Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

Spain's Religious Wars

The keynote of Philip's character was bigotry. Trained in diplomacy by his imperial father, brought up in the atmosphere of royal courts, born to intrigue and bred to dissimulation, he early gave promise of a great future which he never fulfilled.

When, at his abdication, in 1555, Charles admonished his son to "fear God, live justly, respect the laws; above all, cherish the interests of religion," he really meant, as the codicil to his will expressed, in 1558: "Keep alive the fires of the Inquisition, and exterminate every heretic in the kingdom." And, so far as it lay in his power, the filial son obeyed the precepts of his father to the letter!

Born in 1527, at twelve years of age he lost his mother by death, and at twenty-seven, or in 1554, he was married to "Bloody Mary," Queen of England, and thus became titular King of the British Isles, though never actually and actively engaged in the affairs of that kingdom during the fourteen months of his residence there. Indirectly, the result of this alliance was a fearful persecution of Mary's Protestant subjects, and the burning at the stake of martyrs like Latimer and Cranmer, and more than three hundred others, before she died in 1558. Fortunately for England, no children were born of this alliance, the evil results of which were shown by the war with France, into which Mary was drawn by Philip, and the loss of Calais to the English. "When I am dead, Calais will be found written on my heart," said the unhappy queen; but the faithless husband, for whom she sacrificed so much, was not inconsolable at her death, and soon again embarked in matrimony.

In truth, Philip was already a widower when he espoused Mary Tudor, for he had been married to Maria, daughter of King John of Portugal, in 1543, who died within two years, leaving a son, Don Carlos, who became an object of suspicion to his unnatural father, by whom he was imprisoned, and probably poisoned, in 1568.

Shortly after the death of Mary of England, Philip sued for the hand of her sister Elizabeth, who scornfully repelled him and in June, 1559, he married Isabella, daughters of Henry II of France. His marital record was completed when, in 1570, after the death of Isabella, he espoused his niece; Anne of Austria, daughter of Emperor Maximilian II. Thus within the space of twenty-seven years he had been four times married—three times to the daughters of kings and once to the daughter of an emperor. But various attempts to ally himself with royalty—with the reigning houses of Portugal England, France, and Austria—resulted in no direct benefit to him or to his kingdom. A curious if not revolting circumstance attending two of these marriages was, that while Mary of England was at one time the betrothed bride of his father, Isabella of France was intended for his son Don Carlos! It is supposed that it was on account of his jealousy of the relations between his lovely bride and his son that Philip persecuted and imprisoned the latter, and finally hounded him to his death.

In war and diplomacy Philip was at first more fortunate than in matrimony, for in 1557 his generals gained the important Victory of San Quentin, and of Gravelines, 1558, over the French, between whom and the Spanish and English a treaty of peace was signed in 1559. It was at this time that the English lost Calais, and the French much territory; the only benefits accruing to Philip of Spain, who acquired two hundred towns in Italy and the Netherlands.

Although opponents in war, Henry II of France and Philip II of Spain were of one religion, and united as against their heretical subjects; so the alliance with Isabella was quite in the natural course of events. In a tournament which followed the ceremony the King of France was accidentally killed by the Scotch captain of his guards, the Count of Montgomery; and thus Queen Isabella began in sorrow that sad, short period of married life with Philip II which was terminated by her early death.

After a visit to the Spanish Netherlands, in 1559, Philip returned to Spain, and never again set foot on Flemish soil. But he always kept those distant provinces within his ken; not with their best interests at heart, but with a view to crushing out the Protestants with fire and with sword. He left his half-sister, Margaret, Duchess of Parma, to rule in his absence, assisted by Cardinal Grenville, and with instructions to root out heresy from the land, at whatever cost. Spain at that time had its prisons filled with victims of the Holy Office; its autos-da-fé, or burnings of heretics at the stake, were of weekly occurrence, no Sabbath being deemed complete without these dismal spectacles.

