Philip II of Spain: The Spanish Monarch Behind the Armada Invasion of England in 1588

Philip II of Spain reigned from 1556-1559. Image: Philip II wearing the order of the garter by Flemish portraitist Jooris van der Straeten, c. 1554

The years between 1559 and 1581 marked a very pivotal era in Europe as the European political and religious landscapes underwent various monumental changes. This period witnessed the Spanish-Ottoman conflict of the 1560s, the first visible signs of decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the Dutch independence. Under Philip II, Spain experienced an enduring period of monarchical continuity as well various wars that were aimed at expanding the Spanish Empire.

The Spanish Empire reached it zenith during the reign of Philip II. The coffers of the empire increased many folds as riches poured in from the Americas. As monarch of Portugal, Philip’s empire also benefited a great deal from the Portuguese spice trade. One of the highlights of his fairly successful reign was his sincere but aggressive defense of the Catholic faith.

Also known as Philip the Prudent, Philip II ruled Spain from 1556 and Portugal from 1580 until he died in 1598.

Childhood & Education

On May 21, 1527, Philip was born in Valladolid in northern Castile. He was the first son of Charles V and a member of the Hapsburg. His father ruled as Charles I of Spain from 1516 to 1556 and also served as the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 until two years before his death. Philip’s mother, Empress Isabella of Portugal, was the sister of the king of Portugal. She died when Philip was only 12 years old.

Prince Philip was raised mostly in his mother’s court and rarely saw his father as a result of the emperor’s frequent business trips overseas. From an early age, the prince received lessons in the humanities, including the works of Erasmus. One of his tutors was, the mathematician Juan Martinez Siliceo who later became the Archbishop of Toledo. Philip also learned Latin, French, Portuguese and a little Italian, but he was not a proficient linguist.

Through his mother’s influence, Philip nurtured an early passion for the arts. He loved music and could play the guitar. He also received essential martial training. Empress Isabella did not just focus on her son’s mental and physical growth, she also taught him to have relentless faith in God and His divine providence.

From 1535, Juan de Zúñiga managed the affairs of Philip’s household and supervised his knightly training. Over the years, the prince studied with more famous and respected tutors such as the historian Juan Cristóbal Calvete de Estrella.

Philip had two younger sisters, Maria and Joanna, with whom he shared a close companionship. He was also close to two of his pages, the aristocrat Ruy Gómez de Silva, and Luis de Requesens, the son of the former governor of the Duchy of Milan. These men remained with Philip throughout their lives, as did his secretary, Gonzalo Pérez.

Duke of Milan & Regent of Spain

In 1541, Philip was named Duke of Milan by Charles V. He started his political training when he was acknowledged as heir to the Castilian throne by the various Cortes in 1541.

Charles V’s extremely busy life did not stop him from being a dutiful father to Philip. The King often wrote secret memoranda to his son, teaching him about the noble duties God had entrusted to him. His father also encouraged him to be more discerning when receiving counsel from his advisers. He taught Phillip the benefits of being tolerant, modest and of good moral standing. An obedient son, Philip not only took his father’s instructions in good faith but ingrained them in his everyday life.

Philip was soft-spoken, self aware and emotionally intelligent. Charles V was so impressed with his future successor’s demeanor and skills in managing public affairs that he made him Regent of Spain in 1543. The crown prince was surrounded with experienced advisers, including Secretary of Sate, Francisco de los Cobos and General Fernando Alvarez de Toledo.

Why was he called Philip the Prudent?

At age 16, Philip was already prepared to rule the world’s largest empire at the time. He earned the name “Philip the Prudent” due to his admirable sense of judgement. By 1946, Philip had total control over Castile in his father’s absence. He could make his own decisions without being fully reliant on his father’s advisers.

Champion of Catholicism

Like his father, Philip was a deeply devout Catholic. He showed unquestionable loyalty to the tenets of the Catholic Church and strengthened the decrees of the Council of Trent in Spain.

