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Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor: Accomplishments, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Charles V may have been one of the most powerful individuals in all of history. In this lesson we'll see what led to that power, and how Charles impacted Europe for centuries to come.

Charles V

In medieval times, it was very common for European royals to marry other European royals. Marriage was a political tool, so the continent was full of entangled family trees. Eventually, it seemed that all of these bloodlines would result in one person having a legitimate claim to practically everything. Well, that person was Charles V.

Charles would hold numerous titles in his life. Most notable among them was that of Spanish Emperor and Holy Roman Emperor. A man of faith, conviction, and war, Charles V brought Europe into a new age of empires.

Charles V
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Early Life

Charles V was born on February 24 of 1500, the heir to three royal dynasties: the Valois-Burgundy dynasty of the Netherlands, the Hapsburgs of Germany, and the Trastámara of Spain. He was raised in comfort and was well educated, becoming particularly adept at languages. Charles was famously reported to have once said ''I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.'' While this may be apocryphal, he did have a love of language as is also quoted as once saying ''As many languages as you know, so many separate individuals are you worth.''

It's also important to note the role of religion in Charles' early years. He was the product of numerous Catholic kingdoms, and was raised to be a perfect Catholic king. While he was raised in Northern Europe, we can't ignore his Spanish heritage. Spain had been fighting a Catholic holy war against Muslim invaders in the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years. This conflict was finally won by his grandparents, Isabella and Ferdinand, in 1492 (just eight years before his birth).

Rise to Power

As Charles V came of age, his legal claims to various thrones started taking effect. In 1515 Charles came of age and assumed rule over the Netherlands and other parts of Northern Europe. The next year, Charles' grandfather (Ferdinand) died, leaving the young king the united Spanish kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, Granada, Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. He also became king of the Spanish city of Castile, which he was to rule jointly with his mother (who was too ill to take her reign). While his grandparents had unified Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand lived in separate capitals. Charles was the first to technically rule both Aragon and Castile simultaneously, and thus is often considered the first true king of Spain.

Along with this, Charles inherited Spain's burgeoning empire. By this point the Spanish Empire had conquered a number of previously unknown islands in the Caribbean, and agricultural wealth from these islands was just starting to pour in. In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ventured inland and conquered the Aztec Empire in Charles' name. Charles thus gained Central America's largest empire as well, and Spain instantly became one of the wealthiest empires in the world. This was compounded years later when the Spanish defeated the Inca Empire in South America.

The Holy Roman Emperor

As ruler of Europe's most powerful international empire, and with several European territories already under his control, Charles V would begin to envision a unified European empire. A big step in this direction came in 1519, when Charles's grandfather Maximilian died and left him the Hapsburg monarchy of Germany. This was a big deal. The German monarch was, at the time, traditionally crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor.

This was a title that was traditionally traced back to Charlemagne, making its bearer the true defender of the Catholic faith and greatest among Catholic kings. In essence, the Holy Roman Emperor was supposed to be second only to the Pope (and sometimes even challenged that authority). Charles V was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, giving him control over nearly all of Western Europe.

European territories controlled by Charles V
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