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The life and loves of Felipe II

Felipe King_PhilipII_of_Spain

Felipe II

If you ask a Spanish person who Felipe II was, they’ll likely tell you he was a great and learned king who rebuilt the Escorial, had major issues with his insane eldest son but managed to do his duty and father a (relatively) healthy heir, Felipe III. In passing, they may mutter something about constant wars in the Netherlands and a rather unsuccessful naval venture.

If you ask an English person the same thing you may of course get a blank look and a “Philip who?” reply. But if there’s one historical period (inexplicably so, IMO) most English people have some knowledge of it is the Elizabethan period, and one of the major, major events during Elizabeth I’s reign was Philip’s attempt to invade England. As we all know, the Spanish Armada in 1588 was not “a rather unsuccessful naval venture”. It was a major catastrophe for Spain, wiping out I don’t know how many ships and men.

The Armada was not Philip II’s first contact with England. In 1554 he had married Mary, Elizabeth’s older half-sister. While Mary was very much in love with her much younger husband, Philip married for political reasons and likely closed his eyes and thought of England on those few occasions when he fulfilled his husbandly duties.

One could think, based on this, that Philip had a special affinity for England, that his heart and soul longed to be an Englishman. I’m sorry to break this to you, but from Philip’s perspective, England was pretty insignificant – this was a man with more titles than would fit on the fly leaf of a Bible, ruler of a huge empire. No, Philip’s interest in England emanated from his irritation with this pesky Protestant kingdom and its determined support to those equally pesky Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands.

EHFA Philip_IIPhilip II comes down to us through the years as something of a bore. Too stiff, too dour, too fond of black…Rarely does anyone mention his impressive library in El Escorial, where the books were turned the wrong way so that instead of spines, the visitors saw only gold-edged pages. Philip knew exactly where each book was anyway. Rarely does anyone mention that Philip had read a substantial part of all those books – conversant in multiple languages, raised to rule, and from a family that set a high value on schooling their princes, Philip had received an excellent and thorough education. And rarely does anyone mention his other wives, his problems with his children, his affectionate letters to his daughters, his carefully chosen gifts to both his children and his wives – or his gruesome death.

So today, I thought we’d spend some time with Philip – or Felipe el Prudente, as those of us who speak Castilian prefer to call him. (And I will stick to his Spanish name for the rest of the post)

In 1527, Felipe was born as the eldest son of Carlos I & V, that powerful Holy Roman Emperor who championed his aunt, Catherine of Aragon against her hubby Henry VIII (see? Another, if indirect, English connection) and ruled an empire so vast the sun never set on it.

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Felipe’s mother – a beautiful lady (Titian) 

Carlos married Felipe’s mother Isabel of Portugal (who also happened to be Carlos’ cousin) to keep his Spanish grandees happy. He himself was in no hurry to wed, but by all accounts he was happy with his Portuguese wife, and his son and heir was raised in a harmonious household. Once again, to appease those Spanish grandees, Felipe was raised in Spain, speaking Castilian as his first language.

Felipe was a serious man – and somewhat shy. Already as a boy, his distinguishing characteristic was his sense of duty. Duty to his father, duty to his mother, duty to his tutors – and as he grew, this would morph into duty to his country, to his family and wives. Rarely did Felipe do something for himself. Never did he caper about while warbling “don’t worry, be happy.” In Felipe’s strictly regimented life, happy was not something a serious man aspired to, and as to worry, well Felipe always worried. About being good enough. About the lack of sons. About the situation in England. About the Spanish Netherlands. About God. About the state of his linens – Felipe had an abhorrence of anything dirty and was meticulous about his hygiene. Major plus, if you ask me…

Carlos tried to teach Felipe everything he knew about ruling an empire consisting of various people, various languages, various cultures. There was one fundamental difference between them: Carlos had been raised in the polyglot court of his aunt Margaret of Austria, had as a matter of course been exposed to various creeds, various cultures. Felipe, on the other hand, had been raised in the tender care of devout Catholics in a rather xenophobic country. Let’s just say that Felipe’s upbringing left him somewhat less…flexible.

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Maria Manuela

When Carlos arranged Felipe’s first marriage with Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal, Felipe of course agreed. As an aside, being a prince – just as much as being a princess – meant little say in who you married. Royal marriage was for building alliances and consolidating power, not for something as ephemeral as love.

Anyway: Maria Manuela and Felipe were of an age – both of them were sixteen – and liked each other. They were also very closely related: Maria’s mother was Felipe’s paternal aunt, and Felipe’s mother was Maria’s paternal aunt, plus Felipe’s maternal grandmother was his father’s maternal aunt. Very complicated – and it didn’t help that the somewhat unstable bloodline of the Trástamara dynasty appeared all over the place. So when little Maria Manuela gave birth to a son in 1545, the baby had a DNA mix that resembled a Molotov cocktail. Even worse, Maria died in childbirth, and Felipe was left with a feeble if male heir but no wife.

