Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (1500–1558), concurrently King Carlos I of Spain, was at one time ruler of most of Europe and the Spanish American colonies, and thus one of the most powerful men in history. He inherited his vast lands from his four powerful grandparents — Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire, Duchess Mary of Burgundy, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Queen Isabella I of Castile.
The Dynastic Marriage of Emperor Charles V’s Parents
Emperor Charles V was a member of the Austrian Habsburg royal family, of whom it was said, “Let the strong fight wars; you, happy Austria, marry” (Bella gerant fortes; tu, felix Austria, nube). And indeed, so much important territory came under the rule of one man through carefully planned dynastic marriages.
The marriage of Emperor Charles V’s parents, the Habsburg Duke Philip of Burgundy and the Spanish Princess Juana of Castile, was particularly profitable. After Philip died and Juana went mad, their eldest son Charles became sole heir to the grand territories of his four grandparents.
The Inheritance from Duchess Mary of Burgundy
Charles first inherited from his maternal grandmother Duchess Mary of Burgundy. Mary had once been the richest heiress in Europe, and it was a great economic success for the Habsburgs when the future Emperor Maximilian I married her. She died young, with her lands passing to their eldest child Philip of Burgundy. When Philip also died young in 1506, his son Charles inherited as Duke Charles of Burgundy.
The Duchy of Burgundy was the richest in Europe, but unfortunately the land holdings had been whittled away by France by the time Charles came into his inheritance. Nevertheless, he still inherited much wealth and territory, including the remaining land of the Duchy of Burgundy and Flanders in the north (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands) and some holdings in central Europe (Franche-Comte).
The Inheritance from King Ferdinand II of Aragon
Charles next inherited from his Spanish grandparents, becoming King Carlos I of Spain. The marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile united most of the Iberian Peninsula into what gradually became Spain. Although a dual crown under their joint reign, their grandson inherited both crowns, thus uniting all the territories under one person and easing the way toward a united Spain.
When his grandfather King Ferdinand II of Aragon died in 1516, Charles inherited eastern Spain, including Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia. He also inherited Aragon’s colonies in the Mediterranean, including the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Naples, and Sicily.
The Inheritance from Queen Isabella I of Castile
From his grandmother Queen Isabella I of Castile, the young King Carlos I of Spain inherited central Spain and Castile’s American colonies. Castile included Castile proper, as well as Galicia, Asturias, Navarre, and Leon in the north, and Estremadura, Murcia, and Andalusia in the south. With Castile’s new American colonies, it could be truly said that the sun never set on this Habsburg emperor’s lands.
The Inheritance from Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire
In 1519, Charles’s paternal grandfather Emperor Maximilian I died and his grandson inherited the Austrian crownlands. These included Austria proper, as well as Styria, Tyrol, Carinthia, and several other holdings in the southeastern Holy Roman Empire.
Charles then put on an aggressive campaign to be elected ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a conglomeration of mostly German-speaking kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and cities. Although an elected position, the Habsburgs had made Holy Roman Emperor a de facto inherited position in their family, and Charles was elected Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire six months after his grandfather died.
The End of the Pan-European Habsburg Empire
Emperor Charles V had an exhausting reign, as he was ruler of both the Holy Roman Empire and various central European lands as well as being King Carlos I of Spain and its various colonies. He wisely believed this to be too much for one person, and split the Habsburg empire up between his heirs when he abdicated in 1556. To his son King Felipe II of Spain he left the Spanish lands and colonies, as well as the Burgundian holdings. To his brother Ferdinand, already King of Hungary and Bohemia, he left the rest of the Austrian lands, and Ferdinand soon succeeded his brother as Emperor Ferdinand I of the Holy Roman Empire. This decision not only broke up the Habsburg lands but also divided the Habsburg dynasty into two branches that continued to intermarry.
The Grand Habsburg Empire of Emperor Charles V
Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire inherited and ruled more powerful and diversified lands than possibly anyone else in history. From his paternal grandparents, Emperor Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, he inherited Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, and Burgundy. From his Spanish grandparents, King Ferdinand I of Aragon and Queen Isabella II of Castile, he inherited Spain as well as its colonies, becoming King Carlos I of Spain.
- Elliot, J. H. Imperial Spain, 1469–1716. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963.
- McGuigan, Dorothy Gies. Habsburgs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.