Wife and Children

Charles married late by the standards of the day, and only once

Charles' wife and children. When Charles married at the age of twenty-six this was late by the standards of the day. His parents had been eighteen and sixteen, his grand-fathers eighteen (Maximilian) and seventeen (Ferdinand), his sisters all under the age of twenty. His advisers and subjects had pressed him to marry earlier. He had been betrothed to various princesses in the years since his birth but he made the final decision to marry his cousin, Isabella of Portugal.

Isabella died after thirteen years of marriage, the couple having three surviving children, Philip, Maria and Juana. Charles was still only thirty-nine, but he did not re-marry, again unusual for the time. He did have other children born before and after his marriage, two of whom played a significant part in the history of Europe in the second half of the 16th century.


Isabella was the eldest daughter of King Manuel I of Portugal and his wife Maria, the sister of Charles’ mother, Juana. When Charles married her in 1526, she brought with her a substantial dowry. On several occasions she acted as regent for Charles in Spain when he left to deal with issues in his other lands. She did so effectively, earning the respect of those who dealt with her, although she did complain to Charles about his prolonged absences and tardiness in responding to her requests for advice. She had seven pregnancies in all, but only three children survived infancy. The death of a son at six months in 1538 and a stillbirth in the following April broke her health and she died on 1st May 1539. Charles never remarried and it is said that he carried with him a miniature portrait of his wife for the rest of his life.

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Isabella of Portugal was born in 1503, the eldest daughter of Manuel I, King of Portugal and his second wife, Maria, the younger sister of Charles’ mother, Juana. She received an excellent education, learning several languages, Latin, Spanish and French, as well as reading widely in the classics and the work of more modern writers from her extensive library. She was known to be highly intelligent, devout, and developed into a beautiful young woman. As the eldest sister of the Portuguese king, John III, she commanded a large dowry. All of these factors, together with the fact that a Portuguese match would strengthen Charles position internationally and be popular in Spain, played a part in the successful negotiations for her marriage to Emperor Charles V, her first cousin. As part of the same agreement her older brother, King John III, married Charles’ youngest sister, Catherine in 1525. Isabella travelled to Spain for her marriage early in 1526 and they married in the Reales Alcazares in Seville in March. (Link to Seville in In Charles Footsteps section)

Although the couple had never previously met there seems little doubt that neither had cause to regret the decision. Their relationship is difficult to determine from their letters since they reveal little emotion. The correspondence was formal, matter of fact, dealing largely with matters of state, with advice from Charles on how to deal with particular issues or requests for money, and questions from Isabella about the length of his absence. This was typical of Charles who was invariably measured and restrained in both speech and writing. Nevertheless there is nothing to show that they did not have an affectionate relationship. Isabella always seemed keen for Charles to return. Although Charles had intimate relations with women both before and after his marriage, he did not, unlike Henry VIII and Francis I, openly keep mistresses at court during his marriage or indeed have affairs. On Isabella’s death most monarchs would have remarried, especially with only one son, but Charles had no intention of doing so. He had Titian paint portraits and miniatures for him and it is said always carried one with him.

Isabella was appointed regent in his absence on three occasions – in 1529-32 for his coronation in Rome and visits to Germany the Low Countries and Vienna, in 1535-36 when he captured Tunis and travelled through Italy, and in 1538-39 while he negotiated with the pope and Francis I in Nice and Aigues-Mortes. She performed her duties ably and effectively. Charles set up clear structures, with an experienced royal council which had access to all papers and considerable powers to advise her. Her role necessitated frequent travel around Spain, for instance to Toledo, Valladolid, Avila, and Barcelona. Isabella had been brought up in a royal household, so standing in for Charles at court came naturally to her. In many ways her personality matched his. She took her responsibilities seriously, controlled her emotions in public and commanded respect. She would defend royal power, had a deep understanding of the problems of Spain and Portugal, and took effective action when required, such as in the defence of the Spanish coast against attacks by pirates.

Whether she relished the role is more doubtful. She sometimes tried to put pressure on Charles to return home as soon as possible, even though she consoled herself that his absences were ‘in the service of God’. In the thirteen years of their marriage she had seven pregnancies. The first two resulted in the birth of a son, Philip, in May 1527, and a daughter, Maria, in June 1528. In June 1535 a second daughter, Juana, was born. Two other sons died within eight months of their birth – Ferdinand (November 1529 – June 1530) and Juan (October 1537 – March 1538). Isabella also miscarried in June 1534. At these difficult times Isabella would have welcomed the support of her husband but he was often away. Thus while in Bologna for his coronation he was informed of the birth of his son Ferdinand, only to be told eight months later of his death, and he was en route to Tunis when Juana was born. Juan’s birth in 1537 had been difficult and Charles later recorded in his memoirs that ‘the Empress suffered much after her confinement, and since then …was in very bad health’.

