Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

An Emperor Retired from Business

In October of the year 1555 a strange procession passed through a rugged and hilly region of Spain. At its head rode an alcalde with a posse of alguazils. Next came a gouty old man in a horse-litter, like a prisoner in the hands of a convoy of officers of justice. A body of horsemen followed, and in the rear toiled onward a long file of baggage-mules.

As the train advanced into the more settled regions of the country it became evident that the personage thus convoyed was not a prisoner, but a person of the highest consequence. On each side of the road the people assembled to see him pass, with a show of deep respect. At the towns along the route the great lords of the neighborhood gathered in his honor, and in the cities the traveller was greeted by respectful deputations of officials. When Burgos was approached the great constable of Castile, with a strong retinue of attendants, came to meet him, and when he passed through the illuminated streets of that city the bells rang out in merry peals, while enthusiastic people filled the streets.

It was not a prisoner to the law, but a captive to gout, who thus passed in slow procession through the lands and cities of Spain. It was the royal Charles, King of Spain and the Netherlands, Emperor of Germany, and magnate of America, at that time the greatest monarch in Europe, lord of a realm greater than that of Charlemagne, who made his way with this small following and in this simple manner through the heart of his Spanish dominions. He had done what few kings have done before or since, voluntarily thrown off his crown in the height of his power,—weary of reigning, surfeited with greatness,—and retired to spend the remainder of his life in privacy, to dwell far from the pomp of courts in a simple community of monks.

The next principal halting-place of the retired monarch was the city of Valladolid, once the capital of the kingdom and still a rich and splendid place, adorned with stately public buildings and the palaces of great nobles. Here he remained for some time resting from his journey, his house thronged with visitors of distinction. Among these, one day, came the court fool. Charles touched his cap to him.

"Welcome, brother," said the jester; "do you raise your hat to me because you are no longer emperor?"

"No," answered Charles, "but because this sorry courtesy is all I have left to give you."

On quitting Valladolid Charles seemed to turn his back finally on the world, with all its pomps and vanities. Before leaving he took his last dinner in public, and bade an affectionate farewell to his sisters, his daughter, and his grandson, who had accompanied him thus far in his journey. A large train of nobles and cavaliers rode with him to the gates of the city, where he courteously dismissed them, and moved onward attended only by his simple train.

"Heaven be praised!" said the world-weary monarch, as he came nearer his place of retreat; "after this no more visits of ceremony, no more receptions!"

But he was not yet rid of show and ostentation. Spending the night at Medina del Campo, at the house of a rich banker named Rodrigo de Dueñas, the latter, by way of display, warmed the emperor's room with a brazier of pure gold, in which, in place of common fuel, sticks of cinnamon were burned. Neither the perfume nor the ostentation was agreeable to Charles, and on leaving the next morning he punished his over-officious host by refusing to permit him to kiss his hand, and by causing him to be paid for the night's lodging like a common inn-keeper.

This was not the first time that cinnamon had been burned in the emperor's chamber. The same was done by the Fuggers, the famous bankers of Germany, who had loaned Charles large sums for his expedition against Tunis, and entertained him at their house on his return. In this case the emperor was not offended by the odor of cinnamon, since it was modified by a different and more agreeable perfume. The bankers, grateful to Charles for breaking up a pestilent nest of Barbary pirates, threw the receipts for the money they had loaned him into the fire, turning their gold into ashes in his behalf. This was a grateful sacrifice to the emperor, whose war-like enterprises consumed more money than he could readily command.

Charles V


The vicinity of Yuste was reached late in November. Here resided a community of Jeronymite monks, in whose monastery he proposed to pass the remainder of his days. There were two roads by which it could be reached,—one an easy, winding highway, the other a rugged mountain-pass. But by the latter four days would be saved, and Charles, tired of the long journey, determined to take it, difficult as it might prove.

He had been warned against the mountain path-way, and found it fully as formidable as he had been told. A body of hardy rustics were sent ahead, with pikes, shovels, and other implements, to clear the way. But it was choked here and there with fallen stones and trunks of trees which they were unable to move. In some localities the path wound round dizzy precipices, where a false step would have been fatal. To any traveller it would have been very difficult; to the helpless emperor it was frightfully dangerous. The peasants carried the litter; in bad parts of the way the emperor was transferred to his chair; in very perilous places the vigorous peasants carried him in their arms.

Several hours of this hard toil passed before they reached the summit. As they emerged from the dark defiles of the Puerto Nuevo—now known as "The Emperor's Pass"—Charles exclaimed, "It is the last pass I shall go through in this world, save that of death."

