The Coronation of Charles V

"I have come where I have long desired to be"

In order to achieve his long-held wish to go to Italy for his coronation by the pope, Charles needed circumstances to be right. This would involve a successful end to the wars against France which had continued for much of the 1520s, a settlement with Pope Clement VII (Guilio de’Medici), a government in Spain that would function effectively in his prolonged absence, and enough money to be able to arrive in style with sufficient troops. By mid-1529 these requirements had been secured. Read More +

Military victories by Charles’ troops had forced Francis I to come to terms favourable to Charles. The Treaty of Cambrai (often known as the Ladies’ Peace because it was largely negotiated by Charles’ aunt, Margaret of Austria and her sister-in-law Francis’ mother, Louise of Savoy) signed on 3rd August 1529 effectively removed French influence from Italy, ended Francis’ claims to Flanders and Artois, and finalised the marriage between Charles’ sister Eleanor and the French king. Earlier, in June, the Treaty of Barcelona had eased relations with the pope. Clement had to come to terms with Charles’ strong position in Italy; they agreed to ‘join hands’ to act against divisions in Christianity and to beat off the Turks. Charles would get his coronation and in return he would provide troops to restore several cities to the papacy and Florence to the Medici family. The diplomatic language of the time temporarily disguised the fact that they would never really trust each other.

Charles’ marriage in 1526 to Isabella of Portugal and the birth of a son, Philip, in 1527 and a daughter, Maria, in 1528, meant that he now had a family member (Isabella) that he could appoint as regent, and an heir, albeit a very young one, if the worst were to happen. During the seven years that he had spent in Spain from 1522 he had been able to improve the administration and finances, appoint ministers that he trusted and ensure that Isabella had good advisers around her in his absence. The fleet was readied in Barcelona and once the 350,000 ducats raised from the sale of the Moluccas in the East Indies to Portugal arrived he was ready to leave.

Journey and Arrival in Bologna

Sailing via Monaco and Savona, on 12thAugust he reached Genoa, the home of his new ally Andrea Doria (see 16th century Warfare - at sea, and The Ottoman Empire), where he received a grand welcome. ‘With cries from 200 small boats, of ‘Carlo, Carlo, Impero, Impero, Cesare, Cesare’, he landed alongside a specially built pier hung with tapestries and cloth of gold. A great ball appeared with an eagle on top which showered scent, and a boy symbolising Justice handed the emperor the keys of the city.’1 Besides the dignitaries of the city, led by Doria, whose switch from the French to the emperor’s side in 1528 had so helped Charles to gain his position of superiority, there were four cardinals, led by Cardinal Farnese, sent by Pope Clement, and many noblemen, including Alessandro de’ Medici, soon to be established as ruler of Florence. He stayed in Genoa for the rest of the month and then travelled slowly, north to Tortona, east to Piacenza, and from there south-east along the old Roman Via Aemilia, through Parma, Reggio, Modena, eventually arriving outside Bologna on 4th November.

After resting for the night at the Carthusian monastery of Certosa de Bologna, Charles entered the city by the Porta San Felice, greeted by twenty cardinals and four hundred Papal guards. Preceded by light cavalry in red, ten pieces of artillery mounted on chariots, and fourteen companies of German foot soldiers, Charles rode in full armour under a gold canopy supported by four lords on foot, with twenty-five pages of honour from Bologna running at his side. Accompanying him were Henry of Nassau and Antonio de Leyva (carried in a chair because of gout). They were followed by Charles’ household and Spanish infantry. As the procession took the old Roman road into the heart of the city, standards with the eagle of the House of Habsburg and the Burgundian red cross of St Andrew were prominent.2

Greeting by Pope Clement VII

Pope Clement had travelled to the city the previous month, so that as the person of higher rank he would be there to receive his visitor as custom demanded. Clement greeted Charles on a temporary structure at the top of the steps leading to the portico of the still incomplete basilica of St Petronius.3 In formal statements Charles declared: ‘I have come where I have long desired to be, to the feet of your Holiness, that we may take measures together to relieve the needs of afflicted Christendom’. The Pope replied: ‘I thank God that I see you here safe after your long journey by sea and land, and that affairs are in such a state that I need not despair of seeing by means of your authority, peace and order re-established.’4


All had been carefully orchestrated. Charles wished to maximise the impact of his time in Italy. The coronation was to be one of many ceremonial events which Charles used to show himself in the most favourable light. Even if today’s instant communications did not exist, rulers of the sixteenth century were alert to the value of propaganda. Pamphlets, medallions and prints from woodcuts would be produced and distributed as widely as possible to celebrate and commemorate successes and victories. More expensive and longer lasting were the tapestries, often produced years later based on sketches made at the time, and the formal portraits depicting the ‘hero’ in his moment of glory.

