Here is one of the strangest, strongest figures in history, fanatical and conscientious, hotly hated outside Spain, passionately loved within it, a challenge to any student struggling for objectivity. His ancestry was his fate: his father was Charles V, who left him a kingdom and an obligation to bigotry; his paternal grandmother was Juana la Loca, the insane daughter of Ferdinand the Catholic; mysticism and madness were in his blood, dogma and absolutism were in his heritage. His mother, Isabella of Portugal, had two other sons, both of whom died of apoplexy in their childhood; she herself died at thirty-six, when Philip was twelve. He was born at Valladolid in 1527, at the very time when his father’s troops were sacking Rome and imprisoning the Pope. He was brought up by priests and women who immersed him in piety and convinced him that the Catholic Church was the indispensable support of morality and monarchy. Whereas his father, reared in Flanders, had become a man of the world, Philip, living mostly in Spain, became, despite his fair skin and silken yellow hair, a Spaniard in face and creed, body and mind.
He had almost no youth, for at thirteen he was made governor of Milan and at sixteen regent of Spain—and this last in no merely nominal sense. Charles appointed advisers for him, explained their characters penetratingly, bade him play one councilor against another, and urged him to keep all real power and all final decisions for himself—which Philip did to the end of his days. In that year 1543 Philip married his cousin Princess Maria of Portugal; she died in 1545, shortly after presenting him with a “star-crossed” son, Don Carlos. Philip now contracted a morganatic marriage with Isabel de Osorio, by whom he had several children. His father urged him to have this union annulled; it was the obligation of every Hapsburg prince to help establish, by marriage or war, a ring of allies around the ancient enemy, France. To safeguard Spanish power in the Netherlands from English meddling, Philip should swallow his esthetic sense, marry England’s Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, and give her sons who would keep England Catholic. So in 1554 he crossed the Channel, married plain, ailing, hopeful Mary (eleven years older than himself), did his best to make her pregnant, failed, and departed (1555) to become governor of the Netherlands.
Year by year his responsibilities grew. In 1554 he had been made governor of the double kingdom of Naples and Sicily. In 1556 Charles resigned to him the crown of Spain. For four years Philip ruled his scattered realms from Brussels. He struggled to adjust his Spanish solemnity to Flemish jollity and Dutch finance. He had no taste for war, but his generals won for him, at St.-Quentin (1557), a battle that induced the French to sign the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. To establish some friendship with France Philip married Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Médicis. Then, thinking matters stabilized, he bade farewell to the Netherlands, and sailed from Ghent (August 1559) to immure himself for the rest of his life in Spain.
He transferred the capital from Toledo to Madrid (1560), and soon afterward, loving solitude, and ill at ease in crowds, he commissioned Juan Bautista and Juan de Herrera to build for him, twenty-seven miles northwest of Madrid, an architectural ensemble including a royal palace, an administrative center, a college, a seminary, a monastery, a church, and a mausoleum—for Philip was now as religious as politics would permit. In the battle of St.-Quentin his cannon had demolished a church dedicated to St. Lawrence; in repentance of this sacrilege, and in gratitude for his victory, he had vowed to raise a shrine to the saint in Spain. So he named the vast assemblage of structures El Sitio Real de San Lorenzo—the royal seat of St. Lawrence; time, however, has christened it Escorial, from a town nearby, which itself took its name from the scoriae, or slag, of the local iron mines.10 As St. Lawrence was believed to have been burned to death on an iron grill, Juan Bautista designed the ground plan as a gridiron crisscrossed by halls from side to side, dividing the inner space into sixteen courts.
