The Abdication of Emperor Charles V

'I can no longer participate' - the abdication of Emperor Charles V.

It is rare for someone of Charles’ stature to willingly renounce his power, abdicate his titles and retire to live his remaining years out of the public eye – it is a pity that more do not follow his example! Admittedly Charles had ruled vast areas for 35 years before exhaustion, both physical and mental, and disillusion with what he could achieve led him to this decision. It was not one that was forced upon him but one that he had contemplated for some considerable time. Given the strength of his determination to take on his various roles in the 1510s – Duke of Burgundy, King in Spain and Holy Roman Emperor - it may seem surprising that he acted in this way in the 1550s, but it is likely that the very extent of his territories eventually led him to step down.

The years from 1550 had been especially difficult for Charles. He narrowly avoided capture by Protestant princes in 1552; no satisfactory religious settlement could be reached; there were rare heated family arguments about the possible succession; Ottoman fleets were again having success in the Mediterranean; and an army of 60,000 under his personal command had failed to retake the city of Metz from the French in January 1553. What followed appears to have been a physical and psychological collapse. He had since the late 1520’s suffered from recurrent attacks of gout, each longer and more painful than the previous one. In his memoirs (dictated in 1550) he recorded 17 such attacks. There had also been times when he had been depressed and lethargic, unwilling to give audiences and finding it difficult to sleep.

1553 - Charles' 'Annus Horribilis'

What happened in 1553 was of a different order. Arthritis ‘spread to all the joints, limbs and nerves of his body’ (Nicholas Nicolay, a councillor in the Low Countries); he suffered from catarrh and serious haemorrhoids. For lengthy periods he became incapable of the concentration required for the business of government and often refused to see even his most senior advisers, such as Granvelle. At first he blamed his health and later gave no excuse at all. During May and June he had no use of his right hand and in the autumn it was said that he was totally incapacitated. There were genuine fears for his life. Some reports of his melancholia go so far as to suggest that he was a broken man ‘Often he weeps for long periods and with such copious shedding of tears as if he were a child’. It was commented that he spent his time alone in deep thought or ‘adjusting his clocks of which he has a lot. This is his principle concern’i. He suffered a loss of confidence, blaming himself, and others, for his failures. The most powerful monarch in Europe was for the moment ‘aging, inept’, indecisive, suffering from depression and occasional rages.ii

Support from his family

Charles’ family did much to support him in his time of crisis. His sister, Mary, regent in the Low Counties, showed her abilities in controlling the imperial finances and preventing knowledge of his true condition from becoming widely known. The affairs of the Holy Roman Empire were left to his brother, Ferdinand. Philip was now ruling Spain, although his marriage to the new Catholic queen of England, Mary I (the elder daughter of Henry VIII), meant that he had to travel to England in 1554, leaving Juana, Charles’ youngest daughter, as regent there.

The family arguments about the succession in the early 1550s had been intense, but had largely been conducted in private, maintaining the dignity of the dynasty. Philip, born and brought up in Spain always going to inherit the Spanish kingdoms and their lands in the Mediterranean, Italy and the Americas. Charles’ brother, Ferdinand, had been accepted as his successor as Holy Roman Emperor since 1531. The dispute had been over who would succeed him and who would rule the Low Countries. Charles had considered the idea that Maximilian, Ferdinand’s son, would marry his eldest daughter, Maria, and they might rule there, but in the late 1540s he decided that it should be Philip, linking Spain and the Low Countries. When he also suggested that Philip might become Emperor as well, understandably Ferdinand and Maximilian were dismayed. Their sister Mary had to act as family peace-maker and an agreement for an ‘alternating succession’ was eventually reached. By this, Philip would succeed Ferdinand and then Maximilian would succeed him. Maximilian was the same age as Philip and so his chances were seriously damaged. He commented that his father could not see ‘how unfraternally and how falsely His Imperial Majesty is treating us’. However the position of Emperor was elected (by the 7 electors) and Ferdinand was confident that they would not elect the outsider Philip over Maximilian who had been brought up in the Empire. By 1554 the agreement was effectively dead.