Years passed. In England, that heretic of a king, the man who’d broken with the Holy Church finally died – and it was Felipe’s conviction Henry VIII was destined for hell. As we all know, Henry’s son was not long for this world, and in 1553, Mary Tudor became queen of England. Holy Roman Emperor Carlos made happy sounds, as did the Pope. At last an opportunity to bring England back into the fold of the true faith! At the time, Mary was in her late thirties and wanted an heir of impeccable Catholic lineage. Carlos slid a look at his son – at the time 27 or so – slid a look at Mary, and suggested they wed, despite being cousins. Well: it was suggested to Mary. Felipe was ordered to comply with daddy’s wishes.

Felipe_of_Spain_and_MariaTudor-2Mary was over the moon. Handsome Felipe had everything she desired in a bridegroom. Whether the groom was as thrilled is debatable. His aide wrote that “the marriage was concluded for no fleshly consideration” but as always Felipe set his shoulders and proceeded to do his duty. In this case, his duty was to preserve control over the Low Countries. A fiercely Protestant England had offered succour to the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands, but now, with Mary and Felipe firmly in charge, such safe harbours no longer existed.

Mary very much wanted a child. Here, yet again, Felipe did his duty, but despite hope, prayers and effort there was no child – there was just a phantom pregnancy. Felipe seems to have doubted all along that Mary was pregnant, and after the sad matter had come to an end, he left his bride for the restless Low Countries. Mary was inconsolable. What Felipe felt is unknown, but he was courteous enough to bid his wife a tender farewell.


The young (and pretty) Elizabeth

We are now in 1555, and this is when Felipe supposedly was starting to regard Elizabeth Tudor as a potential replacement for her sister. Hmm. At the time, Mary was not yet forty, and while barren there was nothing to suggest she was about to die anytime soon. Felipe enjoyed Elizabeth’s company – he liked intelligent and erudite women – and Elizabeth came with the added plus of being younger than Felipe rather than eleven years older. But there were issues regarding Elizabeth’s faith, and Felipe would never consider marrying a Protestant – his soul shrieked in pain at the thought.

In 1556, Carlos abdicated in favour of his son and brother. Felipe became king of Spain and all its dominions, his uncle became the next Holy Roman Emperor, based in the historical homeland of the Hapsburgs, namely Austria.

Mary’s reign was plagued by famine, by her cleansing of the heretics among her subjects, by dwindling trade as her Spanish husband forbade her from doing anything detrimental to Spain. Of course her subjects grumbled, and there were risings aplenty. To complicate things further, France and Spain were at loggerheads, so France considered England an enemy too. Felipe wanted England’s help in defeating the French to show them just who was the most important Catholic monarch in the world. That’s why Felipe popped by on a short visit in 1557 – to convince Mary to support war with France. Mary hoped this conjugal visit would lead to other things, and lo and behold, some months later Mary declared herself pregnant. Yet again, a phantom pregnancy…

Poor Mary – no child, no loving husband, just a cool political union as expressed by Philip’s rather laconic comment upon hearing about Mary’s death in 1558. “I feel reasonable regret.”

By now, Felipe had other matters to handle, first and foremost the situation in France. And then there was the matter of his son, Don Carlos, all of thirteen and showing worrying signs of mental instability. Don Carlos had been proposed as a groom for Elizabeth of Valois, this as an attempt to heal the rift between France and Spain. Felipe went one step further and offered to marry Elizabeth himself, despite an age difference of almost twenty years.

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Elizabeth of Valois

By all accounts, this was a happy marriage. Felipe was a devoted husband, entranced by his pretty and vivacious wife. She stood by his side during that most difficult time in his life, when his son went from bad to worse until at last Felipe had no option but to incarcerate Don Carlos, by now mad as a hatter. Felipe’s wife might have been young, but she was wise, and in her company he found comfort and hope – plus she gave him children. Daughters, to be sure, but healthy living children. A son would surely follow. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Elizabeth died in childbirth – yet another girl, stillborn, and Felipe was devastated.

By now we’re in 1568, and while relationships with France remained coolly cordial, Philip now had another mess on his hands: the Low Countries had risen in insurrection, protesting the heavy yoke of Spanish taxes and demanding the right to embrace the Protestant faith. England, of course, hastened to the aid of their religious brethren. Felipe was pissed off, putting it mildly. Here he’d been advocating a lenient approach towards the upstart English and their Protestant queen, urging the Pope to not do anything hasty, and this is how the English dogs repaid him?

On top of the utter political mess in the Spanish Netherlands, plus the rather urgent matter of halting Ottoman expansion into Europe, Felipe had the pressing matter of begetting an heir, which was why he married his niece, Anne of Austria, in 1570. (Yes: those Hapsburgs had a predilection for keeping things in the family – unfortunately)


Anne of Austria

Anne was yet another young bride, more than twenty years his junior, but just like Elizabeth she was affectionate and kind, and Felipe was as happy with her as he’d been with his French princess. Anne gave him sons – beautiful boys, and at last Felipe had his heir, the Infante Fernando. He died at age six of dysentery. A grief-struck father consoled himself with the fact that there was the Infante Diego to take the dead son’s place. Except that four years later he also died, this time of small-pox. Fortunately, there was one son left, little Felipe. Not that baby Felipe was the son his father would have hoped for, being small and sickly, but at least he was alive.

