King in Spain

This section focuses on Charles’ accession to the kingdoms of Spain and his early difficulties before he could establish a reliable power base there. (See Chapters 4, 6 and 10 in ‘Duty and Dynasty; Emperor Charles V and his Changing World 1500-1558’).

The dynastic marriages arranged by Emperor Maximilian and King Ferdinand of Aragon, undertaken with the intention of increasing their own influence and putting a check on France, resulted in the unexpected coming together of all their territories under their grandson, Charles. When Ferdinand died in January 1516 the situation in Spain was not easy. There was mistrust between Spaniards and Burgundians, between the Castilians and those from Aragon, while those who wished to increase their power in relation to the monarchy saw this as an ideal opportunity. The sooner Charles could to travel to Spain to be acknowledged as king and assert his power the better. He had to meet the assemblies of leading noblemen in each kingdom in order to receive their allegiance, and attend the cortes (representative bodies) of Castile and Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia) to take oaths promising to defend their privileges and to receive their homage.

Charles' First journey to Spain

It was not until September 1517 that he set sail from the Low Countries to sail along the Channel and across the Bay of Biscay to Spain. The ten day voyage was not an easy one. Read More +

As he set sail from Flushing (Vlissingen) on 8th September 1517 Charles must have experienced a cauldron of emotions. He was leaving his homeland for the first time heading towards a new land whose language he did not speak, and most of whose customs were unfamiliar. He knew that there would be many difficulties ahead, but he had been brought up for a life full of these very responsibilities and he had with him many of those who had shaped him since his early years. The voyage itself, with the danger of fires, shipwrecks and the ever present risk of disease, held fears for everyone. But he would also have been keen for new experiences and he knew that his future almost certainly held many more such journeys.

Charles was at first sea-sick, and then saw two of his ships destroyed by fire with over one hundred deaths. These had included some men known to him, though most of those lost were crew, along with some courtesans and stable boys who went down with their horses. The threat posed by privateers, though not as serious as in the Mediterranean, was one which could not be ignored, especially if a ship were to be isolated. Storms could easily break up a fleet and force an unplanned, unwelcome landing, as had happened to his parents eleven years before. The Channel was negotiated successfully but Charles’ worries increased as the fleet of 40 ships hit storms in the Bay of Biscay. The fleet was indeed scattered and his vessel, the Real, its sails decorated with religious and dynastic emblems, was blown off course, far to the west of Santander, their intended destination, landing at Villaviciosa on 18th September.

His arrival in Spain was inauspicious. With his fleet scattered his company needed to reassemble and then cross the difficult terrain of northern Spain. He visited his mother in Tordesillas and met his brother Ferdinand for the first time. He then made a splendid ceremonial ‘entry’ to Valladolid and was acknowledged as king by the nobles of Castile in the church of San Pablo. By May 1518 he had moved on to Zaragoza to meet the cortes of Aragon. By January 1519 he had arrived in Barcelona to be acknowledged in Catalonia. Each kingdom required exacting negotiations over the amount of taxes that would be granted to Charles. In Castile a generous ‘servicio’ (subsidy for the king) of 600,000 ducats was agreed to cover three years but it was accompanied by various demands and the provocative statement that ‘Most powerful lord, you are in our service’. He spent even longer negotiating in Aragon and Catalonia, generating resentment in Castile, where he had only spent five months and not visited other major cities, such as Toledo, Burgos, Segovia and Avila.

Charles' Early Difficulties in Spain

Charles had much to learn about his new kingdoms in Spain. They had never been united in anything but a personal way by the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and were beset with significant social, economic and political problems. There were great inequalities of wealth. Land was mainly held by large landowners, leaving the majority of the rural population to pay high rents and high taxes. The power of the nobility, who paid little tax, was increasingly resented by the urban middle classes. Political rivalries had increased after the death of Isabella in 1504. Many believed that Spain needed the stability of a resident king who would put their interests first. Charles’ advisers who had travelled with him from the Low Countries, such as Chievres, were disliked. There had already been considerable hostility to the appointment of Burgundian noblemen and clerics to profitable positions. Many feared that Charles would be more concerned about his other territories than about Spain, especially after the death of Emperor Maximilian in January 1519. Charles immediately declared his candidature in the election for Maximilian’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor. When his election was secured, partly with money borrowed against his Spanish income, he needed to leave Spain to be crowned as King of the Romans.

