Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558)

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Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
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Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 1519-1556. The course of the Reformation was determined in no small degree by the circumstance that the heirs of Maximilian I, his grandsons Charles V and Ferdinand I, had grown up in circles that were only slightly touched by the movement toward a reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. Neither could be considered German, either by descent or education. The house of Hapsburg had grown from a German dynasty into a world power. By his connections with Burgundy, Charles was drawn into the wars with France, by those with Spain into the Moorish wars, and as a Holy Roman Emperor he was responsible to protect the church. From these viewpoints the historian must consider Charles's attitude toward the great religious movement of the 16th century.

Charles was born 20 February 1500, at Ghent (now Belgium), and spent his youth in the Netherlands, which he always regarded with affection. Since his father, Philip of Burgundy, died in 1506, and his mother Joanna (third child of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile) suffered from a clouded intellect, he succeeded to the Netherlands possessions and to the county of Burgundy, and after Ferdinand's death also to the Spanish lands. His teacher was Adriaen of Utrecht (Pope 1522 f.), a pious and learned theologian, under whose tutelage he acquired the strictly religious, gloomy view of the world which characterized him throughout his life. In addition to French, which may be considered his native tongue, he spoke some Latin and Spanish; of German he knew only a few words. In 1519 he was elected emperor at Frankfurt (succeeding his grandfather, Maximilian I), in spite of all the efforts of his rival, Francis I of France, to defeat him. His arrival in Germany was welcomed in many circles, especially by the Imperial Knights and the Humanists. The former hoped that he would put an end to the oppressive might of the princely oligarchy, the latter, that he would promote the movement begun by Luther.

But Charles, who had come to Aachen (Germany) on 22 October 1520 and there been crowned and anointed, remained solidly with the old Roman Church. In the Netherlands he had already affirmed the prohibition of Luther's works, and as far as his influence extended, they were destroyed. On 28 January 1521, he opened the Diet at Worms, which put Luther under the ban of the empire in the Edict of Worms of 26 May. But this edict did not have the desired results. Since it was published in only a part of the empire, and the Emperor was much absent, the authorities did not block the progress of the new doctrines. The Reformation took its course.

Meanwhile, from Switzerland the Anabaptist movement, founded in January 1525 in Zürich by Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock, spread over a large part of the empire, especially into the Austrian Alps, where Charles could not master the situation no matter how many mandates he issued against them, because he was so deeply involved in the French and Turkish wars, that he was kept away from Germany throughout a quarter of a century.

Under these circumstances the new doctrine continued to spread; neither Charles nor his regent, Duke Ferdinand of Austria, could prevent it. By 1524 the Diet of Nürnberg sided with the Lutheran Reformation, and even though the princes in the Regensburg Diet were inclined to support the Emperor in carrying out the Edict of Worms, nevertheless political conditions, especially the alliance of the Pope with Charles's enemies, compelled him to yield. He tried to win the Protestant princes to his side by lenience in religious matters, and so it was decided at the Diet of Speyer, in 1526, that every imperial estate should conduct his ecclesiastical affairs "as he could answer for it before God and the Emperor." Thus the Reformation was left to the individual governments. Not until the second war with France had come to an end in the so-called Ladies' Peace at Cambrat (1529), was Charles's energy directed to countering the further spread of the Reformation. In actual fact, Charles had made agreements to eradicate the new teaching, in his treaties of peace with the Pope and with France. In that year at a Diet held at Speyer a decree was issued to annul the concession of 1526, but a minority of princes and cities protested. Thus the empire really fell into two parts, one Protestant and the other Catholic.

