The Foreign Policy of Philip II

Philip II has been the subject of more extreme views than almost any other ruler in modern European history. Until recently northern Europe produced a traditionally hostile reaction. Some contemporaries regarded Philip as so fanatical a supporter of the Counter Reformation as to be, in William the Silent's words: ‘estranged from every sentiment of honour and humanity’.1 To his own subjects, however, he was known as Philip the Prudent, under whom Spain reached the peak of her power and influence, guided by policies which were embarked upon only after careful consideration and with certainty of success.

The overall picture presented is of a statesman who was strongly inclined to uphold Catholicism and yet who could remain pragmatic in his relations with Islam and Protestantism if it suited him to do so, who weighed the advantages and defects of some policies and yet was susceptible to impulsive and impetuous decisions in others, and who could be alternately flexible or rigid. He tended to exercise less caution in the second half of his reign, particularly in the 1580s and 1590s, although he retained the ability to learn from some of his mistakes, even if, while rectifying them, he committed others. He was certainly one of the most paradoxical figures of his age, and exceptionally inconsistent. The reasons are not difficult to find. The nature of his inheritance from Charles V was in itself a curious mixture of strength and weakness, of great wealth and military potential, but territorially vulnerable to several major enemies. The problems posed by his inheritance therefore required a variety of responses and solutions. Moreover, the difficulty of making these responses weighed heavily on Philip personally, and his reactions varied considerably, according to the nature of the crisis. On some occasions he showed marked caution, sometimes in the face of considerable diplomatic pressure. On others he alarmed subordinates like Alexander Farnese by pushing through a policy which they regarded as precipitate. Normally, however, Philip sought advice from all quarters before committing himself. Although admirable in theory, this sometimes resulted in excessive delays, particularly since he became over-involved in detailed paper-work.

Between 1556 and 1598 Philip's attention was concentrated on the Mediterranean, where he encountered considerable success; the Netherlands, which constituted his greatest and most persistent problem; England, where he met with mixed success and failure; and France, which showed him at his worst.

Philip II's Mediterranean policy was a direct response to the threat posed to the very existence of Spain by Islam. Charles V, in concentrating on a land struggle against France, the Ottoman Empire and Lutheranism, had neglected the naval security of Spain in the western Mediterranean. Consequently, when Philip II came to the throne in 1556, the navies of the Sultan, completely secure in the Levant, were threatening to establish their supremacy west of Sicily as well. The peril was compounded by the operation of the Barbary corsairs from the Islamic coast of North Africa (particularly Tunis and Algiers) against merchant shipping in the western Mediterranean. There was frequent, if sporadic, co-operation between these pirates and the Turkish admirals. Finally, Spain possessed a substantial population of dissidents who identified with the external forces of Islam. The Moriscos (Moors who had been forced to become partial Christians) would have welcomed a Turkish invasion to put an end to their exploitation and sufferings. One of Philip's officials summarized the prevailing government view: ‘We must count all the Moriscos avowed enemies.’2

To Charles V these problems had been important but peripheral. They concerned the southern flank of his dominions and he had concentrated his resources on maintaining his position in Central Europe. To Philip II the crisis in the south was paramount because the focal point of his dominions was the Iberian Peninsula and southern Italy, and thus encompassed the whole western Mediterranean. Central Europe was now the concern of Ferdinand I and beyond Philip's control. Philip was therefore able to give priority to the struggle against the Ottoman Empire as Charles V could not have done. Although his policy was initially a continuation of that of Charles V, he altered it rapidly to meet the new circumstances.

In 1560 Philip's expedition to capture Tripoli, a Barbary strong–hold, was soundly defeated by a Turkish fleet at Djerba. Like the sporadic and half hearted thrusts made by Charles V against hostile bases in North Africa (for example, Algiers), it had been badly prepared. Thereafter, Philip adopted a more careful strategy. The Turk was to be confined to the eastern Mediterranean and priority was to be given to increasing Spain's naval strength in the western Mediterranean, cutting the links between the Barbary strongholds and the Turkish fleets, and maintaining key strategic islands in the central Mediterranean. Of these one was Malta, besieged by the Turks in 1565. Philip took nearly a year to come to Malta's assistance, but this was because he was building up Spain's naval resources. When he struck in 1566 there was no repetition of the Djerba fiasco and the Turks were driven back. The Morisco Revolt in Spain (1568–70) prevented Philip from consolidating his position in the western Mediterranean, as he had to divert resources to suppress it. Nevertheless, the beginning of the 1570s saw Spain and her Italian possessions more secure than they had ever been under Charles V.

