The first truly global empire in the modern world was that ruled by Philip II, king of Spain, from 1556 to 1598. At its height it included, in Europe, both Spain and Portugal; large parts of Italy, including Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and Milan; Franche-Comté; and the Netherlands. Strategic ports in North Africa, such as Tangier, Oran, and Tunis, provided Philip’s Mediterranean fleet with bases to strike against Turkish naval power. Large parts of the east and west coasts of Africa were under Philip’s rule, as were enclaves on the west coast of India, many of the islands of the East Indies, and the entire Philippines (named after the king), in the Pacific Ocean.
It was the king’s possessions in the New World, however, that brought the greatest wealth to the monarch: Gold and silver flowed from the conquered Aztec and Inca empires in such quantities that Philip could afford to raise and equip armies and navies of a magnitude heretofore unimaginable—and Philip needed those forces, because throughout his reign his empire would be beset by real and potential enemies on all sides.
Because there were no precedents for such a vast realm (the Roman Empire was a distant memory and, besides, had existed in a far different era), Philip II was forced to fashion for himself both policy and administrative procedure. As a monarch, all authority ultimately rested in Philip’s own person, a fact that the king believed completely and acted upon obsessively. In a literal fashion, Philip II was almost the sole and ultimate administrator of his empire. Papers passed across his desk in an endless stream: reports, letters, memoranda, requests, financial reports, diplomatic correspondence, secret intelligence. The king read most of them personally and answered and annotated many—the archives are filled with documents from the period with Philip’s own marginal notes, hand-written responses, and questions. The internal memoranda of the Spanish government, known as billetes, left a broad left margin for the king to use. He frequently did.
This attention to detail, combined with the concentration of power and the focus of the entire imperial administration in a single individual, has been cited as both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of Philip’s empire. Inevitably, this dichotomy leads to a further consideration: Was Philip II simply a crowned clerk, or did he have a broad vision of how he wished to rule his realm and where he wished to take it? In other words, did Philip II simply govern day-to-day, turning from crisis to crisis, or did he, in fact, have a grand strategy?
For a long time, many historians believed that Philip had no concept of what a grand strategy even was, much less that he was able to devise one for his realm. For example, the French historian Fernand Braudel dismissed him as a man seeing his duty as “an unending succession of small details.” H. G. Køenigsberger regarded both Philip and his ministers as having “no such plan or programme.” There is a judgment implicit in such views: It is that, because of Philip’s obsessive attention to detail and his lack of a broader vision, his reign was a failure. There is some evidence to support this contention; after all, the Netherlands was lost through revolt; the Armada was destroyed in its attack on England; and Philip’s designs in Europe were frustrated by a shifting series of alliances among his opponents.
In The Grand Strategy of Philip II, Geoffrey Parker, Andreas Dorpalen Professor of History at The Ohio State University, provides an alternative view. It is based on his more than thirty years of study of Philip II and his reign, including extensive research of thousands of existing documents, many of them in Philip’s own handwriting. Parker’s conclusion both denies and affirms the conventional view: He asserts that Philip II did have a grand strategy, but that miscues in implementing this strategy led to repeated failures that frustrated Philip’s designs and ultimately weakened the Spanish empire.
Parker outlines Philip’s grand strategy as a fairly comprehensive and generally coherent plan to preserve Spanish power where it existed, to expand it in areas of geographic importance to Spain, and to launch diplomatic or military initiatives against enemies—and in Philip’s eyes those enemies could be political or religious. In fact, as Parker points out, in an intensely religious age, Philip II felt more keenly than most monarchs that he had a special relationship with God and that he was doing the work of the deity here on earth. Philip’s devout Catholicism led inevitably to conflict with the growing Protestant cause in northern Europe, particularly in the Netherlands and England.
The Netherlands, also known as the Low Countries, had...
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