The foreign policy of King Philip II of Spain

'The King of Spain,' wrote Pope Sixtus V in 1589, 'is anxious above all to safeguard and to increase his dominions.' This represented the contemporary view of Philip's foreign policy, especially that held by his enemies, very well. Philip was seen by many as an expansionist, imperialistic and arrogant Castillian1 who wished to establish a universal monarchy throughout all of Christendom. As evidence for this, they cited the Spanish annexation of Portugal, the 'Enterprise to England' and his constant meddling in the French Wars of Religion. A succession of Popes would denounce him.

Nowadays, historians tend to be able to look beyond the Black Legend when analysing the aims and goals of Philip's foreign policy. A particularly perceptive comment by the Venetian ambassador to Spain in 1559 claimed that Philip didn't intend to "wage war so that he can add to his kingdoms, but wage peace so that he can keep the lands he has." Upon his death, the verdict of another Venetian ambassador was that Philip "achieved more by sitting still, by negotiation, by diplomacy, than his father did by armies and by war."

To identify Philip's aims we must identify his sphere of operations and the European situation as a whole. As the most powerful Christian on Earth and ruler of an Empire on which the Sun never set, Philip had to be acutely sensitive to events from the Porte in Constantinople to the Privy Council in London. By 1559 his dominions in Italy were secure as the Habsburg-Valois wars drew to an end. In the same treaty, France passed from threat to relatively friendly neighbour, and the passing of Henry II added to Philip's delight. As his reign wore on he had frequent confrontations with the Ottoman Turks, who continued to raid the Spanish coast. English privateers, along with the knighthoods and blessings of Queen Elizabeth I, continued to raid his precious bullion ships and interfere in the Dutch revolt. Yet despite these problems he passed onto Philip III all the territories he inherited from his father, and more2. We can therefore say he was successful in maintaining his dominions, the denouncing of this aim by Pope Sixtus V not withstanding.

Some historians have said that Philip's main motivation was religion. This view is less prevalent in the 20th century because we ourselves as historians are less focused on the issue of religion, but it is beyond doubt that Philip was a very pious and dedicated Catholic. What this didn't neccesarily amount to was constant obedience to the Curia. Whilst he was quick to milk any victory against heresy or the Infidel for the greatest amount of propaganda as possible (such as commissioning the painting of 'Spain Coming to the Aid of Religion' after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571), he wasn't quite so hasty in following these things through to the end (such as his reluctance to follow up on the Battle of Lepanto). His reluctance was sourced from the same reason which prevented the "Universal monarchy" theory of motivation ever been true: he simply didn't have the money or the resources. Spain went bankrupt four times under Philip - 1557, 1560, 1575 and 1596. Lack of money constantly kept Philip from following up his victories, but it means we shouldn't accuse him of being un-pious when he was perhaps just more of a realist.


'The heart of the Spanish Empire is France,' advised Antonio Pérez. Charles V had been at war with France for most of his reign, and Philip inherited the Habsburg-Valois war from him. Peace was made in 1559 at the cost of Italy to France and Calais to the English (the English under Queen 'Bloody' Mary I had joined the Spanish against France from 1557 partly because of the marriage of Mary and Philip, and partly because of Henry II's tolerance of Protestant exiles from England). Whilst Philip was delighted, the English had been mortified by the loss of Calais, and Mary has been judged most harshly for her involvement in the affair. The peace, then, was a success for the newly-crowned Elizabeth I.

Philip took Elizabeth of Valois, Henry II's daughter, as a wife in 1560, and relations with France were relatively stable until her death in 1568. Whilst concerned with the growth of Huguenotism in France, it suited Philip for France to be at war with itself as it was from 1562 onwards (these being the French Wars of Religion). He was of course more inclined to side with the Catholic Guise family in the conflict (for a Protestant France would have been unthinkable), but he did not wish to intervene directly. He sent money to the Catholic cause several times, although it is not entirely clear that Mary of Guise used this money for the purposes she claimed she would. The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 came to Philip's great delight. Since his wife's death, the younger and fiery Huguenot nobles had been probing at Philip. They besieged Perpignan in Spanish Navarre, and they were even persuading Charles IX to intervene in the Netherlands. Charles favoured the idea because it would allow him to unite his people against an external threat, and because an anti-Spanish foreign policy came easily to the French.