Philip II's policy was now one of restraint and consolidation. He encountered considerable pressure to move from defence to attack and destroy Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean; the papacy and Venice both urged direct confrontation with the Turks. But when Philip joined the Holy League in 1571 he did so partly for defensive purposes. He had no intention of saving Venetian possessions like Cyprus from the Turks, nor of landing a crusading army to destroy Islam. For this reason, the defeat of the Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) produced different expectations among the victors. Venice and the papacy expected a further offensive, while Philip realized that this would be counter–productive. This assessment was certainly correct; no European power in the sixteenth century had the resources for a frontal attack on the Ottoman Empire. Philip therefore regarded the Battle of Lepanto as a defensive victory, intended to confine Ottoman naval power to the area east of Italy. Although Ottoman naval strength was by no means eliminated and Spain suffered several subsequent reverses, the Turkish peril had been diverted by a broadly successful defensive strategy. The one thing which Philip must have regretted was that the pressure of problems elsewhere prevented him from mopping up the various pockets of resistance in North Africa.

The worst of these other problems was the Netherlands. Geographically they were the most difficult of all Spain's European possessions to defend, and doubt has frequently been cast on Charles V's wisdom in bequeathing them to Philip at all. These remnants of the Burgundian lands had nothing in common with Spain, and only the personal interest of Charles V had overcome temporarily their strong feeling of separatism. Possibly the Emperor Ferdinand would have had less difficulty in integrating the Netherlands with the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs. As it was, Philip's reactions showed that he was thoroughly bemused. He confessed that he was caught in the Netherlands ‘not only up to my neck but over my head’.3 Only one issue remained clear. Of all his dominions the Netherlands were the most likely to show political and religious dissent. Therefore Philip felt that he had to do everything within his power to overcome rebellion and eradicate heresy. He had an innate horror of the latter, observing: ‘Before suffering the slightest damage to religion and the service of God, I would lose all my estates, and a hundred lives if I had them, because I do not propose, nor do I desire, to be the ruler of heretics.’4 It is doubtful that Philip used the suppression of dissent in the Netherlands as the basis of a general crusade against northern Protestantism, as is often asserted, but he did regard Spanish strength and the credibility of the Counter Reformation as being on trial.

Philip lost control over the Netherlands because he approached a virtually impossible task with policies that were inconsistent and ill–timed. This was due largely to his own ignorance of the situation. Immersed in his Escorial he failed to foster the personal relationship which Charles V had maintained with the dominion by means of his more mobile government. Philip's initial approach was tactless and ultimately disastrous. Against the advice of the Regent, Margaret of Parma, he ordered the intensification of the Inquisition and, in his desire to extract subsidies swiftly, seriously antagonized the Estates. These early measures showed a lack of sensitivity rather than open despotism, and total dependence on the advice of Granvelle and Father Lorenzo de Villa Vincencio. By 1567 discontent was openly expressed and Philip made another mistake. Instead of travelling to the Netherlands himself to assess the situation, he sent the Duke of Alva with orders to deal with dissension and maintain the flow of subsidies. By the time that Alva's administration was ended in 1573 the damage was already done. The Northern Provinces had seceded and the Sea Beggars were by now active in Holland and Zeeland. Yet this was precisely the time that Philip became aware of the failure of his hard line. He said, in 1572: ‘I see that things have arrived at such an extreme that we shall be obliged to adopt other measures.’ Although the administration of Requesens (1573–6) made a definite attempt at moderation and conciliation, it came too late. The next decision was a serious blunder. Following the disturbances of 1576, in which the Estates took temporary control, Philip sought a military solution, but with the minimum of diplomatic finesse. His decision to send Don John was unfortunate because the victor over the Moriscos in 1570 and the Turks in 1571 had no understanding of the more complex issues of the Netherlands. Philip seemed to become aware of this, for he replaced Don John in 1578 with Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma. Undoubtedly the best appointment ever made by Philip, Parma succeeded in restoring the southern Netherlands to Spanish rule. But even here Philip erred. Instead of leaving Parma to complete his task, he interfered at critical times and, ignoring Parma's protests, forced him to become involved in the Armada campaign of 1588 and the Spanish intervention in France in the 1590s.

