Philip II
Philip II; drawing by David Levine

“If Philip possessed a single virtue it has eluded the conscientious research of the writer of these pages. 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.” John Lothrop Motley’s indictment of Philip II of Spain in his History of the United Netherlands1 remains one of the classic historical denunciations of all time. It has continued to reverberate through the historical literature on sixteenth-century Europe, and one of the great historians of our own century, Dom David Knowles, used it in an Inaugural Lecture delivered in 1954 on “The Historian and Character,” in support of his argument that “the historian is not a judge, still less a hanging judge.”2

Motley, as a Protestant and liberal historian, saw the revolt of the Netherlands in the 1560s and 1570s against the Spain of Philip II as epitomizing the triumph of liberty over the tyranny and obscurantism represented by the Machiavellian monarch in the Escorial. But although Motley viewed the Dutch revolt through the lens of his own age and prejudices, he drew heavily for his interpretation of the character and record of Philip II on a tradition that reached back to the sixteenth century, and indeed to the Netherlands themselves. The leader of the revolt, William of Orange, in his famous Apology of 1581, sought to rally support for his cause with a vitriolic depiction of a king whose crimes ranged all the way from duplicity and tyranny to adultery, incest, and the murder of his wife and son.3

This vivid catalog of crimes was absorbed into Protestant and anti-Spanish historiography of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and appeared to receive unexpected confirmation from no less authoritative a source than Philip’s one-time secretary, Antonio Pérez. In his Relaciones, written in Northern Europe after his dramatic flight from Spain, where he had been imprisoned on royal orders for a variety of crimes and misdemeanors, this great defector partially lifted the curtain that concealed the private life of his royal master. Enough was said to insinuate Philip’s complicity in a number of murky proceedings, including the deaths of his son, Don Carlos, and of Don John of Austria’s secretary, Juan de Escobedo. Pérez’s words also suggested to impressionable readers an amorous relationship between the King and the Princess of Eboli, notorious for her beauty and her black eye-patch. All this was grist to the anti-Spanish mill. It was to provide standard fare for generations of historians, novelists, and dramatists, and inspired Schiller’s Don Karlos of 1787. The grand opening in Paris on March 11, 1867, of Verdi’s Don Carlos merely put the finishing touches to an image of Philip II already deeply rooted in the European imagination.

But if the nineteenth century was the age of the librettist and the romantic novelist, it was also the age of the archival historian. Leopold von Ranke, in his The Ottoman and Spanish Empires in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, made extensive use of the reports of the Venetian ambassadors to the Spanish court to paint a portrait of Philip that was at once more intimate and more sympathetic than any previously available to the reading public. The ambassadors tell us of his habit of responding with a slight smile to those with whom he spoke, making himself “amiable to everybody,” and comment on the pleasure he took in the company of his favorite daughter, Isabella, sitting beside him as he spent long hours working on his papers.4

The opening in 1844 of the Spanish state archive of Simancas, near Valladolid—a great repository of official papers set up by Philip II himself—gave historians access to a vast quantity of hitherto unknown documents, including a large number which either emanated from the King or bore lengthy marginal annotations in his idiosyncratic and often indecipherable handwriting. Such documents allowed historians of the caliber of Mignet and Gachard to publish major studies of some of the more controversial episodes of the reign. These helped to bring the King and his methods of government into clearer focus, for example by producing evidence that Antonio Pérez was indeed engaged in treasonable activities.5

Early in this century, in what still remains one of the most judicious accounts of Philip’s life and character, Charles Bratli, a Danish historian, made a conscientious attempt to separate fact from fiction, and showed how Spanish and non-Spanish historians had viewed the King over the course of the centuries.6 On the whole, he suggested, the deeper the acquaintance with sixteenth-century Spanish civilization, the more sympathetic the portrait tended to be. In Spain itself, the image of Philip as a grave, austere, and wise monarch—el rey prudente—devoted to the government of his peoples and the maintenance of the faith, established itself early in the collective imagination, and was confirmed by the writings of contemporaries or near-contemporaries of the King. These included an official in Philip’s service, Luis Cabrera de Córdoba, whose Felipe el segundo rey de España (1619) was a detailed chronicle of the events of the first half of the reign (the second part of his manuscript was not discovered until 1856), and Baltasar Porreño, who published in 1639 a rich repository of anecdotes about the King’s deeds and sayings. The anecdotes are used to illustrate different aspects of his character. As an example of his severity we are told the story of the unfortunate cleric who, after five years of preaching in his presence, was on the point of beginning a Lenten sermon in the chapel of Aranjuez when he caught sight of the King gazing at him so intently that he forgot the words of his sermon and was temporarily overcome.7


