Philip II, King of Spain

Philip II in armour in 1551, shortly before he married Queen Mary I of England. Painting by Titian


Philip was born on May 21, 1527 in Valladolid in northern Castile.  He was the son of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor and Isabella, sister of the King of Portugal.  He was brought up by his mother until her death in 1539 and rarely saw his father who tended to business overseas.  He was given an education of humanist teachings, including the works of Erasmus.  Philip was taught Latin, French and Portuguese with a little Italian but he would never be more than competent as a linguist.  His mother taught him to love the arts, especially music and playing guitar and he was given the requisite martial training.   His mother indoctrinated him with an unshakable faith and belief in God’s providence.

Philip was described as slight of stature and round-faced, with pale blue eyes, somewhat prominent lower lip, and pink skin, but over all he had a very attractive appearance.  He dressed tastefully and was always courteous and gracious.  Philip believed himself to be Castilian through and through.  He embodied Castilian values and preferred to speak the language and to live in Spain although he never did acquire a taste for the running of the bulls.

Philip was made Duke of Milan in 1540 and began his political training when he was recognized as heir to the Castilian throne by the various Cortes in 1541.  Charles found his son prudent, studious, grave and mature beyond his years.  Charles wrote a set of instructions for Philip emphasizing piety, patience, modesty and distrust.  Philip took all this to heart and would become soft-spoken, self-possessed, grave and cautious.  Charles was so impressed with Philip’s progress in statesmanship, he made him nominal king of Spain in 1543 under a regency.  At the age of sixteen, Philip was well on his way to governing the most extensive empire in the world.

That same year he was married to Maria Manuela, daughter of King John III of Portugal and Catherine of Spain who was his father’s sister.  The match was an attempt to bring the last independent kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula under Spanish rule.  Maria died after giving birth to her first child, a son named Carlos after his grandfather.

Maria Manuela, Princess of Portugal and Asturias, first wife of King Philip II of Spain

Beginning in 1548, Philip made a journey of several years, traveling various territories in the Hapsburg domain.  Due to his lack of proficiency in languages and his aloof nature, his communication was hindered and he soon gained a reputation for being arrogant.  The people of the Low Countries did not like Philip but he enjoyed the cultural atmosphere there and became a collector of the artworks produced by Flemish masters.

Philip returned to Spain and took on the duties of ruling his federation of separate realms.  He accepted the constitutional pluralism of the empire and made no major changes in the public institutions in the Iberian Peninsula.  Philip would become the consummate bureaucrat during his reign, overseeing a great deal of minutiae and a mountain of paperwork on a daily basis.  The Spanish Empire around the world was governed along the same guidelines as the Castilian monarchy.

The bureaucratic apparatus formed to administer the realm initially worked with surprising effectiveness.  Later it would become overwhelmed by its size, by distance and by the sheer volume of work.  The overseas empire was only of secondary importance to Spain until the discovery of precious metals in the 1530’s when these mineral resources of the Americas became a vital mainstay of the Spanish crown.

In 1553, Philip had his heart set on marrying a Portuguese princess and the negotiations had progressed to near completion.  But his father had other ideas.  Edward VI died in the summer of that year and his Catholic sister Mary became the first Queen Regnant of England.  Charles V was Mary’s first cousin and he had always looked out for her welfare, protecting her from her father’s wrath and the interference of her brother’s councilors.  Mary’s primary focus upon becoming queen was to return England to the Catholic faith and to find a husband.  She proposed a marriage to Charles himself but he respectfully declined, citing his age.

Charles suggested Mary wed Philip.  The purpose of the alliance was two-fold: to return England to Catholicism and to maintain links between Spain and Charles’ northern dominions.  England would be a pawn in Habsburg dynastic politics and the marriage settlement would be complicated.  Philip would have no proprietary rights to the throne if the union was childless.  While he would be called King and participate in Mary’s English council, he would have no real authority in England.  The settlement was one-sided in England’s favor with the intention of maintaining a balance of power in Europe.  England had no intention of getting involved in Spain’s wars, especially where France was concerned.

In the beginning of 1554, Philip received a copy of the treaty and he was extremely dissatisfied.  The usual privileges due to a husband were denied to him, forcing him to share his wife with England.  Philip drafted a written denouncement of the treaty, arguing he was not bound by an agreement of which he had no knowledge.  This was a private rejection of the treaty but a copy was included in the papers regarding the agreement.

Miniature image of King Philip II of Spain and Queen Mary I of England


A proxy marriage was performed in March and after a long delay, Philip left Spain on July 13.  The lavish wedding ceremony was celebrated at Winchester Cathedral on July 25.  It was Philip’s intention to stay in England for a week or two and then travel to the Low Countries to deliver the army he brought from Spain.  These plans were dropped when Charles informed Philip he did not need accompany the soldiers.

