Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II

by Geoffrey Parker

Hardcover, 2014



Yale University Press (2014), Edition: 1st Edition, 438 pages


A vast archive of documents, unread since the sixteenth century, revises the portrait of Spain's best-known king Philip II is not only the most famous king in Spanish history, but one of the most famous monarchs in English history: the man who married Mary Tudor and later launched the Spanish Armada against her sister Elizabeth I. This compelling biography of the most powerful European monarch of his day begins with his conception (1526) and ends with his ascent to Paradise (1603), two occurrences surprisingly well documented by contemporaries. Eminent historian Geoffrey Parker draws on four decades of research on Philip as well as a recent, extraordinary archival discovery--a trove of 3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, unread since crossing Philip's own desk more than four centuries ago. Many of them change significantly what we know about the king.   The book examines Philip's long apprenticeship; his three principal interests (work, play, and religion); and the major political, military, and personal challenges he faced during his long reign. Parker offers fresh insights into the causes of Philip's leadership failures: was his empire simply too big to manage, or would a monarch with different talents and temperament have fared better?… (more)

Media reviews

"Readers will find in it not only a superbly informed narrative of Philip II’s long career as Europe’s most powerful king but also a highly negative interpretation of the king’s personality and policies."

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
If you grew up in northern Europe, Philip II has to count as one of the most indispensable bogeymen in history. What would we do without the little shiver that goes down our spines whenever someone uses the words "inquisition" or "armada"? Who else came as close to reversing the reformation in
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England and the northern Netherlands? Who else was implicated in so many secret assassination plots at home and abroad?

But Philip is also the first ruler who can claim to have had an empire "on which the sun never sets", with a global spread of dominions and a length of time in power that comes pretty close to rivalling even Queen Victoria. Admittedly, he did even less to deserve it than she did - most of the hard work was done for him by his Hapsburg ancestors industriously marrying their cousins for generation after generation until there was practically nothing they weren't in line to inherit. Fortunately for everyone, Philip's one serious attempt to extend his realms by marriage himself was nullified by the early death of Mary Tudor. As Parker points out, if she'd lived as long as her sister did, or if she'd managed to produce children with Philip, that really would have been the end of the reformation in England, and probably in the Netherlands as well.

The interesting question, of course, is how someone who seems to have been an intelligent, well-educated (by the standards of princes) and cultivated ruler, and who had the vast resources of the Americas to draw on, as well as some of Europe's most sophisticated bureaucracies and intelligence networks and its most powerful army, managed to lose so many wars, to bankrupt his country twice and leave it depopulated and impoverished, and to fail so completely in his prime strategic goal of suppressing protestantism.

Parker looks in detail at the way Philip worked - his correspondence and daily routine, the committees he dealt with, the orders he sent and the reports he received, and so on - and seems to have come to the conclusion that he was essentially a middle-manager promoted above his level of competence. Philip wasted endless amounts of time on settling the detail of minor matters (and on his own pet projects, especially the Escorial) but didn't give clear policy direction on the big things, and hated delegating responsibility to the people he had appointed to run things on the spot. Despite 16th century postal delays, he was constantly trying to interfere with day-to-day matters in Brussels or Lisbon, resulting in confusion and delay and discouraging those around him from using their own initiative. And above all, he was convinced that he was doing God's work, so he was not particularly open to considering the possibility of failure or putting in place a "plan B". All of which sometimes means that this book starts reading like a 21st century management textbook instead of 16th century history...

But there's still plenty of period atmosphere around as well. There's a lot about Philip's relations with his father, his four wives, and his children (but the Don Carlos tragedy turns out to be less romantic than in Schiller's version!), there's a whole chapter on the murder of Juan de Escobedo and the subsequent cover-up, and more on the various plots to assassinate or marry Queen Elizabeth of England. Not much on culture, though - we have to be content with a couple of passing mentions of Cervantes. Philip doesn't seem to have been much interested in the arts much, apart from architecture, and anyway he obviously wouldn't have been a very good patron of the arts, since he always knew better than the experts...

This is Parker's third go at a biography of Philip II - the first one, which came out in 1978, remained in print in various editions until quite recently; then, in 2010 there was a colossal new scholarly life in Spanish, aptly titled Felipe II: la biografía definitiva and incorporating the fruits of vast amounts of digging in additional collections of state papers that had become accessible since the 70s; Imprudent King is essentially an abridged translation of the Spanish book, cut down to around 375 pages of narrative text (plus about 75 of notes and appendices), but it still contains more than enough detail for all but the most obsessive of general readers, and it's a very readable, pleasantly unacademic kind of a book to deal with.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
My rating may drop upon further reflection, as the epilogue goes out of its way to spoil its own triumphant party. The Philip who emerges in Palmer's study is a man both austere and ambitious, someone always a bit uncomfortable in their own skin. Inheriting a global empire, Philip was an uber
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bureaucrat, perpetually drowning in a sea of memos and contracts. He delegated, forming committees, but micromanaged their findings and recommendations. Philip felt he was chosen by God to act as a steward.

Consanguinity is never a good plan for the long game. The monarch in question suffered from the practice, even if its political consequences provided a measured stability. There remains a virtual stadium of skeletons in these royal closets. Much as his father Charles V locked away his own mentally ill mother, Philip II imprisoned his own son and heir Don Carlos for similar instability.

Just after his second wife Mary Tudor died, he asked her half sister Elizabeth if she was interested. There are doubtless political and religious incentives to consider, but the palpable consequences of such maneuvering are uncomfortable. Oh, Philip also married his niece. The big events of the time are afforded context; we go from Lepanto to the Armada with Philip pondering the meaning of manifest destiny and whether he still enjoys divine favor.

Philip left the world an old man. The Spain he left was broke from his eternal wars. He burned heretics and had political enemies killed, he was insecure but felt his course and cause to be the just one.
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Physical description

438 p.; 9.52 inches


0300196539 / 9780300196535


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