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Spain 1516 - 22: The Troubled Succession of Charles V


By the time he was 20, in 1520, Charles V ruled the largest collection of European land since Charlemagne over 700 years earlier. Charles was Duke of Burgundy, King of the Spanish Empire and the Habsburg territories, which included Austria and Hungary, as well as Holy Roman Emperor; he continued to acquire more land throughout his life. Problematically for Charles, but interestingly for historians, he acquired these lands piecemeal - there was no one single inheritance - and many of the territories were independent countries with their own systems of government and little common interest. This empire, or monarchia, may have brought Charles power, but it also caused him great problems.

The Succession to Spain

Charles inherited the Spanish Empire in 1516; this included peninsular Spain, Naples, several islands in the Mediterranean and large tracts of America. Although Charles had a clear right to inherit, the manner in which he did so caused upset: in 1516 Charles became regent of the Spanish Empire on his mentally ill mother’s behalf. Just a few months later, with his mother still alive, Charles declared himself king.

More Info: The Succession of Spain in 1516

Charles Causes Problems

The manner of Charles’ rise to the throne caused upset, with some Spaniards wishing for his mother to remain in power; others supported Charles’ infant brother as heir. On the other hand there were many who flocked to the court of the new king. Charles caused more problems in the manner in which he initially governed the kingdom: some feared he was inexperienced, and some Spaniards feared Charles would focus on his other lands, such as those he stood to inherit from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. These fears were exacerbated by the time it took Charles to put aside his other business and travel to Spain for the very first time: eighteen months.

More Info: Problems Caused by the Absence of Charles V 1516 – 17 in Depth

Charles caused other, much more tangible, problems when he arrived in 1517. He promised a gathering of towns called the Cortes that he wouldn’t appoint foreigners to important positions; he then issued letters naturalising certain foreigners and appointed them to important positions. Furthermore, having been granted a large subsidy to the crown by the Cortes of Castile in 1517, Charles broke with tradition and asked for another large payment while the first was being paid. He’d so far spent little time in Castile and the money was to finance his claim to the Holy Roman throne, a foreign adventure feared by Castilians. This, and his weakness when it came to resolving internal conflicts between the towns and nobles, caused great upset.

More Info: Problems Caused by the Actions of Charles V 1517 -20

The Revolt of the Comuneros 1520-1

During the years 1520 - 21, Spain experienced a major rebellion within its Castilian kingdom, an uprising that has been described as "the largest urban revolt in early modern Europe." (Bonney, The European Dynastic States, Longman, 1991, p. 414) Although certainly true, this statement obscures a later, but still significant, rural component. There is still debate on how close the revolt came to succeeding, but this rebellion of Castilian towns - who formed their own local councils, or 'communes' - included a true mix of contemporary mismanagement, historical rivalry, and political self-interest. Charles wasn’t completely to blame, as pressure had grown over the last half century, when towns felt themselves increasingly losing power versus the nobility and the crown.

More Info: Background to the Revolt of the Comuneros

The Rise of the Holy League

Riots against Charles had begun before he had even left Spain in 1520, and as the riots spread towns began rejecting his government and forming their own: councils called comuneros. In June 1520, as nobles remained quiet, hoping to profit from the chaos, the comuneros met and formed themselves together in the Santa Junta (Holy League). Charles’ regent sent an army to deal with the rebellion, but this lost the propaganda war when it started a fire that gutted Medina del Campo. More towns then joined the Santa Junta.

More Info: Urban Beginnings and the Santa Junta

As the rebellion spread in the north of Spain, the Santa Junta initially tried to get Charles V’s mother, the old queen, on side for support. When this failed the Santa Junta sent a list of demands to Charles, a list intended to keep him as king and both moderate his actions and make him more Spanish. The demands included Charles returning to Spain and giving the Cortes a much greater role in government.

More Info: The Revolt of the Comuneros Spreads

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