Isabella suffered increasingly from tertian fever and malaria. Ill-health forced her to remain in Valladolid in 1538 when Charles travelled to Aigues Mortes to meet Francis I. In early 1539 she became pregnant again. After three months a fever caused complications and she had another miscarriage in April from which she never recovered. She died on 1st May, aged thirty-five. Her remains now lie with Charles’ in the Royal Pantheon of Kings at El Escorial. Charles was deeply affected by her death, writing to his brother Ferdinand about her ‘devout life’, to his sister Mary of his ‘anguish and sorrow’, and in his memoirs that ‘It pleased God to call her to Himself’. He immediately withdrew to a monastery near Toledo for several weeks. He realised the value of what he had lost in emotional as well as political terms.


This section concentrates on the lives of Charles’ children up to the time of his death in 1558 and then gives a brief resume of their subsequent careers.

Philip II (1527 – 1598) was the only surviving son of Charles and Isabella. He was educated and brought up in Spain, fully aware of the task that was ahead of him - rule of a vast empire in Europe and the Americas. Given his first taste of power at the age of sixteen when made regent in Spain, his father gradually increased his responsibilities until in 1556 he became King Philip II on his father’s abdication. Married four times, all of his wives died relatively young. Despite the many pregnancies of his latter two wives, he had only four children who reached adulthood and only two that outlived him. He was hardworking, devout, some would say a religious bigot, but has always been a controversial figure. If in England he is remembered for the persecution of Protestants and sending the Armada, and in the Low Countries for supressing their freedoms, in other parts of Europe he is praised for ending the Ottoman advance through the Mediterranean and in Spain for presiding over a ‘Golden Age’.

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Philip was born on 21st May 1527 in the Palacio de Pimental in Valladolid. He was given the Burgundian name of Philip, after Charles’ father. He was brought up at the Castilian court under the supervision of his mother and Don Juan de Zuniga, one of his godfathers and a confidante of Charles, who became more influential after Isabella’s death in 1539. He encouraged Philip’s enjoyment of outdoor, physical pursuits – hawking, riding, sword fighting – at which he excelled. Charles was later to set a weekly limit on the number of animals that might be killed! He was tutored by many of the best academics in Spain, although he was no natural scholar, and his education had significant gaps. Besides Spanish, he learned Latin, on the grounds that this would be understood throughout Europe, but never mastered French, German or Italian, something that would hinder him in the future. Charles also became more involved with his son after 1539, beginning his instruction in the art of government and instilling the belief in the need for hard work. He showed care and attention to Philip’s political education.

Philip was first appointed regent in Spain in 1543 at the age of sixteen. Charles recognised that ‘you are still young to bear such a burden’, but left him three documents of advice and instruction, covering his powers and duties, some limitations on these powers, especially in appointments, and more personal advice about his role and his behaviour in public and private. He outlined his political ideas, and warned him to expect financial difficulties. (For more details see Ch. 22 in ‘Dynasty and Duty: Emperor Charles V and his Changing World 1500-1558’). He also informed Philip that Zuniga had been instructed to speak sharply to him ‘if he must’ and appointed a powerful council to advise his son.

In the same year Philip married Maria Manuela of Portugal, the eldest daughter of John III of Portugal and his wife Catherine. Philip was seventeen and Maria just sixteen. They were ‘double’ cousins, in other words cousins on both their fathers’ and mothers’ side, an example of a marriage between close relatives that was becoming frequent in the Habsburg family. Charles warned his son of overindulgence in the ‘pleasures of marriage’ since this could ‘not only injure your health….(but) even cut short your life’ referring to the ‘excesses’ of Prince Juan (Charles’ uncle) who married Margaret of Austria in 1497 only to die six months later. He let Philip know that he had instructed Zuniga to ensure that his wishes were followed. Having taken to bed on their wedding night, after two and half hours Zuniga took Philip off to another bed chamber. In fact it was Maria who paid the price, dying after giving birth to a son, Don Carlos, in July 1545. Philip was badly shaken by the loss. In 1546 and 1547 Philip’s three main advisers – Tavara, Cobos and Zuniga - all died, and Charles recognised that by the age of twenty Philip was ready for greater freedom of action. Philip resisted his father’s demands for money from Spain and started appointing his own men to government positions. By the late 1540s Charles had decided that Philip should inherit the Low Countries as well as Spain and summoned him to travel there to be acknowledged as heir. This was his first major journey outside Spain. Leaving from Barcelona in October 1548 he sailed to Genoa, travelled through northern Italy to Innsbruck, then on to Munich and Heidelberg, arriving in Brussels on 1st April. (The ‘Ommegang’ pageant held in Brussels each July is a re-enactment of the 1549 celebration held after Philip’s arrival). Philip was never accepted in the Low Countries. He was regarded as reserved and haughty, a foreigner who did not speak their language, with little appreciation of the traditional institutions of the provinces. He was never able to overcome these problems.

