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.

Philip also inherited his father's fair hair and blue eyes, and the unmistakable protruding jaw of the Hapsburgs. But unlike the polyglot Emperor, the King never mastered any modern language save Spanish, and spent most of his life on the Iberian Peninsula. With rare and early exceptions he led his troops from behind a desk, where he tirelessly turned out the reams of letters, memoranda, and annotations that historians would treasure (in the atrocious handwriting that they would curse). Charles, for all his dignity, was warm and approachable, but Philip had a reserved and soft-spoken manner that matured into a fearsome intensity; sometimes he struck visitors dumb with his steady gaze and long, patient silences. As the portraits show, his clothes were even soberer than his father's; in later years he usually dressed in black -- the "Spanish style" he made fashionable across Europe (even if, as Kamen claims, he never gave up bright colors altogether). It was a style that befitted frequent mourning: he buried all four of his wives and all but two of his eight children.

Among Philip's far-flung domains the Low Countries had an importance far out of proportion to their size. This importance was in part symbolic and personal. The Emperor had been born in Flanders, and had chosen Brussels for the ceremony of his abdication. Philip himself was a great aficionado and importer of Flemish architecture, gardening, music, and painting (especially the moral grotesques of Hieronymus Bosch). But these rich, entrepreneurial provinces had a less sentimental value as well. They were, as Kamen puts it, "Spain's economic lifeline": the most important intermediary in its trade with northern Europe, and a major source of the loans and tax revenues with which the Crown paid for its wars. Moreover, they occupied a geographical position of immense strategic importance. For these reasons sectarian violence there turned into an international crisis and the source of Philip's greatest troubles.

In 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. Since then hopes for theological compromise had failed, and an even more revolutionary movement had emerged from John Calvin's city-state of Geneva. Protestants persecuted in France fled to the southern Low Countries in the early 1560s. In 1566 Calvinist preachers in Flanders incited crowds to burn and smash the "idolatrous" images polluting their churches, and this "Iconoclastic Fury" soon spread to the other provinces. The King sent the Duke of Alba to restore order, but the duke's policy of military occupation, mass execution, and heavy taxes to pay for it all only provoked rebellion. (Even four centuries later Belgian and Dutch parents have been known to invoke Alba as a bogeyman to scare their naughty children.)

The conflict divided even the royal family itself. In 1559 Philip had promised to make Don Carlos, his son and heir, the governor of the Low Countries -- the first step in the eventual inheritance of his father's realms. At the time, the boy may have seemed suited to his prospects. But head injuries resulting from a near-fatal fall in his teens left Don Carlos violent and unstable: he tossed a page out a window, forced a shoemaker to eat an unsatisfactory pair of boots, and even hinted at threats to his father.

In late 1567 the King learned of his son's plans to flee to the rebellious provinces. Just before midnight on January 18, 1568, Philip went to the prince's chambers in the royal palace of Madrid, accompanied by a small party of guards and councillors. The King was wearing a helmet and carrying a sword. Reaching the prince's door, he found it locked and bolted, but the guards forced it open. "Has Your Majesty come to kill me?" Don Carlos asked.

The prince was placed in confinement, where he set about attempting suicide in various ways: gorging or starving himself, swallowing a diamond, chilling himself with ice. Eventually he did take sick, and by the end of July he was dead. Rumors arose that he had been killed for plotting with the rebels -- or for making love to his young stepmother, who suspiciously enough died later the same year (in fact from complications in childbirth). There had been a real danger that Philip's enemies would exploit the disturbed young man as a figurehead; but the stories of an affair between the prince and the Queen were baseless. There is no evidence that the King killed his son or his wife. Yet the accusations grew into a legend with irresistible romantic appeal, which eventually inspired a play by Friedrich Schiller and an opera by Giuseppe Verdi.

As the war in the Low Countries dragged on, Philip was alternately conciliatory and aggressive, but not until the end of his life did he allow even the possibility of toleration. The main reason, according to Kamen, was the King's concern for order. As proof that religious disunity perforce meant social and political chaos, Philip could point to the ongoing civil wars in France, the most notorious episode in which remains the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Calvinist Huguenots in 1572. (Not that the King deplored that massacre: its "good news" made him "laugh, with signs of extreme pleasure and satisfaction.") Other historians have stressed Philip's belief in his providential role as a defender of the faith. In any case, freedom of conscience was hardly a prevalent ideal in the sixteenth century. Certainly it was not the watchword of the Reformation: Luther, Calvin, and Huldreich Zwingli all sanctioned the killing of their theological opponents. Indeed, it would have been remarkable if Philip had condoned the spread of "heresy" among his subjects.

