Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Mary Macgregor

The Abdication of Charles V

On the 25th October 1555, Brussels, the fair capital of the province of Brabant, was all astir. Banners were streaming and drums were rolling. Flags were waving from windows adorned with flowers, and garlands were swinging from every doorway. In the streets prosperous citizens in holiday attire pushed their way towards the palace gates. Conspicuous among the crowd were the famous guilds of armourers, whose suits of mail no musket-ball could pierce, the guild of gardeners, whose flowers were the wonder of the world, and the guild of tapestry workers, who wove magic colours into their fine-spun fabrics.

A gala day indeed was the 25th of October in the year 1555. Yet for no mere festival was the gay city of Brussels thus bedecked, but for an event of world-wide interest and importance.

Count Charles II. of Holland, better known as Charles V., King of Spain, Sicily, and Jerusalem, Duke of Milan, Emperor of Germany, ruler in Asia, Africa, and over half the world besides, had fixed this day for the abdication of his possessions in the Netherlands. He had determined that the event should be celebrated in a manner worthy of its importance. It should be a spectacle imposing and magnificent, that should be spoken of in long after years.

The ceremony was to take place in the great hall of the palace. The walls were hung with gorgeous tapestry, and a profusion of flowers and garlands gave it a festive appearance. At one end of the hall a platform had been erected. Above the centre of the platform hung a huge canopy, and beneath it was the throne. On either side of the throne were two gilded chairs. To the right of the platform were ranged seats, covered with richly coloured tapestry, and reserved for the nobles and knights among the guests. Seats were also provided for members of the three great councils which governed the Netherlands. Beneath the platform the benches were already filled with those who had come to represent the different provinces. Magistrates were there, weighty with importance, robed in their gowns and chains of office; officers of State were there, resplendent as befitted the occasion.

The body of the hall was crowded with those of the citizens who had secured admission. At the door stood the archers and halberdiers to preserve order. Within, all was eagerness and expectation, without, the crowd still surged expectant.

Meanwhile Charles V. was signing the document by which his son, Philip II., was to become sovereign over the Netherlands. He then attended Mass in the chapel, and when the service was over, accompanied by a numerous retinue of knights and nobles, he walked towards the great hall, where he was so eagerly expected.

It was three o'clock when at length the Emperor arrived, leaning on the shoulder of a tall, handsome lad of twenty-two, whose face was already grave and thoughtful. The youth was William of Orange. Behind the King came Philip II. and the Regent, Queen Mary of Hungary, and following them were the knights and nobles, escorted by a glittering band of soldiers. Charles seated himself on the throne, Philip and the Queen Regent on either side. The knights and nobles took the places allotted to them. The vast crowd rose to its feet as the Emperor entered, with involuntary homage, but Charles, acknowledging their greeting, bade them be seated. The eyes of all were fixed on the throne. There, amidst the brilliant throng of courtiers, sat Charles, a strange, grave figure dressed in black. The face was known to all, the blue eyes, broad forehead, sharp pointed nose, the large mouth and protruding jaw, characteristic these latter of the Burgundian race. But in this sombre and gloomy figure, bent and crippled by disease, the burghers found it hard to trace a likeness to the Emperor they had known. He had been a brave and gallant soldier, who, laughing at danger and fatigue, himself had led his army forth to victory. He had been the muscular athlete, of whom the Spaniards told the tale that, single-handed, he had vanquished a bull in their great national sports. But he, the grave, sombre figure on the throne, was already, at the age of fifty-five, a feeble, diseased old man, needing for support a crutch and an attendant's arm.


The Emperor arrived, leaning on the shoulder of a tall, handsome lad.

Already, as the assembly gazed, the document transferring to Philip II. all the realms of Burgundy, in which were included the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands, had been read, and a long speech by one of the nobles of the land had come to an end.

Charles, leaning on his crutch, and supported by William of Orange, now rose amid breathless silence. He spoke of his love for the Netherlands, this Emperor who had wrung from them vast sums of money to enable him to carry on his foreign wars, and who in doing so had crippled the resources and industries of the Provinces. He spoke of his affection for his people, this Emperor who had planted the Inquisition in their midst, and who in doing so had put to torture and to death many thousands of their countrymen. And still the vast assembly listened breathlessly as he told them of the great achievements of his reign, achievements which seemed at the moment to shed some reflected glory on themselves and on their land. "I know well," he concluded, "that in my long reign I have fallen into many errors and committed some wrongs, but it was from ignorance, and if there be any here whom I have wronged, they will believe it was not intended, and grant me their forgiveness."

Overcome by his emotion the Emperor, half fainting, sank back on his throne, while the silence was broken by the sobs of the great assembly. For the moment the people forgot their injuries. The memory of industries hampered by extortion, of charters ruthlessly ignored, slipped from their minds, even as did the terrors of the Inquisition. For the moment they remembered only that Charles belonged to them by birth, that he could talk to them in their own language, that he was dear to them for his friendly, familiar ways. He had joined in sport with the Flemish nobles, and bent his crossbow with Antwerp artisans; he had even drunk and jested with the boors of Brabant. By these easy, popular ways he had won a place in the people's hearts, despite his ofttimes cruel deeds. Therefore it was that the people sobbed as the farewell words of the Emperor ceased. Even his son, Philip II., usually cold and haughty, was moved, and, dropping on his knees before his father, seized his hand and kissed it. Solemnly Charles placed his hands on his son's head, then, making over him the sign of the Cross, he blessed him in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Philip rose and turned to the great assembly. Before them they saw their future lord. Like his father in features, having all the Burgundian characteristics, he looked a Fleming, yet was haughty as a Spaniard. With none of his father's popular ways, unable even to speak the language of his new subjects, Philip failed at the outset to win the hearts of the Netherlanders. Through his interpreter, the Bishop of Arras, he addressed his people, telling them of his gratitude to his father for entrusting to him these great possessions, promising also to do his utmost to carry out the wishes of Charles in the ruling of the Provinces. Thereafter Queen Mary of Hungary rose to resign the Regency, which she had held for twenty-five years. Speeches followed, in which the Queen Regent's resignation was accepted and Philip was congratulated on his new possessions.

At length the ceremonies were over. Charles V., still leaning on the shoulder of William of Orange, left the Hall, followed by the whole Court. The citizens dispersed, chatting volubly of the great event, perhaps wondering, as their excitement lessened, what had moved them to tears, perhaps remembering the taxes and the Inquisition which threatened to crush their liberty, and mocking at the tears they had but lately shed.

Some months later, Charles, now no longer monarch, left the Netherlands. On the 13th September 1556, bidding Philip an affectionate farewell, he sailed from Flushing with a fleet of fifty-six ships, and an escort of one hundred and fifty courtiers, whom he had chosen out of the royal household. He had selected for his retreat the monastery of Yuste, where he purposed to spend his life in quiet, and in the observances of the Roman Catholic religion.