Driving out to it from Madrid, one wonders how, in an age with no faster communication than horses’ feet, Philip could have governed his global realm from such a sanctuary, lost in gloomy hills; but Madrid was still farther remote from the world. The great pile is left desolate today except for the monks and their services; but in its prime, with its Renaissance façade 744 feet long, its towers and spires, and the massive dome of the church, it served as an awesome symbol of Spanish power, garnished with piety and art. Here half of Christendom was ruled; religion and government were united in one labyrinth of policy and stone; here the King could live, as he longed to do, not among courtiers but among priests and monks and saintly relics, and hearing many times a day the bells of the Mass. Here the Panteón was to receive the remains of Spain’s kings and queens; the library was to become one of the richest in Europe; the picture gallery would soon harbor masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, El Greco, and Velazquez; here Pellegrino Tibaldi, Bartolommeo Carducci, and Federigo Zuccaro came from Italy to join Juan Fernández Navarrete, Luis de Morales, Luis de Carbajal, and other Spanish artists in frescoing the endless walls and vaults. The royal palace was left entirely simple, but the church, though of sternly Doric order, had an altar gleaming with porphyry, agate, and gold, and backed with a retablo elaborate in its ornament. The hall for the reception of dignitaries was vast and ornate, but Philip’s own room was the poorest chamber in the building, as modest as a hermit’s cell.11 The building symbolized Philip’s power, the room expressed his character.
He tried hard to be a saint, but could not forget that he was a king. He knew that he was the mightiest ruler on earth and felt a politic obligation to hauteur; but he dressed so simply that some strangers, coming upon him in the Escorial, mistook him for an attendant and allowed him to be their cicerone.12 His protrusive Hapsburg chin should have betrayed him, for it was an outstanding challenge to the world. In 1559, before time and trials had hardened him, he was described by a Venetian ambassador as “always showing such gentleness and humanity as no prince could surpass,”13 and an English ambassador reported him (1563) as “of good disposition, soft nature, and given to tranquillity.”14 No one found any public humor in him; heartless enemies said that in all his life he had smiled only once—on hearing of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; privately, however, he relished pranks and jests and laughed heartily enough.15 He collected books with taste and zeal, but preferred art to literature; he was a discriminating patron of Titian and critic of El Greco; he loved music and played the guitar when the world was not looking. He had all the Spanish courtesy of manners, but was awkward with shyness and stiffened with ceremony. He made a handsome figure till his penchant for pastry and sweets crippled him with gout. From his youth he was subject to ill health, and if he rounded out his threescore years and ten it was only by an obstinate resolve to complete his tasks. He took government as a sacred duty, and labored at it day after day for fifty years. He seems really to have believed that God had chosen him to stem the Protestant tide; hence his grim tenacity and his reluctant cruelty; “he had no natural preference for violent courses.”16 He never forgot a favor (Egmont’s case excepted) or an injury. He was sometimes vengeful, often magnanimous. He distributed alms with conscientious generosity.17 In a corrupt age he was incorruptible; no bribe or gift could bend him from his pious persecutions.
In political morality he compared well enough with his contemporaries. He hated war, never began one, and bore almost a full generation of injuries from England before commissioning the Armada. He was capable, even beyond most rulers, of sanctimonious dissimulation. Apparently he joined in a conspiracy to kill Elizabeth, as a last resort to save Mary Stuart.18 His government of Spain was autocratic but just. He “had an immense solicitude for his subjects, and remedied whatever social injustices he could find time to discover.”19
His private morals were above those of most sixteenth-century kings. In his youth at Brussels, if we may believe his enemies, “he was grossly licentious,” and “it was his chief amusement to issue forth at night disguised, that he might indulge in vulgar and miscellaneous incontinence in the common haunts of vice.”20 Years later William of Orange, leading the Netherlands revolt, accused the hermit of the Escorial of having murdered his own son and poisoned his third wife;21 but an indignant man makes a poor historian. However, an unquestionably great and brave historian, the Spanish Jesuit Mariana, renders a like hostile verdict: while crediting Philip with “liberality, resolution, vigilancy, and abstemiousness in eating and drinking,” he charged him with “lust, cruelty, pride, perfidy, and several other vices.”22 A recent Dutch historian concludes, “Philip II could not be reproached with wantonness … dissipation and immorality … After his return to Spain he led, so far as we know, an austerely moral life”23 as a faithful husband and a solicitous father. When his third wife, Elizabeth of Valois, fell ill of smallpox (then often fatal), Philip seldom left her side, though his ministers pleaded with him not to run such risk of infection. After Elizabeth’s death Philip undertook another diplomatic marriage (1570), with one of many Annes of Austria; Anne died in 1580, and thereafter Philip spent his warm domestic affections upon his daughters. His letters to them are human with humor and love.24 Isabel Clara became his closest companion and his chief solace amid the cares and defeats of old age. In his will he called her the light of his eyes. He had no comfort in his sons.