The gap between the popular image of the King inside and outside Spain was wide, and has remained so, in spite of the efforts of generations of historians to dissipate the legends that surround him. In the Anglo-American popular imagination the fanatic in the Escorial is still firmly enthroned. This black legend inevitably called forth from Philip’s Spanish, and non-Spanish, apologists a no less implausible white legend.8 These polemics were a world away from the sober scholarship of historians like Roger B. Merriman, whose Philip the Prudent, the fourth volume of his The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and the New, was published in 1934.9

Merriman’s Philip, narrow-minded, conscientious, and prudent, was brought more fully to life in the brilliant portrait drawn by Garrett Mattingly in his The Defeat of the Spanish Armada: “There was true asceticism in the way he toiled, eyes red-rimmed, bones aching, fingers stiff, at his self-imposed task of chief clerk of the Spanish Empire.”10 For his part, Fernand Braudel, a historian with a very different agenda but with powers of evocation comparable to those of Mattingly, depicts a king who is the prisoner of forces far beyond his control, or even his ken—those great impersonal forces of physical geography, of climate, space, and time, which dictate the rhythms of his “Mediterranean World.” Braudel’s Philip, for all the greatness of his position no more than a puny figure against a vast horizon, is not a man of great ideas, but one who sees his task as an innumerable succession of details. But Braudel distinguishes between the “solitary and secretive man himself” and “the sovereign, the force of history symbolized by his name”—a sovereign who remains an enigma: “He receives us as he did his ambassadors, with the utmost courtesy, listening to us, replying in a low and often unintelligible voice, never speaking of himself at all.”11

Have historians got any closer to Philip, either as monarch or as man, since Braudel published these words in 1949? Biographical studies have continued to appear, among them a short but well-informed assessment of the King and his policies by Peter Pierson.12 Pierson’s useful study is essentially a political biography, which, after a discussion of Philip’s education, his family and interests, moves on to a succinct description of the nature of his various dominions, the character of his government, and some of the principal events of the reign—the revolt of the Netherlands, the revolt of the Morisco population of Granada in 1568, the annexation of Portugal in 1580, the struggle with the England of Elizabeth.

But attempts have also been made to draw closer to the “solitary and secretive man.” The most original of these appeared before Braudel’s Mediterranean, but too late for Braudel to make use of it. This was the work of the eminent Spanish physician, Dr. Gregorio Marañón. Although Marañón’s book is nominally a study of Philip’s secretary, Antonio Pérez, it could just as well have been entitled Philip II, since he uses the Pérez affair—the murder of Escobedo, the arrest and flight of Pérez—to adopt what would today be called a psycho-biographical approach to the personality of the King.13 Marañón’s conclusion is that it was not the King but Perez himself who proposed and engineered the murder of Escobedo. His Philip is a tímido—a man not so much timid, in the English sense, as irresolute. Overshadowed by his heroic father, the Emperor Charles V, Marañon’s Philip—distrustful yet at times too trusting—is the quintessentially indecisive figure, a weak man bearing the burden of overwhelming power. Swayed by his smooth-talking secretary, the King, true to Marañon’s interpretation of his character, consents to Pérez’s scheme for Escobedo’s murder without trial.