Spain's enemies sensed Philip's uncertainty over the Netherlands and seized the opportunity to aid the rebels. England, for example, formed a treaty with the northern Netherlands in 1585 and sent troops under Leicester. The Huguenots also regarded the revolt as a means of uniting northern Protestantism against Spain. For Philip the Netherlands became a constant drain on Spanish resources and a target for the intrigues of his opponents. He now began to regret his lack of naval supremacy in the north and turned his attention to England.

If Philip's policies over the Netherlands showed fluctuation and indecision, his attitude to England underwent a more profound and definite change. He began with caution, using various forms of diplomacy and intrigue, and ended with inflexibility, tending to ignore loose ends and subsidiary problems.

There is no doubt that Philip hoped to maintain close relations between Spain and England, even after the death of his wife, Mary Tudor, and the accession of Elizabeth in 1558. There is no evidence in these early years of a crusading spirit against Anglicanism; indeed his attitude was far more moderate than that of the papacy. Philip restrained Pius IV from excommunicating Elizabeth in 1561 and later gave his reason that such a bull would ‘embitter feelings in England and drive the Queen and her friends to oppress and persecute the few good Catholics who still remain there’.5 His main reason for supporting Elizabeth, however, was political. He feared that the accession of Elizabeth's rival, Mary Queen of Scots, would place England under the influence of the Guises and result in a powerful Anglo–French combination against Spain. Hence he was prepared to tolerate almost too much from Elizabeth. She seized ships carrying pay for Spanish troops in the Netherlands in 1568 and encouraged the activities of the Sea Beggars in the Netherlands and English privateers in the Caribbean. Philip's response was invariably cautious and was usually confined to reluctant involvement in plots against Elizabeth– the Ridolfi Plot (1571), the Throckmorton Plot (1583) and the Babington Plot (1586).

Philip made two errors in his diplomacy in the 1570s and 1580s. He remained patient and inactive too long in the face of provocation, and then passed too rapidly to a policy of open aggression. The St Bartholomew Day Massacre (1572) greatly reduced the possibility of conflict between France and Spain, as the Guises became increasingly dependent on the support of a fellow Catholic in their struggle against the Huguenots. But Philip failed to take full advantage of this turn of events and it was only the threat of large–scale English involvement in the Netherlands from 1585 which stirred him to action. After this he appeared to cast off all restraint and to reject some of the sounder advice offered to him. The struggle against England now took on the nature of a crusade, and Philip increasingly placed his trust in divine assistance to deal with two major problems. The first of these was that the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 removed the Catholic candidate for the English throne and therefore dissipated the chances of internal Catholic support for Philip's attack on England. The second was the incomplete nature of the invasion plan; Philip refused to go into the details of co–ordination between naval and land forces in 1588. The launching of the Armada, therefore, saw Philip at his most inflexible.