Philip returned to Spain in 1551. He was refused permission by Charles to join military ventures in Italy or against the French at Metz, and his father continued to press him for money. Charles then sent instructions that Philip should travel to the Low Countries with large sums to pay for the following year’s military campaign in the war with France. Philip had begun negotiations for his marriage to another Maria, this time the daughter of his aunt Eleanor and her first husband Manuel I of Portugal, but the death of Edward VI in England in July 1553 changed the situation. Edward’s successor was Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, thirty years earlier a possible wife for Charles. When that idea was resurrected Charles would not countenance it, but decided that Philip would be an excellent match for the Catholic queen, bringing together England and the Low Countries, and restoring England to the Catholic faith. The arrangements were made and Philip travelled to England in July 1554, where they were married in Winchester.

Many people believed that Philip still lacked independence and merely followed Charles’ instructions. However on his departure from Spain he ignored his father’s wishes regarding the regency in his absence and appointed his young sister, Juana, recently widowed in Portugal. He also made numerous appointments to the council and other administrative and ecclesiastical posts, thus ensuring that he would keep control of Spain in his absence. His time in England however was not successful, despite Philip’s desire for a positive political outcome. Even though he made considerable efforts to establish good relationships and do his duty, the marriage agreement made in his absence had limited his powers in England, the English were generally hostile and he found it difficult to reciprocate Mary’s affections. He left the country in September 1555 and took part in Charles’ abdication ceremony the following month. In January 1556 Philip formally became King Philip II, but he remained in the Low Countries when Charles sailed for Spain later in the year. Still at war with France, Philip’s troops achieved a major victory at St. Quentin in August 1557, but the loss of Calais, in English hands since 1347, in January 1558 was a major blow to Mary. The English queen had believed that she was pregnant in 1555 but there had been no child. In late 1557, now aged forty-two, she once more announced a pregnancy. By April 1558, nine months after Philip had last left England it became clear that she was again mistaken. Her health deteriorated and she died on 17th November, less than two months after Philip’s father.

After 1558

Death was a constant feature in Philip’s personal life. He was to marry twice more. In 1559 he married Elizabeth of Valois, the eldest daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici as part of the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis with the French king. They had two surviving children, much loved daughters Isabella and Catherine. Philip’s son from his first marriage, Don Carlos, had early on shown himself to be unreliable and a disappointment to his father. In January 1568 he was arrested and imprisoned and six months later he died in circumstances that remain unclear. Elizabeth died in childbirth later the same year. In 1570 Philip married his niece, Anne of Austria, the daughter of Emperor Maximilian and Maria, Philip’s sister. They had four sons and a daughter, four of whom died before the age of eight, leaving the youngest son, Philip, born in 1578, to succeed his father twenty years later. Anne died in 1580.

Philip remained in Spain for much of his reign, making Madrid his capital city and building the monastery and royal palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where he spent much of his time when not in Madrid or his palace at Aranjuez. He worked long hours, reading state papers, issuing instructions and often becoming engrossed in the detail of the numerous issues that he had to deal with as ruler of Spain, the Low Countries, much of Italy and the Americas. In 1580 he became King of Portugal. He had to struggle with enormous financial difficulties, declaring Spain bankrupt on a number of occasions.

