In the case of Philip II of Spain, absolute power did not corrupt, but it was disastrous. From the age of sixteen, in 1543, until his death in 1598, he controlled the world’s first global empire (a phrase of the time), on which, it was thought, the sun need never set.
Philip inherited Spain and its Empire, and annexed Portugal and its Empire, with their combined riches in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Philippines. The Netherlands, which became the thorn in his side he could not bear to extract, were given to him by his father, the Emperor Charles V, together with the Kingdom of Naples. He was the Duke of Milan, his nephew the Prince of Parma and his half-brother Don John of Austria – so useful at the Battle of Lepanto. In the Spanish tercios (on which Geoffrey Parker has written an earlier book) he had an irresistible army, and when an official in Macao wrote that ‘with less than 5,000 Spaniards Your Majesty could conquer these lands [China]’, and in the same year, 1583, the Bishop of Malacca proposed a similar destiny for Southeast Asia, they were probably both right; but Philip declined. Like Augustus, he just wanted to hold on to what he had, and hold on he did, fighting to retain every inch of the territory under his absolute and Catholic control, so that in the forty-two years of his reign there were only six months of peace.
Philip justified the blood- and ducat-wasting in the Netherlands on the grounds that if he were to yield there, his other possessions would be encouraged to demand independence, a feeling echoed two centuries later by George III, in strangely similar language, contradicting Lord North over his American colonies: ‘It is