Charles V Quits and Goes to Yuste

How would you like to rule the world?
Charles V ruled it—the best part of it, which included Western Europe and America.


Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg by Titian

He worked and worried day and night for forty years and then threw in the towel. “Don’t imagine that the pleasure of ruling so many peoples…isn’t mixed with… bitterness and linked with trouble,” he told his son. “If you weigh in a fair balance on the one hand the prerogatives and preeminences of sovereignty, and on the other the work in which it involves you, you will find it a source of grief rather than of joy and delight. But this truth looks so much like a lie that only experience can make it believable.”

Charles was a particularly gifted ruler. He was smart and brave and hard-working. But those qualities weren’t enough to make him successful except now and then and only for a short time. The French King Francis I tried to take his possessions; the Turks assembled great armies to seize the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe; the Lutherans split up the Church.

He fought plenty of wars and he won a few; but his failure to recapture the city of Metz in 1552 got him down. He was worn out, tired, achey. “I’ve had it,” he told himself. “Let someone else take the helm.”

So he gave his Austrian possessions to his brother Ferdinand and his Spanish, Italian, Netherlandish, and American possessions to his son Philip. And he walked out of the palace—an unheard-of thing for a monarch to do.

Where did he go? To one of the beautiful cities of his kingdom? To the Blue Coast to watch the waves?

No. He went to a little monastery in an oak forest in Spain. It was a dinky Hieromite monastery called Yuste with no more than twenty cloistered monks. They must not have believed their ears when the prior announced to them that the emperor was coming and not just for a visit.

claustro-monasterio-de-yusteThe cloister of Yuste

Why did Charles go to a monastery?

He wanted to spend his final years preparing his soul for eternity. After all, he believed he would have to give an account to God of his stewardship and he wanted to work, so to say, on its presentation.
He had never had much time to stop and think. When he took over Spain at twenty it was as though he had hopped onto a coach that set off at a gallop and never stopped or slowed down. He rode right through the world, right through life. There was barely enough time to try to understand the conflicts he met before he was asked to solve them, to act. Then, almost before he knew it, they were far behind him and new ones were in front. A thousand times he would have liked to tell the driver to stop and let him go over what he had done or get a better look at the wonderful things he saw passing by the window; but there was no driver.

They built a little annex for him at the monastery. It was a two-storey building but his quarters  were as small as a modern apartment and not half as comfortable. The tapestries covering the walls were fine art but they didn’t keep out all the draft. And besides, the emperor ached all over. He had gout. The court carpenters under orders from his doctors made him a special chair so he could raise his legs while sitting but he got relief only occasionally. There was a passage leading from his living-room to the altar of the chapel. At first he walked over to Mass every day. Later, when it became too painful for him to move, he just watched through the open doors.
After only eighteen months he died. They buried him in the courtyard, the emperor of the world.

And now?

Now his body is in the famous crypt of the Escorial with all the Spanish kings since his day. His son Philip II built that huge palace-monastery in the mountains near Madrid.
The monastery of Yuste, burnt down by Napoleon’s troops, was rebuilt in the last century, and the emperor’s rooms restored. You see it just as it was in his time.


Charles V at Yuste by Delacroix

Some say the truth of Yuste was that the Emperor didn’t lead a simple, monastic life but that he spoiled himself. He painted and listened to music and fished and ate like a pig. But a drive up through the woods of Cuacos and a visit to Charles’ rooms will show you their inadequacy for worldly delights.

Lately Yuste has become a symbol of Europeness and the Spanish government has created a European Academy of Yuste which awards a yearly Charles V European Prize.
Here is the 2007 prize-winner, the Bulgarian Tzvetan Todorov, entering the chapel. This year’s winner is the French politician Simone Veil.


At the monastery, Charles met a son of his for the first time. Read about it in The Emperor Meets His Natural Son.


This entry was posted in books, history, Spain and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Charles V Quits and Goes to Yuste

  1. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Christopher. I decided to bring back up some of my many posts which were getting buried. I’m sorry to feed it to you twice but most of my visitors have never seen it. I’m doing the same at Best Artists too, where I have just too many posts.

  2. elementaryteacher says:

    I found this a very interesting story with a modern parallel. They say quite a few men die within a year of retirement. Sadly it sounds like almost the same situation here.


  3. christopher says:

    Great re-post, still a very fair treatment of Charles.

    “Then, almost before he knew it, they were far behind him and new ones were in front. A thousand times he would have liked to tell the driver to stop and let him go over what he had done or get a better look at the wonderful things he saw passing by the window; but there was no driver”

    What a keen insight into someone in his position.

  4. christopher says:

    Hey, I just noticed the link-back, thanks swallows. What do you do in Spain? Are you working as an artist? Drop me an email.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Christopher: I think your list would get longer the longer you stayed here. You would surely want to see the Escorial too and the aqueduct of Segovia and the walls of Avila and the cities of Toledo, Trujillo,Salamanca, Mérida, Santiago de Compostela–so, so many exciting places. I haven’t been out to the Valley of the Fallen for years. Just the other day Judge Garzón ordered graves to be opened there to see if some soldiers could be identified.

  6. christopher says:

    I’m jealous of you living in Spain. I’ve traveled quite a bit but never found myself there. I appreciate your optimism about it’s current conditions too but I just can’t see going there anytime soon. If I did, that tomb and the the Valley of the Fallen would be first on my list.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Thanks for the link, Christopher. I saw her tomb and her casket this summer in Granada. At the entrance to the chapel with the sepulchers there are a half dozen contemporary portraits of Isabella on the walls. But they are all different! I couldn’t decide what she looked like–whether blonde or brunette, short or average-sized, hook- or straight-nosed. The collection there of her clothes and jewels and crown is nice to see too.
    I wonder what you will say about her in your coming post.

  8. christopher says:

    LOL Big snag for today’s world – here’s a link to the Cause, which mentions the issues –

  9. 100swallows says:

    Christopher: Thanks a lot. Do you mean Isabella the Catholic Queen? They even wanted to canonize her recently–I forget the snag. I look forward to reading your post on Charles.

  10. christopher says:

    Thanks for posting this, one of my favorite monarchs after Isabella. I’ll omit my opinons on why the world needs a lot more of these kind of people now!
    I’ve got a story of my own on him that I’ll be posting in a few weeks probably.
    You’re turning into one of my favorite bloggers. Thanks.

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