Friday, July 13, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Felipe II of Spain

The monarch whose reign has traditionally been used to mark the zenith of Spanish power was King Felipe II. Although the Spanish empire would reach its peak size much later it was under Felipe II when Spain came the closest to upsetting the rise of England (and thus later Britain) in her rise to dominate the oceans. Given the numerous foes on multiple fronts King Felipe II faced it is difficult to imagine that he, or anyone, could have triumphed over them all completely. However, it is no exaggeration to say that, to a considerable extent, Felipe II saved Roman Catholic Christendom from almost total collapse from the combined threats of Protestantism in northern Europe and Muslim expansion in the Mediterranean. He is rightly remembered by Catholics even today as one of the great champions of the Counter-Reformation. However, because he came so close to defeating England but was unsuccessful, the image of him that has been propagated in the English-speaking world is that of a cruel and villainous tyrant. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, though the values of his time were certainly not those of today, and would come as a surprise to King Felipe II himself who considered one of his greatest flaws to be overly sensitive.

Felipe II was born on May 21, 1527 in Valladolid to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (King Carlos I of Spain) and his queen Isabella of Portugal. He grew up at the Spanish court and was culturally always Spanish first and foremost whereas his father had always been a bit more cosmopolitan, growing up in Belgium and spending much of his time in Germany. The glory of Spain and the defense of the Catholic Church were, from his childhood throughout his life, the two dominant priorities in his heart. This is not that surprising considering the example of his father, Emperor Charles V, who saw himself as the great champion of Catholic Christendom and who retired, renouncing the royal life to spend his final years in prayer. Of course, the Emperor had at times been at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, even waging a bitter and horrific war on the Pope himself. In the same way, though to a lesser extent, depending on the political situation, Felipe II would also at times have an adversarial relationship with certain popes. The Inquisition was going strong in Spain under Felipe II and it sometimes seemed to him that even the Pope was not ‘Catholic enough’. He has since been criticized for his burning of heretics but, one must remember, such measures did spare Spain the horrific and bloody religious wars fought by France, Germany and to a lesser degree in the British Isles. In terms of human life, the Inquisition was comparatively very cost effective.

Charles V had hoped that Felipe would succeed him on the imperial throne but this was opposed by the Austrian branch of the House of Hapsburg under his brother Ferdinand. To keep peace in the family, Charles V left his German and Italian holdings to his brother who became Emperor Ferdinand I and his holdings in the Low Countries, Spain and Spanish America to his son. Felipe II succeeded to his first of many thrones in 1554 when his father made him King of Naples in preparation for his marriage to the Queen of England so that the two would be of equal royal status. The marriage to Queen Mary I of England, Ireland and (nominally) France was also an effort to secure the reunification of Christendom following the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. It was arranged and not a love match at all, at least not as far as Felipe II was concerned. He was never accepted or popular among the English people and himself did not enjoy spending time in the country. Queen Mary I was much older than Felipe, yet the two had a solid marriage. Unfortunately, in typical Tudor fashion, the Queen was unable to have children and Felipe’s duties on the continent kept him away for long periods. This caused Queen Mary great distress as she was intensely devoted to her husband.

The unpopularity Felipe II faced in England was really quite unfair. Propagandists played on nationalism and xenophobia to blame every unpopular measure on the wicked, foreign influence of King Felipe. In fact, Felipe II was among those who advised mercy and moderation in dealing with the Protestants in England, recognizing the degree to which their beliefs had become accepted and entrenched. Nonetheless, Queen Mary I, despite her intense love for Felipe, was her father’s daughter and was adamant that she ruled England and she alone would make the decisions. In 1556 Felipe II was crowned King of Spain and returned to England the following year, the last he would see of Mary before her death. He urged her to maintain the succession and allow her half-sister Elizabeth to inherit the throne. Despite this, Queen Elizabeth was to prove a bitter enemy of King Felipe II. Over time, he may have regretted this but, at the time, he realized how much popular support Elizabeth had and did not want to see England become another trouble spot. He even broached the subject of marriage in order to maintain the Anglo-Spanish alliance but, of course, nothing came of it.

Meanwhile, there was scarcely a corner of western Europe that King Felipe II was not involved in. He had brought England into a war with France, which did not go so well for the English and cost them their last foothold in France at Calais. However, in 1559 Felipe II defeated the French at the Battle of San Quentin and signed a peace treaty with King Henri II. In an action typical of the man, to give thanks to God for the victory King Felipe built a monastery-palace and devoted it to St Lawrence. As he was a young widower, part of the treaty included the marriage of the King to Isabel d'Valois (aka Elizabeth of France), the eldest daughter of King Henri II and Queen Catherine de‘ Medici. This was actually his third marriage. His first had been to Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal but she died shortly after the birth of their first and only son, Prince Carlos. France, however, was of particular concern for King Felipe II, in part because of the rising influence of the Protestants in the country. As he feared, not long after peace had been declared the Wars of Religion broke out in France between the Protestant Huguenots, supported by the English, and the Catholics under the Duc d'Guise. Many churches were sacked and innocent people on both sides were killed. Naturally, Felipe sent Spanish troops to support the Catholic forces in thwarting the rebel armies.

