The king who blamed everything that went wrong on God

A review of Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II, by Geoffrey Parker. This is a masterpiece of historical biography

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II Geoffrey Parker

Yale University Press, pp.356, £25, ISBN: 9780300196535

Geoffrey Parker is a product of Nottingham and Christ’s College Cambridge, and I think was once a pupil of the unforgettable Jack Plumb. He went to Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) in 1986, Yale in 1995 and since 1997 has been at Ohio State University. Against that improbable background he established himself years ago as the world’s outstanding historian of Philip II, his court, his problems and tragedies, having devoted much attention to the Dutch revolt.

His masterly biography of King Philip appeared first in 1978. Now, after publishing several authorative revisions, he has written a new biography of the same monarch. The book is justified by the discovery of several thousand invaluable original papers relating to the king in the personal collection of the railway magnate Archer Huntingdon, in the Hispanic Society of America, which he founded in Upper New York City. Huntingdon was a great Maecenas and his work as such has now been shown by Parker, and some colleagues, as extending far beyond his death.

Imprudent King is readable and broadminded, as well as being scholarly. It presents a sympathetic picture of a man who often seemed bowed low by the weight of his responsibilities. Philip was bad at making up his mind, and could be vindictive as well as considerate, ruthless as well as thoughtful. His letters to his daughters are touching in their directness and charm.

Parker has given us a really magnificent biography, whose documentation is impeccable while never heavy. All students of the late 16th century will be grateful for his new account of the Armada of 1588 and its tribulations, the extraordinary story of the murder of Don John of Austria’s secretary Juan de Escobedo in Madrid through the machinations of Antonio Pérez, and the sad tale of Don Carlos, which neither Schiller nor Verdi would recognise.

The crisis in Aragon in 1591 is also deftly chronicled. We are always kept interested in the author’s realisation that whenever anything went wrong the king could — and would — blame God for having wished the matter to have turned out otherwise. (‘His unswerving piety repeatedly led him to see failure, or even outright defeat merely as a sign that God was testing him’).

I think Parker may be wrong in his judgment that Eufrasia de Guzmán was not Philip’s mistress in the 1550s, and may have underestimated the importance of Titian in the evolution of the King’s aesthetic judgments. Sheila Hale was able to point out this side of Philip in her own recent great biography of the painter.

There is also not quite enough about the American empire, which was, as Parker says in his last pages, his greatest achievement and whose wealth did so much to finance Philip’s exploits in Europe. No matter; this book is a masterpiece of historical biography and anyone who reads it will be enriched by it.

Murillo painted an instructive picture (among the many brilliant illustrations reproduced in Parker’s work) of a Franciscan friar in the village of Paracuellos de Járama observing the soul of Philip ascending from Purgatory to paradise. Those who write of the brutal events at Paracuellos in another more tragic stage of Spanish history can imagine the victims of November 1936 similarly ascending.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. 
Hugh Thomas is the author of The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V.

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  • Bruce Lewis

    Philip II was a better Christian and a much more ethical monarch than the “Virgin Queen” (who was doubtless NOT a “virgin,” ever). His reputation has been blackened by anti-Catholic English historians, but the Spanish historians know better and celebrate him as the great gentleman he was. It has always surprised me that the same British historians who make him out to be such a fanatic Catholic fail to notice that he once went to WAR with a pope,and that his Catholicism, though profoundly serious, was not the least bit “clerical”; he understood perfectly how corrupt the Roman curia was and was more interested than any Protestant in reforming it.

    • whs1954

      Oh dear, another Papist seeking to push his co-religionists’ claims over those of his countrymen. This is NOT a Catholic country, dear. Philip II plainly was not a better Christian nor a better monarch than Elizabeth I.

      • justejudexultionis

        Ita vero. One of the greatest achievements of this country is to have successfully resisted Habsburg, Bourbon and Napoleonic tyranny and laid the foundation for modern democratic individualism. Roman Catholicism was the absolute epitome of intolerance and bigotry during the early modern period, and Philip II was a highly prominent avatar of the Inquisition.

        • Bruce Lewis

          The Inquisition was mainly the Roman Church’s effort to control the fanaticism of the hoi polloi that would have massacred every so-called “sorcerer” they could get their hands on. It is a historical fact that the “witch craze” of the Seventeenth Century was a Protestant, not a Catholic phenomenon. Philip’s support of the Inquisition in Spain and of the expulsion of the Moriscos were regrettable actions, but to see him as a willing tool of the papal monarchy of the Sixteenth Century is absolutely incorrect. And in the Americas he stoutly maintained his father’s policy of opposing enslavement of Natives, even though this policy was extremely unpopular with his subjects. He was far more of a conscientious Christian than Elizabeth Tudor was, and Spanish historiography maintains this picture of him admirably, and this is even echoed in the popular Alatriste novels of Arturo Perez-Reverte, when Philip II is always compared favorably with his degenerate descendant Philip IV, and lauded as a “patriot king.”

      • Bruce Lewis

        No, actually, dear, you are an increasingly ATHEISTIC country, and that was inevitable after you set yourself up as an Erastian religious culture, with a POLITICAL figure as the “Chief Governor” of your state-religion. (But please don’t misunderstand me: I have a great deal of respect for the C of E of Lancelot Andrewes, George Herbert et. al., and believe that THAT Church would ultimately have reconciled her differences with the Catholic and Apostolic one, but that changed when the Puritans were able to introduce wildly heterodox theological positions and make them dominant. Newman and the Oxford Movement were right in thinking that English Christianity needed to be rescued from Calvinist and Lutheran heresies, but it was too late.)

    • christopher carr

      What, not ever?

  • trace9

    You’d have to be pretty broadminded indeed to ‘allow’ just how that ‘Great American Empire’ was created – in Christian civilisation’s name .. nominally.. All praise to the British sailors, soldiers & statesmen who helped shorten Spain’s brutal misrule, & prevent a massive European power imbalance in Catholic Spain’s favour. Sounds a fine read tho’.