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Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II
Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II
Geoffrey Parker
Yale University Press, 2014
456 pp., $40.00

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Carlos Eire


Philip the Imprudent

Micromanaging an empire.

With so much blood I have paid for the peace of the world. My thunderstroke has felled the pride of the Reformers who fill the people's minds with false dreams. Death, in my hands, can reap a bountiful harvest."

These lines, sung by the character of King Philip II in Giuseppe Verdi's 1867 opera "Don Carlos," sum up the essence of this Spanish Hapsburg monarch, as seen through the eyes of his detractors. For centuries, many people outside the Hispanic world (and some within it, too) considered Philip a tyrannical zealot and the embodiment of all that was wrong with Catholicism and with Spain and its empire. In English and Dutch culture, and in English and Dutch Protestantism, especially, Philip II (1527-1598) had a top spot on the list of monstrous villains, a unique distinction now strictly reserved in our world for the likes of Adolf Hitler.

How Philip earned this ill fame is easy to explain. In England, he had not only married the infamous Protestant-slaying Queen Mary—who died childless in 1558—but also attempted to invade and conquer the island kingdom, dethrone Mary's half-sister Queen Elizabeth, and re-Catholicize the English people. In the Netherlands he set up the Inquisition, martyred many a Calvinist, and waged a long and brutal war against those who wanted independence from his rule. Small wonder, then, that Verdi could have his King Philip sing out: "People, in putting this crown on my head, I made the vow to God who gives it to me, to avenge Him by fire and the sword!"

Verdi and his late 19th-century audience would have had a difficult time recognizing the King Philip described and analyzed in Geoffrey Parker's new biography and in the handful of revisionist biographies from the past half-century that preceded this new one. In these biographies by several scholars—many of them British—Philip still wages wars and executes enemies, as all monarchs did in his day, but he is no monster, ...

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