Philip II - Spanish Monarch

Philip II - Spanish Monarch
Philip II - Spanish Monarch
Despite the fact that Philip II was the ruler of the Spanish Empire when its influence in the world was at its peak, his record as a monarch was not entirely successful. The birth of Philip on May 21, 1527, in the city of Valladolid was a welcome joy to his parents, Charles V and Isabella of Portugal.

His parents had a significant impact on his upbringing as his father taught him at an early age how to govern the realm, while his mother’s piety played a large part in Philip’s life. Although Philip was a very devout individual, his interest in the occult was evident in his collection of hundreds of books on this subject.

In the 16th century, Spain was one of the most powerful countries in Europe. Charles V ruled over a sizable empire as he controlled Spain, Sardinia, Naples, Sicily, the Netherlands, land in central Europe, and colonies situated in the Caribbean and South and North America.

Control of this large territory was difficult to manage, and when Charles V stepped down as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1558, he chose two people to rule the Habsburg lands—his brother Ferdinand and his son Philip.


Philip received the largest bulk of the empire, as he acquired Spain, the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and North and South America, Sardinia, Naples, and the Netherlands, in comparison to Ferdinand, who acquired Habsburg territories in central Europe.

Philip acquired the kingdom of Portugal and its colonies following the death of the Portuguese King Manuel I in 1580 because Manuel failed to produce a male heir. Philip inherited this kingdom because his mother was one of Manuel’s daughters.

Philip spent much of his life trying to attain unity and protect his empire rather than extend his absolute rule over the areas he controlled. The empire was too large for Philip to attain absolute rule as is evidenced by the fact that his control of the empire was ineffective outside Madrid.

Despite the division of Habsburg possessions in Europe, Philip was still left with a significant area of territory to govern and had the potential to add further territories to Habsburg possessions. Philip married Mary I of England in 1554; the marriage could have brought England into the possession of the Habsburg family but failed to produce a child.

The accession of Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558 changed the dynamics of Spanish-English relations. Elizabeth was a Protestant, who supported the Dutch in their fight for independence against the Spanish and endorsed English piracy against Spanish ships.

Philip sent a powerful naval armada to remove the “heretic” Elizabeth from power, but English ships were able to destroy a number of ships, while dangerous weather forced a number of others to crash into rocks off the coast of Scotland and Ireland.

This defeat was a massive blow for the Spanish fleet as at least 70 of the 130 ships that participated in the invasion were destroyed. This massive blow to the Spanish navy forced Philip to give up his plans of removing Elizabeth from power.

Philip spent a great deal of time trying to secure Habsburg possessions in Italy against the encroachments of France by signing the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. After securing Italy, Philip was able to concentrate more on the threat that the Ottoman Empire posed to the western Mediterranean and to southern Spain. From 1559 to 1577, the Spanish navy was engaged in frequent fighting against the Ottoman navy.

The southern coast of Spain was vulnerable against Ottoman naval incursions as a result of the weakness of the Spanish navy in that region and a rebellion initiated by the Moriscos, who were Christian Moors, over taxation. The naval war between the two empires climaxed in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, where the Spanish navy decisively defeated the Ottomans, ending the Ottoman threat to southern Spain.

Religion and Politics

It is difficult to assess the degree in which religion played a role in Philip’s foreign policy, and historians have been debating this question for years. Religion was a major focus in the life of Philip II as is evidenced by the fact that he undertook many administrative reforms in the church in Spain by creating an archdiocese at Burgos, creating seven dioceses, and cutting off over 300 monastic houses in Spain from their religious orders in Europe, giving the Spanish government more influence in their affairs.

Philip attempted to create a fair political and judicial administration in order to win the hearts of his loyal subjects and the fear of criminals. He intervened in the judicial and government systems as little as possible, and only when he believed that injustices were committed against his people.

Philip even put class distinctions aside as he punished the aristocracy when he believed they violated the law. This is not to suggest that Philip II was without prejudices; he attempted, after all, to expel the Jewish population from Lombardy.

Philip endured many tragic events in his personal life, including the death of his wives, Maria of Portugal, Mary I, Elizabeth of Valois, and Anne of Austria. Philip was also forced to live with the death of his son Don Carlos.

The relationship between Philip and Don Carlos was characterized by incessant friction, and it is possible that Don Carlos supported Dutch leaders who were becoming dissatisfied with Spanish rule. Philip imprisoned his son in 1568, and he died six months later, possibly on the orders of Philip. Philip was not always eager to marry, but diplomatic ties and the need for an heir to the throne prompted the king to take four wives.

This need for a male heir became acute following Don Carlos’s death. The problem concerning a male heir was solved as Anne gave birth to a boy, Philip III, on April 14, 1578, who became the king of Spain following his father’s death in 1598.

Philip was not a popular monarch among his people. He preferred to spend most of his day alone and avoided the public as much as possible. Despite the fact that Philip ruled over a large empire, his military was too weak to defend much of it, and his administration too ineffective to rule it.

Historians have critiqued the rule of Philip II, with varying conclusions. Some point to his securing of the western Mediterranean from Turkish incursions and unification of Portugal and Spain as major achievements while others look to his foreign and domestic policies to show that Spain was weak at the time of his death.

Epidemics and famine led to a decline in population while declining trade and a weakening industrial and agricultural base crippled the empire as the Castilian peasants were forced to pay over a third of their income in taxes to the government.