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His reserved nature gained him a reputation for coldness, but he was not the dark and bitter character which he has been portrayed as being for generations. According to chroniclers of the age, Spain’s territorial possessions during Philip II’s reign were twenty times greater than those of the Roman Empire. This in itself gives an idea of the importance of the Spanish monarchy during the 16th century. The son of Emperor Charles V and Isabel of Portugal, Philip ruled the greatest political system that had ever existed and turned Madrid into the political centre of the world. Interested and preoccupied by European and world affairs, Philip did not consider anything as being outside his control, yet viewed everything in a very personal way.
He was born on 21st May 1527 as heir to the kingdom of Castile and its vast empire. This included the regions which form the Iberian Peninsula, present-day Franche-Comte in eastern France, the Low Countries, Milan, Naples, Tunisia, the Philippines, then-discovered America and much more besides. Aware of the difficult burden he shouldered, Philip was trained to be a king since childhood. When his father, the emperor Charles V, gave up the throne in 1556, he became king and took control of Spain’s destiny. The new sovereign introduced a monarchy based on a government of royal councils and secretaries and a powerful centralized administration which had to fight against bankruptcy and economic troubles.
However, problems arose within his kingdom over Crown Prince Charles, son of Philip’s first wife María Manuela of Portugal. Charles was arrested due to his involvement in an alleged succession conspiracy against the king. His son’s mysterious death left Philip without an heir and simultaneously spawned a dark legend about the king’s character.
In foreign affairs, he tried to maintain his empire through marriage. He first married María of Portugal, and later Queen Mary I of England. In 1559, he wed the French princess Elisabeth of Valois, and finally in 1570, he married his niece Ana of Austria, the mother of the future Philip III.
Known as “the prudent king”, Philip II had to face many external conflicts, such as the fight against France for the control of Naples and Milanesado and the Ottoman hostilities which ended in victory at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. He also had to deal with poor relations with England and the struggle between the two countries for control of the sea. This encounter ended in 1588 with the defeat of the so-called Invincible Armada, a considerable setback which marked the beginning of the end of Spanish naval power in the Atlantic.
In spite of these difficulties, Philip achieved great political success in unifying the Iberian peninsula when he annexed Portugal and its dominions. He completed the unification process began by the Catholic Kings and removed nobles from State affairs, replacing them with middle-class secretaries. Privileges were bestowed on the Catholic Church and censuses of population and economic wealth were carried out. The king fell ill with tertian fever at the end of June in 1598, leaving him bedridden. Three months later, he died at the age of 71 at El Escorial monastery, his death throes having lasted 53 days.