Charles' Siblings

Charles’ siblings provided loyal and effective support

Charles was the second of six children – two boys and four girls. Although too young when his father died in 1506, as the eldest son he became the head of the family on the death of his Spanish grandfather, Ferdinand (1516), and his Habsburg grandfather, Maximilian (1519). As such, he had the power to make decisions that had an impact on the lives of his siblings and later their children. In many royal families such a situation caused major rifts, but for most of his long reign Charles was able to rely on the support of his family.


Eleanor of Austria (1498–1558), Queen of Portugal and Queen of France, was Charles’ eldest sister, the first child of Philip and Juana. Brought up in the Low Countries, she travelled to Spain with Charles in 1517 and was married to King Manuel I of Portugal the following year. When Manuel died in 1521, she returned to Spain, leaving her infant daughter in Portugal. They were never to be properly reconciled. Her second marriage was to Francis I in 1530. Receiving respect for her position but not love, Eleanor had little influence on policy, though was able to facilitate negotiations between the great rivals, Charles and Francis. On the latter’s death in 1547, she joined her brother, and sister Mary, in the Low Countries and on Charles’ abdication travelled with them to Spain, where she died in February 1558.

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Eleanor was brought up with Charles in Mechelen and seemed to accept the situation whereby her life would be determined by the political needs of her family. That she was still unmarried in 1517, while two of her younger sisters had been betrothed for years, suggests that Maximilian regarded her as a valuable asset to the dynasty and was reserving her for a match worthy of her status. The concern was considerable when it was discovered that she had apparently received and encouraged the attentions of Frederick II Elector Palatine, a well-established figure at court and someone that Charles admired. When love letters written by him to Eleanor were discovered, the family acted immediately. This was not the marriage that was intended for Charles’ sister; there was to be no ‘love-match’. Frederick was banished from court, although he was later to regain favour with Charles.

Definite plans were now made for Eleanor. With an eye to Charles’ imminent departure to Spain, it was agreed that she would marry Manuel I of Portugal. King since 1495, his reign had seen the successful exploration and establishment of overseas settlements from Brazil to the East Indies. He had previously been married to two of Eleanor’s aunts (Isabella and Maria, sisters of her mother). The marriage would help to ensure good relations between Charles’ new kingdoms in Spain and neighbouring Portugal. Eleanor travelled with Charles to Spain and then on to Portugal for the marriage. The couple had two children, Charles born in 1520 but who died aged one, and Maria born in 1521.

On Manuel’s death later that year Eleanor returned to Charles’ court in Spain, leaving her daughter behind. She was again available to the dynasty. Charles first planned that she would marry the Duc de Bourbon, the leading French nobleman who had deserted the French king because of major grievances over his first wife’s will. He offered his services to Charles, who readily accepted. However, with the capture of King Francis I at the battle of Pavia a more illustrious match was possible. The Treaty of Madrid of January 1526 included the arrangement that Eleanor would marry the widowed French king. Although this was delayed by a further outbreak of war, it was renewed as part of the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529 and the marriage took place in 1530.

If Charles hoped that this would enable him to live at peace with Francis he was mistaken. Francis felt threatened by Habsburg control of so much land around France and Charles was never willing to cede land that he regarded as belonging to his dynasty. The marriage was unlikely to resolve such issues. Francis spent much more time with his various mistresses, especially his favourite Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess of Etampes. However Eleanor was usually treated with the respect that her position demanded. She had no political influence over Francis but was on occasions used to facilitate contacts with Charles, especially when peace negotiations were in the offing. (Link to: Wars with France in Charles’ World).

On Francis' death in 1547 Eleanor returned to the Low Countries of her upbringing. She remained there until she travelled together with Charles to Spain in 1556 after his abdication. She settled in Jarandilla de la Vera, near his place of retirement at the monastery of Yuste. She wished to repair her relationship with her daughter, Maria, now thirty-five, who she had not met for twenty-eight years. She travelled to Badajoz near the Portuguese border in early 1558 accompanied by her younger sister Mary. After three weeks, without any meaningful reconciliation, Maria returned to Lisbon. Eleanor’s health was broken and she died in February 1558 on her return journey. She had paid the price of duty so common in women of the royal families of Europe – loveless marriages and little contact with her children.


Isabella (1501 – 1526), Queen of Denmark, was brought up with her older brother and sister in Mechelen. She was married to Christian II of Denmark and Norway and travelled to Copenhagen when barely fourteen. Despite Christian’s earlier refusal to abandon his mistress, who died in 1517, she followed him into exile when he was deposed by his uncle in 1523. At this time Isabella showed some interest in the teaching of Martin Luther, much to Charles’ horror, though on her death in January 1526 it was declared that she had died a true Catholic. The couple had three children, John, Dorothea and Christina, who became the wards of Margaret of Austria.

