Felipe Quinto was a good man within his lights, which had been limited by his education. As a younger son to the Dauphin he had been trained to modesty, piety, and obedience, and he never overcame these virtues sufficiently to meet half a century of challenges in government and war. His piety led him to accept in Spain a religious obscurantism that was dying in France; his docility made him malleable by his ministers and his wives.
María Luisa Gabriela, daughter of Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, was only thirteen when she married Philip (1701), but she was already adept in feminine wiles; her beauty and vivacity, her tantrums and tears reduced the King to an exhausted subjection, while she and her chief lady in waiting manipulated the politics of their adopted land. Marie Anne de La Trémoille, Princesse des Ursins, French widow of a Spanish grandee, had helped the girl Queen to marriage and power. Ambitious but tactful, she became for a decade a power behind the throne. She could not rely upon beauty, for she was fifty-nine in 1701, but she provided the knowledge and subtlety lacking in the Queen, and after 1705 she determined policy. In 1714 María Luisa, aged twenty-six, died, and Philip, who had learned to love her devotedly, sank into a morbid melancholy. Mme. des Ursins thought to salvage her power by arranging his marriage with Isabella (Elizabeth) Farnese, daughter of Duke Odoardo II of Parma and Piacenza. She went to meet the new Queen at the Spanish border, but Isabella curtly ordered her to leave Spain. She withdrew to Rome and died eight years later in wealth and oblivion.
Isabella did not admit that the Renaissance was over; she had all the force of will, keenness of intellect, fire of temper, and scorn of scruples that had marked the women, as well as the men, who had dominated sixteenth-century Italy. She found in Philip a man who could not make up his mind, and who could not sleep alone; their bed became her throne, from which she ruled a nation, directed armies, and won Italian principalities. She had known almost nothing of Spain, nor did she ever take to the Spanish character, but she studied that character, she made herself familiar with the needs of the country, and the King was surprised to find her as informed and resourceful as his ministers.
In his first years of rule Philip had used Jean Orry and other French aides to reorganize the government on lines set by Louis XIV: centralized and audited administration and finance, with a trained bureaucracy and provincial intendants, all under the legislative, judicial, and executive authority of the royal council, here called the Consejo de Castilla. Corruption diminished, extravagance was checked—except in the building operations of the King. To these French ministers there succeeded in 1714 an able and ambitious Italian, the Abate Giulio Alberoni, whose energy made the Spanish shudder. Son of a Piacenza gardener, he had reached Spain as secretary to the Duc de Vendôme. He had been the first to suggest Isabella Farnese as Philip’s second wife; grateful, she eased his way to power. Together they kept the King away from affairs, and from any counsel but their own. Together they planned to build up Spain’s armed forces, and use them to drive the Austrians out of Italy, restore Spanish ascendancy in Naples and Milan, and set up ducal thrones to be graced, someday, by the farseeing Isabella’s sons.
Alberoni asked five years for preparation. He replaced titled sluggards with middle-class ability in the leading posts; he taxed the clergy and imprisoned rebellious priests;13 he scrapped worn-out vessels and built better ones; he set up forts and arsenals along coasts and frontiers; he subsidized industry, opened up roads, accelerated communication, abolished sales taxes and traffic tolls. The British ambassador in Madrid warned his government that with a few more years of such advances Spain would be a danger to other European powers.14 To soothe such fears Alberoni pretended that he was raising forces to help Venice and the papacy against the Turks. Indeed, he sent six galleys to Clement XI, who rewarded him with a red hat (1717). “The Spanish monarchy,” wrote Voltaire, “has resumed new life under Cardinal Alberoni.”15
Everything was granted him but time. He hoped to win French and English consent to Spanish aims in Italy, and offered substantial concessions in return, but the careless King spoiled these maneuvers by revealing his desire to replace Philippe d’Orléans as ruler of France. Philippe turned against Felipe, and joined England and the United Provinces in a pact to maintain the territorial arrangements fixed by the Treaty of Utrecht. Austria violated that treaty by compelling Savoy to give her Sicily in exchange for Sardinia. Alberoni protested that this placed athwart the Mediterranean a power whose head still claimed the crown of Spain. Cursing the undue acceleration of events, he resigned himself to premature war. His newborn fleet captured Palermo (1718), and his troops soon brought all Sicily under Spanish control. Austria thereupon joined England, France, and Holland in a Quadruple Alliance against Spain. On August 11, 1718, a British squadron under Admiral Byng destroyed the Spanish fleet off the coast of Sicily; Spain’s best troops were bottled up in that island while French armies invaded Spain. Philip and Isabella sued for peace; it was granted on condition of Alberoni’s banishment. He fled to Genoa (1719), made his way in disguise through Austrian-held Lombardy to Rome, took part in the conclave that elected Innocent XIII, and died in 1752, aged eighty-eight. On February 17, 1720, a Spanish envoy signed in London a treaty by which Philip resigned all claim to the throne of France, Spain surrendered Sicily to Austria, England promised to restore Gibraltar to Spain, and the Allies pledged to Isabella’s offspring the right of succession to Parma and Tuscany.
In the kaleidoscope of international politics allies soon become enemies, and foes may formally become friends. To cement peace with France, Philip had betrothed his two-year-old daughter, Maria Ana Victoria, to Louis XV in 1721, and had sent her—all wondering—to France (1722). But in 1725 France sent her back so that Louis might marry a woman who could at once undertake the task of giving him an heir. Insulted, Spain allied herself with Austria; the Emperor Charles VI promised to help recapture Gibraltar; when a Spanish army tried to take that bastion Austrian help did not come; the attempt failed, and Spain not only made peace with England, but restored to her the Asiento monopoly of selling slaves to Spanish colonies; in return Britain pledged to put Isabella’s son Don Carlos on the ducal throne of Parma. In 1731 Carlos and six thousand Spanish troops were escorted to Italy by an English fleet. Austria, to secure British and Spanish support for the accession of Maria Theresa to the Imperial throne, yielded Parma and Piacenza to Carlos. In 1734 Carlos promoted himself to Naples. Isabella’s triumph was complete.
Philip, however, sank into a melancholy mood that, after 1736, lapsed now and then into insanity. He shrank into a corner of his room, thinking that all who entered planned to kill him. He was loath to eat for fear of being poisoned. For a long time he refused to leave his bed or be shaved. Isabella tried a hundred ways to heal or soothe him; all failed but one. In 1737 she coaxed Farinelli to come to Spain. One night, in an apartment adjoining the King’s, she arranged a concert in which the great castrato sang two arias by Hasse. Philip rose from his bed to look through a doorway and see what agency could make such captivating sounds. Isabella brought Farinelli to him; the monarch praised and caressed him, and bade him name his reward; nothing would be refused. Previously instructed by the Queen, the singer asked only that Philip should let himself be shaved and dressed, and should appear at the royal council. The King consented; his fears subsided; he seemed miraculously healed. But when the next evening came he called for Farinelli, and begged him to sing those same two songs again; only so could he be calmed to sleep. So it continued, night after night, for ten years. Farinelli was paid 200,000 reales a year, but was not allowed to sing except at the court. He accepted the condition gracefully, and though his power over the King was greater than that of any minister, he never abused it, always used it for good; he remained untouched by venality, and won the admiration of all.16
In 1746 Philip ordered 100,000 Masses to be said for his salvation; if so many should not be needed to get him into heaven the surplus should be applied to poor souls for whom no such provision had been made.17 In that year he died.