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"Plus Ultra."
—motto of Charles V; also the national motto of Spain

Charles V (24 February 1500 – 21 September 1558), from the House of Habsburg, was Holy Roman Emperor, King of Castile, Aragon and León, Archduke of Austria and Duke of the Netherlands, among other titles. You might sometimes find him called Charles I of Spain and V of the Holy Roman Empire, given that those were his two main fields and he inherited them in that order.note  He stands out in history by a variety of facts, chiefs of them being probably him being the last Holy Roman Emperor crowned by the Pope and the first ruler in whose kingdom "the sun never set", called that way due to it controlling distant portions of Europe, Africa and The Americas.

Named after his great-grandfather Charles I the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Charles was born in a toilet in Ghent, in the Habsburg Netherlands, but this lowly beginning shouldn't give the wrong idea about him. Through his mother, Joanna of Castile, he inherited his Spanish territories in the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and America. Through his father, his Dutch and Austrian possessions, as well as a connection to the Holy Roman Empire from his grandfather Maximilian I. His aunt Margaret of Austria, for her part, was regent for him in the Netherlands, and later helped him to be elected Holy Roman Emperor as well.

Charles was initially seen as an outsider by his Spanish subjects, worsened by his foreign royal customs being a stark contrast to The Catholic Monarchs' less magniloquent ways. The Spaniards also laughed at Charles' massive mandibular prognathism, a signature Habsburg trait which reportedly impeded Charles from even resting his mouth closed (he also liked to eat alone because the whole process could be a bit of a mess). In fact, at first he was unpopular enough that literal revolts exploded against him when he started handpicking Germans from his entourage to take the job of Spanish governors, having to be drowned by the force of weapons. However, they eventually warmed up to him, especially thanks to how quickly he learned Spanish and accepted their customs. They came to see him as a larger-than-life leader, often referred as "our Caesar" and "the Emperor King", and it would be in this royal name that conquistadors like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro came to expand the bounds of the known world, while kings and military men alike started their careers in the many wars he waged. This ability to adapt to his environment was not casual — Charles became very good at it, speaking fluently not less than five languages, which led to his famous quote "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse".

His love life was not any less cosmopolitan. For starters, back when he was a teenager Charles had a passionate affair with his stepgrandmother Germana of Foix, who was still young at 29. More officially, at one point Charles was bethroted to his English cousin Mary Tudor in order to secure an alliance with England, but as Mary was six at the time and this would force them to wait a decade to produce heirs, Charles gave up and married another of his cousins, Isabella of Portugal, daughter of King Manuel I, an option more palatable to his Iberian subjects due to her Spanish blood (and also because she came with a fabulously rich dowry from the Portuguese Empire's holdings). The union became a Perfectly Arranged Marriage, as Charles and Isabella fell madly in love at first sight and remained so until the end, even although Charles was not the most faithful husband; it helped that the patient Isabella turned out to be an excellent politician herself and a matching regent for him every time he had to be absent from Spain due to his schedule. When she died, Charles was so crushed that he dressed in mourning for the rest of his life and never remarried, only having a last, troubled affair that produced John of Austria.

Charles was in all senses a new breed of king. He could be considered the nexus between the medieval monarchs of the line of Charlemagne, eager to personally lead their armies with sword and lance, and the new global rulers of the Age of Exploration, obliged to delegate his will on their many subjects around the world. The amount of territories Charles had accumulated, almost ridiculous in their variety and remoteness, were undoubtedly a strength, as they made him capable to conjure up currents of manpower, money and exotic resources that often shocked the whole of Christendom, but were also a nuisance compared to compact, continuous countries like France and England, as he constantly had to travel from one place to another and deal with people from very different sensibilities and cultures, to the point he described himself his reign as a really long voyage. Although this system ultimately proved unsustainable enough for Charles to divide his empire between his son and brother, the fact that he managed to hold it together and even expand it at some points has led historians to consider him a quite extraordinary monarch even with all of his troubles and failures.