But in the Low Countries the infamous inquisitors encountered a resistance more formidable than from the passive wretches of downtrodden Spain. Though their streets flowed with human blood, though the flames rose from every square and market place, yet the Netherlanders opposed the attempt to subvert them. They rose in rebellion when the Inquisition was introduced, in 1565, and to suppress them the great Duke of Alva, who had won victories for both Charles and Philip, was despatched with an army considered sufficient for the purpose. This general of consummate abilities yet of monstrous cruelty, afterward boasted that he had execute eighteen thousand men by hanging and drowning, by the rack and fire, besides the many killed in battle. He put to death Counts Egmont and Horn, drove the valiant William of Orange into exile; and the flame of war and bitterness which he kindled lasted for more than two generations, resulting in the eventual loss of all the northern Netherlands to Spain. He was rewarded by the Pope with the title of supreme Defender the Faith, but left the country pursued, by the maledictions of the people. His infamous "Council of Blood" rode rough-shod over all the rights of the people, and sent to the gallows and the block the highest and the wealthiest of the country, whose properties were confiscated for the benefit of the king. At last, after the northern provinces had maintained a successful war for several years, the Duke of Alva was recalled, and the king's half-brother, Don John of Austria, was sent in his stead. One of Alva's last offices was to conquer Portugal for Philip, in 1580.

During this gloomy period in the Netherlands there occurred several things of importance in Spain and the farther East which had a bearing on the fortunes of the Christian world. At home a Moorish rebellion disturbed the land. Goaded to desperation by oppressive laws, hunted like beasts by the familiars of the Holy Office, at last the Moriscoes could endure no more. Many fled to the mountains and organized a rebellion, which for several years kept the Spanish soldiers actively engaged ferreting them out in their retreats and dragging them to death. "Better not reign at all, rather than over a nation of heretics," was Philip's declaration as the Moors begged for the retention of their ancient religion and forms of dress. He was determined to make them all conform to his own ideal of religious faith; and the result was loss and irreparable disaster to the country over which he reigned as king. By the year 1572 the rebellion was crushed, its leaders all murdered, and the unfortunate Moriscoes scattered in exile far from the homes of their ancestors, where hitherto they had been peacefully tilling the soil and engaged in manufactures that redounded to the benefit of Spain.

In the year 1571, in alliance with Rome and Venice, Spain arrested the westward flowing flood of Mohammedanism at Lepanto; one of the "decisive battles of the world," when one hundred and thirty Turkish galley were wrecked or captured, twenty-five thousand Turks were killed, twelve thousand Christian galley slaves liberated from their living death, and vast booty taken from the enemy.

Lepanto was the western limit of Islam's latest advance in Europe; after that fateful battle it receded toward the Orient. But for King Philip's insane jealousy of his half brother, Don John of Austria, who so bravely led the Christian hosts, the allied forces might have laid siege to Constantinople; as it was, Don John sailed across the Mediterranean with twenty thousand men and captured Tunis on the African coast. It was soon after retaken by the Turks, and many years later the other Spanish dependencies went the same way.

On the other side of the Pyrenees, in France, an event occurred in 1572 peculiarly acceptable to Philip—the atrocious massacre of Saint Bartholomew's night, when four thousand Huguenots were murdered in cold blood, through the treachery of the queen regent, Catherine de Medici, and her son Charles IX. In the provinces of France at least thirty thousand more fell victims of the hate and fury of their compatriots who differed from them in their religious belief; and they could not fly to Spain for succour, for there sat their inveterate enemy, who was only too anxious to interfere in the affairs of France. He had his hands full, with the encroaching Moslems on one side and the obstinate Netherlanders on the other; yet he found time to attend to all these things, and to manage the affairs of his vast empire in the New World also.

