Philip III of Spain (Philip III of Spain )

Philip III of Spain

After Philip III’s older brother don Carlos died insane, Philip II had concluded that one of the causes of Carlos’ condition had been the influence of the warring factions at the Spanish court. He believed that Carlos’ education and upbringing had been badly affected by this, resulting in his lunacy and disobedience, and accordingly he set out to pay much greater attention to his later sons’ arrangements. Philip II appointed Juan de Zúñiga, then Prince Diego’s governor, to continue this role for Philip, and chose García de Loaysa as his tutor. They were joined by Cristóbal de Moura, a close supporter of Philip II. In combination, Philip believed, they would provide a consistent, stable upbringing for Prince Philip, and ensure he avoided the same fate as Carlos. Philip’s education was to follow the model for royal princes laid down by Father Juan de Mariana, focusing on the imposition of restraints and encouragement to form the personality of the individual at an early age, aiming to deliver a king who was neither tyrannical, nor excessively under the influence of his courtiers.  Prince Philip appears to have been generally liked by his contemporaries; ‘dynamic, good-natured and earnest,’ suitably pious, having a ‘lively body and a peaceful disposition,’ albeit with a relatively weak constitution. The comparison with the memory of the disobedient and ultimately insane Carlos was usually a positive one, although some commented that Prince Philip appeared less intelligent and politically competent than his late brother. Indeed, although Philip was educated in Latin, French, Portuguese and astronomy and appears to have been a competent linguist, recent historians suspect that much of his tutors’ focus on Philip’s undeniably pleasant, pious and respectful disposition was to avoid reporting that, languages aside, he was not in fact particularly intelligent or academically gifted. Nonetheless, Philip does not appear to have been naive – his correspondence to his daughters shows a distinctive, cautious streak in his advice on dealing with court intrigue.  Philip first met the Marquis of Denia – the future Duke of Lerma – then, a gentleman of the King’s chamber, in his early teens. Lerma and Philip became close friends, but Lerma was considered unsuitable by the King and Philip’s tutors. Lerma was dispatched to Valencia as a Viceroy in 1595, with the aim of removing Philip from his influence, but after Lerma pleaded poor health, he was allowed to return two years later. By now in poor health himself, King Philip II was becoming increasingly concerned over the prince’s future, and attempted to establish de Moura as a future, trusted advisor to his son and reinforcing de Loaysa’s position by appointing him archbishop. The prince received a new, conservative Dominican confessor. The following year, Philip II died after a painful illness, leaving the empire to his son, King Philip III.

Philip married his cousin, Margaret of Austria, in 1599, a year after becoming king. Margaret, the sister of the future Emperor Ferdinand II, would be one of three women at Philip’s court who would apply considerable influence over the king. Margaret was considered by contemporaries to be extremely pious – in some cases, excessively pious, and too influenced by the Church – ‘astute and very skillful’ in her political dealings, although ‘melancholic’ and unhappy over the influence of the Duke of Lerma over her husband at court. Margaret continued to fight an ongoing battle with Lerma for influence up until her death in 1611. Philip had an ‘affectionate, close relationship’ with Margaret, and paid her additional attention after she bore him a son in 1605.  Margaret, alongside Philip’s aunt, Empress Maria – the Austrian representative to the Spanish court – and Margaret of the Cross, Maria’s daughter – formed a powerful, uncompromising Catholic and pro-Austrian voice within Philip’s life. They were successful, for example, in convincing Philip to provide financial support to Ferdinand from 1600 onwards. Philip steadily acquired other religious advisors. Father Juan de Santa Maria – confessor to Philip’s daughter, doña Maria, was felt by contemporaries to have an excessive influence over Philip at the end of his life, and both he and Luis de Aliaga, Philip’s own confessor, were credited with influencing the overthrow of Lerma in 1618. Similarly Mariana de San Jose, a favoured nun of Queen Margaret’s, was also criticised for her later influence over the King’s actions.

The Spanish crown at the time ruled through a system of royal councils. The most significant of these were the Councils of State and its subordinate Council for War, that were in turn supported by the seven professional councils for the different regions, and four specialised councils for the Inquisition, the Military Orders, Finance and the Crusade tax. These councils were then supplemented by small committees, or juntas, as necessary, such as the ‘junta of the night’ through which Philip II exercised personal authority towards the end of his reign. As a matter of policy, Philip had tried to avoid appointing grandees to major positions of power within his government and relied heavily on the lesser nobles, the so-called ‘service’ nobility. Philip II had taken the traditional system of councils and applied a high degree of personal scrutiny to them, especially in matters of paperwork, which he declined to delegate – the result was a ‘ponderous’ process. To his contemporaries, the degree of personal oversight he exercised was excessive; his ‘self-imposed role as the chief clerk to the Spanish empire’ was not thought entirely appropriate. Philip first started to become engaged in practical government at the age of 15, when he joined Philip II’s private committee.  Philip III’s approach to government appears to have stemmed from three main drivers. Firstly, he was heavily influenced by the eirenic ideas being circulated in Italian circles in reaction to the new Humanist theories of governance, typified by Machiavelli. Writers such as Girolamo Frachetta, who became a particular favourite of Philip, had propagated a conservative definition of ‘reason of state’ which centred on exercising a princely prudence and a strict obedience to the laws and customs of the country that one ruled. Secondly, Philip may have shared Lerma’s view that the governmental system of Philip II was fast proving impractical and unnecessarily excluded the great nobles of the kingdoms – it had been creaking badly in the last decades of his father’s life. Lastly, Philip’s own personality and his friendship with Lerma heavily shaped his approach to policy-making. The result was a radical shift in the role of the crown in government from the model of Philip II.

Philip III died in Madrid on 31 March 1621, succeeded by his son, Philip IV, who rapidly completed the process of removing the last elements of the Sandoval family regime from court. The story told in the memoirs of the French ambassador Bassompierre, that he was killed by the heat of a brasero (a pan of hot charcoal), because the proper official to take it away was not at hand, is a humorous exaggeration of the formal etiquette of the court.  Philip has generally left a poor legacy with historians. Three major historians of the period have described an ‘undistinguished and insignificant man’, a ‘miserable monarch’, whose ‘only virtue appeared to reside in a total absence of vice’. More generally, Philip has largely retained the reputation of ‘a weak, dim-witted monarch who preferred hunting and travelling to governing’. Unlike Philip IV, whose reputation has improved significantly in the light of recent analysis, Philip III’s reign has however been relatively unstudied, possibly because of the negative interpretation given to the role of Philip and Lerma during the period. Traditionally, the decline of Spain has been placed from the 1590s onwards; revisionist historians from the 1960s, however, presented an alternative analysis, arguing that in many ways Philip III’s Spain of 1621 – reinforced with new territories in Alsace, at peace with France, dominant in the Empire, about to begin a successful campaign against the Dutch – was in a much stronger position than in 1598, despite the poor personal performance of her king during the period. Philip’s use of Lerma as his valido has formed one of the key historical and contemporary criticisms against him; recent work has perhaps begun to present a more nuanced picture of the relationship and the institution which survived for the next forty years in Spanish royal government.

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  • April, 14, 1578
  • Madrid, Spain


  • March, 31, 1621
  • Madrid, Spain


  • Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial
  • El Escorial, Madrid
  • Spain

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