Anne died in 1580, leaving Felipe a widower for the fourth time. He was never to re-marry. Instead, he invested his efforts in his children and his empire, a lot of his energy directed at pacifying the Dutch now that the Ottomans had been adequately crushed at Lepanto in 1571.

In England, Elizabeth encouraged support to the Dutch, quietly applauded English pirates when they attacked the treasure-laden Spanish galleons, and in general caused Philip much irritation. However, he chose to do nothing. Why? Well, as Elizabeth had no children the obvious heir to the English crown was Mary, Queen of Scots, at present Elizabeth’s prisoner and a devout Catholic. A light in the tunnel for Catholics everywhere, was Mary – a light brutally extinguished when Elizabeth was prevailed upon to sign the execution order for her cousin in 1587.

Felipe Invincible_ArmadaThe situation in the Spanish Netherlands went from bad to worse, and with Mary dead, there was no hope the English would come to their senses and turn from their heretic faith. No, it fell upon Felipe to take responsibility for their souls – and, while he was at it, effectively squash all support for the Dutch reformers – which was why he decided to send the Armada to invade England and once and for all reinstate the Catholic faith. We all know how that ended, don’t we?

Today, we tend to measure Felipe by his few failures rather than his numerous successes. Partly because he was who he was, partly because of his turn-coat secretary Antonio Perez, generations of Europeans have been fed an image of Felipe as a cold-hearted fanatic who delighted in seeing heretics twist in torment. Felipe has become a victim to the Black Legend, whereby Spain – and Felipe – are depicted as infested by evil. Felipe has been accused of killing his own son, of strangling prisoners with his own hands. He has been defamed and ridiculed – even in his own lifetime – and rarely has anyone risen to defend him, least of all Felipe himself, who chose to never respond to the more ludicrous of Perez’ accusations.

Felipe_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPGI would argue Felipe was much more than this: in his private letters, we see a man who concerned himself greatly with the well-being of those he loved. In how he managed his empire, we see a man who eschewed absolute power, attempting instead to ensure there were robust controls in place. Genuinely devout, he quelled some of the more fanatic aspects of the Counter-Reformation, he encouraged learning and education and brought Spain firmly out of the Middle Ages. Yes, he was the enemy of Protestants champions such as William the Silent. But he was equally the hero of his Catholic subjects, the determined defender of Europe against the Ottomans, and a man who always tried to do his duty. Always. Not, IMO, a bad epitaph.

In 1598, an old and weakened Felipe fell ill. By now, he was a lonely old man – of his eleven children only tree remained alive, and his favourite daughter had recently died, the single recorded occasion when Felipe gave in to open despair, cursing fate for taking his loved ones from him. For 55 days, the king lay dying, covered in pustules and weeping sores. It was impossible to keep him clean so he lay in his stinking waste—a humiliating death for a man who abhorred being dirty. He died clutching the same crucifix his father had held when he died. At the moment of his death he was lucid, and it is said he saw Death coming and smiled in welcome, free at last from this life of duty and sorrows – so many, many sorrows.

Love – not always pink and fluffy

Edward Gal_nations_edward_iEdward I comes down through history to us as a man not much given to romantic gestures. This after all, is the man who implemented being hung, drawn and quartered for treason, who expelled the Jews in 1290, and who spent a considerable part of his life hammering the Welsh and the Scots into submission (wasted effort when it came to the Scots). He also hung women in cages from the battlements of Berwick castle, and supposedly (as per one rather fanciful story) left instructions that his body be boiled until the flesh fell off his bones and for those bones to be carried along with the English army when yet again they went after the Scots. His son, understandably, preferred to bury daddy as he was…

Edward I was undoubtedly one of the more capable English kings.  A devoted and loyal son, a man who took his responsibilities seriously and who set about reforming government so as to include Montfort’s ideas about regular parliaments, he is also at times a controversial king – it suffices to read the first paragraph to understand why. But whatever people may think of him, I’d wager no one would accuse Edward I of being a softie. Nope, not for him hearts and flowers. Or?

When Edward was fifteen, he married Eleanor of Castile. She was thirteen at the time, and the wedding was essentially a political alliance to safeguard English interests in Gascony. Fortunately, the married couple took to each other like a house on fire. They would spend the coming thirty-odd years or so mostly together, with Eleanor accompanying Edward more or less wherever he went, despite giving birth to at least sixteen children.

Images-of-medieval-love-e1392230695284-560x500One gets the impression of a happy marriage – of two intellectual equals that took great pleasure in each other’s company. Eleanor was well-educated and no push-over. She was an active business woman, amassing considerable wealth during her life – something that did not exactly endear her to her subjects, who were somewhat intimidated by their determined queen. Edward, however, appreciated her hard-nosed qualities – but there was plenty of love and flirtation as well, as demonstrated by the fact that even after her death, Edward continued to pay her women Lent money, the “bribe” required to get him through the door to his waiting queen after the impossed celibacy of Lent.

