King and princes are instituted primarily to govern, to administer justice to their subjects, and to defend them from their enemies[1].

Setting up a permanent capital in the 1560s brought a closer attention to the machinery of government. Among the first changes made by the king was a reform in the system of councils. When Philip took over Naples and Milan from his father in 1554 it became obvious that special machinery must be devised for dealing with Italian affairs, normally handled by the council of State. This led to the creation, between 1556 and 1559, of a separate council for Italy'[2]. Pursuit of more efficiency was not the only reason. The new council was a linchpin for the whole system of power alliances, based on marriage and influence, which extended throughout the Italian possessions and whose reins were held by Eboli[3].

Other changes took place when necessary. After Philip's return in 1559 the council of State became limited to a small group of nobles who were also officials of the royal household. After the acquisition of Portugal a council of Portugal was set up in 1582. Subsequently a council of Flanders was created in 1588. Each council, which met in Madrid in the Alcazar, was supposed to include among its members leading figures from the area concerned. In this way all the parts of the monarchy had, in theory, an organ for consulting directly with the king.

In practice, business seldom fell neatly within the ambit of a single council. Regional, and especially non-Castilian, interests were seldom represented adequately. Nor was it possible for each council to handle all the affairs coming before it. From the very beginning of his governorship in the 150s, Philip found it useful to create special committees (juntas) to [211] handle specific business. Some juntas, like that on Works and Forests (1545), became permanent bodies. Others, like the juntas created periodically to discuss the Morisco problem, came and welt. In time, Philip came to rely more on these select committees than on the normal apparatus of government.

Beyond the scope of the king's councils, direct royal authority was tenuous. Spain, we have seen, was no centralised state. Its structure was much like that of France and most large European countries. There was no central administration, civil service, army or tax system. For all these things the crown relied on regional officials in the cities, provinces and lands controlled by the Church or nobility. It followed that the king was continually engaged in consultation with the officials and people over whom he ruled. Philip used the process of consultation for two purposes: to obtain information, and to secure consent. On his return from Lisbon to Madrid in 1583, for example, he carried out a survey of public opinion in the sixty-odd Castilian cities with civil governors (corregidores). He wanted to know what measures people thought should be taken to deal with inflation[4]. Without such periodic consultation, which had the advantage of covering more townships than were represented in the Cortes, those who ruled in Madrid would have been ill-equipped to make decisions on economic policy.


A key part in Philip’s style of government was played by his secretaries. These assisted at councils, drew up reports on the discussions, presented summaries of debates and of general correspondence, and countersigned the letters sent out by the king. Their position of direct access to the king made them powerful. But this did not turn the king into a passive servant. An influential study of Antonio Perez has argued that the secretary from the first managed his master, ‘leaving Philip nothing to do but approve’.[5] The reality was otherwise. When Gonzalo Perez died in 1566 his son Antonio, who was attached to the Eboli grouping, immediately took over temporary care of his section. From May 1566 Antonio was dispatching correspondence for the king, even though his formal appointment was not confirmed until July the next year. Philip literally trained the young secretary. He helped him with instructions on how each letter had to be drawn up and where each item should go.[6] Not until around 1572, some six years later, do we find Perez confident enough to express his opinions on the information he was giving the king, Meanwhile, the king dispensed no special favours to Perez, and shared his confidences equally with all his private secretaries.

One of these, Antonio Gracian, kept a diary of his work routine for the years 1572 and 1573. From it we get a fascinating picture of the contract between king and officials at that period. Gracian, working mainly from [212] San Lorenzo, would receive the post when it came from ministers in Madrid, which continued to be the center of both court and government. The king would make a preliminary distribution of the mail. Specialised letters were dealt with directly by the relevant minister if he were available. The king himself would deal with some correspondence after consultation. The secretary would process most other letters, and often answer them directly. On 9 March 1572, notes Gracian, ‘mail arrived with files of papers from the cardinal, Zayas, Antonio Perez, Escobedo, Juan Vazquez, Eraso, Gassol, altogether fourteen files. His Majesty replied to all, and that night the replies were drawn up.’ On 2 May,

His Majesty ordered me to give the Prior Don Antonio the despatches which had come the day before from Genova, Milan, Rome, Venice, Turin, Sicily, France and Germany; this was done. His Majesty ordered me to reply to a report from the council of Orders: they should keep some papers until he returned to Madrid, send a memorandum to secretary Antonio Perez, and reply to a letter from Ambrosio de Morales. At night the mail left with dispatches for Delgado and Zayas… At 10.30 at night mail arrived with a dispatch from Zayas, and with great haste I was ordered to give it to His Majesty before he went to bed. I was already 11 o’clock, His Majesty was already in bed, and the letter could not be given.[7]

