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From Some Lies and Errors of History by the Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D.; Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893; pp. 25-38.


THE thought of abdication first took possession of the mind of Charles V. in 1535, after the successful issue of his expedition against Tunis, and not, as is generally asserted, at a time when reverses had disgusted him with human ambitions. This is shown by his own remarks to Lourenço Pires de Tavora, Portuguese envoy at his court,1 and to the monks of San Yuste.2 He was then only forty years of age, and at the height of his power. But not until 1542 did he manifest his design to the Cortes of Aragon,3 and not before 1553 did he begin the necessary preparations. From among many places which seemed fitted, naturally, spiritually, and artistically, to furnish his tired and then ascetically inclined mind a soothing and profitable retreat, he selected the Hieronymite Monastery of San Yuste in Estremadura;4 and as he did not 26 propose to become a monk, or even to follow the community life, as is generally believed, and as he could not expect the religious to associate familiarly with his retainers, he gave orders, in 1553, for the construction of a becoming habitation contiguous to the monastery. In this edifice he could preserve his own independence, and, while respecting that of the monks, he could occasionally enjoy their companionship; while his proximity to the church enabled him, when so disposed, to join in the offices of the choir.

On October 25, 1555, Charles resigned his crowns of Naples, Sicily, and Milan in favor of his son Philip. On January 17, 1556, he ceded to the same Philip the crown of Spain, and all his other dominions in the Old and the New World; and on September 7 of the same year he resigned the imperial sceptre, presuming, in defiance of the rights of the Holy See, to do so in favor of his brother, Ferdinand of Austria.5 On February 3, 1557, Charles arrived 27 at San Yuste, accompanied by only twelve domestics, and here he constantly resided during the remaining nineteen months of his life. He generally assisted at the Office, and at the High Mass which was celebrated every morning in the church. He frequently communicated, and on the Fridays of Lent he joined the monks in taking the discipline. Much of his time was spent in the study of mechanics and in clockmaking; and it is narrated that one day, when he had failed to make two clocks agree, he moralized; “And how foolish it was in me to think that I could produce uniformity in so many nations, differing so much in race, language and character!”

During the early summer of 1558 the health of the Emperor caused disquiet to his attendants. According to two Hieronymite chronicles, which have been followed by most historians, and highly embellished by Robertson, 28 the last illness of Charles V. was preceded, if not caused, by one of the most extraordinary ceremonies which any mind, sane or insane, could conceive. The Prior Martin de Angulo narrates that the monarch observed one day to an attendant that he could not devote two thousand crowns, which he had saved, to a more worthy object than his own funeral; he added: “In traveling it is better to have light in front of rather than behind one’s self.” It was then, says the Prior, that the Emperor gave orders for the obsequies of his wife, his parents, and himself. Here we must note that Sandoval, whom historians generally cite in proof of this strange event, does indeed report the above remarks as made by Charles V.;6 but as he says nothing about the anticipatory obsequies of the Emperor having been celebrated, we may safely concluded that he gave no credit to the tale. In fact, Sandoval tells us that part of these same two thousand crowns saved by the monarch were ultimately used to defray the expenses of the real funeral. But there is another testimony which enters more into details.

An anonymous Hiernymite, whose manuscript was probably copied by Siguenza7 (another 29 authority adduced in favor of the truth of the story in question), and published also by Gachard,8 narrates that while Charles was still in perfect health he caused Requiems to be offered in his presence on three successive days — August 29, 30, and 31, — for the souls of his father, mother, and wife; and that on the last day he called for his confessor, Juan de Regola, and asked him: “Do you not think, Father, it would be well, now that I have done my duty by my relatives, if I were to cause my own funeral to be celebrated, and thus contemplate what will soon be my own condition?” Father Juan replied in an evasive manner; but, continues the anonymous monk, the Emperor pressed his confessor as to whether the proposed obsequies would profit him, even though still on earth. “Certainly, sire,” Father Juan is represented as answering; “for the good works which one performs in life are of more merit and much more satisfactory than those done for him after his death. Would to God all of us had such excellent intentions as those announced by your Majesty!”

Thereupon, continues the chronicler, “the Emperor commanded that everything should be made ready to celebrate his obsequies that 30 evening. A catafalque, surrounded by torches, was arranged in the church. All the attendants of his Majesty, in full mourning, and the pious monarch himself, also in mourning garments and with a candle in his hand, came to celebrate his funeral and to see him buried. The spectacle brought tears to the eyes of all, and they could not have cried more if the Emperor had really died. As for his Majesty, after his funeral Mass he made the offering of his candle in the hands of the celebrant, as though he had already resigned his soul into the hands of God. Such symbolical actions were customary among the early Christians. Then, without waiting for the afternoon of August 31 to pass, the Emperor called his confessor, and told him how happy he felt now that he had celebrated his funeral.” The anonymous monk then tells us how the imperial physician, Mathys, discouraged the continuation of the meditation in which Charles was buried, and how his Majesty suddenly experienced a chill. “This was on the last day of August, at about four of the night. Mathys felt the Emperor’s pulse, and discovered some change. Charles was therefore borne to his chamber, and from that time his malady rapidly gained force.”