Two years after the recall of Alva from the Low Countries, or in 1575, Holland and Zealand were united under Philip's bitterest enemy, William of Orange, and the next year witnessed the famous "Pacification of Ghent" between the Protestant and Catholic provinces, by which the Inquisition was declare abolished, mutual toleration agreed to in religious matters, and a united stand maintained against the Spanish soldiery. In 1578 the free states brought about a treaty with Queen Elizabeth of England, and the next year the Union of Utrecht—a stepping-stone to their great and final declaration of independence and repudiation of Spain, in 1581. As the Duke of Parma, who had succeeded Don John of Austria, advised the removal of the head and front of the opposition in the person of the noble patriot William the Silent, Philip at once declared him a miscreant and outlaw, and offered a reward of twenty-five thousand crowns to whoever would murder him. This is the reason why Philip II of Spain has been called the murderer of William the Silent because, instigated by the proffered reward, a miserable wretch was finally successful in assassinating William, in July, 1584. Although he himself did not point the pistol which ended the life of William the Silent, yet Philip was as actually his murderer as if he had done so; likewise of his secretary, Escovedo, of his own son, Don Carlos, of Counts Egmont and Horn, of Don John Austria, and thousands of others who were put to the sword, beheaded, hanged, and burned to death by his commands.

Were we writing the history of the Netherlands we might find examples of Philip's tortures, might produce evidence of his most inhuman cruelty to his brother man too revolting, too horrible for contemplation. He reminds us of nothing so much as of a vile and venomous spider intrenched in his web at Madrid, whence radiate threads of communication to the confines of his realm—to Naples and the Netherlands, to Africa and the Americas—all connecting with the capital where sits this archenemy of mankind, absorbing the life-blood of his innumerable victims. This human spider rioted in scenes of blood, yet rarely shed blood directly by his own hand; his foul parasites executed his commands, and burned and strangled by his orders; he was Briareus-like; no one could escape him; no life was safe if once he wanted it. So it was that, while he gratified his hideous instincts, his country became poorer and poorer; while he sucked the blood of his prey, he also sapped the land of its vitality; his armies were numerous, his wars were costly, and as he had encouraged no domestic industries—had killed rather than fostered skilled artisans—all the vast wealth brought to the shores of Spain by her flotillas of treasure galleons was absorbed by unworthy favourites, was scattered abroad on many a battle field, or went to reward hired assassins and a mercenary soldiery. For the credit of humanity, for the credit of the cause of religion—which he pretended to champion and uphold—we would his life were otherwise than what it was; but it has been said of him, and of his father, Charles I, that no other sovereigns with such glorious privileges, with such great opportunities for doing so much good, ever did so much harm!

The Netherlands may be considered as lost to Spain when their cause was championed by the "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth who sent, in 1586, the Earl of Leicester to represent her with an army. It was at a skirmish attending one of the battles of this year that there fell one who has received a most immortal acclaim for his knightly courtesy: Sir Philip Sidney, who, dying, refused a cup of water that a brother soldier might be refreshed.

Though King Philip may have welcomed a war with England, as a hotbed of Protestantism and the realm over which ruled Elizabeth, whose refusal to marry him still rankled in his bosom, yet he was soon to regret it. For, in 1587, that great sea-lion, Sir Fran Drake—not then "Sir," however, but plain Admiral—pounced upon the seaport of Cadiz, sank two hundred and fifty galleys and transports, and created consternation everywhere in Spain.

The next year, in spite of Drake's ravages, sailed the great armada—one hundred and forty ships and thirty thousand men, with friars, inquisitors, etc.—for the conquest and conversion of England: argosies in which were centred the hopes of Spain; only to be crushed and defeated by one half its number of English ships, combined with the adverse elements, so that only a pitiful remnant returned to Spanish ports. A last expiring effort at naval supremacy was made in 1595 but this fleet also was sunk, carrying with it Spain's prestige on the ocean wave.

And at last, in misery and torture from a loathsome disease, at the age of seventy-one, in the year 1598, Philip II departed this life; his chief legacy an impoverished kingdom, his greatest monument the Escorial, that palace, monastery, mausoleum, library, upon which he had spent thirty years of time and lavished millions of treasure.

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