As the rise of Henry of Navarre started to look more likely (he became heir presumptive in 1584), Philip decided he needed to intervene directly in the affairs of France. Henry of Navarre was a Huguenot, and his accession would mean a Protestant France which was willing to continue helping the Calvinist Dutch rebels. Philip formed a Catholic League with the Catholic nobles (mainly the Guise family) and committed troops and money to the cause. Their aim was to keep Henry of Navarre off the throne of France, and it was audacious for Philip because the Spanish Armada was due to set sail whilst all this was going on. The presence of Spanish troops began to irk the French, and when the leading Guise was assassinated by Henry's agents3 Philip found himself alone in an otherwise sparse Catholic League. Henry III's assassination hastened his worry, and he committed 3 million ducats was sent to the surviving members of the League and the Duke of Parma was ordered to Paris to keep Henry of Navarre out.

By 1590, things were looking good for Philip. Parma was in Paris, the East was occupied by Spanish forces, and Brittany was under the control of the Spanish. But Henry's tenacity and tactics eventually won him the strategically important city of Rouen, and Parma died from wounds obtained defending Amiens. This was a serious blow from which the Spanish effort could never recover. As the presence of the Spanish brought further unrest Philip rolled his last dice: suggesting his daughter, Isabella, for the crown (she was the grand-daughter of Henry II). This was, of course, contrary to the French Salic Law, and there was no way the French would allow themselves to be ruled by a Spaniard. Philip was becoming increasingly isolated as the Catholic nobles became more sympathetic in the face of Spanish ambitions, and when Henry converted to Catholicism in 1593 Philip's plans were doomed. The French turned as one against the Spanish, forgetting their differences.

Whether Philip actually saw taking control of France as an aim is disputed. Pope Clement VIII refused to make Philip "protector of the Catholics of France" due to fears along these lines. But it seems most likely that Philip simply did not want a Protestant neighbour. It could be argued that he achieved this goal, but he did so at great expense - the Treaty of Vervins which brought peace between France and Spain in 1598 is generally seen as a success for France because Spain gave back all she had captured. Both nations were bankrupt, but at least now Spain could concentrate on fighting the wily Elizabeth.


Philip suffered much at the hands of the English. At the start of her reign he was proposing marriage to Elizabeth - by the end, cursing her name. Before this he had been married to Mary I of England, who was not a woman whom he loved for herself, but more found convienient as a Catholic English monarch. The Spaniards and the English disliked each other (the Spaniards were considered showy and arrogant, the English foolish and cowardly) and Philip shed few tears upon Mary's death. Elizabeth needed his protection from the Papacy which was persuaded against excommunicating her until 1580, despite the legalized heresy taking place in England. It didn't especially please Philip, either: but he wanted England to be stable. He feared a Catholic revolt would lead to the increased influence of the Guise family in England, for they already had their tendrils deep into Scotland (and, as Sixtus V observed, England is but half an island). Francis II, the new French King, was a plausible claimant to the throne of England through Margaret Tudor, and when a French garrison ominously appeared at Edinburgh (for Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was now styling herself Queen of England as well) Elizabeth took action to dislodge it. Philip stood by, despite the fact the new Scottish regime was Protestant. His pragmatism was as ever active, and the thought of French troops in Scotland was one of the most obnoxious possible to him.

For Elizabeth, it was vital to maintain an alliance with the House of Burgundy (who ruled the Netherlands and she depended on for trade) to maintain a strategic balance of power against France. And, of course, Philip II was currently the representative of the House of Burgundy. So it was with trepidation that in 1562 she came to the aid of French Protestants against the Guise faction (of which the troublesome Mary, Queen of Scots was closely related). Philip even bore this insult dutifully, although it is unlikely he was swayed by the letter Elizabeth sent him trying to explain her actions away4.

Towards the end of the 1560s, relations between England and Spain were becoming more frayed. Much of the provocation was coming from the English side: they were worried about the actions of the Duke of Alva's army in the Netherlands. Spymaster Walsingham seemed to believe quite adamentaly that its intention was to bring England back into the Catholic fold following the pacification of the Netherlands. 1568-9 saw a massive crisis in Anglo-Habsburg relations with the affair of the Spanish bullion. The exact chain of events is somewhat mysterious, but in 1568 Sir William Cecil impounded five Spanish bullion ships carrying £85,000 to pay Alva's army in the Netherlands. Mutiny due to lack of a pay was to be a constant scourge of the Duke, and he and Philip could regard this as little more than an act of an enemy. Indeed, it is probable Elizabeth took delight in reminding His Majesty just how much control she was able to exert over the English Channel, which was a vital route between Spain and the battered troops of the Spanish army in the Netherlands. Alva responded with a trade embargo on England that lasted for five years: the Anglo-Burgundian alliance had been severely compromised.

