The sixteenth century is usually seen as the age of the break-up of the unity of medieval Christendom and the rise of the ‘new monarchies’. Yet this development is extremely complex. The great obstacles were universalism and localism. The Church and the Holy Roman Empires were forces for universalism, while the majority of people lived their lives in local communities and had little concept of an abstraction such as the state.
The modern concept of the nation state should not be confused with contemporary notions of the natio or patria. In 1520 Luther appealed to the ‘German nation’. This did not mean that he had a 19th century concept of German nationalism, but it does imply an assumption of a common German identity.
The concept of universal sovereignty was the legacy of the Roman Empire, appropriated by the papacy in the Middle Ages. From the late 14th century the papacy was gravely weakened by the Great Schism (1378-1417). However, the concept of universal sovereignty was taken up by propagandists on behalf of the Emperor Charles V. When his tutor Adrian of Utrecht became Pope Hadrian VI in 1522 it looked as if the medieval vision of universal sovereignty was being revived. (For more on this theme see Frances Yates' classic, Astraea: the Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (Routledge, 1975).
The Florentine historian Guicciardini observed that:
the foundations of the greatness of Charles were such and so mighty that adding that dignity imperial, there was great hope that he might reduce into one monarch all Italy and a great part of Christendom.In 1524 the conquistador Hernán Cortez wrote to Charles about his plans on the Pacific coast which would make the emperor ruler over more kingdoms and dominions than were known hitherto and
that if I do this, there would be nothing more left for your Excellency to do in order to become ruler of the world.Charles V combined the titles of Holy Roman Emperor (1519-56), king of Spain as Carlos I (1516-56) and archduke of Austria as Karl I (1519-21). He was born in 1500 in Ghent. From his father Philip the Handsome he inherited the duchy of Burgundy (1506); from his mother Joanna the Mad and grandfather Ferdinand II the thrones of Castile and Aragon (1516) with the accompanying possessions in America and Italy. Mexico and Peru were added during his reign. (However, he knew little of Spain when he became king and he initially ruled it as a Burgundian foreigner rather than a Spaniard.) At the death of his other grandfather Maximilian I in 1519 he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, defeating the French king Francis I. He owed his election in part to money: his agents, with the help of loans from the Fuggers, paid the costs of the election campaign.
Such an accumulation of crowns in one individual was unprecedented. It was realized that this emperor inherited titles in Europe that linked together the area of what had once been the Roman Empire and territories beyond the seas in lands unknown to the Romans. In 1519 Charles was told by his grand chancellor and first tutor, the Piedmontese lawyer, Mercurio Gattinara,
God has set you on the path to world monarchy.Gattinara was a student of Dante’s De Monarchia, which had set forward the ideal of universal monarchy. Charles believed that this monarchy was a fulfilment of God’s purposes. So did many contemporary commentators. Titian’s portrait of Charles was modelled on the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Though in the manner of his Burgundian ancestors, he is also wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece.
At the court of Ferrara Ariosto published his chivalric poem Orlando Furioso in 1516 (three years before Charles became Emperor). The poem includes a glorification of the new Charlemagne, Charles V. In the fifteenth canto a prophetess foretells that the world will be put under a universal monarchy by one who will succeed to the diadem of Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Severus. This ruler will spring from the union of the houses of Austria and Aragon; and by him Astraea, or Justice will be brought back to earth, together with all banished virtues. All this is a deliberate echo of Dante’s Ghibellinism.
Ariosto repeats the widely held belief that the new world discoveries were themselves the portent of a new world monarchy. According to the prophetess, it has pleased God to keep the ways to these undiscovered lands- unknown until the time when the World Ruler will appear in the person of Charles V. These passages fill out the meaning of Charles device of the two columns with its motto Plus Oultre. This motto had a range of meanings:
1. This was an empire that extended further than that of the Romans, which had been bounded by the columns of Hercules.The device became known throughout Europe and it raised the medieval phantom of a universal empire in a modernized form.
2. The prophetic implication is that the discovery of the new worlds was providentially timed to coincide with Charles's coming.
Charles accepted this mission in a characteristically conscientious fashion. He believed he had been called to be the saviour of Christendom: to spread Christianity in the New World, to defend Europe from the Turks and Catholicism from the Lutheran heresy. In this he would be following the example of his grandparents, the Catholic Kings, who had conquered Granada from the Moors.
France presented a different model – that of an assertive nation state that challenged the universal claims of Charles V. With a population of 16 million in 1500 (the largest in Europe) it competed with Spain for the role of European super-power.
