A super-king, constantly at war: Titian's "Charles V on his Horse", the first equestrian portrait of its kind
This, the second volume of Hugh Thomas's projected three-part monumental history of 16th-century Imperial Spain, raises in an intense form the question: is power worth having? Few men in history have possessed, at any rate in theory, so much power as the European Charles V. You would have to go back to Alexander of Macedon in the fourth century BCE for such a wide geographical spread, and such a collection of kingdoms. Or the Roman Empire in the early second century, under Trajan and Hadrian. Between then and the imperial reign of Napoleon in the early 19th century, there was no one to rival Charles V, except possibly another, eighth-century Charles, Charlemagne, during his brief paramountcy. Louis XIV enjoyed something comparable, but only for the first two decades of his reign. After that it was declension, first slow, then precipitous. Napoleon himself was a super-potentate of brief duration, scarcely a dozen years between his coronation and Leipzig. Hitler, too, had a mere 12-year reign, 1933-45. By contrast, Charles V, born in 1500, was only 16 when he succeeded as King of Spain, and went on collecting territory for 40 years until he abdicated in 1556.
He was a genuine cosmopolitan. He was born in Ghent, once the capital of the medieval courts of Flanders, and his native tongue was Flemish. He was a true Habsburg, possessing the family jaw in a most pronounced form. But his father, Philip ("The Fair") von Habsburg was the only German among his 32 immediate ancestors, the rest being Aragonese, Castilians or Portuguese. One distant forebear was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who shared his birthplace. Charles spoke good French but was never exactly fluent in either Spanish or German. His mother, Spanish, had the unfortunate name of Joan the Mad. His substitute mother, who effectively brought him up, was his aunt Margaret, Regent of the Low Countries for many years. His tutor was Adrian of Utrecht, surprisingly elected pope in 1522 as Adrian VI, the last non-Italian to hold the office until John Paul II in our own time.
As head of the Habsburgs, Charles ruled wide territories in Austria, Germany and central Europe. As heir to his great-grandfather Charles the Rash, the last Duke of Burgundy, he ruled the Low Countries and large areas in and around France. He ruled much of Italy and indeed at one point in his career was crowned King of Italy by the Pope. In 1519, still not yet 20, he put himself up for election as Holy Roman Emperor, and thanks to large loans from the Fuggers, the German bankers, to bribe the prince-electors, was successful. Most of all, as King of Spain, united under his grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, he was ruler of Spain's burgeoning empire in the Indies, which expanded rapidly during his reign. Between 1519 and 1521, Mexico was conquered by Cortés, and between 1532 and 1541 Pizarro added Peru.