Legend and literatureI and human pity have made Philip’s first son better known than his father. Carlos was constitutionally weak, subject to intermittent fever, melancholy, and outbursts of temper and pride. He was prodigally generous and fiercely brave; he amused his grandfather, the once great Charles V, by reproaching him for having fled from Maurice of Saxony at Innsbruck (1552)—”I never would have fled!”25 In the preliminaries to the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis Carlos, then fourteen, had been promised in marriage to Elizabeth of Valois; but in the treaty itself Philip, widowed by the death of Mary Tudor, took the Princess as his own wife, to divert French friendship from England to Spain. A year later (1560) the bride came to Madrid; Carlos, seeing her demure beauty, may have resented his father’s variation of the droit du seigneur, but there is no evidence of any romance between him and the fourteen-year-old Queen.26
Despite Carlos’ illness, he was formally recognized as heir to the crown. In 1561 he was sent to the University of Alcalá. There he fell down a flight of stairs while in amorous pursuit of a girl, fractured his skull, and fell into delirium. The great Vesalius trepanned the cranium and so saved the boy’s life; but the improvement was ascribed by the people to the bones of a holy Franciscan friar—dead a century before—which had been taken from their coffin and laid in bed beside the Prince. During the youth’s long convalescence Philip remained in Alcalá and spent much time at the bedside. Carlos was taken back to Madrid, where he regained sufficient strength to join young nobles in street violence against men and women. His tempestuous cruelties encouraged suspicion that his fall had irrevocably injured his brain. It did not help him with Philip that he expressed sympathy with the Netherland rebels. When Alva was appointed to command in the Low Countries, Carlos protested that the mission should have been assigned to him; he forbade Alva to go, and attacked him with drawn dagger when the Duke insisted.27 Apparently the Prince thought for a time of fleeing to the Netherlands and putting himself at the head of the revolt.28 Philip commissioned unwilling ministers to watch him. Carlos made plans to escape, sent out agents to collect funds, amassed 150,000 ducats, and ordered eight horses for his flight (January 1568). He confided his plan to Don Juan of Austria, who revealed it to the King. Fearing that his son, if allowed to leave Spain, would be used by Elizabeth of England or William of Orange as a contender to depose him, Philip ordered a stricter watch over the Prince. Carlos threatened suicide; Philip deprived him of all weapons and confined him in the royal palace at Madrid.
Thus far Philip’s conduct admitted of defense; but now bigotry intensified the tragedy. Suspecting his son of heresy, the King ordered that no books should be allowed him but a breviary and some manuals of devotion. Carlos spurned the books and neglected all religious observances. A priest warned him that the Inquisition might be led to inquire whether he was a Christian. Carlos tried to kill himself, but was prevented; however, he accomplished his purpose by rejecting all food for three days, then gorging himself with meat and ice water. A severe dysentery set in; the Prince welcomed death, accepted the last sacrament, forgave his father, and died, aged twenty-three (July 24, 1568). Antonio Pérez, Philip’s exiled enemy, accused him of having poisoned Carlos; most of Europe believed it, research has disproved it.II But the severity of the youth’s imprisonment stands as one of many dark spots on the record of the King.
His conduct toward his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, casts another shadow over the picture. The natural son of Charles V and Barbara Blomberg seems to have excited in Philip an admiration troubled with jealousy. Nevertheless he raised Juan to the rank of prince, and commissioned him to organize an expedition against the pirates of Algeria. Juan acquitted himself brilliantly. Philip gave him command of the land forces against the rebel Moriscos of Granada; Juan accomplished his mission with no time or mercy wasted. Philip appointed him—aged twenty-four—admiral in chief of the combined navies in the “last crusade”; Juan defeated the Turks at Lepanto and became the hero of Christendom. He felt that he deserved a kingdom, and he fretted when Philip made him merely governor general of the Netherlands.
