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Obsessive compulsive armada

11 March 2016

Glyn Redworth reads a new biography of Philip II of Spain

Museu del prado/white images/scala, florence

Philip surprised with his rosary: by Sofonisba Anguissola, c.1575. Radiography shows that in 1564, the painting originally had Philip with his hand on his sword. It is from the book reviewed here

Philip surprised with his rosary: by Sofonisba Anguissola, c.1575. Radiography shows that in 1564, the painting originally had Philip with his hand on...

Imprudent King: A new life of Philip II
Geoffrey Parker
Yale £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


THE Prudent, the king-monk, and even (ironically, one assumes) Philip the Sap have all been sobriquets of Philip II of Spain, sometime King of England, and — if coin of the realm is to be trusted — one of our Defenders of the Faith.

Geoffrey Parker adds another for the man who launched more than one armada against this country. Imprudent King is the title of this learned, engaging, and lavishly illustrated biography of a monarch who for many is the epitome of Counter-Reformation bigotry.

Philip the man comes alive more than ever before. He enjoys fishing in Segovia, planting 223,000 trees in Aranjuez, and fretting over his pheasants in the park below Madrid’s royal palace. Travel plans change so that he can be present at his children’s birth. But he is also someone who cannot distinguish between the trivial and the significant. Energy and focus are wasted by spending days over redrafting a memorandum. He starts believing that only he knows what is going on. During the Enterprise of England, the King orders the veteran Marquis of Santa Cruz not to deviate from royal instructions, because he “has complete information on the present state of affairs in all areas”.

He was modestly compared at his funeral in 1598 to a weaver working from home on relatively simple tasks; but closer inspection revealed that these threads encompassed the globe, snapping at will. Bad artisan or broken loom — whether Philip was up to the task of empire, or whether the job was simply impossible — is the question that Parker brings centre stage.

Enter Freud. Philip, we are told, had an easy-to-identify “obsessive-compulsive personality”. Religiously austere, gripped by order, but dogged by inefficiency, the monarch certainly had some of the characteristics. Whether his sex drive was as low as Parker argues is debatable, but the author rightly divines a compensating messianic streak. Logistical problems will be ignored because he is undertaking God’s work. The Almighty must provide.

Sado-optimism might get us just as close to understanding what made Philip tick, but let this masterful biographer have the last word. “No one could excel as both clerk of works for the Escorial and as a world statesman.”


Dr Glyn Redworth is a member of the History Faculty at the University of Oxford.


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