When a Hieronymite monk expects us to 31 credit this fantastical story, we need not wonder that Robertson (a Protestant of more than ordinary prejudices, and, what is more derogatory from any claim to impartiality, a royal historiographer in England), repeats, colors, and renders it more acceptable to the credulous yearners for papistical absurdities, by his own exaggerations and even unwarranted additions. “The English do not love Charles V.,” remarks Barthélemy; “Protestants love him less; and finally, a writer is not a historiographer with impunity. Independence and impartiality can scarcely be found in one who fills that position.” Again, Robertson is too apt to deduce conclusions such as are formed by the Voltarian school; though he does not betray the Satanic spirit of these gentry, “he has all their coldness,” observes Cantù, “and he reflects in the same manner.”9 As to the reliability of his “History of Charles V.,” one of the most impartial historical writers our country has yet produced — Henry 32 Wheaton, a Protestant — pronounces that it is full of errors.10

According to Robertson, the Emperor suffered from gout so intensely about six months before his death, that from that time there appeared scarcely any traces of that healthy and masculine reasoning power which had distinguished him; a timid and servile superstition took possession of his mind, and he passed nearly all the time in chanting hymns with the monks. Restlessness, diffidence, and that fear which ever accompanies superstition, continues Robertson, diminished in his eyes the merit of all the good he had performed, and induced him to devise some new and extraordinary act of piety, which would draw upon him the favor of Heaven. He resolved to celebrate his funeral before his death, and caused a catafalque to be erected in the church. His domestics repaired thither, carrying black candles in their hands, and he himself, wrapped in a shroud, was laid in the coffin. The Office for the Dead was chanted by both Charles and the assemblage, as well as the plentiful tears of all would allow. At the end of the ceremony all, save the chief participant in the coffin, left the church, and the doors 33 were closed. Then the poor victim of superstition emerged from his coffin and returned to his apartments. Probably on account of the impression produced on his mind by the fancied contact with death, he was seized, concludes Robertson, with his fatal illness on the following day.

Were it not for the too pronounced bathos of this Robertsonian climax of Charles coming out of his coffin, climbing down the catafalque, and creeping home stealthily, lest his too lively appearance should dispel the impression supposed to have been produced, this scene would furnish elements most attractive for some ambitious playwright and enterprising manager. As for historical value, the picture of Charles in his shroud and coffin, as well as that of his being left alone in the church after the ceremony, has none; the Hieronymite chronicles, the only sources on which Robertson can draw, are precise in representing Charles as assisting at the ceremony, candle in hand, and as giving his candle to the celebrant at the close.

We shall merely allude to the assertion that during the last six months of his life the Emperor had lost his wonted mental acumen; that, in fact, he was little better than insane. 34 Authentic documents are adduced by Mignet11 to show that, to the very last, Charles took an active and directive interest in the affairs of his late Empire; and that he was frequently consulted, especially as to Spanish matters, by Philip II. Let us rather see whether there is any truth in the presumed Hieronymite narration. We say “presumed”; for it seems incredible that any Catholic writer could have penned the tale. Protestant polemics regale us, even unto nausea, with arguments against the reliability of “monkish chronicles”; but if ever any such chronicle merited distrust, nay, to be despised — and there are such, — these by the Prior Angulo and his anonymous Brother are in that category; and if they are authentic, their authors deserved whatever severe punishment monastic discipline and the proper tribunals — ecclesiastical and lay — could inflict on religious who elaborated a baseless charge of sacrilege against an entire community.

To have sung the Office of the Dead for the benefit of a living person would have been a solemn mockery, profanation; but we are told that the monks of San Yuste offered a Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of, 35 and in the presence of, the living Emperor.12 However, this reflection on the nature of the ceremony alleged to have been performed would not, of itself, compel us to reject the tale as fabrication. But there are many good reasons why this course should be taken. The anonymous monk states that the Emperor caused Requiems to be sung on August 29, 30, and 31, for the souls of his father, mother, and wife; that after the last function he ordered everything to be prepared for his own funeral service on that evening; and he expressly states that not only the Office was chanted, but Mass was celebrated at that service. Here, then, we have Mass celebrated, in the Western Church in the sixteenth century, in the evening! This is an absurdity. Nor can it 36 be alleged that probably the Office alone was recited at that time, and that the Requiem was celebrated on the following morning, September 1; for the writer says that after the Mass the monarch experienced a chill, and was removed to his apartments; adding also that “this happened on the last day of August, at about four of the night.”13

