Politics

Machiavelli’s political theory and Charles’ reality

Charles was intensely involved in politics throughout Europe for forty years, both in the complex internal politics of the lands that he ruled as Duke, King or Emperor, and on the international stage dealing with his frequently stormy relations with France and the Ottoman Empire. It is impossible here to cover all aspects of Charles’ political life – more can be found in ‘Duty and Dynasty: Emperor Charles V and his Changing World 1500-1558’ details of which are elsewhere in the website. This section looks specifically at the ideas of an early 16th century writer who has become widely known as an advocate of an unprincipled approach to power and politics – Niccolo Machiavelli. No-one active in politics today can afford to be seen to admire, still less practice, such an approach. Yet others believe he was describing the reality of politics, precisely the way rulers (past and present) achieve and maintain power. To refer to someone as ‘Machiavellian’ is not intended to be a complement, but it might just have an element of grudging respect or perhaps more likely a fear of the lengths to which an individual is prepared to go in order to achieve an objective. Charles V did not spend endless hours theorising, but he had a great deal of practical experience in the political world of the 16th century. He believed that in politics there were more exceptions than rules. It is therefore interesting to see to what extent Machiavelli’s ideas matched Charles’ realities.

Machiavelli’s education and career.

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Born in 1469, the son of a lawyer, Machiavelli received an education suited to one destined for government service, based on the ideals of ancient Rome, a study of the humane disciplines – Latin, rhetoric, ancient history and moral philosophy1. This does not mean that Machiavelli’s character was overly academic. All the evidence suggests that he liked to be the life and soul of the party, full of entertaining, if exaggerated, stories of his exploits, with a keen appetite for wine and women. He does not appear to have been overly constrained in his personal life by conventional beliefs and in his later writings, influenced as they were by practical experience, he was able to challenge the widely accepted, though often unrealistic, ideas of the time.

In his youth Machiavelli witnessed major upheavals both in Florence and throughout Italy. Florence had become famed for its wealth, sophistication and patronage of the arts, particularly under the leadership of the Medici family. There were always those jealous of such success. The death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492, followed by the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France, enabled the radical preacher, Savonarola, to dominate the city, expel the Medici, and have his ‘bonfire of the vanities’. A republic was established that continued even after Savonarola’s execution in 1498.

Machiavelli entered the service of the republic around 1500. He was sent on several diplomatic missions, meeting many of the leading figures of the day – Louis XII of France, Cesare Borgia (the son of Pope Alexander VI), and Pope Julius II. He was dismissed in 1512 when the defeat of the French led to the return of the Medici’s to power. He was temporarily imprisoned and tortured in 1513 when suspected of involvement in a plot against the Medici. Machiavelli wrote his most famous book ‘The Prince’ in an effort to curry favour with the Medici and regain a position in government. He failed and spent the next fourteen years on his country estate reading and writing. He produced ‘The Discourses’ (on Livy’s history of Rome) investigating how a republic can be established, become and remain powerful, and ‘The Art of War’. In the 1520’s he was commissioned by the Medici to produce a history of Florence. Ironically this final work made him unacceptable to the new rulers when the Medici were again removed and a republic was restored in 1527. He died only two weeks after this rejection in June 1527.

Machiavelli’s ideas

Machiavelli’s exposure to the realities of early 16th century politics, during Charles’ formative years, enabled him to develop ideas and make judgements about the effective exercise of power. His conclusions were based on the evidence apparent to him from his own experiences and observations in Italy and other parts of Europe, put in the framework of classical and Renaissance philosophy. He advocated that it was important for a ruler to act in a courageous, confident and decisive manner. Good laws and an effective army, ideally not one dominated by mercenary soldiers, would provide a sound basis for consolidating power. The ruler should be able to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy, to know when to fight and when to negotiate; he should not be too trustful of anyone; he should have the appearance of being virtuous even if he was not. Good citizens should be rewarded and honoured, but malefactors must be ruthlessly punished; a few exemplary punishments would discourage others and result in a more peaceful state in the future. It has been written that there are many benefits of absolute power, but a clean pair of hands is not one of them2.