There had been some miscommunication during the negotiations.  The treaty called for Philip to have a household staffed by Englishmen but he brought his own staff of Spaniards.  This led to arguing over precedence and outright resentment and fighting.  Philip also had to pay his household servants which was a huge financial burden.  After his official entry into London in August, Philip spent most of his time at Hampton Court, Greenwich, Windsor and Westminster, staying in the lodgings usually reserved for the queen consort.

Philip attended council meetings regularly and also held public audiences.  Because Mary’s sister Elizabeth’s life was in danger from a judicial attempt to displace her as heir to the throne or to replace Mary with Elizabeth, there was always the chance of rebellion.  Philip and the council wanted to avoid any revolt as well as any attempt by Mary Queen of Scots to take the English throne with the support of the French.  Philip did what he could to protect Elizabeth, including trying to marry her to a Catholic prince.  Elizabeth resisted any thought of marriage.

Philip found it difficult to learn English and needed to use interpreters.  While Philip was not interested in running the day-to-day affairs of England, he did exercise some influence.  Eventually, under the aegis of Philip, there was a restoration of English unity with Rome to the satisfaction of the English nobility which enhanced his political authority.  He successfully defended Princess Elizabeth and during this first visit, thwarted any invasion of England by the French.  He knew his paramount duty was to sire a child which would enable him to retain the title of King of England after Mary’s death and only the birth of a child would have allowed him to be crowned at Westminster, an honor to which he felt entitled.

Philip was eager to leave for the Netherlands but by November of 1554, Mary believed she was pregnant and he agreed to remain until the child was born.  It was a false pregnancy and at the end of April, Mary abandoned hope.  By July, Philip had decided to depart England which he did on August 29, leaving Mary feeling she had been totally abandoned.  Charles V surrendered the government of the Netherlands to Philip in October 1555 and while Philip was there, he managed to monitor English affairs through a ‘select council’ which he formed before his departure along with other informal channels of communication.  Philip remained concerned about his coronation and pressed the issue with Mary.  He hinted he would return to England sooner if she would arrange the coronation.  Mary told him Parliament would never approve the ceremony and Philip abandoned the matter.

Philip’s father retired in January of 1556 and divided his empire.  The central European Habsburg domains came under the patrimony of his brother Ferdinand and the Spanish domains were turned over to Philip to rule.  Charles V had engaged in war with France starting in 1552.  Philip renewed these hostilities and was eager to bring England into the fray.  He returned to England on March 18, 1557, intent on gaining Mary’s personal support to join the war.  Philip was entertained for three months.  There was a French-backed attack on Scarborough at the end of April which gave Mary an excuse to declare war on June 7.  Philip left England on July 6, never to see Mary or England again.

Siege of St. Quentin
Siege of San Quintín from a painting in the Battle Room of the Monastery of El Escorial


The English army crossed the Channel and Philip and his troops won the Battle of San Quentin on August 10.  Mary informed Philip she was pregnant in December of 1557 but nobody believed her.  The English lost Calais in January 1558.  Philip was prepared to recapture it but Mary informed him there were no reserves to assist him.  The rest of the year saw Philip’s involvement in England declined with him only making an effort to maintain support for his war with France while most of the English council lost interest in the project.

In the summer, England was beset by a pandemic of flu and Mary became ill.  It was soon apparent she was dying.  Philip concentrated his efforts on making sure there was a smooth transfer of power from Mary to Elizabeth as he feared an attempt to take the English throne by the French-backed Mary Queen of Scots.  A proposal of marriage from Philip to Elizabeth occurred either before or shortly after Mary’s death in November.  Elizabeth never gave a formal, definitive reply to Philip.

After the victory of St. Quentin, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis was negotiated with France, leading to a lasting peace between the two countries until 1596.  The terms of the treaty required Philip to marry Elisabeth de Valois, the daughter of Henri II and Catherine de’Medici.  They were married in Spain on June 22, 1559.  After the unexpected death of Henri II, France would be beleaguered by internal political and religious struggles.  Spain began the persecution of non-Catholics with the Inquisition which Philip gave free rein to during his monarchy.  He even personally attended several auto-da-fé.

Elisabeth de Valois, Queen of Spain


For his entire reign, Philip was at war with the Low Countries.  This was a crisis of Philip’s own making.  Protestant revolt began in 1566 and he would not accept religious compromise in any form.  He wanted to crush Protestantism but this strategy was never going to be successful.  Rebellion was answered with bloodshed and the long-drawn-out conflict resulted in a great deal of loss of life due to executions for religious reasons as well as outright war casualties.  Protestant writers and historians blackened Philip’s name, resulting in him becoming the arch-villain of the Reformation.