Charles was lodged in the Palazzo Comunale (also known as the Palazzo d’Accursio)(Photo 4), Bologna’s seat of government from the 13th century, in rooms directly connected to those of the Pope. In the courtyard the stone plaque commemorating their stay and the coronation still exists (Photos 5 and 6). From the Palazzo Charles looked out onto the Piazza Maggiore, from where he would have seen the Palazzo del Podesta, the Palazzo Re Enzo, the original Palazzo del Banchi, close to where the money lenders set up their benches (banchi). A little further away were the Due Torri – the 47m. Torri della Garisenda with its alarming lean and the 97m. Torri degli Asinelli – survivors of the hundred towers for which Bologna was famed in the 13th century. (See details of Bologna in the ‘In Charles' Footsteps’ section.)

Three and a half months passed before the coronation ceremony. Read More +

Discussions were held with Pope Clement, often in person, to settle the outstanding areas of contention in Italy. Between the talks Charles spent his time attending splendid public festivities - tournaments, bull baiting in the Piazza Maggiore and horse races through the city streets. He also visited the university, founded in the 11th century, the monastery of San Michele in Bosco, and presided over services for the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Knights of Santiago. It was during this time that Charles suffered a second attack of gout. His first had been in 1528 and the ailment was to afflict him for the rest of his life. In his Memoirs scarcely a year goes by without a reference to another attack, initially each lasting up to a week. The fact that he was able to recall when and where each episode occurred two decades later indicates that it had a significant impact on his physical and mental state. Since it was largely untreated, it was always likely that the attacks would not only continue, but become longer, more severe, and also increase the risk of other medical conditions. It was during this time that Charles ‘was informed that the Empress had given birth to a second son, Ferdinand’5, news that must have cheered Charles, even though he knew as well as anyone the precarious nature of a young life.

The protracted nature of the negotiations resulted in the decision to hold the ceremony in Bologna not in Rome as had originally been planned. Charles wanted no further delay having promised to assist his brother against both the Protestant threat in Germany and an Ottoman advance towards Austria. Another, unspoken, reason were the murders and destruction that Charles’ unpaid and ill-disciplined troops had unleashed during the ‘sack of Rome’ two years before; feelings were still too raw for him to be easily welcomed there. This needed to be a celebration unsullied by recriminations. Thus for a short time Bologna housed the nobility, and their retinues, from much of Europe, certainly all the areas that Charles ruled – Spain, the Low Countries and Germany, as well as many from Italy. In a preliminary ceremony on 22nd February Charles was crowned by the Pope with the Iron Crown of Lombardy in the chapel of the Palazzo Comunale.

The Ceremony

On the day of the imperial coronation, Charles’ 30th birthday, the whole city was decked out with triumphal arches full of imperial references – emperors, generals, victories - from both the Roman and medieval periods. Coins and medals, fruits and sweets were showered on the watching multitude. The processions were to make their way from a window in the Palazzo Comunale along a raised wooden walkway to the top of the steps at the front of the basilica of San Petronio, on the other side of the Piazza Maggoire. It was wide enough for six people to walk abreast, carpeted and draped with blue cloth and tapestries. Faces jostled for position at the windows and on the roofs of the buildings that overlooked the square. The walkway, square and surrounding streets were lined with troops, whose disposition had been checked by Antonio de Leyva, in charge of the military preparations.6

At 8 a.m. the papal procession commenced. Pope Clement, wearing his traditional papal triple tiara, started along the walkway in his state chair carried by servants in red livery, with the cardinals and archbishops, chamberlains and secretaries, notaries and judges, patricians and academics, in attendance. There is much debate over the symbolism of the triple tiara. The three sections have been variously interpreted as representing the Pope as the father of princes and kings, ruler of the world on earth, and vicar of Christ, or teacher, lawmaker and judge, or priest, prophet and king. Another compelling suggestion is that as the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned three times as king of Germany, king of Italy and Emperor, then the popes also wished to have a tiara with three crowns. Clement’s was a newly created tiara as in 1527 he had ordered the melting down of all existing crowns to contribute to the ransom of 400,000 ducats demanded by the troops of the very man he was about to crown.

