Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

Spain Under Philip the Second

A.D. 1560-1598

Spain was never richer or more powerful than in the early part of the reign of Philip the Second. The Moors and Moriscoes prosecuted their industries, and some of the Spaniards had learned lessons in farming from the infidels. Great quantities of silver and some gold came in every year from the New World; I am not very sure that they were a source of wealth. To get the silver and gold, Spain had to send a fleet of galleys across the ocean, and to keep numbers of Spaniards in Mexico, Peru, and the islands. The ship-builders and sailors and soldiers and adventurers had to be supported, and I am not certain that after their cost was deducted from the value of the silver and gold there was much profit left. You know that if it costs you a hundred and two cents of labor to get a dollar's worth of silver you are not growing rich at the business.

There was a great deal of wealth among the clergy and the nobles. The former owned about half the fertile land of Spain. The income of the Archbishop of Toledo, who was called the primate of Spain, had increased to about two hundred thousand ducats a year, which is equal to nearly a million dollars of our money. The Archbishop of Seville had about half as much, and all over Spain the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, and even the common priests, were wealthy. As they paid no taxes, could not sell their land, and impressed upon every dying man that it was his duty to give something to the Church, their riches grew like a snowball that rolls downhill.

Next to the clergy, the nobles were the richest people in the country. There were twenty-three dukes, each of whom enjoyed an income nearly equal to three or four hundred thousand dollars a year of our money, and counts and barons and knights past counting. These grandees spent


A Garlic Seller.

most of their time on their estates, which were sometimes so vast as to include several towns, and tens of thousands of acres of good land. Their castles were full of retainers, major-domos, equerries, hidalgoes, cavaliers, pages, men-at-arms, and what not. They led lives of splendor and pomp; but they rarely did anything useful, and I am afraid that some of them could not read or write. In the winter they lived in town-houses in Madrid, where they gambled with each other, and the young people made love; but I do not find much mention of them either in the army or in the offices of state. They paid no taxes, however, and I dare say they were satisfied with their station in life.

It was the business of the people who were neither priests nor nobles to find money to support the court, and to carry on the wars which Philip was always conducting in every quarter of the globe. And towards the close of Philip's reign they were in no condition to bear the expense. The people at large had grown poor—very poor. Great tracts of land which had once been highly productive lay waste because, under the ignorant system of farming which the Spanish peasants followed, their crops barely sold for enough to pay the king's taxes. Religious persecution and race prejudice had thinned out the people and crippled business. Mechanics complained that they could not get work. Beggars swarmed on the highways. In cities which had been hives of industry, the common people did not know from day to day where they would get their bread on the morrow. With all his rigor, king could not screw out of the people enough money to pay the expenses of government. He was always borrowing, and he rarely paid his debts.

He did not always pay his soldiers, and they robbed their way through Spain when they were on the march. When a regiment passed through a village, the villagers often left their houses and ran to the mountains to avoid what might be worse than robbery.

All through the reign of Philip, representatives of the people met in a Cortes. The kings had at first agreed that no tax should be levied without the consent of the Cortes, and that they should make the laws. But Philip changed all this; he took away from the Cortes the right of making laws and levying taxes. When the Cortes remonstrated, he replied that he would see about it. Had they not the right to petition?


Coffins of the Kings, in the Escurial.

They did petition, and some of their petitions were queer. They asked that the common people should be made to dress and live plainly; that no woman should wear finery; that men should not have fringe on their coats, and should not wear starched shirts. This petition the king granted. They asked that no one should have more than four dishes of meat and four dishes of fruit at one meal. This he also granted. He also agreed that common people should not ride in coaches; that towns should keep an inn open for travellers; that women should not read novels; that boys should get their schooling at home and not abroad, and that no more dolls or pocket-knives should be imported from France; but when the Cortes petitioned the king to put a stop to the growth of the estates of the Church he hesitated; and when they said that in so poor a country as Spain had become the king ought to be able to get along without a household of fifteen hundred persons, besides three hundred guards, and twenty-six ladies in waiting and four doctors for his wife, he smiled, and said he would think about it.

I suppose there never was a kingdom in which the people were so near starvation while the king was lavishing money on useless objects as was Spain under the last years of Philip the Second.

Several of the great cities of Spain—Cordova, Toledo, Seville, Granada, Valladolid—had in turn served as the capital city. Philip chose as his capital the city of Madrid, which is the chief city to this day. It is a cold, windy place on a bleak plain, where it rains nearly all winter.

Twenty-four miles from the city, in the mountains, he erected a queer assemblage of buildings which he called the Escurial. It contained a palace, a monastery, and a burial vault. The outer wall is half a mile long. Thirty-two years were spent in building, and the cost was about six million dollars. All said and done—the Spaniards thought it was one of the wonders of the world—it was and is a gloomy, cold, dreary, and desolate pile. In Philip's time it was filled with fine statues, beautiful paintings from Italy, gorgeous tapestries, which were the work of the floors, and relics without number; sixty fountains spurted jets of water into the air, and magnificent arches and doorways were met at every turn. It was long ago stripped of everything that made it glorious; it is now a mere tomb, in which the bones of Charles the First and Philip and a few members of their family rest. When you go to see it you will be oppressed by low spirits which you cannot shake off.


The tomb of Philip the Second at the Escurial.

It was to this dark and sad home that Philip brought his fourth and last wife, Anne of Austria. She was young, beautiful, and gay; she loved music and dancing and frolic; she tried to surround herself with people of her own age and her own temper, who could laugh and be merry. The gloomy shades of the Escurial were far better suited to the bilious old king whose wife she had become than to her; I think the poor little queen must have been rejoiced when she could run away from the palace and spend an afternoon in the quiet parlor in the house of one of her friends.

This place suited him exactly. He loved to sit in the dark and brood over his cares. They were many and grave. He had fitted out a great armada to conquer England; it comprised the finest galleys in the navy, and contained the best troops in the service; but the English, with a far smaller fleet, had captured and sunk many of his ships, and the rest had been scattered by storms. Only a small part of the grand armada ever got back to Spain.

For twenty years Philip had been a victim to gout, and when he was sixty-nine other diseases attacked him. He became so weak that he had to be carried about in an arm-chair. His thirst was unquenchable, and the doctors forbade him to drink. After enduring these sufferings for many months at Madrid, he had himself carried to the Escurial in June, 1598. He was in such agony that it took him six days to travel the twenty-four miles. When he arrived, he was cheered up by a consignment of relics from Germany, and he had himself carried round in his chair, pointing out where they should be set.


Choir of the Church in the Escurial.

Tumors and boils broke out all over his body, and the least touch gave him more exquisite pain than he had ever inflicted on heretics. For fifty-three days he could not be moved nor have his shirt changed. But his mind remained active. He gave his son advice how to conduct the government, and talked freely on religion to the priests. He had his father's coffin opened, and the crucifix which had been held before him when he died fastened to the foot of his bed; he also had his own coffin placed beside the bed.

When he was told that his hour had come, he was quite calm, confessed, and received communion. So, with his family and a number of churchmen round him, he passed away on September 13th, 1598.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Moriscoes  |  Next: Two More Philips
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.