This was certainly not the only foreign relations problem the King faced. Another major problem in international relations was the renewed Turkish invasions under the legendary Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Under his rule, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of power and expansion that made southern Europe tremble. When the Muslim forces attacked the island of Malta the Knights of St John called on King Felipe for help. He rushed his fleet and troops in as fast as he could and they arrived just in time to save Malta from disaster. Again, thanks were given to God for the rescue of the island, but there was no time to rest as Felipe II was also being plagued by a Protestant revolt in the Netherlands, this time republican as well as Calvinist, and again aided by the English. Queen Elizabeth I had found a cost-effective way of keeping Spain off-balance without risking direct confrontation by sending assistance to Protestant forces in France and Holland which tied down much of the Spanish army. There was no doubt that Felipe II was the rightful King of the area, nor that many of the leaders of the revolt were driven by greed as much as religious conviction, but as Felipe sent in more troops so did other Protestant leaders of Europe. Furthermore, the mighty Spanish fleet was constantly being harassed by English and Huguenot privateers at sea. It was a costly and frustrating struggle and the King’s heartache increased in 1568 when Felipe lost both his wife and his only son. A few years later he married again to Anne of Austria, but only one of their four children lived to adulthood.

The situation in the northwest was still not settled satisfactorily when Europe came under another attack by the Ottoman Turks, threatening to sack Rome itself and turn St Peter’s Basilica into a mosque. The combative and zealous Pope St Pius V called for a new Crusade against the Turks (even hoping in vain that Constantinople might be recovered). However, not many Catholic rulers (and certainly no Protestant rulers) shared the concerns of the Pontiff. In fact, in all of Christendom, the only major royal ruler to answer the Pope's call was King Felipe II of Spain. However, Papal Rome and the Italian states sent warships as well and the Pope called on all Catholics to pray the rosary for victory. In a dramatic and pivotal engagement off the Greek coast, the Turkish invasion was blunted at the Battle of Lepanto. The Ottoman navy would recover but would never again threaten the western Mediterranean. Still, difficulties remained in France and the low countries as traditional Catholic, royal authority was challenged by widespread rebellion. Driven by such intense beliefs, hatred soon got out of hand and massacres occurred on both sides. King Felipe achieved success in Holland thanks to his general, the Prince of Parma, one of the greatest captains of the age. Yet, just as the final victory was in sight, the English again intervened and the war went on. It is for this reason that the Low Countries became divided between the Protestant Dutch in the north and the Catholic Belgians in the south.

This, combined with other attacks at sea and on the Spanish mainland as well as the shocking execution of Mary Queen of Scots led Felipe to believe that he had no recourse to end the debilitating harassment of the English forces but to launch a full-scale invasion of England, remove the Protestant government and restore the country to Catholicism. It was for this purpose that the famous Spanish Armada was formed. King Felipe II nearly emptied his treasury and deforested Spain to launch this great invasion fleet and a great deal depended on the outcome. Many mistakes were made in the process and Spain suffered a great deal of simple misfortune in the execution of it. In the end, all of this, combined with bad weather and some talented English commanders, made the attempted invasion one of the worst defeats in Spanish history. The sea power of Spain would never fully recover, yet the response of the King to this disaster speaks very well for the man. When Felipe II heard of the defeat he asked the monks of El Escorial to sing a hymn of praise and accepted it as God's will that he bear this along with the other sufferings he had been obliged to face. He paid a great deal of money to ransom those taken prisoner and to care for the survivors. And truly, despite such a setback Felipe II never lost his determination to defend the Church and the Catholic cause in Europe. In the aftermath he sent Spanish troops from the Netherlands to the relief of the besieged Catholics in Paris and to Ireland where English forces had been crushing local rebellions.

King Felipe II of Spain died on September 14, 1598 and was buried in a humble coffin according to his previous instructions. Although he had known a great deal of hardship during his reign, and had seen many defeats, his steadfast devotion to God and his people ensured that Catholicism would be preserved in Belgium, France and Ireland where it might otherwise have been turned entirely to Protestantism. He had been instrumental in saving southern Europe from Muslim invasion at a time when the Ottoman Turks seemed virtually unstoppable. Far from being a cruel or malicious man, King Felipe II was a man who firmly stood on the principles he had been raised with; to defend the Kingdom of Spain and the Catholic Church regardless of the circumstances. This was the right as he saw it and there was no such thing, in his mind, of going too far or being too extreme in the defense of the right. He would probably not be so despised in other parts of the world had he not been so largely successful throughout his reign. He did not win every battle but he ensured that Catholic Christendom did not fall and that, while he was alive, Spain was the dominant power in Western Europe. He was a man of principle, devotion, integrity and gallantry. He is a monarch the Spanish-speaking world can be justly proud of.


  1. It's interesting how his reputation has suffered in Protestant-leaning countries. I was fortunate enough to have a European history teacher smart enough to note that the disparaging view of Philip II held by many was incorrect, and that he was a talented, exceptionally pious ruler. I think his personal success, combined with the fact that the following Spanish Habsurgs had either less ability or ambition (Philip III and Charles II) or were hampered by the decline of the not-particularly intuitively organized state (Philip IV) enabled future generations to rather easily cast Philip II as a central character in Spain's "Black Legend."

  2. I have a couple of nice books on this subject. Phillip II and also the Grand Armada, which are somewhere in the mess which passes for my flat. In these books the historians point out that although the Spanish Armada was defeated for a number reasons. The death of Admiral Recalde before it was completely asembled, the storms which forced the fleet back in 1587 and made the sailing delayed to 1588 made things problematic. It also tipped off the English about what was to happen. Nevetheless this invasion fleet was a strategic victory. Since it kept England from attacking Spain for a whole generation. A raid on Cadiz in 1621 followed by the disgraceful campaign against Cadiz in 1626. Felipe III was now the throne and Duque de Medina Sidonia hijo (son) was the commander but this is not royal history. Another source is Conde de Olivares, a statesman in the age of decline.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...