Heritage & Culture

CHARLES V 1500 - 1558

Philip The Fair and his wife, Joan of  Castile, had spent the winter months in the Prinsenhof.  During the court’s St. Matthew’s Eve festivities, the Duchess gave birth to a son.  Cannons roared and the church bells of Ghent rang out on that evening of February 24, 1500.  They were  heralding the first male heir, a prince was born.   He was christened two weeks later and named after his great-grandfather Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.

In the spring, the couple left for Brussels taking the prince with them.  Whilst the prince did not spend his early years in Ghent  he would return there often throughout his lifetime.  Over the years, a mutual affection developed between monarch and those in his place of his birth.

Charles V faced considerable difficulty in his early years.  Before he was seven, his father died.  His mother suffered such grief that she required constant attention at the convent of Santa Clara in Tordessillas, on the Castilian plateau.  Her father, the Emperor Maximilian, appointed  Margaret of Austria Regent of the Low Countries and made her responsible for the upbringing of the orphaned children of Philip the Fair, and Joan of Castile.

Margaret had a modern palace built at Mechelen and furnished it in a grand manner, it was the first Renaissance building constructed in the Low Countries.  It was there that Charles and his sisters spent their youth with their aunt.

As a child, Charles suffered poor health and seemed to linger in his adolescence.   As a monarch, there was much about him that endeared him to his people, yet there were times when he was a rather severe individual.  He was pious, thrifty, if not downright stingy, intelligent, and filled with energy.

No one could have suspected at the time of his birth that before he was 20 years of age Charles would reign over an immense empire.  In 1515, Charles was declared of age for the succession in the Burgundian Netherlands.  A year later, he acquired the Spanish Crown, and with it, ruled over large areas of Italy, and subsequently, large portions of the Americas.

In 1519, his possessions also included the Austrian Succession States of the Habsburgs: Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Tyrol.  Charles was proclaimed Emperor of Rome at 19, this meant he was Emperor of the German Reich as well.  In the same year, he acquired the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, by bribing the Electors with 850,000 golden guilders.

The Charles V Memorial Year

This month, Belgium embarks upon a year-long commemoration of Charles V, as well as one of the most important eras of European history.  While communities throughout Belgium celebrate their associations with Charles V, most of the memorial's activities will take place in Ghent, Mechelen, and Brussels.


If the Charles V Memorial has a spiritual center it is surely his birthplace, Ghent.  Here one may stop for a night at the Inn where the Emperor stayed on many occasions, or visit St. Bavo Cathedral where he was baptized.  And, in Ghent it was under his reign that works on the City Hall were continued, and the craft of free skippers built a magnificent guildhall on the Graslei.

These are just a few of the monuments dating from the time of Charles V that are still in existence.   The city of Ghent has planned no less than 100 events ranging from exhibitions, theatre productions, musical shows and others for the Charles V Memorial.


This is the pleasant city where a youthful Charles V was raised by his aunt who reigned over the Netherlands.  Durer, Erasmus, Thomas More, Barend of Orley and other great names of the period were welcome guests at the court of Mechelen where Charles was raised.

To this day,  the streets of Mechelen offer memorials to the golden age of Charles V.  What was once the palace of Margaret of Austria, now houses the court of justice, the Palace of Margaret of York is being restored to its original glory and will become the municipal theatre.  Sixteenth century mansions dot the cityscape, whilst a splendid tapestry in City Hall depicts the Battle of Tunis where Charles V was victorious over the Turks.


In 1530, Charles  moved to Brussels, which became the new capital for the Netherlands.   Brussels was already established as the center of social life, as every noble family of any importance held court there. William of Orange was raised at the court of Charles V.

With his arrival in Brussels, the tapestry industry flourished with orders from kings and popes.   But woodcutters, stained glass artisans, and other crafts were also given international commissions.  Every year, Brussels commemorates the family parade of the emperor on the Grand Place, in what is called the “Ommegang”.

Major Events

Karel V - Charles Quint – Karl V. – Carlos V - Charles V 1500 - 1558
November 6 1999 to January 30 2000
At St. Peter’s Abbey, Ghent
This exhibition provides the viewer with insight into the turbulent times of Charles V and the first half of the 16th century.   This era with its passionate desire for change, clashed with traditional concepts, comes to life again through the works of great artists of the time.

Charles V and the representation of the 19th century
Musee des Beaux Arts, Ghent
November 6 to February 2000
A fascinating exhibition of monumental paintings, but also popular prints and collectors items all contributed to the formation of a mythology surrounding the figure of Charles V.  This exhibition runs at approximately the same time as the CAROLUS exhibition.  Furthermore, the themes of both exhibitions are highly compliment one, to the other.  A combination ticket is available for both exhibitions.

Dr. Guislain Museum, Ghent
In all its projects, the Dr. Guislain Museum examines the thin line between normality and abnormality.  It is known that the politics of marriage as practiced by the Habsburgs family, yielded them a great empire, but in the course of time, also produces symptoms of degeneration.  The commemoration of the emperor's birthday is the motivating factor for this slightly eccentric exhibition.

Music and Miniatures from the Age of Charles V
Predikherenkerk, Louvain
September 25th 1999 to December 1999

The Treasury of Alamire looks at the flourishing Flemish Polyphony in the Low Countries in all its aspects.  As a world first, more than 58 manuscripts of Petrus Alamire have been assembled for this exhibit.  This Flemish polyphonist and transcriber of musical scores was a remarkable figure.  Next to being composer and copyist, he was merchant in musicalia, minstrel, ambassador, spy and counterspy, at the Burgundian - Habsburg court in Mechelen.

His manuscripts were presented to Henry VIII of England as diplomatic gifts, to Maxmilian of Austria in Vienna, and were found even in the papal chapel of Leo X.

Oudenaarde tapestries from the 16th – 18th centuries
City Hall - Clothmaker’s Hall – St. Walburga’s Church – de Lalaing House,  Oudenaarde

102 tapestries made in Oudenaarde will return from museums and private collections world-wide, for this exhibition.  A unique opportunity as one-third of the tapestries have never previously been on public display.

Tapestry Exhibition in Mechelen
Mechelen Cultural Centre
May 26 to October 2000

This exhibit presents nine tapestries commissioned by the household of Charles V, from the famous Brussels workshops of Pieter van Aelst, to celebrate the coronation of Charles V as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.   This magnificent series, which is being restored at the Royal Manufacture for Tapestries, forms part of the collection of the Spanish Patrimonio Nacional.

Other Charles V events will be listed in SEASONS, and PROGRAMME in future issues of LUXURY TRAVELER.

We wish to thank the Belgian Tourist Office for
furnishing information and graphics for this article.

The illustration above:
Emperor Charles V as a child, Jan Van Beers, 1879
copyright Koninklijk Museum voor Shone Kunsten