Episode 67 – Phillip II of Spain versus George Washington

From the Leader’s bracket, we begin with a King of Spain, who led his country at the time of their greatest global empire in the world to that time, Phillip II. His opponent, the first President of the United States, the General who successfully led his rebel forces against the mighty British army, George Washington.

My primary source for Philip II is World Without End: Spain, Philip II, and the First Global Empire by Hugh Thomas and 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. For George Washington, I had tons of books to use, but the one that I chose was George Washington: A Biography by John R. Alden along with Heroes: History’s Greatest Men and Women by Simon Sebag Montefiore, The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis.

Phillip II of Spain
Phillip II of Spain

Son of one of our previous contestants, from episode 7, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and his wife, Isabella of Portugal, the future King Philip II of Spain was born on May 21, 1527 in the Castilian capital of Valladolid at the Palacio de Pimentel, owned by Don Bernardino Pimentel the first Marqués de Távara. When a future Roman emperor was born to a current head of state, that person was considered to be born into the purple, the color of regency. Well, Philip was born into the deepest color purple of pretty much anyone in history. 

As we covered in episode seven, Philip’s father was more than just the Holy Roman Emperor; he was the King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, and Lord of the Netherlands, among other titles. Philip was to have comparable titles as well. He was to become King of Portugal as Philip I, King of Naples and Sicily King of England and Ireland when he was married to Queen Mary I from 1554 to 1558. Philip was also Duke of Milan, and, lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands.

Phillip II is not one of the best-known people in Battle Ground History, but he should be. He was the King of Spain when it became the first global empire in the world. His forty-two-year reign, was a genuinely tumultuous one, with Spain vacillating between incredible wealth and poverty. Many know about how it was said that the British Empire was one where the sun never set, yet it was the Spanish Empire where this phenomena first occurred. 

Being a staunch Catholic and considered quite pious, Phillip can be seen as a vigorous supporter of the spread of Catholicism and as a man whose beliefs caused the deaths and torture of millions of indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, something we discussed in episode 59. Author Hugh Thomas, in his book, World Without End, writes the following about the time of Phillip and Spain’s incursion west. “The conquest of the Americas also appears to have been in some ways the last crusade. The role of the Catholic Church in the unfolding of this great drama was as great as it had been in the earlier adventures of Christianity. We can recognize the role of the Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian orders and then the Jesuits, in this age of imperial conquest. Christianity gave the Spanish empire and ideology. But it also provided the empire with a purpose and an essential discipline.”

This purpose and discipline were to help create the global empire and was, in part, also the cause of its decline. It helped bolster the will of the explorers, who discovered, in the European sense, the lands of the Americas as well as an island grouping in Asia, which was to be named after Phillip, the Philippines. It would also cause them to develop a myopic mindset that wouldn’t let them adapt in future generations to the changing tide of world politics. The collapse of the Spanish Empire would come in spurts, some catastrophic like the War of Spanish Succession and the Spanish-American War over Cuba. Some were gradual, like the loss of control of their South American colonies in the 19th century.

Trying to map a linear description of the life of Phillip II is like trying to make your way through a massive corn maze. The interconnections between him and the rest of Europe is akin to following one of MC Escher’s impossible objects. Instead of attempting to clarify the dizzying array of interactions that Phillip II had with the rest of the world, I’m going to focus on bringing some of the most important events and people to light.

Mary I Tudor
Mary I Tudor of England

One of the most famous marriages of Phillip’s four, was his second one, to a woman who would be known to history as Bloody Mary, Mary Tudor or, Mary I, Queen of England and Ireland. Mary, who was a staunch Catholic, was a cousin to Phillip’s father, Charles V. She became Queen with the death of Jane Seymour in 1553 at the age of 37. In order to strengthen her position as a Catholic in a now mostly Protestant England, Mary needed to prevent her half-sister Elizabeth from gaining the crown, so she desperately needed to find a strong Catholic husband to try to birth a child heir to the throne of England. This was especially important, and timing was critical, seeing her advanced age for childbearing.

Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I of England

Phillip’s first wife, Dona Maria Manuela, had died while giving birth to their son Carlos, who would prove to be mentally unstable and died while in solitary confinement at the age of 23. Maria was one of Phillip’s cousins as was Mary, but in that day and age, nothing unusual was though about this near incestuous relationship. Charles V saw the opportunity to promote his Catholic faith and return England to the Papal control by advising his son to marry the Queen. 

In 1554 the two were wed, much to the dismay of the English people and especially to the nobility. They were very suspicious of a Hapsburg relative on the throne of England. In 1555, Pope Paul IV recognized the couple as the true rulers of England and Ireland. Still, the dispute within the country was growing every day. 

No matter how hard the couple tried, they were unable to have children. Since Phillip had already had a child by his first wife, it is thought that Mary was the one unable to get pregnant. On November 7, 1558, at the age of 42, Mary died, likely from uterine cancer. She was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I, who we will meet in episode 91. Phillip lost any chance of bringing England back into the Catholic fold through marriage. Instead, he began to make plans to take the island nation by force. 

