The Spanish King of England

On the afternoon of 18 July 1554 Flemish ships sailing off Portland Bill caught sight of a Spanish squadron sailing with following wind towards the Solent. The fleet consisted of about 130 ships, of which 100 were substantial boats armed with cannon, and carrying eight thousand Spanish soldiers as well as their crews. The Flemish captains saw that the Spanish warships were hoisting flags and bunting and dipped their colours in salute. They fell in alongside and were joined by a dozen English sloops as they passed the Needles. By the following morning, the whole fleet was sailing up Southampton Water, where they dropped anchor in view of the castle.

The port of Southampton was similarly decked out with bunting, and the streets were full of people hoping to catch sight of their new king-to-be. Every room in the town was occupied with English nobility, all wearing their velvet and ermine and decorated with gold chains and medals. The stables were full of their expensive horses, and their regal carriages filled any corner they could be parked in. The English had turned out in their hundreds to meet the greatest Prince in all Christendom.

His flagship, the Espiritu Santo, was a Biscayan, a ship of nine hundred tons with gilded carvings on her forecastle and poop. Three hundred sailors dressed in crimson lined the deck and two ninety-foot royal pennons of crimson damask bearing the Prince’s arms were hung from the mainmast and mizzen.

To ferry the Prince ashore the English provided a barge that was ornamented with carvings and stocked with the most elegant youths and maidens of the English court, but the sightseers were not to catch a glimpse of Philip the first day. It rained nearly continuously all that week, and Philip waited for a break in the weather to disembark. They had to wait until the following morning before he came on deck and was rowed ashore by a mix of Spanish and English noblemen. The Earl of Arundel presented him with the order of the Garter, and he in turn was presented with the wand of the Chamberlain.

Philip was dressed in black, but hung with golden chains and his tunic and cap studded with glittering jewels. He spoke no English, so Sir Anthony Browne read a welcoming speech in Latin and presented him with a white charger to ride as a present from the Queen. Philip quietly told them he would walk to his rooms, but the huge Sir Anthony picked up an alarmed Philip and sat him astride the horse. They rode through the quiet crowds to the church to give thanks for a safe arrival before the Prince was taken to his apartments.

The English distrusted the Spanish, and a series of snubs began to irritate the Spanish noblemen, who were excluded from the celebrations surrounding the Prince. The eight thousand soldiers who had accompanied him on his journey from Spain were never allowed ashore, and their ships were ordered to sail to the Netherlands. The Spanish noblemen who stayed in Southampton were overcharged for everything they needed and treated with disdain.

The weather, too, was against the Spanish. It rained heavily for all the three days that they stayed in the port, and finally when they rode to Winchester for the wedding, Philip had to stop and change his sodden clothes for dry ones in a now empty monastery a mile from the gates to the city. He was at the head of a three thousand strong army of nobles with their retainers and soldiers. They waited in the pouring rain while he changed into his finery.

He was welcomed at the doors to the cathedral by Bishops and priests and led to the high alter to say Mass. This was Monday, but the wedding was not until Wednesday and a very curious Mary was eager to meet her new husband. She sent a message from the Bishop’s palace, where she was staying, asking to meet the Prince informally with just a few courtiers. Philip was taking no risks, and brought twenty noblemen with him. They came to the back door of the palace and climbed the spiral stairway to her rooms, where she waited with the all-powerful Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. The Lord Chancellor was with them, and a dozen elderly noblemen and their wives. The Queen had carefully made sure that there were no younger or prettier women in the room when they met.

Mary, at thirty-eight, was slim and small with mousy hair and steely grey eyes. She was wearing a high-cut black gown with a black velvet gold trimmed wimple covering her head and the sides of her face. Around her neck hung a necklace set with diamonds and her waistband contained the rest of the crown jewels of England. Her voice was deeper than you would expect and her manner was rarely softened by laughter or smiles.

Philip at once bowed and accepting her hand kissed her full on the lips in the “English manner” Mary was quite impressed and she led him apart from the rest to two chairs placed together where they sat and talked for some time. After a while he asked to meet all the ladies in waiting and Mary reluctantly took him into the next room where they were assembled. He kissed them all in the “English manner.” They talked alone for another half hour until nearly midnight and Philip decided to return to his rooms, but before he left he had Mary teach him how to pronounce goodnight in English. He toured the ladies in waiting again and the gathered English nobles and wished them all a courteous goodnight in their own language. Mary was smitten by the Prince.

They were married on the Wednesday 25 July, the Feast Day of St. James, or on the Spanish Calendar, Dia de Matoamoros (Moorslayer.) On the wedding day it rained again, but the Prince arrived in a white satin suit with a mantle of cloth of gold set with jewels and Mary wore black again and even more jewels than before. Her fifty ladies, according to the Spanish, looked “More like celestial angels than mortal creatures.”

