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Portrait of Philip II. Titian.

Philip II, King of Spain (1527-1598)


PHILIP II, King of Spain, was born at Valladolid on the 21st of May 1527. He was the son of the emperor Charles V, and of his wife Isabella of Portugal, who were first cousins. Philip received his education in Spain. His tutor, Dr Juan Martinez Pedernales, who latinized his name to Siliceo, and who was also his confessor, does not appear to have done his duty very thoroughly. The prince, though he had a good command of Latin, never equalled his father as a linguist. Don Juan de Zuniga, who was appointed to teach him the use of arms, was more conscientious; but he had a very poor pupil. From his earliest years Philip showed himself more addicted to the desk than the saddle and to the pen than to the sword. The emperor, who spent his life moving from one part of his wide dominions to another and in the camps of his armies, watched his heir's education from afar. The trend of his letters was to impress on the boy a profound sense of the high destinies to which he was born, the necessity for keeping his nobles apart from all share in the conduct of the internal government of his kingdom, and the wisdom of distrusting counsellors, who would be sure to wish to influence him for their own ends.

Philip grew up grave, self-possessed and distrustful. He was beloved by his Spanish subjects, but utterly without the power of attracting men of other races. Though accused of extreme licentiousness in his relations with women, and though he lived for years in adultery with Dona Maria de Osorio, Philip was probably less immoral than most kings of his time, including his father, and was rigidly abstemious in eating and drinking. His power of work was unbounded, and he had an absolute love of reading, annotating and drafting despatches. If he had not become sovereign of the Low Countries, as heir of Mary of Burgundy through his father, Philip would in all probability have devoted himself to warfare with the Turks in the Mediterranean, and to the conquest of northern Africa. Unhappily for Spain, Charles, after some hesitation, decided to transmit the Netherlands to his son, and not to allow them to go with the empire. Philip was summoned in 1548 to Flanders, where he went unwillingly, and was ill regarded. In 1551 he was back in Spain, and intrusted with its government.

Philip II of Spain and Mary I of EnglandIn 1543 he had been married to his cousin Mary of Portugal, who bore him a son, the unhappy Don Carlos, and who died in 1545. In 1554, when Charles was meditating his abdication, and wished to secure the position of his son, he summoned Philip to Flanders again, and arranged the marriage with Mary, queen of England, who was the daughter of [Charles V's aunt] Catherine, in order to form a union of Spain, the Netherlands and England, before which France would be powerless. The marriage proved barren. The abdication of his father on the 16th of January 1556 constituted Philip sovereign of Spain with its American possessions, of the Aragonese inheritance in Italy, Naples and Sicily, of the Burgundian inheritance — the Netherlands and Franche Comte, and of the duchy of Milan, which his father separated from the empire for his benefit. It was a legacy of immense responsibilities and perils, for France was bound in common prudence to endeavour to ruin a power which encircled her on every side save the sea and threatened her independence. France was for a time beaten at the battles of St Quentin and Gravelines, and forced to make the Peace of Cateau Cambresis (April 2, 1559). But the death of Mary of England on the 17th of November 1558 had deprived Philip of English support.

The establishment of Elizabeth on the English throne put on the flank of his scattered dominions another power, forced no less than France by unavoidable political necessities to be his enemy. The early difficulties of Elizabeth's reign secured him a deceitful peace on that side for a time. His marriage with Elizabeth of Valois on the 22nd of June 1559, and the approach of the wars of religion, gave him a temporary security from France. But the religious agitation was affecting his own Flemish possessions, and when Philip went back to Spain, in August 1559, he was committed to a lifelong struggle in which he could not prove victorious except by the conquest of France and England.

If Philip II had deserved his name of the Prudent he would have made haste, so soon as his father, who continued to intervene in the government from his retreat at Yuste in Estremadura, was dead, to relieve himself of the ruinous inheritance of the Low Countries. It was perhaps impossible for him to renounce his rights, and his education, co-operating with his natural disposition, made it morally impossible for him to believe that he could be in the wrong. Like the rest of his generation, he was convinced that unity of religion was indispensable to the maintenance of the authority of the State and of good order. Family pride, also, was carried by him to its highest possible pitch. Thus external and internal influences alike drove him into conflict with the Netherlands, France and England; with the first because political and religious discontent combined to bring about revolt, which he felt bound in duty to crush; with the second and third because they helped the Flemings and the Hollanders.

Philip II with a Rosary. The Prado.The conflict assumed the character of a struggle between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, in which Philip appeared as the champion of the Church. It was a part he rejoiced to play. He became, and could not but become, a persecutor in and out of Spain; and his persecutions not only hardened the obstinacy of the Dutch, and helped to exasperate the English, but they provoked a revolt of the Moriscoes, which impoverished his kingdom. No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence. That whatever he did was done for the service of God, that success or failure depended on the inscrutable will of the Almighty and not on himself, were his guiding convictions, which he transmitted to his successors. The "service of God and his majesty" was the formula which expressed the belief of the sovereign and his subjects. Philip must therefore be held primarily responsible for the insane policy which brought Spain to ruin. He had a high ideal of his duty as a king to his own people, and had no natural preference for violent courses. The strong measures he took against disorderly elements in Aragon in 1591 were provoked by extreme misconduct on the part of a faction. When he enforced his claim to the crown of Portugal (1579-1581) he preferred to placate his new subjects by paying attention to their feelings and their privileges. He even made dangerous political concessions to secure the support of the gentry.

It is true that he was ready to make use of assassination for political purposes; but he had been taught by his lawyers that he was "the prince," the embodied state, and as such had a right to act for the public good, legibus solutus. This was but in accordance with the temper of the times. Coligny, Lord Burghley and William the Silent also entered into murder plots. In his private life he was orderly and affectionate to his family and servants. He was slow to withdraw the confidence he had once given. In the painful episode of the imprisonment and death of his firstborn son, Don Carlos, Philip behaved honourably. He bore the acute agony of the disease which killed him with manly patience, and he died piously at the Escorial on the 13th of September 1598.

As an administrator Philip had all the vices of his type, that of the laborious, self-righteous man, who thinks he can supervise everything, is capable of endless toil, and jealous of his authority, and who therefore will let none of his servants act without his instructions. He set the example of the unending discussions in committee and boundless minute writing which finally choked the Spanish administration.




      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XXI.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 385.







Other Local Resources:




Books for further study:

Elliott, J. H. Imperial Spain: 1469-1716.
           London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Kamen, Henry. Philip of Spain.
           New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Phillip II.
           New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000.

Patterson, Benton Rain. With the Heart of a King: Elizabeth I of England, Philip II of Spain,
           and the Fight for a Nation's Soul And Crown.
           London: St. Martin's Press, 2007.

Williams, Patrick. Philip II.
           New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.





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