A self-proclaimed champion of the Catholic movement, he employed the service of the Spanish Inquisition to bring an end to what he thought was heresy and to keep close watch on the progress of the reform program. He also took various actions to ensure people strictly conformed to Catholicism and monarchial authority.

Unsurprisingly, Philip II was described as the “most Catholic king” in Europe. He wielded more power in the Catholic Church than anyone else. It was his readiness to defend the faith that drove him to embark on a crusade to defeat Ottoman Empire, declare war against Protestant England, and set up a monastery in his palace.

Philip II of Spain

Philip II was a a devout Catholic to the core. His devotion to his faith is the reason why he was bent on snuffing out Protestantism from Europe. In Philip II of Spain’s dream for Europe, there was simply no room for religious heterodoxy.

Philip II’s Reign

Philip II of Spain. Portrait by Venetian artist Titian (1550)

In January, 1556, Charles V decided to lay down his crown and resign the throne in favor of his son and heir, Philip. The year before that Charles resigned the sovereignty of the Netherlands.

Convinced that his vast empire could not be effectively ruled by his relatively young son, Charles V gave his imperial title of Holy Roman Emperor to his brother Ferdinand I while his Dutch and Spanish titles went to Philip. Charles V, however, hoped that Philip would eventually reign over his whole Empire.

Many historians attribute Charles V’s  decision to abdicate to his declining health in his mid-40s. It is believed that he suffered from a painful gout and had been considering abdication long before it happened.

Philip II’s Spanish territories in Europe and the North Africa in 1581

When Philip took over the reins as Philip II of Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, parts of France, the newly discovered Americas, and Portugal were all part of Spain’s territories. When the king of Portugal, King Henry, died without leaving an heir, Philip seized the opportunity to take over Portugal and rule as its king. He was crowned Philip I of Portugal and was duly acknowledged as such by the Cortes of Tomar.

As the king of Spain, Philip II ruled as an authoritarian but also employed a system of permanent councils for the administration of his territories. These councils included the Royal Council of Castile and Aragon, the Royal Council of the Holy Inquisition, among others.

The new king aimed at accomplishing 4 main objectives which were realized to a very large extent.

These objectives have been discussed below:

  • Boosting Spain’s Economy

Philip’s reign witnessed what was known as the Golden Age of Spain. This was an era when Spain was at its most powerful. The empire also flourished in the arts, literature and drama. Philip II dedicated himself to employing the best architects to erect memorable statues and sculptures across Spain.

A lover of technology and books, he set up academies of science and mathematics to popularize the subjects and to broaden the knowledge of the Spaniards. These projects received funding from the Spanish trading empire in the Americas. The trading empire comprised various precious metals, sugar, tobacco and cocoa. At the time, these items were in great demand in Europe. The business therefore brought great wealth to Spain, causing a quantum leap in the country’s economy.

  • Military Growth

Throughout his over 4-decade reign, Philip II invested heavily in the Spanish military and succeeded in establishing it as one of the most powerful and most formidable militaries in all of Europe.

Standard of the tercios morados of the Spanish army under Philip II

Under his leadership, the power of Spain expanded through the recruitment of an average of 9,000 soldiers every year. That number would increase to about 20,000 in crisis years.

At the center of the Spanish military was the famed Spanish Armada, which would be discussed later in this essay.

  • Expansion of the Empire

In order to take over territories and expand the Spanish Empire, Philip embarked on many war campaigns. Notable among them were the Battle of Lepanto and the Anglo-Spanish War involving the Spanish Armada.

The Battle of Lepanto (October 7, 1571)

Spain, as part of the Christian forces of the Holy League, took active part in the famous sea battle against the Ottoman Turks. In fact, the country was the largest financial contributor to the war expenditure.

The battle which took place in the Mediterranean Sea brought an end to the Ottoman Empire’s domination in the Eastern Mediterranean and set the tone for the conflict between the other European powers and the Ottomans. Despite the fewer number of Christian ships and men, they had over two times more cannons in their fleet than the Ottomans.