The descent was much more easy, and soon the gray walls of Yuste, half hidden in chestnut groves, came in sight. Yet it was three months before the traveller reached there, for the apartments preparing for him were far from ready, and he had to wait throughout the winter in the vicinity, in a castle of the Count of Oropesa, and in the midst of an almost continual downpour of rain, which turned the roads to mire, the country almost to a swamp, and the mountains to vapor-heaps. The threshold of his new home was far from an agreeable one.

Charles V. had long contemplated the step he had thus taken. He was only fifty-five years of age, but he had become an old man at fifty, and was such a victim to the gout as to render his life a constant torment and the duties of royalty too heavy to be borne. So, taking a resolution which few monarchs have taken before or since, he gave up his power and resolved to spend the remainder of his life in such quiet and peace as a retired monastery would give. Spain and its subject lands he transferred to his son Philip, who was to gain both fame and infamy as Philip II. He did his best, also, to transfer the imperial crown of Germany to his fanatical and heartless heir, but his brother Ferdinand, who was in power there, would not consent, and he was obliged to make Ferdinand emperor of Germany, and break in two the vast dominion which he had controlled.

Charles had only himself to thank for his gout. Like many a man in humbler life, he had abused the laws of nature until they had avenged themselves upon him. The pleasures of the table with him far surpassed those of intellectual or business pursuits. He had an extraordinary appetite, equal to that of any royal gourmand  of whom history speaks, and, while leaving his power behind him, he brought this enemy with him into his retirement.

We are told by a Venetian envoy at his court, in the latter part of his reign, that, while still in bed in the morning, he was served with potted capon, prepared with sugar, milk, and spices, and then went to sleep again. At noon a meal of various dishes was served him, and another after vespers. In the evening he supped heartily on anchovies, of which he was particularly fond, or some other gross and savory food. His cooks were often at their wits' end to devise some new dish, rich and highly seasoned enough to satisfy his appetite, and his perplexed purveyor one day, knowing Charles's passion for timepieces, told him "that he really did not know what new dish he could prepare him, unless it were a fricassée  of watches."

Charles drank as heartily as he ate. His huge repasts were washed down with potations proportionately large. Iced beer was a favorite beverage, with which he began on rising and kept up during the day. By way of a stronger potation, Rhenish wine was much to his taste. Roger Ascham, who saw him on St. Andrew's day dining at the feast of the Golden Fleece, tells us: "He drank the best that I ever saw. He had his head in the glass five times as long as any of us, and never drank less than a good quart at once of Rhenish."

It was this over-indulgence in the pleasures of the table that brought the emperor to Yuste. His physician warned him in vain. His confessor wasted admonitions on his besetting sin. Sickness and suffering vainly gave him warning to desist. Indigestion troubled him; bilious disorders brought misery to his overworked stomach. At length came gout, the most terrible of his foes. This enemy gave him little rest day or night. The man who had hunted in the mountains for days without fatigue, who had kept the saddle day and night in his campaigns, who had held his own in the lists with the best knights of Europe, was now a miserable cripple, carried, wherever he went, in the litter of an invalid.

One would have thought that, in his monastic retreat, Charles would cease to indulge in gastronomic excesses, but the retired emperor, with little else to think of, gave as much attention to his appetite as ever. Yuste was kept in constant communication with the rest of the world on matters connected with the emperor's table. He was especially fond of fish and all the progeny of the water,—eels, frogs, oysters, and the like. The trout of the neighborhood were too small for his liking, so he had larger ones sent from a distance. Potted fish—anchovies in particular—were favorite viands. Eel pasty appealed strongly to his taste. Soles, lampreys, flounders reached his kitchen from Seville and Portugal. The country around supplied pork, mutton, and game. Sausages were sent him from a distance; olives were brought from afar, as those near at hand were not to his liking. Presents of sweetmeats and confectionery were sent him by ladies who remembered his ancient tastes. In truth, Charles, tortured with gout, did everything he well could to favor its attacks.

The retired emperor, though he made a monastery his abode, had no idea of living like a monk. His apartments were richly furnished and hung with handsome tapestry, and every attention was paid to his personal comfort. Rich carpets, canopies of velvet, sofas and chairs of carved walnut, seats amply garnished with cushions for the ease of his tender joints, gave a luxurious aspect to his retirement. His wardrobe contained no less than sixteen robes of silk and velvet, lined with ermine, eider-down, or the soft hair of the Barbary goat. He could not endure cold weather, and had fireplaces and chimneys constructed in every room, usually keeping his apartments almost at furnace heat, much to the discomfort of his household. With all this, and his wrappings of fur and eider-down, he would often be in a shiver and complain that he was chilled to the bone.

