Despite his ghastly reputation, Philip of Spain was really an all-round regular king, says CHRISTOPHER HAIGH
Philip of Spain by Henry Kamen, Yale University Press, £25.
PHILIP II has been one of the bogey-men of English nationalist history, an Adolf Hitler in doublet and hose ideological fanatic, ruthless persecutor, dominator of Europe, and would-be conqueror of gallant little England. lithe defeat of the Luftwaffe was Britain's "finest hour", the defeat of the Spanish Armada was surely England's. And, of course, the worse Philip looked, the more glorious was England's victory. So he was accused of murder, tyranny, cruelty, and overwhelming self-righteousness.
It was easy to hate him, and almost everyone did the Dutch, the Italians, the Moriscos, the Portuguese, the Aragonese and, as taxes increased, eventually the Castilians too. Philip knew he had become a mythic figure: "I don't know if they think I'm made of iron or stone. The truth is, they need to see that I am mortal, like everyone else", he wrote in 1578. Philip II was human, and Henry Kamen meticulously shows him, smiles and all.
Philip of Spain was an allround regular king, a dedicated professional. He was regent of Spain at fifteen, and king for forty-two years. He commanded armies, organised tournaments, built palaces, commissioned portraits, and bought artworks (he liked Titian and Bosch, but not El Greco). Above all, he pushed paper or rather, he tried to push paper but it piled up until he almost sank beneath it. Philip was a royal bureaucrat, struggling to keep up. He usually worked from 8 am, and carried on until he could take no more: "It's past ten and I haven't had dinner, and my table is full of papers for tomorrow; I can't manage any more now." He much preferred to have reports on paper, and regarded meetings as a waste of time: "I am burdened with so many audi
ences that they don't leave me time to settle anything". But the flow of paper was impossible to control. "My papers are in total confusion", he admitted in 1573. "I want to put them all in order and tear up those no longer needed and arrange the rest." Philip needed McKinseys to sort out his life.
But there was much more to Philip than bureaucratic routine. He was a farnik man: an adequate husband (he had four tries, and got better each time), and a loving father (he had eight children, and two daughters were confidants). His letters to close relatives were warm-hearted and frank (and an excellent source for an assiduous biographer). He may have had mistresses (but the evidence is unreliable, and he may not). He was a gardener, and a fisherman. For such an enthusiastic hunter, he was surprisingly squeamish. He didn't like bull-fights, and though he sometimes presided at the public humiliation of heretics he left before the burnings began. Henry Kamen calls him an ecologist and a good European, but perhaps that's going a bit far: he liked forests, and he ruled lots of Europe.
In religion, Philip was more than conventionally pious. He heard mass every day, and received communion four times a year. He went into retreat for Holy Week, and spent hours in prayer (especially later in life). He prayed and fretted for a year when his secretary was suspected of murder: "I cannot manage to clear my conscience. I shall go to confession and communion, and trust God to guide me to make the proper decision." The secretary was arrested. Philip was a determined collector of relics, and accumulated 7,000 holy items at the Escorial. In his last weeks his bedroom walls were covered with images and crucifixes, and his gout was treated with an arm of St Vincent Ferrer and a knee of St Sebastian. He died on 13 September 1598, with a candle dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat in one hand and in the other the crucifix his father had held as he died.
Philip's religion really mattered to him. Of course, it mattered to others as well, especially to Protestants. In fact, Philip had opposed Mary Tudor's burning of heretics, but in Spain he encouraged the work of the Inquisition and protected its jurisdiction. News of the massacre of French Protestants in 1572 gave him "one of the greatest moments of satisfaction that I have had in all my life". He had been determined to crush Protestantism in his Nether
lands territories, and told Pius V, "I do not intend to rule over heretics". But twenty years of war brought no solution, and by 1589 he was contemplating limited toleration. Like most of his contemporaries, Philip thought heretics should recant or die: unlike most of them, he could impose the choice.
Kamen's solid biography makes Philip a believable politician, cautious, flexible, conscientious and unsuccessful. Against the odds, Kamen almost makes him likeable. Philip dropped the title "Majesty" and wanted to be "Senor": his servants called him "The Boss". He suffered agonies from gout for 30 years, his friends and family died in batches, his armies were defeated and his fleets sank, but he got on with the job of being king, pushing the paper. And he went to university lectures just for fun!
Christopher Haigh teaches History at Christ Church, Oxford.