In 1583, Elizabeth helped Don Antonio, pretender to the Portugese throne, by giving him refuge when he was driven from the Azores. But her final act of impertinence was to sign the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585, by which she commited permanent money aid and 6000 troops to the faltering Dutch cause. Philip, long annoyed by English privateers, decided enough was enough and that the Dutch problem could not be solved without first solving "the English problem." And so the decision was taken to launch the Spanish Armada, which had first been mooted in 1583.

As every schoolboy knows, the Spanish Armada was a massive failure. Many contemporaries thought it was mad, and some historians have agreed. Others think it could have been a success. Either way, its failure did great damage to the Spanish appearence of invulnerability and cost them a great deal of money. Yet, like the Battle of Britain, the Armada came at the start of a war, not at the end: the costly Anglo-Spanish war dragged on throughout the 1590s, spreading from the New World to Northern Europe. It would outlive both Philip and Elizabeth, both of whom were now stubborn to the prospect of peace with one another because of the degree of loathing between them.


Relations with the Ottoman Turks were perhaps the most contentious issue for Philip, especially as far as the Papacy was concerned. Allied with the Barbary corsairs, the Turks had ambitions on Central Europe and the outposts of Christendom in the Mediterranean (often for good reason - we may think of the Knights of Saint John as crusading heroes, but in reality they were pirates). Not only did Philip have a vast religious duty to undertake in checking their expansion, but temporal concerns were at stake as well: Sicily and Naples were important trading points for him, and the former was regarded as "the granary of Spain" (which itself had serious agrarian problems).

At first, Philip couldn't do a lot against the Turks, because he was tied up with the French. This ended in 1559, but then in 1560 a surprise raid by Barbary pirates destroyed much of his Navy. It took him four years to build it back up, during which time the Ottomans and the corsairs embarassed the King with raids. But in 1564 Philip's vengeance could not be sated, and he recaptured cities in Morocco and lifted the siege of Malta, saving the Knights of Saint John. Philip and the Pope were ecstatic. This was a huge turning point because Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire had hoped to establish hegemony over the Western Mediterranean with the capture of Malta, and Philip's victory checked his advancement. The death of Suleiman and the time it took Selim II to establish his rule in the Empire gave Philip a brief respite which he used to turn his energies against the Dutch revolt.

But the Ottomans went on the offensive again in 1570, capturing Tunis and invading Cyprus. A Holy League was formed and Philip's half-brother, Don John of Austria, smashed a Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571. The Turks lost half their fleet and 30,000 men, and this was undoubtedly the biggest defeat Islam had suffered since the conquest of Grenada in 1492. Historians used to see this as the turning point which checked Ottoman expansion (Philip certainly made a big deal of it at the time), but a perusal of the Ottoman archives shows that the naval yards of Constantinople had little trouble in replenishing the Ottoman fleet. The Turks showed they were still a threat by re-taking Tunis and threatening Sicily. Then, Selim died, as did the Persian Shah. Islam was once again at war with itself and had little time to deal with Christendom. Philip showed his pragmatism by not following up against the Empire as the Papacy and most of Europe wished him to, and to the universal disgust of Christendom he formed a permanent peace with the Turks in 1580. Contemporaries disagreed, but nowadays historians tend to be kind to Philip's actions in the Mediterranean - he succeeded in defending his dominions and achieving objectives which were, by his choosing, limited.

1. Castillians weren't even that well-liked throughout the rest of Spain, mainly because they were in fact rather arrogant. Philip's tendency to appoint mainly Castillians to his administration also caused resentment. "The Castillians want everything, and I suspect they will end up losing everything," opined Cardinal Granvelle to Margaret of Parma.

2. The Venetian ambassador said on his death that he "has lost Flanders" (ie. the Netherlands), but he still ruled them de juro. 1609 effectively saw the start of the new state in the Netherlands.

3. Perhaps "assassination" is too dignified a name for a pre-planned murder in a Royal ante-chamber. The Duke of Guise had been invited to an audience with the King.

4. Ultimately, Elizabeth gained little and lost both money and repute in this enterprise. Peace between herself and France was restored soon after.


Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Haigh, Christopher. The reign of Elizabeth I: Macmillian, 1984.

Killsby, Jill. Spain Rise and Decline 1474-1643: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.

Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.

Lotherington, John. Years of Renewal: European History 1470-1600: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Woodward, Geoffrey. Philip II: Longman, 1992.