Philip II: youth and influences

Alonso Sánchez Coello: King Philip II of Spain, portrait painting, 1566

Philip was the first-born son of Charles V and Isabella of Portugal. Due to the lengthy absences of his father, he mainly grew up with his mother, absorbing a Spanish mentality and lifestyle.

Alonso Sánchez Coello: King Philip II of Spain, portrait painting, 1566

Born in Valladolid on 21 May 1527, the prince was an intelligent child and received an all-round education, making him one of the most erudite monarchs of his time. He developed a passion for collecting that focused on books and art objects but also extended to mechanical instruments and relics.

Early on in his life Philip began to exhibit character traits that would later become more pronounced, such as introversion, emotional distance and extreme religiosity. His sense of identity as a monarch, with which he had been inculcated since childhood and which was one of his salient traits, imbued him with an aloofness even towards whose who were closest to him. His lifestyle was dominated by his attachment to the ritual regularity of ceremonial: his daily routine had to adhere to a rigid protocol and strict timetable. He set great store by health and cleanliness.

Philip entered into the political limelight early on, while his father was still alive. In 1543, at the age of sixteen, he was handed the regency of the Spanish heartlands by his father Charles, whom he idolized.

In the same year he celebrated his wedding to Maria Manuela, daughter of the Portuguese king John III and Catherine of Spain, one of his father’s sisters. Both aged sixteen, the young couple were first cousins. The political background to the union was the desire to strengthen ties between the Spanish and Portuguese dynasties. This was coupled with the aim of bringing the last independent kingdom in the Iberian peninsula under Spanish rule should the Portuguese royal house become extinct, Philip’s great-grandparents having united the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Granada.

The marriage lasted only two years, as the young bride died in 1545 after the birth of her first child, who was baptized Charles after his grandfather. Philip had been widowed at the age of only eighteen. This was an experience that was to repeat itself several times throughout his life.

In 1548 Philip left Spain for the first time, spending several years visiting the various territories under Habsburg dominion. He also met representatives of the Austrian line of the dynasty. In contrast to most of the Habsburgs from the generations preceding him, who as a rule experienced an extremely polyglot and international upbringing, Philip had grown up in Spain with Castilian Spanish as his mother tongue and had not learned any other important languages properly. He spoke very little French, Italian or German. Reinforced by his aloof nature, this shortcoming hindered communication with those who did not speak Spanish, and he soon acquired a reputation for arrogance with his Austrian relatives.

In the Low Countries he encountered the rich cultural life of those regions which was to leave a lasting mark on him. For the rest of his life he was a keen collector of works by the Flemish masters.

In 1554 he travelled to England to marry his second wife, Mary Tudor, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ from her persecution of non-Catholics. The background to this marriage was the hope that it might lead to Britain returning to the fold of the Catholic Church. The plan was for the son that was hoped to ensue from this union to inherit not only Britain from his mother but also the Netherlands from his father, thus forming a realm that would span the Channel and together with Spain would surround France.

This plan never came to fruition. Bowing to pressure from the British nobility, Philip had to waive any claim to joint rulership. His marriage to the ageing and sickly English queen remained childless and became a long-distance relationship, as Philip had returned to the Low Countries by 1555 to assume power following his father’s abdication.

Martin Mutschlechner