Under Philip II, Spain reached the zenith of power.
Continuing Defeat of the Spanish Armada,
our selection from The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo by Edward Creasy published in 1851. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Place: English Channel
On the other hand, Philip II was absolute master of an empire so superior to the other states of the world in extent, in resources, and especially in military and naval forces as to make the project of enlarging that empire into a universal monarchy seem a perfectly feasible scheme; and Philip had both the ambition to perform that project and the resolution to devote all his energies and all his means to its realization. Since the downfall of the Roman Empire no such preponderating power had existed in the world. During the medieval centuries the chief European kingdoms were slowly moulding themselves out of the feudal chaos; and though the wars with each other were numerous and desperate, and several of their respective kings figured for a time as mighty conquerors, none of them in those times acquired the consistency and perfect organization which are requisite for a long-sustained career of aggrandizement. After the consolidation of the great kingdoms they for some time kept each other in mutual check.
During the first half of the sixteenth century the balancing system was successfully practiced by European statesmen. But when Philip II reigned, France had become so miserably weak through her civil wars that he had nothing to dread from the rival state which had so long curbed his father, the Emperor Charles V. In Germany, Italy, and Poland he had either zealous friends and dependents or weak and divided enemies. Against the Turks he had gained great and glorious successes; and he might look round the Continent of Europe without discerning a single antagonist of whom he could stand in awe. Spain, when he acceded to the throne, was at the zenith of her power.
The hardihood and spirit which the Aragonese, the Castilians, and the other nations of the peninsula had acquired during centuries of free institutions and successful war against the Moors had not yet become obliterated. Charles V had, indeed, destroyed the liberties of Spain; but that had been done too recently for its full evil to be felt in Philip’s time. A people cannot be debased in a single generation; and the Spaniards under Charles V and Philip II proved the truth of the remark that no nation is ever so formidable to its neighbors, for a time, as a nation which, after being trained up in self-government, passes suddenly under a despotic ruler. The energy of democratic institutions survives for a few generations, and to it are superadded the decision and certainty which are the attributes of government when all its powers are directed by a single mind. It is true that this preter-natural vigor is short-lived: national corruption and debasement gradually follow the loss of the national liberties; but there is an interval before their workings are felt, and in that interval the most ambitious schemes of foreign conquest are often successfully undertaken. Philip had also the advantage of finding himself at the head of a large standing army in a perfect state of discipline and equipment, in an age when, except some few insignificant corps, standing armies were unknown in Christendom. The renown of the Spanish troops was justly high, and the infantry in particular was considered the best in the world. His fleet, also, was far more numerous and better appointed than that of any other European power; and both his soldiers and his sailors had the confidence in themselves and their commanders which a long career of successful warfare alone can create.
Besides the Spanish crown, Philip succeeded to the kingdom of Naples and Sicily, the duchy of Milan, Franche-Comte, and the Netherlands. In Africa he possessed Tunis, Oran, the Cape Verde and the Canary islands; and in Asia, the Philippine and Sunda islands and a part of the Moluccas. Beyond the Atlantic he was lord of the most splendid portions of the New World, which Columbus found “for Castile and Leon.” The empires of Peru and Mexico, New Spain, and Chile, with their abundant mines of the precious metals, Espanola and Cuba, and many other of the American islands were provinces of the sovereign of Spain.
Whatever diminution the Spanish empire might have sustained in the Netherlands seemed to be more than compensated by the acquisition of Portugal, which Philip had completely conquered in 1580. Not only that ancient kingdom itself, but all the fruits of the maritime enterprises of the Portuguese, had fallen into Philip’s hands. All the Portuguese colonies in America, Africa, and the East Indies acknowledged the sovereignty of the King of Spain, who thus not only united the whole Iberian peninsula under his single scepter, but had acquired a transmarine empire little inferior in wealth and extent to that which he had inherited at his accession. The splendid victory which his fleet, in conjunction with the papal and Venetian galleys, had gained at Lepanto over the Turks, had deservedly exalted the fame of the Spanish marine throughout Christendom; and when Philip had reigned thirty-five years, the vigor of his empire seemed unbroken, and the glory of the Spanish arms had increased, and was increasing throughout the world.
One nation only had been his active, his persevering, and his successful foe. England had encouraged his revolted subjects in Flanders against him, and given them the aid, in men and money, without which they must soon have been humbled in the dust. English ships had plundered his colonies; had defied his supremacy in the New World as well as the Old; they had inflicted ignominious defeats on his squadrons; they had captured his cities and burned his arsenals on the very coasts of Spain. The English had made Philip himself the object of personal insult. He was held up to ridicule in their stage plays and masks, and these scoffs at the man had — as is not unusual in such cases — excited the anger of the absolute King even more vehemently than the injuries inflicted on his power. Personal as well as political revenge urged him to attack England. Were she once subdued, the Dutch must submit; France could not cope with him; the empire would not oppose him; and universal dominion seemed sure to be the result of the conquest of that malignant island.
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