Philip II of Spain

Philip II of Spain
Philip II of Spain

Philip II (Spanish: Felipe II de Habsburgo; Portuguese: Filipe I) (May 21, 1527September 13, 1598), known to some historians by the indelicate nickname "Philip the Sap", was the first official King of Spain from 1556 until 1598, king of Naples and Sicily from 1554 until 1598, King of England (co-regent with Mary I) from 1554 to 1558, King of Portugal and the Algarves (as Philip I) from 1580 until 1598 and King of Chile from 1554 until 1556. He was born at Valladolid and was the only legitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Isabella, the daughter of king Manuel I of Portugal, to survive childhood.

Marriage and Issue

Spanish (and Portuguese) Royalty
House of Habsburg

Charles I
   Prince Philip
   Joan of Habsburg
Philip II (I of Portugal)
Children include
   Prince Charles
   Princess Isabella
   Princess Catarina
   Prince Philip
Philip III (II of Portugal)
Children include
   Anne of Austria
   Prince Philip
   Princess Maria
   Prince Charles
   Cardinal-Prince Ferdinand
Philip IV (III of Portugal)
Children include
   Baltasar Carlos
   Princess Maria Theresa
   Princess Margaret
   Prince Charles
Charles II

  • Philip sought an alliance with the Kingdom of England, marrying the Catholic Queen Mary I of England in 1554. Under the terms of the marriage, Philip became King Consort during the lifetime of his spouse. The marriage was unpopular with her subjects, and was a purely political alliance as far as Philip was concerned. On January 16, 1556, Philip succeeded to the throne of Spain, as a result of his father's abdication, but he did not choose to reside in the country until his father's death two years later. After Mary died childless in 1558, Philip showed an interest in marrying her Protestant younger half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I of England, but this plan fell through, for a number of reasons. Philip believed his son Don Carlos had conspired against him; as a result, Philip had him imprisoned. When the prince died shortly thereafter, Philip's enemies accused him of having ordered the murder of his own son. There is limited evidence for this; it was long believed that he was poisoned, but nowadays it seems that his unhealthy habits of excessive eating and drinking were the reason for his untimely death.
  • In 1559 the 60-year war with France ended with the signing of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. Part of the peace process was Philip's third marriage to Princess Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of Henri II of France who in fact had first been promised to his son, Don Carlos. Elisabeth (1545-1568), did not provide him with a son, but did give him two daughters: -- Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela.
  • Philip's fourth wife, Anne, daughter of the emperor Maximilian II, provided him with an heir, Philip III.


During Philip II's reign the Philippine Islands were conquered and named for him and a North American colony was established in Florida. Trade across the Pacific between Asia and America, that would be carried by the famed Manila galleons for nearly three centuries, was initiated in 1565.

But his reign was troubled by financial instability and threatened by Muslim invasion, and other conflicts such as the secession of the Netherlands, and wars with France and England. Philip also faced various rebellions against his rule within mainland Spain, most notably the Morisco Revolt of 1568, and the Aragonese revolt following the Antonio Perez affair, as Philip attempted to arrest him through use of the Inquisition, thereby breaching the fueros of Aragon.

Spain's quagmire in the Netherlands, the defeat of its Armada in 1588, and the economic strain of supporting so many wars with an insufficient tax base forced Philip to maintain heavy taxation on too narrow a tax base. In the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands, Philip II continued the policies of heavy taxation since Charles V. Like Charles V, he continued to exclude local nobility from administration, preferring the use of a Castilian Consulta, maintained an army of occupation, and upheld an Inquisition to stop the advance of Calvinism.

Philip II, King of Spain, by Titian
Philip II, King of Spain, by Titian

Revolt in the Netherlands

Following the 1566 Calvinist revolt, Philip II set out to stamp out treason and heresy. Issuing a new sales tax of roughly ten percent to pay for the required military expenditures (the 10th penny), the situation in the Netherlands only worsened. The region fell under open revolt once again in 1568 under William the Silent of the House of Orange, crushed by the brutal Spanish Fury led by the Duke of Alba, who convened the council of troubles (or council of blood as it came to be known), to condemn thousands to death and confiscate land. But following the Pacification of Ghent in 1576, malnourished Spanish troops, formerly considered invincible, especially after the successful campaign against the Ottomans, mutinied. The Dutch Calvinists declared that Spanish soldiers must be expelled and to be governed by the Estates General. But the Spanish took advantage of the strong religious, cultural and linguistic variation between the southern and northern provinces, playing local aristocrats against each other and recapturing the Southern provinces. Secure behind the "Great Rivers" of the Rhine delta, the north of the Netherlands emerged as the United Provinces.

The seven United Provinces eventually declared their independence from the Spanish king in 1581 following the Union of Utrecht of 1579, their leader, William I, Prince of Orange (William the Silent) was outlawed by Philip, and assassinated in 1584 by a Catholic fanatic.

