In 1520, Suleiman the Magnificent became sultan of the Ottoman world, which stretched from Hungary to Baghdad to the Eastern Mediterranean. He was only 26 years old. At the time of his accession, the leaders of the western world's three superpowers, France, the Holy Roman Empire (which included Spain and the Netherlands), and England, were just as young: François I (born the same year as Suleiman, 1494), was 26; Charles V (born in 1500) was only 20; Henry VIII (born in 1491) was eldest at 29.
To put this in perspective, imagine a world whose supreme leaders were the likes of Zac Efron, Justin Timberlake, Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe (all born in the 1980's).
Scary thought, isn't it?
Of course, unlike the celebrities listed above, François, Charles, Henry and Suleiman had all been groomed since childhood in preparation for kingship. They were well-educated, trained in the arts of war and governing, and counseled by seasoned statesmen and diplomats, many of whom had served previous monarchs. Convinced of their divine right to rule, these kings knew it was their duty to serve the best interests of their people.
Still. Nowadays we consider a politician "young" at forty. But twenty?
Men in their twenties are notorious for "strutting their stuff," vying with each other to claim that "top dog" status. François, Charles, Henry and Suleiman did compete directly with each other not only for territory, but for wealth, possessions, and influence. As they fought each other for chunks of Europe, they strove to construct the most magnificent palaces, employ the most accomplished artists and maintain the most cultured courts (Henry and François dug deep into their countries' coffers to outshine the other's extravagance at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520; François pulled the stops again in 1539 when Charles traveled through France on a state visit). They competed for the same offices (Charles beat out François in 1519 for the title of Holy Roman Emperor) and spheres of diplomatic influence (especially papal alliances). They raced to beat the others in exploring and colonizing the New World and monopolizing trade routes. They might have shared a woman or two (rumor has it that François might have been friendly with a young Anne Boleyn). Henry and François even wrestled each other for fun in front of the court at Cloth of Gold (François won handily, I might add).
I attribute much of the vim and verve of the first half of the sixteenth century directly to the youth and raw masculinity of these four rulers. How many battles were motivated not by the best interests of the country, but by a desire to beat the other guy? How many paintings and statues were commissioned in order to claim the title of supreme patron of the arts? How many religious dissenters were persecuted in order to prove oneself the staunchest defender of the faith? How many alliances were shifted or broken in order to make life difficult for one of the others? How many miles of silk and leagues of ribbon were cut and sewn in attempts to set the trends for all of Europe? One wonders.
Kings of their countries, these four men clawed and tussled to become King of the Hill.
Imagine how celebrity rags would have read.