Charles V’s Education


More in his head than appears on his face

As he hardly knew his parents, Philip and Juana, Charles V's education was largely controlled by others. His father, as Duke of Burgundy, was constantly on the move, and on two occasions Charles and his sisters were left in the Low Countries when their parents travelled to Spain. In 1501-03 they went to be acknowledged as heirs to the throne of Castile and in 1506 to take up that role. His parents were never to return from that second trip. Duke Philip (Philip I of Castile) died in Burgos in September 1506 and his distraught wife, having at first refused to leave his body, was eventually secured in the Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas ‘for her own safety’. She remained there for over forty-five years, known as Juana ‘the mad’, excluded from power, first by her father and then by her son, just as her husband had done while he was alive.

Charles’ upbringing was therefore in the hands of others. He spent much of it in the city of Mechelen (Malines) where his aunt, Margaret of Austria, (Photo 1) had established her court. She was given ‘entire power and authority’ over ‘our very dear and much beloved children, Charles and his sisters’ by her father, Charles’ grandfather, Emperor Maximilian. She became a great influence on young Charles and later a loyal and astute adviser. Margaret’s palace was not on a monumental scale, with both administrative and living quarters based around a courtyard of late gothic buildings with the addition of a new gatehouse – one of the first Reniassance-style buildings in northern Europe. (Photos 2, 3 and 4)

Photos 2, 3 and 4. The Courtyard and the gatehouse in the palace of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen, where much of Charles V's education took place.

The Burgundian Court

The Burgundian court of the late 15th and early 16th centuries was renowned for its culture, chivalry and style. Lavish patronage of the arts, balls and pageants, attracted many from across Europe. Margaret in particular encouraged academic and artistic activities, collecting paintings, tapestries, dining services, and a substantial library of writings from the classics, philosophers and recent Renaissance humanists. The adolescent Anne Boleyn spent time there before moving on to Paris. The highest honour a nobleman could aspire to was membership of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Charles as a future ruler was made a member in infancy; he is rarely seen in later paintings without the order’s symbol.

Charles' physical and intellectual development

Charles in his youth would not have cut a particularly striking figure. He was regarded as delicate, had a pale complexion, developed a large protruding lower jaw, and was reputedly shy. At first glance he was not promising material, either physically or mentally. This was misleading. He had a well-proportioned body and was more than able to take part in the ‘knightly’ activities of the court. Young men at court, such as Charles de Lannoy and Frederick, Count Palatine, fine exponents of horsemanship and jousting, influenced Charles and later became trusted commanders. His interests lay in horses, hunting, tournaments and fencing rather than more scholarly pursuits. When Margaret reported to Maximilian that ‘our son Charles takes such pleasure hunting’ he replied that this was to be expected otherwise ’people would think that he was a bastard’.

This did not mean that his broader education and introduction to affairs of state were ignored. His teachers included Adrian Floriszoon Boeyens, better known as Adrian of Utrecht, later to become Pope Adrian IV, and Robert of Ghent. The famous philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam (Photo 5) introduced him to ideas about the nature of government and the relationship between the ruler and his subjects, the importance of the consent of the people and the need to avoid tyranny. He dedicated his 1516 book ‘Education of a Christian Prince’ to Charles. He advised ‘Conduct your own rule as if you were striving to ensure that no successor could be your equal, but at the same time prepare your children for their future as if to endure that a better man would indeed succeed you’. Through such influences Charles developed a sincere religious belief. He had a good knowledge of the scriptures, though did not wish to dwell on the finer theological points. He saw the need for some reform of the clergy but never grasped the depth or spiritual nature of the challenge to the Catholic Church which developed after the impetus provided by Martin Luther in 1517.

Another mentor central to Charles’ political development was Guillaume de Croy, Lord of Chievres (Photo 6). By 1506 he was the leading nobleman of the Low Countries and in 1509 he was appointed Charles’ governor and Grand Chamberlain. He was constantly with Charles and like Margaret ensured that he was introduced to the skills and rigours of leadership: ‘I do not want him to be incapable because he has not understood affairs nor been trained to work’. However conflict developed between Chievres and Margaret. Chievres saw Charles as a Duke of Burgundy and intended to use all means to further Burgundian interests, while Margaret thought of him as being the future head of a much wider Habsburg dynasty. This meant policy differences – Chievres was much more pro-French than Margaret whose Habsburg interests often led to clashes with France. In 1513 Charles had a meeting with Henry VIII after the latter’s victory over the French at Guinegate (the Battle of the Spurs) in which both were impressed – Charles by the older, confident, victorious Henry and the English by Charles’ ‘quiet dignity’.

Charles' Coming of Age

The clash between Chievres and Margaret came to a head in 1514. Margaret’s position was undermined by a clash with the Burgundian nobility over the role of certain Spanish nobles at court, by the marriage arrangements made by Maximilian for Charles’ sisters Isabella (to Christian II of Denmark) and Mary (to Louis of Hungary) – the Burgundians wished for more local marriages – and by the collapse of the long existing plan to marry Charles to Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. Maximilian was offered 140,000 florins by the States-General (the representative body of the Low Countries) to bring forward Charles’ formal coming of age. Always desperate for money, Maximilian agreed and on 5th January 1515, shortly before his fifteenth birthday, Charles began his personal rule of the Low Countries ending Margaret’s role as guardian and regent. The ceremony was held in the Great Hall of the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels, which was also the setting for Charles’ abdication over forty years later. (The palace was at the centre of power in Brabant from the 11th century until it was destroyed by fire in 1731. It is now possible to visit the underground remains which hold an interesting exhibition of its history).

He still had a great deal to learn about government and politics but his education had provided a sound base. He understood the value of tradition and ceremony, the importance of impressing others with culture and style, while at the same time acquiring a devout faith and a serious approach to his responsibilities. What some had thought of as reticence and even slowness in his youth were now seen as reserve, dignity and courtesy. As the Papal envoy was to comment in 1521 ‘this prince is gifted with good sense and prudence, far beyond his years; and indeed has, I believe, much more in his head than appears on his face.