The Troubled Succession of Charles V: Spain 1516-1522

Portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558) by Bernaerd van Orley
The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons

By the time he was 20, in 1520, Charles V ruled the largest collection of European land since Charlemagne over 700 years earlier. Charles was Duke of Burgundy, King of the Spanish Empire and the Habsburg territories, which included Austria and Hungary, as well as Holy Roman Emperor; he continued to acquire more land throughout his life. Problematically for Charles, but interestingly for historians, he acquired these lands piecemeal - there was no one single inheritance - and many of the territories were independent countries with their own systems of government and little common interest. This empire, or monarchia, may have brought Charles power, but it also caused him great problems.

The Succession to Spain

Charles inherited the Spanish Empire in 1516; this included peninsular Spain, Naples, several islands in the Mediterranean and large tracts of America. Although Charles had a clear right to inherit, the manner in which he did so caused upset: in 1516 Charles became regent of the Spanish Empire on his mentally ill mother’s behalf. Just a few months later, with his mother still alive, Charles declared himself king.

Charles Causes Problems

The manner of Charles’ rise to the throne caused upset, with some Spaniards wishing for his mother to remain in power; others supported Charles’ infant brother as heir. On the other hand, there were many who flocked to the court of the new king. Charles caused more problems in the manner in which he initially governed the kingdom: some feared he was inexperienced, and some Spaniards feared Charles would focus on his other lands, such as those he stood to inherit from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. These fears were exacerbated by the time it took Charles to put aside his other business and travel to Spain for the very first time: eighteen months.

Charles caused other, much more tangible, problems when he arrived in 1517. He promised a gathering of towns called the Cortes that he wouldn’t appoint foreigners to important positions; he then issued letters naturalizing certain foreigners and appointed them to important positions. Furthermore, having been granted a large subsidy to the crown by the Cortes of Castile in 1517, Charles broke with tradition and asked for another large payment while the first was being paid. He’d so far spent little time in Castile and the money was to finance his claim to the Holy Roman throne, a foreign adventure feared by Castilians. This, and his weakness when it came to resolving internal conflicts between the towns and nobles, caused great upset.

The Revolt of the Comuneros 1520-1

During the years 1520 - 21, Spain experienced a major rebellion within its Castilian kingdom, an uprising that has been described as "the largest urban revolt in early modern Europe." (Bonney, The European Dynastic States, Longman, 1991, p. 414) Although certainly true, this statement obscures a later, but still significant, rural component. There is still debate on how close the revolt came to succeeding, but this rebellion of Castilian towns - who formed their own local councils, or 'communes' - included a true mix of contemporary mismanagement, historical rivalry, and political self-interest. Charles wasn’t completely to blame, as pressure had grown over the last half-century when towns felt themselves increasingly losing power versus the nobility and the crown.

The Rise of the Holy League

Riots against Charles had begun before he had even left Spain in 1520, and as the riots spread, towns began rejecting his government and forming their own: councils called comuneros. In June 1520, as nobles remained quiet, hoping to profit from the chaos, the comuneros met and formed themselves together in the Santa Junta (Holy League). Charles’ regent sent an army to deal with the rebellion, but this lost the propaganda war when it started a fire that gutted Medina del Campo. More towns then joined the Santa Junta.

As the rebellion spread in the north of Spain, the Santa Junta initially tried to get Charles V’s mother, the old queen, on their side for support. When this failed, the Santa Junta sent a list of demands to Charles, a list intended to keep him king and moderate his actions and make him more Spanish. The demands included Charles returning to Spain and giving the Cortes a much greater role in government.

Rural Rebellion and Failure

As the rebellion grew larger, cracks appeared in the alliance of towns as each had their own agenda. The pressure of supplying troops also began to tell. The rebellion spread into the countryside, where people directed their violence against the nobility as well as the king. This was a mistake, as the nobles who had been content to let the revolt carry on now reacted against the new threat. It was the nobles who exploited Charles to negotiate a settlement and a noble led army which crushed the comuneros in battle.

The revolt was effectively over after the Santa Junta was defeated in battle at Villalar in April 1521, although pockets remained until early 1522. The reaction of Charles wasn’t harsh given the standards of the day, and the towns kept many of their privileges. However, the Cortes was never to gain any further power and became a glorified bank for the king.

The Germania

Charles faced another rebellion which occurred at the same time as the Comunero Revolt, in a smaller and less financially important region of Spain. This was the Germania, born out of a militia created to fight Barbary pirates, a council which wanted to create a Venice like city-state, and class anger as much as a dislike of Charles. The rebellion was crushed by the nobility without much crown help.

1522: Charles Returns

Charles returned to Spain in 1522 to find royal power restored. Over the next few years, he worked to change the relationship between himself and the Spaniards, learning Castilian, marrying an Iberian woman and calling Spain the heart of his empire. The towns were bowed and could be reminded of what they had done if ever they opposed Charles, and the nobles had fought their way to a closer relationship with him.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Troubled Succession of Charles V: Spain 1516-1522." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Troubled Succession of Charles V: Spain 1516-1522. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Troubled Succession of Charles V: Spain 1516-1522." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).