Even as monarchs go, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was one lucky individual. He inherited Austria and the job of Holy Roman Emperor, as well as the Netherlands (including Belgium) through his father, whose parents were Maximilian of Austria and Marie of Burgundy (this province, but not the Netherlands, was lost to the French). On his mother's side, he inherited Spain through her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella.

When Charles V abdicated, he divided his holdings, with his brother Ferdinand inheriting Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. His son, Philip II, received Spain (which had come through Charles' mother), and the Netherlands (which had come through Charles' father).

Why did Charles V divide his Empire at all? Did the Spanish and German sides have trouble getting along? More to the point, why did he give the Netherlands, which had come through the German side of the family to Philip, along with Spain, instead of to Ferdinand, when the Holy Roman Empire was at least contiguous to the Netherlands? (Spain was not.)

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    Makes me wonder, was it legal for him to do so? I mean, shouldn't the Archduchy of Austria and the other HRE titles pass by primogeniture?
    – Louis Rhys
    Jan 15, 2014 at 7:02
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    @LouisRhys - In that mileu "legal" basically boiled down to "what other nobles won't use as a pretext for war over". The rest of Europe was quite happy to see those possessions split up rather than concentrated in the hands of one ruler, so it was perfectly "legal". :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 15, 2014 at 12:13
  • won't his son or his son' s allies be unhappy about that?
    – Louis Rhys
    Jan 15, 2014 at 15:25
  • Awesome question. Jan 15, 2014 at 22:12
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    @LouisRhys: The succession of the Holy Roman Empire, unlike the rest of the Hapsburg domains, was not a "family" matter per se, but was decided by seven electors (one of whom was the Austrian monarch). That being the case, when Ferdinand, rather than Philip was elected Emperor, it made sense of Charles V to give him Austria and the electorship as well so that the Emperorship would indeed remain in the family.
    – Tom Au
    May 20, 2016 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


After some reading up I have the beginnings of an answer here, I think.

  1. The partition of the Habsburg lands actually took place in 1521 (The pact of Worms) and 1522 (The pact of Brussels), way before Philip II was even born. By the Worms and Brussels agreements, which were actually family documents and not diplomatic instruments, Charles's brother Ferdinand became the ruler of the Austrian Habsburg lands, serving in fact as Charles's steward or viceroy. Charles reserved to himself the paramount authority as both emperor and head of the Habsburg house.

Since Ferdinand proved to be an able and successful ruler, it was quite obvious that he should retain the control of his territories upon Charles's retirement. In other words, the retirement just finalized and legalized the effective partition made ~35 years before it.

(So far my answer is based on pp. 26-45 of the book A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918) by Kahn.

  1. However, what is not quite obvious to me from the previous explanation, is why Ferdinand rather than Philip succeeded to the Imperial title. My guess, based on the above source, but not quite stated there in so many words is that Ferdinand had become King of Bohemia in 1526 (the previous king, the hapless Louis II, was killed in the battle of Mohács and left no legitimate children, so Ferdinand who was Louis's brother-in-law succeeded to the Bohemian throne). This made him an elector of the HRE and a much more obvious candidate for the throne than the distant King of Spain.

But like I said, that's just my guess, not Kahn's (I got the Mohács connection from him, though).

  1. As for the Netherlands, I'd really go out on a limb and hazard a guess that for Charles this was less an issue of German/Spanish identity of the territory, but rather of his own emotional attachment to it. Charles himself grew up there and was raised as a Flemish prince (when he first took up his duties as King of Spain, he barely knew Spanish and was surrounded by Flemish advisors, which the Spaniards rather disliked). So it makes sense for him to have wanted to leave his "ancestral land" to his son, whether this was politically sound or not.

This is really just a guess, though.

  • This all sounds very sound - I would add that in an age when the monarch is personally responsible for a lot, and communications are slow, Charles V's full holdings were unmanageably huge to be ruled by one man. If he had tried, much more than just the Netherlands would probably have been lost to Hapsburg rule.
    – Guy F-W
    Jan 17, 2014 at 14:23
  • I tend to agree with Guy F-W. My understanding (gleaned in part from your answer) was that Charles V had "farmed out" pieces of his holdings to Ferdinand, or Philip earlier, and that the final division was part of the "farming out" process. My only quarrel is with your somewhat speculative last paragraph, but if you could tie Philip's inheritance of the Netherlands to an earlier "farming out" decision, that would make it a good answer.
    – Tom Au
    Jan 19, 2014 at 20:04

Various details of the partition in the 1550s were more or less negotiable and no doubt were negotiated quite intensely. But at least one detail was not negotiable.

Why did Ferdinand become emperor after Charles V?

Charles V was elected emperor on 28 June 1519 and crowned King of the Romans on 26 October 1520. He was crowned King of Italy on 22 February 1530 and crowned Emperor of the Romans on 24 February 1530.

For various reasons the seven electors met and agreed to make Ferdinand the next emperor. He was elected King of the Romans and future emperor on 5 January 1531. This made it inevitable that he would be the next emperor (barring revolution of some type or premature death). He was crowned King of the Romans at Aachen on 11 February 1531.

In September 1556 Charles V abdicated as Holy Roman Emperor in favor of Ferdinand, King of the Romans. On 24 February 1558 the electors met and formally accepted the abdication, thus making Ferdinand the emperor with full imperial powers. Ferdinand was crowned Emperor elect of the Romans at Frankfurt on 14 march 1558.

So the main question why Ferdinand became Emperor of the Romans in 1558 was why the electors considered the advantages of electing him King of the Romans in 1531 out weighed any disadvantages they might have seen in the process. Once Ferdinand was elected King of the Romans in 1531 he was legally the next emperor and only some sort of revolution, or predeceasing Charles V, could have prevented him from being the next emperor.

Ferdinand becoming emperor was not decided in any family meetings to divide the Habsburg lands in the 1550s. It had already been decided by the seven electors in 1531 that Ferdinand would automatically become the next emperor when Charles V ceased to reign as emperor.

The Habsburgs could have decided to divide up their various kingdoms and duchies and other lands in any of an almost infinite number of ways in the 1550s, and in my opinion it would have been better to give more lands to the next emperor - for example by giving the Netherlands, Milan, and the kingdoms of the Crown of Aragon to whichever member of the family would be the next emperor. But the question of who would be the next emperor was a matter that had already been decided 2 decades earlier in a meeting of the electors.


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