Photo by Genlab Frank on Flickr


Geoffrey Parker—

The future Charles V first made his presence felt from the womb. In September 1499, Philip summoned ‘a midwife from the city of Lille’ to ‘see and visit’ Joanna; and four months later he sent a courier ‘at the utmost speed, day and night, without sparing men or horses’, to ask the abbot of a convent near Lille to lend its most precious relic, the ‘ring of the Virgin’ reputedly placed on Mary’s finger by Joseph when they married, and said to ‘bring solace to women in labour’. According to some accounts, the ring proved extremely effective: Joanna’s labour began while she attended a ball in the palace of the counts of Flanders in Ghent, and she only got as far as the nearest latrine before giving birth to the future emperor. It was 24 February 1500, St Matthew’s Day.

As soon as the citizens of Ghent heard news of the birth, according to the city’s leading poet, an eyewitness:

Great and small shouted ‘Austria’ and ‘Burgundy’
Throughout the whole city for three hours.
Everyone ran about while shouting the good news
Of [the birth of] a prince of peace.

Meanwhile Philip signed letters instructing the major towns of the Netherlands to arrange ‘processions, fireworks and public games’ to celebrate the birth of his heir, and summoned the leading clerics of his dominions to attend the child’s baptism. He also sent an express messenger to his sister Margaret, then returning from Spain, ‘begging her to hasten back so that she could hold the child in her hands at the font during the baptism’ and serve as godmother. As soon as Margaret arrived she pressured her brother to call the child Maximilian, after their father, but Philip chose the name of their grandfather, Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy – although he also conferred on his son the title ‘duke of Luxemburg’, a dignity held by several of Maximilian’s ancestors.

Charles’s grandparents reacted in different ways. In Spain, ‘when his grandmother Queen Isabella learned of his birth’ on St Matthew’s Day, ‘remembering that Holy Scripture records that Jesus chose the Apostle Saint Matthew by chance, and understanding how much hope surrounded the birth of her grandson, who would inherit so many and such great kingdoms and lordships, she said: “Chance has fallen upon Matthew”’. In Germany, Maximilian declared himself ‘entirely satisfied with the name’ of the child ‘on account of the affection I hold towards my dear lord and father-in-law, Duke Charles’. Meanwhile, in Ghent, the magistrates prepared a series of triumphal arches representing the individual dominions that the infant would inherit from his father and grandfather, if he survived, while others represented the virtues of wisdom, justice and peace. On the evening of 7 March 1500 a long procession accompanied the infant over a special elevated walkway from the palace to the local parish church where his baptism would take place. Thousands of torches along the way ‘turned night into day’ (in the words of an awed chronicler) and allowed the vast crowd to watch as the officials and courtiers slowly passed by, culminating in Charles and his four godparents, each one destined to play a significant role in his early life: his great- grandmother Margaret of York, widow of Charles the Bold; his aunt Margaret of Austria; Charles de Croÿ, prince of Chimay, and Jean de Glymes, lord of Bergen, two of the foremost Netherlands nobles. No one could have overlooked the symbolism of this arrangement: Philip, who would normally have occupied pride of place in the procession, ceded it to his son, who thus entered his secular inheritance by receiving the homage of his future subjects at the same time that he became a member of the Christian Church through baptism. 

From Emperor by Geoffrey Parker. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Geoffrey Parker teaches history at The Ohio State University. He has published forty books, including Global Crisis and Imprudent King for Yale University Press.

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