Thanks to his Hapsburg predecessors, Felipe (as he was born) inherited a large portion of the world. His lands included not only most of the important bits of Europe, but territories on every continent known to the Europeans – including the Philippine Islands, named after him. In a life spanning 71 years, he proved himself not just a renowned despot, but a man of letters with a love of music and art. He amassed one of the greatest collections of art and rare books in history at San Lorenzo de El Escorial (his palace outside of Madrid). Deeply religious, he also made the Escorial home to a Hieronymite monastery and an Augustinian-run school and the greatest of reliquaries outside the Vatican. His lifetime encompassed Spain’s golden age, for some obvious reasons.
Born in May 1527 AD with far, far more than the proverbial silver spoon, Philip was son to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Infanta Isabella of Portugal. At the age of eleven months, he received the oath of fealty from the Cortes of Castile, and his future was assured. The boy was raised at court, and tutored by such notables as Juan Siliceo (future archbishop of Toledo) and the humanist Juan de Estrella. His martial training was undertaken by Juan de Zuniga, commander-mayor of Castile, and the famed Duke of Alba with whom Philip served during the Italian War of 1542.
Convinced that his son was well-prepared, the ailing emperor began abdicating his many thrones to Philip, commencing with those of Sicily and Naples first in 1554. Already Duke of Milan, at the age of 27 Philip II was a king. In 1555, in his most public announcement, Charles informed the States General of the Netherlands that he was retiring to a monastery and Philip would henceforth rule that land. Charles then abdicated the throne of the Spanish Empire in January 1558 with minimal fanfare. Philip now ruled an empire on which, truly, the sun never set.
With the exception of such unpleasantries as the execution of the Attorney-General of Aragon when he objected to Philip’s breach of Aragon’s law, the garrisoning of troops in Navarre in breach of its laws, and unlawful appointments of Castilian officials in Pamplona (Philip seems to have found the Spanish laws annoying), Philip’s early reign was fairly benign. He was however a firm believer, obviously, in the divine right of kings – that God had made him king of Spain and that, as God could not make a mistake, neither could he.
The first was to his cousin Maria of Portugal in 1543; she died two years later giving birth to the unlucky Don Carlos who, at the order of his father, was later imprisoned in the Alcazar of Madrid where he died after six months. A decade later Philip married Mary I of England, better known as “Bloody Mary,” making him the king-consort of England and Ireland … but Mary died in 1558. Mary was barely buried when it was the turn of Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of King Henri II of France, in 1559 to seal the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis ending the warfare between Spain and France. She did give Philip two daughters, but died herself in 1568. Finally, returning to keeping it in the family, in 1570 he wed Anna of Austria, his niece. She lasted a decade before dying, but she did give him a male heir (who would become Philip III).
But it was his troubles with another woman that changed civilization. Philip, by virtue of his marriage to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, was – or at least considered himself to be – king of England. When Mary passed and those stiff-necked Brits elevated Elizabeth I to the throne instead of accepting Philip’s claim, he was irritated. Worse, Elizabeth promoted the Church of England her father had founded and began dismantling the Catholicism Bloody Mary had reinstated. England was Protestant, again, and that Philip couldn’t abide. Even worse than that, Elizabeth encouraged English colonization of the New World … and gave tacit backing to the English “pirates” that were preying on Spain’s shipping there. It was more than a man could bear.
Then, in 1585, Elizabeth sent an English army to aid the Protestant Dutch, in rebellion against Spanish rule. It was the last straw. Two years later, Elizabeth’s favorite Sir Francis Drake captained a successful raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz, destroying a number of Philip’s warships. Rebuilding his fleet, Philip launched the “Spanish Armada” in July 1588; it was an unmitigated disaster. And shifted the balance of power in Protestant England’s favor. Three more armadas were assembled, but the ones in 1596 and 1597 were defeated and the one of 1599 had to be diverted to the Azores to fend off British raids. The Anglo-Spanish War would drag on to a desultory end in 1604, after both Philip and Elizabeth were dead.
With Spain now weakened, Philip faced an increasing tide of troubles. Revolt in the Netherlands, war against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean, religious wars in France, agitation in the Cortes in several places, involvement in the morass of the Italian Wars at the behest of the papacy, unrest in the colonies. And he was broke. Charles V had saddled Philip with a 36 million ducat debt and a deficit of a million ducats annually. Philip would default on loans four times by 1596. Reduced revenues to the crown from overseas (thanks in part to those British sea dogs) and involvement in so many conflicts only exacerbated matters. Some historians claim that Philip’s financial woes had much to do with Spain’s decline from being a great power in the next century.
No wonder Philip – although still the most powerful monarch in Europe – took to his bed at El Escorial in September 1598, never to rise again from it.