Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Charles I became the first king of a united Spain and its first Habsburg Dynasty ruler, which concerned those who feared Habsburg domination of Spain. Charles’s reign, however, also led to the expanding worldwide influence of Spain and Habsburg Austria.

Summary of Event

The accession of Charles I to the throne of Spain was the climax of a bitter dispute over the succession that had its origins in the unusual nature of the marriage contract between his maternal grandparents, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Both had been confirmed sovereign in their own kingdoms, but there was nothing in their marriage contract about their successors. According to Spanish law, however, their heir would inherit both kingdoms. Charles V (1500- 1558) Adrian VI Croy, Guillaume de Jiménez de Cisneros, Francisco Ferdinand II (1452-1516) Isabella I Ferdinand of Aragon Joan the Mad Philip I Charles I (king of Spain) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Isabella I (queen of Spain) Joan the Mad Philip I (king of Spain) Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) Adrian of Utrecht Croy, Guillaume de Ferdinand of Aragon Jiménez de Cisneros, Francisco Charles I (king of Spain)

Isabella of Castile died in 1504. Her legitimate successor was her daughter Joan the Mad, who was married to Philip of Habsburg, son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Ferdinand and Isabella had arranged the marriage to provide a family alliance with the Habsburgs and thus encircle their common enemy—France. Joan and Philip were proclaimed queen and king of Castile in 1504.

Ferdinand, Isabella’s widower and king of Aragon, found this succession unsatisfactory. He disliked having a foreign prince on a Spanish throne, but his eldest son and original heir, Juan (or John), died after Joan’s marriage to Philip, thereby making Joan heir to the throne of Aragon as well. Furthermore, bouts of mental illness plagued Joan, clearly limiting any control she might have over her husband.

The political ramifications of a Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty succession were even more disturbing. The restless nobility of Castile openly supported Philip because they hoped to find in him a monarch who would rule in accord with their interests, countering Ferdinand and Isabella’s efforts to curb the power of the nobles for more than two decades. The only immediate step Ferdinand could take was to have himself proclaimed regent of Castile until Joan and Philip could arrive from Flanders to take possession of their throne.

Shortly after the couple arrived in Spain in 1506, Philip suddenly died. The sudden death of her husband, with whom she had been deeply in love, strained Joan’s fragile grasp on sanity and rendered her unable to rule Castile. The right of succession fell upon her eldest son, Charles, who was only six years old at the time. Joan retired to a castle in Tordesillas, where she lived until her death in 1555.

Ferdinand continued to serve as regent of Castile while Charles was reared in Brussels and received tutoring from Adrian of Utrecht in the ways of the Flemish. As he grew, Charles was advised by Guillaume de Croy, sieur de Chièvres, in Habsburg policies. The prospect of having Charles succeed to the thrones of Castile and Aragon disturbed Ferdinand. Because Charles was heir to his paternal grandparents’ lands in Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand believed that Spain would be subordinated to Habsburg needs if Charles succeeded him. In an effort to circumvent Charles, Ferdinand brought to Spain his namesake, Charles’s younger brother, who was trained in Spanish ways and policies. The younger Ferdinand was even named as heir to the throne in a will made by his grandfather.

The Castilian nobility rallied to support Charles, again hoping to have a foreign monarch whom they could dominate. Chièvres sent Adrian to Spain in 1515 to persuade Ferdinand to change his will. Absorbed with foreign policy problems and plagued by the unruly behavior of the Spanish nobility, Ferdinand rescinded his will and named Charles as his heir. When Ferdinand died in 1516, Charles became king of Castile and Aragon, the first monarch of a united Spain.

Until Charles arrived in Spain, the aging Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, archbishop of Toledo, acted as regent of Castile. The Castilian nobility soon rallied to the cause of Charles’s brother Ferdinand when they observed the ambitions of Charles’s Flemish advisers. Nevertheless, Cisneros was able to block the nobility’s attempts at domination. Charles arrived in Spain in 1517, preceded by Chièvres, who dismissed Cisneros as regent.