And then Eleanor up and died. Okay, not unexpected, because she had been ailing for quite some time, but Edward was devastated. So much did he love his wife, that he ordered a magnificent stone cross to be built at every point in which her coffin rested on its way to London. These Eleanor crosses, in total 12, are mostly gone by now, but some remain standing, a silent reminder of a king and his great love for his wife. Sort of romantic, hey?

Edward I may have been griefstruck. Yes, he was probably for some time not quite himself. But Edward was a king, and his duties required him to pull himself together and get on with things – including sorting the matter of the rather precarious situation when it came to his heirs. No matter all those babies, Eleanor and Edward only had six children survive childhood. Of those, only one was a son – the future Edward II. So, just in case, Edward married again, by all accounts as devoted a husband to his new bride as he had been to his first.Edward I, it seems, was blessed in his marriages, finding love and companionship with both his wives.

Through history, however, there are various examples of royal spouses who never got over the loss of their dear one. For them, the love that had once been a blessing became an affliction, grief dragging them into the dark and never quite letting them back up into the light.

Juana-la-locaOne of the more classic examples is that of Juana of Castile – interestingly enough a distant relation to Edward’s Eleanor. Extraordinarily beautiful, this the second daughter to Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragón, was not only considered drop-dead, she was also highly intelligent and extremely well-educated. Unfortunately for Juana, both her parents belonged to the Trastámara family – Isabel and Fernando were second cousins – and mental instability popped up here and there in her family tree. Not that there were any indications that Juana was so afflicted – the girl was quite the catch on the marital market, despite being nowhere close to inheriting a crown, having both an elder brother and an elder sister.

15th-century_unknown_painters_-_Portrait_of_Philip_the_Handsome_-_WGA23598Anyway, in 1496, Juana married Philip the Handsome. To judge from what portraits there are, he wasn’t that gorgeous, but maybe the paintings don’t do him justice. Whatever the case, Juana and Philip were sufficiently attracted to each other to produce a half a dozen of very attractive children. Juana was smitten with her handsome husband – and quite devastated when he strayed. Which, by all accounts, he did quite often. Despite his behaviour, Juana developed something of an obsession with her husband, an open adoration that had people snickering behind her back.

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Absolutely gorgeous, don’t you think? Philip and Juana, by Master Abtei from Afflighem

Through a series of unfortunate deaths, Juana ended up as the heir to both Castile and Aragón. And in 1504, when her mother died, Juana became Queen of Castile – her handsome hubby became King Philip I, something that by all accounts pleased him. Two years later, Philip died in a sudden fever, this as a consequence of over exertion on the tennis court followed by too much cold water. Or typhoid – take your pick.

At the time Juana was pregnant. Her husband’s unexpected death was a blow that literarily felled her, and days of weeping, of not eating or drinking in her despair, drove her over the edge. Juana became Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad) as the people around her watched with mounting concern how she sank deeper and deeper into the black sludge of her grief.

Philip was embalmed and placed in a  coffin. Juana wasn’t about to have him buried – not yet. She simply couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Some months after his death, Juana set out with the coffin, destined for Granada. Every day she had the coffin opened so that she could inspect the corpse and ensure no one had touched it. All women were forbidden from being anywhere close to the coffin, Juana’s jealousy spiraling into skrieking bouts of madness if she saw as much as a female servant.

In Torquemada, the journey ground to a temporary halt. Juana’s baby was about to be born, and she ordered Philip’s coffin to be placed in the chapel, surrounded by guards and so many candles the men doing guard duty emerged “as black as moors” due to all the soot.

The baby, a little girl, was born on a cold and icy January day. As if mirroring Juana’s despair, Castile was afflicted by famine and the plague – not that Juana noticed, immured in her own mental prison. Come spring, she set off again, refusing to travel by day. So instead Juana, the coffin, her baby and all their entourage travelled by night, surrounded by torches.


Juana and the coffin, 19th century by Pradilla. He got some things wrong, what with all those women sitting about, but it’s so atmospheric…

One day, or so the story goes, Juana saw a group of building outlined against the lightening eastern sky. A place to stay, she hoped, but upon being informed it was a nunnery, she collapsed in yet another bout of jealousy. She ordered the coffin opened and stood for a long time staring down at the sorry remains of her once so handsome husband. The lid was replaced, and the procession swung into motion, with no idea of where they were headed. Granada no longer seemed to be the intended destination.

Finally, Juana’s father decided things had to stop. Concerned for her health – and the state of the government, he came upon her in the midst of the Castilian hinterland. Somehow, he convinced her to return to Burgos. Fernando rode with his men during the day, Juana and the coffin travelled by night. At this point, Juana no longer washed or changed her clothes.

In 1509, Fernando had Juana brought to the convent of Tordesillas. She was 28 years old, mother of six, and all she could think of was her husband – once so handsome, now slowly rotting in his as yet uninterred coffin. Fernando had her locked away – together with her youngest daughter. He did do her the kindness of placing Philip’s coffin so that she could see it from her window. The door closed. Juana was to remain within for 47 long years, released only by death.

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Juana in Tordesillas, late 19th century by Pradilla

In the meantime, her father was to die, deeply depressed. Juana became the titular ruler of both Castile and Aragón, but the actual ruling was done by her young and gifted son, who showed little inclination to have his mother released from her prison. Truth be told, maybe she preferred to remain within, sitting always by the window that allowed her to see what little remained of Philip the Handsome: his coffin.

