Carlos V - The First of the Habsburgs

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

After the death of Isabel in 1504, the Catholic Kings' eldest daughter Juana came to the throne of Castile. Known as Juana the Mad, her brief reign was a period of power struggles and instability. After Fernando's death in 1516, her son Carlos became king of Castile and Aragon. Known as Carlos V, he also inherited the Holy Roman Empire and Dutch possessions and was the most powerful ruler in Christendom.


Chapter 11: Carlos V - The First of the Habsburgs

When Carlos V, the first of the Habsburgs, acceded to thrones of Castile and Aragon, it is almost as if Catalan history stops. The Principality had been hit by plague and famine and the power base of the Crown of Aragon had shifted to the Port of Valencia. It is still strange that Barcelona, the city that had received Columbus in 1492, suddenly seems to lose all importance.

Catalonia continued trading with the rest of the Mediterranean as it had done for the last few centuries. The Generalitat and the Consell de Cent argued with each other as well as with incumbent viceroys. The prosperous middle-class skilled workers went from strength to strength as the gremis or guilds consolidated their apprenticeship-based closed-shop system.

After the return of Columbus nothing particularly eventful happened. Barcelona was no longer the first port of call for kings but little had changed for the average Catalan. In Castile, on the other hand, these were tumultuous times.

Juana the Mad

Isabel of Castile died in 1504 and was succeeded as Queen of Castile by Juana, the eldest surviving daughter from her marriage with Fernando. Unhappy about his daughter coming to the throne of Castile, Fernando continued reigning as King of Aragon, and so effectively the two kingdoms were separate once again.

At the time, Juana was in Flanders with her Habsburg husband Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy and heir to the Holy Roman Empire, who was also keen to be King of Castile. The couple returned to Castile in 1505 leaving their son Carlos in Flanders and quickly gained favour with the Castilian nobility, who were annoyed with Fernando for marrying Germaine of Foix, niece of Louis XII of France. Fernando hoped Germaine would produce a son to inherit Aragon and perhaps Castile but the Castilian nobles were suspicious of possible French influence.

Both Philip the Handsome and Fernando of Aragon wanted control of Castile and in 1505, father and husband signed a treaty stating that Juana's mental instability made her incapable of ruling and agreed to exclude her from government. Fernando then proceeded to repudiate the agreement and, by declaring that Juana should never be deprived of her rights as Queen Proprietress of Castile, gained the right to interfere if he considered his daughter's rights to have been infringed upon. Frustratingly for his power bid, Fernando was forced to abandon Castile for Aragon and Archduke Philip was left to govern in Juana's place.

In July 1506, the Cortes of Castile swore allegiance to Philip and Juana together as King and Queen of Castile and León and to their son Carlos as heir apparent. Unfortunately, the arrangement only lasted for a few months because in September 1506 Philip died suddenly of typhoid fever in Burgos in Castile. Many suspected he had been poisoned by Fernando, who had always disliked his foreign son-in-law and with whom he had never wanted to share power.

Juana attempted to rule Castile alone but the country fell into disorder. Fernando, remained in Aragon, allowing the crisis to grow. A regency council under Archbishop Cisneros was set up against the queen's orders but was unable to manage the growing public unrest. Plague and famine devastated the kingdom and Juana, unable to raise the funds necessary to rule, declined further into mental instability.

Fernando returned to Castile in July 1507 and his arrival coincided with a remission of the plague and famine, leaving the impression that his return had restored health to the kingdom. Back in control, Fernando had his increasingly distraught daughter confined to a convent in Tordesillas, near Valladolid. Effectively King of Castile once again, in 1510 Fernando entrusted the government of Castile to Archbishop Cisneros and returned to Aragon.

Fernando died in January 1516 frustrated at not having produced a male heir to inherit Aragon and possibly Castile with Germaine of Foix. He resented that, upon his death, Castile and Aragon would pass to his foreign-born and raised grandson Carlos, to whom he had transferred his hatred of Archduke Philip.

Technically, Juana the Mad became the first queen of the united crowns of Castile and Aragon in 1516, although she remained in the convent of Tordesillas until her death in 1555.

The Accession of Charles

In October 1517, seventeen-year-old Carlos arrived in Asturias accompanied by a large retinue of Flemish nobles and clerics. On November 4th he visited his mother Juana at Tordesillas, where he secured the authorisation that would allow him to rule as her co-King of Castile and León and of Aragon.