The most critical year of Philip’s reign was 1568.  There was rebellion and heresy in the region of Catalonia and an uprising among the Moriscos in the Alpujarra mountains around Granada.  Both rebellions were crushed.  Philip and Elisabeth’s successful marriage produced two daughters.  With her last pregnancy in 1568, Elisabeth became ill and after giving birth to a daughter, both she and her infant died.  Philip gave her a magnificent funeral.

It was during this year Philip had to deal with a crisis regarding his eldest son and heir.  Don Carlos had been born with physical deformities and was never in good health, suffering from perpetual fevers, most likely due to malaria.  He was already unstable and subject to violent tempers when he suffered a near fatal fall down some stairs at the age of seventeen.  He underwent a trepanation of the skull and survived the brain injury but he was never the same.  When Carlos threatened to flee to the Low Countries and join up with his father’s enemies, Philip had him incarcerated.  He most likely starved to death but there were rumors at the time that Philip had him murdered.

King Philip II of Spain banqueting with his family in 1588, including his wife Anna of Austria. Painting by Alonso Sánchez Coello


In 1570, Philip married his niece Anna of Austria.  This would be a happy marriage and Anna gave birth to five children, four of which were sons.  The only child to survive to adulthood was her fourth son who succeeded his father as King Philip III of Spain.

In the early 1570’s, the Ottoman Turks were a threat in the Mediterranean, leading to a major naval construction campaign.  The Pope organized a Holy League including the navies of Spain, Genoa and Venice.  On October 7, 1571, these forces won a major victory at the Battle of Lepanto.  More than one-third of the Turkish fleet was destroyed.  In 1580, Portugal fell into a dynastic crisis.  There were three contenders for the throne including Philip who had a claim through his mother.  Philip managed to incorporate the Portuguese monarchy into his empire, giving him increased naval capacity and access to the flow of bullion from Spanish America.

Battle of Lepanto


In 1578, Philip’s nephew, Alessandro Farnese, took over militarily and politically in the Low Countries.  Farnese was Philip’s most able leader in the region, having the ability to solidify support for a Catholic regime in Flanders and Brabant and conquering Antwerp.  Under his aegis, the entire southern half of the Low Countries (what is now modern Belgium) was under Spanish control and Catholicism was being restored.

All this Spanish interference and success alarmed Queen Elizabeth I and her advisers.  They had no wish to see the Dutch become subjected to Spanish rule and agreed to support the Protestants and encourage Dutch resistance.  English pirates were attacking Spanish ships sailing to and from the New World.  Spain recognized England as its principal maritime rival, barring Holland.  Philip’s time in England convinced him the country was unstable and dangerous.  Philip made it his mission to pursue a hostile policy and subjugate England.

When Mary Queen of Scots was executed in February of 1587 on the orders of Elizabeth I, Philip had his excuse.  The Spanish Armada sailed with 130 ships which were expected to meet reinforcements in the Low Countries.  But the weather did not cooperate, cutting the ships off from the shore, prohibiting the rendezvous.  Strong winds forced the Spanish ships to sail all the way around the British Isles.  One-third of the Armada was completely wrecked and there was considerable damage and loss of life for Spain.  It was a catastrophe and had a considerable psychological impact on the Spanish people and on Philip personally.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg


However, within a couple of years, the losses of the Armada had been regained.  The Aragonese crisis of 1590-92 resulted in the reform of the Aragonese constitution and some of the powers of the Aragonese Cortes to collect taxes were reduced.  The Castilian monarchy was allowed to appoint a viceroy thereby allowing some royal authority and these compromises avoided major disputes for many years.  The monarchy maintained superior but by no means absolute authority over all the Hispanic principalities.  Philip was at the height of his power from 1590-92.

The final decade of Philip’s reign saw spiritual, psychological and economic strains.  His religious ardor was genuine and complete.  Philip had a strong and devoted sense of duty and personal responsibility.  Whereas his father had been a military and cavalier king, Philip was a bureaucrat.  He did not lead his armies and never did enjoy the hunt.  His profession was paper shuffling, correspondence, diplomacy and administration and all of his work was done from behind a desk.  Although he was prodigious in carrying out his duties, no matter how hard he worked, it was inadequate for the massive task.  He refused to delegate authority and would fall further and further behind each year.

Philip was stubborn and persevered in any strategy he settled upon but sometimes his tactics were erratic.  He alternated between extreme caution and grandiose enterprises such as the Armada.  He was the hardest working monarch of his era although some historians have argued that his personal attention to minutiae and detail were to his detriment, making his reign more difficult than it needed to be.  He died, probably of cancer, at the age of seventy-one at the El Escorial on September 13, 1598.


Further reading:  “Imprudent King:  A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker, “Philip of Spain” by Henry Kamen, “A History of Spain and Portugal:  Volume One” by Stanley G. Payne, “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards, entry on Philip II of Spain in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Glyn Redworth, entry on Mary I in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Ann Weikel