Economic troubles

Aside from draining state revenues for failed overseas adventurism, the domestic policies of Philip II further burdened Spain, that would, in the following century, contribute to its decline. For one, far too much power was concentrated in Philip's hands. Unlike England, Spain was subject to separate assemblies: the Cortes in Castile along with the assembly in Navarre and three for each of the three regions of Aragon, each of which jealously guarded their traditional rights and laws inherited from the time they were separate kingdoms. This made Spain and its possessions cumbersome to rule. While France was divided by regional states, it had a single Estates-General. The lack of a viable supreme assembly would lead to a great deal of power being concentrated in Philip's hands, but this was made necessary by the constant conflict between different authorities that required his direct intervention as the final arbiter. To deal with the difficulties arising from this situation authority was administered by local agents appointed by the crown and viceroys carried out instructions of the crown. Philip, a compulsive micro-manager, presided over specialized councils for state affairs, finance, war, and the Inquisition. A distrustful sovereign, Philip played royal bureaucrats against each other, leading to a system of checks and balances that would manage state affairs in a very inefficient manner, sometimes damaging state business (leading to the Perez affair). Calls to move capital to Lisbon from the Castilian stronghold of Madrid — the new capital Philip established following the move from Valladolid — could have perhaps lead to a degree of decentralization, but Philip adamantl opposed such efforts.

Philip's regime severely neglected farming in favor of sheep ranching, thus forcing Spain to import large amounts of grain and other foods by the mid-1560s. Presiding over a sharply divided conservative class structure, the Church and the upper classes were exempt from taxation (to be expected, considering their lack of parliamentary powers) while the tax burden fell disproportionately on the classes engaged in trade, commerce, and industry.

Due to the inefficiencies of the Spanish state structure, industry was also greatly over-burdened by government regulations, though this was the common defect of all governments of the times. The dispersal of the Moriscos from Granada (motivated by the fear they might support a Muslim invasion) had serious negative economic effects, particularly in the region it affected.

Inflation throughout Europe in the sixteenth century was a broad and complex phenomenon, but the flood of bullion from Americas was the main cause of it in Spain. Under Philip's reign, Spain saw a fivefold increase in prices. Due to inflation and a high tax burden for Spanish manufacturers and merchants Spanish industry was harmed and Spain’s riches were frittered away on imported manufactured goods by an opulent, status obsessed, aristocracy and Philip's wars. Increasingly the country became dependent on the revenues flowing in from the mercantile empire in the Americas, leading to Spain's first bankruptcy (moratorium) in 1557 due to the rising costs of military efforts. Dependent on sales taxes from Castile and the Netherlands, Spain's tax base, which excluded the nobility and the wealthy church, had far too narrow a base to support Philip's grand plans. Philip became increasingly dependent on loans from foreign bankers, particularly in Genoa and Augsburg. By the end of his reign, interest payments on these loans alone would account for 40% of state revenue.

Philip becomes King of Portugal

Philip became King of Portugal, and the success of colonization in America improved his financial position, enabling him to show greater aggression towards his enemies. In 1580 the direct line of Portuguese royal family ended when Sebastian of Portugal died following a disastrous campaign in Morocco, giving Philip (who was his uncle) the pretext to claim the throne through his mother, who was also a Portuguese princess. As a matter of fact, Philip was brought up by Portuguese courtisans during his early life and spoke Portuguese as main language until the death of his mother. He met little resistance in Lisbon, and his power helped him seizing the throne, which would be kept a personal union for sixty years. Philip famously remarked upon his acquisition of the Portuguese throne: "I inherited, I bought, I conquered", a variation on Julius Caesar and Veni, Vidi, Vici. Thus, Philip added to his possessions a vast colonial empire in Africa, Brazil, and the East Indies, seeing a flood of new revenues coming to the Spanish crown. In the ruling of Portugal however, Philip showed tact, trimming his beard and wearing clothes in the Portuguese style, and ruling from Lisbon for the next couple of years, leaving Portuguese privileges and fueros alone.

War with England

Another ostensible boost to Spanish hegemony and the Counter-Reformation achieved a clear boost when Philip married Mary Tudor — a Catholic — in 1554 (the older daughter of Henry VIII). However, they ended up childless (a child would have been heir to all but France) after Queen Mary or “bloody Mary” as she was known by English Protestants, died in 1558 before the union could revitalize the Catholic Church in England.

The throne went to the formidable Elizabeth, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. But due to their premises against divorce, this union was deemed illegitimate by English Catholics, who instead claimed that Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic great-granddaughter of Henry VII, was the legitimate heir to the throne.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots upset his hopes to help place a Catholic on the English throne but did not stop his plans for an attempt to invade England. Because England provided support for the Dutch rebels war had broken out in 1585 and Philip thus sought to oust Elizabeth I with an invasion by means of the Spanish Armada. However, the so-called "Protestant Wind" thwarted Spanish ambitions, enabling the small, deftly manoeuverable English ships to out-manoeuver the larger Spanish ships. Two more armadas would be sent during Philip's reign, both of which would fail, and this particular Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) would be fought to a grinding end, until the death of both Philip II and Elizabeth I.