After her death, Juana was reunited with her husband. They were buried in Granada, together. I suspect they were both beyond caring…

All that glitters…

In 1494, the then pope, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, brokered the treaty of Tordesillas. As per this treaty, Portugal and the joined kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón divided up the world outside of Europe between them. Hmm. I wonder what the divided world had to say about that? Anyway, due to this treaty, a line was drawn through South America, with the easternmost future Brazil ending up Portuguese, while the rest of the continent suddenly became Spanish.

Landing_of_Columbus_(2)At the time of the treaty, most of the newly divvied up lands were utterly unknown to their new masters. Christopher Columbus had done a good job of spreading the propaganda that he’d made it to lands of endless riches (he finally got it that he hadn’t made it to India – actually, most mathematicians and astronomers of the age were quite convinced he would never make it to India, but Columbus was the stubborn type) and adventurous types from all over the Iberian peninsula – plus some – descended on the new lands. They weren’t there for an All-inclusive on Hispaniola, nor were they particularly interested in the native people. No, these driven adventurers came with one thing and one thing only in mind: gold.

santo-domingo-pirate-map-drakes-voyageSpain’s first hub in the New World was Santo Domingo on Hispaniola.  The Spanish were not particularly gentle when it came to conquests, and when there was no gold forthcoming it made them a tad irritated. These were men who had gambled everything on the hope of finding heaps of gold lying about, and when the indigenous Taino shrugged, trying to explain there was no gold – at least not in significant quantities, the conquistadores vented their rage on them. A couple of decades later, the Taino people were no more – unless they served as slaves on one or other of the huge encomiendas that dominated their previous island home.

Once they’d gotten over their disappointment regarding the meagre pickings on Hispaniola, the Spanish set their sights to the West. Rumours of immense riches came drifting across the Caribbean, and as we all know, Spanish adventurers came to conquer not only the Aztec Empire in Mexico, but also the huge Inca Empire in Peru, this through a combination of disdain for the “heathens” and nerves of steel.

A century or so after Columbus’ arrival on the shores of America, Spain was by far the richest country in the world. Galleons loaded with gold and silver creaked their way regularly over the Atlantic, fat rich prices for drooling privateers. Upon arrival in Spain, these riches were generally transferred to the skilled goldsmiths in the Flemish provinces of the Spanish Empire, where the metal was worked into exquisite pieces of jewellery or tableware – precious items that were then sold back to Spain, at prices far exceeding their metal value, and so the Flemish merchants got even more gold to work into even more masterpieces, to sell for even more gold and… Well, you get the picture, right? Spain was reduced to being a raw material supplier, buying back the produced goods at prices that resulted in a constant negative cashflow (Not into Finance? Trust me; negative cashflow is very, very bad).



Now, as long as Spain was in control of an endless supply of gold and silver, the cashflow wasn’t a problem. It was a bit like controlling the mint; “Ooops, I’m out of money. What do I do? Oh yes, I print some MORE money!” (Now isn’t that a delicious fantasy?) However, easy come, easy go, and where once gold had been plentiful, the greed of the Spanish very quickly depleted the South American continent of anything that glittered. Come the late 17th century, and Spain was beginning to feel the bite of that negative cashflow. Come the 18th century, and Spain began to sink into poverty – sort of ironic, given the sheer amounts of precious metals extracted from the American continent. But there you are; if you don’t employ good accountants, that’s what happens…

It wasn’t as if the Spanish gave much in return to their new dominions; yes, yes, we have all that beautiful colonial architecture that graces the older cities in Spanish America, all those churches with twin towers, signalling yet another congregation to sing the praises of the Christian god. But at what price? I somehow suspect those long-gone Incas would have preferred continuing to worship the sun without the presence of any nasty, hairy Conquistadores (and if you want to read more about this, click here).

Anyway; for a couple of centuries, the Spanish kings wallowed in gold. And before the country began to feel the pinch of poverty brought on by excessive greed and a hungering for pretty things, Spain experienced a cultural explosion which in Spanish goes by the name El Siglo de Oro (The Golden Century – most apt, if, with time, rather ironic)



I don’t know how many of you are into religious painting. No? Well, if you are, Seville of the 17th century would have been your own personal Mecca. Now, I am no major fan of painting after painting depicting the blushing young face of the Virgin, but when standing before the sheer brilliance of Zurbarán or Murillo, I can but gape. Both these gentlemen made a mint out of their religious paintings, depicting numerous Virgins and as many saints. Zurbarán was a master of contrasts between light and dark, while Murillo had a more realistic bend, now and then lowering himself to depicting normal people. Whatever the case, had it not been for all that gold flowing into Spanish church coffers, there would have been no commissions to paint, and the world would not have been left with masterpieces such as Zurbaráns Immaculate Conception or Murillo’s The Beggar boy.

