Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Geoffrey Parker's "Imprudent King"

Winner of the 2012 Heineken Prize for History, Geoffrey Parker is a renowned British historian who taught at the University of St Andrews, the University of Illinois, the University of British Columbia and Yale University before becoming Andreas Dorpalen Professor of History at The Ohio State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II, and reported the following:
As soon as Marshal Zeringue reminded me of Ford Madox Ford’s “Page 99 test”, I turned with trepidation to the relevant page of Imprudent King to see whether it would pass muster. The last time Marshal challenged me, with Global Crisis, page 99 turned out to contain only graphs. This time, by contrast, it forms the conclusion of a chapter entitled “The king and God” that discussed whether his deep religious faith convinced “Philip the Prudent”, as he became known, that his policies, however unrealistic, would always enjoy divine favour.

Page 99 argues that at least until the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588:
A spectacular success always counterbalanced each defeat: against the failure of his plan to dethrone Elizabeth [of England] in 1570-71, Philip could set the victory of Lepanto (which seemed to end the Turkish threat) and the massacre of St Bartholomew (which appeared to deal Protestantism in France a terminal blow). His losses in the Netherlands, and the unsuccessful war to regain them, were far outweighed by the acquisition of Portugal and its overseas possessions, creating the first empire in history “on which the sun never set.”
But why did Philip, who ruled from 1556 until his death in 1598, choose to see only the successes as evidence of that God was “in his side’ and to dismiss each setback and defeat as a sort of Divine “hazing”, sent by God to test his resolve?

The premise that policies founded on faith alone usually do not work, whether in the sixteenth or the twenty-first century, is central to Imprudent King, so that readers who do not like page 99 are unlikely to enjoy the rest of the book. Ford Madox Ford was right.

I have only one regret. Imprudent King includes much material from a previously unknown source: a collection of some 3,000 documents that crossed Philip II’s desk and then disappeared from view until rediscovered and identified in the magnificent manuscript collection of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. Although some documents merely confirm things that historians already knew, many provide exciting new insights into the king and his world; yet page 99 refers to none of them. I thank Marshal Zeringue for allowing me to include one on his blog. In return, I promise that next time I write a book, I will write page 99 first.
* * *

This previously unknown manuscript from 1588 in the Hispanic Society of America reveals an amazing episode from the sad saga of the Spanish Armada. When Philip II informed the duke of Medina Sidonia, the wealthiest aristocrat in Spain, that he must lead the fleet against England, the duke responded with blackmail, claiming that he “would leave my family deeply in debt, with a young wife and four children…. Sacrificing myself like this,” the duke continued shamelessly, in his own hand, “causes me acute pain” – and to ease that pain, he demanded that Philip grant substantial estates “antes que yo parta [before I embark]”.

Credit: Hispanic Society of America, Altamira, 1/I/45, duke of Medina Sidonia to Mateo Vázquez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 29 February 1588. [The passage quoted appears at the top.]
Learn more about Imprudent King at the Yale University Press  website.

--Marshal Zeringue