Book Review: “Philip of Spain” by Henry Kamen

Kamen’s seminal biography of King Philip II of Spain was published in 1997 and I remember when I read it then I enjoyed it very much. Since reading Geoffrey Parker’s new biography of Philip, I decided to read this book again. I’m glad I did as it gave me a new perspective.

Kamen’s book is not as detailed as Parker’s. Parker has a lot more information on Philip’s early life and the writing is based more on Philip’s actual words from existing and newly discovered documentation. However, Kamen’s book has a great overview of Philip’s reign. He breaks down Philip’s time in power into several sections by years with chapter titles such as The Formative Years, The Renaissance Prince, Soldier and King, Towards Total War and The Time of Thunder to name a few. For information on the man himself, the two chapters with the most interesting material are titled The World of Philip II and The Statesman. These cover the man himself, his wives and children, his foreign policy and other noteworthy tidbits of information about Philip as a person.

Because I had just read Parker’s biography, it was thought-provoking to note the differences in opinion between the two authors. Kamen mentions throughout this book how he disagrees with Parker on several points, some minor but with several major differences. For example, Kamen does not believe Philip II had anything to do with the murder of Juan Escobedo while Parker goes into great detail in an effort to prove Philip did. It is intriguing to consider the two points of view.

This book is enhanced with maps, a family tree and photo section. It appears in some ways that Kamen is an apologist for Philip but this does not detract from his perspective on the life and reign of this significant and in some ways remarkable king. I highly recommend this book and would suggest if the reader has the time and opportunity to read both this biography and Parker’s. Kamen’s book has definitely withstood the test of time since its publication 21 years ago.

Book Review: “Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker

While doing research on Queen Mary I of England, I happened to find this book about her husband King Philip II of Spain. It was published by the Yale University Press in 2014 and Geoffrey Parker is a known authority on the reign of this king. Parker states he began research and the writing of a biography of Philip in the 1960’s. He states in the introduction that his first effort is 1600 pages long and trusted editors worked on that volume to produce this shortened version of the book.

Parker gained access to some papers of Philip’s reign in 2012. These documents were part of a huge collection which were stored in a vault in the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. They remained unseen from the time Philip’s secretaries had filed them away until 2012 when they were identified and catalogued. This allowed Parker to update his biography even further with this new found information.

King Philip did not allow anyone to write about his life while he lived so there are no contemporary books about him. Parker states in his introduction that his intention was to tell Philip’s life story using only Philip’s words. Philip was known as “the paper king” and left mountains of paperwork either written in his own hand or with annotations on other people’s documents. Parker succeeds in his mission to do this. It is really fascinating to read these words, giving great insight into the mind of this man who ruled an empire upon which the sun never set.

I’ve never read a biography that goes into such great detail. While some might find the minutiae irritating or boring, I found it interesting. A couple of things that struck me were how Philip ate lunch every day and would mention “come see me after lunch” or “we will work on this during lunch”. Among other things, Philip began work on one of the greatest Renaissance royal residences: El Escorial. After hearing about the building of this massive project, I would really like to visit.

Another chapter discusses genetics and the intermarriage of the Hapsburgs and how this affected their health, especially Philip’s son Don Carlos. There is a graph showing Don Carlos’ family tree. Parker explains he was the great-grandson of Juana of Castile through both is father and his mother, giving him a double dose of mental instability. And, instead of having eight great-grandparents, he only had four. No wonder his physical and mental health were unstable.

The author gives his theory on the murder of Juan Escobedo, one of Philip’s principal secretaries. He believes Philip was culpable for this murder and goes to great lengths in explaining why. It’s almost like a detective story. Parker is very good at telling it like it is about King Philip, good and bad. This is a really good read and whether the reader has knowledge of Spanish history or not will find it worthwhile.

Book Review: “Isabella: The Warrior Queen” by Kirstin Downey

Isabella the Warrior Queen book cover

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Spain recently! There were two biographies of Isabella of Castile on my book shelf and I’ve now completed reading both of them. My interest in Isabella is a result of my lifelong love of Tudor history and the fact that Isabella was the mother of Catherine of Aragon. I tackled Peggy Liss’ biography first which was very interesting. Downey’s book is also a worthy read.

