Philip of Spain

by Henry Kamen

Hardcover, 1997



Yale University Press (1997), 412 pages


Philip II of Spain-ruler of the most extensive empire the world had ever known-has been viewed in a harsh and negative light since his death in 1598. Identified with repression, bigotry, and fanaticism by his enemies, he has been judged more by the political events of his reign than by his person. This book, published four hundred years after Philip's death, is the first full-scale biography of the king. Placing him within the social, cultural, religious, and regional context of his times, it presents a startling new picture of his character and reign.Drawing on Philip's unpublished correspondence and on many other archival sources, Henry Kamen reveals much about Philip the youth, the man, the husband, the father, the frequently troubled Christian, and the king. Kamen finds that Philip was a cosmopolitan prince whose extensive experience of northern Europe broadened his cultural imagination and tastes, whose staunchly conservative ideas were far from being illiberal and fanatical, whose religious attitudes led him to accept a practical coexistence with Protestants and Jews, and whose support for Las Casas and other defenders of the Indians in America helped determine government policy. Shedding completely new light on most aspects of Philip's private life and, in consequence, on his public actions, the book is the definitive portrayal of Philip II.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tuckerresearch
Kamen has stepped into J. H. Elliott's shoes as the dean of early modern Spanish history. Kamen's masterful portrayal of Philip is a must read.
LibraryThing member sgerbic
Purchased this book many years ago hoping to supplement my knowledge of the Tudors. It has taken me quite some time for this work to be dusted off and read, and now I’m glad I struggled through it. I truly had to struggle, as this is a very detailed work using mainly primary sources, written for
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those already well versed in 15th century European history. While I have read extensively in English history, I had only cursory knowledge of history across the English Channel. My typical style when learning history has been to try and read about my area of interest from as many points of view as possible, and with ‘Philip of Spain’ I succeed in adding one more element to my understanding of English history.

Previously I always understood Spain to be the big bad meanie, always causing trouble for England, coveting Elizabeth’s hand, and hoping to overthrown the Protestant government replacing it with a Catholic ruler. How little did I know, England with its majesty over the sea, with its smaller more manageable ships did its far share of instigating trouble with Spain. I knew piracy to be a profitable money maker for QE1, but I guess I didn’t quite realize that her attacks on Spanish settlements, and treasure ships leaving the Americas to be such an issue for Spain. I thought Spain barely felt her piracy. Wrong!

Knowing almost nothing of Spain or Philip other than how they affected England, this book is a wake-up call. Surly I should have started with a Spain for Dummies book, an overview would have been really helpful. Also author Kamen gives only two vague maps of Spain and Europe, very little detail is included, only large cities mapped. This is very confusing to me, I had no idea which way they traveled when Philip and/or his father Charles ventured on their many excursions. When the infanta Catalina married the Duke of Savoy, I had no idea what country it is located in until they finally mentioned a city located on the crude map.

Kamen’s style of writing is to chapter by chapter describe Philips character and history by topic. I have come across this before and found it disorienting. In one chapter Kamen is describing Philip as a statesman throughout his entire tenure as Prince then King. In a subsequent chapter Kamen writes about Philip as a father, an art lover, an architect or as a Catholic leader. During each chapter people are born and die, then in the next chapter the same people are born and die. This is where it gets confusing, as is common in these royal European families they have only a stock amount of names for their children, and when they receive an honor their name might change to the same as that honor, Duke of Alba, Duke of Anjou or Cardinal of Augsburg or some such. When these people die another is given that same title and when reading these chapters where the same timeline is repeated over and over again, you find yourself going back through the pages trying to figure out which Don or Duke or Constable are we talking about now?

Some comments I wrote while reading this work…

Philip gives power to women he trusts. His older sister is left in charge of Aragon, his daughters are more trusted than his son and makes Isabella a joint ruler of the Netherlands. When he traveled to see his daughter Catalina married he left a woman in charge. Philip had great respect for QE1 and her rival Mary Queen of Scots, I wondered if this is typical for this time?