His main trait, for good or bad, was his sheer idealism. Having acquired at once the established prestige of the Holy Roman Empire and the rapidly rising power of the Kingdom of Spain, he found himself on a throne from where resurrecting the old medieval concept of the universal monarchy seemed actually sort of doable. Under the frame pax christiani, infideles bellum ("peace for the Christians, war for the infidels"), Charles dreamed with leading a unified, Catholic Europe against the Muslim Ottoman Empire, hoping to recover North Africa and Eastern Europe from the clutches of Islam before reaching some day the gates of Constantinople, restoring something like the The Roman Empire of old — in other words, an universitas christiana ("Christian universality"). On several occasions he came somewhat close to achieving the unity required, as he already ruled directly almost half of Europe, including Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and most of Italy, and had more or less reliable allies in England, Portugal and Hungary. Charles also was, despite all appearances, a very charismatic negotiator, which often turned the tides of wars by getting some big head of the enemy side to suddenly defect to him.

Part of this almost Messianic inspiration came from the quick expansion of his empire in the Indies, which was taken as a sign of God's acquiescence to his divine mission. Charles sincerely welcomed the Mesoamerican and Peruvian natives into his grand plans (them and their gold and silver, obviously), even bringing Cortés' mestizo son to be raised in the imperial court, and continued the Catholic Monarchs' policies of a fair treatment of the indigenous whenever it could be enforced. Influenced by his adviser Francisco de Vitoria from the School of Salamanca and by the outspoken activist Bartolomé de las Casas, he did the historical oddity of ordering all conquests to stop until they could decide whether they were actually acting justly, resulting in the Valladolid Debate, which went to cement further imperial policies with the natives as free vassals with their own range of motion. This also had the less pleasurable consequence to stimulate the Atlantic slave trade in order to replace native labor in America, resorting to his Portuguese pals and their trade monopoly with the African kingdom of Kongo, although Charles had nothing personal against darker skins — a surprisingly high number of his conquistadors were blacks and mulattos too.note 

However, even with all those assets, this dream could ultimately not get through the wall of concrete called reality. The atomization of power in Europe made it very difficult to get the lasting agreement of many rulers in anything, especially given that many of them weren't directly threatened by the Ottomans, and even those who did simply refused to yield any power to a superior order even at the cost of their own safety. With the emergence of The Protestant Reformation, the Vatican States' shifting interests, and the refusal of King Francis I of France to ever accept Charles' crowning, the emperor king spent most of his career fighting other Christians and the Pope himself, forced to make more and more concessions and burning away tons of money and manpower, until finally accepting his life project of defeating the Turks would never come to fruition. He abandoned his pretensions at the end of his reign, contenting himself with the idea of having still won most of the literal battles he fought - a notion that should have warned his Habsburg successors that beating people up can only lead you so far in international politics.

Despite this comparatively unusual ability to know when to just give up, it cannot be denied that war and warfare occupied a big role in Charles' life. He was essentially a Promoted Fanboy when he became the King of Spain, as he admired the peninsular armies and their feats against the Moors and the French. He was pen pals with Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, later hired Diego García de Paredes as the head of his royal guard, and in a particularly fanboyish instance, during a homage to the fallen general Antonio de Leyva, he showed up to the event dressed like a regular soldier of the tercios and had himself introduced as "Charles of Ghent" to properly play his part. Less amicable was his relationship to Pedro Navarro, another Spanish war hero that ended up working for the French to get out of prison, which Charles considered the height of dishonor. Navarro actually begged him to be let back into Spanish service several times, but Charles would only have him as either a prisoner or an enemy, and it's rumored he ultimately had Navarro murdered in his cell (although this is considered very unlikely).