Of all the aides with whom he worked the king relied most heavily on Santoyo. Sebastian de Santoyo organised all Philip's office papers. He was ‘the king’s oldest and most intimate servant’[8]. A famous anecdote tells us that very late one night when the king had finished writing a long letter, he handed it to Santoyo to blot with sand. Instead of sprinkling sand over the papers the weary Santoyo by mistake sprinkled ink. Seeing his distress the king merely said ‘You will just have to wait’, and proceeded to write the letter all over again[9]. The two made a perfect team. When Santoyo died in February 1588, it ‘greatly grieved’ the king. Some years later Philip saw an aide searching for a document and mixing up papers he had carefully put in order. ‘Tell that man,’ he commented half-seriously, ‘that if I don't order his head cut off it is services of his uncle Sebastian de Santoyo.’[10]

The first generation of secretaries, such as Gonzalo Perez and Eraso, faded a way in the mid-1560s. Over the next years Philip exercised no special preferences among the successors. His relationship with Antonio Perez was not unusually intimate. The crucial moment seems to have come with the advance to favour of Mateo Vazquez after 1573. At once a profound rivalry between Antonio Perez and Vazquez sprung up. Thanks to Vazquez's cpmplete dedication, Philip was able to hand over to him entirely the crucial task of processing papers when they came in. The king [213] had a clear idea of what changes should be made, and instructed Vazquez accordingly. With the new system, practised untill Vazquez's death[11], the secretary would either report the content of correspondence verbally or by means of a summary written on each paper. Where relevant, he would state the advice offered by himself or by ministers. He would keep back papers that could be dealt with elsewhere. This saved the king a great deal of time. It also brought into existence a fascinating relationship that lasted till Vazquez's death in 1591.

Philip's administration was, like every similar sdministration of its time, a jungle of bitter personal rivalries and open corruption. The king took care to distribute to each new secretary a film set of instructions, with particular stress on maintaining secrecy and not taking bribes. The rules were, as always, seldom observed. Individuals such as Perez made themselves rich. Secretary Gabriel Zayas in 1586 suggested that secretaries should be well paid to avoid possible corruption. The king, he suggested, should follow the example of ‘the English, whom we usually consider barbarians’. But the king's memory of Englsh practice failed him. ‘I don't very well remeber,’ was his only comment.[12]


From the minute he entered into government as regent in the 1540s, Philip was plagued by papers. As early as the 1550s he was regarded as a ‘paper king’. In England he spent every morning with correspondence. In the Netherlands, reported l'Aubespine in 1559, ‘the prince is fully immersed in business and doesn't waste an hour, spending all day among his papers’. In 1560 in Toledo he insisted on handling everything, ‘acting as master, minister, and secretary, but there is such delay and confusion that everyone here is desperate’.[13] While not relinquishing his hold over his papers, Philip attempted to put more order into the system and adapt it to his needs.

He started work early. In the 1550s and 1560s he was at his papers before eight in the morning.[14] The image of a slothful king, addicted to long hours in bed, appears regularly in reports by Venetian ambassadors, but is simply untrue.[15] In 1577 another Venetian envoy observed by contrast that ‘he rises very early, and attends to affairs and correspondence until midday’.[16] The king gave public audiences ‘in the morning before going to mass, and for one hour when he lunched in public. He receives petitions, listens to people, and gives his reply.’[17] He expected the same early timetable from his councillors. The rules he drew up personally for the council of Italy in 1559 required that councillors begin work at 9 a.m. the winter and 8 a.m. in summer.[18]

He regularly called others in to advice him about work on his desk. Unusually for a senior executive, he insisted on keeping the study door open so that ministers and secretaries could go in and out. Once he was sent a confidential paper and advised to lock his door while reading it. [214] Instead, he waited until the moment of the post-lunch siesta, and looked at it tnen in bed, ‘in order not to draw attention by shutting the door’.[19] The open door was a symbol of his own freedom. One day in Madrid in 1578 the duke of Alba, the prior Don Antonio de Toledo and Alba's son Don Fadrique's marriage. Alba made the mistake of closing the door behind him. ‘Is this a threat?’ the king objected. ‘Are you going to attack me?’ He went into another room and would not speak to them.[20] They were banned from the palace for a period.

