A History of Philip the Second, King of Spain


By WILLIAM H. PRESCOTT. Vol. III. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, & Co. 1858.

A CORDIAL welcome from many quarters will greet this third instalment of a work which promises, when completed, to be the most valuable contribution to European history ever made by an American scholar. This will in part be owing to the importance of the subject, which, though professing to be the history of a single country and a single reign, is in fact the great program of the politics of Christendom, and of more than Christendom, during a period when the struggles of rival powers and of hostile principles and creeds kept the world in agitation and prolonged suspense,—when Romanism and Reform, the Crescent and the Cross, despotic power and constitutional freedom, were contending for mastery, and no government or nation could stand wholly aloof from a contest in which the fate, not of empires alone, but of civilization, was involved. Spain, during that period, was the bulwark of the Church against the attacks of the Reformers, and the bulwark of Christendom against the attacks of the Moslem. The power of Spain towered high above that of every other monarchy ; and this power was wielded with absolute authority by the king. The Spanish nation was united and animated by an intense, unwavering devotion to the ancient faith, which was entwined with all the roots of the national life,—which was Spanish, in fact, far more than it was Italian; and of this spirit Philip the Second was the fitting representative, not merely from his position, but from his education, his intellect, and his character. Therefore it is that the historian of this single country and this single reign, standing upon a central eminence, must survey and depict the whole vast field of which we have spoken.

The materials for such a survey are abundant. But down to a very recent period, the most valuable and authentic portion of them — letters of the actors, records, written not from hearsay, but from personal knowledge, documents of various kinds, private and official, that fill up the hiatuses, correct the conjectures, establish the credibility, and give a fresh meaning to the relations of the earlier writers — were neglected or concealed, inaccessible, unexplored, all but unknown. Now these hidden sources have been revealed. A flood of light streams back upon that bygone age, filling every obscure nook, making legible and plain what before could neither be read nor understood. Or rather, the effect is such as when distant objects, seen dimly and confusedly with the naked eye, are brought within the range of a powerful telescope, which dissolves the seeming masses, and enables us to scrutinize each separate form.

Glance for a moment through this instrument, so adjusted as to bear upon a figure not undeserving of a closer study. Night has fallen on the bleak and sombre scenery of the Sierra Gundarrama. The gray outlines of the Escorial are scarcely distinguishable from those of the dusky hills amid which it stands. No light is thrown forth from its eleven thousand windows, save in this retreating angle formed by the junction of the palace with the convent, or — to speak according to the architect’s symbolical design—of the “handle” with the “gridiron.” The apartment from which this feeble ray emerges is of small size,—not more than sixteen feet square,—but having on two sides arched recesses that somewhat increase its capacity. One of these alcoves contains a bed, and a door opening into an adjoining oratory, which has immediate communication with the chancel of the great church, so that an occupant of the bed might, if supported in a sitting posture, have a view of the high altar and witness the elevation of the host. This alcove is decked with many little images of saints, which, with a lew small pictures, of rare beauty,—the subjects all of a religious character,—and two cabinets of a curious, agate-colored marble, a product of the New World,— are the only ornaments that relieve the extreme simplicity of the apartment, with its plain white walls and floor of brick. The other alcove is occupied by a writing-table, where sits, intent on the employment that consumes by far the greater portion of his time, the potent monarch of Spain, the “ most pious and most prudent Philip the Second. A drowsy secretary, who waits for the completion of the document which he is to copy, is his only attendant.