And had there not been money, well then Philip IV would not have been able to afford Diego Velazquez, and seriously, a world without Las Meninas? (But dear old Diego is much, much more than this iconic painting. The man must have chewed some sort of potent energizing drug what with how much he painted) Interestingly enough, Velazquez also hailed from Seville. Maybe it was the buzz of this cosmopolitan city, gateway to so much of Spain’s trade with its dominions that created an atmosphere conductive to cultural pursuits. Or maybe it was as simple as the people in Seville becoming filthy rich due to said trade with said dominions, and therefore able to buy talent to come and live in their city.

RokebyVenusWhatever the case, Diego Velazquez made good in Seville – painting a lot of religious motifs, of course – so good that he was called to the royal court, where he became the resident court painter (and head of the household). Philip IV was very proud of his painter, and Velazquez combined royal portraits with other work, now and then daring the displeasure of the Inquisition by painting a nude. Major no-no in 17th century Spain. The Inquisition frowned on such lewd depictions, and the Inquisition was a force unto its own, so people did best to toe the line when it came to this dour and scary institution.  Not that this prohibition against depicting nude female flesh seems to have had the desired deterring effect as we know for a fact that nudes painted outside of Spain were avidly collected by the Spanish nobility (They probably kept these little masterpieces hidden, a bit like those French cards of future generations).

Prince Felipe Prospero

Prince Felipe Prospero

To us, Velazquez is mostly known for his beautiful portraits of royal children – which includes Las Meninas as this painting showcases Princess Margarita Teresa. I personally find his later portraits more striking, but what I absolutely love about Las Meninas is Velazquez’s use of the mirror – and the fact that he has included himself in the painting.

Velazquez himself

Velazquez himself

If one peers closely at the difuse image of the painter at work, one notices that on his coat he wears a red cross, the insignia of the Order of Santiago. That is rather curious, as Las Meninas was painted three years before Velazquez made it through the proverbial needle’s eye to become a member of this illustrous company. To become a member of the Order of Santiago, one had to be many things, but first and foremost one had to be of impeccable Spanish lineage with not as much as a drop of Jewish or Moorish blood. Apparently Velazquez passed the test – despite being nothing more than a “craftsman”, painters were not held in high regard – and it has been suggested that it wasn’t the artist but rather his royal patron who had the temerity to add the cross to the painting. We will never know.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaNot only was the Spanish Golden Age an explosion in art, it also produced some of the finest writers of the Spanish language. Cervantes, of course, who gifted the world with his somewhat sad and confused Don Quijote. (I never got him as a child, more irritated than intrigued by this stupid man who charged windmills on an underfed nag. As an adult, however…) The period also saw a new genre invented, moving the novel away from the romances starring high-born women and courtly knights to the picaresque novel, where the protagonist was generally of low birth and even lower means, who survived due to his wits, not due to his bloodline (in Spanish, such an intrepid go-getter is called a pícaro). I can imagine these novels found a warm reception in an age were the myth of the self-made man, as exemplified by the dirt-poor emigrant who went to the colonies and returned loaded with gold, flourished. Interestingly enough, at one end of the spectrum we have these novels starring smart-arse urchins, while at the  same time  San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Ávila produced some of the more beautiful religious writing ever seen – intimate and yet trandenscending, somehow. (And OK: St Teresa and San Juan died late in the 16th century, but the Golden Century is a relatively flexible time period)


prado 3 Murillo El buen pastorAnd then we have the playwrights – many, many playwrights such as Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina. Hands up those that have heard of these giants among Spanish playwrights. No? Tsk, tsk! Lope de Vega wrote like 1 800 plays (go figure, Shakespeare) of which close to 100 are considered masterpieces (who decides these things?). I’m not entirely sure Lope de Vega’s plays have fully survived the sharp teeth of time (but I do like a man who bases his plays on historical events) but there is one playwright – and especially one work by this playwright – that most definitely has. I am talking about my personal favourite, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and his play La Vida es Sueño –  Life is a dream.  From this play come the lines below, some of the most famous in Spanish Literature. They can also be seen as somewhat prophetic; after all, as the Golden Age of Spain drew to a close, the country was to wake up from its dream of everlasting riches to find itself degraded to a poor outpost on the European continent. And all because some people just couldn’t get enough of stuff that glittered…

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño.
¡Que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son!

What is life? It is a frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
It is a shadow and a fiction,
And the greatest good is small;
For life is nothing but a dream,
And dreams, are only dreams.

Imagine: all this because of a treaty back in 1494. No Treaty of Tordesillas, no gold. No gold, no wealth to fuel all this cultural endeavour. Spain may have ended up dirt poor once the gold and silver reserves were depleted, but spiritually and culturally the Golden Age forged the future Spain, bequeathing to the future generations a veritable treasure trove of art and literature. Not gold, not even silver, but something that sparkles and shines much, much more!

The saint in the kitchen

250px-Teresa_of_Avila_dsc01644One of my favourite historical persons is St Teresa de Jesus (or St Teresa de Avila as she is also known). I would actually go as far as to say this lady is my favourite saint – but that may of course be because she is one of the few saints I have found interesting enough to read up on.