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Isabella spent her early years in Mechelen, under the influence of her aunt, Margaret of Austria. In June 1514, days before her thirteenth birthday, she was married by proxy to King Christian II (1481-1559) of Denmark and Norway. The following year she left for Copenhagen where the marriage was ratified and she began to use the name Elizabeth. The marriage did not get off to a good start. Christian refused to put aside his mistress of eight years, Dyveke Sigbritsdattar, upsetting both Isabella and her family. On Dyveke’s death in 1517, which Christian suspected was the result of poisoning, Dyvke’s mother continued to influence Christian, but relations with Isabella improved. Although three sons, including twins, died in infancy, the couple had three surviving children, John (1518-1532), Dorothea (1520-1580) and Christina (1521-1590).

Christian wished to rule Sweden and captured the country in 1520, but his massacre of many of the country’s nobility in the Stockholm bloodbath resulted in rebellion and Christian’s defeat at the hands of Gustav Vasa. His problems increased in Denmark and he was deposed and exiled by his uncle, who became Frederick I. Wishing to have friendly relations with Charles, Frederick offered Isabella a pension and the opportunity to stay in Denmark, but she chose to take her children to join her husband in the Low Countries of her birth. Christian attempted to gain support for his return to power, but neither Charles nor others showed any interest in his plans. His ill-fated attempt in 1531 led to his capture the following year and he remained imprisoned in Denmark for the rest of his life.

Isabella did not live to see these events. She had travelled around Germany with her husband seeking support and while doing so had become interested in the new religious ideas that were flourishing at the time. It is said that she received communion in the Protestant style while in Nurnberg in 1524. This horrified her Habsburg family and even Christian realised that this would not help his cause. When Isabella died aged just twenty-four in January 1526, near Ghent, the family made a point of stating that she died in the Catholic faith. Her children were left in the care of Margaret of Austria, Charles’ aunt and regent in the Low Countries. John became a favourite of Charles, who wrote of his anguish when he died in 1532, aged fourteen. His sisters were to be used by Charles in various diplomatic/political marriages that he arranged. (see: Nephews and Nieces).


Ferdinand (1503 – 1564), as the second son in the family, might have expected to have a somewhat more limited career if it had not been for Charles’ vast inheritance. Born and brought up in Spain, he left for the Low Countries after Charles’ arrival to accept the Spanish thrones. In 1521 he was created Archduke of Austria and married Anne of Hungary, enabling him to claim the Hungarian throne on the death of his brother-in-law. He represented Charles in the Holy Roman Empire when the emperor was elsewhere in his lands and it was a sign of Ferdinand’s importance to Charles that he was crowned ‘King of the Romans’ in 1531. This officially made him Charles’ successor. Although he would have to wait well over two decades before formally being declared emperor in 1558, by the early 1550s he was effectively in charge. He died in 1564, having ensured that his son, Maximilian, succeeded him.

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Ferdinand was born in Spain where he spent the first fourteen years of his life under the guidance of Ferdinand of Aragon. At first Ferdinand thought of him as a possible successor, but Charles’ mentors were able to ensure that this did not come about when the king died in 1516. Soon after Charles arrived from the Low Countries the following year the brothers met for the first time. It had been decided that Ferdinand would leave Spain, so as not to be a possible focus of challenge to Charles’ accession. He seemed to accept this position and travelled to the Low Countries, where he was treated with all due respect by his aunt Margaret.

Emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand’s Habsburg grandfather, had arranged his betrothal to Anne of Bohemia and Hungary. This was confirmed in 1515 and the marriage was finalised in 1521 in Linz, with Ferdinand being granted hereditary Habsburg lands in modern day Austria and Slovenia as the Archduke of Austria. Five years later, on the death of Anne’s brother, King Louis II of Hungary, at the battle of Mohacs against the Ottomans, Ferdinand was elected king of Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia, though he was never accepted in his position in Hungary by either the nobleman John Zapolya (1491-1540) or Sultan Suleiman. Much of Ferdinand’s career was to be spent organising resistance to the Ottoman challenge from the east. Suleiman regularly led expeditions into Hungary and in 1529 and 1532 threatened even Vienna. (Link to: The Ottoman Empire in Charles’ World).

