Magazine article The Spectator

A King in Fits and Starts

Magazine article The Spectator

A King in Fits and Starts

Article excerpt

PHILIP V OF SPAIN by Henry Kamen

Yale, 25, pp. 283, ISBN 0300087187 Kings and queens, in those European states where they survive as heads of state, are now politically powerless ceremonial symbols. But in the ancien regime kings did not merely reign, they ruled. Their virtues or shortcomings counted. Henry Kamen has, in his splendidly researched biography, rescued Philip II from the rough handling he has received, particularly at the hands of liberal historians. In this book, he does likewise for Philip V.

Philip, Duke of Anjou and grandson of Louis XIV, came to the throne of Spain in 1700 because the last Habsburg king, the sickly Charles II, died without producing an heir, that one essential task of a monarch. In his will he bequeathed his throne to Philip. Louis XIV saw in this an opportunity to convert Spain into a satellite kingdom of France. A boy of 17, so lacking in self-confidence that he listened to the debates of his ministers behind a curtain, Philip did not relish the job his grandfather had imposed on him. 'I would rather go back to being Duke of Anjou. I can't stand Spain.' It is Kamen's contention that nevertheless he became a conscientious and hard-working king of his adopted country. But for long periods he was out of action, victim of a `serious neurological disorder'. He would lie in bed for days howling and mouthing nonsense, refusing to have his clothes or bed sheets changed, his nails or hair cut, claiming that he was dead or a frog, and that his head was empty and about to fall off his shoulders.

Even when he was apparently restored to his senses, his behaviour was bizarre. He turned night into day, receiving ambassadors and ministers half naked in his scanty nightshirt. `It is not yet five o'clock in the morning,' his second wife Elizabeth Farnese wrote to her son, `and we have not had supper'. Without her devoted care he would not have functioned at all. She detested but accepted his absurd timetable, savage outbursts of temper, sitting by his bedside as he lay in his stinking clothes. It was she who invited the great castrato singer Farinelli to Spain, to sing every night to ward off the king's fits of depression.

Contemporaries complained that he was dominated by Elizabeth, for example in her determination to find an Italian throne for her favourite son. She always claimed that decisions were the king's alone; but in a masculine political world she would, wouldn't she? Philip himself wandered through the Alcazar in Seville, muttering `Je suis le maitre. …

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