Philip II, the self-proclaimed leader of Counter-Reformation, assumed the throne in 1556 with a great deal of potential, inheriting from his uncle Ferdinand the Habsburg lands in Austria together with the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire, thus inheriting the Netherlands, Franche-Comté, Naples, Sicily, and Milan. With Spain, however, Philip inherited a new empire overseas, which was far more lucrative than his father's empire in Germany. The death of Charles V also divided the Habsburg territories, freeing Philip from the burden of governing the unstable German Reich. With no strong monarch in France until 1590s and free from the burden of the Franco-Hapsburg wars over Italy, Spain was left without a major rival on the continent.
Charles V and his son Philip II were determined to rule their inherited territories, despite the strong resolve of the English and the French to prevent the expansion of Habsburgs. Philip's reign saw the convergence of political absolutism, the religious zeal of the Counter-Reformation, and the wealth and power brought by Spanish America, leading to an aggressive expansionism. The Netherlands, Portugal, England, Italy, and France were subject to this militant Spanish imperialism imbued with the sprit of the Counter-Reformation.
Spain had the best army in Europe, including the well-disciplined native Spanish infantry and Philip's royal power was absolute in his possessions as he combated heresy and extended Spain’s influence, seeing little difference between the good of the Spanish state and the Church. Hoping to wield absolute power based on the idea that his subjects owed him unwavering loyalty as a Christian duty, Philip hoped to extend absolute rule in all his territories, and not just Spain.
Spanish intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean perhaps marked the zenith of Spanish power abroad. After the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, the Turkish advance on Mediterranean continued in 1570 with the Turks capturing the Venetian island of Cyprus—the last Christian outpost in the region. At the height of his power, the Pope and Christian Europe urged Philip to block Turkish expansion. In turn, Philip would form a Holy League to destroy Ottoman naval power in Mediterranean. Spanish and Venetian warships, joined by volunteers across Europe, would later crush the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. This mission marked the height of the respectability of Spain and its sovereign abroad as Philip bore the burden of leading the Counter-Reformation.
His first marriage (1543) was to Princess Mary of Portugal, who provided him with a son, Don Carlos (1545-1568). Following Mary's death in 1546, he sought an alliance with England, marrying the Catholic Queen Mary I of England in 1554. The marriage was unpopular with her subjects, and was a purely political alliance as far as Philip was concerned. On January 16, 1556, Philip succeeded to the throne of Spain, as a result of his father's abdication, but he did not choose to reside in the country until his father's death two years later.
After his second wife, Mary Tudor, died childless in 1558, Philip showed an interest in marrying her Protestant younger sister, Queen Elizabeth I of England, but this plan fell through, for a number of reasons. Philip believed his son Don Carlos had conspired against him and as a result Philip imprisoned his son. When the prince died shortly thereafter, Philip's enemies accused him of having ordered the murder of his own son.
Spain and England became enemies, especially in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. In 1559 the 60-year war with France ended with the signing of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. Part of the peace process was Philip's third marriage to Princess Elisabeth, daughter of Henri II of France who in fact had first been been promised to his son, Don Carlos. Elisabeth (1545-1568), provided him with two daughters, but no son. Philip's fourth wife, Anne, daughter of the emperor Maximilian II, provided him with an heir, Philip III.
But, his reign was troubled by financial instability and threatened Muslim invasions, as well as conflict with England and the Netherlands.
Spain's quagmire in the Netherlands, the defeat of its "invincible Armada" in 1588, and the economic strain of supporting so many wars with an insufficient tax base would lead to the collapse of Spanish hegemony by Philip's death in 1598. In the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands, Philip II continued the policies of heavy taxation since Charles V. But Philip II was confident that the provinces would remain loyal, as he was a native son born in Ghent. Like Charles V, he continued to exclude local nobility from administration, maintained an army of occupation, and upheld an Inquisition to stop the advance of Calvinism.
Following the 1566 Calvinist revolt, Philip II set out to stamp out treason and heresy. Issuing a new sales tax of roughly ten percent to pay for the required military expenditures, the situation in the Netherlands only worsened. The region fell under open revolt once again in 1568 under William the Silent of the House of Orange, crushed by the brutal Spanish Fury. But following the Pacification of Ghent in 1572, poorly fed and poorly nourished Spanish troops, formerly considered invincible, especially after the successful campaign against the Ottomans, mutinied. The Dutch Calvinists declared that Spanish solders must be expelled and to be governed by the Estates General. But the Spanish took advantage of the strong variation between the northern and southern provinces, playing local aristocrats against each other and recapturing the Southern provinces while the north would fall under the Estates-General of the United Provinces.