Another intrinsic evidence of falsity is furnished by the magnitude of the sum — two thousand crowns, — which the anonymous chronicler assigns for the expenses of the service in question. If we consider the metallic value of the Spanish crown of that day — eleven francs, — and then note its relative buying capability, we must conclude that the alleged funeral cost more than twelve thousand dollars,14 which is incredible. The only real expenses, since there was no royal pomp, etc., would have been that of candles and the honorarium. Sandoval says that these “two thousand crowns, saved by the Emperor,” were afterward drawn upon for the real funeral; and that six hundred of them were sent, just before the monarch’s death and by 37 his order, to Barbara Blomberg, the mother of Don John of Austria.15

A third reason for rejecting the fable of the mock funeral is found by Mignet in the physical condition of Charles V. at the time when it is alleged to have been held. The letters of his physician and his secretary all show that he could not have withstood the fatigue of four consecutive functions. On the 15th of August, wishing to communicate, he had to be carried to the church, and he received the Blessed Sacrament in a sitting posture. On the 24th the gout temporarily ceased from troubling him; but an eruption in the legs ensued, and he would scarcely have been able to participate in the supposed services of the 29th, 30th, and 31st. Charles V. was not of such calibre, spiritually speaking, that he would have forced weak nature to obey his pious will, having himself carried to ceremonies at which his presence would have been superfluous. He was far removed from those saints who have asked to be laid on ashes to meet their deaths. And his occupations just at this time, as shown by his intimate attendants, manifest no extraordinary detachment from the affairs of earth; still less do they indicate 38 any of that semi-insane religiousness by which Robertson would account for the commission of the freak under consideration. Down to the very day before the fatal attack (September 1) he was engaged in business of state and in matters of family interest. Finally, neither the imperial physician nor the secretary, whose letters enter into the most trivial details of their master’s life at San Yuste, especially where his health or religious dispositions are concerned, say anything about this ante-mortem funeral.


1  Mignet, “Charles-Quint, son Abdication, et son Séjour au Monastère de Yuste,” p. 6, n. 1; Paris, 1854.

2  Sepulveda, “Opera,” vol. ii, b. 30; Madrid, 1740.

3  Ribadeneyra, “Vida del Padre Francisco de Borja,” c. 13; Madrid, 1605.

4  This Spanish congregation was approved by Pope Gregory XI. in 1374. Its first members had belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis, and they now adopted the rule of St. Augustine. Their chief houses are those of St. Lawrence at the Escurial, St. Isidore in Seville, and this of St. Justus. Another congregation of Hieronymites was founded in Italy in 1377 by the Blessed Peter Gambacorti of Pisa.

5  Pope Paul IV. refused to acknowledge Ferdinand’s claim to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire; for the consent of the Pontiff, the suzerain of that Empire, had not been obtained by Charles V. for his action. Ferdinand, like all presumptive heirs to the Empire, had been elected “King of the Romans” (1532), and had been confirmed by Pope Clement VII.; but Paul IV. declared that a “King of the Romans” could succeed, ordinarily, to the Empire only by the death of its incumbent. The cases of resignation or deprivation, insisted the Pontiff, had always depended on the will of the Holy See, and only the Pontiff could, in such cases, name the new Emperor. Again, the resignation of Charles was null, it not having been made in the hands of the Pope. However, Pope Pius IV. deemed it prudent, in 1560, to recognize Ferdinand as Emperor.

6   “Vida del Emperador Carlos V. en Yuste,” vol. ii, §3.

7   “Historia del Orden de San Geronimo,” p. 3, b. i. c. 308.

8   “Retraite et Mort de Charles-Quint,” vol. i, Appendix C.

9   “Storia Universale,” b. xvii, c. 20. — We are surprised on finding that Cantù receives this story as truth, comparing the fantasy of Charles with the “melancholy” freak of the Emperor Maximilian I., who, disgusted with his newly-built palace at Innsbruck, resolved on providing a better one; and accordingly sent for a coffin and all the paraphernalia of a funeral, and kept them always with him.

10   See his letter to the Secretary of the National Institute at Washington (1843.)

11  Loc cit. — See also Stirling’s “Cloister Life of Charles V.,” 1852.

12  “How can we admit that this service was performed? The Church reserves it for the dead, never applying it to the living. Celebrated without an object it would lose its efficacy with its only motive, and would become a kind of profanation. The Church prays for those who can not any longer pray for themselves; she offers for their intention that Sacrifice in which their condition will not allow them to take part. This pious and solemn association with the soul in its passage from transient to eternal life has its merit and grandeur only when it is real. Moreover, Charles V. well knew that it is much better for one’s self to pray than to be the object of another’s prayers; much better to appropriate to one’s self the Holy Sacrifice by Eucharistic Communion than to be indirectly associated with it by a merciful attention of the Church. He had done so a fortnight before, and he did so again very soon.” (Mignet, loc cit., p. 414.)

13  “Four of the night” (that is, four hours after the evening Angelus) would be, as moderns measure time, about eleven in Spain, during August and September.

14  Barthélemy, “Erreurs et Mensonges,” vol. iii, p. 142.

15  Loc. cit., vol. ii, §3. Letter of Quijada to Philip II., October 12, 1558.

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