The battle may not have ended the ambitions of the Turks in the Mediterranean, but it did mark the decline of Muslim influence in the Mediterranean. It also presented Spain the first major victory over a seemingly invincible naval force.

  • Promoting Catholicism at the expense of Protestantism

The overthrow of Protestantism in England was one of Philip’s key focus. This was because England was intent on weakening the influence that Catholicism, and by extension, Spain had in Europe. When Philip realized that both England and France were only providing financial and military support to the rebellious towns of the Netherlands and were also exposing the Dutch to Protestantism, he was livid.

This started a war on the Protestant faith in 1581 in Northern Netherlands and England. Unlike the Battle of Lepanto, this war proved for Spain. Philip II’s goal had been to get rid of all Protestants in Europe but the Dutch had successfully fought off the Spaniards because of the help they had received from England.

Tension with Queen Elizabeth I

Protestant English monarch Elizabeth I incurred the wrath of Philip II of Spain because of her tacit approval of naval attacks on Spanish ships coming from the Americas. Philip II was also displeased by Elizabeth’s decision to make England Protestant again.

Once upon a time, Spain had enjoyed a cordial relationship with England, especially during Philip’s marriage to the English Catholic monarch Mary I (also known as “Bloody Mary”). Even after Mary’s death, Philip II had proposed marriage to her successor and half sister, Queen Elizabeth I, in an attempt to preserve the political and economic relations with the English people. However, the very Protestant and intelligent Elizabeth I had other ideas and rejected the Spanish king’s proposal.

Elizabeth believed she was already “married” to the Kingdom of England. As a queen in her own right, she did not appreciate the idea of a foreign husband ruling over her kingdom. Apart from the her contributions to the revolt in the Netherlands in which she had supported the Protestant rebels, Elizabeth’s rejection of Philip’s marriage proposal may have hurt the king’s feelings in ways he had not experienced before.

Elizabeth’s decisions also added to the tension that arose between their respective kingdoms. Again, Elizabeth had granted the naval officer and privateer, Sir Francis Drake, a privateer’s commission. Drake was was given tacit approval from the English Crown to plunder the Spanish ports in the Americas. Those raids and naval attacks by the English took a toll on Philip’s coffers. As a result, relationship between Philip and Elizabeth was further strained. To the Spanish monarch, Elizabeth was heretic and nuisance that had to be removed from power and replaced with a Catholic monarch.

What finalized Philip’s decision to go to war against England was the killing of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth had endorsed the execution of her Scottish cousin, Mary, after the latter was implicated in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Charged with treason, Mary, Queen of Scots was consequently convicted and killed in 1587. Throughout her life, Mary had been a defender of Catholicism and a friend of Philip II. She somehow shared Philip II’s vision of ridding Europe of Protestantism. Her death therefore was a massive loss to both Philip and the Catholic Church. All these reasons set Philip on a war path against England.

He drew a two-pronged plan in the form of the famous Spanish Armada. The Armada, would be made up of over 130 large ships with over 2000 guns aboard. That naval power would be complemented by over 20,000 soldiers and about 8000 seamen. It would be the largest fleet ever assembled in Europe. It would sail from Spain through the English Channel to Flanders, where it would connect with an army led by the Duke of Parma, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. From there, it would head to England, dispose Queen Elizabeth and her government and reestablish Catholicism there. This plan, however, failed.

The Spanish Armada – Philip’s botched invasion of England in July, 1588

Philip II’s Armada and the English fleet face off in the summer of 1588

In July 12, 1588, the “invincible” Spanish Armada also described as “la felicissima armada,” or “the most fortunate fleet,” set sail from Lisbon.

The commander of the Armada was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán. The duke was a man of reputable honor, however, he had very little experience at sea. He also lacked military experience and information about the English enemy or the Spanish war plans. That notwithstanding, the duke was able to relate successfully with his subordinate commanders, reorganize the fleet, rationalize the distribution of  ammunitions and increase their supply from 30 to 50 rounds per gun.

