Philip II and the Spanish Empire

Philip II of Spain was on the throne in the second half of the XVI (16th) century. He was born in Valladolid on 21st May 1527 and died in San Lorenzo of El Escorial on 13th September 1598. He was the eldest son of Isabel of Portugal and the Emperor Carlos V, who handed over the crowns of Spain and The Netherlands to him on his abdication, while Fernando, Carlos V’s brother, inherited the Holy Roman Empire.

During his life Philip would marry four times, always because of political interests.

First he married Maria of Portugal, with the aim of unifying the land of the peninsula.
After her death, he next married Mary I of England (Mary Tudor), thus becoming King Consort of England and Ireland.
His third marriage was with Isabel of Valois from France.
On becoming a widower again, and with no male heirs, he got married for the fourth time to his niece, Ana of Austria, mother of the future Spanish King, Philip III.

Philip II was an authoritarian King:

Nevertheless, in his government he maintained a system of permanent councils for the administration of his territories, such as the Royal Councils of Castilla and Aragon, of the Holy Inquisition, of the Indies or of the Treasury, among others.
He implemented an impressive administrative system to govern his territories.
He established the capital of the country in Madrid, a surprising decision as it was a town with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants at that time.
He promoted interest in medicinal plants and the sale of spices from the new world, such as the potato, tobacco, tomato or corn, which for a long time had been used purely as decoration.

Among the internal problems of his reign were:

The disagreements with his firstborn son Carlos, Prince of Asturias, due to his son’s mental health problems, which finally led to his being confined. Carlos, the heir to the throne, died before his father.
The rebellion of the Moors in the Granada Alpujarras as a consequence of the King’s edict that limited their freedom in the use of their language, religion and culture. This rebellion was put down by the army under Don Juan of Austria.
The betrayal of his secretary Antonio Pérez, involved in the revelation of state secrets and the assassination of Juan de Escobedo, the personal secretary of Don Juan of Austria, which led to a serious conflict with Aragon concerning its charters.

One of the priorities of his reign was religious unity, both at peninsular and European level and European. He set up the so-called Holy League, formed by Venice, Genova, the Papal States and Spain. Its aim was to defend Christianity against the Berber incursions in the Mediterranean and also from the Ottoman Empire.

Some of the most notable military actions from the reign of Philip II were:

The great naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto where the Catholic Armada of the Holy League, led by Don Juan of Austria and Don Alvaro of Bazán, defeated the armada of the Ottoman Empire. Miguel de Cervantes was involved in this battle.

In the continuous conflicts with France for the control of Naples and Milan in the so-called “Italian Wars”, a great victory was won at the battle of San Quintin on 10th August, the feast day of San Lorenzo, for whose commemoration the Monastery of San Lorenzo in El Escorial was built, in homage to the saint. The ground floor of the building in the shape of a grill was used in remembrance of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo.

The unleashed crisis in the Netherlands led to a number of economic slumps for the Castillian Crown, apart from representing a civil and religious conflict, giving rise to the 80 Year War.

Finally, relations with England got worse after the death of Philip’s second wife, Mary Tudor, and the ascent to the throne of her half-sister, Elizabeth I. In an attempt to dethrone the new Protestant queen, Philip II sent the “invincible armada” to invade England. The attack was a failure, mainly because of the meteorological conditions, hence the famous quote from Philip II: “ I sent my ships to fight men, not tempests.”

The reign of Philip II was characterized by a period of great cultural splendour, including architecture, with Juan de Herrera and Juan Bautista de Toledo, the architects of El Escorial, in painting with El Greco, Titian and Alonso Sanchez Coello, and in literature with Miguel de Cervantes, the mystical poets Santa Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, or the theologist and humanist Friar Luis de Leon. In science, the inventor Jerónimo de Ayanz stood out as the pioneer of the steam engine, amongst other inventions.

The Philippines, that belonged to Spain until 1898, were so-called in honour of Philip II. During his reign, throughout the 16th century, the phrase “Spain, the empire on which the sun never sets” became popular, as his kingdom included territories in Italy, the Netherlands, the French Roussillon, the North of Africa, the newly- discovered Americas and, to the east, the Philippines and other archipelagos.

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