Сontent | Library | Late Middle Ages

Philip II has sometimes been compared to a spider sitting at the center of a web. Certainly his style of government stood in marked contrast to that of his globe-trotting warrior father; but Philip firmly believed that too much mobility in a monarch was a bad thing. His last paper of advice for his son and heir, written in 1598, was explicit on this point: "Traveling about one's kingdoms is neither useful nor decent," he wrote. The right place for the king of Spain was to be always in Spain. Philip was particularly opposed to sovereign rulers moving around at the head of an army (as Charles V had so often done). In 1586, when his son-in-law, the headstrong duke of Savoy, proposed to lead an attack on Geneva, the king issued a stern rebuke:

The duke must not be present in person, nor even nearby [he thundered], above all for reasons of prestige. If the venture succeeds, his prestige will be enhanced whether he is present or not - and perhaps he will be respected even more if he is absent - but if it fails to achieve its objective (as it may do, for these things are in the hands of God, not men), he will lose more prestige by far if he is there in person. [24] Philip II deliberately chose to govern is far-flung empire, and his armies, from Castile. Despite criticisms, and although he delegated considerable power to his servants in America, Italy and the Netherlands, he insisted throughout his reign that all important decisions (and many unimportant ones) should be referred back to Spain or his personal scrutiny and sanction.

This desire for a high degree of centralization (by sixteenth-century standards) created serious administrative problems. First, the volume of business always threatened to clog the wheels of government second, the enormous distances separating the outlying provinces of Philip II's empire from Madrid created the constant risk that a decision, once made, would be overtaken by events before it could be put into effect. It took a minimum of two weeks for a letter from Madrid to reach Brussels or Milan; it took a minimum of two months for a letter from Madrid to reach Mexico; and it took a minimum of a year for a letter from Madrid to reach Manila in the Philippines. "Distance," it has been said, "explains a good half of the actions of Philip II." Even if this is a slight overstatement, the battle to overcome the problems posed by distance, and by the excessive volume of business, certainly goes a long way toward explaining Philip's unique style of government.

The sixteenth century was the golden age of conciliar government all over Europe, and Spain was no exception. At the center of Philip II's administrative system was a complex structure of fourteen councils, five of them created by his great-grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, four of them created by his father, Charles V, and five of them created by himself (see the accompanying chart). From 1561, when Philip decreed that Madrid should become the permanent location of all central government offices, each of his councils met at fixed times on fixed days in a separate room of the new royal palace, especially extended by the king.

His most important councils were those of Castile (a sort of "Home Office" responsible for justice, public order, economic [25] matters and ecclesiastical affairs within the kingdom of Castile), the Indies (which had similar responsibilities for the New World) and the Inquisition (which controlled the twenty-one tribunals of the Holy Office established throughout the Spanish empire, from Peru to Sardinia and from Navarre to Sicily). The councils were primarily administrative departments, and they were staffed (except for the Council of State, which dealt with foreign affairs) mostly by lawyers trained in the universities of Castile. Of eight presidents of the Council of the Indies appointed by Philip II, seven were lawyer; of thirty-nine councilors appointed by him, every one was a lawyer. The universities of Spain, with their colegios mayors or "graduate schools," were used by the Spanish Habsburgs as a sort of seminary wherein future administrators could be trained.

A complex consular structure and an embryonic bureaucracy were essential for the effective government of an empire as vast and as diffuse as Philip II's. But the councils were only advisory bodies, and the bureaucrats were n more than administrators. Philip II did not adopt the "cabinet" style of government favored by most layer rules, with the heads of the various government departments meeting together to discuss policy and make collective recommendations to the sovereign. Such a system would have deprived him of a considerable amount of authority. Instead, the kings insisted that all orders should be issued bearing his personal signature, and the final decision on most issues was taken by him alone and in person. The basic document of the Spanish central government was therefore the consulta, the paper which every council sent to the king after each meeting with a formal note of its recommendations on all items referred to it. Early in the reign these consultas and any other relevant papers were brought to the king and read to him either by the secretary or by the president of the council. The officers of the more important councils had a daily audience, after which the papers were left for the king to scrutinize at leisure. In time they were retuned [27] with holograph responses, notes or memoranda attached. To some extent this part of the government's activity was automatic. With