The Armada was difficult to attack as it sailed in a strict a crescent shape up on its way to the English Channel. While the fleet tried to link up with the Spanish army in the Low Countries, the English fleet, captained by Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham and Francis Drake, set sail from Plymouth.

Between July 22nd and 23rd, the outnumbered but faster ships in the English fleet caught up with and pursued the Armada. The English Navy started bombarding the Spaniards from a safe distance using the advantage of their superior experience in long-range shooting. However, the Armada’s crescent shape proved to be an effective “shield” against the English attacks.

Unfortunately, the south-west winds were so fierce that it destroyed some of the ships in the Armada. Worse, two Spanish ships, the Rosaria and the San Salvador, collided. While the Rosario was forced to surrender to the English, the San Salvador went up in flames and killed many soldiers on board.

The Armada found it difficult to reposition in order to join the Spanish land forces in Flanders because their English counterparts kept firing. It seemed as though nature itself was against the Spanish troops. The winds, which came to be known as the “Protestant Winds”, were at their angriest, wrecking off almost half of the Spanish fleet.

The Spaniards could not fire back at their foes as they were poor long-range gunners whose specialty was close-range shooting. With no other option in sight, General Guzman and his men decided to turn back their ships and return to Spain. Surprisingly, the Armada, in all its glory, was defeated in the end.

In the end, the Spaniards left with only half of its ships and a quarter of its men that it had started with. Till date, many wonder how Philip II, a man renowned for his prudence, could lead the supposedly “invincible” Armada to its shameful defeat. The answer is simple: Philip II’s naval fleet, which did extremely well in the Mediterranean, could not withstand the harsh weather condition of the Atlantic.

After the failure of the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, three other fleets were sent to invade England and Ireland between 1596 to 1601 but all attempts failed.

Decline of the Spanish Empire

Many historians have argued that King Philip II presided over the most prosperous period for the Spanish Empire although most of his wealth came from acts of cruelty to indigenes and plundering in the Americas in the 1570s. The Spanish Empire controlled vast lands in the Americas in the early part of the 1500s and would return to Spain carrying millions worth of gold and silver each year.

Philip and the Spanish Empire’s decline commenced in 1579, when several Dutch provinces declared independence from Spain. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, with its associated destruction of ships, in a way added to the Empire’s fall.

Lastly, the Spaniard’s many wars, which had cost huge sums of money to wage, left the Empire economically strained and at very precarious point. By 1596, Spain had declared bankruptcy for the fourth time.

How did Philip II of Spain die?

Statue of Philip II in Madrid, Spain

Philip II did not survive to the end of this war. He died on September 13, 1598. He was 71. It’s believed that his death was caused by to a rare type of cancer. Philip was succeeded by his 20-year-old son, Philip III.

The 19-year-old Anglo-Spanish War came to an end at the beginning of the 17th century with the Treaty of London signed on August 18, 1604 between the two rival nations. This Treaty granted the Netherlands their independence from Spain and both the Netherlands and their English ally remained mostly Protestant.


Philip II’s government tried to resolve the deficiencies in the system. He discharged his political duties based on such consultas as reports, memoranda and counsel from his ministers. Though his methods have become famous over the years, his contemporaries believed they were dangerous and caused much bureaucracy in a system already known for its procrastination.

Again, Philip II was known as a man of duty and the most hardworking monarch of his era who did not like to delegate authority. While his father had been more military and had led wars, Philip was very much a bureaucrat and never led a war. His contributions helped the cause of the Catholic Reformation in Northern Europe and also completed the de facto unification of Spain which was started by the Catholic monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Philip II established the capital of Spain in Madrid which was quite surprising at the time due to Madrid’s population of less than 10,000 inhabitants.

Philip II brought an end to ambitions of the French Valois in Italy and contributed to the rise of the Habsburg ascendancy in Europe.

