The royal bully who retired to a monastery

Pope Clement VII and Charles V

Emperor: A New Life of Charles V
By Geoffrey Parker
Yale, 760pp, £25/$35

Early 16th-century demographics can lead one to wonder how Protestantism managed to establish itself not just as a major religion but also one with considerable political power. Outside northern Germany almost every institution holding significant political power opposed both formal separation from the Church and key elements of the Lutheran agenda until a decade after the publication of the Ninety-five Theses.

Less educated elements of the populace were often attracted by Protestants’ spiritual zeal and repulsed by moral corruption within the Catholic hierarchy, rather than being interested in the precise issues of dogmatic theology. Surely the combined might of a Catholic Europe willing to put military force at the service of religion should have been able to overcome the new movement, even if for some reason the Holy Roman Empire was not up to the task unaided.

The solution to this conundrum is found the moment one ceases to look at the religious dispute in isolation and turns instead to consideration of the most powerful men of the day, particularly the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in which Protestantism originated.

Geoffrey Parker’s biography of Charles V reveals that the governments of the early to mid 16th-century Europe were not focused so much on the religious divide between Catholic and Protestant as on the political one between the empire of Charles V and the France of Francis I. At the same time, political and military attempts to defend the Catholic religion were not primarily directed against the seemingly isolated threat of German Protestantism but against the powerful and expansionist Islamic empire of the Ottomans.

Sometimes seen as a stalwart son of the Catholic Church, Charles V governed more of Europe than any civil head of state since Charlemagne and more of the earth’s surface than all earlier Western rulers other than Alexander the Great and, of course, many Roman emperors. As a Habsburg, Charles was hereditary archduke of Austria and secured election as Holy Roman Emperor. Through his paternal grandmother he inherited the Burgundian Netherlands and through his mother, Juana of Castile, he was senior heir to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

Significant territory on the Italian peninsula was subject to Charles in one way or another, as were enclaves in North Africa. Much of Spain’s empire in what is now Latin America was established by the end of his reign.

Despite such vast holdings, Charles became preoccupied with a re-conquest of that part of Burgundy which his ancestors had been forced to cede to France. Little economic or strategic benefit would have accrued to him from it, but the prideful values of chivalry induced him to prioritise efforts to overcome the perceived humiliation of his family.

His decision to cast aside both Just War principles and simple pragmatism exacerbated a level of tension between the empire and Francis I which could only have been overcome by men possessing greater political morality and greater personal humility than either Charles or his rival had.

Not only did both monarchs pursue their aggrandisement without regard to the good of the Church, but they also attacked Catholic interests whenever doing so served their purposes. Each proved willing to compromise with the Lutheran princelings of Germany, and later with Henry VIII, to secure their position against their leading Catholic rival.

When Pope Clement VII impeded Charles’s agenda, the latter ordered that Rome be captured, and was content to have the Holy Father imprisoned until he agreed to a peace acceptable to Charles. The emperor’s claim that Rome had been sacked without his approval was a disingenuous attempt to evade his willingness to risk the atrocity. Francis, for his part, encouraged and aided Ottoman invasions of Christian territories within Charles’s orbit.

The exact nature of Charles’s religiosity is difficult to determine. He did wish to preserve Catholic ritual and ecclesial governance. He emphatically held that the Lutherans’ departure from doctrinal tradition must be in error. He believed that any legitimate reform must take place within a united Church. He also kept in high office men who hoped to end the religious crisis through ambiguous compromises that could allow for both orthodox and heretical interpretations.

Orthodox on at least most points of theology, Charles tended to place more emphasis on institutional unity than theological precision and to show little regard for papal or episcopal rights when they interfered with his own agenda. His attempts to control certain aspects of the Council of Trent can only be described as bullying.

But in the last years of his life Charles abdicated all his offices, retiring to a monastery and giving himself over to religious devotion – making him, in some important ways, a better man than his most of his royal contemporaries, despite his numerous flaws.