The silent King, always too proud to explain or defend himself in the forum of public opinion, received the full blame for another tragedy. He had raised to his Council a clever and elegant commoner, Antonio Pérez, who was believed to be the natural son of Philip’s most trusted friend, Ruy Gómez, Prince of Eboli. When Gómez died (1573), Pérez became the confidant—probably the lover29—of the doubly intriguing widow, Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli. Philip himself was said to have had a liaison with this one-eyed beauty eleven years before, but here “history” is probably romancing.30 Pérez conspired with her to profit from their knowledge of state secrets. When Juan de Escobedo threatened to reveal their dubious trafficking, Pérez persuaded Philip that Escobedo had plotted treason, and the King gave Pérez an order for Juan’s assassination. Pérez kept the order to himself for six months; then, to Philip’s surprise and embarrassment, he had it carried out (1578). A year later the secret papers of Don Juan of Austria convinced Philip of Escobedo’s innocence. He arrested Pérez and confined the Princess to her palace. Pérez confessed under torture and agreed to restore 12,000,000 maravedis to the treasury. With the help of his wife he escaped to Aragon, where the Inquisition, at Philip’s urging, pursued him as a heretic. He fled to France, ascribed his persecution to the King’s lingering passion for La Eboli, betrayed Spain’s military and financial weaknesses to the French and English governments, and spurred Essex to raid Spanish ships and coasts. He died in Paris in 1611, after vain attempts to win pardon and asylum from Philip III.31
Philip found good reason for following the advice that his father had given him not to trust his aides. The grandees, like the French nobles, were jealous of the royal power, and were not above conspiring against the King. He kept them at odds among themselves, played them against one another, received summaries of their rival views, and made his own decisions. Losing faith in his subordinates, he labored personally on details of administration in every field—papal policy, public works, local abuses, roads and bridges, dredging rivers for navigation, establishing libraries, reforming and codifying Spanish law, and directing an extensive geographical, historical, and statistical survey of Spain, whose fifteen folio volumes are still unpublished.32 Undertaking more than even his industry could manage, he fell into a philosophy of procrastination; many problems, he noted, lost urgency or meaning if resolutely deferred; in several cases, however, as in the Netherlands, the course of events decided against him while he weighed or pigeonholed pros and cons. In his royal cubicle he dictated or wrote with his own hand instructions for his appointees in five continents. He assumed that kingly power should be absolute; he ignored or overrode the cortes, or provincial assemblies, except in Aragon; he issued decrees, even of death, without public trial; and he comforted his autocracy with the conviction that only so could he protect the poor against the rich.33 Within his despotism he built up, in a Europe almost universally corrupt, a bureaucracy and a judiciary comparatively competent and just.34
He respected the Church as the traditional molder of morals and guardian of kings, but he kept religion as subject to the state in Spain as Henry VIII or Elizabeth I in England. He placed so high a value on religious unity as an organ of government that he counted it “better not to reign at all than to reign over heretics.”35 Convinced that the Moriscos, while pretending Catholicism, were still practicing the Islamic ritual, he issued (1567) a pragmatica forbidding all Moorish customs, the use of the Arabic language, and the possession of Arabic books. The Moriscos rose in revolt (1568), captured a large region south of Granada, massacred Christians, tortured priests, and sold women and children into Berber slavery in exchange for powder and guns. The rebellion was suppressed after two years of competitive atrocities. All Moriscos were expelled from the province of Granada and were scattered among Christian communities in Castile; their children were placed in Christian homes, and school attendance was made compulsory for all children—the first such requirement in Europe.36 Philip, at war with the Turks, suspected the Moriscos remaining in Valencia and Catalonia of plotting with the enemy, but his hands were so full that he left the final stage of the problem to his successor.
