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3. Habsburg festivals

Alexander Samson

Any synthesis of Habsburg festival is challenging, owing to the bewildering range, not only of festivities themselves, but also of geographical locations and cultural traditions. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V inherited the biggest empire in Western Europe since the ancient world. This multilingual, culturally diverse and international empire meant that the head of the Habsburg family was celebrated in a profusion of different ways - from traditional jousts to the dangerous bullfights engaged in by mounted Spanish aristocrats [0148].

The idiom in which the Habsburgs were celebrated derived in part from the chivalresque Burgundian world described in the Chronicles of Olivier de la Marche and partly from the iconography of the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps the only constants of Habsburg festivals in the first half of the 16th century were the two-headed imperial eagle, the Pillars of Hercules, and Charles’ personal motto, non plus ultra. The Festival itself was a site of cultural exchange, mediation and hybridity, as when Maria of Hungary staged a tournament that included hawking and jousting at the palace of Binche in Germany, based on the Spanish romance of chivalry Amadís de Gaula [0117].

Image of Charles V
Charles V (1500 -1558). Holy Roman Emperor. Paris: Baltasar Moncornet, 1650-1660
BL 1762.a.1 vol. 2 Larger image

Charles was a monarch constantly on the move, seeking to assure through personal contact the loyalty of his subjects in the many provinces, lands and states that made up his empire. He visited Germany nine times, Spain six, Italy seven, Flanders ten, France four times, England twice. He sailed the Mediterranean eight times and the Atlantic four. His descendants, the three Philips who followed him (Philip II, III and IV), in marked contrast confined themselves largely to the Iberian peninsula.

Although the British Library’s collections are not rich in Spanish material, there are festival books relating to royal entries into Toledo, Valencia, and Pamplona and, above all, material related to the brides who travelled to take up their places by their husbands’ sides - as when Isabel de Valois passed through Toledo on her way to marry Philip II or when Margaret of Austria travelled through Italy to marry his son [e.g. 0138, 0139, 0140].

Charles’s brother Ferdinand, despite having been brought up in Spain, would inspire a similar range of celebrations in Eastern Europe as King of the Romans , in their ancestral lands in the Tyrol, Hungary, Poland, and parts of modern-day Germany [0087, his coronation 0098].

His successors, from Emperor Maximilian and Archduke Ferdinand [0134] to Ernst Archduke of Austria [0137], and Ferdinand of Austria [0152], are also represented.

It is possible to trace through this collection the development of Habsburg power from the imperial coronation at Aachen in 1519 [e.g. 0076, 0078, 0079], the extraordinary Peace of Madrid signed by the captive Francis I [0083], Charles’ confirmation as Emperor by the Pope (the last affirmation of its kind) at Bologna in 1529 [e.g. 0086, 0087, 0088], Philip’s introduction onto a European stage and his progress through Western Europe from Italy to the Netherlands [e.g. 0114, 0115, 0116], his marriage to Mary Tudor which looms larger in festival accounts than in Tudor historiography [e.g. 0118, 0119, 0120], the battle of Lepanto in 1571 at which, as Cervantes wrote, the myth of Turkish invincibility perished even if, in the end, the myth did not feature in Ottoman expansionist aspirations for long [0131, 0132, 0133].

The festival accounts also punctuate the stories of the foremost royal families of Europe, their births and baptisms [0143], espousals [0073], marriages [0120], coronations [0076, 0085, 0098] and deaths, among them exequies for Ferdinand 'the Catholic' [0074], Charles V and Mary Tudor [0124, 0125, 0126], and Philip III [0146].

The celebration mounted for a royal entry provided an opportunity to cement the bond between sovereign and city, but it could also represent a reassertion of colonial overlordship. For example, Charles’s changed relationship to the Netherlands as king rather than merely as duke was celebrated in an entry into Bruges in 1515 [0074]. The absorption of Portugal by Spain in 1580 was marked by the triumphal entry by Philip II into Lisbon and reaffirmed by Philip III’s visit in 1619 [0145]. Royal entries could also cement commercial bonds and favourable terms of trade, such as when the English merchants paid for a triumphal arch in Lisbon for the same entry by Philip III [0144]. Some events, for example Charles’s entry into Paris in 1541 [0109, 0110, 0111], while on his way to suppress Ghent bloodily for its refusal to pay yet higher taxes, were moments of extraordinary diplomatic or international rapprochement. The sudden appearance of Charles, Prince of Wales, in Madrid to conclude marriage with the Spanish Infanta in 1623 was a similarly unorthodox move [0148, 0149, 0150].

The status of the festival book as a historical document, however, needs to be carefully qualified by the realisation that in some instances, such as Philip II’s entry into Antwerp in 1549, the events recorded in the book never actually took place [0116]. Not only was the entry cut short because of heavy rain, but many of the complex architectural structures lavishly described in the festival book had never been constructed, because there had not been enough time to do so.

Festival books, that caveat aside, can tell us a great amount about court ritual, precedence and etiquette. Burgundian court etiquette was introduced into Philip II’s household in 1548, specifically to smooth over problems that his European tour might throw up for an entourage and peoples of very different customs. This was a trial run for his apparently impeccable behaviour in England, when he married Mary Tudor and bravely tried the local beer.

Festival books offer a crucial nexus for the study of international relations (one deals, fascinatingly, with Suleiman the Magnificent [0097]), not only because they commemorate international occasions, dynastic marriages, ambassadorial visits, and mourning in every corner of an empire - but also because a single event may be recounted in many different languages for different national audiences. The advantage of incorporating multiple accounts of particular events is the opportunity to read them against each other, for clues about how they respond to the audiences for whom they were written and how they may reflect the agenda of that cultural milieu.

Festival books were both propaganda and news, bringing a captive public into the private worlds of their monarchs and ruling elites, and for the historian they provide a window onto the arcane world of court ritual, and an insight into the cultural forms in terms of which early modern political elites expressed and celebrated their power. The festival book was arguably the earliest form of international news, informing all parts of the empire of the latest triumph, encounter or event in which their monarch had participated. Just because we should not believe everything we read in the press does not mean that we should not read it in order to be well informed.

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