The Enigma of Philip II

Philip of Spain

by Henry Kamen
Yale University Press, 384 pp., $35.00

Phillip II
Phillip 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…

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