Marañón’s reading of Philip’s personality has powerfully influenced subsequent historians of the man and the reign. It has also helped to dislodge the King from the impossibly high pedestal on which some of his compatriots chose to place him. But if the analysis of Philip’s character has not advanced much since the publication of Marañón’s book, a good deal has come to light in recent years to give a closer sense of the man behind the mask. In a brief but attractive biography Geoffrey Parker used a wide range of documents to give us sympathetic vignettes of a king off duty, enjoying his gardens in the company of his daughters, or throwing his line for trout in the Tagus at Aranjuez.14 But above all it has been the art historians who in recent years have helped to give Philip a more human face. The King as patron and collector is the subject of a splendid study by Fernando Checa, the current director of the Prado Museum, while Catherine Wilkinson Zerner has illuminated the King’s involvement in his many building projects, including the laying out of gardens, like that of the royal residence of Valsaín, for which a carefully proportioned design in his own hand survives. The King’s greatest monument, the Escorial, was built to his own program, and he took the closest personal interest in every stage of its construction, visiting the work sites regularly and making constant demands of his hard-pressed architect, Juan de Herrera.15

Intensive research into many aspects of Spanish history in the second half of the sixteenth century has also given us a much more detailed knowledge than was available to Merriman of the workings of Philip’s government, the character of the society over which he ruled, and the way in which the King and his ministers responded to some of the great issues of the day, like the revolt of the Netherlands. No doubt much still remains to be done. For example, we are still very imperfectly informed about many of the King’s closest advisers, although one of them, the Portuguese-born courtier, Ruy Gómez, later Prince of Eboli, has recently been the subject of an elegant short biography. 16 Similarly, fascinating documentation about the dream life of a prophetess, Lucrecia de León, has cast unexpected light on another theme which deserves further exploration—the character and extent of clandestine opposition to the King and his policies. It transpires that Lucrecia and her dreams, which included a prophetic vision of the defeat of the Armada, were exploited for their own ends by critics of the King, who feared that his policies were leading Spain to disaster. 17

In the light of all this work, nobody could reasonably claim that Philip and his reign have been unduly neglected by historians. It is therefore rather startling to find Henry Kamen announcing with some fanfare in the preface to his Philip of Spain that “this is the first full-length and fully researched biography of the King ever written.” But the claims do not stop here.

It has been made possible by the use at every point of entirely new manuscript sources, many of them hitherto unknown. Previous ‘biographies’ have dedicated themselves largely to foreign politics…. I have attempted both to present a new vision of Philip on the basis of original documentation, and to understand his policies through his own perspective and words…. My primary purpose was to bring to life for non-specialist readers a king who till now has languished in the realm of uninformed mythology.

Is the documentation so new? Has the “mythology” been so “uninformed”? Have we all got Philip wrong? As far as the documentation is concerned, the archival collections on which Kamen has drawn are hardly unknown, and have indeed been extensively mined by historians of the reign, with the possible exception of the Viennese archives, which he has turned to good account, drawing for instance on Philip’s correspondence with his cousin, the Archduke Maximilian, when documenting his travels in Germany before he came to the throne. Kamen has, however, done an impressive amount of archival research, going back to the original sources even where they have previously been used. He might at times have been more generous in acknowledging the work of those who have gone before him. He quotes, for instance, a revealingly arrogant note by a Spanish official in Milan to the effect that “these Italians although they are not Indians have to be treated as such,” citing only the original document in the British Library, without mentioning that it was originally brought to light in 1951 in an excellent study of Philip’s government in Sicily, and has since been frequently used.18

The large number of fresh, and deftly selected, quotations, however, is among the most valuable and attractive features of the book, and lends immediacy to his portrait of the King and his reign. In 1574 Philip writes: “I am trembling with fear at what the next post from Flanders will bring,” and we can picture him anxiously awaiting the next piece of bad news from his rebellious provinces in the Netherlands. We share his loneliness when his daughters are not with him, and rejoice with him at the birth of his first grandson. We learn of his doubts about the value of alchemical experiments—it could be “a hoax like all the other results of this science”—and share his annoyance on his visit to Portugal when “they want to dress me in brocade, much against my wishes, for they say it is the custom in these parts.”

