Europe and the Church, Part 9: Charles V's Empire Upon Which the Sun Never Set

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Europe and the Church, Part 9

Charles V's Empire Upon Which the Sun Never Set

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One of the most famous families in Europe is the Habsburgs (sometimes spelled Hapsburgs). For 10 centuries, until the end of the First World War, they held power at the very center of European civilization.

The family began to grow in stature and power in the 10th century in Alsace and Switzerland, and it attained prominence when family member Count Rudolf was elected king of Germany in 1273. With that election, he also assumed the title of Holy Roman emperor. Significantly, he was crowned in Charlemagne's capital of Aachen. His ascension ended a 20-year period of chaos throughout the empire known as the Great Interregnum.

In 1278 Rudolf defeated King Ottokar II of Bohemia, adding Austria to Habsburg territory. The family remained rulers of Austria until the 20th century. By conquest and dynastic marriages, the Habsburgs kept on expanding their domains. Spain, portions of Italy, the Netherlands, Burgundy and Hungary were later added. After Rudolf it was to be 150 years until another Habsburg carried the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1453, the same year that witnessed the fall of Constantinople (capital of the Eastern Roman Empire), Friedrich III, a Habsburg, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This time the title was to remain with the family for many generations.

Charles V becomes emperor

The future Charles V was born in 1500 and became king of Spain at the age of 16. Three years later he succeeded to the Austrian throne and was elected Holy Roman Emperor, in accordance with the imperial edict of the Golden Bull (1356) that appointed seven electors to choose future emperors. The Golden Bull was the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire until its demise in 1806.

Charles assumed the throne at the height of Habsburg power. As Holy Roman emperor and king of Austria, he dominated central Europe. As king of Spain, he also ruled over the Spanish Netherlands. Additionally, following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, the pope had divided the world, granting half to Spain and the other half to Portugal (later conquered by Charles V's son, Philip II of Spain, in 1580).

So Charles' domains extended way beyond Europe's shores and made him the most powerful man in the world, ruling over "an empire upon which the sun never set."

"In Charles, the crowns of Spain, Burgundy (with the Netherlands), and Austria were united in an overwhelming complex of power that reduced all the dynasties of Europe, with the exception of France, to an inferior position" (Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropaedia, "Henry VIII of England," 1982).

"Charles V (Emperor 1519-1556), whose realms stretched from the Philippines to Peru, was gradually overwhelmed by the multiplicity of competing problems" (Norman Davies, A History of Europe, 1996, p. 526).

Charles V's Catholic Habsburg empire was the fourth of the "seven mountains on which the woman sits" (Revelation 17:9), the seven prophesied revivals of the Roman Empire, which have involved the Catholic Church in a major role. A mountain symbolizes a great empire. Charles' empire was territorially the greatest since Rome—and even larger!

Protestant Reformation

Charles had the misfortune to become Holy Roman emperor at the time of the Protestant Reformation. A religious revival had actually started late in the 15th century when the established church's reputation was at a serious low point.

The passions of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) "were for gold, women, and the careers of his [illegitimate] children," (Davies, p. 484).

His successor, Julius II (1503-1513), "gratified 'an innate love of war and conquest': he is remembered as the pope who rode into battle in full armor, the rebuilder of St. Peter's, the refounder of the Papal States. In 1509, when he was planning to pay for his wars and for St. Peter's through the sale in Germany of 'indulgences'—paper certificates guaranteeing relief from punishment in Purgatory—Rome was visited by a young Augustinian monk from Wittenberg in Saxony. Martin Luther was shocked to the bones by what he saw" (ibid.).

"On 31 October 1517, All Saints' Eve, he took the fateful step of nailing a sheet of 95 Theses, or arguments against indulgences, to the door of Wittenberg's castle church" (ibid., p. 485).

The Protestant Reformation was underway. In 1519 Charles V was elected Holy Roman emperor and had to try to sort out the division now confronting his empire, for his dream, like others before him, was of one unified Christian empire under the Church of Rome.

Charles V, "one of the greatest of the kings of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, 1519-1556, was perhaps the last emperor to attempt to realize the medieval idea of a unified empire embracing the entire Christian world" (Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropaedia, "Charles V," 1982).

"He was the last Emperor to cherish a dream of universal unity, and has been invoked by some in contemporary times as patron of a united Europe" (Davies, p. 526).