Aside from draining state revenues for failed overseas adventurism, the domestic policies of Philip II exasperated Spanish decline. For one, far too much power was concentrated in Philip's hands. Unlike England, Spain was subject to separate assemblies: the Cortes in Castile along with the assembly in Navarre and three for each of the three regions of Aragon. While France was divided by regional states, it had a single Estates-General. The lack of a viable assembly would lead to a great deal of power being concentrated in Philip's hands. Authority was administered by local agents appointed by the crown and viceroys carried out instructions of the crown. Philip, a compulsive micromanager, presided over specialized councils for state affairs, finance, war, and the Inquisition. A distrustful sovereign, Philip played royal bureaucrats against each other, leading to a system of checks and balances that would manage state affairs in a very inefficient manner. Calls to move capital to Lisbon from the Castilian stronghold of Madrid — the new capital Philip established following the move from Toledo - could have perhaps lead to a degree of decentralization, but Philip adamantly opposed such efforts.
Philip’s regime severely neglected farming in favor of sheep ranching, thus forcing Spain to import large amounts of grain and other foods by the mid-1560s. Presiding over a sharply divided conservative class structure, the Church and the upper classes were exempt from taxation (to be expected, considering their lack of parliamentary powers) while the tax burden fell disproportionately on the classes engaged in trade, commerce, and industry.
Due to the inefficiencies of the Spanish state structure, industry was also greatly over-burdened by government regulations. The religious expulsion of the Jews and the Moors also deprived Spain of skilled financiers and craftsmen.
While inflation throughout Europe in the sixteenth century is a broader and more complex phenomenon, the flood of bullion from Americas contributed to high inflation. Under Philip’s reign, Spain saw a fivefold increase in prices. Due to inflation and high tax burden for Spanish manufacturers, Spain’s riches were frittered away on imported manufactured goods by an opulent aristocracy and Philip’s wars. Only the revenues flowing in from the mercantile empire in the Americas was keeping Spain afloat, although this was inflationary, before Spain’s first bankruptcy in 1557 due to the rising costs of military efforts. Dependent on sales taxes from Castile and the Netherlands, Spain’s tax base was far too narrow to support Philip’s overseas adventurism.
Meanwhile, Philip inherited the throne of Portugal, and the success of colonisation in America improved his financial position, enabling him to show greater aggression towards his enemies. In 1580 the direct line of Portuguese royal family died out, giving Philip the pretext to claim the thrown through his mother, who was a Portuguese princess. When Lisbon refused Philip’s claims he orchestrated a take-over, invading, annexing, and seizing the throne, which would be held by Spain for sixty years. Thus, Philip added to his possessions a vast colonial empire in Africa, Brazil, and the East Indies, seeing a flood of new revenues coming to the Spanish crown.
Another ostensible boost to Spanish hegemony and the Counter-Reformation achieved a clear boost when Philip married Mary Tudor — a Catholic — in 1554 (the older daughter of Henry VIII). However, they ended up childless (a child would have been heir to all but France) after Queen Mary or “bloody Mary” as she was known by English Protestants, died in 1558 before the union could revitalize the Catholic Church in England.
The throne went to Elizabeth, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. But due to their premises against divorce, this union was deemed illegitimate by English Catholics, who instead claimed that Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic great-granddaughter of Henry VII, was the legitimate heir to the throne.
The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots provided him with an excuse for an attempted invasion of England. Philip thus sought to oust Elizabeth I with the invasion by the “invincible Armada.” However, the so-called “Protestant Wind” thwarted Spanish ambitions, enabling the small, deftly maneuverable English ships to soundly out-maneuver the large Spanish fleet.
Spain’s crushing 1588 blow with the defeat of the Armada also meant the success of the Dutch rebellion. Philip, ill for the remainder of his life for another ten years left behind a Spain backwards in comparison to its Western European neighbors. And Spain has not closed the gap between its level of development and those of its neighbors to this day.
By the end of the century, Philip’s rule was largely a failure, with the Netherlands free and Spanish designs on England thwarted. Upon his death, the union with Portugal remained one of his lasting achievements, remaining under Spanish rule for the time being. So despite having far more gold and silver than any other European power flowing in from the New World and the addition of Portugal, and the enthusiastic support under the guise of the Counter-Reformation, Philip’s rule ended in devastating setbacks for Spain.
As Spain plunged into disaster, a Golden Age in Spanish literature developed, despite censorship. Following the defeat of the invincible Armanda, Spanish art turned gloomy and pessimistic. The most brilliant manifestation of this is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which was perhaps a satire of Spain’s failed quixotic adventures in the Netherlands and England under Philip II.
Charles I of Spain
|List of Spanish monarchs||
Philip III of Spain
(ruled Portugal as
D. Felipe II)