While these and many other quotations give us an unusually strong sense of how the King saw himself and the major events of his reign, Kamen’s assault on “uninformed mythology” poses more problems. There has, as I have suggested, been no dearth of information in recent years. The biographies of Philip by Pierson and Parker—the first primarily political and the second more personal—are based on first-hand knowledge of the archives, and will surely have helped to disabuse many readers of some of the hoarier legends that surround the King. Indeed, it is enough to look at Merriman’s careful account of the death of Don Carlos to see that the story of the King’s responsibility for the death of his son has long been discredited. Philip is now generally seen as having been confronted with a terrible personal dilemma. The extravagant behavior and uncontrollable violence of his only son and heir forced him to conclude that Don Carlos was unfit to succeed him on the throne. The King therefore placed him in what was intended to be permanent confinement, and intemperate habits hastened the death of the physically and psychologically crippled young man.

As for the question of the murder of Escobedo, Kamen describes Marañón’s “brilliant study” as “full of splendid conjectures,” and writes that “there is no evidence that the king was implicated, or that he encouraged his secretary.” But dark deeds in high places do not invariably yield a set of White House tapes, and it is not clear why Kamen’s brisk assertion of the King’s innocence is more to be trusted than Marañon’s carefully argued case for his guilt.

What, then, of the “new vision” of the King? Like all biographers of European monarchs in this period, Kamen faces the daunting challenge of relating the ruler to the events of his reign. This is all the harder when the documentation—and not least the documentation in the king’s own hand—is as voluminous as it is for Philip II. Kamen claims that his predecessors have written essentially “political” histories, and that “until now, in short, we have known very little about the thoughts, motives and preferences of the man who for half a century… governed the most extensive empire in the world.” Like the works of his predecessors, however, his book contains a large dose of a political narrative, although one that concentrates more heavily on domestic issues than on foreign policy.

The political narrative takes us through the standard events of the second half of the sixteenth century—the war in the Mediterranean against the Ottoman Empire, the revolt of the Netherlands in 1566, the struggle with the Protestant powers of Northern Europe in the later years of the reign—while also examining in rather closer detail Philip’s approach to a variety of domestic issues: his “unswerving” support for the Inquisition, his imposition of Tridentine Catholicism on the Spanish Church, his annexation of Portugal, and his attitude to the factional rivalries among his councillors. Well-informed and up-to-date as this narrative is, it may, however, fail to sustain the interest of readers as they are moved in quick succession from one event to the next.

By adopting an approach that relies for its effects on short, episodic bursts, Kamen tends to deprive his story of sustained development and cumulative impact. In the space of fewer than a dozen pages, for instance, roughly covering the years 1568 to 1570, we are transported from the Morisco rebellion in Granada to deteriorating relations with the England of Elizabeth. We take a brief look at Philip’s uneasy relationship with his bastard half-brother, Don John of Austria, see him married to his fourth wife, Anne of Austria, learn of some far-reaching decisions about his American territories (with the appointment of a cosmographer and chronicler of the Indies thrown in for good measure), and move on to the victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.

There is little connecting link between these episodes other than the person of the King, and the King’s decisions are often merely reported, rather than analyzed. It is instructive, for instance, to compare Kamen’s treatment of an episode in 1555 with that of Braudel. The first half of the sixteenth century had been overshadowed by the great conflict in the Mediterranean and Central Europe between the forces of Christendom, led by the Emperor Charles V, and those of Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1559, at a time when Charles’s younger brother and successor, the Emperor Ferdinand I, was embarking on discussions with the Turks, a small opportunity opened up for negotiating a Spanish-Turkish truce. This would have brought a respite to Spain’s hard-pressed finances, but the opportunity was missed. For Braudel, the King’s costly decision not to follow through on the negotiations was motivated by his desire not to lose face. In retrospect this may be a small episode, but it can be made to yield a telling insight into Philip’s attitudes and responses to issues of policy both in general and in particular. A “fully researched” biography might be expected to pay some attention to the King’s decision, but Kamen dismisses it in an unrevealing sentence: “Philip did not see the need for a formal truce on Spain’s behalf.”19

