'World without End: The Global Empire of Philip II', by Hugh Thomas - Review

By Deas, Malcolm | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

'World without End: The Global Empire of Philip II', by Hugh Thomas - Review


Deas, Malcolm, The Spectator


World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II Hugh Thomas

Allen Lane/Penguin Books, pp.464, £30, ISBN: 9781846140839

'Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa.' Macaulay, anticipating Gove, was complaining that the schoolboys by contrast did not get enough about Clive and the British conquest of India. Hugh Thomas, in this and in the two previous volumes of his trilogy on the Spanish empire, presumes that we have all forgotten about Montezuma and Atahualpa, and argues that we do not appreciate Spain's imperial achievements. He is probably right, and he sets one off to speculate why.

Take Philip II himself. He was musical, owning 'ten clavicords, thirteen vihuelas, and sixteen bagpipes'. He had a library of 14,000 books, which we would consider more to his credit than his 6,000 holy relics, and an eye for Titian and Bosch. We are told, although no samples are given, that his jokes were amusing. His confessors were usually fat men, another supposedly endearing quality. He worked very hard, and occasionally confessed that he did not know what to do. Yet we do not warm to him, and all we remember about him is the Spanish Armada. His ideas of monarchia universalis are likely to excite as little enthusiasm with us as the European Union. His monastery-palace of the Escorial, despite its erudite defenders, we tend to find gloomy, a sort of giant corporate headquarters that would not be altogether out of place in, say, Detroit or St Louis, Missouri.

Then the empire. Leaving aside the 'Black Legend' of its cruelties, its Catholic and baroque societies and occasions are not ones we easily understand. What is more, the English were for its duration virtually excluded from it, and there are few accounts from Englishmen who knew it from the inside. The best, from the still too little-known Dominican Thomas Gage -- The English American, His Travail by Sea and Land -- is full of admiration for what he saw. Gage encouraged Cromwell's Western Design, which led to our seizure of Jamaica, but that did not alter our status as second-rate onlookers in the Indies, a prey to prejudice, envy and greed. …

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