A New Life of Charles V

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Geoffrey Parker
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     760 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Emperor: A New Life of Charles V, Geoffrey Parker has produced an extremely impressive biography of the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria. It is scholarly and a work of intellectual force and power. It introduces readers to a genuinely impressive individual—brilliant, compassionate, and seriously flawed. He was, undoubtedly, a complex man, but somehow his flaws fascinate more than other qualities.

For those coming to this volume with little knowledge of Charles, it will spark their interest to hear Parker assert, near the beginning of this fascinating volume, that from the emperor’s own correspondences, things written on commission (e.g., royally commissioned biographies), and things written by Charles’ friends and by his enemies, the historian has at their disposal more written on Charles “than about any of his contemporaries, even Martin Luther” (xv).

Parker summarized the focus of the study in terms of three issues. First, he looks at how Charles made the crucial decisions that produced what Parker calls the world’s first and most-enduring transatlantic empire. Second, the study examines whether personal flaws of Charles played a prominent role in his policy failures. Third, the book considers what it was like to be Charles. In my judgement, the volume triumphs in its pursuit of all three of these, but particularly in its uncovering of what it was like to be Charles.

It succeeds marvelously in this third aim partially due to the remarkably small, even minute, details about virtually every aspect of Charles’ life that Parker manages to uncover and sprinkle throughout the work. We read that when Charles suffered from hemorrhoids, he would “cry like a baby” (xv). When Charles had retired in Valladolid (Spain) in 1555, he began to feel cold at night, as winter was setting in. Parker provides us with a lovely vignette reflecting on what this would be like, even for an emperor: the place where Charles was staying had no chimney, so they “hand-carried a fine iron stove, sending the boy who looked after it ahead to our lodgings to heat up his bedroom” (475). We are also apprised of the simple fact that Charles was never alone; he always had people with him, even in his retreats or in retirement. Parker runs through the various figures who accompanied the emperor even at times one would assume he were alone.

Parker also succeeds in his aims for the work by setting out in a persuasive manner the extremes that characterized Charles. The reader is given a clear sense of the greatness and impressiveness of the man. He was not only extremely intelligent—he exhibited military acumen and spoke (fluently) Italian, Spanish, his native French, and some German and Dutch—but also plainly believed himself to be a great man. He believed he was divinely appointed. This is wholly unsurprising, but it is still brilliant watching how Charles lived out this self-belief in everyday life. He was, according to Parker, a diligent and hard-working man. He was a religious man; which is to say, he does seem genuinely to have been a man of faith. He attended mass every day. He spent time in prayer every day.

At the same time, Charles could be extremely cruel. This exhibited itself in various ways, but one that seems striking concerns behavior towards members of his family. For instance, in 1517, Charles discovered that his older sister was in love “with a courtier.” Charles forced her to go to a notary before whom she was to renounce “her lover and [promise] to obey her brother in all things.” (xvi) On another occasion, Charles negotiated a marriage contract “between his 11-year-old niece Christina of Denmark and a man four times her age, with the right consummate the union immediately” (xix). Charles also abused his mother, Joanna, for years and kept her in a kind of mental prison of fabricated stories. He left his own wife at home by herself to deal with miscarriages and newborns that died days after.

Parker also succeeds because he describes details expected of an early modern emperor in a manner that is simultaneously gripping and informative. Charles, for instance, exhibited the kind of behavior which was not unusual for those with great power. He had, for instance, four illegitimate children and may have had more than that. Two of these children were born to servants who were in their teens. As would be expected, Charles waged war throughout his life. These wars were primarily against the French, Italians, and Turks. He seemed most vehemently opposed to the French. So, we are told of the episode in which King Francis I of France, in 1525, was captured at the battle of Pavia. Charles was informed and forced the French to pay an enormous ransom. The reader encounters details of this kind throughout the work; a fact for which we should be glad.

On the whole, Parker does a superb job putting together an immense amount of material, poring over sources which he obviously came to know intimately, and setting out his analysis of these sources in an elegant and readable manner. The organization of the book is clear and sensible. Parker proposes establishing how Charles came to act as he did before delving into understanding why he did what he did. He carries this off extraordinarily well. The text is never leaden or obscure. Even the notes on the sources (551-77) is, though more technical, extremely interesting and where the reader with interests in the scholarly aspects of Parker’s work would do well to turn. The volume is fascinating and brilliant—it will be of enormous interest to historians of the period, but also would be of interest to non-specialists, too.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Balserak is Senior Lecturer, Early Modern Religion at the University of Bristol.

Date of Review: 
July 1, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Geoffrey Parker is Andreas Dorpalen Professor of History and Associate of the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, and Profesor Afiliado, División de Historia, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico City.


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