As said above, his big enemy turned out to be France. King Francis I from the House of Valois was Charles' rival for the imperial title (with Henry VIII of England as a distant darkhorse candidate), and with Charles' territories encircling Francis' and their conflicting designs on the Duchy of Milan and Kingdom of Naples (as well as America, whose loads of Aztec gold had caused much resentment in Europe towards Spain's monopoly of the rich new lands), the clash was sort of inevitable. At the battle of Pavia in 1526, possibly the peak of the Italian Wars, Charles was successful in not only crushing the French, but also taking Francis prisoner, strengthening his position with a treaty that effectively ended French ambitions in Italy and regained parts of the Duchy of Burgundy that had been lost in 1482, though not the Duchy itself. However, Charles failed to press on his advantage and, naively believing the proud Francis would uphold a treaty erected over military humiliation, and in a move that famously dismayed Niccolò Machiavelli enough to call Charles a fool, he freed the King of France and took only the two eldest sons of Francis as hostages instead. Surely enough, either with sons or without them, Francis repealed the truce and the Italian Wars came again in full force, and this time France outraged Christendom by allying to the Ottoman Empire of all kingdoms, making it, aside from a personal affair, a truly complicated affair.

The wars against Francis had strong symbolic undertones, not limited to the Valois' frustrated aspirations to the Imperial throne, but also because it saw a clash of between the "old" France and the "new" multi-empire of Charles. France was seen as a holdout of medieval knightly culture, enforced by its time-tested traditional armies of heavy cavalry and heroic aristocrats, and up to the previous century it had been basically the default battle powerhouse of Europe. Charles, meanwhile, was the successor of The Catholic Monarchs, who had recently unified the land of Spain and unexpectedly defeated the mighty France during the Italian Wars thanks to its pioneering of professional, pike-and-shot early modern warfare, in which the his grandfather Maximilian I also had also had a hand. With his elite Italian-Spanish tercios and German landsknechte, Charles ultimately wrecked France and sank it in a state of crisis for a century, a result that, even if it satisfied nobody and left an Europe divided and ravaged, also proved that both war and politics had already definitely advanced past the medieval era. Ironically, at several points Francis and Charles challenged each other to an old-fashioned duel to decide the entire war, but disagreements about the terms impeded it, which might only prove further the point.note 

Charles, who was a decent general (if a bit of a Control Freak) and personally led a military disembark in Algiers, did some innovation himself by founding in 1537 the first official marine infantry, the Compañías Viejas del Mar de Nápoles, which remain the oldest continuously active marine unit in history as the modern Spanish Marine Infantry. He was also briefly interested in a project of man-powered paddle-wheelers built by engineer Blasco de Garay that might have been a naval Story-Breaker Power at the time, although he forgot all about it when he was ill-advised that it would be too costly. His court inventor, Gianello della Torre, also reportedly designed flying machines and rudimentary machine-guns in the vein of those conceived by Leonardo da Vinci (who providentially worked for his rival Francis I), although without receiving as much attention by either Charles or history. Charles had also an interest in the occult and Alchemy, a passion that he passed to his son Philip and his nephew Rudolph II, who you might have heard about in relation to the legend of the Golem.

Apart from the threat of France, as said above, another important issue was the rise of The Protestant Reformation during Charles' reign. The Holy Roman Empire was actually a very tenuous conglomerate of principalities, bishoprics and city-states where the emperor's grip was sometimes a matter of negotiation, and the perspective of detaching from the admittedly corrupt Catholic church and obtaining more independence was an offer many imperial princes could not resist. However, Charles always remained an unwavering Roman Catholic, as the emperor's legitimacy had traditionally come from Rome, and he did all he could to stamp out the new heresy, not infrequently prosecuting people and going to war over it. He won a few spectacular battles against Protestant unions, but the religious fires in Germany and the Low Countries rose much quicker than he could put them out, and he was eventually forced to abandon his ideal of uniformity, granting every prince the right to install the denomination he wished. Even if forced by circumstances, this concession was shockingly progressive for the time and place, as it would take several more centuries for both Catholics and Protestants to stop massacring each other and fighting to the last man to expel each other from their lands.

