Saturday 5 August 2023

Messianic Imperialism

Well, there is a title and a half. Actually, it is not quite as pretentious as it may seem, but simply a theme in the latest book I have been reading:

Parker, G., The Grand Strategy of Philip II, (New Haven, Yale, 1998)

There are all sorts of potential problems with the title, at least. Philip II would probably not have recognised the concept of ‘grand strategy’ but as every historian who writes about what monarchs and politicians were up to before the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century or so has to admit, what they were doing was grand strategy, even if the grammar of their activities did not include the expression.

Parker admits that it is very difficult to assess Philip’s strategy in full. Therefore he focuses on the struggles in northern Europe with the Netherlands and England, with a side order of France thrown in. t would be nice to have some idea of activities in the Mediterranean, but Parker is honest enough to admit that neither the archives nor the languages are available to him. Therefore, he sticks to what he knows best, namely the Dutch Revolt and the Spanish Armada and its consequences.

As the long-term reader of this blog might already know, I am interested in the later Sixteenth Century, and so this book has been in my sights, vaguely, for a good number of years, probably since it was published. It was nice to get it, in a decent second-hand version, with only a little dampness on the corners occasionally sticking some pages gently together. And very interesting it proved too.

In terms of the Armada, there is not a huge amount more in the book than in Martin & Parker’s The Spanish Armada (1988). Both there and here Parker roundly blames Philip for the failure of the expedition. In this book, there is a bit more detail as to why the decision of the strategy of rendezvous between the fleet from Spain, led by Medina Sidonia, and the army of Flanders, led by the Prince of Parma, was adopted. Philip was fully aware of the different strategies that had been adopted to invade and even conquer England in the past. He chose none of them.

Philip did not even adopt the strategies of his experienced admiral (Santa Cruz) or general (Parma). The former argued for a fleet landing in Ireland or the West Country, the latter for a surprise attack across the Channel. Other strategies suggested included feints from the fleet to draw the Royal Navy to Ireland while the army slipped across to Dover, a combined operation from a Netherlands-based fleet and army and an all-out surprise attack.

The plan adopted included elements of these but depended on split-second timing (relative to Sixteenth Century communications) of Parma knowing the fleet was in the Channel about three days before it arrived. Philip refused to let his subordinates deviate from his plan. This is where the ‘messianic’ bit comes in: it was Philip’s plan, it was to defend and extend the true faith against the English and Dutch heretics, and therefore God would provide what was lacking in the human ability to control things.

As it was, of course, Parma remarked afterward that he thought that God was an Englishman. Parker places the blame squarely on the King and his lack of a Plan B. Medina Sidonia could have been permitted to shorten sail in the Channel until Parma was alert to his presence. He might have blockaded to Royal Navy in Plymouth or landed on the Isle of Wight. As Parker remarks, a more belligerent admiral such as Santa Cruz might have attempted to defeat the Royal Navy. It was by no means impossible: the Spanish had several times defeated Anglo-Dutch fleets, for example in the Azores.

The principle problem facing Philip was partially of his own making. He insisted on all the decisions passing through his office in Madrid. Especially after 1580, this meant a vast quantity of data flowed to Madrid, some of it weeks if not months, or years out of date. Data is not information, however. Philip believed he had a better grasp of the situation than his subordinates and insisted that they await his decisions. But those decisions could take ages, both in the making and the communicating, and when they arrived they often had little to do with the situation on the ground as it was.

Another consequence of the messianic part of Philip’s imperialism was that he would not yield ground if he believed that either his cause or the one of the church, was at stake. He could have defused the Netherlands situation in the late 1560s but negotiation, but would not yield toleration for heretics. Alba, his general, could have helped by not executing the garrison of Haarlem, which might have persuaded other rebel towns in Holland to surrender on terms. We probably cannot understand the role of faith, the extirpation of heresy, and the belief in the rightness of the cause that led Philip and his generals down these paths, although we can find such views in today’s world if we care to look.

There are a few other things in the book. The chapter on intelligence gathering and transmission is fascinating. Parker observes that, while it was widely known across Europe that the Enterprise of England was being hatched, there were so many changes of mind and aim that everyone, from Philip’s courtiers and generals to the French, Dutch, and English leaders were confused as to what was going on. It was a perfect intelligence operation, from that point of view, but as Parker observes: ‘order followed by counter order means disorder’. All the English really knew by the summer of 1588 was that they would need to fight.

All told this is a fascinating book on the problems besetting Spain in the later Sixteenth Century. At the end of the book, some consideration is given to how Philip found himself in the position of the first ruler of an empire on which the sun never set. It was mainly achieved by dynastic marriage. Philip’s son, Don Carlo, who died young and insane, had four grandparents instead of the more usual eight. Philip might have held an empire as a result, but as another Carlos would prove a hundred years later, the gene pool was not of the greatest.

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