In his lifetime, King Philip II received a number of honorary titles, including

  • King of the Golden Fleece
  • Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava
  • Grand Master of the Order of Alcantara
  • Grand Master of Montesa

Marriages & Children

Philip II was married to Mary I of England for about four years, from 1554 to 1558, when Mary passed away. Image: Philip II and Queen Mary I of England, 1558

From 1543 to 1580, Philip had a total of 4 marriages. The primary goal of all 4 marriages was to advance his political and religious interests.

  • Maria Manuela of Portugal (m. 1543-1545)

Philip’s first marriage was to his first cousin, Maria Manuela in November 1543. Maria Manuela  was the only daughter of the king of Portugal in. Through this marriage, Philip hoped to unify the land of the Peninsula. The young couple never really got to know each other because they were constantly supervised by courtiers who invaded their privacy and observed their every move.

After a few days of giving birth to their only son, Charles in 1545, Maria died. It is believed that Charles, also known as Don Carlos, was epileptic and had one leg longer than the other. Unfortunately, he too died quite young.

  • Queen Mary I of England (m. 1554 – 1558)

Many historians assert his second marriage to Mary I of England was his most important.

Hoping for a Catholic future king for the English throne, Charles V negotiated Philip’s second marriage to the staunch Catholic, Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Charles V was more interested in spreading Catholicism at the expense of Protestantism than in seeking his son’s consent in his choice of spouse. Mary was also a member of Philip’s extended family and 11 years his senior.

A year before her union with Philip, she ascended the English throne and served in her own right as Queen Mary I. The pair tied the knot at Winchester Cathedral in July, 1554. By November, Mary had stopped menstruating. She believed she was pregnant and could actually feel the baby kicking. She put on weight and experienced moments of morning nausea. Many people close to her, including her doctor, shared her conviction of pregnancy.

However in early 1555, it became obvious that Mary was not pregnant. It was believed she suffered from pseudocyesis or false pregnancy, a condition in which a woman experiences signs and symptoms of pregnancy but without the presence of a fetus.

This union gave Spain an indirect influence on England as Philip served not merely as King Consort but co-ruled with Mary. The couple’s marriage had been fiercely opposed by the English Parliament as they feared Philip would assume the English crown and become a stumbling block to England’s predominantly Protestant faith. Parliament eventually gave in on condition that Philip would not rule as king. His governance of England was therefore restricted as he was never formally confirmed as King.

In all the time he co-ruled the kingdom of England, Philip fixed his eyes on bigger prizes on the continent. He envisaged England’s future as part of a united kingdom with the Netherlands in order to neutralize the threat of France in Northern Europe.

Despite his limited power in England, Philip was a vital player in shaping developments in the nation. For instance, he helped Mary to stabilize England and reaffirm relations with the Pope. Through the Privy Council, he  showed his readiness to engage with English politics and left a good impression in the end.

Queen Mary I vehemently opposed Protestantism and was rumored to have burned over 200 Protestants alive. It was through this cruel act she earned the name, “Bloody Mary.” Mary I only ruled England for 5 years, and could not conceive a child as a result of the ovarian cysts which eventually led to her death.

  • Elizabeth of France (m. 1559-1568)

Philip’s third marriage was to Elizabeth of France, the daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. She was considerably younger and showed promise of bearing a male heir. However, after an initial miscarriage of twin girls, the princess bore 2 daughters, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catherine Michelle. They both survived to adulthood.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth died at age 23 following a fourth miscarriage. Others however believed the cause of death was tied to complications resulting from a premature birth.

  • Anna of Austria (m. 1570-1580)

With the death of his son, Don Carlos, Philip faced a problem of succession to the throne. As a matter of urgency, he married his last wife, Archduchess Anna of Austria, who came from the Austrian line of the dynasty. Her father was Emperor Maximilian II. Anna had been intended as a wife for Don Carlos but after his death, she became Philip’s bride at the young age of 20. The couple’s 3 sons all died at an early age.

Luckily, they bore another son named Philip in 1578. Though Philip was a sickly child, he survived the delicate years of childhood and became Philip’s heir apparent.

Anna passed away at the time of her seventh pregnancy. Having been widowed for “too many times,” Philip decided never to marry again.

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