Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Duty first - of Philip II, his Tudor Matter and life in general

by Anna Belfrage

Philip II
Philip II of Spain tends to be remembered for two – well, three – things from an English perspective:

  • He married Mary Tudor – a match not exactly made in heaven between a love-sick woman and a man who married out of political obligations 
  • He wooed his former sister-in-law Elizabeth Tudor, supposedly hoping to marry her when Mary died 
  • He sent the Spanish Armada to conquer England.

One could think, based on this, that Philip had a special affinity for England, that his heart and soul longed to be an Englishman. I’m sorry to break this to you, but from Philip’s perspective, England was pretty insignificant – this was a man with more titles than would fit on the fly leaf of a Bible, ruler of a huge empire. No, Philip’s interest in England emanated from his irritation with this pesky Protestant kingdom and its determined support to those equally pesky Protestants in the Spanish Dominions.

Philip II comes down to us through the years as something of a bore. Too stiff, too dour, too fond of black…Rarely does anyone mention his impressive library in El Escorial, where the books were turned the wrong way so that instead of spines, the visitors saw only gold-edged pages. Rarely does anyone mention that Philip had read a substantial part of all those books – conversant in multiple languages, raised to rule, and from a family that set a high value on schooling their princes, Philip had received an excellent and thorough education. And rarely does anyone mention his other wives, his problems with his children, his affectionate letters to his daughters, his carefully chosen gifts to both his children and his wives – or his gruesome death.

So today, I thought we’d spend some time with Philip – or Felipe el Prudente, as those of us who speak Castilian prefer to call him.

Charles I&V
Being born the son of an extremely capable man is not always a blessing. In this case, Philip II had giant footprints to fill, but he doesn’t seem to have been unduly daunted. Philip was born the eldest son of Charles I & V, that powerful Holy Roman Emperor who was ever a champion of his aunt, Catherine of Aragon (see? Another, if indirect, English connection) who ruled an empire so vast he decided it was too big for any mortal man to manage well – which was why, upon Charles’ death, Philip did not become the next Holy Roman Emperor. Being King of Spain and its growing empire was enough of a challenge.

Charles married Philip’s mother to make his Spanish grandees happy. He himself was in no hurry to wed, but by all accounts he was happy with his Portuguese wife, and his son and heir was raised in a harmonious household. Once again, to appease those Spanish grandees, Philip was raised in Spain, speaking Castilian as his first language.

Philip was a serious man – and somewhat shy. Already as a boy, his distinguishing characteristic was his sense of duty. Duty to his father, duty to his mother, duty to his tutors – and as he grew, this would morph into duty to his country, to his family and wives.

Rarely did Philip do something for himself. Never did he caper about while warbling “don’t worry, be happy.” In Philip’s strictly regimented life, happy was not something a serious man aspired to, and as to worry, well Philip always worried. About being good enough. About the lack of sons. About the situation in England. About the Spanish Netherlands. About God. About the state of his linens – Philip had an abhorrence of anything dirty and was meticulous about his hygiene. Major plus, if you ask me…

Charles was quite taken with this reflective son of his, and once Philip was over his childhood years, father and son bonded as Charles tried to teach Philip everything he knew about ruling an empire consisting of various people, various languages, various cultures. There was one fundamental difference between Charles and Philip: Charles had been raised in the polyglot court of his aunt Margaret of Austria, had as a matter of course been exposed to various creeds, various cultures. Philip, on the other hand, had been raised in the tender care of devoted Catholics in a country that viewed all cultures but their own with a sizeable pinch of suspicion. Let’s just say that Philip’s upbringing left him somewhat less…flexible.

He was however, ever the obedient and dutiful son. So when Charles arranged Philip’s first marriage with Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal, Philip of course agreed. As an aside, being a prince – just as much as being a princess – meant little say in who you married. Royal marriage was for building alliances and consolidating power, not for something as ephemeral as love.

Purportedly Maria Manuela
Anyway: Maria Manuela and Philip were of an age – both of them were sixteen – and liked each other well enough. They were also very closely related: Maria’s mother was Philip’s paternal aunt, and Philip’s mother was Maria’s paternal aunt, plus Philip’s maternal grandmother was his father’s maternal aunt. Well: let’s just say it was complicated. Very complicated – and it didn’t help that the somewhat unstable bloodline of Juana of Castile  appeared all over the place. So when little Maria Manuela gave birth to a son in 1545, the baby had a DNA cocktail that did not exactly predestine him to greatness. Even worse, Maria died in childbirth, and Philip was left with a feeble if male heir but no wife.

