Book Review: Imprudent King
by Geoffrey Parker
Yale University Press, 2014
The primary sources for a life of Spain’s King Philip II (who ruled from 1556 to 1598, in addition to being Prince Consort to England’s Queen Mary I from 1554 to 1558) aren’t just ample – they’re frankly staggering: plenty of eyewitness accounts of the man and his reign, plenty of contemporary histories, plenty of monkish annals, innumerable memos, minutes, and state council documents, not to mention a great pile of Philip’s own illegible letters and notes, dashed off on every conceivable occasion over the course of a long and very active life and reign. And as Geoffrey Parker points out in his Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II, those primary sources are scattered in archives and libraries all over the world, often with a letter in one place and its response two continents away. Mastering such a mass of material is the labor of a lifetime.
It’s been the labor of Parker’s lifetime; he’s surely the world’s foremost authority on Philip II. His 1998 book The Grand Strategy of Philip II won awards and critical acclaim, and his 1500-page 2010 work Felipe II: La biografia definitiva was a landmark, the best biography of Philip ever written. Imprudent King (a ding on the king’s nickname “Philip the Prudent”) is the drastically slimmed-down English-language version of Felipe II, and its appearance is both melancholy, since it virtually guarantees that the full original will never now be translated into English, and exciting, since even a corseted version of Parker’s masterpiece is still a mighty strong book.
Philip was a tense, beetle-browed micro-manager, a library clerk who happened to rule the world’s largest empire. He married one English queen and then later sent the legendary Spanish Armada against another; he was remote and officious and yet welcomed embassies from any of his subjects; he could be what even so sympathetic a biographer as Parker classifies as “obsessive,” but he was also possessed of a strange kind of inner clarity that clearly captivates his chronicler:
Philip was of course not the only ruler to display extreme reluctance to admit defeat, but his deep religious faith caused him to react to setbacks in unusual ways. The Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, an acute observer of human nature, observed that ‘few are the men who draw moral strength from failure’ – but Philip was one of them. His unswerving piety repeatedly led him to see failure or even outright defeat merely as a sign that God was testing him: provided he persevered along the righteous path he had chosen, the king felt sure that a miracle would bridge any gap between his interpretation of God’s purposes and the resources available to attain them. His confidence on this point never wavered.
The king’s busybody tendencies grew worse as he grew older and his health declined. Deep inside his vast Escorial palace, he issued countless messages, secretly read the correspondences of others, and compulsively buried himself in the menudencias, the trivia, that most other monarchs waste no time in delegating. He exhausted – and, Parker makes abundantly clear, exasperated – his staff and ministers and ambassadors and generals and retainers, but no matter how maddening he is, he never exhausts his biographer, nor does he ever jaundice Parker’s even-handed appraisals of even his daftest behaviors:
The king could not hide from his paperwork, however, although as before his insistence on dealing personally with ‘trivia’ was partly to blame. Thus in 1586 he devoted entire days to preparing his Proclamation on Etiquette, a document that declared in minute detail the styles of address to be used by his subjects – not only between lords and vassals but even between parents and children – and specified the correct form of address for senior ministers, nobles, clerics, each member of the royal family and the king himself – who insisted that instead of ‘Sacra Catolica Real Majestad’ everyone must now address him as ‘Senor’ (the same as addressing God). Philip kept revising drafts of the proclamation until even he was at a loss for words …
Readers without Spanish should prize Imprudent King for what it is: the latest thinking and research about Philip II by his greatest biographer. And readers with Spanish should use the book as a reminder to buy and read Felipe II if they missed it four years ago.