Both parts turned with ruthless severity and violence against the Anabaptists. The same Diet that granted religious freedom to the Protestants passed the most horrifying law to eradicate the Anabaptists. The mandate of Charles, of 4 January 1528, in which he, as "protector of the most holy Christian faith," ruled "that each and every Anabaptist and rebaptized person, man or woman of accountable age, shall be brought from natural life to death with fire and sword and the like," was elevated to an imperial law; on 23 April 1529, it was sanctioned by the consent of the assembled imperial estates. At the Diet of Augsburg (1530) it was reaffirmed; at the Diet of Frankfurt (1531) it was declared to have "been issued somewhat too hastily," but was retained; at the Diet of Speyer in 1544 it was extended by the additional clause, that those "who have been negligent in denouncing [heretics] shall be punished according to their deserts." The last Diet to occupy itself with it was the Diet of Augsburg in 1551, which decided that all judges and bailiffs who refused to pronounce the death sentence against Anabaptists should be deposed and punished by fine and imprisonment. In February 1540 Charles V returned from Spain to the Netherlands to discipline rebellious Ghent. "From Brussels he issued sharpened proclamations against the heretics and Anabaptists. Flanders in particular suffered under the renewal of persecution" (Hans Rott, 153). Rott refers to Hoofstede de Groot. (See de Groot, 126) P. Kalkoff shows that Charles's first proclamation of 28 September 1520 against the Protestants in the Netherlands (Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte I, 279) is identical with the mandate issued on 22 or 30 March 1521. 

In the Netherlands and Belgium the influence of Charles was very great; in the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium), all of which with the exception of the bishopric of Liége belonged to the crown lands, he had absolute power. Likewise he exercised full authority in the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, which he had also inherited. Gradually he acquired possession of the whole of the Netherlands. By war, purchase, or political manipulation he acquired Friesland in 1515, the Bishopric of Utrecht (provinces of Utrecht and Overijssel) in 1528, Groningen (Groningen, Ommelanden, and Drenthe) in 1536, and Gelderland in 1543. Since he was not thwarted here by princes and Diets as in Germany, he could enforce his measures to suppress heresy and prevent the Reformation. Besides the general mandates sanctioned by Diets and valid for the entire empire, several special mandates were issued for these territories, and particularly against Anabaptism. A special form of the Inquisition was introduced as early as 1522; both imperial regents in the Netherlands, Margaretha of Austria, 1507-1530, and Maria of Hungary, 1531-1555, were given strict instructions to prevent and suppress heresy.

The further attempts of Charles V to suppress Protestantism were fruitless. To be sure, he defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldian war (1547), and thereupon issued the Augsburg Interim (1548), which permitted to Protestants the lay communion in both forms, marriage of the clergy, as well as the continued use of church property, but it satisfied neither the Protestants nor the Catholics. Finally he was compelled to sign the treaty of Passau (1552), which gave the Protestants free exercise of their religion until a general Diet should be called, which met three years later in Augsburg. It granted to the Protestant estates of the Lutheran confession complete religious liberty and political equality with the Catholic estates. Excluded from this religious peace were the Reformed and the Anabaptists.

Charles V was not pleased with this solution of ecclesiastic confusion. Political failures, severe physical illness, and increasing melancholia induced him to pass his crowns to his successors. At a brilliant assembly in Brussels (October 1555) he ceded his Italian and Burgundian lands to his son Philip, and later (January 1556) also his Spanish domains and those in the New World; finally he also abdicated the imperial crown to his brother Ferdinand. He retired to the vicinity of the Jeromite monastery of St. Justus in Estremadura, Spain, where he died, 21 September 1558.


Baumgarten, Hermann. Geschichte Karls V, 3 vols. Stuttgart: Cotta, 1885-1892.

Brandi, Karl. The emperor Charles V: the growth and destiny of a man and of a world-empire. New York, 1939.

Groot, Hoofstede de. 100 Jahre aus der Geschichte der Reformation in den Niederlanden. 1893: 126.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexicon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 460.

Kalkoff, P. Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte I: 279.

Maurenbrecher, Wilhelm. Karl V. und die deutschen Protestanten 1545-1555. Dusseldorf: Buddeus, 1865.

Ranke, Leopold von. Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation, 6 vols. 7th edition, 1894.

Rott, Hans "Karl V.," in Neues Archiv für die Geschichte der Stadt Heidelberg 9 (1911): 153.

Author(s) Johann Loserth
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Loserth, Johann and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 24 Jan 2020.,_Holy_Roman_Emperor_(1500-1558)&oldid=118861.

APA style

Loserth, Johann and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1953). Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 January 2020, from,_Holy_Roman_Emperor_(1500-1558)&oldid=118861.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 549-550. All rights reserved.

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