign through an unremitting series of illnesses: ulcers so bad he considered having his leg amputated; asthma; haemorrhoids; gout that made him cry with pain.) This, after all, was an emperor who had spent his entire life surrounded by people who told him he was more than human, and whose armour was decorated with his monogram ‘KD’: Karolus Divus, or Charles the Divine. It wasn’t surprising that, for Charles, normal humans were another expendable commodity, along with the constant supply of gold and silver arriving from his Latin American colonies.

Although Charles struggled to control affairs in Latin America, and occasionally clutched his pearls at news of the depredations of Hernan Cortés and his peers, he managed to inure himself to the prickings of his ‘delicate conscience’. His American colonies were, first and foremost, a source of cash to support his military campaigns: as early as 1520, he assured his Spanish subjects that the acquisition of a ‘New World of gold made just for him’ would alleviate the tax burden back home. When his officials described to him the magnificent treasures sent by the Inca emperor Atahualpa, Charles replied regretfully that however much he ‘would love to see it all’, they should melt it down into gold and silver coin to pay his bills.

Charles thought and wrote extensively about his role. During his upbringing, he had received little written advice on how to rule – though it has to be said that there was no precedent for the transatlantic empire he constructed. In 1543, determined to provide a guide for his son and heir, he wrote what Parker describes as ‘perhaps the most remarkable analysis ever committed to paper by an early modern ruler’: a 48-folio masterclass in statecraft. Charles candidly acknowledged that there were some remaining unknowns: ‘The things that I should say are so impenetrable and uncertain that even I do not know how to describe them, nor whether I should even offer you advice about them, because they are full of confusion and contradictions.’ Given that he himself was so confused, he told Philip with a flash of humanity, he could scarcely tell his son what to do. Instead, he recommended the eternal last resort: ‘I find no better solution than to place myself in God’s hands.’

For better or worse,’ Parker writes, ‘few details about the emperor remain in my own inkwell.’ Largely it’s for the better, though given the amount of material which he has had to sift and marshal, it’s unsurprising that at times the descriptions of Charles’s interminable journeying can come to seem a case of form resembling function. This is exaggerated by Parker’s decision to concentrate his descriptions of Charles the man in three discrete – albeit excellent – chapters, rather than weaving this analysis through the narrative and thereby giving us a more organic sense of the emperor’s personal and political development.

Equally, the general reader might have appreciated some leavening of Parker’s fine-grained ‘how’ approach with some of the larger ‘why’ questions. It would have been nice to have more of a sense of those ‘structures and continuities’, and of the broader epochal canvas against which Charles’s life was set: more of a sense, too, of how he developed ideas of universal monarchy to tackle the unprecedented challenges of his rule.

These, though, are minor criticisms. Parker has written a magisterial biography – definitive even – and one befitting his subject, ‘an extraordinary man who achieved extraordinary things’. Perhaps his greatest achievement is in documenting Charles’s Herculean efforts to bind together a massive geopolitical entity; efforts that, in the end, wore him out. Unsurprisingly, when he abdicated, he split his empire in two: between his younger brother Ferdinand, who had effectively ruled the Holy Roman Empire in Charles’s place; and his son Philip who was, in many respects, a chip off the old block.

Charles’s tearful resignation speech made clear the reason for this division. He enumerated his journeys as emperor: ‘nine times to Germany, six times to Spain, and seven to Italy … to Flanders ten times and four times to France in war and peace, twice to England and twice to Africa’; he didn’t mention ‘my lesser journeys’. It was too much for one man, even Charles the Divine. In the end, though, the partition was driven by family friction. When Charles floated the idea of handing on the succession in its entirety to Philip, Ferdinand, enraged, refused to countenance it. At the point of its greatest territorial reach, the Habsburg empire was split in two.

In retirement, Charles retreated to the isolated Jeronimite monastery of Yuste in Spain’s Gredos mountains, where during the final three years of his life he nursed his gout, oversaw a facelift to the royal apartments – including the installation of a large metal sauna imported from Germany – and directed improvements to the gardens. In between a strict programme of devotions – prayers, readings, sermons and choral performances – he set about trying to arrange his record for posterity, even as his influence waned: most of his tetchy letters about public affairs were met with an eye-rolling silence by his son’s officials.

Nevertheless, as he lay on his deathbed at Yuste, Charles seemed to have found an unaccustomed ease: dying monarchs were more often to be found scrabbling remorsefully to make peace with their subjects and their maker. Charles, though, seemed unconcerned about the widespread suffering he had inflicted in pursuit of his imperial destiny. One visiting nobleman, astonished, remarked on this imperial tranquillity to the archbishop of Toledo, Bartolomé Carranza, who stood at Charles’s bedside: such serenity, the nobleman marvelled, in one ‘who has done so many things’. The archbishop nodded in grim agreement. ‘Such confidence,’ he replied, ‘does not please me at all.’

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