Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

Charles V’s election as Holy Roman Emperor consolidated Spain’s supremacy within Europe, created the largest empire since the days of the Romans, and launched a century-long rivalry between Spain and France overseas.

Summary of Event

On January 12, 1519, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I died at Augsburg, Germany. He was the second Habsburg in succession to occupy the imperial throne. Maximilian’s son, Philip the Handsome, married Joan of Spain, and Charles was their eldest son. When Philip died in 1506, Maximilian chose Charles as his heir. For several years before his death, Maximilian had been working for the election of his grandson as his successor to the office of emperor. Maximilian I
Charles V (1500-1558)
Ferdinand of Aragon
Francis I (1494-1547)
Leo X
Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Philip I (king of Spain)
Joan the Mad
Francis I (king of France)
Leo X
Frederick the Wise
Ferdinand of Aragon
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)

The office of the Holy Roman Emperor was the only major secular monarchy in Europe that was elective at the close of the Middle Ages. The right to choose a new emperor was vested in seven electors: the margrave of Brandenburg, the count of the Rhenish Palatinate, the elector of Saxony, the king of Bohemia, and the archbishops of Trier (Trèves), Mainz, and Cologne.

Before his death, Maximilian advised Charles to bestow lavish gifts on the electors to secure their votes, and Charles proceeded to do so. He borrowed immense sums from the Fugger banking house at Augsburg and bribed all the electors except two, the young heir of Bohemia who had been adopted by Maximilian, and the margrave of Brandenburg who was committed to vote for King Francis I of France. Many German princes opposed the election of Charles because they feared the growing power of the Habsburgs. Charles was not as popular as his grandfather, who posed less of a threat.

The French king was Charles’s major rival for the office. Because Charles’s election would make him, at least theoretically, the ruler of all the lands bordering France, Francis sought desperately to prevent another Habsburg from succeeding to the office. He also distributed bribes to the electors.

Pope Leo X also fought against the election of Charles. Because the Habsburgs already had extensive holdings in Italy, Leo feared the encirclement of the Papal States. At first, he gave his support to Francis, but when it became clear that the electors would not choose a Frenchman, he tried to persuade the elector of Saxony, Frederick III, to seek the imperial throne. Frederick, who was the protector of Martin Luther and one with growing Protestant sympathies, refused because he was aging and unwell. Frederick knew that he possessed neither the stamina nor the power base to serve as emperor. Instead, he gave his support to Charles, who then became the unanimous but less than enthusiastic choice of all the prince electors. King Henry VIII of England also announced that he was a candidate, but he was never taken seriously.

On June 28, 1519, the electors, meeting at Frankfurt, unanimously nominated Charles as emperor. The margrave of Brandenburg later claimed to have been intimidated, because an army in the pay of Charles was then in the vicinity of the city. On October 22, the new emperor was crowned at Aachen, Charlemagne’s ancient capital. Pope Leo reluctantly confirmed the election, as was customary, and some years later Charles was solemnly crowned again at Rome.

A contemporary poem rejoiced that “Others shall wage war. Thou, O happy Austria, shall marry.” It was through judicious marriage alliances aided by fortuitous accidents that the huge Habsburg Empire came into existence. Maximilian himself had married Mary of Burgundy, the heiress of the Netherlands. His son Philip married the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and Charles was born of this union. The death of Philip made Charles the scion of the Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty family, and he unexpectedly became heir to the Spanish throne when an older cousin died. The election of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor, together with his inheritances from the houses of Burgundy, Spain, Luxembourg, and Habsburg, made Charles ruler, as he himself said, “over an empire on which the sun never set.”

At the time of his election, Charles, who had been born and reared in the Low Countries, was on his first visit to Germany. He could not yet speak the language, although over the next thirty-five years he became thoroughly familiar with German affairs. Charles V had become king of Spain three years before his election as emperor. By birth and as ruler of extensive territories outside Germany, Charles could never be a German king primarily. He was first and last a Habsburg ruler. Year after year, Charles had to make decisions from alternatives that often seemed equally disastrous. His German and Spanish subjects often criticized Charles for subordinating the interests of their countries to those of other areas of the Habsburg Empire.

After his coronation, Charles embarked on state visits to England and France. In 1521, he returned to Germany and summoned the Diet of Worms, Worms, Diet of (1521) his first attempt to deal with the Lutheran movement that was splitting the empire. He also began complicated diplomatic negotiations which in time brought about marriage alliances with every kingdom of Europe. In 1522, he returned to Spain, leaving his brother Ferdinand to act as regent in Germany.

In 1523, the first of several major wars with France broke out in northern Italy Italy;French invasions of . At the Battle of Pavia Pavia, Battle of (1525) in 1525, King Francis was captured and imprisoned in Madrid. By the Treaty of Madrid Madrid, Treaty of (1526) in 1526, Francis was forced to make extensive concessions, including the French duchy of Burgundy, to which Maximilian had laid claim through marriage, and the renunciation of all claims in northern Italy. After his release, Francis repudiated these concessions, and the prolonged Habsburg-Valois rivalry continued for more than a century, everything else in European politics being subordinated to this struggle.


The election of Charles was of momentous consequences for the history of Europe during the next century and a half, for it created overnight a vast empire larger than any since the days of the Romans. As king of Spain, Charles already ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula, southern Italy and Sicily, Central and South America (except Brazil), and parts of North Africa; he also had vague claims in Asia and the Pacific. He had inherited most of the Netherlands as well as extensive German lands in Austria with claims in Bohemia and Hungary. As emperor, he became overlord of Germany, Switzerland, and certain territories in northern Italy that Maximilian had conquered.

Further Reading

  • Blockmans, Wim. Emperor Charles V, 1500-1558. Translated by Isola van den Hoven-Vardon. London: Arnold, 2002. Attempts to survey 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.
  • 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 a foremost authority on Charles V, this biography is still the standard account. Brandi states that Charles developed the dynastic theory of the Habsburgs.
  • Detwiler, Donald S. Germany: A Short History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976. A readable, concise overview of German history with maps, a bibliography of English-language works, and a brief chronology.
  • Heer, Friedrich. The Holy Roman Empire. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968. Heer describes the origins and development of the Holy Roman Empire. His work provides fine coverage of Charles V and is lavishly illustrated, but its bibliography is made up of mostly works in German.
  • Hughes, Michael. Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. A good, concise description of Germany and the changes that took place on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Includes maps and an extensive bibliography of works in English.
  • 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.
  • Lynch, John. Spain, 1516-1598: From Nation-State to World Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991. An internationally recognized scholar of Spanish history, Lynch emphasizes the political difficulties facing Spain and Charles V. His work includes a brief but useful bibliography and tables of economic facts.
  • Maltby, William. The Reign of Charles V. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Monograph balances a biography of Charles with broad analysis of his foreign and domestic policies and their historical consequences. Includes maps, bibliographic references, index.
  • Richardson, Glenn. Renaissance Monarchy: The Reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I, and Charles V. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 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.
  • 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, and 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. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.

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

1520-1522: Comunero Revolt

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

Oct. 20-27, 1541: Holy Roman Empire Attacks Ottomans in Algiers

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

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