Сontent | Library | Late Middle Ages

What sort of man was Philip II, this ruler who dominated the history of Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century? At his accession he was described as slightly below average in height, but well-proportioned, of fair complexion and handsome features, though his lips were thought too full. His blond beard concealed his Habsburg jaw, which, at any rate, was not so prominent as his father's. But the burdens of office took their toll: by 1575, when he sat for his portrait for Sanchez Coello, his hair was turning grey and his last portraits, painted after 1589 by Pantoja de la Cruz, show his hair to be white, his once ruddy cheeks pale, and the bright eyes sunken and red.

In talking to people, Philip gave the impression of listening intently, though he said little; and when he did speak, he spoke slowly as though he were weighing each word with care. His eyes fixed the person addressing him, and a small smile would often come to his lips, 'that shy, half smile' which has been called the protective device of rules schooled to guard secrets.[1] From Philip's smile to his dagger, contemporaries remarked, was a very short distance.

In dress, Philip was neat and fashionable, though as he grew older he wore only black, with no ornament save for the emblem of the Golden Fleece suspended on a black ribbon around his neck. Looking at Pantoja's portrait of Philip in his early sixties, one is struck not only by the dignity of carriage, but also by the meticulous attention he still gave to his dress; it is a portrait to be sure, but it would make sense that the old man still persisted in the habit of dressing well.

Philip's health in his early years was relatively good.[2] He tried to avoid gout and other ailments of the sort that plagued his father by eating sparingly and travelling as little as possible, since physicians blamed Charles's gluttony and frequent journeys for his gout and poor health. Philip refrained from fish and fruit, which were thought [37] to induce ill humors, and enjoyed a papal dispensation from the law of abstinence, so that even on fast days he could take meat. He drank little wine, and that watered. He was not, however, averse to a good table, and on one occasion asked the prince of Orange to make him a present of his renowned chef.

The medical historian, C. D. O'Malley surveying Philip's married life and giving credence to reports of his many youthful affairs, decided that Philip had a normal and healthy sexual life. He was fifty when he sired the son Philip (1578-1621) who would succeed him; in all he eight children who survived birth, of whom four reached maturity.[3]

[1] R. M. Hatton, ‘Louis XIV and his Fellow Monarchs’, in John C. Rule, ed., Lois XIV and the Craft of Kingship (Columbus, Ohio 1970) 163.

[2] See Maria Teresa Oliveros de Castro and Eliseo Subiza Martin, Felipe II, estudio medico-historico (Madrid 1956) for close attention to Philip’s health; also, R. B. Merriman, IV, 21-22; and remarks in C. D. O’Malley, Don Carlos of Spain, a Medical Portrait (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1969).

[3] Philip acknowledged no bastards; see below pp. 48-49.