Having been born and raised in the Netherlands, young Carlos spoke no Castilian and also surrounded himself with Flemish courtiers. Following the instability of his mother's reign, there was a general feeling of unrest and new taxes to fund his foreign policy didn't help matters.

A placard at one of the early public protests read, "You, land of Castile, very wretched and damned are you to suffer that as noble a kingdom as you are, you will be governed by those who have no love for you." Unlike Catalonia, the experience of having a foreign ruler with foreign advisors and foreign priorities was new to Castile.

Carlos left Castile in 1519, first for Catalonia, where he was sworn in by the Corts in May, then Aragon, where he was crowned King in July and finally for Germany to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The young king left one of his Dutch advisors, Adrian of Utrecht, to rule in his absence. Discontent quickly rose to the surface and rebellions broke out first in Castile as the Revolt of the Comuneros and then in Valencia as the Revolt of the Brotherhoods.

Amnesties and tax reforms, instituted by Carlos, upon his return took some of the sting out the uprising as did the appointment of Castilian-speaking viceroys. Apparently, Germain of Foix, the second wife of Fernando of Aragon, got on very well with her step-grandson and her appointment as Viceroy of Valencia marks the beginning of the decline of the Catalan language in the kingdom.

By 1520, Carlos was the most powerful ruler in Christendom as his full list of titles clearly shows:

Charles, by the grace of God, Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King of Germany, King of Italy, King of all Spains, of Castile, Aragon, León, of Hungary, of Dalmatia, of Croatia, Navarra, Grenada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Sevilla, Cordova, Murcia, Jaén, Algarves, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, King of Two Sicilies, of Sardinia, Corsica, King of Jerusalem, King of the Western and Eastern Indies, of the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Lorraine, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxembourg, Gelderland, Neopatria, Württemberg, Landgrave of Alsace, Prince of Swabia, Asturia and Catalonia, Count of Flanders, Habsburg, Tyrol, Gorizia, Barcelona, Artois, Burgundy Palatine, Hainaut, Holland, Seeland, Ferrette, Kyburg, Namur, Roussillon, Cerdagne, Drenthe, Zutphen, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Oristano and Gociano, Lord of Frisia, the Wendish March, Pordenone, Biscay, Molin, Salins, Tripoli and Mechelen.

The First King of Spain?

Spanish historians often refer to Carlos as the first King of a united Spain but in fact, very briefly, his mother Juana was the first monarch of both the Crowns of Castile and Aragon. Also as the list of his titles above shows Carlos was referred to as the King of Spains rather than a single Spain. Interestingly, Catalonia, which Spanish nationalists say never existed, is mentioned separately.

It is also strange is that Spanish history books generally refer to him as Carlos V, his title as Holy Roman Emperor, rather than Carlos I, which was his title as king of the Spanish Empire. The title of Holy Roman Emperor took precedence over of King of Spain, and Carlos V ruled over another composite monarchy.
No one would consider Austria, Burgundy or Naples to be Spain even though they had the same ruler. Catalonia had similar relationship with its monarch as Naples, which had been part of the Crown of Aragon for centuries. The argument of proximity or that Catalonia was part of Spain because it's on the Iberian peninsula cannot be used. Portugal isn't Spain and distant Canary Islands and the North African provinces of Ceuta and Melilla do form part of Spain today.

Carlos V was a foreign king who came to the thrones of Castile and Aragon. Although, he finally learnt Castilian and spent much of his time on the Iberian peninsula his realms stretched far and wide. For administrative purposes, the empire was divided into five territorial departments - the German Possessions, Castile, the Crown of Aragon including the Italian Possessions, the Netherlands and the Americas. Each territory had its own laws, customs and viceroys and was governed distinctly.

If you lived in Castile visiting Catalonia meant crossing borders, changing languages and probably paying taxes in much the same way as if you lived in Burgundy, Flanders or Austria. The only difference was that the distances were significantly shorter.

Carlos was aware of the impracticality of trying to govern so many disparate domains. From the 1550s onwards, he began abdicating in his German territories in favour of his brother Ferdinand and his Mediterranean, Dutch and American territories in favour of his son Felipe.

He spent his last years in the Monastery of Yuste in Extremadura and died there aged 58 in 1558. His policies definitely brought his Spanish territories closer together but it is still too early to talk of a united Spain. The Crown of Aragon remained separate from Castile and Catalonia retained its own charters and institutions within the Crown of Aragon.

Now Read Chapter Twelve of Catalonia Is Not Spain - Golden Age or Black Legend?

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