U.S. & World
U.S. & World

Charles V: Inability to restore Catholicism after Reformation in Germany, leads to ultimate failure in Germany

By on August 15, 2016


One of the most powerful and significant figures of the sixteenth century was Charles V; ruler of Spain, Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, Naples, and overseas colonial territories in Asia and the Americas. Charles V was the oldest son of Phillip of Netherlands and Hapsburgs and Joanna of Spain. In 1515 Charles ruled over the Netherlands and Burgundy after his father Phillip’s death in 1506, at the age of 15 years old. His maternal grandfather was King Ferdinand II of Spain, who died in 1516, which allowed Charles V to succeed the throne. His mother Joanna, was considered mentally ill and incompetent to rule and was quickly removed from the throne, giving Charles complete control in Spain. Not soon after succeeding the throne in Spain in 1519, he succeeded his paternal grandfather Maximilian I as the Holy Roman Emperor in Hapsburg. During his rule, he faced numerous conflicts with France, invasion of the Ottomans in Austria, the Papacy, and the worst of them between the German princes involved with the Reformation. The Reformation and conflict with the German princes is the ultimate reason why Charles V was considered to have failed at reigning over Germany. When Charles V abdicated in 1555 he gave the Netherlands and Spain to his son Phillip; with his brother Ferdinand receiving Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. Phillip became King of Spain and the Netherlands and married Mary I of England. Ferdinand became Holy Roman Emperor and received great debt from the financial state the empire was still in and ultimately passed the crown to his son Maximilian.

The Holy Roman Empire

Charles was already ruling the Netherlands, Burgundy, and Spain when his paternal grandfather, Maximilian I ruler of the Holy Roman Empire died in 1519. Charles I of Spain then became Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, officially coronated by Pope Clement VII in 1530. Charles V inherited a massive kingdom from his grandfather Maximilian which came with massive debt and conflicts. Spain’s parliament only allowed a certain amount of money to be borrowed and used to cover the debt seen in the Holy Roman Empire. As Hapsburg ruler, Charles needed to deal with the invasion of the Turks in Austria and the Balkans, along with the protestant uprisings in Germany that proved to be very difficult to handle, and the various wars with Francis I of France. Charles elected his younger brother, Ferdinand, to watch over the Hapsburg areas and notify him of any conflict.

The princes of Germany

Germany was fragmented into territories that were controlled by Princes or Lords at this time, who answered to the emperor but also made up a general assembly of electors from each state that could vote on certain issues, which King Charles V respected. The German princes were afraid of their power to be consolidated by the King, and of total imperial unification; which would take away any independent power they held over their territories. This fear is what led to them politically breaking away from the King by accepting a different religion to spread. For the most part, Charles V neglected Germany due to his vast empire and other conflicts. This allowed the princes to have their independence, but also allowed Protestantism to spread in Germany; known as the Reformation. The neglecting of Germany is what led to the ultimate failure of the entire holy roman empire, since the empire was divided by territories and now religion.

The Reformation

The Reformation occurred on October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, Saxony, and is considered a break away from the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation was initiated by Catholic monk Martin Luther, and his writing of 95 grievances against the Church. Martin Luther criticized the Church for selling indulgences, which individuals bought to save their loved ones from damnation. Luther stressed that the Church had no reign in the words of the gospel or judgement of God, and they couldn’t change it by allowing people to buy their way to heaven for themselves and their family. After Luther’s religious dissent, many German residents, especially princes, began to follow the new Protestant faith; which helped display their nationalistic view of Germany compared to other Holy Roman Empire territories. Due to the printing press being founded in Guttenberg, many pamphlets of grievances against the Roman Catholic Church were able to be distributed all over, allowing more people to see the new found religion and undermine the Papacy control in Germany. Once the idea of breaking away from the Church spread, it was unable to be ceased, and soon individuals all around Europe knew about the protestant faith, and this hurt the control of the Papacy. Henry VIII of England decided to break away from the Church and establish his own “Anglican” religion, which was the same religion as Catholicism without allowing the Pope to have all the control. This was backlash from the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife who bore him no sons. Similar to Henry VIII’s view, the German princes had political intentions when supporting the Reformation and Martin Luther; they wanted Germany to be separate from the rest of the Empire with Charles V losing more control.

Diet of Worms

Once King Charles V got news of the Reformation he was unhappy due to the dissent of his subjects, however he was still moderate when it came to religious tolerance. Martin Luther was charged with heresy and was to attend the Diet of Worms for his trial. The Diet consisted of a general assembly of electors from different independent territories, and the emperor himself. Charles V wanted to stop Luther from spreading his dissent across Germany, since Charles needed more support from the Papacy for his other conflicts and he was a devoted Catholic. However, some electors of the Diet continued to undermine Charles V, and showed support for Luther. Charles V was very patient with Luther and the electors, he had great respect for the law and institutions of the empire, so he would allow any adverse opinions or judgements to his own.  “Throughout this diet [the ‘ armored diet’ of I 548], held at the moment when Charles was at the summit of his power, there is no trace of the autocratic spirit of the hoc volo sic jubeo. For each of his proposals he had patiently courted the support of public opinion… He never clutched at what was his own.”[1]. Charles’s real character is seen in this quote that shows overall he respected his subjects and the government’s institutions. He allowed them to have opinions that didn’t agree with him, and settled for the decision of the people, even if that meant giving up absolute power of a King. Charles V decided to punish Luther with an edict that banned him from the kingdom, and ordered his subjects to not to help or provide Luther with shelter. The princes, of course, ignored this ruling, and helped Luther finish writing his dissents against the Papacy.

