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Philip of Spain, King of England: The Forgotten Sovereign

John Edwards welcomes an overdue biography of Philip of Spain but feels that more needs to be said

Published: March 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm
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Reviewed by: John Edwards
Author: Harry Kelsey
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £18.99


In recent years, some historians have begun to look again at the character and reign of Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Mary. As a result she is beginning at last to be given her proper title, Mary I not ‘Mary Tudor’. And the religious persecution that led to her label ‘Bloody’ – which she did not in fact acquire until the 18th century – is being explained properly, though not excused.

Yet, while she has always received detailed biographical treatment, her husband, Philip of Spain, has rarely been included in the picture.

Just as Mary is not normally acknowledged as queen of Spain, which she was from 1556 to 1558, so even Spanish biographers of Philip tend to gloss over his time as king of England. Glyn Redworth and Henry Kamen are exceptions to this rule, and now Harry Kelsey, a biographer of Elizabethan sea-dogs Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, has devoted a book to their Spanish adversary.

Kelsey writes elegantly and in a lively way, and his account of Philip’s connection with England is based on a wide range of manuscripts and printed sources, from England, Spain and elsewhere.

Until he arrives at the couple’s marriage, in Winchester Cathedral on 25 July 1554, he uses alternating chapters to outline the biographies, and particularly the academic and political education, of Mary and Philip respectively.

While there are voluminous sources for Mary’s life and reign, as is the case with all English sovereigns, it has traditionally been noted that much of the documentation of Philip’s activities, from 1554, were lost at sea when the king was returning from the Netherlands to Spain in 1559. This has been the customary excuse for not giving proper attention to Philip I of England, even though a significant amount of useful material still survives in European archives.

Yet there is in this book a curious lack of connection between the voluminous sources on which the book is based and the story that the reader is actually told. Kelsey seems most interested in personalities, including a particular stress on physical appearance.

This is fine in itself, as 16th-century monarchs were just as interested as modern political leaders in the dark arts of spin, but it should have been balanced by a greater concentration on the European political context of Mary and Philip’s day.

Certain activities at court in Whitehall, particularly the Spanish war exercise known as the ‘cane-game’ (juego de cañas) are given detailed treatment, while major issues confronting England and continental Europe are often mentioned only briefly.

In particular, the role of religion, which was perhaps the most important thing to both king and queen as they struggled to defend Roman Catholicism against the Reformation, is referred to but never properly explained. Spanish sources do, however, exist, though not used here, to reveal a deep involvement of Philip and his Spanish ecclesiastical advisers in the notorious burning in Mary’s reign of nearly 300 people, because of their Protestant belief.

This is an enjoyable read, then, but a strangely unsatisfying one, and a fuller account of Philip’s brief English reign is still needed.

John Edwards is senior research fellow in Spanish at the University of Oxford and the author of Mary I, England’s Catholic Queen (Yale University Press, 2011)

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