Downey explains in her afterword that she has a lifelong fascination in the life of Isabella. When she was a young girl living in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone, she was captivated by the ruins of Spanish buildings which have existed since the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Panama was a trade hub for the shipping of the treasures from the New World to Spain and beyond.

While Liss’ biography is an academic work with exceptional detail, Downey has a different, but still relevant approach to Isabella’s life. She writes about the life events of the Queen, sometimes giving a keen insight into her life and at other times giving an overall picture. There is a little more detail in Downey’s book about Christopher Columbus and his voyages and their impact on Spain as well as the entire world.

Downey covers some new material here as well. She describes the cannibalism the Europeans discovered in the Caribbean and tells us about the possible origin of the sexually transmitted disease of syphilis coming from the New World. She also believes, based on her own journalistic work, that there was a history of sexual abuse in Isabella’s family.

There is some good information about Isabella’s children, especially Prince Juan and her daughter Juana. I particularly enjoyed the details of the life of Juana. Personally, I go back and forth on whether Juana was actually mentally ill or a victim of the men around her. Downey makes the case that Juana was perfectly sane but was unprepared and untrained in how to rule. Juana just wasn’t up to the task. There are some great descriptions about how Juana’s husband, the Archduke Philip, basically abused Juana as well as accounts of how her father plotted to take the throne of Castile from her. This is some really intriguing information and I may have to look into the biographies of Juana listed in the bibliography.

Isabella was an accomplished administrator and a warrior. There are many things to admire about her. But there is also a dark side to her personality. Even taking into account the mindset of medieval and Renaissance Spain, Isabella’s personality is full of religious fervor and rigidity. This leads to some objectionable events during her reign such as the mistreatment and exile of Jews and Muslims as well as the evils of the Spanish Inquisition. Downey argues the Inquisition was mostly the brainchild of Isabella’s husband Ferdinand and he used it for his own purposes for political gains and to increase his personal wealth.

I don’t want to get into a comparison between Downey’s and Liss’ work as both books have their own merits. I will say that Downey’s work is an easier and more enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. Reading both books gives a complete historical rendering of the life of this extraordinary Queen.

Book Review: “Isabel the Queen: Life and Times” by Peggy K. Liss

Liss Isabel the Queen cover

My knowledge of Queen Isabel of Castile is very limited. She is remembered for the Reconquista, the Spanish Inquisition and of course for sponsoring the voyages of Christopher Columbus. And being a fan of Tudor history, I knew of her as the mother of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. But I’m interested in knowing more so I’m reading a couple of biographies about her, including this one.

Ms. Liss wrote this book in honor of the 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in North America and a revised edition was released in 2004 for the 500th anniversary of Isabel’s death. It is an academic work, printed by the University of Pennsylvania Press and has been on my shelf for some time. Liss is an expert on Isabel and the book is filled with many great details about the era and Isabel’s reign and personal life.

This is a comprehensive work. As I don’t know much about Spanish history, the short timeline Liss gives is most appreciated. Liss writes a great deal about Isabel’s motivations for her actions as monarch in the context of the history of Spain and she is possibly a bit of an apologist for Isabel. I realize we shouldn’t put our 21st century sensibilities onto an older era. But much of what Isabel did was repugnant as many of the aspects of this book describe.

There is also much to admire about Isabel. She and Ferdinand had something very rare; a loving marriage. She was adamant that her children be educated too, especially her daughters, giving them something she lacked as a child. Isabel worked very hard at consolidating government on the Iberian Peninsula and administering justice. While executing war on various surrounding kingdoms, Isabel acted as quartermaster, raising funds and supplies and getting them to the theater of operations. Basically, whatever Fernando needed, she delivered. When asked by her husband, she would appear before the troops to lift their spirits.

I loved the description of Isabel’s first meeting with her future husband Fernando of Aragon. It was quite romantic. There is an honest assessment of her relationship with her daughter Juana, also known as Juana la Loca. While Isabel knew Juana had mental difficulties, she followed tradition and wrote in her will that she was to succeed her as Queen of Castile. The epilogue of the book describes how a lot of Isabel’s lifetime work for Spain was undone by Juana.

To be honest, Liss’ grammar and syntax are dense and a little hard to read. This is not a curl up with the cat and cuppa tea read and is more suited for historical research. But I still recommend it if you want to learn more about this complex and admirable queen as the details of her reign are extraordinary. On to the next biography.