Monarchs and Kings: Establishing 16th-Century Dynasties of Europe

From the Lecture Series: Foundations of Western Civilization: A History of the Modern Western World

By Robert Buchholz, D.Phil., Loyola University Chicago

As Europe approached 1500, a generation of stronger monarchs arose. Their goal was to suppress baronial rebellions and subordinate the church and aristocracy. They wanted to make themselves more secure and, ultimately, absolute.

Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V on horseback under a canopy, by Jacopo Ligozzi, c. 1580
(Image: Jacopo Ligozzi/Public domain)

New Dynasties of Europe

All across western Europe, new dynasties emerged from the carnage of war. In England, out of the Wars of the Roses emerged first, the Yorkists under Edward IV in 1461 and then, more permanently, Henry VII established the Tudors in 1485. In France, the Valois family reestablished themselves after the disasters of the Hundred Years War. First, Charles VII and then, Louis XI ruled France from 1422 to 1483. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg power revived under Maximilian I, who ruled from 1493 to 1519. Spain was united by Ferdinand and Isabella; Isabella predeceased Ferdinand, who ruled until 1516. Even Portugal united under the House of Aviz. In Hungary, Matthias Corvinus ruled strongly from 1458 to 1490.

All of these rulers had the same goal: to establish or re-establish their dynasties on a more permanent, stronger footing and reduce baronial opposition. To do that, they established alliances.

Learn more about how Europe emerges from the Middle Ages

Marriages of Convenience

Image of Joanna with her parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, by Pedro Marcuello, c. 1482
Joanna with her parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, by Pedro Marcuello, c. 1482. (Image: Unknow/Public domain)

First, they pursued strategic marriages to heal wounds within the country and gain friends abroad. Ferdinand and Isabella married their children into powerful European royal houses. One daughter, Isabella, married into the Portuguese royal house. Another daughter, Juana, married Philip, Duke of Burgundy. A third daughter, Catherine of Aragon, married Prince Arthur Tudor of England.

This is a transcript from the video series Foundations of Western Civilization: A History of the Modern Western World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Henry VII of England, descended from the Lancastrians, married Elizabeth of York to unite the two warring houses of the Wars of the Roses. He then married his son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon. When Arthur died in 1501, Henry had another son, Henry VIII—infamous for his many wives and divorces. He married a daughter into the Scottish royal house, and then Henry VII’s other daughter, Mary, was married to Louis XII of France.

Earlier, Charles VII had engineered the marriage of Margaret of Anjou into the House of Lancaster, and his descendant Louis married an English princess. Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, married Mary of Burgundy, allowing him to claim one of Europe’s richest kingdoms.

The marriages of all these royal families are almost a spider web of entanglement, all jockeying for position and hoping to acquire new territory. Maximilian married his son Philip of Burgundy to Juana, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, thus linking the Habsburgs with Spain. The Habsburgs also married into the ruling house of Hungary. All of these marriages bolstered new or weak lines, gave them powerful friends, and increased their holdings.

Learn More: The New World and the Old—1400-1600

Quelling Rebellions

The second method of the founders of the firms was to suppress baronial private armies and to do so ruthlessly. In France, Charles VII reduced his barons to obedience after driving the English out. He still faced a powerful duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, whose predecessors had supported the English. In 1474, Louis XI assembled a coalition against Burgundy and killed him in battle three years later.

Louis thus annexed Burgundy, but the Low Countries went to his daughter Mary, who married Maximilian. Louis was known as the “spider” for his ability to weave a web and bear out his patient intrigue. He eventually gathered into that web Anjou, Maine, and Provence, which were all areas that had stood outside of French power before.

In England, Henry VII put down a series of rebellions and held nobles in bond; that is, they had to deposit a certain amount of money with him for future good behavior. He banned private armies, virtually ending feudalism in England. He also expanded the powers of the justices of the peace; these were small landowners who couldn’t challenge him. By expanding their power, he took it away from the great nobles.

