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.

So when Mary’s councillors, unable to prevent the marriage, instead presented the emperor with a draft treaty which effectively neutered his son’s role as king of England, Charles was happy to wave it through. The treaty’s terms would make Philip a unique sort of king. He could exercise sovereignty only in conjunction with Mary, and then as the junior partner. He would have no executive authority; he was not allowed to commit England to the current Habsburg war with France; he was not to appoint any foreigners to government posts or, indeed, to employ foreigners in his household, which was to be paid for out of his pocket. He was not to be crowned king. Philip, in other words, was to be a consort.

Though he was livid at both his exclusion from the marriage negotiations and at the treaty itself, he agreed to them in public. It took him months to drag himself to England to wed a bride in whom he had absolutely no interest, but despite his reluctance he had a strong sense of his responsibilities to the empire he would inherit. One of his closest advisers, Ruy Gómez, summed up the situation: Philip, he wrote, ‘understands that this marriage was effected not for the flesh but for the restoration of this realm, and the conservation of those states’. By ‘those states’, Gómez meant Flanders, and by the ‘restoration of this realm’, he meant the re-Catholicisation of England.

The Spanish entourage arrived in England in July 1554 in pouring rain, which continued throughout the wedding ceremony. Incompatibilities surfaced almost immediately: the Spanish viewed the English – ‘white, pink and quarrelsome’ – with contempt, and their prodigious feats of beer-drinking with alarm. Philip endured the festivities with imperial condescension – ‘such sweetness of temper and such affability as not to be surpassed’, in one ambassador’s words – but the personal mismatch between bride and groom was immediately and painfully evident. Philip didn’t speak English, and – with the exception of a laboriously delivered ‘Good night my lords all’ on his first evening in Mary’s company – didn’t attempt to learn it. The pair didn’t have a language in common, so Philip spoke Spanish to her and Mary French to him. There was never any romance, though Mary immediately doted on her dashing husband: gallant in public, Philip referred to her as tía mía – ‘my aunt’ – in private. Mary, sexually hesitant, increasingly ill, and under great pressure to conceive, would have two phantom pregnancies: it was probably at the conclusion of the first, in August 1555, that Philip realised they would never produce an heir.

In the tumultuous course of the English 16th century, Philip’s brief reign as king of England is uniquely fascinating, raising intractable questions to do with sovereignty and religious politics. Placing Philip in this context requires an intimate understanding of the singular nature of Marian England, as well as Spain, the Habsburgs and the convoluted world of European religious and dynastic politics. In his brisk and entertaining study, Harry Kelsey demonstrates thorough knowledge of the Spanish sources, provides ceremonial context for Philip’s time in England, and attempts to recover him as an active English sovereign, but he doesn’t look in detail at Philip’s efforts to further Habsburg objectives in an increasingly crisis-ridden England or explore the conflict of interest at the heart of his kingship, as a consort who was half of a dual monarchy.

Within the constraints of the marriage treaty, Philip did attempt to govern; and Mary, ever the dutiful wife, emphasised his active role. A silver sixpence newly minted in 1554 displayed the heads of the king and queen facing each other, above them a ‘floating’ imperial crown and on the reverse the quartered arms of Philip and Mary – a coin to strike horror into the hearts of the English. Kelsey tells us that the queen provided Philip with digests of council business written in Spanish and that, with the aid of liberal pensions, Philip managed to establish a pro-Spanish clique within his wife’s council, enabling him to maintain a grip on English affairs even during his prolonged absences. Weeks after the first time Mary was found not to be pregnant, he left for the Habsburg Netherlands; he spent barely 15 months in England in total.

Yet the curious rule of this most un-English of monarchs had a significant impact on Marian England. The defining acts of Mary and Philip’s reign were, domestically, the persecutions of Protestants that accompanied the ‘purification’ of the English Church and its return to Rome; and, abroad, England’s disastrous involvement in the Franco-Habsburg wars, which led in 1558 to the loss of Calais, its continental toehold. Kelsey discusses Philip’s involvement in both these episodes, yet the book doesn’t give a full account of his influence: his impact on Mary’s religious policies, in particular, receives cursory treatment.

Philip’s ostensible detachment on the subject of England’s return to Rome stands in sharp relief to Mary’s fervour. He was just as keen to return England to the Catholic fold – he had brought with him a flock of Spanish ecclesiastics to advise on the process – but approached the issue with a political detachment that was characteristically Habsburg: as Mary’s most recent biographer, John Edwards, puts it, he was careful to respect and observe the ‘individual customs, privileges and institutions’ of the different territories that comprised the empire.[*] Unlike Mary and the venerable Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had returned from exile to lead the English ‘reduction’ to Rome, Philip understood the importance of dealing with the issue of property, and in particular that group of landowners, scathingly referred to by Pole as ‘possessioners’, who had bought property previously belonging to the Church and had no intention of giving it back. Philip, far more diplomatic than Pole, succeeded in winning substantial concessions from Pope Julius III on this score, paving the way for the rapid reimposition of papal jurisdiction in England in January 1555. By that point, the first burnings of Protestants had already taken place, and Spanish involvement in them over the next few years provides an almost perfect illustration of Philip’s approach to and influence over his wife’s kingdom.