The wedding over, the King and Queen walked through a subdued crowd to the palace where a banquet had been prepared for a hundred and fifty-eight. There were five servings of meat and fish and there followed endless toasts, presentations and swords of state, but the Spanish noted subtle signs that told a different story. Mary dined from a gold plate and Philip from silver, her chair was higher than Philip’s and she was given precedence in all the many accolades to them. All the Spanish serving staff were dismissed save one.

When the banquet was over, the dancing began and the guests immediately hit a problem. The Spanish did not know the steps to the English dances, nor the English to the Spanish ones. The King and Queen solved the problem by dancing to German steps and the party continued into the night. Philip and Mary retired early after a long day and the next morning would dawn with the promise of peace and prosperity for all Europe and a very happy ex-spinster who had just found her Prince charming.


Conquest of Tunis tapestries


They left Winchester on the 31 of July bound for London and entered the city on the 18 of August. Their procession entered Whitehall Palace where Mary was astonished by the wedding presents sent by Philip’s father Charles.

Hanging from the walls were twelve huge tapestries, each sixteen feet high and ranging from 23 to 40 feet long. They were woven from the finest gold, silver and silk thread. Even in such grand chambers, they were overwhelming.

Known today as the Conquest of Tunis tapestries, they now hang in the Palacio real in Madrid. They show one of the greatest clashes between Islam and Christianity in 1535 when Philip’s father Charles sent an expedition to crush the Turkish pasha and Grand Admiral of the Turkish fleet Kheir-ed-Din.    

 After the wedding, the English nobles slipped away to their own lands until about a hundred Spanish nobles and their servants who had followed the Prince were still left in England, much to their chagrin. They, too, had estates to administer at home, and the churlish, ignorant behavior of the English was beginning to wear their patience thin. To their eyes, England was a crude barbaric country full of heretics and renegades. They were blocked from seeing their Prince, and he was blocked from having any influence in the English court by a wall of powerful and suspicious councilors.

Philip and Mary painted by Hans Eworth. The original is in the Bedford Collection, Woburn Abbey. 


As the weeks progressed, the couple continued with the day to day office of running a country. Philip tried hard to win over the hearts of the English who were still suspicious of the newcomers, and some of the Spanish nobility were put out by having missed the wedding. The Duchess of Alva arrived three days late at Southampton and missed it all. Despite Mary’s attempts to assuage her injured dignity, she proved to be a prickly problem. Mary met her with all the ceremony she could muster, but the Duchess was annoyed when the room they met in only had one chair. Mary offered the Duchess her own chair, but the Duchess refused it saying that the Queen must have the chair and promptly sat on the floor. The Queen objected, and she also sat on the floor with the Duchess who was upset now because she had been outdone with courtesy. Mary sent for another stool, and the farce continued with each taking turns to either sit on the floor, or on a stool. Finally, they both ended up sitting on stools and chatting amicably. The Duchess was offended all over again when the Earl of Derby tried to kiss her on the mouth. She turned her head so that his kiss landed on a cheek, but she was incensed by his boldness and made no secret of it at court.

Philip made gifts of gold and silver to councilors and awarded pensions. He cancelled debts owed by England to Spain. He treated everybody with the greatest civility lest he offend, and scrupulously avoided interfering in the governing of England. With the pomp and ceremony over, he began to plan the future of Europe. His father wisely knew that he now ruled over an empire that no one person could govern. He began to divide it amongst his family. He had already made Prince Philip Duke of Milan and now he made him Duke of Naples, too, and with the marriage to Mary, Philip would also rule the Netherlands and England. He had given Austria to his brother Ferdinand, and Philip’s child by his first marriage, the infant Don Carlos, would become King of Spain and the new world colonies.

As a precaution, Philip’s father stipulated that should the child Don Carlos die, Philip, Mary and their children would inherit Spain and the colonies, too. There was only one flaw in the plan; Mary had to produce a male heir to the throne. Her mother had faced the same nightmare, and so had Anne Boleyn. Mary anxiously watched for the first signs of pregnancy.

The Church was not at peace however. The country was divided by faith with protestant priests preaching a heretic religion. In November that same year, Cardinal Pole came from Rome and was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury to the great joy of Mary and Philip. He absolved the Lords and Commons of their apostasy and welcomed them back into the Catholic Church. The old heresy laws were revived and the newly installed clergy began a witch-hunt with the first protestant burned at the stake less than a year after Philip set foot upon English soil.

Philip’s father was known to have persecuted Lutherans in Brussels, and England knew he supported his father’s views. He urged the Church to be lenient, but it was a ploy that failed. Mary was less tolerant of heretics than the people who had tried to stop her coming to the throne. She began a series of reforms that would reverse Henry’s conversion of England to Protestantism, and during her five-year reign, Mary had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake in the Marian persecutions, leading Protestants to name her "Bloody Mary."