The heretics were not to be stopped, however: Spain never recovered the breakaway provinces of Holland and Zealand, nucleus of the modern Dutch nation. The struggle against them proved a huge and constant drain on the taxpayers of Castile and gobbled up the output of the Peruvian silver mines -- one of the major reasons that Philip declared bankruptcy more than once during his reign. Neighboring powers took advantage of the conflict to harm Spain and help the Protestant cause. The French Huguenots and the Lutheran princes of Germany aided the Dutch rebels, and in 1585 England sent 8,000 soldiers to free Antwerp from Spanish occupation. This last action -- combined with Sir Francis Drake's raids on Spanish ships and ports in the Old and New Worlds -- spurred Philip to send the "Invincible Armada" in 1588. The result was a legendary disaster that led Philip, normally so sure of divine favor, to wonder if God had abandoned him. It remains the biggest single reason that people in the English-speaking world tend to remember him as a failure, the initiator of his country's long, slow decline.

Yet "failure" hardly seems the word for a man who augmented his vast inheritance with the Philippines (named for him) and Portugal, with all of its colonies (parts of Africa, India, and Indonesia, and all of Brazil). He also consolidated Spain's holdings in latter-day Chile and Argentina. His empire was not only military and mercantile but also cultural, and in this last respect it was surely an enduring success: Spanish is today the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, and Roman Catholicism the second most widely professed faith, owing largely to the conquests made during Philip's reign.

Nonetheless, by the end of that reign the people of Spain were impoverished and war-weary, and over the next sixty years -- through the exhausting stalemates of the Thirty Years' War and yet another conflict with France -- Spain would lose forever its dominance in European affairs. The debts and entanglements Philip left behind were a large part of the cause.

HOW was it that a King whose interests lay in peace found himself almost constantly at war? It never seemed to him that he had a choice. He had to defend Italy not only because it was the center of Catholicism but also because if it fell, nothing would stand between Spain and the Turks. Nor could he abandon the New World colonies, source of the precious metals on which he increasingly relied, to the English or the Dutch. When the Portuguese throne fell vacant in 1580, he had to claim it or face a potentially hostile power on his border. For the same reason, but without the same success, he invaded France in 1590, hoping to install a sympathetic Catholic (such as his own daughter)as sovereign. As for the Low Countries, the King and his advisers believed that surrendering there would somehow lead to the fall of other strategic dominoes -- and to the loss of that priceless commodity "reputation." Although Philip's Spain was by far the greatest military power of its day, it was never able to muster the forces necessary to defeat so many enemies. Thus it has remained, for Paul Kennedy and other historians, a paradigmatic case of "strategical overstretch."

In Henry Kamen's view, little of this was the King's fault: "Philip was never at any time in adequate control of events, or of his kingdoms, or even of his own destiny ... He could do little more than play the dice available to him." It is hard to argue with this. Certainly the "Prudent King" made some bad decisions (the Armada is especially easy to second-guess), but no man, however wise, could have beaten down the combined and rising forces of Protestantism, European nationalism, and Dutch and English sea power. Nevertheless, one wishes that Kamen had addressed a major question raised by Kennedy: With less "retrograde" policies on trade, agriculture, currency, and taxation, could Philip have narrowed the gap between the Crown's military spending and its economic resources, and thus have forestalled Spain's decline?

If we compare him with contemporary monarchs, Philip comes off well -- both as a ruler and as a human being. The reason he has fared so badly until lately, Kamen persuasively suggests, is that he "failed to project his image," disdaining the visual and literary propaganda mastered by his rivals, especially Elizabeth of England. In his eagerness to revise the reputation of his subject, however, Kamen goes to extremes that undermine the credibility of his portrait. He is the rare historian who finds no evidence of the King's guilt in two of the most scandalous incidents of Philip's reign: the secret execution of the Flemish rebel Baron Montigny and the murder of the secretary Juan de Escobedo. His description of Philip as "a firm anti-expansionist" is bound to be controversial as well. But Kamen, who acknowledges the many instances in which he differs with other scholars, obviously welcomes controversy. And Philip, who positively encouraged disagreement among his advisers to help inform his decisions, would surely welcome it as well.

Illustration by Etienne Delessert

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; The King Who Sent the Armada; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 85-88.