Does it not seem strange that ambassadors and nuncios should become confused and lose all recollection of the addresses they had committed to memory, in the presence of a prince whose exterior so ill accords with the grandeur of his titles and the vastness of his power? His form is below the middle height and very slender, the limbs having even an attenuated look. The whole appearance is that of a man of delicate and even feeble organization. The blonde complexion, the pale blue eyes, and the light sandy hue— save where they are prematurely touched with gray—of the hair, moustache, and short, pointed beard, all indicate the Flemish origin of one who would fain be regarded as “wholly a Spaniard.” The protruding under-jaw is another proof of his descent from the Burgundian rulers of the Netherlands. The expression of the countenance, as we find on a closer inspection, is not so easy to define. There is no variable play of light and shade upon the features, no settled look of joy or sorrow, no trace of anger or of weariness. Is it because the subject with which his pen is busied is too unimportant to call forth any emotion in the writer? It may be a mere matter of routine, connected with the regular business of his household or the ordinary affairs of state. But if it be an answer to the dispatch from Flanders giving information of the outburst of iconoclasm and rebellion, or a subtly-conceived plan for the secret execution of Montigny or the assassination of Escovedo, or an order for the imprisonment—or the death—of the heir-apparent to the throne, you shall perceive nothing in that face, unruffled as a mask, by which to conjecture the sentiment or purpose of the mind. As little will he in the presence of others exhibit any signs of agitation on the reception of extraordinary news or the occurrence of some great event. The fleet which he sent out under his brother, John of Austria, in conjunction with the Papal and Venetian armaments, to decide by a single blow the long struggle with the Infidel,—all Europe awaiting the issue with trembling anxiety and suspense,—has won a memorable and unexpected victory and destroyed forever the prestige of the Moslem power. An official, bursting with the intelligence, carries it to the king, who is hearing a service in his private chapel. Without the slightest change of countenance, Philip desires the priest, whose ear the thrilling whisper has reached, and who stands open-mouthed, prepared to burst forth at once into the Te Denm, to proceed with the service; that ended, he orders appropriate thanks to be offered up.

As in triumph, so in disaster. The armada, which had been baptized “Invincible,” is destroyed. The great navy collected from many states, equipped at the cost of an enormous treasure, manned with the choicest troops of Spain and her subject dominions, lies scattered and wrecked along the English shores, which it was sent forth to conquer. Again the sympathies of Europe are excited to the highest pitch. Protestantism triumphs; Catholicism despairs. He who had most at stake alone preserves his calmness, on hearing that all is lost. He neither frowns upon his unfortunate generals nor murmurs against Providence. Again he orders thanks to be offered up, for those who have been rescued from the general ruin,—for those, also, who in this holy enterprise have lost their lives and gained eternal glory.

Neither does any private grief—the death of children, of a parent, or of a wife—move him either to real or simulated agitation.1 Nor will intense physical suffering overpower this habitual stoicism. He has seen unmoved the agony of many victims. He will himself endure the like without any outward manifestation of pain, in yonder bed he will one day suffer tortures surpassing those to which he has so often consigned the heretic and the apostate Morisco ; there he will expire amid horrors that scarce ever before encompassed a death-bed;—but no groan will reveal the weakness of the flesh; the soul, triumphant over nature, will bear aloft her colors to the last, and plant them on the breach through which she passes into the unknown eternity.

But while we have been thus discoursing, the king has finished his long dispatch, and now hands it to the secretary. The latter, having vainly struggled with his sleepiness, has at length begun to nod. Hearing his name pronounced, he starts to his feet, takes the document, which is not yet dry, to sand it, and, desirous to show by his alertness that he has been all the time wide awake, empties over it—the contents of the inkstand! Awkward individual !—there he stands, dumfounded and aghast. His master quietly resumes his scat, procures fresh materials, and, though it is long past midnight, begins his task anew with that incomparable patience which is “ his virtue.”

The perfect equanimity on all occasions, which was the trait in Philip's character that most impressed such of his contemporaries as were neither his adherents nor his enemies,—for example, the Venetian envoys at his court,—was not produced by a single stroke of Nature’s pencil, but had a three-fold origin. In the education which, from his earliest years, had prepared him for the business of reigning, the alpha and the omega of every lesson had been the word “dissimulation.” Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare. By this maxim it was not intended—at least, openly or cynically—to impress on youthful royalty the duty and propriety of lying. All it professed to inculcate was the necessity of wearing an habitual veil before the mind, through which no thought or feeling should ever be discernible. Every politician, in the sixteenth century, had learned that lesson. William of Orange, the best and purest statesman of the age, was the greatest of all masters in the art of dissimulation. In vain might Granvelle strive to pry into that bosom, to learn whether its designs were friendly or hostile to the plans of tyranny. Not till it was extorted by events could the secret be discovered.