His father had bequeathed to him the defense of Christendom against Islam as a major part of Hapsburg policy. In 1570 he joined with Venice and the papacy in a crusade to end the Turkish mastery of the Mediterranean. Cyprus fell to the Turks while Philip formulated plans and the three allies assembled a fleet. By the summer of 1571 they had collected at Messina 208 galleys, 50,000 seamen, and 29,000 soldiers; a crucifix was at every prow, banners were blessed, prayers rose en masse to the sky, and the inspiring young Admiral issued the crusading call: “Christ is your general, you fight the battle of the Cross.” On September 16, 1571, the fleet sailed off to a victory that ended Turkish predominance in the Mediterranean. As Spain had furnished more than her share of ships and men, the glamour of Lepanto fell upon Don Juan and the King, and Philip neared the crest of his curve. The zenith came when he fell heir to the throne of Portugal (1580) and added that strategic land to his swelling realm.
His abiding grief was the revolt in the Netherlands. He learned with wrath that Coligny, the Protestant leader, had almost convinced Charles IX that France should ally itself with the rebels. When news came that Charles had let loose the Massacre of St. Bartholomew upon the Huguenots, Philip rejoiced, and he hardened his heart against the Netherlands. He urged and paid for the assassination of William of Orange. He tried to buy the friendship of Henry of Navarre, but Henry proved unpurchasable. So Philip bought the Guises and the Catholic League, and dreamed of making his daughter the queen of France; then Spain and France, joining forces, would subdue the Netherlands, make Mary Stuart queen of England, and end Protestantism everywhere. When Elizabeth sent aid to Holland (1585) and Mary to her death (1587), Philip, after years of bearing with politic patience the harrying of Spanish vessels, coasts, and treasure by Elizabeth’s privateers, turned to war and bankrupted his government to finance the Armada. All Spain supported the effort and prayed for victory, feeling that the fate of that fleet would determine the history of Europe.
Philip took the ignominious catastrophe with outward stoicism, saying that he had sent the ships to fight men, not winds. But it broke his spirit and almost broke Spain, though he survived and fought through ten years more and Spain took a century to admit her ruin. He could hardly believe that God had abandoned him after thirty years of fighting for the faith; yet the dark truth must have come to him at last that after taxing his people into poverty he had failed in everything except the accidental acquisition of Portugal and the temporary repulse of the Turks—who had recaptured Tunis and were recovering power. Henry IV was moving to victory in France; the Netherlands were in irreconcilable revolt; the Pope refused to bear a penny of the Armada’s cost; Protestantism held the prosperous north; England was taking control of the seas, therefore soon of America and the East; and that incredible virago, Elizabeth, was sitting triumphant on her moated throne, having outwitted all the kings of her time.
Bereavements, isolation, and disease joined to humble the once proud and confident King. His fourth wife had died in 1580; of the three children that she had borne him only one survived, a mediocre lad to whom must be transmitted the first empire upon which the sun never set. The people still reverenced Philip, despite his errors and defeats; they were convinced that he had labored in a sacred cause and had played the game of power no more unscrupulously than his enemies, and they bore without reproach the misery into which his economic policies, his taxation, and his failures had depressed them. In his old age his father’s last bequest, gout, racked his limbs with pain and crippled him with paralysis; one eye had gone bad with a cataract; repulsive sores mangled his skin. In June 1598 he was borne in a litter to the Escorial, into that favorite room through whose window he could see the high altar of the church. For fifty-three days he lay rotting, bearing all in the trust that these were God’s tests of his faith, keeping that faith to the awful end, clutching and kissing a crucifix, and repeating, repeating prayers. He ordered the release of some prisoners as a final act of mercy. He sent for his son, counseled him always to be merciful and just, and bade him see the humbling finale of earthly power. His sufferings ended on September 13, 1598.
He had done the best he could with an intelligence too cramped by education, too narrow for his empire, too inflexible for his diverse responsibilities. We cannot know that his faith was false; we only feel that it was bigoted and cruel, like almost all the faiths of the age, and that it darkened his mind and his people while it consoled their poverty and supported his pride. But he was not the ogre that the fervent pens of his foes have pictured. He was as just and generous, within his lights, as any ruler of his century except Henry IV. He was decent in his married life, loving and loved in his family, patient under provocation, brave in adversity, conscientious in toil. He paid to the full for his rich and damning heritage.