The sixteenth century was dominated by Habsburg-Valois rivalry. The French invasion of Italy in 1494, in pursuit of a claim to the duchy of Milan, sparked off decades of warfare. In 1514 Cardinal Wolsey brokered the Treaty of London but in the following year Louis XII died and his successor was François d’Angoulême, Francis I, who continued his predecessors' claims to Milan. He was the most glamorous monarch of his day, for a while idolized by his subjects, and determined to gain military glory. In 1515 he crossed the Alps with 30,000 men and smashed the papacy’s Swiss troops at Marignano, at a cost of 12,000 dead. This enabled him to exact from Leo X the Concordat of Bologna, which granted the kings of France considerable powers over the French Church. In 1519 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the position of Holy Roman Emperor. The Italian historian Guicciardini wrote:
It was not to be doubted that between these two princes of equal youth and ambition, and having various reasons and occasions of jealousy and contention would not in the end rise a great and dangerous war.In the ensuing war, the advantage swung back and forth. Charles secured the election of his candidates Hadrian VI and Clement VII to the papacy. But in 1524 the French retook Milan. This so impressed Clement that he abandoned the imperial alliance and sided with France – a huge mistake. Plague struck Milan and the French were unable to enter so they moved instead to attack the imperial army at Pavia. When Charles’s troops came to relieve the city, the French were defeated and Francis was captured. It was a defeat comparable to Agincourt, as the French cavalry was destroyed by the gunfire of the Spanish arquebusiers, and it ensured Spanish supremacy in Italy.
By the Treaty of Madrid (1525) Francis had to abandon his Italian claims and to recognize imperial possessions in Flanders. But the following year, Charles faced his own problems in the aftermath of the Turkish victory at Mohács. In the League of Cognac (1526) France, Venice and the papacy joined forces against the empire. In 1527 Charles Landsknechts ran amok in Rome and sacked the city. By the terms of the Treaty of Cambrai (1529) Francis again repudiated any claims to Milan and Naples, and Charles renounced his claim to Burgundy . (The treaty is called the ‘Paix des Dames’ because it was negotiated by Louise of Savoy, the mother of Francis I and his regent during his absence at the time, and Charles’s aunt Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands.) The pope made his peace with Charles and crowned him emperor in Bologna in 1530. (It was to be the last time that a Holy Roman Emperor was crowned by the pope.)
Charles V: success or failure?
Charles faced revolts in his territories. In his native Ghent there was a guild uprising in 1539, and there was a similar revolt in Castile in 1521.
At the Diet of Worms Charles declared himself an orthodox Catholic and declared war on Protestantism. But he was unable to prevent several German princes from breaking away from the Catholic Church. His great achievement was to persuade the pope to convene the Council of Trent in 1545.
He failed to secure a decisive victory against the Turks. He left the fighting in Austria and Hungary to his brother Ferdinand and instead took a fleet to North Africa to repulse the corsair (and Turkish general) Barbarossa (Khayr ad-Din). But in spite of his capture of Tunis he was unable to dislodge the corsairs. Budapest fell to the Turks in 1541 and was not recaptured until 1686.
The treaty of Cambrai did not end the wars with France. In 1536 Charles challenged Francis I to personal combat (which Francis declined). Both kings were still claiming Milan. When Charles enfoeffed his son Philip with the duchy, Francis declared war on him in 1542.
For most of his reign the gold from the Indies did not add up to a sizeable sum and the silver mines of Potosi were not exploited systematically until the 1550s. The Spanish crown was heavily in debt at a time when Charles was fighting wars on many fronts.
Towards the end of his reign, Charles was vulnerable to an alliance between the new French king, Henry II and the German princes. He was nearly captured by Maurice, the elector of Saxony and the empire lost Metz, Toul and Verdun to France.
In order to gain lost ground, Charles arranged for the marriage of his son Philip to Mary I of England in 1554, but as Mary remained childless, his plans were thwarted.
After an abortive last campaign against France, he prepared for abdication. In 1555 he renounced his claims to the Netherlands and Spain and to his Italian possessions in favour of Philip and to the hereditary Habsburg lands in favour of his brother, Ferdinand, though he did not formally renounce the imperial throne until the following year. He arrived in Spain in 1556 and moved to the monastery of Yuste where he died in 1558.
Charles’s abdication was an admission that one man could not rule such a vast empire in such troubled times. The concept of a single monarchy with a universal head could not be realized. However Charles’s successor Philip II kept alive the vision of a universal Catholicism that did not finally die until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648.
It is an over-simplification to see the sixteenth century as witnessing the birth of the modern state. Certainly England and France had the characteristics of coherent nation states with assertive monarchs and growing bureaucracies. But it was also the period of multi-national empires and both Italy and Germany were conglomerations of small states rather than single nations. And the vision of a universal Christendom did not go away.