Charles faced severe difficulties in claiming his Spanish crown. Arriving in Spain on September 18, 1517, after winds buffeted his small fleet, Charles faced his first challenge from the suspicious Castilian cortes, or parliament, which recognized him formally as king of Castile on March 21, 1518. The Castilians preferred Charles’s brother, Ferdinand; therefore Charles sent him to Germany. More discussions followed with the cantankerous cortes of Aragon. Just as Charles was negotiating with the Catalonian cortes, his paternal grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I, died. The German electors chose Charles unanimously to succeed Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor. The Spanish kingdoms thus became part of a continental empire.

As the new emperor prepared to receive money from the Castilians for his journey to the Netherlands, a severe revolt broke out in Castile. The installation of Flemish and other non-Spanish advisers and the assessment of higher taxes angered many native Spaniards, particularly the grandees (nobles). The Castilian cities sought to reverse the encroachment of the nobility upon offices traditionally reserved for the artisan guilds and merchants. A massive Jacquerie attack (a peasant’s revolt) on bailiffs and noble properties developed into rural violence that motivated the aristocracy to defend their land if not the king. In the aftermath of the Comunero Revolt (1520-1522) Comunero Revolt (1520-1522) , Charles was forced to return and engineer a reform of political administration in Spain. He arranged a compromise whereby Spain provided resources for his imperial ventures while the local nobility gained economic and social rank within Spain.


Charles I had inherited not only the Spanish throne but also a vast empire that reached the New World, a region of which he encouraged exploration. His rule extended also to Spain’s territories in Italy, the Low Countries, and central Europe’s Habsburg lands. His reign set the stage for Spain’s golden age, which lasted into the seventeenth century. Finally, Charles was the last Holy Roman Emperor to control European affairs.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blockmans, Wim. Emperor Charles V, 1500-1558. Translated by Isola van den Hoven-Vardon. London: Arnold, 2002. Blockmans attempts to survey the scope of the vast territory and diverse culture of the Holy Roman Empire by analyzing the relationship between Charles as an individual and the complex, rigid yet unstable power structures within which he governed. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Davies, R. Trevor. The Golden Century of Spain, 1501-1621. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Originally published in 1937, this well-written survey covers all aspects of Charles’s reign
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliott, John H. Imperial Spain, 1469-1719. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964. Elliott concentrates on the effects of Charles’s imperial policies on Spain.
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    xlink:type="simple">Fichtner, Paula Sutter. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire. New York & Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. A comprehensive discussion of the Habsburg Dynasty and its rulers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Spain, 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict. 2d ed. Reprint. New York: Longman, 1996. An excellent survey of early modern Spain. Kamen contends that imperial Spain was never fully equipped to control empires in Europe and the Americas simultaneously.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lovett, A. W. Early Hapsburg Spain, 1517-1598. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A lively narrative that incorporates modern advances in Spanish historiography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, John. Spain, 1516-1598: From Nation State to World Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991. A concentrated, detailed, and immensely valuable study of sixteenth century Spain.
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    xlink:type="simple">Maltby, William. The Reign of Charles V. New York: Palgrave, 2002. A monograph that balances biography of Charles with broad analysis of his foreign and domestic policies and their historical consequences. Includes maps, bibliographic references, index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Townsend. The Castles and the Crown. New York: Coward-McCann, 1963. An older biographical study, Miller’s work remains one of the best accounts of the dispute over the succession and provides perceptive insights into the personalities of Ferdinand, Joan, and Philip.
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    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Glenn. Renaissance Monarchy: The Reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I, and Charles V. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A comparison of Charles to two other monarchs who helped define Renaissance government and culture. Focuses on their careers as warriors, governors, and patrons. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Tracy, James D. Emperor Charles V, Impresario of War: Campaign Strategy, International Finance, and Domestic Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Examination of the financial and political consequences of Charles V’s military campaigns. Discusses Charles as a field commander of his armies, as well as the international financial community that loaned Charles the money to pay for battles and thereby gained control over parts of his lands. Also discusses the local governments within the empire that learned to exploit Charles’s need for money.

Oct. 19, 1469: Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

1482-1492: Maximilian I Takes Control of the Low Countries

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

July 26, 1581: The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

Categories: History