Book Review: The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas
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.
Charles V, then, was the most powerful ruler alive, and the richest, thanks to the flow of gold and silver from the Indies. But, as Hugh Thomas shows in his narrative, his reign was at best a series of temporary triumphs, punctuated by misadventures. Much of the time he was at war, often in person. His most consistent enemy, Francis I of France, was heavily defeated, and captured, at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. But it did not prove decisive. He himself won the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547 to assert his supremacy in German territories. Titian, to crown the series of magnificent portraits he painted of the Emperor, did him on horseback in full armour, the first equestrian work of its kind. His Habsburg chin juts out defiantly over his glittering cuirass. But this victory too proved deceptive, and five years later Charles had to flee for his life from Germany, crossing the Brenner Pass in blinding rain. It was the same with his efforts to stem the Ottoman advance in the Mediterranean. In 1535, with the help of the greatest admiral of the day, Andrea Doria of Genoa, he landed a large expeditionary force and took Tunis. But a similar expedition to take Algiers in 1541, with 24,000 troops commanded by Cortés himself, ended in failure.
Charles never seemed able to bring any of his incessant wars to a successful conclusion. Despite all his efforts, France remained an unsolved problem, both in north-west Europe and in Italy. Ottoman power remained a serious threat. The Emperor was never master of all Germany, and was unable to prevent the Reformation from spreading or to bring the Protestant princes to order. He could never feel easy about his authority in the Low Countries or even in Spain. There was always trouble somewhere, demanding his personal attention.
That was the problem. Monarchy in Charles’s day was still very much a personal vocation. Shakespeare’s line “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” might have been written with Charles in mind — and he had several crowns, which multiplied the occasions of unease. He found it extremely difficult to delegate his authority, and so had to go himself. That meant he was never out of the saddle. When he finally decided to solve his unending problems by abdicating, handing over to his son Philip II and retiring to a monastery, he totted up his travels and complained he had been obliged to go ten times to Flanders, nine times to Germany, six to Spain, seven to Italy, four to France, twice to England, twice to Africa, plus various Mediterranean voyages.
This cosmopolitan super-king never had a home. He was always squatting, palatially maybe, but in alien quarters. Hugh Thomas tells us that at Christmas 1546 he had slept in 40 different places since August. He had to transport great quantities of tapestry with him to keep out the draughts. He moved in the centre of a great inconvenient mob which limited the choice of resting-places. On his first arrival in Spain, for instance, Thomas says he had to bring with him 2,000 people and 1,000 horses. Moreover, despite all the bullion from the Indies, he seems often to have been short of money. Thomas quotes some of the contract he made with the Welsers, his German bankers from 1526. They were known as capitulationes, a good word. Then as now bankers seem to have been on top. The collateral for one was “the island of Venezuela”. On the other hand, the bankers sometimes had to provide, in addition to cash, soldiers, sailors, ships and even skilled miners. Many of the documents and figures (Thomas provides some illuminating statistical appendices, as well as many excellent maps) suggest to me that Charles was often not on top of his administrative duties.
Nor is this surprising, since he was ravaged by bodily complaints — piles, especially, and various forms of arthritis or rheumatism, described as “gout”. He had periodic bouts of malaria, too, and seems to have suffered greatly from what we would have called common colds. In September 1553, after he had been obliged to abandon the siege of Metz, there was a pessimistic report on his health which Thomas quotes:
His Majesty cannot be expected to live long because of the great number of illnesses which affect him, especially inter…the gout attacks him and frequently racks all his limbs and nerves…[colds] affect him so much he sometimes appears to be in his last straits…his piles put him in such agony that he cannot move without great pain.
There was also, the report goes on, “very great mental sufferings” so his “good humour and affability” have disappeared. Full of melancholy, he “would not allow anyone into his presence to deal with papers”. All he wanted to do, “day and night”, was to adjust and set “his countless clocks”. He “does little else”.
Here, then, was the nemesis of power, and it is not surprising that Charles abdicated, the first ruler of his stature to do so since Diocletian. He seems to have got little pleasure from his rule of nearly half a century, though Thomas notes there were three or four illegitimate children, all girls. The incessant court entertainments over which he was obliged to preside must have seemed as big a burden as the endless travelling, camping, besieging and fighting. Charles, who was not without an active conscience, was also hag-ridden by moral problems. What to do about the reform of the Church? Should Protestants and other heretics be persecuted? Ought the Indians in Spanish territories to be actively Christianised? Was slavery, of Indians or Africans, permissible? No decisive answers were forthcoming to any of these questions. So the monastery to which Charles retired must have seemed welcoming. Not that he lived to enjoy it long (with an entourage of 50 secretaries and attendants, according to Thomas). Within two years his gout, or whatever it was, had killed him. Hugh Thomas, in describing the Golden Age of Spanish imperialism, has in fact written a morality tale about the futility of world power, and it is a convincing one.