Thursday, September 13, 2007

September 13

The 300-year-long demise of the Spanish empire began almost as soon as it had been consolidated in the 16th century; as much as anyone, King Philip II, who ruled from 1556-1598, bears responsibility for setting the nation on its slow, downward course. He presided over a nation that exempted the upper-classes and the Catholic church from taxation, a lopsided fiscal policy that placed disproportionate burdens on manufacturers and merchants. More catastrophically, Philip never saw a reckless foreign adventure he didn’t like. During his forty years on the throne, Spain lost three naval armadas in its war with England; suffered defeat at the hands of the French; and failed to suppress a revolt among the Dutch, over whom the Spanish King also ruled as Phillip of Hapsburg. Philip also participated in a costly -- though ultimately victorious -- naval struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean.

Broken by the cost of these various wars, and saddled with inflation resulting from his nation’s regressive economic policies, the quality of life for ordinary Spaniards declined as the crown itself enriched itself with silver and gold mined by slaves in Central and South America. Meantime, the Catholic king earned a well-deserved reputation for religious fanaticism, as he instituted harsh laws against Protestants within his realm, including the Netherlands. According to Philip’s wishes, heretics -- including those who provided heretics with food or shelter, or who did not deliver heretics to the crown -- were to be set aflame or buried alive. Although these edicts were not enforced with any real vigor or consistency, they inspired tremendous resentment throughout the Spanish realm.

King Philip II spent the last two years of his life suffering from gout, a disease that eventually took his life at the age of 71. No doubt recalling Spain’s predatory relationship with the Low Countries, Abraham Van De Velde, a 17th century Dutch minister, gleefully described the king's final days:
There was on his whole body no place where he was without pain, but only his shoulders. He could not move, he was full of boils from the soles of his feet to his armpits. He had seven open, continual running sores on two fingers of his right hand; he could not stand that anyone touched him; this lasted for a whole year. For the duration of six years he was plagued by rheumatism in his limbs, the extremities of his body. Above that he suffered of a consuming fever, which during the time of two years consumed and dehydrated his limbs. Furthermore, during the last of his life he was plagued with dysentery, which was so bad that during the last 22 days of his life they could not bathe him or even put clean sheets under his body. His stomach was upset in such a way that he suffered unquenchable thirst. He suffered continually of a headache, especially his eyes, which was caused mainly by the stench from his bed, which also caused foul-smelling breath.
King Philip II of Spain died on September 13, 1598.