Although by 1554 Charles was in better health, insisting on Philip’s marriage to Mary of England, he announced that he would not be attending the Imperial Diet called to meet at Augsburg the following year. He knew that the decisions that would be made there about religion (in effect accepting the division of the church) would be unpalatable to him. (See ‘Religious Divisions’ in Charles’ World). His conscience was troubling him. By the end of the year he had decided to abdicate and retire to Spain.


The exact timing of his formal abdication from his various territories, followed by his journey to Spain, could not be planned in isolation and delays were almost inevitable. The first move had actually been in July 1554 when he had given Philip the kingdom of Naples on his marriage to Mary Tudor. Charles’ mother and co-monarch, Juana, still confined at Tordesillas, died in April 1555, thus clearing any succession issues that might have existed in the Spanish lands. When Philip arrived in Brussels in September 1555, after over a year in England, Charles continued the process.

On the 22nd October 1555 he relinquished his leadership of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which had meant so much to him. Three days later, in the Great Hall of the Coudenburg Palace, a ceremony was held to pass the control of the Low Countries to Philip. Charles entered supported by Prince William of Orange. In attendance were Philip, Charles’ sisters Eleanor and Mary, his commander-in-chief Philibert Emanuel of Savoy, the knights of the Golden Fleece, and others of note in the Low Countries. His speech, in French, took his audience back 40 years to his ‘coming of age’ ceremony in the same hall. He recalled his accession in Spain followed by the Empire, and his many journeys to Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, France, Africa and England. He explained that his forces were spent; his health had deserted him. He was disappointed that he could not leave his people in peace, but he had done all that he could and that his wars had been forced upon him by his enemies to defend his landsiii. He thanked God that He had so often helped him and said that he now only wished to give his own lands to Philip and the Empire to Ferdinand. ‘Charles exhorted his son to stand fast in the faith of his fathers, to care for peace and justice. He himself had often erred, out of youth, out of self-will, out of weakness. But he had never wilfully wronged any man. If he had done so unwittingly he asked forgiveness.’iv

Charles sank to his seat; the audience were in tears, as was Charles himself. Philip knelt before his father and promised to follow his wishes. Having been raised and embraced by his father, Philip introduced the Bishop of Arras, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, who was to read his speech because, as Philip explained, he did not speak French sufficiently well. Mary, regent of the Low Countries, spoke next and announced her decision to leave the lands that she had governed for 25 years in order to travel to Spain with her brother and her sister Eleanor. Charles thanked her for her loyal service to him and his lands.

On 16th January 1556, in his private apartments, Charles abdicated from all his Spanish territories, and Philip was declared king. The recognition of Ferdinand as Holy Roman Emperor was much delayed. Although he had already become de facto emperor, the electors did not formally agree to the transfer of power until February 1558, by which time Charles had been back in Spain for well over a year. As Charles waited to make the journey to Spain he lived in a handsom, but not grand, house in the park of Coutenberg Palace in Brussels. A temporary truce in the war with France made possible his final voyage from the Low Countries to Spain in September 1556, 39 years after his first such voyage. Then he was going to claim his kingdoms now he was sailing to a much quieter life at the monastery of Yuste.

1Details of Charles’ health: Parker (in Soly Hugo (ed): Charles V 1500-1558 and his Time. Mercatorfonds, Antwerp, 1999), especially pages 148,161,192,203,207,217 and 218
2Rodriguez-Salgado, Mia J: The Changing Face of Empire. Charles V, Philip II and Habsburg Authority 1551 – 1559. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (1988) p.2
3Blockmans W: Emperor Charles V (1500 – 1558). Arnold, London, 2002. p.9   
4Brandi K: The Emperor Charles V, The Growth and Destiny of a Man and of a world-Empire. Transl: C.V. Wedgewood. First published in 1939. Humanities Press, N.J. 1980 p.634