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Philip II of Spain: Champion of Catholicism

David McKinnon-Bell assesses the degree to which Philip II's policies were motivated by religious zeal.

Unquestionably Philip II was a loyal son of the Catholic Church. He famously told Pope Pius V in 1566 that, 'rather than suffer the least damage to religion and the service of God, I would lose all my states and a hundred lives if I had them; for I do not propose or desire to be the ruler of heretics'. Philip also attempted to improve the quality of the Spanish Church. He enforced the decrees of the Council of Trent in Spain and employed the Spanish Inquisition to eradicate heresy and monitor the progress of the reform programme. Moreover, Philip actively defended and promoted the interests of Catholicism beyond Spain's borders. Geoffrey Parker has argued that Philip's sense of religious mission crucially shaped foreign and imperial policy. This article explores both the nature of Philip's religious policy and the centrality of religion to his thinking.

The Assault on Heresy

Philip's reign opened with a wave of persecution against 'Lutheran' heretics, discovered by the Inquisition in Valladolid and Seville in 1557. From May 1559, autos-da-fé, huge ritualised 'trials' and demonstrations of penance, were held, attended by huge crowds and the King himself. At these, some of the prisoners prepared to confess and do penance were publicly shamed and released, but many others, despite confessing, were committed for execution. The stubborn were burned alive. Although he professed himself to be uplifted by the ceremony and public exhibition of piety of the autos-da-fé, Philip did not personally attend the subsequent burnings of 77 heretics.

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