Years passed. In England, that heretic of a king, the man who’d broken with the Holy Church, finally died – and it was Philip’s conviction Henry VIII was destined for hell. As we all know, Henry’s son was not long for this world, and in 1553, Mary Tudor became Queen of England.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles made happy sounds, as did the Pope. At last an opportunity to bring England back into the fold of the true faith! At the time, Mary was in her late thirties. She was more than aware that time was running out, and she desperately wanted an heir of impeccable Catholic lineage. Charles slid a look at his son – at the time 27 or so – slid a look at Mary, and suggested they wed, despite being cousins. Well: it was suggested to Mary – Philip was ordered to comply with daddy’s wishes.

Mary, wearing Philip's gift to her,
the famous pearl La peregrina
Mary was over the moon. Handsome Philip had everything she desired in a bridegroom. Whether the groom was as thrilled is debatable – his aide wrote that “the marriage was concluded for no fleshly consideration” – but as always Philip set his shoulders and proceeded to do his duty. In this case, his duty was to check the growing power of France and preserve control over the Low Countries. A fiercely Protestant England had offered succour to the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands, but now, with Mary and Philip firmly in charge, such safe harbours no longer existed. Philip could therefore hope to quell the difficult Dutch before they all embraced the Reformation. That did not go so well for him, putting it mildly, but that is a story for another day.

Mary very much wanted to become pregnant. Here, yet again, Philip did his duty, but despite hope, prayers and effort there was no child – there was just a phantom pregnancy. Philip seems to have doubted all along that Mary was pregnant, and after the sad matter had come to an end, he left his bride for the restless Low Countries. Mary was inconsolable. What Philip felt is unknown, but he was courteous enough to bid his wife a tender farewell.

Philip and Mary
We are now in 1555, and this is when Philip supposedly was starting to regard Elizabeth Tudor as a potential replacement for his sister. Hmm. At the time, Mary was not yet forty, and while barren there was nothing to suggest she was about to die anytime soon. Not that Philip did not enjoy Elizabeth’s company – he liked intelligent and erudite women – and Elizabeth came with the added plus of being younger than Philip rather than eleven years older. But there were issues regarding Elizabeth’s faith, and Philip would never consider marrying a Protestant – his soul shrieked in pain at the thought.

Still, I imagine there was some attraction, and Elizabeth was smart enough to establish a cordial relationship with her brother-in-law, very soon to become one of the more powerful European monarchs.  In 1556, Charles abdicated in favour of his son and brother. Philip became king of Spain and all its dominions, his uncle became the next Holy Roman Emperor, based in the historical homeland of the Hapsburgs, namely Austria.

Mary’s reign was plagued by famine, by her cleansing of the heretics among her subjects, by dwindling trade as her Spanish husband forbade her from doing anything detrimental to Spain. Of course her subjects grumbled, and there were plots aplenty – even, in some cases, headed by her Catholic subjects. France and Spain were at loggerheads, and with Mary being married to Philip, France considered England an enemy too – rightly so, as per Philip, who wanted England’s help in defeating these upstart Frenchies who had the temerity to question just who was the most important Catholic monarch in the world. That’s why Philip popped by on a visit in 1557 – to convince Mary to support war with France. Mary hoped this conjugal visit would lead to other things, and lo and behold, some months later Mary declared herself pregnant. Yet again, a phantom pregnancy…

Poor Mary – no child, no loving husband, just a cool political union as expressed by Philip’s rather laconic comment upon hearing about Mary’s death in 1558. “I feel reasonable regret,” he said.

Elizabeth of Valois
Philip had other matters to concern himself, first and foremost the situation in France. And then there was the matter of his son, Don Carlos, all of thirteen and showing worrying signs of mental instability. Don Carlos had been proposed as a groom for Elizabeth of Valois, this as an attempt to heal the rift between France and Spain. At the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, Philip went one step further and offered to marry Elizabeth himself, despite an age difference of almost twenty years.

By all accounts, this was a very happy marriage. Philip was a devoted husband, entranced by his pretty and vivacious wife. She stood by his side during that most difficult time in his life, when his son went from bad to worse until at last Philip had no option but to incarcerate Don Carlos, by now mad as a hatter. Philip’s little wife might have been young, but she was wise, and in her company he found comfort and hope – plus she gave him children. Daughters, to be sure, but healthy living children. A son would surely follow. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Elizabeth died in childbirth – yet another girl, stillborn, and Philip was devastated.

By now we’re in 1568, and while relationships with France remained coolly cordial, Philip now had another mess on his hands: the Low Countries had risen in insurrection, protesting the heavy yoke of Spanish taxes and demanding the right to embrace the Protestant faith. England, of course, hastened to the aid of their religious brethren. Philip was pissed off, putting it mildly. Here he’d been advocating a lenient approach towards the upstart English and their Protestant queen, urging the Pope to cool down, not do anything hasty, and this is how the English dogs repaid him?

On top of the utter political mess in the Spanish Netherlands, plus the rather urgent matter of halting Ottoman expansion into Europe, Philip had the pressing matter of begetting an heir, which was why he married his niece, Anna of Austria, in 1570.