By this time, Spain was considered to be the pre-eminent naval power in the world. Phillip enlisted allies from Italian provinces he controlled and made plans to invade England using his Spanish Armada to ferry troops from the north of France near the Pas de Calais. This was to prove a significant disaster and would vault England to the forefront of naval power for centuries to come. The ensuing Battle of Gravelines, which we will talk about in episode 94, ensured the defeat of Phillip’s navy. However, it wasn’t what really sunk his boats. In fact, it was terrible weather rather than the English Navy that lost him the war. 

One of the economic blows that the exercise in futility that was the Spanish attempt at invading England was the cost. Not only did they lose a large number of boats to the weather, but only 5 were also lost at Gravelines, the Spanish Armada fired 100,000 cannonballs at the English without sinking one boat. Think of the enormous cost of all of that without gaining any advantage.

This is one of the significant issues with the reign of Phillip, the economic problems that plagued Spain and his other holdings. His father, Charles V, left him in a very deep hole, owning millions to European lenders. Spain was to default on loans in 1557, 1560, 1575, and 1596. After his death in 1598, the Spanish would default another six times. Spain had spread themselves out too thinly and not been careful enough in their expenditures to cover the costs of their massive expansion. 

One of the main thorns in the side of Phillip was the Netherlands. The revolt by the Dutch and the ensuing Eighty Years War caused hyperinflation. It was a significant drain on Spanish fortunes. Despite all of the gold and silver pouring into Phillip’s coffers from the America’s, it couldn’t pay for the expenses. 

It has been said that one of the reasons for the Dutch fervor in fighting off the Spanish was Phillip’s religious beliefs. He was unwilling to compromise with the Protestants, and that caused Spain to lose the war in 1648 eventually. 

Phillip’s legacy was to leave Spain both the wealthiest country in the world at his death in 1598, but also the most financially vulnerable. His strong belief in his religion was a virtue by all measurements, but it was also his rigidness that made life difficult. As Phillip once said, “Before suffering the slightest damage to religion in the service of God, I would lose all of my estates and a hundred lives if I had them because I do not wish nor do I desire to be the ruler of heretics.” Under his rule, the Spanish Inquisition continued in full force for good and bad for the Spanish people.

Now to move on to our second contestant, the first American President and General of the American Revolutionary Army, George Washington.

George Washington
George Washington

At Washington’s funeral, it was said of him that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This pretty much sums up the adult life of George Washington, the first child of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, born on February 22, 1732, in Popes Creek, Virginia. 

Washington’s life, especially his childhood, has more myth to the story than reality. We know little real detail about his childhood, aside from his lack of a formal education. However, he was taught mathematics and used it to become an accomplished mapmaker. His father, Augustine, was a justice of the peace and a fairly prominent figure in Virginia as well as a moderately well-off landowner. Being a landowner back then also meant slaveholder, which George was to become in 1743. 

Over the years, Washington was to develop a powerful personality, which was to be one of his natural talents throughout his life. The first significant event of Washington’s life that we know of was a pretty big and brash incident, the Battle of Jumonville Glen. This was the first engagement of what would be known as the French and Indian War, known to the rest of the world as the first truly global conflict, the Seven Years War. It is said that Washington acted carelessly and caused the death of a French commander, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville.  

Martha Washington
Martha Washington

On July 3, at the hastily built Fort Necessity, the French attacked George and his troops, causing him to surrender, the only time in his illustrious career that he would do so. In 1755, at the age of 23, George Washington was promoted to the position of Colonel in the Virginia militia and commander-in-chief. 

Over the coming years, Washington was to prove himself time and time again, not just as an excellent soldier, but as a remarkable leader of men. In 1759, George married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Curtis. They were never to have any children of their own, but they would raise Martha’s two children from her previous marriage. The joining of their two estates, and Martha’s dowry, would make George Washington, one of the wealthiest, and most influential people in all of Virginia.

In the 1760s, Washington would enter the world of politics, frequently backing legislation opposing British taxes, regulations, and the military. June of 1774 saw George move to the forefront of Virginia’s call for a Continental Congress to oppose the British policies in the colonies. By the following June, George Washington was nominated by the Adams brothers to become the commander-in-chief of the ragtag band of soldiers known as the Continental Army. 

The state of the troops that were to face off against the superpower of the world, England, was appalling. Many of the men were farmers who had no idea how to fight as a cohesive military force. Add to that, the colonies were not unified. They represented different characters in the loose alliance. Washington masterfully molded these men from all over into a formidable force.

Earlier on in the Revolutionary War, Washington ousted the British from Boston but made critical mistakes in defense of New York, in part because of a large British presence, but also because New York was led by loyalists to the crown, especially their governor, William Tryon. After losing the Battle of Long Island, Washington was forced to retreat into Pennsylvania. Instead of licking his wounds and rebuilding his army, George hit the British with two surprise raids at Trenton and Princeton.

