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.
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.
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.
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.
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.