440 years ago today, Philip II of Spain became the ruler of one of the most powerful empires to ever exist. This is his story.

A portrait from 1573 of Philip II, the man who during his reign would rule Spain, Portugal, Southern Italy, the Netherlands, and scattered territories in Northern Europe. He could also be considered a King of England and Ireland, although the situation was complicated, to say the least.
Attribution: Sofonisba Anguissola / Public domain

September 12, 1580 was the day Philip II, who was already the King of Spain, Southern Italy, the Netherlands, and ruled over scattered territories in Northern Europe, also became the King of Portugal, making him the leader of the Iberian Union, which some historians have christened as the “Iberian Empire”.

Historically, the Iberian peninsula (shown below) had been a source of wealth and cultural diversity, and as a result it often became the battleground where great empires met. The oldest significant clash of empires in Iberia occurred during the 2nd Punic War in 218 BC, in which the Romans of Italy and the Carthaginians of North Africa fought over the silver mines and wheat fields of Iberia, ultimately resulting in a Roman victory.

The Iberian Peninsula, in a map from 1794.
Attribution: Robert Wilkinson / Public domain

Later on, the barbarian Visigoths would clash with the Romans over control of Iberia in the 5th century AD, and a couple hundred years later the northern fringes of Iberia, protected by the great Charlemagne, would protect most of Western Europe from the invading Muslims, who in the subsequent years would establish a realm in southern Iberia known as al-Andalus.

Al-Andalus, a topic of heated argument and controversy, is regarded by some historians as the Golden Age of Iberia, but many agree that it was repressive towards the native Christian population and sparked conflict between the remaining Christian Kingdoms and the Islamic Caliphate. These (initially) small Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia included Aragon, Navarre, Léon, Castille, and Galicia, and later on encompassed Portucale (the progenitor of modern Portugal) as the kingdoms grew larger at the expense of the invading Muslims.

A Medieval Era map of Iberia.
Attribution: Nicolaes Visscher II / Public domain

In the Medieval Era, the religious and cultural tensions between the Christian Iberians and the Muslim Moors (originally from North Africa) came to a head when Islamic Jihads failed to conquer the Christians and the northern kingdoms retaliated with the Reconquista, in which they reconquered most of Spain.

And later, in the 15th century, nearly a hundred years before Philip II took the throne, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain announced that the Reconquista had been finished, that the last remaining Muslim kingdom (Granada) had been conquered, and that the crowns of Castille and Aragon were uniting, leaving Iberia with two kingdoms: Portugal and Spain.

Spain and Portugal were naturally rivals after the Reconquista ended. Spain, the owner of most of the peninsula, outmatched Portugal in manpower, economic strength, sheer land, and even resources. Portugal, however, had a trick up its sleeve: centuries of only inhabiting the coast had bestowed upon them experience and knowledge of naval tactics and design. As a result, while Spain in the coming centuries would attempt to conquer mainland Europe and would colonize other continents far into the interior, Portugal would establish a flourishing maritime empire, only taking trouble to colonize small islands and coasts. This meant Iberia was home to two of Europe’s top 6 or 7 empires, rivaling France, England, the Ottoman Empire, and even the Holy Roman Empire, whose decentralized realm encompassed Germany, Belgium, parts of the Netherlands, Northern Italy, and most of Central Europe.

But owning Spain, Southern Italy, the Netherlands, and eventually Portugal wasn’t all Philip II had to offer: he was also closely related to Holy Roman Emperor, meaning he had a loyal ally at his disposal. Together, the Iberian and Holy Roman Empires, collectively called the Hapsburg Empire, fought the rising Protestant states of Europe and stopped further encroachment into Europe by the Ottomans.

Map of the collective Hapsburg lands in Europe, not including the significant influence the Holy Roman Empire held over Germany and without the short-lived Portuguese addition.
Attribution: edited by Sir Adolphus William Ward, G.W. Prothero, Sir Stanley Mordaunt Leathes / Public domain

So how did Portugal come into possession of Philip II? When the elderly King of Portugal died, Philip II (having a claim to the throne) invaded Portugal with support from the nobility and was crowned shortly after.

Philip II was also once known as the King of England and Ireland, after marrying Queen Mary (known popularly as “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of Protestants). However, Philip II is not regarded as a true monarch of England since most of the power lay with Queen Mary, as the marriage was loveless and Philip spent most of his time in Spain instead. Later on, however, when Mary was replaced by her Protestant sister Elizabeth I, Philip II daringly launched the great invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, which failed when the English navy decimated the Spanish later on.

For his failure in invading England, however, he made up for it by crushing Protestant rebellions and repelling the English armada when they attempted to do the same thing he had previously done. Philip II also has a peculiar legacy in Asia, where they named the Philippines after him.

All in all, by modern standards, Philip II was a cruel ruler. But for those of us who live in the 21st Century and cannot imagine the horrors his war brought upon those it affected, its hard not to gape at the size of his empire portrayed on a map, which in Spain is hailed as the real “Golden Age”.

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