During 1776, plans were made to kidnap and murder Washington as the British saw him as the lynchpin to defeating the colonies. In the book, The First Conspiracy, authors Meltzer and Mensch, layout the plan, part of it carried out by people Washington trusted, his Life Guards. Luckily, the plan was foiled as had it been carried out successfully, the United States of America may never have come into existence. The lows of 1777 through 1778 were Washington’s finest moments. He kept the army together until the French, ironically enough, entered the war. 1781 saw the commander-in-chief, lead the Continental Army through the wildly successful Yorktown campaign which eventually led to the surrender of the British on October 19, 1781.

Washington was a decent military leader, but since he is in the Leaders bracket, it is his presidency and leadership of the country; that is what we will base most of his points on. The problem we face is that he is considered the father of his country, and with it, we have a very polished narrative of the man. Criticizing him comes at a cost, but we must be willing if we are, to be honest, that no one is without fault, especially leaders.

Joseph Ellis, in his book His Excellency, has some deep insight into the complex man that George Washington was. “Washington poses what we might call the Patriarchal Problem in its most virulent form: on Mount Rushmore, the Mall, the dollar bill and the quarter, but always an icon – distant, cold, intimidating. Richard Brookheiser has so nicely put it, he is in our wallets but not in our hearts.” He further goes on to say, “In Washington’s case the arc moves from Parson Weem’s fabrications about a saintly lad who could not tell a lie to dismissive verdicts about the deadest, whitest male in history.”

Washington could have easily made himself a monarch with the founding of the USA but chose not to. Historians are a bit mixed about why. We can only guess, but what I’ve found in my research is that he likely didn’t want the burden. Going back to Ellis, we might have another reason. “It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior.” Maybe, Washington saw those men around him and knew that he could not become a modern-day Caesar and that it was better to lead his new country as an elected President than as an autocrat.

What most people believe is that with the end of the Revolutionary War, the British somehow disappeared, and the United States was allowed to grow without any barriers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The British made it clear to Washington and all Americans that the war may have been lost, but they could come back at any moment and take back what they believed was rightfully theirs. Washington knew this, and what he did to prevent a resumption of the war took both political bravery and incredible foresight.

The Jay Treaty of 1795, also known as Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, was a stroke of brilliance. However, at the time, it was considered borderline treasonous. Negotiated by John Jay and created by Alexander Hamilton, it was a treaty that called for the pullback of British troops on the borders of the US and made Britain the most important trading partner for the fledgling country. Imagine making a deal with the country you just freed yourself from. The unpopularity of the treaty was almost universal. Washington knew though that another war with England would be disastrous. He told his confidants that the country needed at least twenty years from the end of the Revolutionary War before they would be ready for another conflict. Washington was right, the War of 1812 would be the last fight with England and America was ready, although just barely.

The treaty passed Congress by a slim margin of 51-48. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson saw that they were up against a man who carried an enormous influence over the legislature. Still, the debate and deep divide the treaty caused, tarnished George Washington’s image. It got so bad that one newspaper claimed that the President was a British spy during the war. Jefferson wrote that he thought Washington was quasi-senile in his last years as leader of the country. 

Since no laws were limiting the number of terms that a President could serve that would not occur for another 150 years, Washington saw the writing on the wall. His limiting his time to two, four-year terms were to be the standard by which every president except Franklin D. Roosevelt would abide by. Ten weeks before the 1796 election, George Washington gave his Farewell Address, declining to run for a third time. 

The legacy of allowing others to take the mantle of the country was a lesson in leadership. Washington apologized to the people for any wrongdoings of his. One area he did not address was slavery, of which he was a large slaveholder. Washington knew that it was a raw issue at the time and thought the better of ripping the scab off of that wound. In 1799, George would free all of his slaves as he came to the realization that it was an immoral institution. 

Washington died on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67 at his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Time to head on over to the scorer’s table for the battle of the Leaders.

First off, we begin with the fifteen points for the length of time in power. With Philip, we start in 1554 with his short ascension to the throne of England and Ireland and end with his death in 1598 for a total of 44 years. As for George Washington, we begin with his being named commander-in-chief of British forces in 1755 and end with his leaving the presidency in 1796 for a total of 41 years. The Spanish monarch gets 15 points, and the American President receives 13.

Next up is how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Philip II was the king of a nation that was a true global empire. His actions had a worldwide impact throughout his reign. George Washington’s influence was mainly within the confines of North America, Britain, and France. However, some have blamed him for the spark that led to the Seven Years War. My call is that Philip receives 20 points and Washington 15.

Next up is their effect on world history. Philip’s mishandling of the financial affairs of Spain would lead to its eventual downfall as a significant global power. Washington, on the other hand, guided America to a place where it would become the superpower it would become. Without him, it is unlikely that the USA would exist in anything remotely like it is today. The American’s first President receives 25 points, the Spanish monarch, 10.

Last up is the forty points for how they affected their country for the better. Very much like the previous score, Washington gets the better of Philip, but not by quite the large difference. Philip, at the time of his reign, guided the country to its largest expansion and was able to enrich the people, not knowing that the policies had adverse long-term effects. For these reasons, I’m giving Washington 40 points with Philip receiving 35. 

The final score is 98 to 80 for George Washington. He is moving on to the second round where he will face off against Wu of Han.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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