Philip remains a controversial figure. He is sometimes regarded as merely a religious bigot, responsible for the on-going inquisition and persecution of Protestants. During his reign of forty years there were only nine months when he was not at war in some part of his realm. Most damaging was the rebellion in the Low Countries, over political and religious issues, which he was unable to quell and after his death eventually led to their division into a Spanish controlled area and the independent United Provinces (now the Netherlands). He is best known in England for the sending of the ill-fated Armada against Elizabeth I in 1588, but probably more significant was the defeat of the Ottoman navy at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. His reign also consolidated Habsburg power in Europe, and is often referred to as Spain’s ‘Golden Age’, even though it had the seeds of its own decline. Often referred to in Spain as ‘Philip the Prudent’, Geoffrey Parker’s 2014 biography ‘Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II’ provides a thorough and thought provoking examination of his life.

Maria (1528 – 1603), the eldest daughter of Charles and Isabella, was brought up at the Spanish court with her siblings, mainly in Toledo and Valladolid. She married her cousin Maximilian, eldest son of Ferdinand, her father’s brother, in 1548. Maria and Maximilian then acted as regents in Spain when her brother Philip left for the Low Countries, but once he returned in 1551 they left for Austria. In 1564, with the accession of her husband to the imperial throne, she became Holy Roman Empress. In their marriage of twenty-eight years they had sixteen children, of whom six died in infancy and two in adolescence. Remarkably of the children who reached adulthood only two produced children and only the eldest, Anne, wife of Maria’s brother Philip II, produced a child who reached maturity, the future Philip III of Spain. Maria’s regular correspondence with Philip in the thirty years that she lived in Austria revealed a closeness and great fondness between them and sometimes diplomatic information was shared.

On Maximilian’s death in 1576, her son Rudolph became emperor (1576-1609) and he was followed by his younger brother Matthias (1609-1619). Maria eventually returned to Spain in 1582, along with her youngest daughter, Margaret, then fifteen. There were plans for Margaret to marry the recently widowed Philip, but she was adamant that she should become a nun at the Convent de Las Descalzas Reales and the wedding never took place. Maria too settled in the convent, founded in 1559 by her sister Juana, and lived there for the rest of her life. She remained in constant touch with Philip, sometimes visiting him at El Escorial or Aranjuez, and died five years after him in 1603.

Juana (1535-1573) was born shortly after her father had left for his campaign in North Africa to capture Tunis. She saw little of her parents. Her mother Isabella died when she was three years old and Charles was frequently away, and then left Spain in 1543 not to return for thirteen years. Nevertheless Juana was given a good education, and like her brother and sister developed deep religious beliefs. In 1552, aged seventeen, she married her fifteen year old cousin, crown prince John Manuel of Portugal. Juana was pregnant when he died in early 1554 and their son, Sebastian, was born less than three weeks later.

Juana returned to Spain having been appointed regent by Philip when he left for England and the Low Countries later in 1554. She never returned to Portugal or saw her son again. Her appointment was made in the face of objections by Charles who regarded Juana as unsuitable for such a position, being ‘haughty’ and having a ‘disorderly life’, despite the fact that he hardly knew her. She served effectively as regent until 1559. During that time she took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, it is said in the Jesuit Order in the guise of a man. In 1559 she founded the convent de Las Descalzas Reales for the Order of the Poor Clares in the former palace of her parents in Madrid where she had been born. She maintained accommodation in both the convent and the Madrid Alcazar, seeing a great deal of her family and Philip’s wives and children over the next fourteen years. Philip thought highly of her and was deeply distressed by her death in 1573.

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Sebastian became king in 1557 and his grandmother Catherine (the daughter of Charles V) acted as regent, followed by his great-uncle Cardinal Henry. He never married and was killed in the battle of Alcacer Quibir in Morocco in 1578. He was succeeded by Cardinal Henry, also childless on his death in 1580, opening the way for Philip II to become king of Portugal.

Charles also had a number of children outside his marriage.

Isabella, possibly the daughter of Charles and Germaine de Foix (1488-1538), second wife of Ferdinand of Aragon, and thus Charles step-grandmother, twelve years his senior. She moved to Valladolid and the court of Castile on Charles’ arrival there in late 1517. Germaine gave birth to a daughter in August 1518 and always referred to her as the ‘Isabella, infant of Castile’. In 1519 it was arranged for Germaine to marry a German nobleman, and in 1523 Charles appointed the couple as joint viceroys of Valencia. Little is known of Isabella’s life.

Tadea was the daughter of Charles and Orsolina de la Pena, an Italian widow who he met in the Low Countries. Tadea was born in Bologna as Orsolina was travelling home to Rome. Tadea lived most of her life in a convent near Perugia and was taken to see Charles when he was in Bologna in 1530 and 1532-3.

Juana, born in 1522 or 1523 in Spain, was also said to be his daughter. She died in a convent in Avila in 1530.