It the king had confidence in a minister he gave him a fairy broad competence over affairs. When his authority over business was still only partial, in the late 1550s, he left free to entrust Ruy Gomez with unspecified general powers. But as soon as he came to supervise all administration, from about 1560, the king took care to keep spheres of responsibility separate. This prevented quarrels, and also gave him a decisive voice. In this way, many key individuals - not simply Ruy Gomez or Alba - helped in the task of government. In Gracian's notes of 1572-3 the prior of Leon, Don Antonio de Toledo, Alba's brother-in-law, emerges as the chief voice in foreign policy. On 23 April 1572 ‘I read to the prior a despatch from Zayas about matters concerning England and Flanders, and he wrote the relevant letters’. On 7 June 1573 ‘I read to the prior despatches from Flanders about Haarlem, and from Italy from Don Juan, and others. The prior wrote down his opinion and I gave it to His Majesty.’ At Easter 1573 the prior handled more corespondence than the king himself.[21]

The king's style of government did not always gain the approval of the public or of politicians. Unlike other European monarchs, he preferred information to be given not verbally but in written form. Council meetings, for instance, were normally held without him: ‘He never attends the discussions of his councillors,’ ambassadors observed in the first decades of his reign[22]. In this he followed his father's advice and his own practice since the 1540s. The rule, never a hard and fast one, was broken when nesessary. A written report (consulta) of the discussion in council was sent to him after each meeting. This had the advantage of allowing him to consider and reconsider options, and to compare differing views.

Correspondents were only too happy to shower him with advice. Critics - among them his own ministers - held that the resulting mass of paperwork delayed decision-making. Granvell's brother, the diplomat Chantonnay, commented in 1565 that ‘as for our master, everything is put off till the morrow, and the main decision taken in everything is never to take a decision’.[23] Slow decision-making in Spain became proverbial. Granvelle became one of its fiercest critics. The king himself, it must be said, fought manfully against intolerable delays, but the nature of the system within which he worked made efficiency difficult to achieve. [215]

A different type of criticism concerned what the role of a king should be. Kings, many felt, had a public role to pay. They should be accessible to the people. They were not meant to be pen-pushers. Philip's grand almoner Luis Manrique told him frankly in the late 1570s that administration ‘through notes and paper’ distanced him from his subjects. Other kings, he said, did not spend their time ‘reading and writing’: business done orally was always quicker[24].

Philip appreciated the advice but chose to differ. When Vazquez in 1576 suggested that in several matters it might be quicker to conduct business orally with his ministers, he conceded that it might be a good idea. ‘But,’ he said, ‘my experience of nearly thirty-three years dealing with affairs, is that it would be onerous to have to listen to them and afterwards see them to make a reply, and much worse with those who speak a lot.’ Reading a ten-minute report was always quicker than enduring a one-hour torrent of words. He carried out faithfully his engagements to speak to ministers, ambassadors and members of the public, but his experience told him that the time spent on such duties was incommensurate with the results achieved. ‘I am burdened with so many audiences,’ he complained in October 1573, ‘that they don't leave me time to settle anything.’ It was the same five years later: ‘I am burdened with audiences and other things that have prevented me replying until now’. ‘Until now, which is very late, the nuncio and others have prevented me seeing this file.’ What he needed in order to be able to work was ‘time and quiet, and believe me I can't do it with the audiences’. And how was he to remember everything that was said to him? His own method of giving audience was probably no help. He never interrupted speakers, always courteously allowing them to finish before he responded. This possibly turned short audiences into long ones.

Talk, he argued, impeded efficiency in papework. ‘Here is another pile of letters and petitions which ambassadors and other people have given me today; they all spoke to me at great length, so that I don't have time even to open them.’ Talk impeded the work of councils. In 1586 he criticised the council of Castile for ‘spending a great deal of time talking, and as a result getting very little done’. Talk, he argued, could not take the place of paper in arriving at administrative decisions. It was one of his quarrels with cardinal Espinosa, who earned a reputation for ‘efficiency’ because he despatched business verbally rather than in writting.

Meetings with ministers also consumed time, and were difficult to cut down. ‘I have had three hours today of a consulta from the counsil of the Indies, and afterwards two hours with Juan de Ovando [president of that council]’. He would frequently invite his secretaries to a working lunch. ‘On 3 March,’ recorded Gracian in 1573, ‘His Majesty went in the moning to El Pardo, and I came to lunch, and after lunch His Majesty dictated to me his replies to two consultas from Antonio Perez.’‘Come to lunch [216] tomorrow,’ he ordered Vazquez in July that year, ‘and make your report.’ On 2 July 1576 Escobedo, who had just returned from Flanders, reported on matters at a lunch with the king and Antonio Perez. ‘Arrange to come to lunch here on Monday, returning in the afternoon’, Vazquez was told in June 1588. Philip would also frequently go without dinner and simply have a snack as his desk late in the night. Or he might delay dinner for a moment. Sending off some urgent papers one night, he wrote: ‘I didn't think of them until now; it's already nine and dinner has been ordered and I went to take a short walk first. But passing by the study I happened to see them and have now read them.’ One night in April 1578 he had just finished a quantity of papers for his secretary at 9.30 p.m. when he was handed yet another report. He continued what he was writting and then scribbled his protest: ‘Now they've given me another file from you. I have neither the time nor the head to look at it so I won't open it until tomorrow. It's past ten and I haven't had dinner and my table is full of papers for tomorrow; I can't manage any more for now.’ In that half an hour his hand wrote exactly 468 words.