The rulers of the time must be viewed in this context and if we cannot applaud them, we can at least understand them better, in the same way that it is important to understand the motives of our enemies if we are to improve our chances of defeating them. Of the rulers in Machiavelli’s time, he most admired Ferdinand of Aragon, Charles’ grandfather, because of the great things that he had achieved, not because of the means by which he had achieved them. The fact that Ferdinand, along with others from whom Machiavelli drew his examples, has not always been judged so positively (consider his treatment of Jews, his vast ambition, and the fact that he would never hesitate to break an agreement if it suited him) demonstrates that we are judging him using different criteria.

Machiavelli was making explicit what earlier writers had perhaps been unwilling to accept or dared not publish. All rulers, Charles, Francis I and Suleiman included, were aware of these realities. Death was as much feared by most people as now, and was likely to strike at any time. This was an era of widespread political cruelty and executions were common. Heretics were burnt at the stake, torture of prisoners was expected and political assassinations frequent. The professional soldiers of the time looked to augment their unreliable wages by looting, and a town that did not surrender could expect plunder, widespread rape and murder. Their leaders, whether the condottiere who were looking to make a fortune or establish a small state of their own, or crowned monarchs, seemed generally careless of the welfare and livelihood of the population. In such conditions it was admirable that some philosophers and clerics should write about morality, justice and salvation. Nor was it surprising that rulers, Charles included, spoke much about these values and how they applied them. Machiavelli, while acknowledging the worth of these ideals, was writing about the realities of his world.

Charles’ ideas about government and international politics.

Plenty of evidence about Charles’ views on how the ruler should act is available, particularly in the letters of advice that he produced for his son and heir, Philip, written from 1543 onwards. It is also worthwhile considering the extent to which he was able to follow his own advice. He always emphasised that he should put his trust in Almighty God, and the importance of defending the church and the faith. Charles often claimed that he was motivated by such intentions, though others accused him of seeking to increase his own power under the guise of defending his religion. Almost as important to Charles was gaining honour and reputation, for himself and his subjects, by protecting his lands and never yielding to his enemies. He was frequently at war with France and the Ottoman Empire, though he usually claimed that he was not the aggressor and that his enemies gave him no choice but to defend his territories. However he was also willing to listen to his military advisers when they urged caution.

When it suited his purposes Charles used the language of friendship, but he was always aware of the true situation. The Treaty of Barcelona, signed in June 1529 with the papacy, spoke of the emperor and pope ‘joining hands out of grief at the divisions of Christendom, to beat off the Turks and to make way for a general peace’. Charles wanted to be crowned by the pope but was fully aware that Pope Clement VII could never be relied on in future conflicts. In 1538 Charles and Francis I made peace and eighteen months later Charles travelled through France receiving a great welcome from Francis ‘as a brother’. Nevertheless Charles was clear, as he wrote to his son, that ‘France has never kept faith and has always sought to do me harm’.

In the international sphere, Charles wished Philip to remain on good terms with his uncle, Charles’ brother Ferdinand, and to seek his advice. He wanted the Habsburg family to remain united and strong. He believed that Milan and Naples, confirmed under his control after a hard struggle early in his reign, must be defended at all costs and that it was necessary to have a Spanish army in Italy. He wished to have good relations with Portugal and England. In the latter case this was not always easy, especially with Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon (Charles’ aunt) and his rift with the Catholic Church, but he recognised the value of preventing any alliance between England and France. Charles often looked to achieve peace with France by use of marriage between the Habsburgs and the Valois, between his and Ferdinand’s children and those of Francis I. The French king had already married Charles’ sister, Eleanor, but no other such marriage took place despite many plans.