Margaret of Parma (1522-1586) was born to Joanna Maria van den Gheynst, a servant of Charles de Lalaing, and senior Nobleman of the Low Countries and a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Charles spent six weeks on the estate in 1521 and a brief affair resulted in Margaret’s birth. From an early age she was brought up in the court of Margaret of Austria, Charles’ aunt and Governor of the Low Countries and on her death by her successor, Mary of Hungary. In 1529 Charles fully acknowledged her as his daughter and her engagement to Alessandro de Medici, who was to be the new ruler of Florence, was finalised. She travelled to Italy in 1533, against the wishes of her guardian Mary, who considered her too young at the age of eleven, and the marriage took place in February 1536. Alessandro, whose reputation for dissolute behaviour was widespread, was murdered only eleven months later.

Margaret, widowed at fifteen, was to marry again quickly, this time to Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma, the fourteen year old grandson of Pope Paul III. Again Margaret had been used as a diplomatic pawn. Although it gave Margaret experience of the Italian political world, this was not a happy marriage. The couple rarely lived together, though in 1545 twin sons were born. Alexander survived but his brother, Charles, died in infancy. Margaret spent time in the Low Countries from 1555 when Philip, her half-brother, was there and in 1559 he appointed her Governor of the Spanish Netherlands (Low Countries) when he left for Spain. This was no easy task especially as she was given little freedom of action by Philip, and she was unable to prevent the outbreak of revolt. She resigned her position in 1567 and spent most of the rest of her life in Italy, where she died in 1586. Her son, Alexander (1545-1592), who had spent some of his youth at the Spanish court with Don Carlos and Don Juan of Austria, became Duke of Parma, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands (1578-92), a renowned military commander. It was Parma who would have commanded the Spanish forces had they been landed in England by the Armada in 1588.

Don Juan of Austria (1547-1578) was the son of Barbara Blomberg, a daughter of a tradesman with whom Charles had an brief affair during his stay at the Golden Cross Inn on Haidplatz in Regensburg between April and July 1546. (Link to Regensburg: In Charles’ Footsteps) Born on 24th February 1547 he lived briefly in the Low Countries after his mother married a court official in Brussels. Jeromin, as the boy was known, was taken to Spain in 1551. From 1554 he was brought up in Valladolid, by Magdelena de Ulloa, the wife of Luis de Quijada, who was to be in charge of Charles’ household when he retired to the monastery at Yuste.

In the spring of 1558, presumably at Charles’ request, de Quijada arranged for his wife to bring Jeromin to the village of Cuacos, close to Yuste (Link to Yuste: In Charles’ Footsteps). The village still has streets named after Charles, Luis de Quijada, Magdelena de Ulloa; the house in which the boy stayed is in Plaza Don Juan. Jeromin was taken to meet Charles, though not told that the aging emperor was his father. He must have wondered why he had been chosen. He clearly pleased Charles, who requested further visits, and provided for him in an amendment to his will, in which there was also a legacy to the boy’s mother. He left it to Philip to decide Jeromin’s eventual status.

On Philip’s return to Spain in 1559 Jeromin, by now twelve years old, was introduced to the new king. Philip explained to him that they had the same father and thereafter always referred to him as a brother, though was careful to maintain the proper protocol, giving the newly named Don John (of Austria) a position in public ceremonies behind the royal family but ahead of all other grandees. Don John was educated in the royal household and at the University of Alcala de Henares with Philip’s son, Don Carlos, and Alexander Farnese.

He was destined for a military career. Early on he was involved in naval action against the corsairs in the Mediterranean. He then commanded troops in putting down the revolt of the Alpujarras in 1569-70. The revolt was provoked by Philip’s decree in 1567 that all ‘moriscos’ (former Muslims and their descendants who had converted to Christianity to avoid persecution, many of whom lived in the mountainous area south of Granada) should abandon their traditional customs, dress and language.

Don John is best known as commander of the fleet of the Holy League (Spain, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, the Knights of St. John and others) which inflicted a stunning defeat on the Ottomans at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. This was the greatest sea battle of the 16th century, involving almost five hundred vessels and resulting in possibly 50,000 deaths. It effectively halted the Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean which had been in progress for a century. Don John was feted as a hero. He now had ambitions to be referred to as ‘Highness’ and have a kingdom of his own, but Philip’s attitude to this was distinctly lukewarm. Don John never married but had various relationships which produced two daughters. He died in 1578, aged only thirty-one.