The First Consort

Thomas Penn

  • Philip of Spain, King of England: The Forgotten Sovereign by Harry Kelsey
    I.B. Tauris, 230 pp, £18.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84885 716 2

It always comes as something of a surprise to remember that thirty years before the Armada, Philip of Spain was king of the country he later attempted to invade. What was more, he had been a new kind of king, the consort of England’s first ruling queen, and one to whom England had violently objected before he had even set foot there.

In 1553, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s first-born daughter, had acceded to the throne following the death of Henry’s teenage son, Edward VI. As fervently Catholic as Edward had been Protestant, Mary was determined to restore papal supremacy in England. She was the product of an Anglo-Spanish marriage: her mother was Henry VIII’s first, divorced wife, Catherine of Aragon, and – unsurprisingly, given her father’s capricious treatment of her as a child – she felt closest to her mother’s family and religion, seeing herself as a Trastámara as much as a Tudor.

At the age of 37, in poor health, Mary was ill-equipped and unprepared for her role as England’s first sovereign queen. The highly sensitive business of returning England to Rome, not to mention defining her own status as a female sovereign, would have tested a more skilled and experienced politician. Soon after her accession, her advisers convinced her that she needed to marry and produce an heir. Seeking a husband of royal blood and unblemished Catholicism she turned to her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and son of her mother’s sister Juana. She and Charles had twice been betrothed when she was a child; now she asked him to marry her. Sixteen years her senior, Charles deflected her proposal, putting forward his son and heir, Philip of Spain, instead.

After some months’ hesitation, Mary made her decision without consulting Parliament. When she announced, late in the evening of 29 October 1553, that Philip would be her husband and king, England was horrified. It was widely felt that she had put religion and familial sentiment above the national interest: many believed that, with this foreign monarch at its head, the country risked becoming a Catholic satrapy of the Habsburg Empire. As the marriage negotiations began, a failed Protestant uprising made it clear that many already believed that the issues of religious change and the queen’s marriage were inseparable.

For much of his youth Philip had barely seen his father, who was absent managing his vast empire, and the pair remained distant. Philip was a man of moderate talents: an indifferent linguist, enthusiastic jouster and keen musician. Yet his charming, inscrutable surface concealed considerable determination and ambition. He understood perfectly well what was expected of him as his father’s heir. By the time he was being lined up as Mary’s husband, he had completed a three-year grand tour of his father’s territories, and had already been married and widowed. His father negotiated his new marriage contract without telling him.

Politically, the match had a great deal to recommend it. The other European superpower of the 16th century, standing in the way of Habsburg domination of the continent, was France. Conflict between the Habsburgs and the Valois French flared intermittently. There were two main flashpoints: the perpetually war-torn Italian peninsula, and North-West Europe. Over the years, the struggle between England, France and the Habsburg Low Countries had led to a series of shifting alliances, and both Habsburg and French agents were active in England, seeking to pull sympathies one way or the other. United with the Habsburgs, England would provide a formidable power base with which to oppose France.

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[*] Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen by John Edwards (Yale, 336 pp., £25, August 2011, 978 0 300 11810 0).

[†] Mary Tudor by David Loades (Amberley, 328 pp., £25, June 2011, 978 1 4456 0305 6).