In the second place, Philip, as a Spaniard, and one whose manners were to furnish a model for the Spanish court, had, of course, been trained to that demeanor which was regarded in Spain as the distinctive mark of high breeding. “All the nobles of this court,” writes an Italian contemporary, “ though amazingly ignorant and unlettered, maintain a certain haughty tranquillity of manner which they term sosiego.” Foreigners found it difficult to define a quality which differed as much from the composure and selfpossession everywhere characteristic of the gentleman as Spartan endurance or Stoical apathy from ordinary fortitude or self-control. It was a glacier-like repose, incrusting a mountain of pride. The beams, that gilded, might not thaw it; the storm did but harden and extend it. It yielded only to the inner fires of arrogance and passion, bursting through, at times, with irrepressible fury.

These occasional outbreaks were never witnessed in Philip.2 He was exempted from them by the third element which we proposed to notice, and which, as nature takes precedence of habit, ought perhaps to have been the first. A Spaniard by birth and education, a Spaniard in his sympathies and in his tastes, he had inherited, nevertheless, some of the peculiarities, intellectual as well as moral, of the other race to which by his origin, and, as we have already said, by his physical characteristics, he belonged. He had none of the more pleasing qualities of the Netherlander; but he had the sluggish temper, the slow but laborious mind. “He is phlegmatic as well from natural disposition as from will,” remarks an Italian contemporary. “This king,” says another Venetian minister, “is absolutely free from every kind of passion.” The word "passion" is here used in a strict, if not the most correct sense. Philip could, perhaps, love ; that he could hate is what no one has ever ventured to dispute; but never did either feeling, strong, persistent, indestructible, though it might be, rise in turbulent waves around his soul. In religion he was a bigot,«—not a fanatic. “The tranquillity of my dominions and the security of my crown,” he said, “rest on an unqualified submission in all essential points to the authority of the Holy See.” In the same deliberate and impressive style, not in that of a wild and reckless frenzy, is his famous saying, “ Better not to reign at all than to reign over heretics.” His course in all matters of government was in conformity with the only chart by which he had been taught to steer. He boasted that he was no innovator,—that he did but tread in the footsteps of his father. Nor, though he ever kept his object steadily in view, did he press towards it with undue haste. He was content that time should smooth away the difficulties in his path. “ Time and myself against any other two” was not the maxim of a man who looked to effect great changes or who felt himself in danger of being driven from his course by the gusts of passion.

To a person of this character it mattered little, as far as the essentials of existence were concerned, whether his life were passed upon a throne or at an attorney's desk. In the latter situation, his fondness for using the pen would well have qualified him for the drudgery, his admirable patience would have been sufficiently exercised, and the mischief he was able to do would have been on a more contracted scale. On the throne, his labors, as his admirers tell us, were those of “ a poor clerk earning his bread,” while his recreations were those of a Jeronymite monk. His intercourse with mankind was limited to the narrowest range of which his position would allow. Even with his ministers he preferred to communicate in writing. When he went abroad, it was in a carriage so constructed as to screen him entirely from view, and to shut out the world from his observation. He always entered Madrid after nightfall, and reached his palace by streets that were the least frequented. He had an equally strong aversion to bodily exercise. Such was his love of quiet and seclusion, that it was commonly believed he waited only for a favorable opportunity to follow the example of his father, resign his power and withdraw to a convent.3

