Charles V Abdicates

Charles V’s abdication as Holy Roman Emperor led to the division of his lands between his son Philip and his brother Ferdinand, separating the Spanish and German territories and laying the foundation for the political and cultural greatness of Spain.

Summary of Event

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who also ruled Spain as Charles I, had inherited the largest empire of his day. From his mother, he inherited his claim to the Spanish throne and to Spain’s overseas empire and its territories in Italy. From his father, he inherited the Low Countries and the Habsburg lands in central Europe. Charles V (1500-1558)
Philip II (1527- 1598)
Ferdinand I (1503-1564)
Alva, Duke of
Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Philip II (king of Spain);Charles V’s abdication and
Alva, duke of
William the Silent
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)

Charles V’s death in 1558 was followed by mournful processions, including a solemn funeral ceremony with this elaborate vehicle-drawn vessel in Charles’s honor in Brussels.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Charles encountered enormous problems in attempting to rule such an extensive and diverse area. He fought the Turks in central Europe and in the Mediterranean, repressed rebellion in the Low Countries, tried to suppress the Protestant Reformation in the German principalities, worked to protect his developing empire in the New World, and fended off attempts by the kings of France to break the encirclement of France by Habsburg territories.

Charles also had constant money problems. The accumulated pressures of these responsibilities adversely affected his health. He was frequently incapacitated for long periods of time and became discouraged over his inability to accomplish his religious and political objectives in the German states and in the Low Countries.

When Charles V left Germany in 1553, he had in all probability already decided to lay down at least some of the burden that he had been carrying for thirty-four years. He was disgusted with, and defeated by, the German situation. Privately he drew up a document that criticized both the Catholic and the Protestant princes of Germany. He believed that the secular princes were untrustworthy, while the bishops lacked the vigor and concern needed to make the necessary reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.

His brother Ferdinand persuaded Charles to carry the imperial title a little longer. Although he recognized the necessity for compromise, Charles earnestly warned Ferdinand against granting doctrinal concessions at the Diet of Augsburg, Augsburg, Diet of (1555) which convened in 1555.

He was only fifty-four years old, but Charles was worn out and ill from carrying the immense burdens of his vast empire. He had determined to abdicate without duress or compulsion and devote himself to religion in preparation for his death. Charles gave three reasons for his abdication: First, he wanted to retire; second, he believed he was unfit to fulfill his duties; and third, he was suffering from ill health. The difficulty was to decide what arrangement should be followed in disposing of territories within the Holy Roman Empire. Even before Charles’s election in 1519, it was realized that one person alone could not govern both Spain and Germany, and Charles had been advised to allow Ferdinand to seek the imperial throne. Charles had indignantly rejected the suggestion then, but now the earlier counsel had become acceptable.

Charles apparently considered having his son Philip elected to the imperial throne, but Philip was Spanish in temperament and education; he was not familiar with German affairs, and he was more uncompromising than his father on religious issues.

At Brussels on October 25, 1555, Charles solemnly abdicated rule of the Netherlands and turned the nation over to Philip. On that occasion, he acted in a public ceremony and delivered a speech calling attention to his illness and his military setbacks, and reviewing his long years of rule. The Netherlands Netherlands;partition of the Habsburg Empire had always been the territory closest to his heart, and many nobles wept during his speech.

On January 16, 1556, he abdicated the rule of Spain Spain;partition of the Habsburg Empire and all Spanish-held lands to Philip. On that occasion, he acted in a private ceremony. Ferdinand was already designated “king of the Romans,” a title that normally carried with it the connotation of heir apparent to the imperial throne. On September 12, 1556, Charles sent to Ferdinand an emissary carrying his letter of abdication. For some time, Ferdinand ruled as regent of the empire, but in February of 1558, the electors formally accepted the abdication and elected Ferdinand emperor.

Almost immediately Charles left Brussels for Spain, never again to visit his former territories. He settled at a monastery near Yuste in Castile, and although he lived in regal style and paid close attention to political affairs, his major interests were now religious. Charles did assume some minor political responsibilities at the request of Philip but refused most. Weakened by gout and diabetes, Charles contracted malaria and died on September 21, 1558.

The division of the Habsburg Empire left Ferdinand with formal authority in Germany, but with real power limited largely to the hereditary Habsburg lands centered in Austria. He also had undefined interests in northern Italy. Philip, now Philip II of Spain, could also lay claim to the Netherlands, vast Spanish possessions overseas, and most of Italy except the Papal States. The French invaded the Italian peninsula in 1557, but they were defeated by Philip’s general, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, the duke of Alva. In 1559, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis Cateau-Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)[Cateau Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)] was signed, and the dominance of Spain in European affairs over the next century dates from the signing of this treaty.