After a short pause Charles’ procession set out. There were pages, cupbearers, stewards, chamberlains, military officers, councillors, ministers, envoys from across Europe, and then Charles, wearing the crown of Lombardy, a robe of brocade and the royal mantle. The high and mighty from across his lands were there to honour him; the Elector Palatine carried the orb of empire, the Duke of Urbino the sword of honour, the Marquis of Montferrato the golden sceptre and the Duke of Savoy the crown. As Charles reached the steps on the threshold of the Basilica, there was much commotion as part of the walkway behind him collapsed. Soldiers, with their pikes, were pitched into the crowd, some of whom were crushed. Eye witnesses vary as to the extent of the collapse; some said twenty paces, others only two or three. The procession continued, leaving others to attend to the injured and repair the damage. Another incident occurred when the representatives of Genoa and Siena scuffled over an issue of precedence.

Charles was then invested with a cloak which was embroidered with a huge imperial eagle made of pearls and precious stones, with a portrait of the emperor on the collar, flanked by two pillars with his motto ‘Plus Ultra’. In scenes now celebrated in the Chapel of St. Abbondio7 the symbols of office were presented, and Cardinal Farnese (who later became the next pontiff as Paul III) anointed Charles, the whole ceremony being overseen by Pope Clement. Drums, trumpets and cannons sounded. Mass was celebrated and a plenary indulgence (the remission before God of all temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven through confession) announced. Clement and Charles then walked down the centre of the basilica hand in hand. So packed were the crowds outside that they had to wait half an hour for space to be made for them to descend the steps to their waiting horses. Charles, having dispensed with the orb, sceptre and robes, assisted the Pope onto his horse which he then led for six paces until Clement insisted that he mounted his own. The joint procession, with churchmen on the right and those of the Imperial court on the left, now headed for the basilica of St Domenico8 . (Photo 7) The Pope, as planned, left before they arrived. Here, by the tomb of the founder of the Dominican order, San Domenico, Charles conferred knighthoods on two hundred gentlemen. The ceremonies had taken in total almost nine hours.


Even then the day had some way to go. A banquet was held at the Palazzo Comunale for a select few. Charles sat at a table on his own. Nearby was a table for ten: four cardinals, the Dukes of Savoy, Urbino, and Bavaria, the Marquess of Monferrato, Alessandro de’Medici and Antonio de Leyva. In an adjoining hall there were two more tables, each for thirty guests. Once the feast was over the remaining food was thrown from the windows for the crowds and troops in the square below to add to the loaves already supplied. There, on enormous spits turned by eight soldiers, cooks roasted oxen stuffed with partridges and snipe, suckling pigs and hares, geese and ducks, whose heads protruded from cuts in the sides of the beasts. Two columns had been erected, topped by a double headed spread eagle, from which fountains with lions mouths supplied wine, both red and white.9

The coronation was the culmination of the work of Mercurino de Gattinara, Charles’ Imperial Chancellor and chief adviser for the previous ten years. His vision was of Charles as universal monarch, the unchallenged leader of Europe and all Christianity. Many had sought to prevent this coming together of the two men whose family names have resounded through European history - Habsburg and de’Medici. Charles was now the heir to Charlemagne in a line stretching back to the first imperial coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800, but what none of those present knew was that this would be the last ever such ceremony, the last time a Pope officiated at the coronation of an Emperor. This ultimate symbol of the unity of church and state, secular and religious authority, was what Charles had worked many years to achieve. Now he had reached this apparent position of power, how successful was he to be in using his authority to achieve his religious, political and dynastic aims? If Charles’ experience up to this point had not already given him doubts, he was soon to become aware that this unity was perhaps a chimera, desirable but unobtainable.

1Thomas p.147
2 Strong, Roy: Splendour at Court, pp 86. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1973.
3 Named after St Petronius the first bishop of Bologna
4 Maxwell, W. S.
5 Charles’ Memoirs p.18
6 Maxwell, W. S. The account of the coronation celebrations is taken from the introduction by Sir William Stirling Maxwell to a reproduction of the engravings made of the ‘Procession of Pope Clement and Emperor Charles V after the Coronation at Bologna’ by Nicholas Hogenberg.
7 The first chapel of the basilica
8 Just as in Rome the tradition was to travel from St Peter’s to St John Lateran.
9 Grant p.101