His table was richly provided with plate, its service being of silver, as were also the articles of the toilet, the basins, pitchers, and other utensils of his bed-chamber. With these were articles of pure gold, valuable for their curious workmanship. He had brought with him many jewels of value, and a small but choice collection of paintings, some of them among the noblest masterpieces of art. Among them were eight gems from the hand of Titian. These were hung in rich frames around his rooms. He was no reader, and had brought few books, his whole library comprising but thirty-one volumes, and these mostly religious works, such as psalters, missals, breviaries, and the like. There was some little science and some little history, but the work which chiefly pleased him was a French poem, "Le Chevalier Délibéré," then popular, which celebrated the exploits of the house of Burgundy, and especially of Charles the Bold.

And now it comes in place to say something of how Charles employed himself at Yuste, aside from eating and drinking and shivering in his chimney corner. The mode in which a monarch retired from business passes his time cannot be devoid of interest. He by no means gave up his attention to the affairs of the realm, but kept himself well informed in all that was going on, sometimes much to his annoyance, since blunders were made that gave him a passing desire to be again at the head of affairs. In truth, two years after his retirement, the public concerns got into such a snarl that Philip earnestly sought to induce the emperor to leave his retreat and aid him with his ripened experience. This Charles utterly refused to do. He had had his fill of politics. It was much less trouble to run a household than a nation. But he undertook to do what he could to improve the revenues of the crown. Despatches about public affairs were brought to him constantly, and his mental thermometer went up or down as things prospered or the reverse. But he was not to be tempted to plunge again into the turbulent tide of public affairs.

Charles had other and more humble duties to occupy his time. His paroxysms of gout came only at intervals, and in the periods between he kept himself engaged. He had a taste for mechanics, and among his attendants was an Italian named Torriano, a man of much ingenuity, who afterwards constructed the celebrated hydraulic works at Toledo. He was a skilful clock-maker, and, as Charles took a special interest in timepieces, his assistant furnished his apartments with a series of elaborate clocks. One of these was so complicated that its construction occupied more than three years, every detail of the work being curiously watched by Charles. Watches were then of recent invention, yet there were a number of them at Yuste, made by Torriano.

The attempt to make his clocks keep time together is said to have been one of the daily occupations of the retired emperor, and the adjustment of his clocks and watches gave him so much trouble that he is said to have one day remarked that it was absurd to try and make men think alike, when, do what he would, he could not make two of his timepieces agree.

He often amused himself with Torriano in making little puppets,—soldiers that would go through their exercises, dancing tambourine-girls, etc. It is even asserted that they constructed birds that would fly in and out of the window, a story rather difficult to accept. The monks began to look upon Torriano as a professor of magic when he invented a handmill small enough to be hidden in a friar's sleeve, yet capable of grinding enough meal in a day to last a man for a week.

The emperor was very fond of music, particularly devotional music, and was a devotee in religious exercises, spending much of his time in listening to the addresses of the chaplains, and observing the fasts and festivals of the Church. His fondness for fish made the Lenten season anything but a period of penance for him.

He went on, indeed, eating and drinking as he would; and his disease went on growing and deepening, until at length the shadow of death lay heavy on the man whose religion did not include temperance in its precepts. During 1558 he grew steadily weaker, and on the 21st of September the final day came; his eyes quietly closed and life fled from his frame.

Yuste, famous as the abiding-place of Charles in his retirement, remained unmolested in the subsequent history of the country until 1810, when a party of French dragoons, foraging near by, found the murdered body of one of their comrades not far from the monastery gates. Sure in their minds that the monks had killed him, they broke in, dispersed the inmates, and set the buildings on fire. The extensive pile of edifices continued to burn for eight days, no one seeking to quench the flames. On the ninth the ancient monastery was left a heap of ashes, only the church remaining, and, protected by it, the palace of Charles.

In 1820 a body of neighboring insurgents entered and defaced the remaining buildings, carrying off everything they could find of value and turning the church into a stable. Some of the monks returned, but in 1837 came an act suppressing the convents, and the poor Jeronymites were finally turned adrift. To-day the palace of Charles V. presents only desolate and dreary chambers, used as magazines for grain and olives. So passes away the glory of the world.