In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles V, Emperor

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Bibliography
  • Collections
  • Works by Charles V
  • Contemporary Biographies
  • Contemporary Histories
  • The Habsburg Dynasty
  • Military
  • Economy
  • Scholarship
  • Prophecy
  • Art and Architecture
  • The Inquisition, Occult, and Witch Trials
  • Religion

Renaissance and Reformation Charles V, Emperor
Rebecca Ard Boone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0460


The figure of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (b. 1500–d. 1558), looms large over a wide swath of human experience in the 16th century. His empire impacted the direction of history in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. The military, diplomatic, and dynastic force of his empire weighed on cultural movements that included the Reformation, Renaissance, print revolution, witch trials, global trade, and colonization. The interplay of his narrow and shortsighted vision on one side and his military courage, administrative acumen, and devotion to duty as he understood it on the other has intrigued historians for nearly five hundred years. Every generation has found him relevant, but for different reasons. By all accounts he was talented in language acquisition. He also had the energy, intellect, and desire to understand the minutia of administrative and diplomatic business. His presence on the battlefield and documented courage helped him maintain the loyalty of his subjects. In short, he seems to have been a “good enough” emperor. Although he did not maintain political or religious unity in his empire, he defended the lands he inherited and maintained them under his family’s rule. His publicists devised an imperial program focused on his personal power as a ruler chosen by God to defend Christianity from internal and external forces of evil. The contemporary shift toward authoritarian rule in many countries today has given this program new relevance.


Biographies of the past one hundred years have tended to be critical of Charles V. Despite its age the biography Brandi 1939 is still influential. Brandi described the mindset of the emperor as Burgundian and medieval, but contemporary historiography would not posit such a stark division between medieval and Renaissance values. Chaunu and Escamilla 2013 describes him as influenced by the culture of Spain and Catholic piety. Blockmans 2002 and Tracy 2002 focus on his economic failure and the price his subjects paid for it. Kohler 1999 and Parker 2019 both fault the emperor for neglecting his German lands. Parker 2019 provides more detail about the military campaigns of the emperor, but his narrative, like that of Maltby 2001, is lively and appealing for non-specialists.

  • Blockmans, Wim. The Emperor Charles V: 1500–1558. London: Arnold, 2002.

    This is a comprehensive account of the rule of Charles V. It focuses on the nature of politics, society, and economy. The author holds the decisions of Charles V responsible for leaving the vast majority of his subjects in a worse situation at the end of his reign.

  • Brandi, Karl. The Emperor Charles V: The Growth and Destiny of a Man and of a World-Empire. London: J. Cape, 1939.

    The most influential biography of the 20th century, translated from the German original written in 1937. The biographer contrasts the Burgundian culture of the emperor, described by Brandi as medieval, with the more cosmopolitan orientation of his ministers, whose sophisticated approach to statecraft stemmed from their Renaissance education.

  • Chaunu, Pierre, and Michèle Escamilla. Charles Quint. Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2013.

    Originally published in 2000, this biography also contains a narrative account of his life and copious notes on primary sources. Chaunu has written extensively elsewhere about the economic context of Spain, but there is not much context in this monograph. Escamilla describes the emperor as profoundly influenced by the culture of Spain and Catholic piety.

  • Kohler, Alfred. Karl V. 1500–1558. Eine Biographie. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1999.

    This biography was one of many to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the emperor’s birth. The treatment provides both a fine narrative and discussion of the importance of visual images and the sophisticated information network that Charles set up to rule the empire. He sees the inability to appreciate the interest of the German princes as one of the main foundations of the emperor’s failure.

  • Maltby, William S. The Reign of Charles V. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    A biography for a non-specialist that presents a good introduction to the emperor.

  • Parker, Geoffrey. Emperor: A New Life of Charles V. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

    The most recent biography of the emperor in English. Provides a narrative of events that focuses on military and diplomatic aspects of his reign. It provides an estimation of his motives and character. In his view, the emperor based his decisions almost entirely on calculations of honor and reputation. Although he had scruples, his judgement suffered from a certain narcissism in the end. The appendices and bibliographical notes provide an excellent starting point for scholars.

  • Tracy, James. Emperor Charles V, Impressario of War: Campaign Strategy, International Finance, and Domestic Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    This is an excellent book that asserts that Charles V was primarily motivated by his need for military victory against his enemies. This led to squandering of his unprecedented financial assets. It is an essential book for understanding financial policy in the 16th century.

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