Charles spent most of the 1520s in Spain, where he had plenty to deal with, leaving his brother to cope with many issues in Germany and the Habsburg lands of central Europe. He understood that to rule his vast territories he needed help and that this best came from family members. They had the authority to act in his name and could at times question his judgement without appearing to be disloyal. In recognition of Ferdinand’s role Charles promised his brother that as soon as he had been crowned Emperor he would work to have Ferdinand elected as King of the Romans, in other words his eventual successor as Emperor (link to: Holy Roman Empire). This he achieved, and Ferdinand was crowned King of the Romans in Aachen on 5th January 1531. In doing so, Charles had laid the foundations for the eventual division of his empire, something that he later came to regret.

Ferdinand played his part loyally, supporting his brother in the tangle of political and religious disputes that proliferated in the Holy Roman Empire of the early 16th century. Neither could bring about the reconciliation of the Catholic and Protestant churches (Link to ‘Religious Divisions’ in Charles’ World) but they did limit Ottoman gains, prevent the French king Francis I and his successor Henry II from taking territory from them, and preserved the Habsburg power base in Germany and the Low Countries. Ferdinand was an effective administrator who consolidated Habsburg power in their Austrian lands. He and his wife, Anne, had fifteen children and all but two of them reached adulthood. As Charles only had three surviving off-spring, Ferdinand’s children were potential matches in the diplomatic deals of the time. However Ferdinand resisted any suggestion that they be married at too young an age and of course had dynastic ambitions of his own. His eldest son, Maximilian, married Charles’ eldest daughter, Maria, in September 1548.

As Charles aged, and his son Philip, born in 1527, matured, the Emperor had to decide who would inherit his vast territories. Philip would get Spain together with Naples and Sicily; Ferdinand would become Emperor. But what of the Low Countries and Milan, and who would succeed Ferdinand as emperor? Charles increasingly wanted Philip to inherit more. He named him Duke of Milan and made it clear that the Low Countries should remain inextricably linked to Spain. Ferdinand believed that his successor as emperor should be his son, Maximilian. Charles’ wish to push Philip’s claim resulted in his suggestion that Philip should succeed Ferdinand and then Maximilian would succeed Philip. As Philip and Maximilian were the same age this seriously weakened Maximilian’s chances.

This rare family rift in 1549 - 1551 was serious. Charles is said to have exclaimed to his brother: ‘We need to establish who is emperor: you or me’. Maximilian was furious and although supported by his father he would have liked Ferdinand to be more forceful, commenting: ’God grant that His Majesty (Ferdinand) will one day stand up to His Imperial Majesty (Charles) … he will not see how unfraternally and how falsely His Imperial Majesty is treating us’. Their sister Mary played a significant part in the negotiations, and it was significant that a resolution of sorts was reached without any public display of animosity which would have weakened the dynasty as a whole. Charles’ position was in theory accepted, though it would never be implemented. The choice of emperor would require the majority vote of the seven prince electors and they were most unlikely to support Philip who they regarded as a Spanish outsider. By 1554 there was little doubt that Ferdinand would succeed Charles and that Maximilian would follow his father. All future Habsburg emperors were therefore descended from Ferdinand.

Ferdinand continued to support Charles in conflicts with the German princes, both over religion and the authority of the emperor. In 1546-47 the brothers were at war with the Protestant princes, culminating in Charles’ victory at the battle of Muhlberg. In 1551-2 renewed conflict resulted in Charles’ near capture at Innsbruck and Ferdinand played a major role in the negotiations needed to secure Charles’ position. He was willing to be more flexible than his brother, who could never accept an agreement that would leave the church permanently divided. Ferdinand did just this in 1552. The agreement was finalised by the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg which stated ‘cuius regio, cuius religio’ (whose the region, his the religion) – in other words princes could decide whether their own lands would be Catholic or Lutheran. Ferdinand, although brought up in Spain, had spent over thirty years dealing with the princes and the religious disputes; he had a better grasp of the extent and depth of these divisions and what was needed to resolve them.

By late 1555 Charles had all but resigned his powers and Ferdinand became de facto emperor, but it was not until February 1558 that the formal transfer of power was recognised by the electors. Ferdinand was to rule for a further six years until his death in 1564 when he was succeeded by his son, Maximilian II.


Mary (1505 - 1558), Queen of Hungary, was taken from her home in the Low Countries at the age of eight by her grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I, to continue her education in Austria. Officially married to the young Louis of Hungary in 1515, her married life with him started in 1522. However it was cut short by his death at the battle of Mohacs against the Ottomans in 1526. They had no children. She refused to marry again, but her obvious abilities persuaded Charles to appoint her as governor of the Low Countries on the death of their aunt Margaret in December 1530. She performed this role for twenty-five years, until Charles’ abdication when he permitted her to step down. She travelled with Charles to Spain and died in October 1558, less than one month after her brother.