In November 1554, three months after the wedding, Mary announced that she was pregnant and thanksgiving services were held in London Churches. All her dreams had come true. Philip was overjoyed, and for a few short months, she basked in the approval of her world. She went to Hampton Court for her confinement and a doting Philip followed. In this happy state of mind, Mary softened her attitude to her previous enemies and she allowed her half-sister to return to Hampton to join her ladies in waiting. Elizabeth was allowed only five servants and traveled under heavy guard. She entered by a back gate and was given the rooms recently vacated by the Duke of Alva.

Philip was naturally curious, and he knew full well the significance of the slight young woman who had just entered the building. There are documented testimonies that say that Philip secretly met with Elizabeth before being introduced formally by Mary. Her reputation went before her as a bright, witty and attractive girl, but Elizabeth knew that this was just the kind of approval that would have her sent to the scaffold.

Nevertheless, a guarded attraction developed. Philip was 27 and Elizabeth 21, whilst Mary was 38. Elizabeth knew that one wrong word here would spell death, but if ever there was a damsel in distress, it was Elizabeth. There are many accounts of secret meetings and clandestine conversations, but what is undeniable is that there was an attraction between the two.

Philip pressed the Privy Council to safeguard Elizabeth, and was given assurances, but Mary got wind of his intrigue and sent Elizabeth packing to a house a few miles from Hampton Court, where she was kept under guard. He pleaded with Mary to spare her any harm, and she relented. Elizabeth received many marriage proposals, but her ability to delay and confound the designs of others was a talent that she honed and used to great effect throughout her life. She remained single and very, very, eligible.

The Spanish nobles who had come to England for the wedding had seen for themselves the rich green lands of England and the looted gold of the Catholic monasteries. The open harbours, palaces and populous towns and villages were like jewels to Spanish eyes. One by one, they returned to Spain with a poor opinion of the English, but a burning memory of the richness of this isle. They had come to celebrate a wedding and form friendships, but they found no friends and formed no bonds. Some of the nobles had been accosted and robbed of their gold and the Spanish monks had to hide to avoid being set upon. With this lasting bitter impression, the seeds were sown for a different kind of visit that festered in the hearts of the Spanish; one of conquest.

Philip left for Spain, and Mary, who by now had realised that she was not pregnant, allowed Elizabeth to come to Greenwich to watch him leave. Philip returned in 1557, but his mind was on the ability of England to aid Spain in her war with France; a war which England neither wanted nor was ready for. Mary was a secondary consideration.

They spent Easter at Greenwich, but Philip was restive, unsettled and cold towards his wife. He went on stag hunts with the Privy Council from Hampden Court and gained their consent for England to go to war against France. On the 7 June England formally declared war against France and on the 3rd of July Philip was on his way to Dover with Mary. They rode to Sittingbourne where they spent their last night together. After his visit, she again announced that she was pregnant, though less publicly. Her health slowly deteriorated, and on 17 November 1558 aged 42, she died as she had lived, a sad lonely woman. 

Philip said that he was too busy to come to the funeral and sent an envoy, the Count de Feria, to represent him. The Count was under instructions to convey to the Privy Council that he would support Elizabeth as Queen of England.


And so, Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England on the 15th of January 1558 at the age of 25.

De Feria now was instructed to deliver to the Queen a formal proposal of marriage, but he was warned that he was not to stress any debt owed for promises of support given when Elizabeth had been a hand-maiden in fear of her life. De feria must have phrased it badly, because her written reply is in the Spanish archives in Simancas. “It is the people who have placed me in the position I presently hold as the declared successor to the Crown.”  If she had added “Not you!” it could not have been more damming.

The offer of marriage from Philip was very attractive. A male child of hers to Philip would inherit practically the whole known Christian world, and many colonies of unknown future wealth. They were not unalike; both put the affairs of state and country before religion.

In truth, the English did not really like Philip, and the Spanish did not like us. England’s Protestants feared another round of religious persecution. She delayed giving an answer to the Count de Feria to take to Philip, who waited four months and then married Princess Elizabeth of Valois instead. When she found, out Elizabeth chided de Feria. “Your master must have been much in love with me not to be able to wait four months.”

With the door to an alliance with Spain closed, young Elizabeth now had to consider her options carefully. 


The Spanish Armadas 

I have taken much of the story above from the book opposite by Winston Graham.  His detailed description of Philip's arrival in England and Mary's wedding with  him is a prelude for the later invasion attempts. His book covers the build up to the invasions (4 in all) of England and the causes of their failure.  In these brief pages I cannot hope to equal Winston's knowledge nor the engaging way that he leads us through the action, highlighting the individuals who played vital parts in the history of the Spanish Armada. It is a gripping history of the times.