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Prehistory to Roman
Christians and Muslims
Ferdinand and Isabella
Charles V
     Charles and Ferdinand
     Charles and Francis, to 1529
     Charles and Francis, to 1547
     Philip and the queen of England
     Abdication of Charles V

Philip II
Dynasty in decline
To be completed

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Habsburg brothers: 1516-1564

For half a century the Habsburg brothers Charles and Ferdinand are the dominant figures of southern and central Europe, from Spain to Austria. Both are much involved in the upheavals resulting from the Reformation, which severely strains already fragile loyalties in the German lands of the empire.

Outside this shared central issue, the attention of the brothers is separately focussed. Each has on his hands one of the great territorial conflicts of the 16th century.


Charles makes western Europe his priority, regarding Spain as the centre of his realm. Here the conflict is with France.

There are frequent clashes between Habsburg and Valois interests in two rich and hotly disputed regions - northern Italy and the Netherlands. There is even a direct personal clash between Charles and his French rival Francis I. The two men first compete, at vast expense, in the 1519 election of the next Holy Roman emperor.


There is perhaps little chance of a French king being elected to rule an empire which in its origin included France but which has not done so for centuries. But Charles is taking no risks. He clinches the election by dispensing vast sums in bribes (borrowing the money from the Fuggers, to their great advantage and his lasting inconvenience). He is elected in June 1519 and crowned as German king at Aachen in 1520.

This is the first encounter in a rivalry between Charles and Francis which comes to dominate the politics of western Europe. It involves a large measure of personal animosity.


Charles versus Francis: 1520-1529

Francis, preparing to make war on his rival after Charles's election as emperor, attempts first to secure an important ally on his western flank - England's Henry VIII, the third in this trio of autocratic young rulers born within a few years of each other. If Francis is to march safely against Charles, he cannot in his absence risk Henry pressing his family's ancient claim to the throne of France, or even extending the territory round England's last remaining French possession, the pale of Calais.

Francis therefore invites Henry in 1520 to the spectacularly lavish meeting which becomes known as the Field of Cloth of Gold.


The conviviality of the Field of Cloth of Gold fails to deliver an English alliance (Henry immediately moves on to a less sumptuous but more fruitful meeting with Charles V in Kent, where each agrees to make no pact with Francis for at least two years). In 1521 Francis moves against Spanish land in the Pyrenees, beginning years of intermittent warfare.

In 1522 an imperial army drives the French out of Milan. Three years later Francis marches into Italy to reclaim his territory, with disastrous consequences. The French are heavily defeated at Pavia, in 1525, and Francis himself is taken prisoner. Soon he is in a fortress in Madrid, negotiating with Charles under duress.


After six months Francis secures his release from Madrid by giving up his claims to Flanders, Artois and Tournai in the Netherlands, to Milan, Genoa and Naples in Italy, and to the duchy of Burgundy. But he has little intention of keeping his word. Within two months of his return to France, in 1526, he has put in place a pact, the League of Cognac, allying himself with Venice and a new pope, Clement VII.

This time it is the pope who soon finds himself a prisoner. An imperial army, campaigning in Italy and containing large numbers of unpaid German mercenaries, marches in 1527 on the holy city of Rome.


Rome is sacked, looted and ravaged with the violence customary on such occasions. Rich citizens are seized for ransom; there are stories of nuns offered for sale on the streets. The pope manages to reach the security of the Castel Sant'Angelo where he shelters, a prisoner in all but name, until the imperial army is at last withdrawn from the city.

These violent events prompt the treaty of Cambrai, signed in 1529 and known as the 'ladies' peace' because its terms are negotiated between Francis's mother and one of Charles's aunts. It confirms the concessions made by Francis in Madrid, except that now Charles renounces his claim to the original duchy of Burgundy (only a small part of his Burgundian inheritance).


Charles versus Francis: 1529-1547

While coping with French hostility, Charles has other major concerns not shared by his rival - aggression from the Turks (on the empire's eastern frontier, and in the Mediterranean), and the Protestant unrest which is creating turmoil in Germany.

In 1529 (the year of the treaty between Charles and Francis) the Turks besiege Vienna and the pirate Barbarossa, working in alliance with the Turkish sultan, secures himself a base in Algiers. In 1530 Charles finds time to have himself formally crowned emperor by the pope in Bologna. Then he hurries north to negotiate with the Protestants at Augsburg. In 1531 Protestant princes form the League of Schmalkalden in opposition to Charles.


In these circumstances there is every reason for the two leading European monarchs, both Roman Catholic, to stand together. But Francis cannot accept the defeat implicit in the treaty of Cambrai. He now shocks contemporary opinion by negotiating with Protestants and even Muslims for an alliance against the Habsburg empire.

Francis goes to war twice more against Charles, in 1536-8 and 1542-4. The fate of Nice in 1543 suggests very well the bitter and improbable results of this royal rivalry. The Muslim ally of Francis in the siege of Nice (in the duchy of Savoy, which is part of the empire) is Barbarossa. The famous pirate, now a Turkish admiral, carries off 2500 Christians into captivity.


Spain and England: 1553-1558

The accession to the throne of England in 1553 of the Catholic queen Mary I offers Spain a second chance to make good the alliance of a previous generation. In 1509 Henry VIII marries Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the Spanish king; but the likely benefit to Spain is annulled in 1533, along with Henry's marriage. Now, in spite of that annulment, Catherine's daughter Mary is queen of England. The king of Spain, Charles V, offers Mary the hand of his son and heir, Philip - as enthusiastic a Catholic as Mary herself.

The offer is eagerly accepted by Mary, though far from welcome to most of the English people.


Philip travels to England for the wedding in 1554 and spends a year in the country. The couple are accepted as the king and queen of England, though the marriage treaty excludes Philip from the throne if Mary dies childless.

Philip leaves England after a year, and Mary only sees him on one other visit - when he returns briefly in 1557 to persuade her to join Spain in war against France. The following year Mary dies, without producing the desired Catholic heir. But Philip's efforts to control English policy continue by other means, and not only for religious reasons. He needs friendly English coasts on the sea route to the Netherlands, a province which he rules from 1555.


Abdication of Charles V: 1555-1556

After nearly forty years of intense personal rule over an empire of unprecedented size and complexity, Charles V divides his responsibilities between his son and his brother.

In Brussels in October 1555, with much pomp and ceremony, he instals his son Philip as ruler of the Netherlands. Three months later he abdicates, in Philip's favour, as king of Spain and of the Spanish territories in Italy and America. In September 1556 he transfers the title of Holy Roman emperor to his brother Ferdinand, who has already been long acknowledged as ruler of the Habsburg inheritance in German lands.


Early in 1557 Charles retires to a residence close to the monastery of Yuste in Spain. For the emperor, still only in his late 50s, this is an unprecedented period of seclusion, in holy surroundings, at the end of a life of constant travel, turmoil and warfare.

For his son Philip, by contrast, seclusion in a monastery becomes almost a style of government. He returns to Spain from the Netherlands in 1559; in the remaining thirty-nine years of his life he never again leaves the Iberian peninsula. In 1563 he commissions the extraordinary building which is his seat of government when he is not in Madrid - the Escorial.


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