Unaccountably, Kelsey devotes barely a couple of lines to Philip’s role in the persecutions, although other recent studies, notably Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith (2009) and Edwards’s biography of Mary, have revealed it to be substantial, if not central. Kelsey remarks that the method of execution – burning at the stake – was ‘typically English’, an odd thing to say given that the Spanish Inquisition had practically patented the ‘auto-da-fé’ or act of faith which, under Mary and Philip, would turn English Protestants into martyrs. Although Philip was all for ‘greater firmness in religion’, as he euphemistically put it in a letter to his father, he viewed the first wave of burnings with unease: as well as destabilising an already divided country, he knew they would inevitably harden English opinion against the Spanish. While he did not go as far as the Habsburg ambassador Simon Renard, who wrote to Charles V saying that the burnings had to stop, Philip had his confessor Alfonso de Castro preach a sermon at court in which he urged against the burning of heretics, recommending instead loving, persuasive conversion. But, as Duffy showed, Castro’s sermon seems to have been just a public relations exercise from a king who wanted to distance himself from what was happening. Some months later, Philip and Mary sent a robust letter to Bishop Bonner of London, head of the English inquisitors, upbraiding him and his team for foot-dragging.

When in late August 1555 Philip departed for the Netherlands, he left behind a retinue of clerics familiar with the process of ‘purification’ from their involvement in the Spanish Inquisition. Mary found particular guidance in Philip’s spiritual adviser Bartolomé Carranza, a Dominican friar with a sensitive nose for heresy – a figure entirely missing from Kelsey’s book. A Spanish courtier in England later confirmed that Carranza – who thought the rigorous Pole was ‘soft’ on heretics – was the ‘main person’ to whom Mary turned for advice on questions of heresy; Carranza himself acknowledged that he had worked closely with the English inquisitors. Along with two other Spanish Dominicans, he was heavily involved in the momentous and chaotic trial of Archbishop Cranmer, which started in September 1555, and is said to have ‘worked hard for the sentence to be carried out’. When, late into the night of 21 March 1556, Mary was woken with the news of Cranmer’s burning in Oxford’s town ditch, it was Carranza whom she woke and told. Edwards claims it is ‘impossible to deny’ that Carranza was central to the persecution of reformed believers in Mary’s England, and adds that, whenever the queen hesitated, it was he who ‘urged Mary … to further repression’. If ‘Mary’s England was indeed beginning … to integrate itself with Continental practice,’ Edwards writes, it was due to the considerable influence of her husband’s churchmen – even when her husband was absent.

English foreign policy too was yoked to Habsburg interests. As David Loades has pointed out in his life of Mary, it was the prospect of war that finally brought Philip back to his wife’s side after an absence of more than 18 months.[†] Returning to England in March 1557, and flouting his marriage contract, he lobbied hard – and successfully – for England to join the conflict with France. On 7 June, Mary declared war; less than a month later, Philip left England to lead the campaign in Flanders. He would not return. That summer, he led seven thousand English soldiers in a rout of the French at Saint-Quentin that was the talk of Europe. But at home, the divisions were as clear as ever, exacerbated by continued persecutions of Protestants (June 1557 saw the highest number of burnings in a single month), the latest in a series of appalling harvests and a devastating ‘sweating sickness’ that killed thousands. By the new year, Calais had been conquered by France, whose regrouped armies were thirsty for revenge. Though largely the result of English incompetence, the loss was blamed on Philip, who had done everything he could to save Calais and then to recover it. But there was no escaping the fact that it was his policies that had led England to war in the first place.

By this time, if not earlier, Philip seemed to regard England as a lost cause. And, despite his public expressions of uxorious devotion on receiving the news of Mary’s latest pregnancy that January (an announcement greeted with almost universal scepticism), he seemed sure that his marriage would remain childless. As the year drew on, a flu epidemic worsened, and by the autumn, Mary, sick, childless, depressed, desperate for her husband and mourning the loss of his father, who died on 21 September, was in terminal decline. Philip, preoccupied by events in France, sent an ambassador, the Count of Feria, with comforting messages. But, with typical pragmatism, he also instructed Feria to cultivate Mary’s successor by Act of Parliament, her detested Protestant half-sister.

Philip knew that Elizabeth, as the focus for religious and political dissent, had to be handled with extreme caution, even though in the Habsburg view she might well be preferable to the other claimant to the English throne, Mary Queen of Scots, whose claim ran from Henry VII via her grandmother Margaret Tudor, and who had recently married the French dauphin. Elizabeth and Feria’s talks were ‘cordial’, according to the ambassador, though he soon realised that Elizabeth was strikingly unlike her sister: in fact, he told Philip, she was more like her father. The conversations continued throughout Mary’s decline up until her death on 17 November. Philip, apparently, met the news of her passing with ‘reasonable regret’. Shortly afterwards, the ex-king half-heartedly offered his hand in marriage to England’s new queen, a proposal Elizabeth met with silence.

For four years, Philip had been able to influence, if not dominate England: now the Spanish were back on the margins. For the English, he had been what they feared he would be, an outsider preoccupied with a vision of which England formed only a part, who came to embody Mary’s disastrous inability to put the national interest first. On Elizabeth’s accession, his departure was barely commented on. For Elizabeth, Mary and Philip’s reign was a lesson in how not to rule. And unlike her sister, she had no intention of taking a husband. When she learned, not long into her reign, that Philip was looking for other possible brides without having waited for her formal refusal of his suit, she suggested that he could not have been much in love with her, since he did not have the patience to wait four months.

Still, perennially fearful of the French, he persisted in his offers of friendship, which Elizabeth persistently rebuffed. Finally, Spanish involvement in the Ridolfi plot of 1570, which aimed to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots, tipped English indifference into overt hostility; Philip’s monumentally ill-conceived attempt to invade the country he had once ruled came 18 years later. Nobody, it seemed, liked to remember that he had once been king of England – least of all Philip. He commissioned a statue of himself kneeling before God, to be placed above the high altar in the church of the Escorial. Kneeling with him were effigies of his wives – or at least three of them. Left out was his second, Mary Tudor, Queen of England.

[*] 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).