Charles V's Successes and Failures in Maintaining His Empire

Updated on January 17, 2018

The reign of Charles V proved to be one of many challenges; some predestined, and some as a result of his leadership style. To evaluate his success, the state of the Habsburg empire upon which he gained leadership at the age of 19 must be considered[1]. It is important to note that Charles took on a fractious, polyglot empire (not a compact, national state), which meant he would never possess the capability of levying direct taxes or raising an army from his territory[2]. Not only this, but foreign policy was also previously determined by feuds with France, as did he begin his reign in debt due to electoral bribery[3]. However, this is not to say Charles didn’t rule in such a way that many of his challenges were as a result of his own incompetence[4]. This essay will therefore evaluate what challenges Charles faced, how he reacted to them and not only whether such reactions constituted to success or failure but also, in cases of failure, whether his inadequacy was justifiable.

Naturally, issues arose regarding the immense spread of Charles’s territory, commonly referred to as the empire on which the sun never sets. By ruling land in both hemispheres, diplomatic negotiation proved problematic as each country possessed a unique internal structure and foreign policy which related to their individual sovereignty and position in the international community[5]. Constitutional opposition to Charles also stemmed from each country’s internal structure, as many princes had little desire to be ruled by an emperor.

Charles thus faced the challenge of trying to integrate each country’s interests, yet he did not have the advantage of enforcing universal imperial policy. The difficulty of this task is highlighted when reviewing the duties each of his roles evoked; as emperor, Charles was tasked with preserving imperial power against the German semi-independent princes, whilst defending what was left of his imperial suzerainty from France in Northern Italy. In addition to this, he was expected to deal with Burgundian-Netherlands princes who desired a policy of peace with France and Britain in the hopes of securing more prosperous trade deals[6]. As an Austrian prince, the struggle against the Turks in Hungary and the Balkans was also inherited and, as king of Aragon, Charles endeavoured to protect his subject’s long-established involvement in Southern Italy and their commercial Mediterranean interests[7].

It is therefore no surprise that Charles failed to manage this near impossible task as, by attempting to accommodate each country’s individual interests, the remaining country’s interests were subsequently neglected. This cyclical process would increase opposition and further the complexity of maintaining his empire.

Evidence supporting this claim can be seen in the Spanish conquistador’s subjugation of American Indians, which was indicative of Charles’s inability to deal with challenges stemming from individual countries[8]. In retaliation to complaints made concerning the treatment of indigenous people, Charles ordered the ban of new encomiendas and the fade out of old encomiendas. However, this was ignored by Hernan Cortes and other leading conquistadors.

Furthermore, Charles’s second order, which stated;

“The Indians are to live in liberty, as our vassals in castile live… if you have given any Indians in Encomienda to any Christians you will remove them.”[9]

Summoned the following response from Cortes;

“The majority of Spaniards who come here are of low quality, violent and vicious.”[10]

This ultimately led to Charles backing down in 1526 and allowing Cortes, and later Pizzaro, to issue temporary encomienda’s to their men.

It is therefore evident that whilst Charles did attempt to tackle challenges specific to individual countries through diplomatic means, he was perhaps too preoccupied with tackling an array of other matters to possess genuine, universal authority. Consequently, issues were left unresolved and Charles’s power undermined.

Inherently, the enormity of Charles’s empire also served as provocation for Eastern and Western rulers who sought to expand their empire. Conflict over territory therefore proved to be a significant challenge for Charles.

When Charles was elected emperor in 1519, not only had Francis himself attempted to win the title of Holy Roman Empire and failed, but Francis was also of the belief that Charles, being the Duke of Burgundy, was his subject[11]. Hostility also stemmed from the Habsburgs retaining power over Francis’s southern and eastern borders, as he was convinced Charles had plans to annex parts of these areas, as well as the duchy of Burgundy[12]. The challenge of defending land was therefore not only long-lasting for Charles (the series of battles fought by both kings persisted from 1521-1551), but also paramount in maintaining his empire.