In the volume before us are two chapters devoted to the character and personal habits of Philip, a picture of his court, his method of transacting business, his chief advisers, the machinery of his government, and his relations with his subjects. As usually happens, it is in details of a personal and biographical kind that the author’s investigations have been the most productive of new discoveries. It is a question with some minds, whether such details are properly admitted into history. The new luminary of moral and political science, the Verulam of the nineteenth century, Mr. Henry Buckle, tells us that biography forms no part of history, that individual character has little or no effect in determining the course of the world’s affairs, and that the historian’s proper business is to exhibit those general laws, discoverable by a strictly scientific process of investigation, which act with controlling power upon human conduct and govern the destinies of our race. We readily admit that the discovery of such laws would exceed in importance every other having relation to man’s present sphere of existence ; and we heartily wish that Mr. Buckle had made as near an approach to the discovery as he confidently believes himself to have done. But even had he, instead of crude theories, unwarranted assumptions, and a most lively but fallacious train of reasoning, presented us with a grand and solid philosophical work, a true Novum Organon, he would still have left the department of literature which he has so violently assailed in full possession of its present field. Our curiosity in regard to the character and habits of the men who have played conspicuous parts on the stage of history would have been not a whit diminished. The interest which men feel in the study of human character is, perhaps, the most common feeling that induces them to read at all. It is to gratify that feeding that the great majority of books are written. The mutual influences of mind upon mind—not the influences of climate, food, the “ aspects of Nature,” thunder-storms, earthquakes, and statistics—form, and will ever form, the great staple of literature. Mr. Buckle’s own book would not have been half so entertaining as it is, if he had not, with the most natural inconsistency, plentifully besprinkled his pages with biographical details, some of which are not incorrect. Lord Macaulay, whom Mr. Buckle is unable to eulogize with sufficient vehemence without a ludicrous as well as irreverent application of Scriptural language, is of all writers the most profuse in the description of individual peculiarities, neatly doing up each separate man in a separate parcel with an appropriate label, and dismissing half his personages, like “ ticket-of-leave men, with a “ character,” and nothing more.

In truth, while the office of the speculative philosopher is to explore the principles that have the widest operation in the revolutions of society, the office of the historian is to represent society as it actually exists at any given period in all its various phenomena. The science of history has been first invented—at least, he tells us so—by Mr. Buckle. The art of history is older than Herodotus, older than Moses, older than printed language. It is based, like every other art, on certain truths, general and special, principles and facts ; its process, like that of every other art, is the Imagination, the creative principle of genius, using these truths as its rules and its materials, working by them and upon them, applying and idealizing them. That there is such a thing as historical art has also, we know, been disputed. It is one of the exceedingly strong convictions— he will not allow us to call them opinions —entertained by the distinguished author of “Modern Painters,” and expressed by him in a lecture delivered at Edinburgh, that past ages are to be studied only in the records which they have themselves left,— letters, contemporary memoirs, and the like sources. Works built upon these he calls “ restorations,” weak and servile copies, from which the spirit of the original has fled. He accordingly advises every one who would make himself really acquainted with the manners and events of a former period to go at once to the fountain-head and learn what that period said for itself in its own dialect and style. It might be sufficient mildly to warn any person who thinks of adopting this advice, that, unless the field of his intended researches be very limited, or the amount of time which he proposes to devote to the study very great, the result can scarcely be of a satisfactory nature. But there is another answer to Mr. Ruskin, which has more force when addressed to one so renowned as a critic and exponent of Art. The eye of Genius seizes what escapes ordinary observation. The province of Art is to reveal Nature, to elucidate her obscurities, to present her, not otherwise than as she is, but more truthfully and more completely than she appears to the common eye. Of what use were landscapepainting, if it did not teach us how to look for beauty in the real landscape ? Who has not seen in a good portrait an expression which he then for the first time recognized as that which best represented the character of the original? When we applaud the personations of a great actor, we exclaim, as the highest praise, “ How true to Nature!” We must, therefore, have seen before the look and gesture, and heard the tone, which we thus acknowledge as appropriate to the passion and the scene. And yet they had never stamped themselves upon our minds, when witnessed in actual life, from which the actor himself had copied them, with half that force and vividness which they receive from his delineation. In like manner, the historian—one to whom history is a genuine vocation—applies to the facts with which he has to deal, to the evidence which he has to sift, to the relations which he has to peruse, a faculty which shall detect a meaning where the common reader would find none,—which shall conceive a whole picture, a complete view, where another would see but fragments,—which shall combine and reproduce in one distinct and living image the relics of a past age, which he broken, scattered, and buried beneath the mounds of time. Such a work has Niebuhr performed for early Roman history, and Michelet for the confused epochs of mediæval France. The spirit, instead of escaping in the process, was for the first time made visible. The historian did not merely anatomize the body of the Past, but with magic power summoned up its ghost.