Although it could be a source of pride that their king had been chosen as emperor, and might open up new opportunities for Spain, it was the negative aspects that came to the fore. The cost of Charles’ voyage and his onward journey to Aix (Aachen) in the appropriate style would be high and Chievres decided to call another cortes in Castile to raise the funds. He was met with open opposition. The delegates refused to grant a subsidy until their grievances had been discussed, especially as the previous grant had not yet expired. They demanded that Charles return within three years, he should marry and produce an heir, no Spanish money should be used for activities outside the kingdoms, the appointment of foreigners should stop, and his advisers should be Spanish. Amid this turmoil, Charles appointed Adrian of Utrecht (his former tutor and later to be Pope Adrian VI) as regent and left for the Low Countries.


Charles’ first two and half years in Spain had brought the country to the brink of revolt. He had not particularly impressed his new subjects. He was still young and yet to attain the stature of someone who could dominate by his presence or charm by his wit. Year later he was to write about this period that ‘I was not old enough to know these kingdoms or experienced enough to govern them’. Within days of his departure rebellion broke out in Castile. Known as the ‘Revolt of the Comuneros’, major cities resisted royal authority, drove out the kings’ representatives, made further demands which would give the cities greater control over taxation, and raised troops to defend themselves. Having captured Tordesillas they attempted to use the authority of Charles’ mother, Queen Juana, to give their actions legality. In September 1520, on Adrian’s advice, Charles appointed two of Castile’s most senior grandees as co-regents, thus ensuring the support of the nobility, and abandoned the idea of collecting the new taxes. Slowly the rebels lost their unity of purpose, but it was not until April 1521 that their army was defeated at Villalar. Only in February 1522 did royal troops enter Toledo, the last city to hold out.

Even before Charles left the country, violence had erupted in Valencia. This revolt was caused by a complex combination of social discontent, political grievances and the outbreak of plague. Charles’ failure to attend the cortes in Valencia and the exodus of nobility from the cities to avoid the plague left a power vacuum. This was filled by the guilds or brotherhoods (Germanias) which had been given the right to build up their own militia as defence against the attacks of Muslim corsairs along the Mediterranean coast. The Germanias were able to occupy most Valencian towns and were particularly hostile to the nobility and the Muslims who made up over 20% of the population, living mainly on the rural estates of the nobility. The rebels caused much damage to these estates and in July 1521 they defeated a royalist force at the battle of Gandia. Captured Muslims were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or death. However increasing divisions amongst the rebels and the realisation amongst the nobles that in order to avoid disaster they needed to join forces with the royalists gradually enabled troops loyal to Charles to gain control. By February 1522 the revolt was over and the following year hundreds of executions took place, contrasting with the relative leniency in Castile where only about 50 people had been executed or died in prison.

Return and Establishing Himself

Before leaving Spain in 1520 Charles had promised that he would return within three years and then make Spain the ‘bedrock’ of his empire. On his return in July 1522 the revolts had been defeated but the atmosphere was still sullen and the population was still to be convinced that a foreign king would either listen to their complaints or respond to their needs. He spent the next eight years in Spain and set about making good his promise, securing his position by learning the language, understanding its customs and exerting his authority. All this did not happen overnight but he made clear his intentions. Speaking to the Castilian cortes soon after his return he said: ‘Yesterday I asked for funds; today I want your advice’. He pointed out that: ‘You know that the custom had been to grant this (the servicio) first; thus it was under my royal predecessors. Why try to establish an innovation with me? And since many evils have brought me to this necessity, you, like good and loyal subjects, will remedy them by doing your duty as I expect you to do’. In March 1526 he travelled to Seville to marry Eleanor of Portugal. They visited Cordoba and Granada before returning to Valladolid, where in May 1527 Eleanor gave birth to an heir, Philip.

Spain indeed became a vital part of his empire, providing commanders and troops for his armies, bringing in bullion from its colonies in the Americas, remaining strongly Catholic and displaying more loyalty than most of his other lands. In the later part of his reign he wrote to his brother Ferdinand about financial concerns and stated that ‘I cannot be sustained except by my realms in Spain’. But he recognised that there were still considerable problems telling Philip when he became regent in 1543 that ‘You will be troubled enough for money’.i

iKilsby, J. Spain: Rise and Fall 1474-1643. Edward Arnold, London (1987) p. 44.