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Rehabilitating the King of Spain

BY James Sullivan

May 3-9, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/3/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Philip of Spain by Henry Kamen

One of the ironies of history brought to light in Henry Kamen's recent biography of King Philip, is that for all the opprobrium heaped upon Spain, especially that hot tar from the pen of the 19th—century American historian, J.L. Motley, the fact remains that the Spanish themselves have excelled in a kind of merciless self—criticism. In 1598, the year of Philip's death, not a few of the late king's ministers were heard to hymn the virtues of Elizabeth of England.

Throughout his life, Philip detested adulators, forbidding anyone to write the royal biography during his long reign, 1543—1598. Once, when conducting an afternoon audience, a cleric began to address him in unctuous tones; “Get to the point, Father,” said Philip, by way of interrupting. Indeed, while Elizabeth allowed a cult of her personality to flourish, Philip resisted self—promotion. In current parlance we would say that the king put his own spin—doctors out to pension.

Kamen sums up the situation: “All his great protagonists—Elizabeth of England, William of Orange, Henry of Navarre—became legendary heroes in the memory of their own people. They did so in part because of their opposition to him. Philip alone failed to leave his mark. Roughly from the 1580s, when Spain and Portugal were united under him, he had done everything to relax royal control. Royalist public ritual and monarchic imagery all but disappeared. The title of ‘Majesty’ was dropped from official correspondence. The tasks of government were shared out. At the center ad hoc committees deliberated on everything; in the provinces the nobles were confirmed in their control of authority.”

Such a view of Philip clashes, of course, with that of the Black Legend. While Philip had his own detractors in Spain, Kamen fixes on J.L. Motley as the quintessential spokesman for the Legend: “mediocrity, pedant, reserved, suspicious … bigot, cruel, grossly licentious … a consummate tyrant,” such were the measured epithets which the American historian applied to Philip. In fact, Kamen seems to have Motley in view as he undertakes a rebuttal of this caricature.

The education of the young prince was a prime concern of his father, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. While exposed to the classical authors, and competent enough to converse in Latin, the prince was an undistinguished scholar. He cared far more for tourneys and dances and the customs of chivalry. (Such an absorption in knights and ladies also marked the reading habits of young Teresa of Avila, the Carmelite mystic who would later count the monarch an ally in the cause of religious reform.)

Although not scholarly in his habits, Philip nonetheless appreciated intellectual life. Ordering his tutor Calvet de Estrella to build up a library, the prince surrounded himself with works by Sophocles, Virgil, Aquinas, Boccacio, Savanarola, Petrarch, Copernicus, and the collected works of Erasmus. Thus we see him, at the outset of his career, a thoroughly renaissance prince with liberal reading habits, brought up to reflect, by his breadth of education, the multifarious empire over which he would soon rule. Although he never became the humanist he was trained to be, there is simply no evidence to support a view that Philip's vision was crabbed or narrow or that he was force—fed a diet of religious obscurantism.

Charles V was absent for most of his childhood. Isabella of Portugal, his mother, died in 1539 when Philip was 12. While such deprivation of parental affection no doubt left its mark, the king never struck contemporaries as sullen or morose. On the contrary, his letters to his daughters were doting and playful, while his youth was marked by a decided enthusiasm for parties and ladies. Beware the night life of Barcelona, the emperor wrote him, when Philip was in his regency. Although Philip's marriages were arranged, his third wife, Elizabeth of Valois, became a loved helpmate, whom the king mourned upon her death. Philip was four times a widower, and the father of a handicapped and mentally ill son, Don Carlos, who died at 23; the weight of such events would cast a pall on the most exuberant of personalities.

“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,” said Philip in the middle of his reign.

Philip remained all his days a stout defender of the Inquisition, although Kamen argues that the motivation here was ultimately political and not borne out of religious fanaticism. For the king, the disparity of cult brought on by Protestantism could only lead to rebellion, and the virtue of the Inquisition was to snuff the wick of civil discontent. This is not to say that the king lacked enthusiasm for the Catholic faith. He surrounded himself with chaplains and confessors and confessed his sins regularly.

All in all, he was a strong promoter of the Council of Trent; however he brooked the conciliar decrees that seemed to intrude on his royal prerogatives, and made himself for a time an opponent of (later saint) Charles Borromeo, whose campaign for the reform of the laity the king found too zealous. Although the Jesuits were a nascent and potent force in the Spain of Philip II, the monarch had no especial affinity with the order.

Some now think that the Black Legend has been interred. Kamen, while admitting that much of it was fueled by Protestant bias against Catholicism, still thinks that a rounded and fair portrait of Philip II was needed. Philip's defenders in our own century, writes Kamen, gave us “bad history,” while his detractors gave us appreciably better history but not without an animus against his person. The present book adjusts the portrait in a way not unbecoming to the king.

James Sullivan writes from Southport, Connecticut.