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Like her siblings, Eleanor, Charles and Isabella, Mary’s early life was spent in Mechelen under the guidance of her aunt Margaret. She was only eight years old when in May 1514 her grandfather Maximilian arranged her departure for Austria in order to prepare for her marriage to Louis Jagiellon, the son of Vladislaus II the Hungarian king, born in 1506. This took place in July 1515 though it was agreed that the couple would not live together for several years. Mary was educated in Vienna and Innsbruck until 1521 when she travelled to Hungary and was crowned queen. In January 1522 her marriage to Louis was blessed in Buda and their married life proper began, with much affection on both sides. It was not to last. In 1526 the Ottomans under Sultan Suleiman, invaded Hungary. Louis was unable to unite the country against the invaders and his army was crushed at the battle of Mohacs on 29th August. Louis himself was drowned attempting to flee the scene of the slaughter.

Mary became regent of the lands still ruled by the royal family until her brother Ferdinand could come to take control. She impressed many, including Ferdinand, with her ability and good sense. After his coronation in Bologna in February 1530 Charles V travelled to Innsbruck where in May he met Ferdinand and Mary. He too developed a considerable respect for his sister. She had by then made it clear that she did not wish to remarry, so when Charles’ regent in the Low Countries, their aunt Margaret, died in December 1530 he asked Mary to take her place.

Still only twenty-six but already with considerable experience, Mary was intelligent, self-reliant and diligent. While in Hungary she had shown some interest in the new religious ideas of Martin Luther as had some of her advisers. Charles thought it necessary to write to Mary: ‘If I had doubts of your religious integrity rest assured that I should neither give you this place nor accord you the love of a brother’. On her return to the Low Countries she chose to establish her court not at Mechelen, her childhood home, but in Brussels.

She was governor of the Low Countries for twenty-five years. She could be inflexible and perhaps lacked the charm, humour and adaptability of her predecessor, Margaret, but she served her brother well, though she did not enjoy the role. There were inevitable clashes with Charles, about appointments and how his wars and taxes would make her job more difficult. She sometimes felt that as a woman she did not have the respect that her position deserved. She offered her resignation on a number of occasions and it is a testament to his faith in her that each time Charles refused to accept it, until his own departure from power in 1555. In 1532 he had even named her as regent of the Low Countries with full powers in the event of his death, until his children became of age. She remained through loyalty to her brother, though she was willing to challenge some of his decisions, if not always successfully, such as the marriage of her young niece and ward, Christina to Francesco Sforza of Milan (see Nephews and Nieces).

Having at last been able to relieve herself of these responsibilities, in 1556 she travelled with Charles and Eleanor to Spain, settling in Jarandilla de la Vera, near Charles’ place of retirement. Even then her nephew, now Philip II of Spain, wished her to resume her duties in the Low Countries, and Charles helped to persuade her to accept. Perhaps she did not enjoy living in Spain, so very different from where she had spent most of her life, or missed affairs of state after all. Her sister and companion Eleanor had died in February 1558 and she prepared to leave but ill-health delayed her departure. The death of Charles on 21st September was another blow and Mary suffered two heart attacks and died on 18th October only four weeks after her brother


Catherine (1507 – 1578), Queen of Portugal, was born after the death of her father, Philip, in Spain. As a result she spent most of her childhood with her mother, Juana, in the Convent of Santa Clara, Tordesillas. Charles arranged her marriage to King John III of Portugal in 1525. They had nine children, who all pre-deceased her. After the death of her husband in 1557 she was regent of Portugal for five years. She died in 1578.

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Born three months after the death of her father, Catherine’s childhood must have been troubled. When her mother, Juana, was placed in the Convent of Santa Clara, Tordesillas, Catherine, as an infant went with her. There she was brought up with very limited company – her unpredictable mother, her mother’s supervisors, servants and nuns. When Charles arrived in Spain he made the point of visiting his mother and sister, and made efforts to improve Catherine’s situation though he hesitated to take her from her mother.

In 1525 it was arranged that she would marry her first cousin, King John III of Portugal. Fearing her mother’s reaction to her departure, she was taken out of the convent secretly, with Juana only being informed after the event. Catherine and John had nine children between 1526 and 1540, but only two of these reached adolescence. Both married children of Charles V, but neither lived beyond the age of eighteen. Princess Maria was the first wife of Charles’ son, Philip; she died a few days after the birth of their first child, Don Carlos. Prince Juan Manuel married Charles’ younger daughter, Juana; the couple had one child, Sebastian, but Juan died two and half weeks before his birth.

Catherine remained in Portugal after the death of her husband in 1557. The heir was her grandson, Sebastian, only three years old. Catherine was appointed his regent and she fulfilled this role until 1562 when she handed over to her late husband’s brother, Henry. She died in 1578, having lived longer than any of her siblings.