One big problem with Philip’s reign is that he sees the inquisition as the only way to enforce heresy laws that keep Spain Catholic. Only near the end of his life does Philip realize that he must tolerate other religions in order to end the continuous wars. His opinion of Jews, Muslims and Protestants is all over the place, sometimes supporting them allowing them in his court or appointing them to high levels, and then other times, when he orders their expulsion from Spain. His intolerance for books or people that may challenge the Catholic faith kept Spain overwhelmingly Catholic. But without these new ideas Spain became a third rate country for colleges and intellectuals.

One question I had concerned Philip’s daughters, why did the youngest daughter marry first? They were only a year apart, and they did not meet their husbands until almost the marriage date, so it could not have been because of love. Finally after reading a Wikipedia article do I think I have the answer. The eldest daughter Isabella had been promised to Rudolf II, and waited for him for over 20 years, before Rudolf announced that he planned on marrying no one. That makes sense now, Isabella is over 30 when she marries and is made ruler of the Netherlands. She does not share her sister’s fate of 10 babies in 11 years, ending with her early death. Isabella only has three babies, none of which survive past infancy.

So overall a good read, I made many more notes as I read in the margins, maybe someday I will reference back to this book. My warning to future readers, if you do not have a good grounding in European history and geography, I would suggest you invest in an overview book and a good detailed map.

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LibraryThing member yooperprof
Kamen attempts a revisionist make-over of King Philip II, often regarded as one of the great villains of early modern European history. (c.f. "Don Carlos," the play by Schiller and the opera by Verdi). With great attention to the primary sources of the 16th century, Kamen depicts Philip as a
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well-educated Renaissance Prince who was a warm and loving family man who cultivated learning and even enjoyed dancing. He was no more intolerant than the normal ruler of his time, and not particularly avid in serving the Papacy and aggressive Roman Catholicism.

"Philip has often been presented as the Knight-errant of militant Catholicism in these years, but his priority was always peace. He never ceased to express his concern for religion, yet in practice his policy decisions were more realistic. No imperialist fever reigned at the King's court."

All those "bad things" associated with Spain in the late 16th century - the Inquisition, the Armada, the repression of the Netherlands and the disastrous war that ensued, the collapse of the Spanish economy - apparently those were not all Philip's fault. "Philip was never at any time in adequate control of events, or of his kingdoms, or even of his own destiny. It follows that he cannot be held responsible for more than a small part of what eventually transpired during his reign. To many spectators, he was the most powerful monarch in the world. In the privacy of his office, he knew very well that this was an illusion. . . For all his power, he had been unable to stop his realms being sucked into a whirl of war, debt, and decay."

That the reader is likely to finish the book less than completely convinced of Kamen's argument does not detract from the author's skill in presenting it. His scholarship is exemplary and his effort in scraping off the layers of myth about Philip's record is completely commendable. This biography is very readable and very informative.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
A solid biography less partisan than most earlier ones; tends to see Philip as more pragmatic and capable than most hostile writers. I'm not sure I'm convinced.
LibraryThing member MacDad
Though he ruled over Spain at the peak of its "Golden Age" of power and influence, Philip II has long suffered from a negative historical image. Henry Kamen's book seeks to address this by providing a rounded portrait of a conscientious and diligent monarch, one who was surprisingly modern in many
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respects. Kamen succeeds in describing both the grandeur of Philip's reign and the many challenges he faced as a monarch, from perennially impoverished treasury to the unrest and rebellion in the Netherlands. Yet the biography suffers from a lack of analysis: space used to detail innumerable processions and court intrigues would have been better spent explaining the operations of Philip's government or the factors underlying the problems he faced. This limits Kamen's achievement with this book, which demonstrates the need for a better understanding of this important ruler without fully meeting the demand for it.
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Original language


Physical description

412 p.; 6.5 inches


0300070810 / 9780300070811
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