It is valid to argue Charles temporarily succeeded in tackling this issue during the first battle (1521) as his army of mercenaries took Milan[13], as was hegemony in Italy secured. More importantly, Francis I was captured and defeated at the Battle of Pavia (1525)[14], which resulted in the French king relinquishing Burgundy and agreeing to ally with Charles to make common cause against the Ottoman Turks. Proponents of nationalism argue that this show of ‘success’ from Charles held even more weight as Francis’s elite were entirely French speaking which made communication easier, as did he possess a faithful religious class and undisputed authority over taxation[15]. When evaluating Charles’s response to the challenges Francis I proposed through this perspective, the argument that he responded successfully appears strong. However, success was hindered as Francis rejected peace with Charles upon his release, suggesting Charles failed to act with enough force.

Furthermore, Francis went on to join the Holy League of Cognac which aimed to counteract the Habsburg’s overwhelmingly dominant position in Italy. In the ensuing War of the League of Cognac, problems arose as Charles was unable to pay his mercenaries due to the costly nature of the war. This reason was significant in encouraging them to sack Rome (1526)[16], which impaired Charles’s power as it became evident he was incapable of restraining his troops. Therefore, the argument that Charles failed to genuinely tackle the challenges his opposition insinuated still stands.

Eastern ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, also endangered Charles’s empire; a prominent monarch who can perhaps be perceived as the figurehead of Eastern for the threat he posed to Western territory. This was particularly as the Ottoman empire was in decline which gave Suleiman a greater incentive to annex Western regions, specifically Hungary and hereditary provinces of the Habsburgs.

Charles failed to eliminate this opposition in its entirety as not only did the Ottoman Turks manage to conquer parts of the West African coast and the Balkans, but they also partitioned Hungary in the Battle of Mohacs (1526) which subsequently weakened Charles’s empire. However, western mercenaries did succeed in thwarting the Ottoman Turks’ advance at the Siege of Vienna (1529), which led to Suleiman’s armies retreating and Charles regaining part of the Hungarian Kingdom. On account of these battles, Charles’s success in retaliating to challenges put forward by opposition can thus be interpreted as, albeit present, somewhat inconsistent and lacking longevity.

When considering the challenges Charles faced from existing rulers, his response appears neither overwhelmingly successful nor catastrophically unsuccessful. Territory was defended and annexed under Charles, as was Francis temporarily captured and the Ottoman Turks pushed back. However, territory was also lost in battle and long-term issues were left unresolved, which meant these challenges were inherited by Charles’s successor, Phillip II. The question of success is therefore difficult to answer, but what can be determined from reviewing challenges of this nature is that Charles’s empire was constantly under threat from formidable enemies; a threat he would have naturally perceived as pressing[17]. Working simultaneously with this set of challenges was also the challenges ruling a vast empire evoked which would, again, have been pressing for an emperor whose priority is to maintain their empire. The question about whether it is fair to judge Charles’s successes on the same scale as other ruler’s successes is thus proposed, as it appears that most of Charles’s issues were incessant, immense in scale and near impossible to fully eliminate due to the poor communications scale brought about.

The complex nature of the challenges Charles faced can also be viewed in terms of religion, where Charles’s poor relationships with Luther and the papacy can be used to justify his lack of success.

One of Charles’s most notable challenges were those proposed by the Protestant church; a church ideologically opposed to his rulership for their belief in following one’s conscious, not emperor, in matters of faith[18]. Attempts were made by Charles to restrain leading proponent of Protestantism, Martin Luther, at the Diet of Worms (1523)[19], but conversely Luther’s popularity grew as a result of his powerful testimony of faith[20]. German prince, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, consequently went into correspondence with Luther and support from the Germans was won over, as did the Edict of Worms[21] see little enforcement which meant the challenge was left virtually untouched.

Later attempts were also made by Charles in the Diet of Augsburg (1530)[22], which demanded all Lutherans revert to Catholicism by 1531. However, in retaliation the Schmalkdalic League was formed by 11 imperial cities, 8 German Princes and the King of France and, whilst Charles won the first proceeding battle in 1546, he was defeated in 1547 partially due to a lack of support from the papacy. This led to the Peace of Augsburg being signed in 1555, which recognised the divide between the Catholic and Protestant churches[23] and, fundamentally, meant Charles failed to lead a successful counter-Reformation.

