A biography of a manic-depressive, but surprisingly successful, king.
Kamen (The Spanish Inquisition, 1998, etc.) presents an absorbing tale of the first Spanish king from the Bourbon line, which rules the country today. He focuses on three aspects of Philip’s reign: his state policies, his family concerns, and his psychological problems. On the domestic front, taking the cue from his grandfather, Louis XIV of France, Philip reformed Spain’s antiquated structure of government, streamlining tax collection and tightening the political bonds between the various Iberian kingdoms and Madrid. Unfortunately, however, the gains from these reforms were squandered by Philip’s belligerent foreign policies, which led to the War of Spanish Succession (a short-lived invasion of Sardinia) and other devastating mishaps. The author paints Philip as a cosmopolitan in an inward-looking court. He eschewed Spanish nobles’ advice, kept French and later Italian counselors, and was often totally dependent on the two wives he had over the course of his 46-year reign. This last point surfaces because, Kamen argues, Philip had bipolar disorder. During low periods he refused to wash and spent months sleeping by day and conducting official business in the middle of the night, sometimes refusing to talk so that his queens had to speak for him. During high periods, on the other hand, especially during wartime, he was the consummate leader. These episodes contributed to Philip’s decision to abdicate, a chapter of the king’s life Kamen could have examined more closely and at more length. Philip’s son died shortly after being installed, however, and the father returned to the throne. Despite the ill fit between king and kingdom, Kamen argues that Philip made Spain’s first moves towards becoming a modern state. The foreign art and architecture he brought into the country revitalized the Spanish court. Even his failed military enterprises had an upside: by committing Spanish troops (successfully or not) to European campaigns, Philip forced the other powers to take his country more seriously.
A fresh history that profits from its psychological insights.