What I like about Teresa is how down-to-earth she seems. This woman doesn’t get her visions from God while fasting and praying, no her visitations come as she is busy in the convent’s huge kitchen. Imagine the dark, cool space. Over the open hearth the kitchen maid is turning the spitted birds, to the side the dough has been set to swell under a rumpled but clean linen cloth, and by the huge table stands Teresa, busy stirring a mixture of herbs and oils in a copper pan. Which is when Jesus says “Teresa, can you hear me?”
She most certainly can. Her face grows slack, her eyes glaze over, and her hold on the pan loosens to the point that it clatters to the floor. Teresa doesn’t notice; she is levitating a couple of inches off the floor, face turned upwards, towards the sky, towards the sound of the heavenly voice that fulls her spirit with joy, her heart with content. Moments later, Teresa is back to her normal capable self. The pot has been picked up, the mess on the floor wiped clean. But all the while she goes about her work, Teresa’s head rings with the words of her Lord and Saviour.

Let’s start at the beginning. Teresa was born 1515 in Ávila, an ancient and beautiful Spanish city. On her mother’s side, Teresa’s bloodline was impeccable – true Christian blood as far back as one could go. On her father’s side, things were somewhat more fuzzy – borderline dubious, as her father was of Jewish descent, however much a Christian he might be.

Goya_Tribunal_FlammenhutAs a child, Teresa’s father had been subjected to the humiliating experience of having to do penance for not being a true convert to the Christian faith. Not that the poor boy had done anything, but his father was accused of still holding to Jewish traditions such as not eating pork, and so the entire family had to wear sambenito robes (gowns and conical hats in a bright yellow colour, decorated with flames and crosses – a discreet little hint as to what end awaited a heretic) and for seven consecutive Fridays walk from church to church in Toledo, admitting their sins. At every stop they were pelted with offal and submitted to verbal abuse, and as there are very many churches in Toledo, this was quite a harrowing experience. No wonder that Teresa’s father was so keen to marry beautiful Beatrix de Ahumada, what with her Christian lineage. He even took her family’s name as his, attempting to erase all traces of his own ancestry.

Teresa’s mother was fourteen when she married, dying at 33 after nine childbirths. The poor woman had spent a lot of time in bed, what with one pregnancy following on the other, and to while away her time, she devoured romances starring brave knights and demure damsels. As a consequence, Teresa was very young when she developed an interest in books, even though she would upgrade from romances to heavier tomes as her life progressed. The influence of her early reading matter can, however, be seen in her own writing, which lacks the stiff formality usually present in religious writings of the time.

Kempeneer,_Peter_de_(Campaña,_Pedro)_-_Bildnis_einer_DameWith her mother dead, Teresa had to assume certain responsibilities in the household of her father. Marriage contracts were discussed, but Teresa was less than interested. The life of a well-born woman in 16th century Castille was very restricted, the wife’s role being to orbit round her husband and give him as many children as she could. The wives of the well-to-do led most of their lives behind the walls of their homes, and when they went abroad they would be adequately covered so as not to give rise to any gossip about their flightiness. Adequately covered in this case being everything but one eye, veils intricately arranged so as to achieve “tapada de medio ojo” (covering half the eyes).

Teresa had no wish to end up like her mother. A year in a nearby convent to calm her down, didn’t initially make her desire to become a nun either. Young Teresa was confused as to what to do with her life, but after some consideration she decided to elope to a nearby convent and take vows – very much against her father’s wishes. Supposedly, as she got into the carriage that was to take her to the convent, a man came by and made some complimentary comments about her ankle, for an instant visible below her skirts. The young woman laughed and thanked him, hoping he would appreciate that he was the last man ever to have the joy of seeing her skin thus uncovered.

This little episode gives us an insight into another aspect of Teresa. She was pretty enough to attract male glances, and she had no compunction about utilising this attraction to her benefit, wheedling donations and support out of almost every rich man she met. There was a lot of muttering about this handsome woman and the men who surrounded her. On one occasion, Teresa was hauled before the Inquisition on charges of fornication, with her confessor. At the time, Teresa was sixty plus, her confessor was around thirty, and the accusations were quickly laid to rest. But, some would snidely say, no smoke without fire, hey? Teresa never deigned to confront these malicious gossips.

406px-Hildegard_von_Bingen_Liber_Divinorum_OperumIt is said that Teresa’s decision to enter the convent was not due to devotion, but rather reflected her fear for her soul. Teresa considered herself prone to sin, and what better way to combat such tendencies than to remove oneself from the outside world? Still, she remained lukewarm in her religious convictions – which worried her. One day she became seriously ill, was ill for the coming three years or so, and during this period she had repeated experiences of religious ecstacy. Some people suggested her visions were the work of the devil, and Teresa, being convinced of her own sinful nature, was initially worried that they were right. Luckily, one of her confessors concluded that was not the case, and so Teresa could allow herself to be swept up in the passion of religious ecstacy.