Portrait of Maximilian I
Portrait of Maximilian I (Image: Albrecht Dürer/Public domain)

Maximilian subdued rebellious cities in the Netherlands that had supported France. He also recovered Austria from the king of Hungary.

Ferdinand and Isabella revoked grants of land and power to nobles. They demolished noble castles. They gained control of noble military orders. Notice that Renaissance princes were jealous of their own rights, but often trampled over the rights of others. To be fair, in Spain’s case, they eventually opted for a rather more decentralized government in which local areas were given great autonomy and were ruled for the king and queen by a viceroy.

Learn more about qualifications of a gentleman, the role of women, and the expectations of a prince

Working with Cities, Assemblies, and the Church

The third method of these Renaissance princes was to ally with cities for loans and money. They were also careful to hire Humanist lawyers and merchants as well as nobles to counsel them. A fourth method saw them working with assemblies. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella relied on the Cortes of Castile, composed mainly of merchants, to try criminals and restore order.

Fifth, they maintained good relations with the church. All of these rulers were enthusiastic persecutors of heretics and religious minorities. They believed that only a subject who worshiped as the king worshiped could be a loyal subject. Most infamously, Ferdinand and Isabella established the dreaded Spanish Inquisition in 1478 to root out conversos (converted Jews) and moriscos (converted Muslims) who practiced their religion secretly.

The sixth method of these rulers was to drive out foreign invaders, consolidate holdings, and impose religious uniformity. Charles VII drove the English from France and Henry VII sought to secure his northern border with Scotland. Ferdinand and Isabella drove out the Moors and persecuted the Jews. They also fought to safeguard their possessions in Italy, reformed the army, and established a great diplomatic corps that would benefit them later. Maximilian won the succession to the throne of Bohemia and Hungary by the Treaty of Pressburg in 1491. He, in effect, became a foreign invader.

Learn More: Renaissance Princes—1450-1600

Laying the Groundwork for the Future of Europe

The seventh method of these kings was to reform their governments and legal systems to be more efficient, professional, more in control of the localities, and more responsive to the monarch. Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Edicts of Montalvo, which reduced the size of the council to make it more flexible, reformed financial agencies, and emphasized promotion by merit, rather than birth. Like Henry VII in England, the Spanish monarchs relied on small landowners, the hidalgos, to police the localities.

Image of King Henry Vll
King Henry Vll (Image: NPG: Unknown Netherlandish artist/Public domain)

Henry VII reformed the administration of Crown lands. Both he and the Holy Roman Emperor created new tribunals to determine local disputes. Henry’s tribunal is famous as the Court of Star Chamber, which was a pretty fair and popular court, in contrast to its reputation.

Finally, in keeping with the Renaissance, these princes had a healthy respect for education, the arts, and propaganda. They employed scholars and artists and sought to be portrayed in the best possible light while having their enemies portrayed in the worst. For example, supporters of Henry VII actually repainted pictures of his predecessor, the usurped Richard III, to exaggerate his hunchback.

These pioneers would lay the groundwork for their even-more-powerful successors. In England, there were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. In France, there were Francis I and Henry II. In the Holy Roman Empire, it was Charles V and his son Phillip. These are some of the most famous names in European history.

Common Questions About Dynasties of Europe

Q: How many royal families are in Europe?

At the moment, seven monarchies occupy European countries: Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Q: Which is the oldest dynasty in the world?

The oldest dynasty in the world was the Pharaoh of Egypt, whose rein spanned over 2750 years.

Q: Who was the first royal family in the world?

There are conflicting sources regarding the first royal family in the world. Some identify Alfred the Great as the first King of England, who led the country from 871-899, while others claim that it was William the Conqueror, whose reign began in 1066 after invading England and from whom today’s royal family is descended.

Q: Are all the European royal families related?

The European royal families are linked by a common ancestor, King George II, who ruled over Great Britain and Ireland from 1727 to 1760.

This article was updated on May 7, 2020

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