Charles failed to resolve the divisions in Western Christendom.

He promised Luther safe passage to attend the Diet of Worms in 1521, later dismissing his ideas as "an argument between monks." Preoccupied with other problems, Charles did not take any further action against the Protestants. The Peasants' Revolt soon followed from 1524-26. Five years later the Lutheran princes formed the Schmalkaldic League.

In 1545 he opened the Council of Trent, which began the Counter-Reformation, the attempt by the Church of Rome to counter Protestant arguments, end abuses within the church and restore unity to Christendom.

Charles was able to win over some of the German princes to the Catholic cause. After outlawing the Protestant Schmalkaldic League, war ensued. The result was further division. The Protestants received help from Henry II of France and rebelled against Charles, who had to flee to the Netherlands.

Clash with the pope

Although a faithful Catholic in his beliefs, Charles' relationship with the church was not an easy one. In 1525 Pope Clement VII (1523-34) had formed an alliance with France, Charles' enemy. Charles sent a delegation to Rome in June, trying to persuade the pope to change course. The pontiff responded with "an abusive attack on the Emperor" (Claudio Rendina, The Popes, 2002, p. 451). Subsequent events eventually led to imperial troops attacking Rome on May 6, 1527.

"Murders, rapes and all kinds of vandalism brought catastrophe to Renaissance Rome, where numerous works of art were also destroyed. Many people interpreted this devastation as a punishment by God for the scandalous life led by the popes and the clerics at the center of Christianity. For the See of Peter it was a very bitter warning to return to the good principles of the Gospels, as the now widespread Lutheran reformation firmly requested. The pope's defenses in Castel Sant'Angelo collapsed on 5 June when an imperial garrison entered and held Clement prisoner for seven months" (ibid.).

It was during this time that King Henry VIII of England appealed to the pope for permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, aunt of Charles V. As a prisoner of the emperor, the pope was not able to grant his request, a denial that led to England breaking from Rome (see "Henry VIII: Contemporary of Charles V").

The dispute with the emperor contributed also to the success of Lutheranism. In "a dispute with the pope, [Charles] allowed Lutheranism to spread in Germany and permitted, among other things, the marriage of priests" (ibid., p. 452).

Once again, the relationship between the temporal authority of the emperor and the king with the spiritual authority of the pope was an uneasy one, described in Scripture as "fornication" (Revelation 17:2).

Islam versus Catholicism

One other aspect of Charles' reign needs to be mentioned, a continuation of a historic continuum, and that is his struggle against the Islamic forces of the Ottoman Turks. The Turks had expanded into the Balkans and now threatened Austria itself. They were defeated at Vienna in 1529.

Charles struggled throughout his reign against Suleiman the Magnificent, leader of the Ottoman Empire at its height. It wasn't until 1683, again at the gates of Vienna, that Turkey would eventually be decisively defeated, an event that led to the eventual disintegration of the Islamic empire. For almost two centuries, the Habsburgs were leaders in the continual struggle between Islam and the papacy.

Charles V abdicated in 1556, retiring to a monastery. His son Philip II inherited his Spanish possessions, including the Netherlands and the Americas. His brother Ferdinand took over his realm in central Europe. Charles died of malaria in 1558.

The Habsburgs continued to rule their Austrian Empire until 1918. The Holy Roman Empire was disbanded by Napoleon in 1806, a little more than 1,000 years after Charlemagne was first crowned Holy Roman emperor. The last emperor, Francis II, was a Habsburg.

The Habsburg family still maintains a position of prominence in Europe, working toward a Catholic European Union, the dream of their ancestor Charles V.

Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, wrote a biography of his famous ancestor Charles V in 1967. Otto lives in Bavaria and represents the state in the European parliament. Two sons also serve in the parliament, one representing Austria and the other representing Hungary.

The Habsburgs are not the only ones who would like to see their empire restored. A century ago, 11 significant ethnic groups lived in relative peace under the Habsburg crown within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, the empire broke up into various nation-states.

Ninety years of turmoil has followed with World War II, communism and the Balkan wars of the last decade. Otto strongly opposed Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 and had to flee to the United States when Germany's dictator turned against the Habsburg family.

The European Union is an attempt to unite the patchwork quilt of ethnic groups that is spread across the European continent. Like the empire of Charles V, it can aptly be described as "an overwhelming complex of power." WNP