Teresa was a prolific writer – her visions and spiritual experiences were committed to large tomes in which she developed her religious thinking. Today she is considered one of the great Christian mystics, but at the time this was a dangerous thing to do. Very, very dangerous – and especially if you were a woman. Which is probably why Teresa is so depreciating of herself in her books “I am but a simple woman” or “I have been asked by men much wiser than I to relate…” or “This calls for a simile, and I beg you excuse me, silly woman that i am for…” At times, her depreciation borders on sarcasm. Maybe it was…

424px-Cisneros1So why this animosity towards women? Well, what’s new? The Church had been a male dominion for most of its existence, women relegated to be supporting “Marthas”, i.e. they should cook and feed, they should nurse and comfort, but they should preferably do this in silence, obsequiously bowing before the greater wisdom of men. Hmm. Very much hmm, come to think of it… Anyway, some men were enlightened, charming characters, such as Cardinal Ximénes Cisneros, who had the Bible translated to Spanish in the early 16th century and encouraged women to read and study the Holy Writ and other divine texts. Women leapt to the challenge. They read, they discussed, they did some more discussing – well, you know, like us women do, we talk things over, and while we’re at it, we digress into tangential discussions about Mercedes’ latest baby (seven sons, I tell you!), and is it true your hair becomes blonder if you wash it in chamomile water (yes), and has anyone else tried this new, strange vegetable called potato? (no way, was the resounding reply, patatas were for pigs and peasants)

Execution_of_Mariana_de_CarabajalThe more serious and devout among the women joined groups with male members, groups with the sole purpose of striving to understand the Holy Writ. They were called alumbrados, or enlightened, these laypeople who took it upon themselves to make their own interpretation of the Bible, and the priests were not happy. Not at all. Especially as many of the more vociferous alumbrados were women – and conversos (Christians of Jewish origins), which, in the eyes of the Inquisition, was quite the toxic combo. Once Cardinal Cisneros died in 1517, there was a major backlash. The female leaders of the alumbrados were tortured, whipped, exiled, forced into convents – and in some cases burnt. All for the temerity of developing a personal relationship with God – and for being of Jewish descent, of not being sufficiently “pure” in their bloodlines.

This was bad news for Teresa. Not only did she have Jewish blood, but she also had a very personal relationship with God. She experienced utter joy when taken over by her visions, total abandonment when the moment passed. As she moved upwards through the hierarchy of the convents (she started quite a few herself), she studied the holy books, she had more visions and felt compelled to share her experiences. The Inquisition hovered over her – repeatedly. Teresa chose to handle this by applying a healthy dose of self-censorship – at least to her books. She was somewhat more forthright in her criticism of the Church and its prelates in other circumstances – which was why she founded her own order, which advocated a return to a simpler monastic life, with ample opportunity for contemplation and prayer.


The Seal of the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition

On several occasions, Teresa had the less than pleasant experience of having to defend herself – and her writings – before the Inquisition. In 1580, she was forced to burn her commentary to the Song of Solomon, page by page, before the assembled Inquisitors – most of them men young enough to be her sons. And yet, for all that it hounded her, the Church also admired this tenacious woman, this nun who wrote enormous tomes about her close relationship with her King and Lord, Jesus. I suppose her sincerity shone through, as did her devotion and love.

When Teresa lay dying, her every word, her every expression was recorded. The nuns around her bedside whispered among themselves; were they witnessing the death of a saint? Yes, yes, they murmured, look at her face, lit from within, look at the joy blazing from her eyes! Excitement rippled through the room. Imagine that! A saint, dying here, in their convent. They’d build her a nice tomb, and soon the pilgrims would come, and…the abbess may have rubbed her pudgy hands together, calculating the potential profits this would mean. Teresa was beyond caring.
“Who are you?” her Beloved one asked her one afternoon.
“I am Teresa of Jesus,” she mumbled in reply, “and who are you?”
“I am Jesus – of Teresa.”

In 1583, Teresa was called to her heavenly father. For her sake, I hope he was there, waiting for her. Maybe He took her hand and led her towards the brilliance of heaven, maybe He just smiled, somewhat enigmatically, at this woman who loved Him so much.


The reliquary containing St Teresa’s arm

No sooner had Teresa died, but the nuns hastened to bury her, wanting to ensure her bodily remains remained in their convent, Alba de Tormes. Not to be. Some days after her death, her confessor, Jerónimo Gracían rode in. His plans were to take the body with him to Ávila. The body was disinterred, the (male) witnesses marvelled at her beautiful body, free of all signs of putrefaction and firm and round, this despite her advanced age of 67 (and the fact that she was dead). Gracían produced a saw and cut off her left hand. A major quarrel re the remains broke out. The body was taken to Ávila to be buried there (but an arm was chopped off and left at the convent where she died).


St Teresa’s heart

The bereaved convent protested, all the way to the Holy Father. Teresa’s body was yet again dug up. And again. And again. Five times in total, the poor corpse was dug up and reburied, and every time it was returned to the grave, it was several limbs/organs poorer. An eye was popped out, a finger was nipped off, her heart ended up in a reliquary, her upper jawbone was removed, her dainty foot was cut off….

Over the centuries, Teresa’s body parts have done quite the walkabout. And her hand, the one so callously chopped off by her dear confessor, was one day to adorn the pillow of Franco’s deathbed. I guess the old dictator hoped that by holding on to it, he’d be led all the way to heaven. Fat chance. Teresa wouldn’t have liked him, and neither, I’m sure, would God.

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