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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.

What is in a name? Of Don Carlos, in various incarnations

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Juana, Carlos I’s mother

Being named Carlos was not really a good thing if you were a Spanish Hapsburg – well with the exception of the first, namely Carlos I of Spain. But this Carlos was not really Spanish. Yes, his mother was Spanish – the woman known to history as Juana la Loca or Joanna the Mad – but his father was that drop-dead gorgeous prince, Felipe the Handsome, and he was no more Spanish than I am.

Our first Carlos was brought up in Flanders by his powerful aunt, Margaret of Austria. He spoke Flemish as his first tongue, considered Ghent his hometown, and made something of a mess of things when he visited Spain for the first time in 1517, at which time he was but seventeen and already ruler of over close to twenty different kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms – what have you. All these titles and fiefdoms had mostly been amassed by a series of smart marriages, slowly but safely propelling the Hapsburgs from relative obscurity to the upper echelons of European ruling families.

Carlos I went on to become a skilled and powerful ruler, a mover and shaker, a Holy Roman Emperor, a man who spent most of his time travelling from one dominion to the other, among which Spain figured as relatively important, but not the most important. And as I said, Carlos I was not Spanish, never really learnt to speak proper Castilian, and was rather depressed by all these dour, excessively pious Spanish Grandees that made up the Spanish court.

Carlos I Jakob_Seisenegger_001

Carlos I

However, Carlos I must be considered a success – maybe even the success among the Spanish Hapsburgs. The man was born, he lived, amassed more countries and powers than anyone else, managed to pass on his kingdom and empire to his son and brother respectively, and spent the last two years of his life more or less eating himself to death after he’d abdicated. More of Carlos I, I think, in a future post.

Instead, today we’re going to talk about his descendants and namesakes, starting with Don Carlos, Carlos I’s grandson.
Now, Carlos I married a first cousin, a princess of Portugal. By all accounts this was a happy marriage, and it also produced a son, Felipe II (Philip II to those of you less comfortable with Spanish names), who was to inherit his father’s Spanish kingdom.

Felipe also married a first cousin, yet another Portuguese princess. In this case, he and his wife shared Juana la Loca as a common grandmother, and this, it turned out, was not an entirely good thing.

Felipe’s wife, Maria Manuela, presented him with a son. Joyous shouts of welcome, church bells clanging – the little Portuguese had done her duty, and now the Hapsburg line was safely cemented on the Spanish throne. That the mother died four days later was neither here nor there – well, maybe for Felipe II, who by all accounts was an affectionate husband to at least three of his four wives.

The little baby was named Carlos after his grandfather. He was a weak baby, somewhat deformed physically, but managed to survive infancy. At the age of fourteen he was betrothed to Elizabeth Valois, princess of France. That marriage was never to be. Instead, a recently widowed Felipe (marriage nr 2) married his son’s intended – there were political reasons for this. Don Carlos was not so happy, putting it mildly – but there were other princesses out there, and by now the young man was revelling in his status as Prince of Asturias, i.e. the recognised heir to the Spanish throne.

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Don Carlos, Felipe IIs son

Not everyone was as thrilled. His father was clearly worried, as his son showed signs of mental instability – flaying horses alive and barbecuing living hares was not, in Felipe’s considered opinion, an indication of a healthy mind. And then there was that nasty incident when Don Carlos fell down the stairs, a trepanation saving him from death. This primitive brain surgery did not improve either Don Carlos’ temper or mental health.

Supposedly, he started contemplating murdering his father – or if nothing else, to flee to the Netherlands and join the rebels, there to carve himself an independent kingdom. Things came to a head in 1668, and Felipe saw no option but to lock his son away. Don Carlos died six months later, and there were all sorts of lurid rumours about Felipe killing his own son, the first building block in the so called Black Legend round the evil Spanish Hapsburgs . Modern historians tend to dismiss this as ludicrous – general opinion is that Don Carlos died of natural causes.

For Felipe, his son’s mental instability and subsequent death was a catastrophe. By now, Felipe II was forty years old, and all he had were daughters. No heir to the throne, no future Hapsburg king. But things would sort themselves (or not, seeing as to do so Felipe lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth of Valois) and Felipe’s fourth wife – and niece – presented him with several sons, one of whom would survive childhood and become Felipe III.

Felipe III is not one of the most impressive Hapsburg kings. Come to think of it, after Felipe II, none of them are impressive – at all. This may, of course, be a consequence of all that intermarrying. Anyway, what Felipe III does have going for him is his affection for his wife (and cousin) Margaret of Austria. This lady died doing her duty and presented the king with an entire nursery of babies – and even better, this time there was an heir and a spare – hang on, even two spares, as Margaret was survived by three sons and three daughters.