The devastating 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada gave great heart to the Protestant cause across Europe. Many Spaniards blamed the admiral of the Armada for its failure, but Philip was not among them. An attempt by England to make use of her sudden advantage at sea with a counter armada of her own the following year backfired disastrously and the war thereafter generally went Spain's way. The navy was rebuilt, and intelligence networks improved. The effort paid off by frustrating buccaneering, and attempts to seize territories in the Caribbean (though Cadiz was destroyed by an Anglo-Dutch force in a failed raid to seize the treasure fleet). Still Philip was bankrupt by 1596 after France had declared war upon Spain the previous year. In the last decade of his life, however, more silver and gold was shipped safely to Spain than ever before which allowed Spanish military efforts to be sustained.

War with France

From 1590 to 1598 he was again at war against the Huguenot King Henry IV of France, joining with the Papacy and the Duke of Guise in the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion. Philip's interventions in the French wars of religion (sending Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma to relieve the siege of Paris in 1590, and again into Rouen in 1592), to aid the Catholic faction, was disastrous in terms of the Dutch Revolt, allowing the rebels time to regroup and refortify their defenses. Henry IV of France was also able to use his propagandists to identify the Catholic faction with a foreign enemy (Philip and Spain), damaging the Catholic cause in France somewhat. In June 1595 the redoubtable French king defeated the Spanish supported Holy League in Fontaine-Francaise in Burgundy and reconquered Amiens from the overstretched Spanish forces in September 1597. The 1598 Treaty of Vervins was to many extents a restatement of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis 1559, and so after all the pain and loss of war all that was achieved was a return to the status quo of early in Philip's reign. The French monarch had recovered control of France from Spain's allies, but he had to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to do so, an ironic victory for the Habsburg sponsored Counter Reformation.


Under Philip II Spain reached the peak of its power but also met its limits. Having nearly reconquered the rebellious Netherlands, Philip's unyielding attitude led to their loss, this time permanently, as his wars expanded in scope and complexity. So in spite of the great and increasing quantities of gold and silver flowing into his coffers from the American mines, the riches of the Portuguese spice trade and the enthusiastic support of the Habsburg dominions for the Counter-Reformation he would never succeed in turning the clock back upon religious freedom or defeating the Dutch rebellion. Early in his reign the Dutch would have laid down their weapons if he would desist in trying to suppress Protestantism, but his devotion to Roman Catholicism and the principal cuius regio, eius religio, as laid down by his father, would not permit him. He showed none of the imaginative flexibility and grasp of reality that was shown by his French counterpart, Henri IV. He never seems to have been troubled overmuch by the contradiction of demanding tolerance in Protestant lands for Catholics when showing none to Protestants in territories for which he claimed sovereignty. These "wars against the heresies" led not only to the persecution of Protestants, but also to the harsh treatment of the Moriscos, causing local insurgencies and economic damage in Spain itself. The damage of these endless wars would ultimately undermine the Spanish Habsburg empire after his passing. His endless meddling in details and failure to effectively delegate authority hamstrung his government and led to the creation of a cumbersome and overly centralised bureaucracy. Under the weak leadership of his uninterested successors it would drift towards disaster. Yet such was the strength of the system he and his father had built this would not start to become clearly apparent until a generation after his death.

However Philip II's reign cannot simply be characterised as a failure. He consolidated Spain's overseas empire, succeeded in greatly increasing the importation of silver in the face of English, Dutch and French bucaneering, and ended the threat posed to Europe by the Ottoman navy (though clashes would be ongoing throughout his reign). He succeeded in uniting Portugal and Spain through personal union. He dealt successfully with a crisis that could have led to the succession of Aragon. His efforts also contributed substantially to the success of the Counter-Reformation in staunching the collapse of the Roman Catholic faith. Philip was a complex man, and though given to suspicion of members of his court, was not the cruel tyrant that has been painted of him by his opponents. Philip was known to intervene personally on behalf of the humblest of his subjects. Above all a man of duty; he was also trapped by it.

He died in 1598 and was succeeded by his son, King Philip III. Philip's enemies (generally Protestant propagandists), were instrumental in the creation of the Black Legend of Spain, depicting Philip II as a bloodthirsty tyrant among other things. This view has recently been challenged by historians.

Preceded by:
Antonio, Prior of Crato
King of Portugal
Succeeded by:
Philip II/III
Preceded by:
Charles I
King of Naples and Sicily
King of Spain
Duke of Brabant, Guelders, Limburg, Lothier and Luxembourg
Count of Artois, Burgundy, Flanders, Hainaut and Namur

Succeeded by:
Isabella and Albert
Count of Holland, Zeeland and Zutphen
lost to the United Provinces

Preceded by:
Lord Guilford Dudley
King Consort of England
Succeeded by:
Anne of Denmark

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