Kamen’s biography gains notably in strength in those passages, for example in his discussion of the opening stages of the revolt of the Netherlands, when we see the King grappling with hard political choices. But much of the book consists of fairly standard narrative, punctuated by ex cathedra pronouncements by the author, and enlivened by comments made by Philip himself on the events of the day and his reactions to them. These comments are often very revealing, and do indeed shed light, as Kamen claims, on Philip’s “thoughts, motives and preferences.” On heresy in the Netherlands, for instance, he writes: “In these times one has seen from experience that whenever heretics have been treated with moderation they have taken greater liberties.” Or, in reference to his own situation: “One of the problems I have, and they are many, is having so few to help me, when I need a great many. This discourages me a great deal, because what can I do if I don’t have many around to help? And they must be helpers rather than obstructors, as I think some tend to be.” Comments like this, which are scattered throughout the King’s papers and marginal annotations, certainly bring Philip closer, as Kamen intends, but at the same time they give the impression that the King is less the principal actor than a passive spectator of the great events of his reign.

This, however, is consistent with Kamen’s general presentation of the King as a man who, while seeking always to be perfectly informed, takes the advice that is offered him. His ministers, it seems, are not above browbeating him when the occasion seems to warrant it, as when he is reluctantly persuaded to recall the disgraced Duke of Alba to command the army for the invasion of Portugal. While there is some validity to this picture, I suspect that Kamen’s portrait of Philip, who was very conscious of his high royal prerogative, tends to underestimate the degree to which the King reached his own decisions, which were often based on a desperate attempt to reconcile the conflicting opinions of his advisers. The advice might be theirs, but the decision was his own. Kamen himself at one point comments on Philip’s “remarkable ability to change both policy and advisers when the need arose…,” and this hardly suggests a royal cipher.

Yet the impression of a powerless Philip is the one with which he seems to want to leave us. At the end of the book he writes that “Philip was never at any time in adequate control of events, or of his kingdoms, or even of his own destiny. It follows that he cannot be held responsible for more than a small part of what eventually transpired during his reign.” No need then, for a hanging judge here, but more a question of a rescue operation for a much-maligned monarch.

While not an old-style apology, this biography represents the King in a highly benevolent light. Philip’s character, indeed, is largely defined by a series of negatives, as Kamen rejects one after another of the common assumptions about him: “never a religious conservative”; “neither an imperialist nor a crusader”; “he did not have a closed mind”; “he was not a master of duplicity”; “the image of a cloistered king exists only in legend”; “there is no evidence to justify the image of a grave and solemn, almost funereal, Philip.” Who, and what, then, was Philip of Spain? Kamen’s answer is unhesitating: “Philip was by temperament tranquil, subdued and always in control of himself. For the rest, his character was utterly normal.” We have all been misled.

Our deception, it seems, derives from too credulous a reliance on the reports of foreign envoys—in particular those Venetian ambassadors so beloved of Ranke—and on what Kamen calls “the curious mythology” fabricated around Philip, which shows him, for example, receiving with impassivity the great news of victory at Lepanto. Yet while it is no doubt true that the Venetian ambassadors developed their own stereotypes, it is equally true that they were expected to use their eyes and ears, and were in close and continuing contact with leading personalities at the court. Contemporary evidence, for all its distortions, can surely help to build up a cumulative portrait which bears some resemblance to the sitter. Is the image of a cloistered king, for example, so totally misleading when, as Kamen himself tells us, Philip’s grand almoner found it necessary to tell him in the 1570s that he had “deliberately and bit by bit made himself inaccessible and shut himself in a tower without doors and windows”?

One of the problems in getting at the truth is that Philip reigned as king of Spain for forty-two years, and inevitably there were changes with the passage of time. The aging, gout-stricken monarch of the 1590s was very different from the Renaissance prince of the 1550s, and the style of his life and the character of his court naturally reflected this fact. Kamen chides me, no doubt correctly, for describing Philip’s court as “lugubrious,” but it can hardly have been a very jolly place during those long periods of mourning for wives and children that punctuated the reign.

