Charles, Duke of Burgundy

Charles, Duke of Burgundy, his apprenticeship in government

This section concentrates on Charles’ coming to power in the Low Countries and his determination to pass on these lands to his son, Philip.

Charles’ first experience as a ruler was in the Low Countries. He had inherited the title ‘Duke of Burgundy’ from his father and in January 1515 shortly before his fifteenth birthday, in a ceremony in the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels, he was declared to be of age. By the late 14th century the Dukes of Burgundy had ruled numerous counties, provinces and dukedoms in what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as Franche Comte (on the Swiss border) and Burgundy. However in the late 15th century Burgundy itself had been lost by Charles’ great-grandfather, Charles the Bold, to France, and so their power was now concentrated in the Low Countries. These were prosperous areas with fertile agricultural land, and their cities had become wealthy through the cloth industry and extensive trading links, with the Baltic, across the Channel and via the Atlantic to Spain and the Mediterranean. A greater proportion of the population lived in cities, such as Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp, than anywhere else in Europe, and these citizens jealously guarded their rights and privileges.

Charles' Household

After his coming of age ceremony Charles travelled through his lands in the Low Countries. He was formally welcomed to the major cities, and promised, as tradition demanded, to protect their privileges. He received diplomats carrying greetings sent by rulers from across Europe. Back in the palace at Brussels, where his elder sister, Eleanor, also had a household, court life was all that was expected – processions, formal dances, feasts, tournaments and lavish expenditure on clothes and decor – with the Order of the Golden Fleece at its heart. It is said that the dinner at the first Chapter held after Charles’ coming of age was so extensive that many knights missed the evening church service either because they had over-indulged or were still at the feast. However, even if the court was extravagant and flamboyant it was one in which formalities and protocol were carefully followed and religious conviction regarded as important. It was not known for loose living or dereliction of duty; it had a good reputation. This matches what we know of Charles, both then and in his later life.

In this environment Charles was surrounded by the nobility, mostly Burgundian, but some Spaniards with their eyes on Charles’ future accession in Spain. Each had their official roles and sinecures, taking charge of the table, of the cellars, of the stables, of the bedchamber. By 1517 his household consisted of 473 members. Led by the Lord Chamberlain, Henry of Nassau, there were 208 nobles and 265 servants. Most of the nobility were not permanently in attendance; a roster meant that between a quarter and a half were on duty at any given time. Each had their own place in the daily running of the court, especially at meal times, with clear rules and expectations of behaviour.

Charles was fortunate that he was in a position to be able to turn to those who had been around him since his early years and whom he trusted. The camaraderie and loyalty associated with the Order of the Golden Fleece gave him a link to these nobles that transcended mere personal interest. Some, such as Henry of Nassau, had been knights of the order for a decade; others, such as Charles de Lannoy and Frederick, Count Palatine, were invested in 1516. They were ten or so years older than Charles, the dashing young knights at court when Charles was a boy; they were now valuable supporters, useful on diplomatic missions, and military commanders when required. The role that the Order played in providing Charles with a degree of continuity and a sense of belonging can be seen from the fact that in paintings or on commemorative medallions throughout his life he is invariably wearing its gold symbol.


After his accession to thrones in Spain and then the Holy Roman Empire, Charles relied on family members to represent him in the Low Countries. From 1518 to 1530 his aunt, Margaret of Austria, was regent, followed by Charles’ sister, Mary of Hungary, from 1531 until his abdication in 1555. There were considerable periods when he was absent, most notably from 1522 until 1530, and from 1532 until 1540. It was the regents who had to deal with the numerous disputes over money and privileges with the wealthy cities, organise the defence of the provinces against French attack in times of war, and defeat the attempts of some nobles hostile to the Habsburgs, such as Charles of Egmond, to undermine Charles’ power. Another difficult issue was Charles’ desire to eradicate Protestantism from the Low Countries. The new religious ideas had a strong influence in many areas and though they did not gain such a hold as in parts of Germany there was resistance to any measures that the government tried to impose to stamp them out.

Margaret and Mary served Charles admirably, though naturally there were times of tension. The regents appreciated more fully than the absent Charles the level of discontent that high taxes and the disruption of trade caused by his wars sometimes brought about. They occasionally argued against his requests for money, and his reluctance to allow them to make their own appointments, which they considered weakened their position. At times his regents urged him to visit the Low Countries and, when he was there, to stay longer, so that he could exert his power and lessen their load. Charles was not always able to grant their wishes but he was most appreciative of their work. His control of the Low Countries often relied upon the support of the nobility who were rewarded with appointments to military commands, as stadtholders (the royal representatives in each province), or even as knights in the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Passing on his lands in the Low Countries.

By the late 1540’s Charles had decided that Philip should inherit the Low Countries as well as Spain, believing that having the same ruler would strengthen the family’s position against France. To that end Charles persuaded the Diet of Augsburg in 1548 to declare that all 17 provinces of the Low Countries were a separate entity, removed from the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. However the provinces would still contribute to the defence of the Empire against foreign enemies, especially the Ottomans, by providing money and troops. The following year the ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ declared that the laws of succession in each province were altered so that they would remain united under a single ruler, the ‘Lord of the Netherlands’. Only Charles and Philip were to ever use this title. Charles then instructed Philip to come to the Low Countries to be introduced as his heir.

This decision caused a split in the family because Maximilian, Ferdinand’s son, had hoped to come to power in the Low Countries. Nor was it well received in the Netherlands. Philip was regarded as a foreigner, unlike Charles who had been born there. He had been brought up exclusively in Spain and had little understanding of the privileges and traditions of the provinces or their major cities. When he arrived he could speak neither Dutch nor French well enough to establish a rapport with the nobility or the citizens. Charles hoped that as he had eventually been accepted in Spain so Philip would be in the Low Countries. After two years Philip travelled back to Spain, returning to the Low Countries again after his marriage to Queen Mary of England. In 1555, on Charles’ abdication, he became the sovereign, but relations failed to improve. By the late 1560’s the Netherlands were in open revolt that was eventually to lead to the splitting of the 17 provinces – the northern ones becoming the Dutch Republic and the southern ones remaining as the Spanish Netherlands.