The one constant was his dedication to his work. He tried to despatch in the same day papers he had recived that day, setting aside only those which called for further consultation. The aim was sometimes achieved. ‘Here goes what came today,’ he noted with satisfaction to Vazquez in June 1577, ‘and if only it were like that always, it's what we need.’ When whole days were lost because of alternative business, the situation simply became desperate. ‘Losing a morning for papers, as happened on Sunday and Monday and today, presents me with so many of them that it's impossible to handle, and worse when I have audiences like those this afternoon which I could not avoid, and letters from Italy and Germany, a great many of them.’ A Flemish courtier later observed that in the opinion of many the king ‘must have during his life written more than four mule-loads of paper’. It was an underestimate.

He seems to have stopped work at the latest just after eleven at night, which is when his body fell asleep. ‘Up to now, 11 o' clock, I have been waiting for the file,’ he scribbled one night in April 1575, ‘but I can't wait any more, I don't have eyes in my head, and tomorrow I have to go to mass to the church.’ The letters at the foot of the page become a sleepy scrawl. The capacity, shown in his earlier years, to stay up all night, soon diminished. In 1584 it was reported that he normally slept a healthy eihgt hours a night.

Since he was always on the move, from one palace to the other, urgent papers came with him in a special bag. He did not let the burden of work disrupt commitments, especially commitments to his family. But the papers would have to come with him. ‘I have so many papers today,’ he reported in the spring of 1576, ‘that I can't see these others now, nor can I today. I think I'll take them with me to read in the coach when I go to the [217] country.’ The coach became a travelling office. ‘If I can look at it before leaving I'll do so,’ he commented of a problem; ‘if not it will be in the coach.’ ‘It's days since I received the letter from cardinal Granvelle but I haven't been able to look at it until today, and I've been reading it on the road.’

[1] Instruction by king to viceroy of Naples, Brussels, Jan. 1559, BL Add. 28701 f. 49v.

[2] Manuel Rivero Rodriguez, 'Poder y clientelas en la fundacion del Consejo de Italia (1556 - 1560)', Cheiron, 9, nos 17 - 18, 1992 [1993], pp. 37 - 40. Rivero shows clearly that the new council was derived from that of Castile and not, as many historians had believed, from the council of Aragon.

[3] Ibid., pp. 41 - 4.

[4] ‘Relacion de lo que escriven algunos corregidores cerca de las causas y remedio de la carestia’, BZ 149 f.38.

[5] Maranon, I, 38. Maranon’s discussion of this matter is seriously misleading. His view of a ‘capture’ of the king by Perez (I, 52) is mistaken.

[6] See the earlier correspondence in BL. Add.28262.

[7] BL Add.28355 ff.3, 6.

[8] Lippomando to Senate, 13 Feb. 1588, CSPV, VIII, 339.

[9] Cabrera, II, 307.

[10] Idid., 452.

[11] ‘Estilo que guardo el Rey en el despacho de los negozios desde que comenzo a valerse del secretario Matheo Vazquez, hasta que murio’: a copy, in BL Eg.329 ff.8-11.

[12] Zayas to Vazquez, Madrid, 1 Mar. 1586, BZ 135 f.116.

[13] Paris, pp.49, 562.

[14] Cf. also Parker, Philip II, pp.36, 44.

[15] A 1581 report, by Morosini, is largely copied from earlier ones. It states that ‘dorme molto… la mattina si leva dal letto assai tardi… dopo desinare ritorna a dormir’: Alberi, ser.I, vol.5, p.322.

[16] Badoero, ibid., p.276.

[17] Venetian ambassador Tiepolo, 1567, ibid. p.153.

[18] BL Add.28701 ff.106-9.

[19] Note to Vazquez, 28 May 1590, BL Add.28263 f. 522.

[20] Cabrera, II, 528; Ossorio, p.466.

[21] BL Add.28355 ff.5, 57, 62.

[22] Ambassador Tiepolo, in Gachard, Carlos V, p.114. Cf. Soranzo in 1565: ‘non entra il re nei consigli’: Alberi, ser.I, vol.5, p.115.

[23] Weiss, IX, 568.

[24] ‘Espejo que se propone a nuestro gran monarcha para que en el vea el estado infeliz de su monarchia’, BL Eg.330 f.8, 10.