The eldest of these boys was destined to become the next king, Felipe IV. The second was Don Carlos, and just like that defunct namesake and uncle of his, there were certain concerns regarding his mental health – or maybe it was just a matter of the young man being somewhat erratic. He was also, at least on paper, a potentially very important person, seeing as Felipe IV had as yet no heir to his body. This caused disgruntled noblemen to flock round Don Carlos, hoping to use him to oust Felipe IVs favourite, the somewhat grasping and megalomanic Duke de Olivares. Don Carlos was not interested in politics, but both his royal brother and Olivares had him under close surveillance, worried that the malcontents might use this rather innocent young man for their own purposes.


Don Carlos, brother to Felipe IV

In 1627, Felipe IV fell seriously ill. Major crisis, as there was no heir – even if the queen was yet again pregnant. The Duke of Olivares was faced with the rather terrifying prospect of seeing Don Carlos crowned as king – and Don Carlos actively disliked Olivares. So, in panic, Olivares drew up the strangest document, whereby, should the king die, things were to remain status-quo until the unborn infant had seen the light of the day. If the child was a boy, the queen and Don Carlos were to act as his protector, the government to remain firmly in Olivares’ hands. If the child was a girl, it was decided from the beginning that this little princess was to marry her uncle, Don Carlos (so as to keep him sweet and happy) ASAP, but until then, Olivares remained in control.

Fortunately, the king recovered. Even more fortunately from Olivares’ perspective, some years later a male son was born, Baltasar Carlos. (Who would die young. His father would then go on to marry his son’s intended bride, Mariana of Austria who was also his niece and cousin and…At present, this was all in the future.) And some years after that, Don Carlos died, under somewhat unclear circumstances. Some, of course, claimed Olivares had poisoned him. Whether true or not, the fact is that Don Carlos died in July of 1632. He was 24 years old and is essentially remembered for Velázquez’s magnificent portrait of him – and for being mentioned in a number of poems decrying his death.

And then, finally, we come to that most tragic of the Hapsburg Carloses, namely Carlos II. Born in 1661, his birth was clouded by grief, as his parents had just recently lost their little boy, Prince Prospero. Felipe IV was by now a man marked by loss. His eldest son, Baltasar Carlos, died at sixteen, his second wife had presented him with one son after the other who died young. Felipe IV felt old – was old – and now all that was left was this little boy, already from the beginning showing signs of grave mental and physical impediments. Felipe IV, who was very pious, resigned himself to all this being God’s will.

In 1665, Felipe IV died, and Carlos became king at the age of four. At the time, he was incapable of walking or talking, was still in diapers, and in general the people around him despaired – he had the wits of a canary. Not entirely true, thank heavens, because as the boy grew he managed to learn to speak – and walk. His mother was like a protective lioness when it came to her boy and did all the ruling in his stead.


Carlos II

Carlos grew up, nicknamed El Hechizado, the Bewitched. He was a lost cause as a king, but hope is the last thing to leave us human beings, and so Carlos’ mother initiated a frenzied look for a suitable bride for her son, someone with whom to beget a healthy heir. One would have thought not a single conscientious father would have considered giving their daughter in marriage to a man with such obvious afflictions, but royal marriages had little to do with affection, far more to do with politics, which is why a French princess was chosen as Carlos IIs bride.

Marie Louise of Orleans was attractive, witty, spirited. Carlos II fell utterly in love, and while there were no children, this was not due to lack of trying. Marie Louise is said to have commented that while she was no longer precisely a virgin, she doubted if things ever went far enough for there to be children. Of course, as per the Spanish it was Marie Louise’s fault there were no babies. This caused a lot of pressure on the poor princess, who also had to cope with living in more or less splendid isolation – court protocol forbade anyone touching the queen, and her French attendants had been dismissed shortly after her arrival.


Marie Louise – who, BTW was the grand-daughter of Charles I of England

Marie Louise died in 1689 after ten years of marriage. Carlos II was beside himself – Marie Louise had been kind and patient, had tried her best to be a good, supportive wife. Queen Mariana hastened to find a new wife, preferably one as docile as Marie Louise. This new bride had to be fertile, because if Carlos did not leave heirs of his body the Spanish would very soon be ruled by a FRENCH king – and seriously, what could be worse than that? (Why a French king, you may wonder. Felipe IV had a daughter, Maria Teresa, who married Louis XIV. Should Carlos II produce no heirs, his closest relatives were the descendants of Maria Teresa.)

Poor Carlos was soon married again – and this new wife of his had no kind words, no patience with this fool who was her husband. Maria Anna of Neuberg was cruel and grasping, stole work of arts and had them sent back to her brother, and in general was a class A bitch, terrorising her husband.

In 1700, Carlos II died, some days shy of his 39th birthday. His had been a life plagued by infirmities, both physical and mental. With Carlos, the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain came to an end – in with Carlos I, out with Carlos II. In the intervening 184 years, Spain had gone from a restless amalgamation of minor kingdoms to a huge Empire, its dominions spreading through the Americas to the Filippines and beyond. In that same timespan, the formerly so vibrant and viable Hapsburg bloodline had degenerated from the powerful presence of Carlos I, to the simple-minded fool who died, unhappy and unloved, in the Alcázar of Madrid on 1 November 1700. Sic transit Gloria mundi, one could say…

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