The German and Spanish branches of the Habsburg family Habsburg Dynasty maintained somewhat loose connections, although there was never any doubt that they would form a united front if the interests of either were seriously threatened. Nevertheless, Ferdinand’s settlement of the religious problem in Germany, the Peace of Augsburg, became possible because the German problem could now be considered by itself, without reference to the rest of Europe.

Philip also was left to pursue a policy that was thoroughly Spanish. On ascending the throne, he was faced with two major problems: bankruptcy, largely caused by Charles’s military expenditures in Italy and Germany; and the spread of what was believed to be heresy in Spain. Philip gave strong support to the Inquisition Inquisition;Spain , which succeeded in eliminating almost all traces of heterodoxy from Spanish society. Yet the king was less successful with his financial problems. He remained burdened with debt for the remainder of his reign, and the economic problems of Spain became acute after his death.

Philip’s devotion to the Roman Catholic Church was the major factor in what was perhaps the chief disaster of his reign: the loss of half the Netherlands through rebellion. Heavy taxation and other grievances were contributing factors, but the issue that aroused permanent opposition was Philip’s attempt in 1559 to reorganize the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands by introducing the Inquisition to quell Protestantism, which flourished in great variety in the relaxed atmosphere of the heterogeneous towns of the Netherlands.

Armed revolt broke out in 1566, with the Catholics joining the Protestants to resist curtailment of their historic liberties. Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648) The duke of Alva instituted a reign of terror that stiffened resistance still further. Prince William the Silent, a Protestant, took over leadership of the rebellion, which by 1575 had succeeded in detaching the northern provinces (roughly the area of what is now the Netherlands) from Spanish control. Philip held on to the southern provinces (comprising the area of modern Belgium) but was forced to concede the temporary independence of the northern territory. The northern provinces later gained permanent independence during the Thirty Years’ War.


For the remainder of the sixteenth century, the emperors in Germany accepted a position less exalted than Charles V had conceived. With the religious issue temporarily settled, their major problem was dealing with the Turks, to whom they were forced to pay tribute for the safety of their eastern frontiers. After the Turkish fleet was defeated at the Battle of Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571) in 1571, there was temporary respite from this threat.

Further Reading

  • 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.
  • Brandi, Karl. The Emperor Charles V: The Growth and Destiny of a Man and of a World-Empire. Translated by C. V. Wedgwood. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968. Written by the foremost authority on Charles V, this biography has become the standard account. According to Brandi, Charles was chiefly responsible for developing the dynastic theory of the Habsburgs.
  • Fernandez Alvarez, Manuel. Charles V: Elected Emperor and Hereditary Ruler. Translated by J. A. Lalaguna. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975. A readable, interesting biography with a useful chapter on Charles’s retreat at Yuste.
  • Hughes, Michael. Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Hughes presents a concise overview of Germany and the changes that took place on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Kamen, Henry. Philip of Spain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A massive and detailed biography of Philip, documenting almost every aspect of his life, but somewhat light on his legacy and influence on future events.
  • Lynch, John. Spain, 1516-1598: From Nation-State to World Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991. One of the foremost historians of Spain, Lynch provides a definitive history of Spain under Charles V and Philip II. Explores the conflicting demands that his roles as king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor placed on Charles.
  • Maltby, William. The Reign of Charles V. New York: Palgrave, 2002. This monograph balances a biography of Charles with broad analysis of his foreign and domestic policies and their historical consequences.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Contests the traditional view of Philip as conducting his empire by reacting to events as they occurred without any grand plan to guide him. Uses correspondence and other historical documents to delineate a “strategic culture” informing Philip’s decisions and his reign.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. Philip II. 4th ed. Chicago: Open Court, 2002. A good overview of Philip’s reign, this edition is updated with a new bibliographic essay.
  • Rodriguez-Salgado, M. J. The Changing Face of Empire: Charles V, Philip II, and Habsburg Authority, 1551-1559. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. The author focuses on the 1550’, a period of transition when Charles experienced physical, mental, and political collapse and Philip received control of a portion of the vast Habsburg Empire.
  • 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

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

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

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Feb. 27, 1531: Formation of the Schmalkaldic League

Sept. 25, 1555: Peace of Augsburg

1568-1648: Dutch Wars of Independence

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