Little Diego
Anna was yet another young bride, more than twenty years his junior, but just like Elizabeth she was affectionate and kind, and Philip was as happy with her as he’d been with his French princess. Anna gave Philip sons – beautiful boys, and Philip had his heir, the Infante Fernando, who died at age six in dysentery. A grief-struck father consoled himself with the fact that there was the Infante Diego to take the dead son’s place. Except that four years later he also died, this time of small-pox. Fortunately, there was one son left, little Philip. Not that Philip was the son his father would have hoped for, being small and sickly, but at least he was alive.

Anna of Austria
Anna died in 1580, leaving Philip a widower for the fourth time. He was never to re-marry. Instead, he invested his efforts in his children and his empire, a lot of his energy directed at pacifying the Dutch now that the Ottomans had been adequately crushed at Lepanto in 1571.

In England, Elizabeth encouraged support to the Dutch, quietly applauded English pirates when they attacked the treasure-laden Spanish galleons, and in general caused Philip much irritation. But so far, Elizabeth had no children, and the obvious heir to the English crown was therefore Mary, Queen of Scots, at present Elizabeth’s prisoner. A light in the tunnel for Catholics everywhere, was Mary – a light brutally extinguished when Elizabeth was prevailed upon to sign the execution order for her cousin in 1587.

The situation in the Spanish Netherlands went from bad to worse, and with Mary dead, there was no hope the English would come to their senses all by themselves and turn from their heretic faith. No, it fell upon Philip to take responsibility for their souls – and, while he was at it, effectively squash all support for the Dutch reformers – which was why he decided to send the Armada, an effort to invade England and once and for all reinstall the Catholic faith. We all know how that ended, don’t we?

Philip in his younger years
Today, we tend to measure Philip by his few failures rather than his numerous successes. Partly because he was who he was, partly because of his turn-coat secretary Antonio Pérez, generations of Europeans have been fed an image of Philip as a cold-hearted fanatic who delighted in seeing heretics twist in torment. Philip has become a victim to the Black Legend, whereby Spain – and Philip – are depicted as infested by evil. Philip has been accused of killing his own son, of strangling prisoners with his own hands. He had been defamed and ridiculed – even in his own lifetime – and rarely has anyone risen to defend him, least of all Philip himself, who chose to never respond to the more ludicrous of Pérez’ accusations.

I would argue Philip was much more than this: in his private letters, we see a man who concerned himself greatly with the well-being of those he loved. In how he managed his empire, we see a man who eschewed absolute power, attempting instead to ensure there were future controls in place. Genuinely devout, he quelled some of the more fanatic aspects of the Counter-Reformation, he encouraged learning and education and brought Spain firmly out of the Middle Ages. Yes, he was the enemy of Protestants' champions such as William the Silent. But he was equally the hero of his Catholic subjects, the determined defender of Europe against the Ottomans, and a man who always tried to do his duty. Always.

Philip's favourite daughter, Catalina
In 1598, an old and weakened Philip fell ill. By now, he was a lonely old man – of his eleven children only three remained alive, and his favourite daughter had recently died, the single occasion in which Philip gave in to open despair, cursing fate for taking his loved ones from him. For 55 days, the king lay dying, covered in pustules and weeping sores. Incapable of rising from his bed, he lay in his stinking waste, any attempt at keeping him clean futile. A humiliating death for a man who abhorred being dirty. He died clutching the same crucifix his father had held when he died. At the moment of his death he was lucid, and it is said he saw Death coming and smiled in welcome, free at last from this life of duty and sorrows – so many sorrows.


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of eight published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Anna's books have won several awards - recently, one of her books won the HNS Indie Book of the Year Award -  and are available on Amazon, or wherever else good books are sold.

Presently, Anna is working on a new series set in 14th century England - the first installment will be published in November 2015. Plus, after the above, she's thinking Philip II has potential as a character...

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.


  1. Brilliant short essay, Anna! It really shines a different light on Philip. It's not my period, so I hadn't known much about him, but you have made me more interested. Also a good reminder of how much popular history is still dominated by contemporary or later propaganda. It is almost always worth digging deeper and examining historical figures from different perspectives.

    1. Thank you, Helena.
      The more I read about Philip and his father, the more I want to know. And yes, you're right; historical people reach us as distorted images of who they were - victims to their chroniclers and bias in general.

  2. Very interesting post. Thank you, I learned alot.

  3. Very interesting article ! However, you did not mention the fact that after Mary I's death, Philip did actually propose marriage to Elizabeth Tudor (and sent her a letter he wrote himself in that purpose). This has been seen in his correspondance with the Count of Feria, the Spanish ambassador in England, in which he gave Feria orders to sound Elizabeth about his proposal. You can find it translated online.


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