It cannot he said that the claims of history have ever been disallowed by the reading public. There is, indeed, no class of literature so secure of receiving the attention which it demands. While the novelist modestly confines himself to a brace of spare duodecimos, and, if his story be somewhat extended, endeavors to conceal its length in the smallness of the print, the historian unblushingly presents himself with three, six, a dozen, nay, if he be a Frenchman or a German, with forty huge tomes, and is more often taken to task for his omissions than censured for the fulness of his narrative. It is respectable to buy bis volumes, and respectable to read them. We don’t put them away in corners, but give them the most conspicuous places on our shelves. Strange to say, that kind of reading to which we were once driven as to a task, which our fathers thought must he useful because it was so dull, has of late outstripped every other branch in its attractiveness to the mass. Nobody yawns over Carlyle ; people set upon Macaulay as if quite unconscious that they were .about to be led into the labyrinths of Whig and Tory politics ; and gentlemen whirled along in railway-cars bend over the pages of Prescott, and pronounce them as fascinating as any romance.

Stranger still, these modern historians excel their predecessors as much in learning and depth of research as in dramatic power, artistic arrangement and construction, and beauty and picturesqueness of style. Compare the meagre array of references in the foot-notes of Watson’s “ History of Philip the Second ” with the multitude of authorities cited by Mr. Prescott. It may be doubted, whether any printed book, however rare or little known, which could throw the least glimmer of light upon his subject, has been overlooked or neglected by the last-mentioned author; while thousands of manuscript pages, gathered from libraries and collections in almost every part of Europe, have furnished him with some of his most curious particulars and enabled him to clear up the mystery that shrouded many portions of the subject.

We shall not attempt to determine the exact place that ought to be assigned in an illusirious brotherhood to our American historian. The country is justly proud of him, as one whose name is a household word in many lands,—who has done more, perhaps, than any other of her living writers, with the exception of Washington Irving, to obtain for a still youthful literature the regard and attention of the world, —who has helped to accomplish the prediction of Horace Walpole, that there would one day be “a Thucydides at Boston and a Xenophon at New York”; a prediction which seemed so fanciful, at the time it was made, (less than two years before the declaration of Independence,) that the prophet was fain to link its fulfilment with the contemporaneous visit of a South American traveller to the deserted ruins of London.4 His writings have won favor with hosts of readers, and they have received the homage of learned and profound inquirers, like Humboldt and Guizot. They have merits that are recognizable at a glance, and they have also merits that will hear the closest examination. They occupy a field in which they have no compeers. They are the products of a fertile soil and of laborious cultivation. The mere literary critic, accustomed to dwell with even more attention on the form than on the substance of a work, commends above all the admirable skill shown in the selection and grouping of the incidents, the facile hand with which an obscure and entangled theme is divested of its embarrassments, the frequent brilliancy and picturesqueness of the narrative, the judicious mixture of anecdote and reflection, and the harmony and clearness of the style. These are the qualities which make Mr. Prescott’s histories, with all their solid learning and minute research, as pleasant reading as the airiest of novels. And yet not these alone. A charm is felt in many a sentence that has a deeper origin than in the intellect. No egotism obtrudes itself upon our notice; but the subtile outflow of a generous and candid spirit, of a genial and singularly healthy nature, wins for the author a secure place in the affections of his readers.