Within his lands Charles believed that honour and reputation was also achieved by being ‘a friend to justice’, which should be tempered with mercy ‘after the manner of our Lord', and never be the ‘fruit of passion, prejudice or anger’. Nevertheless Charles was capable of administering harsh punishment when he considered it necessary to deliver an example and warning to others, such as his treatment of Ghent, the city of his birth, in 1539 (see Duty and Dynasty – extracts). He advised Philip to be calm and reserved, easy to approach and pleasant in manner. Charles was seen to do just this, indeed it was sometimes believed that his manner showed him to be cold and impersonal. It was difficult for his contemporaries to separate his public face from his true character and perhaps there was a merging of the two even in his own mind. It was rare enough for Charles to express real anger that when he did so it was commented upon, such as when he was told that Francis I had reneged on the agreements made in the Treaty of Madrid (1526). He told Philip that an effective ruler should listen to good advice and be very aware of flatterers who will try to win favour by elaborate praise. He emphasised the value of balancing the influence of advisers and holding aloof from all parties in a dispute. In this way, Charles argued, the ruler could avoid becoming dragged into the rivalries that inevitably existed at court and be seen to reach a decision impartially.

Charles encouraged Philip to study in order to gain knowledge and judgement, especially in understanding the character and motives of others. He himself made good use of such knowledge about those that surrounded him and most of his appointments were very successful. Many of his advisers and commanders served him for decades (or died in his service) and he did not readily dismiss them, or worse, when circumstances changed or new policies were needed, unlike some other monarchs. Charles provided much advice to Philip about his various advisers. He understood them well. For instance in 1543 Charles wrote privately to Philip that ‘Cobos is growing older and easier to manage, but he is true. The danger with him is his ambitious wife.’ Of the Duke of Alva he wrote that he ‘can be counted on to support whichever party best suits his private interest….take heed of him, therefore; yet trust him implicitly in all military matters’. Charles always warned of giving posts to people on a hereditary basis, since the son may not match the ability of the father – somewhat odd given his devotion to furthering the cause of his own, Habsburg, dynasty.

Charles was able to handle criticism. He told Philip that everyone needs someone to remind them of their duty, whether it be a trusted nobleman or a confessor, and Charles himself practiced this. Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece were traditionally subjected to the assessment of their colleagues and Charles as Master of the Order was no exception. At the meeting held in December 1531, at Tournai, the issues they raised about Charles were substantial. He took too long to make decisions, he concentrated on minor issues to the neglect of more important ones, he consulted too little with his councillors, of whom he had too few, he paid ministers too little and too late, and the administration of justice in his lands was poor3. It is not possible to imagine Henry VIII or Francis I listening to such comments with good grace and then seriously responding to them. Charles answered that he would certainly look into the administration of justice, and argued that the shortage of councillors was because he lacked sufficient men of quality whom he could trust absolutely. In the same month his confessor, Loasya (later Archbishop of Seville), saw fit to remind Charles that ‘God did not create you so that you could enjoy life but so that you would save the whole of Christendom through your ceaseless efforts’.4 He was obviously a hard task master!

Machiavelli wrote in the 1510’s and 1520’s at a time when Charles was learning to take control of the reins of power. We do not know whether he ever read any of Machiavelli’s works but it is very likely that he would have been aware of them. Even if he did not consciously act on Machiavelli’s advice to princes, he lived through the same troubled times and faced the same problems of how to achieve and retain power.


1 Skinner, Q. (2000) Machiavelli – a very short introduction. O.U.P., Oxford p.5
2 Harris, R. Imperium. Hutchinson, London. (2006) p.4
3 Parker, G. ‘The Political World of Charles V’ in Soly, H. (ed) Charles V and his Time. Mercatorfonds, Antwerp. (1999)
4 Rodriquez-Salgado, M. ‘Charles V and his dynasty’ in Soly, H. (ed) Charles V and his Time. Mercatorfonds, Antwerp. (1999)