People of the Spice Trade: King Philip II

Trying to write about King Philip II in a single blog post is akin to summarize Crime and Punishment in a paragraph. Yes, it can be done, but so much will be lost along the way that the reader (and possibly the writer) will still be ignorant on the subject

However, his name comes up constantly when talking about both England and the Netherlands in the late 1500′s, and with good reason. Three centuries before Queen Victoria and her “The Sun never sets on the English Empire”, King Philip II of Spain had colonies the Americas and Asia, sought to expand the Holy Roman Empire to bring places such as England and Holland back into the Catholic fold, and tried to defeat the Ottoman Empire. His empire, by far, was the most powerful on earth at the time.

Note that I did not say ‘wealthy’. Don’t get me wrong, his empire did have wealth, but Philip’s various wars and battles cost him a LOT of money, and in any given year of his reign, his treasury was just as likely to be empty as it was full.

There are two, no, make that three things that I find interesting about Philip.

  1. His idea of statecraft and warfare – He saw himself as the face of Catholicism, and felt as if he had to defend the religion on any and every front. This was in large part due to the papacy naming his father , Charles V, as the protector of the Catholic cause. By Phillip’s reign, his empire was essentially the mouthpiece for the Cardinals of Rome.

    He also ruled his lands with the basic idea that religion of the ruler dictated the religion of the ruled, leaving no room for Protestantism in his realm. This would lead to the creation of the Dutch state, and would have a huge influence on how England and Holland perceived themselves and how they responded to any action by the Spanish.

  2. He was a Royal Bureaucrat – As recently as a century before, many Kings would paint themselves as warrior-kings, whether true or not. But as Monarchies evolved into ruling through laws rather than might, Phillip’s approach to his reign could be see as the logical extension of that philosophy – he ruled from his court.

    By many accounts, Philip was an a font of information, and every decision went through him. Consider the logistics of this. He had lands and colonies that were thousands of miles away, were communications would arrive years after they had been written, and a response would take years to return. Yet for many major decisions, this is exactly what had happened. It was this level of bureaucracy that allowed the English to antagonize the Spanish in the Americas, for many of the Spanish lords, governors, and captains were afraid to take an action or make a decision that the King disproved of. The result? A lot of inaction until Philip acted himself*.

    You’ll note that I said “Royal”. For a man who literally ran an empire, there was little to no appearance of stress, even when his armies lost battles, or armadas were lost. By all major accounts, Phillip was stately, religious, and gracious. Depending upon who you read, there are little to no accounts of him losing his temper. In short, the man acted like a King. He was never ruthless (although many beneath him were). But he always thought he was right because God was on his side.

  3. There are many views of Philip II as a villain – It is easy to come to this conclusion, especially if one is coming from an Anglo-Dutch point of view, where he WAS the greatest representation of “the enemy”. But history is rarely as simple as “Elizabeth was pure and Righteous and Philip was a monster”. He was, after all, the leader of the Catholic empire, and felt obligated to defend it in full. Additionally, many of the activities of the Dutch and English in each of their conflicts were implemented to deliberately antagonize the Spanish. However, many of the nuances of politics of that age are lost or glossed over in many history books.

This is not meant to whitewash history. As the decision maker of the Empire, ultimately the atrocities committed in his name do fall at his feet. My point here is that wars are rarely black and white, and kings and queens are rarely solely good or evil. From my point of view, Philip II is enigmatic, with his persona running in stark contrast to the results of his decrees and rulings. While ultimately I side with both the Dutch and English in their conflicts with the Spanish, it’s difficult for me to see Philip as the sneering villain that some paint him as.

*NOTE: There are a few Spanish figures in this time-frame who are the exception, many of whom can be found in the Spanish-Dutch conflict. Sometimes they acted of their own accord, other times they interpreted Philip’s instructions in the broadest possible way, resulting in accomplishing what Philip wanted, but with unfortunate results. Not surprisingly, many of these men were relatives and other members of the monarchy. I will call out these folks when necessary.