Many of Kamen’s rejections of the cruder versions of the stereotypical image of Philip are certainly justified, even if they are not always as novel as he seems to suggest. Parker, for instance, had already introduced us to a Philip enjoying the more simple pleasures of domestic and family life. Other assertions raise controversial problems of interpretation, like the degree to which Philip had a “broad perspective” and was capable of rising above the minutiae of detail—one of the failings with which contemporaries were most inclined to charge him. At times Kamen seems to contradict himself, telling us in one place that “at that time governments had no policy. They simply responded to events as the need arose,” and then, almost immediately afterward, that Philip “was able to carry out an active foreign policy which was not limited to the Atlantic or Mediterranean, but extended even into the Baltic, Poland and Russia.”

But it is the assertion of the King’s “normality” which remains hardest to swallow. Kamen’s Philip is a man for all seasons, and especially our own: neither shy nor withdrawn; sexually active; religiously “forward-looking”; “very much a European”; and therefore in general politically and culturally sound. It is hard at times to remember that the character in question was the product of generations of interbreeding, that a strain of insanity ran in the family, and, above all, that he was the carefully groomed heir to a line of Habsburg rulers who traced their ancestry back to Augustus and Aeneas and were steeped in dynastic tradition. Philip might sigh at times for the quiet life of a Spanish gentleman with an income of six thousand ducats a year, but he carried with him a crushing weight of ideological baggage. He was, after all, the standard-bearer of a dynasty which saw itself as providentially chosen to sustain the faith, maintain the unity of Christendom, and defend it from the infidel. The knowledge of this defined his relationship with his God and his subjects, and shaped his attitudes and reactions, from the beginning to the end of his days.

This makes it difficult to go along with Kamen’s depiction of Philip as a monarch who, in the final analysis, lost out in the opinion of contemporaries and posterity because of “the extent to which he had failed to project his image”—a sad case, in other words, of marketing failure. Lord Herbert of Cherbury tells a nice story of Philip rebuking one of his ambassadors for abandoning “a business of importance for a ceremony.” To this the ambassador daringly replied: “How, for a ceremony? Your Majesty’s self is but a ceremony.”20 The elaborate court etiquette; the withdrawn style of Philip’s kingship; the understated royal portraits, shorn of allegorical trappings; the Escorial itself, conveying for all eternity a set of messages about the dynasty, its values and assumptions—what else were these but an enormous exercise in self-projection? Drawing upon the disparate elements of his complex inheritance—Habsburg, Flemish, Castilian, Portuguese—Philip devised for himself an image that at once responded to tradition and accorded with his own character and tastes. In the process, the man and the ceremony became fused in a “myth” that Kamen may deplore, but that is part and parcel of the person and the king.

In depicting Philip at close range, traveling from one to another of his royal residences, and maintaining a ceaseless flow of comments on even the most trivial events that were brought to his attention, Kamen has made a valuable preemptive contribution to the flood of publications to which we shall be subjected on the fourth centenary of the King’s death in 1998. The quotations he has unearthed are lively and revealing, and the arguments he puts forward will provoke reflection and debate, both about the character of the King, and about the degree to which he was his own master.

But the doubts—and the enigma—remain.

At the centre of this vast structure sat a man whom historians have had singular difficulty in comprehending. The prudent king, el rey prudente, was a man of extreme reserve and seriousness. A devoted husband and father, four times married, he was also a profoundly religious man, utterly dedicated to the interests of his faith. Retiring in mid-reign to the magnificent palace-monastery of the Escorial, which he had built in the hills northwest of Madrid, he led a life of complete austerity among the monks of St. Jerome. It was here that he received, on both occasions with remarkable impassivity, the news of the victory of Lepanto in 1571 and of the defeat of the Armada in 1588.21

This was the portrait of Philip which Kamen himself painted thirty years ago. No doubt some modifications are in order, but I still find this earlier portrait more persuasive, and truer to the original, than the fourth centennial portrait he now unveils to a fanfare of trumpets in his clever but ultimately exasperating book.

This Issue

September 25, 1997