Charles V succeeded his father Philip the Handsome as ruler of the Low Countries in 1506. His predecessors had tried to unite the loosely connected territories. Charles V completed this task. In so doing, he laid the foundations for a prosperous, centrally governed state.

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A very young monarch

Tapestry with the arms of Emperor Charles V. Brussels, c. 1540-1555

Charles was a mere six years old when he inherited the Low Countries. His aunt, Margaret of Austria, was charged with governing the Netherlandish regions. She was a highly cultivated and politically aware individual, and maintained her court in Mechelen. Charles V was given majority in 1515 and took over from her. Though not for long. In 1517 Charles left for Spain to assume the crown and Margaret once again became regent of the Netherlands. This period was marked by relative calm. The territories and their cities all functioned in their own way, and followed their own sets of rules. Daily affairs in the various regions were looked after by the stadholders, as proxies for the ruler.

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Continually on the move

Tapestry with the arms of Emperor Charles V. Brussels, c. 1540-1555

Portrait of Charles V on horseback. Cornelis Anthonisz (style of), c. 1555-1558

Charles V travelled extensively throughout his vast empire. At a still relatively young age – nineteen – he also became king and emperor of the German empire, which included parts of Italy. In 1531 he was back in the Low Countries for a longer period of time. The reason for this was the death of Margaret of Austria. Charles resided chiefly in Brussels, from where he appointed a new regentess, his sister Mary of Hungary. Because she was fairly inexperienced, several councils were set up to assist her: a Council of State, a Secret Council and a Council of Finance. Charles V appointed only nobles to the Council of State. This clever move was aimed at enforcing the central authority in Brussels. In this way, he could recruit any potential opposition into his own camp.

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Fighting tooth and nail

Eight Anabaptists burned at the stake in Amsterdam, 1549. Jan Luyken, 1685

Given Charles V’s aspirations for his vast empire he was always conquering or defending land. For instance, he extended the Low Countries with four additional territories. Called the Seventeen Provinces, they were considered more or less as a unity. Many regions and cities wanted to keep their rights and privileges and thus had on-going conflicts with the central authority.

Charles waged war with France his entire life. This nearly constant struggle was important for the Low Countries, which after all bordered on France. From Spain he also regularly fought the advancing armies of the Ottoman Empire. The Low Countries, too, were required to finance these military exploits, which was not always welcome. He was fiercely criticized for his relentless persecution of the Protestants, primarily in his final years. His ‘Edict of Blood’ of 1550 left the ‘heretics’ no leeway. Anyone found to be following the new doctrine was put to death by the sword or at the stake.

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Astonishing move

SK-A-112: Allegory of the abdication of Emperor Charles V at Brussels, 25 October 1555. Frans Francken (II), c. 1630

Charles V was worn out. He was exhausted from his ceaseless travelling and bitterly disappointed that he had been unable to forge his dominions into a single Catholic unity. In 1555 he made an astonishing – for his time – move. He abdicated, giving his Spanish Empire (including the Low Countries) to his son, Philip II, and the Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand. And so Charles V’s grand Habsburg Empire fell apart.

All of his dignitaries gathered in the palace in Brussels to witness his official abdication. Among them were Philip II, who had come from Spain, and the still young Prince William of Orange. Charles V placed great faith in the prince, whose star was rising at the court in Brussels.

Leaning on the arm of Prince William of Orange, Charles V addressed the gathering. Most extraordinarily he then begged to be forgiven for his errors and the injustice he had done to people.