The King Who Sent the Armada


IT was evening when the grand chamberlain approached the canopied bed to deliver the physicians' verdict. King Philip had lain in agony for more than seven weeks -- parched with fever, swollen by dropsy, covered with sores, and wallowing in his own excrement because he found it too painful to be moved or touched, even for cleaning. The stench was so strong that even one of the doctors sickened. Yet the "Catholic King" had always taken comfort from his devotions; the walls of the alcove where he lay were hung with crucifixes and icons, and through the open doors to his left he could see the high altar of the Escorial, the monastery he had built to serve as his palace and tomb. Perhaps his unyielding faith had been rewarded: for the past day or so his sufferings had seemed miraculously to abate. He was alert and energetic, ordering his attendants about.

But the chamberlain brought bad news: His Majesty was rapidly failing. At once Philip sent for his clergy. Led by the Archbishop of Toledo, they read and preached to him through the night, one taking over when another tired. The dying man was indefatigable, refusing to rest; his expression was gay, and at one point he even laughed aloud. For his last hours he clutched a blessed candle in one gout-stricken hand and a crucifix in the other -- the same objects his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had grasped on his own deathbed. Before him sat the rib of a martyred saint encased in its silver reliquary. At five in the morning on September 13, 1598, as the sun rose and the seminarians of the Escorial sang the mass, Philip II of Spain died at the age of seventy-one.

King Philip and the Armada

The 400th anniversary of that event, next year, is the impetus for many commemorative volumes, of which Henry Kamen's Philip of Spain is one. There is plenty to commemorate. Philip II ruled the largest empire in history, the first on which the sun never set. He defeated the Turks at Lepanto, sent the doomed Armada against renegade England, and started the Eighty Years' War against the Dutch Calvinists. Within his own country he fervently backed the Inquisition's campaign to root out heterodoxy. His enemies and allies acknowledged him -- and he regarded himself -- as the champion of the Church under siege.

The King's labors earned him hundreds of years of bad press. In 1581 the Dutch rebel leader William of Orange wrote a tract accusing Philip of incest, sodomy, and the murder of his own son. Outside Spain, especially in Protestant countries, the King's traditional image has been of a warmongering, heretic-burning despot, averse to human company and obsessed with human remains (those of his dynasty as well as of saints). In 1856 the American historian John Lothrop Motley wrote of Philip, "If there are vices -- as possibly there are -- from which he was exempt, it is because it is not permitted to human nature to attain perfection even in evil."

In the century since Spain lost the last significant parts of its empire, the man who ruled that empire at its height has received increasingly sympathetic treatment in long-hostile quarters. Biographies from Denmark (1909) and Germany (1938) have depicted him as a caring father, an art lover, and an occasional poet. Twenty years ago the English historian Geoffrey Parker rendered a humanizing portrait of the King as revealed in his correspondence: thoughtful, courageous, but also what we would today call anal.

Now Kamen, also a Briton, offers the most favorable major assessment of Philip ever written in English. Here is no trace of the fanatic, the tyrant, or the lugubrious royal hermit -- not even of the nitpicking bureaucrat, more concerned with his secretaries' grammar than with the substance of their reports. Kamen's Philip is "a devotee of dancing, court festivities, and rites of chivalry" and an ardent lover of women and guardian of the poor -- not to mention "one of the first ecologist rulers in European history." He enforces religious conformity primarily for the sake of civil peace, and although he enjoys the occasional auto da fé, "he never [witnesses] the burnings." To reach this stage of rehabilitation has taken Philip four centuries, but that would not have seemed too long to the man who said "Time and I are a match for any two."

TIME would naturally have seemed to be Philip's ally; he descended from the oldest and greatest families of Europe. His father was the last of a type that harked back to Charlemagne: the Emperor as crusader. Charles spent most of his reign fighting the Turks in the Mediterranean, the Lutherans in Germany, and the French in Italy. In one of Titian's greatest portraits, painted after Charles's triumph over the Protestant princes at Mühlberg (1547), the Emperor appears astride a rearing horse, clad in armor and bearing a lance. Above him the cloud-streaked sky seems to signify calm after a storm. It was actually darkening again. Within a few years Charles's allies betrayed him and undid his victories in Germany. Exhausted, the Emperor abdicated at the age of fifty-five, handing over to Philip the last of his possessions except for the imperial title and the German and Central European lands that went with it; these passed to Charles's brother and to the Austrian Hapsburgs after him. Philip's legacy included Spain and its New World territories (Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and Peru), the Low Countries (latter-day Belgium and the Netherlands), and half of Italy. At the time, he was also King consort of England, but that reign would end with the death of his wife, "Bloody Mary" Tudor, in 1558.

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