Late one night, in the beginning of October 1469, a cavalcade of men in the guise of traders halted beneath the walls of the ancient city of Burgo de Osma in Old Castile. They had travelled for many days by little-used paths through the mountains of Soria from the Aragonese frontier town of Tarrazona; and, impatient to gain the safe shelter of the fortress of Osma, they banged at the gates demanding admittance. The country was in anarchy. Leagues of churchmen and nobles warred against each other and preyed upon society at large. An impotent king, deposed with ignominy by one faction, had been as ignominiously set up again by another, and royal pretenders to the succession were the puppets of rival parties whose object was to monopolise for themselves all the fruits of royalty, whilst the monarch fed upon the husks. So when the new-comers called peremptorily for admittance within the gates of Osma, the guards upon the city walls, taking them for enemies or freebooters, greeted them with a shower of missiles from the catapults. One murderous stone whizzed within a few inches of the head of a tall, fair-haired lad of good mien and handsome visage, who, dressed as a servant, accompanied the cavalcade. If the projectile had effectively hit instead of missed the stripling, the whole history of the world from that hour to this would have been changed, for this youth was Prince Ferdinand, the heir of Aragon, who was being conveyed secretly by a faction of Castilian nobles to marry the Princess Isabel, who had been set forward as a pretender to her brother’s throne, to the exclusion of the King’s doubtful daughter, the hapless Beltraneja. A hurried cry of explanation went up from the travellers: a shouted password; the flashing of torches upon the walls, the joyful recognition of those within, and the gates swung open, the drawbridge dropped, and thenceforward Prince Ferdinand was safe, surrounded by the men-at-arms of Isabel’s faction. Within a week the eighteen-years-old bridegroom greeted his bride, and before the end of the month Ferdinand and Isabel were married at Valladolid.
To most observers it may have seemed a small thing that a petty prince in the extreme corner of Europe had married the girl pretender to the distracted and divided realm of Castile; but there was one cunning, wicked old man in Barcelona who was fully conscious of the importance of the match that he had planned; and he, John II. of Aragon, had found an apt pupil in his son Ferdinand, crafty beyond his years. To some extent Isabel must have seen it too, for she was already a dreamer of great dreams which she meant to come true, and the strength of Aragon behind her claim would insure her the sovereignty that was to be the first step in their realisation.
The more recent histories of his reign—the works of English, American, German, and French scholars—have treated their subject with fuller knowledge and broader sympathies, but they have necessarily been to a large extent histories of the great events which convulsed Europe for fifty years at the most critical period of modern times. The space to be occupied by the present work will not admit of this treatment of the subject. The purpose is therefore to consider Philip mainly as a statesman, in relation to the important problems with which he had to deal, rather than to write a connected account of the occurrences of a long reign. It will be necessary for us to try to penetrate the objects he aimed at and the influences, personal and exterior, which ruled him, and to seek the reasons for his failure. For he did fail utterly. In spite of very considerable powers of mind, of a long lifetime of incessant toil, of deep-laid plans, and vast ambitions, his record is one continued series of defeats and disappointments; and in exchange for the greatest heritage that Christendom had ever seen, with the apparently assured prospect of universal domination which opened before him at his birth, he closed his dying eyes upon dominions distracted and ruined beyond all recovery, a bankrupt State, a dwindled prestige, and a defeated cause. He had devoted his life to the task of establishing the universal supremacy of Catholicism in the political interests of Spain, and he was hopelessly beaten.
The reasons for his defeat will be seen in the course of the present work to have been partly personal and partly circumstantial. The causes of both these sets of reasons were laid at periods long anterior to Philip’s birth.
The sources to be studied for such a history were enormous in bulk and widely scattered, and I worked very hard at my self-set task. But at length I, too, began to wax faint-hearted; not, indeed, because my "noble Lord had died"; for no individual lord, noble or ignoble, has ever done, or I suppose ever will do, anything for me or my books; but because I was told by those whose business it is to study his moods, that the only "noble Lord" to whom I look for patronage, namely the sympathetic public in England and the United States that buys and reads my books, had somewhat changed his tastes. He wanted to know and understand, I was told, more about the human beings who personified the events of history, than about the plans of the battles they fought. He wanted to draw aside the impersonal veil which historians had interposed between him and the men and women whose lives made up the world of long ago; to see the great ones in their habits as they lived, to witness their sports, to listen to their words, to read their private letters, and with these advantages to obtain the key to their hearts and to get behind their minds; and so to learn history through the human actors, rather than dimly divine the human actors by means of the events of their times. In fact, he cared no longer, I was told, for the stately three-decker histories which occupied half a lifetime to write, and are now for the most part relegated, in handsome leather bindings, to the least frequented shelves of dusty libraries.