The third volume of the “History of Philip the Second” is, we think, superior to its predecessors. It contains, perhaps, no single scene equal in elaborate and careful painting to the death of Count Egmont. It has no chapter devoted to the elucidation of the darker passages in Philip’s personal history, like that which in a former volume traced to a still doubtful end the unhappy career of Don Carlos, or such as will doubtless, in a future volume, shed new light on that of Antonio Perez. But there is a more continuous interest, arising from a greater unity of subject. With the exception of the two chapters already referred to, the narrative is taken up with the contest waged by the Spaniards against those Moslem foes whom they hated with the hereditary hate of centuries, the mingled hate that had grown out of diversity of religion, an alien blood, and long arrears of vengeance. When that contest was waged upon the sea or on a foreign soil, it was at least mitigated by the ordinary rules of warfare. But on Spanish soil it knew no restraint, no limitation but the complete effacement of the Moorish population. The story of the Morisco Rebellion, which we remember to have first read with absorbed attention in Dunham’s meagre sketch, is here related with a fulness of detail that exhausts the subject, and leaves the mind informed both of causes and results. Yet the march of the narrative is rapid and unchecked, from the first outbreak of the revolt, when Aben-Farax, with a handful of followers, facing the darkness of night and the blinding snow, penetrated into the streets of Granada, shouting the cry so long unheard in air that had once been so familiar with its sound, “ There is no God but Allah, and Mahomet is the prophet of God ! ”— through all the strange and terrible vicissitudes of the deadly struggle that ensued, the frightful massacres, the wild guerrilla battles, the fiery onslaughts of the Spanish chivalry, the stealthy surprises of the Moorish mountaineers,—down to the complete suppression of the insurrection, the removal of the defeated race, the overthrow and death of Aben-Aboo, “ the little king of the Alpujarras,” and the ghastly triumph in which his dead body, Clothed in the robes of royalty and supported upright on a horse, was led into the capital where his ancestors had once reigned in peaceful splendor, after which the head was cut off and set up in a cage above the wall, “ the face turned towards his native hills, which he had loved so well.”

On such a theme, and in such localities, Mr. Prescott is more at home than any other writer, American or European. His imagination, kindled by long familiar associations, burns with a steady flame. The characters are portrayed with a free and vigorous pencil, the contrast between the Orientalism of the Spanish Arab and the sterner features of the Spanish Goth being always strongly marked. The scenery, painted with as much fidelity as truth, is sometimes brought before the eye by minute description, and sometimes, with still happier effect, by incidental touches,—an epithet ora simile, as appropriate as it is suggestive. As we follow the route of Mondejar’s army, the “ frosty peaks ” of the Sierra Nevada are seen “glistening in the sun like palisades of silver”; while terraces, scooped out along the rocky mountain-side, are covered with “ bright patches of variegated culture, that hang like a garland round the gaunt Sierra.” At their removal from Granada, the remnant of what had once been a race of conquerors bid a last farewell to their ancient homes just as “the morning light has broken on the red towers of the Alhambra”; and scattered over the country in small and isolated masses, the presence of the exiles is “sure to be revealed by the minute and elaborate culture of the soil,— as the secret course of the mountain-stream is betrayed by the brighter green of the meadow.”

We had marked for quotation an admirable passage, in which our author passes judgment on the policy of the Spanish' government, its cruelty and its mistakes. But want of space compels us here to take leave of a book which we have not pretended to analyze, but to which we have rendered sincere, though inadequate, praise.

  1. “ Sempre apparisce d’ un volto e d' una temperatura medesima; la qual cosa a chi, considerato gli accidenti che gli seno occorsi delle morti dei figliuoli e delle mogli, ha fatto credere che fusse crudele.” Relaz. Anon.(1588.)
  2. None of the anecdotes in which Philip is represented as giving way to violent bursts of anger will bear examination. Take, for example, the story of his pent-up wrath having exploded against the Prince of Orange, when he was quitting the Netherlands in 1559. The Prince, it is said, who had accompanied him to the ship, endeavored to convince him that the opposition to his measures, of which he complained, had sprung from the Estates; on which the king, seizing William’s sleeve, and shaking it vehemently, exclaimed, “No, not the Estates, but you,— you,—you!”—No los Estados, ma vos,vos,— vos!—using, say the original relator and the repeaters of the story, a form of address, the second person plural, which in the Spanish language is expressive of contempt. Now it is true that vos, applied to an equal, would have been a solecism; but it is also true that it was the invariable form employed by the sovereign, even when addressing a grandee or a prince of the Church. (See the Papiers d' État de Granvelle, passim.) Moreover, the correspondence of the time shows clearly that neither Philip nor Granvelle had as yet conceived any deep suspicion of the Prince of Orange, much less had any of the parties been so imprudent as to throw off the usual mask. The story is first told by Aubéri, a writer of the seventeenth century, who had it from his father, to whom it had been told by an anonymous eye-witness!
  3. * Relasione di Pigafetta.
  4. Walpole to Mason, Nov. 24, 1774.