The underlying difficulty with which Philip had to deal was the vulnerability of the Spanish navy in the Atlantic. He had an inadequate understanding of the role of seapower beyond the Mediterranean and seemed to apply a policy similar to that which had succeeded against the Turks. Though careful to defend the sphere of influence around Spain and the Spanish colonies, he had been wary about encroaching on the territorial waters of his opponents. This was entirely the wrong strategy to use against England, for he had gradually lost control of the sea routes to northern Europe and had allowed the English Channel and the North Sea to become dangerous waters. This was particularly crucial in the struggle for the Netherlands and eventually resulted in a huge commitment of resources in the 1588 Armada to clear the obstacles which had been allowed to accumulate for three decades. This stroke was intended to solve all of Philip's remaining problems simultaneously. It would destroy England's seapower and stop her attacks on Spanish colonies and shipping. It would end the liaison between English and Dutch, and make possible the Spanish reconquest of the northern Netherlands. However, Philip had fallen behind English commanders in his understanding of strategy and tactics. He was unable to combine effectively the plans of Santa Cruz and Parma, one concentrating on a seaborne attack on England, the other on an invasion of the English coast by Spanish troops from the Netherlands. No precise provision was made for the collection of Parma's troops by the Armada since the Flanders coastline lacked a deep water port to serve as an anchorage. Although this was pointed out by Parma on several occasions, Philip still allowed the Armada to sail without a definite solution to the problem. Moreover, Philip had no clear proposals to deal with the line ahead manoeuvres of the English fleet. His instructions to Medina Sidonia were thoroughly vague, showing an awareness of English tactics but suggesting no specific response. ‘You should take special note, however, that the enemy's aim will be to fight from a distance, since he has the advantage of superior artillery, while we must come to grips at close quarters.’6 Philip soon came to realize that he had committed a number of serious mistakes in the execution of his ‘Enterprise of England’, and changed his tactics somewhat from 1589 onwards. He devoted more resources to his naval struggle with England, fitting out further Armadas for the protection of his treasure shipments from the Americas and greatly strengthening the defences of his colonies. If anything, Spain was in a stronger position at sea after 1588 than she had ever been before. But this rapid programme of reconstruction crippled the Spanish economy, and Philip's involvement in France prevented him from conducting anything more than a holding action against English attacks. Once again, he was on the defensive.

Philip's dealings with France showed a transition from moderation to aggression which was similar to his policy towards England. It could be argued that the change was forced upon him in the case of England, but his pursuit of aims which were openly imperialistic in France in the 1590s deserves less justification.

On his accession in 1556 Philip inherited a long–standing conflict with France which he managed to conclude with reasonable success. The Spanish victory at St Quentin (1557) was not followed by an attempt to conquer France (Philip had, at this stage, too healthy a respect for the French capacity for rapid military recovery), but it did put pressure on France to negotiate a settlement. Philip's caution was maintained after the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis and the death of Henry II. He had no desire to precipitate a conflict with France which might divert his attention from the Turks or lead to the renewal of the Franco-Turkish alliance. The situation was more difficult between 1571 and 1572, when the French Regency came under the influence of Coligny, who advocated the renewal of war against Spain. But Philip's luck changed in 1572 with the St Bartholomew Day Massacre, which brought about civil war in France and made a Spanish alliance necessary for the Guise faction. The possible accession of a Huguenot to the French throne did, it is true, pose a threat to Spain's position in the Netherlands. For a while, calculated diplomacy and selective support for the Guises seemed to provide the answer but the assassination of the Catholic, Henry III, in 1589, and the accession of the Huguenot, Henry IV, seemed to revive the problem.

This also presented an irresistible temptation to Philip to push his own claim to the French throne. He therefore abandoned diplomacy and concentrated on achieving a dynastic union between France and Spain. He became obsessed with the grandeur of his vision and failed to see that Spain did not possess the resources to open another front in France while, at the same time, maintaining the struggles against England and the Netherlands. Inevitably, Philip was obliged to draw upon his forces elsewhere in order to sustain his ambitions in France. Parma was ordered, protesting, into France from the Netherlands in 1592, the immediate result of which was the paralysis of Spanish control in Brussels. Philip's design collapsed altogether in 1593 when the Catholic and Huguenot factions united behind Henry IV to resist Spanish encroachments. By 1596 Philip was fighting a Triple Alliance: France, the Netherlands and England. He eventually realized that his priorities had become confused and he therefore concluded the Peace of Vervins with France in 1598. But nothing had been achieved and substantial resources had been diverted from his struggle with longer–standing enemies.

It had been argued that Philip scored a major success in keeping France a Catholic country at a time when her monarchy was confronted by a powerful Calvinist threat. Yet, ironically, Catholic France was to be a greater menace to the future integrity of Spain than any Protestant state. Ultimately the strength and status of Spain were eroded primarily by a series of struggles with Richelieu, Mazarin and Louis XIV, and only secondarily by England and the Netherlands.

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