Near the end of his life, burnt out by his exhausting lifestyle and his chronic bad health (he famously suffered of gout, which left him barely mobile at a premature age), Charles abdicated and retired to a monastery in Extremadura, land of conquistadors, with the spiritual goal of just chilling out. He had realized that his many territories were too much for a single king to manage, so he divided his will in the most appropriate way: his son Philip, a proud ethnic Iberian, received the kingdom of Spain and its related lands, while his brother Ferdinand, who had lived all of his life in Central Europe and was popular among Protestants and Catholics alike, was fitter to inherit the Holy Roman Empire. He did give Philip a small part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Low Countries, because their trade network matched well with the Spanish globalization (and likely out of pride of his own Burgundian roots), which would turn out to be a huge mistake given their vast cultural differences, eventually causing the disastrous Eighty Years War, but this would only show many years after his death. His double reign as Holy Roman Emperor-King of Spain was never reunited in a single person again, although his successors at both would continue working together until the end of the Spanish Habsburg branch.

Making a balance of Charles as a king proves difficult. As both the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles was seen by many of his subjects as the harbinger of an universalist vision that many contemplated gloriously. However, just as much as Spain was expanding at the time thanks to its conquests in America, so did its international conflicts as a consequence of Charles' obsession with achieving a unified Catholic Europe. He accidentally kickstarted the trend, perpetuated by his Iberian successors with various levels of zealousness and misfortune, of treating the blossoming Spanish Empire as the benefactor, enforcer and workhorse of the Counter-Reformation, investing all of its riches and armies in the (failed) attempt to stamp out the Protestant heresy in whichever corner of Europe they could reach it - essentially, the beginning of a more than a century-long bane for every Spanish citizen of any race or condition. Speaking of the overseas territories, Charles was seen there as a distant, mercurial monarch, who initiated the first gestures to protect the natives and develop the viceroyalties, but who was more focused on Europe, the battlefield of a dream he fought to his last days for.


Tropes associated with Charles V as portrayed in fiction:

  • Bilingual Bonus: Averted often in media. Despite him having been able to speak several languages (Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and German), the actors portraying him just speak the language of the country were the production was made. This happens even in the Tudors, even though English was not among the languges he spoke.
  • Historical Beauty Update: In Carlos, Rey Emperador in particular. And the aforementioned Carlos V bar wrapper. The long chin is shown and acknowledged in the Tudors.
  • Urban Legends: He is the subject of many early versions of this in the Low Countries, often showing his generosity or wisdom.

Portrayals of Charles V in media:

  • As a baby in movie Mad Love (2001)
  • As a baby in Spanish series Isabel (2012).
  • Álvaro Cervantes in series Carlos, Rey Emperador (2016)
  • Sebastian Armesto in The Tudors (2007)
  • Paul Cammermans in William of Orange (1984)
  • Appears in Jean Plaidy's Daughters of Spain, the last book in a trilogy about his grandmother, Isabella I of Castile.
  • He is also the namesake of Nestle's Carlos V "chocolate-style bar",note  one of Mexico's most popular chocolate confections. A stylized image of the King-Emperor (looking like a telenovela star and attired in an incongruously medieval set of robes and crown rather than his actual Renaissance wear) appears on the wrapper, along with the slogan El Rey de los Chocolates ("The King of Chocolates").
  • Makes a brief appearance in the fanfic Handmaid, when he meets Henry VIII to discuss the possibility of marriage between the future Philip II and Henry and Anne Boleyn's daughter Cecily. (Since in this fic Anne is serving as Henry and Katherine's handmaid, a union recognized as valid by the Catholic Church, there are no hangups about Cecily's legitimacy-though some look askance at Anne's commoner ancestry.)

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