What Emperor Charles V was like

One only has to look at the different portraits and busts that exist to get an idea of what he looked like; and the chronicles of the time to know his character

The Emperor Charles V was a character with a long neck, a pronounced jaw, and the self-absorbed eyes of a dreamer, and he was very religious. It is the details extracted from the many paintings and analyses left over the centuries that bring us closer to his figure.

To the question of what Emperor Charles V was like, we can answer that he was young, with a long neck, self-absorbed eyes and like a dreamer, according to the bust of Conrad Meit from the Gruuthuse Museum in Bruges, with the detail of the necklace of the Order of the Golden Fleece; and the man of medium height, with a spacious forehead, blue eyes, dominating eyes, aquiline nose and prominent jaw – a characteristic feature that his successors would later inherit – from the portrait of Alonso de la Cruz following his death at Yuste.

The prominent jaw was, perhaps, his greatest defect and the source of many ailments. As his teeth did not fit, he chewed his food badly and his speech was sometimes difficult. That is why he was, in general, parsimonious in words – except on solemn occasions – and suffered from so many indigestions.

The Character of the Emperor

As for his character, Menéndez Pidal described him as follows: «He is, in principle, melancholic, mixed, however, with a sanguine temperament, from which he also has a nature corresponding to the complexion. He is a very religious man, very just, devoid of any vice, not inclined to pleasures, to which young people are usually inclined, nor does he delight in any pastime. On some occasions he goes hunting, but rarely; he only delights in negotiating and in being on their advice, to which he is very assiduous and in which he spends a great deal of time

But if there is one thing that makes him stand out, it is that he is a very cosmopolitan person, as he was educated at the Burgundian court of his aunt Marguerite, in Mechelen, in Flanders. A place where he spoke German when the language of the Court was French, as well as the language of the entire circle of Burgundy. To this must be added a well-defined maternal heritage – his mother, Juana, was Spanish – and a series of events with a Hispanic flavour that acted and educated Charles in Flanders. On the one hand, the feats of the conquerors in America, expanding the territories that would become theirs over time. On the other hand, the chivalric ideal and a deep religious feeling – which Menéndez Pidal had already warned of -.

To explain the former, we must bear in mind that Charles presided over an Order, the Golden Fleece, in which all the chivalric virtues fitted: courage, loyalty, piety, simplicity. The second is explained by the providentialist sense so typical of the Hispanic Crown, and which comes from the influence of his maternal grandparents, the Catholic Monarchs. This feeling of being the object of divine preferences on the part of the Spaniard who enters the Modern Age – Croce, an Italian of the time, went so far as to affirm: «God has become Spanish» – and which Charles assumed on the occasion of his election as Emperor.

And there is more to his cosmopolitanism: his contact with the Italian people. It was not in vain that Sardinians, Sicilians and Neapolitans had him as their sovereign and he soon extended his effective domination over the Milanese, and by extension, over all of Italy. This influence would also be reciprocal. So much so that until his retirement in Yuste he was accompanied by Julius Caesar’s Commentaries.

And Germany? He never mastered his language, but he was aware that the crown of the Holy Roman Empire had given him dominion over Europe, which led him to consider himself Charlemagne’s heir.


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