Schmalkaldic War

The Schmalkaldic War was fought between the German princes in the Schmalkaldic League, the main one being John Frederick of Saxony, and Charles V with help from supporting princes, such as Duke Maurice of Saxony, and the Roman Catholic Church. Charles V received support and troops from Pope Paul III, which helped his relations with the Papacy, and was much needed if he were to continue any conflicts with France. The war is thought to be a war on religion, however Charles V was more concerned with the princes’ political disobedience rather than their religious dissent. The Lutheran princes of the Schmalkaldic League refused to aid in the conflict against the Ottomans in Austria, and furthered separated Germany from the rest of the Empire, angering and provoking Charles V to consider war, especially since the Pope provided him troops. Charles V had no other choice after being pushed so far by the greedy princes then to declare war on the League. While fighting those involved in the Schmalkaldic League, the King left alone neutral princes, and did not force them to pick a side, showing the true intentions of the King. At the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547, Charles V is victorious, and John Frederick is captured. The Schmalkaldic League is dissolved and Frederick is sentenced to death. Frederick, however, obtained a pardon on May 19, 1547 to rid himself of the death sentence by agreeing to forfeit his elector vote and some territories to his cousin Duke Maurice of Saxony. The pardon issued by Charles V shows how lenient he is with his subjects, especially the rebelling princes. The ultimate goal of Charles V was to unify the Holy Roman Empire, thus the independence of the German princes stood in the way of that goal.

Peace of Augsburg

The peace of Augsburg is a treaty between those involved in the Schmalkaldic League and Charles V, signed on September 25, 1555. Charles V created a group that had 7 protestants and 7 Catholics, to discuss the disputed points of the treaty and to find a compromise. There would be no agreeable outcome, since both sides of the committee wanted to be in charge, especially the Catholics. “The Catholics, however, who regarded themselves as victors, although they had contributed nothing to the victory, offered violent opposition.” With no compromise seen in the committee, Charles agreed to allow Protestants practice their religion in Germany. The religion of the King would remain the religion of the empire, however other religions would be tolerated. This outcome left both parties deeply unsatisfied because the Catholics did not want religious tolerance and the Protestants did not want a unified empire. The Counter-Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition will occur because of the tolerance allowed to the Protestants, and further separate Europe, and cause a deeper hatred between Protestants and Catholics.

Abdication of Charles V

The first territories abdicated included: Naples, Sicily, and Milan; in which he gave to Phillip in 1554. Later on, Charles publicly abdicated to the legislature of the Netherlands, giving the throne to his son Phillip and announced his plans to retire to a monastery in Spain, due to his poor health and failure in the Holy Roman Empire. “…When I was nineteen, upon the emperor’s death, I undertook to be a candidate for the Imperial crown, not to increase my possessions but rather to engage myself more vigorously in working for the welfare of Germany… in the hopes of thereby bringing peace among the Christian peoples and uniting their fighting forces for the defense of the Catholic faith against the Ottomans”. In his famous abdication speech, Charles goes over his failure in Germany and why it happened. He wanted to unify Germany with the rest of his empire and together defeat the Ottomans, all under the Catholic faith. However, when religious dissent occurred, he allowed it and tolerated it. The toleration of the Protestants is the main reason why he believes he failed Germany, if we would have acted with greater force on the princes, the empire he left would be more unified.

In a letter to his son Phillip on May 19, 1543, he left a set of instructions on how to run the kingdom, especially since he has now married Mary I of England, daughter of Henry VIII. He told him, “Hold god always before your eyes and offer all your works to God, and… to be subject always to good advice… to uphold the Inquisition, suppress heresy, defend religion, and dispense justice.” [4]We see a frustrated King giving direction and guidance to his son for when he takes over Spain and the Netherlands, along with ruling England with Mary. Charles knows if he would have treated the citizens of Germany as the Spanish government did to those during the Inquisition, he would not have failed in uniting an empire under Catholicism. He does not want to see his son fail his empire in the way that he did with Germany. In January 1556, Charles formally handed over the Spanish empire to Phillip.

In September 1556, Charles gave the Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand, with a clause that states his son Phillip will not inherit after Ferdinand’s death, but instead Ferdinand’s son Maximilian will inherit the Holy Roman Empire, to end all disputes between the two brothers.

On September 21st 1558, Charles died from malaria in Extremadura, Spain. While the reign of Charles V proved to be unsuccessful in terms of unifying Europe under Catholic rule, he was a great ruler. Charles was able to manage a vast empire with overseas colonies, for 34 years. He shut down rebellions, won wars against France, and was able to push back the Ottoman’s out of his Hapsburg territory, making him one of the greatest rulers of the sixteenth century. His ultimate failures proved to be against his own people and giving them religious tolerance and taking power back from the Papacy, which forever tarnished his overall success as a King.