In addition to this, the papacy’s lack of support for Charles was also reflected in Pope Clement VII’s decision to side with Francis in the 2nd Habsburg-Valois conflict (1527-1529) over fears of Charles’s power in Southern Italy. Though, any threats the papacy may have posed were put down at the Sack of Rome as it ultimately led to Charles ruling supreme.

Therefore, similar to challenges relating to international conflict, the challenges brought about by religious leaders were never flawlessly dealt with, particularly those posed by Luther. Though, when reviewing these types of challenges, arguments defending Charles’s lack of success are widened in scope as his failure can also be attributed to a lack of allies, both globally and within the church.

To conclude, it is fair to argue the challenges Charles faced were moderately dealt with. Whilst Charles succeeded in many battles over territory which consequently allowed him to maintain his empire, he failed to unify country’s interests and did not ultimately eliminate Francis, Suleiman or Martin Luther, nor was he able to form an intrinsic relationship with the papacy. However, his failure does not stem from this as much as it does from failing to acknowledge the limits of one’s power[24]. With domains spanning nearly four million square kilometres, predetermined rivalries and the inability to communicate and evoke nationalist sentiments the way kings such as Henry VIII had done[25], it was virtually impossible for Charles to deal with challenges in their entirety, just as it would have been for any ruler. The shortfall instead lies with the offensive realist approach he took to ruling, whereby his imperial motto ‘plus ultra’ fundamentally meant he spread himself out too far which prompted ceaseless challenges to arise[26]. He attempted to create modern policies whilst defending old policies, fuse Atlantic and central Europe on an epic scale and eliminate the Protestant reformation whilst making the Catholic counter-Reformation global[27]. Therefore, in ruling his empire Charles failed to deal with challenges successfully, but with good reason. Instead, indefensible failure lied with his aspiration to be the most powerful emperor in the most powerful empire; an aspiration that created a series of challenges he was incapable of dealing with.


[1] C. Brandi, C. Wedgwood, The Emperor Charles V. The growth and destiny of a man and of a world-empire (London, 1939), p. 99-114.

[2] R. Tyler, The Emperor Charles the Fifth (London, 1956), p. 17-31.

[3] Ibid., p. 17-31.

[4] A. Espinosa, The Grand Strategy of Charles V (1500-1558): Castile, War, and Dynastic Priority in the Mediterranean, 9 (2005), p. 239-283.

[5] B. Kumin, The European World 1500–1800 (London, 2014), p. 249-300.

[6] C. Brandi, C. Wedgwood, The Emperor Charles V, p. 184-195.

[7] Ibid., p. 184-195.

[8] H. Kamen, Spain: 1469-1717 (London, 2014), p. 73-81.

[9] Charles V, Charles’s 2nd Order to Hernan Cortes (Spain, c. 1530)

[10] H. Cortes, Response to Charles’s 2nd Order (Central America, c. 1530)

[11] C. Brandi, C. Wedgwood, The Emperor Charles V, p. 154-160.

[12] R. Tyler, The Emperor, p. 43-82.

[13] C. Brandi, C. Wedgwood, The Emperor Charles V, p. 217-220.

[14] G. Schwarzenfeld, Charles V father of Europe (London, 1957), p. 109-111.

[15] R. Tyler, The Emperor, p. 43-82.

[16] G. Schwarzenfeld, Charles V, p. 141-150

[17] A. Espinosa, The Grand Strategy, p. 239-283.

[18] C. Helmer, Putting the Protest Back into Protestant. The Ecumenical Review, 69 (2017), p. 176-188.

[19] G. Schwarzenfeld, Charles V, p. 72-79.

[20] C. Brandi, C. Wedgwood, The Emperor Charles V, p. 124-134.

[21] G. Schwarzenfeld, Charles V, p. 77-78.

[22] G. Schwarzenfeld, Charles V, p. 151-155.

[23] C. Helmer, Putting the Protest Back, p. 176-188.

[24] A. Espinosa, The Grand Strategy, p. 239-283.

[25] J.R Hale, Renaissance Europe, 1480-1520 (London, 2000), p. 50.

[26] A. Espinosa, The Grand Strategy, p. 239-283.

[27] A. Espinosa, The Grand Strategy, p. 239-283.

© 2018 Lauren Eales

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