The Don Quixote of Diplomacy

The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline

by J.H. Elliott
Yale University Press, 733 pp., $29.95

The Count-Duke of Olivares dominated Spanish domestic and foreign policies for twenty-two years. When Philip IV acceded to the throne in 1621, Olivares, already his mentor, soon became his chief minister and, as such, steadily increased his grasp over the cumbrous machine that attempted to govern Spain. Professor Elliott sets out to chronicle his intentions and his failures in a political biography some seven hundred pages long. It is a monument of scholarship almost unique in our time: there are 2,676 footnotes, almost all to sources in archives and intractable sources at that. Recent fashions in historiography have segmented history; Professor Elliott sees in the political biography of an eminent statesman an approach to “total history,” reintegrating the disjecta membra strewn about by the specialists. Above all, Professor Elliott’s narrative, by examining in scrupulous detail how and why decisions were taken, restores power politics to their proper place in history; and it was Olivares who took the decisions until he was worn out by the cares of office, sick in mind and body, and Philip IV allowed his servant to retire in January 1643. Elliott’s book restores drama, tragic drama at that, to history, a discipline that has recently so often fallen into the hands of those whom Edmund Burke dismissed as “sophisters, economists and calculators.”

The book’s subtitle sets his theme. What can a statesman do to restore a powerful monarchy threatened by its enemies abroad, by economic decline and moral decay at home? The Spanish Hapsburg monarchy that Philip IV inherited in 1621 was, in territory, the greatest empire the West would see until the British Empire in the nineteenth century: it embraced Portugal, Mexico and South America, the Netherlands, Milan, Naples, and the Philippines. Given the possessions of the Austrian Hapsburgs in Germany and central Europe, it seemed that such a concentration of power in the hands of one dynasty must excite the jealous hostility of lesser powers. The parallel with Rome surrounded by the barbarians was fixed in contemporary minds, immersed in the great historians of antiquity.

Yet this vast monarchy was a ramshackle agglomeration of diverse units, including Portugal, Catalonia, Aragon, and the South American colonies, each with its peculiar and separate constitutional relationship with the Spanish crown. It was what contemporary political thinkers called a “dispersed” monarchy and, as such, was fraying at the edges. In retrospect we can see that Spain since the reign of Philip II was hopelessly overcommitted, as world empires are apt to be. But Spanish statesmen had their own version of the domino theory; to lose one province was to imperil the whole. Should one piece of the imperial jigsaw escape, the contagion of secession would spread like a malignant disease. In the seventeenth century such biological metaphor informed political discourse as the handiest device to explain the cycles by which empires rose and fell.

Philip III gave up being the kind of king his father had been. At his desk in the Escorial …

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