About the Collection

About the Collection and its Historical Context

The following description of the letters of Philip II, King of Spain — and their historical context — was assembled by H.P. Kraus, Rare Books and Manuscripts, New York, NY, preceding Kraus’s sale of the collection to Brigham Young University.

Philip II, King of Spain - The Cuatro Villas de la Costa, Spain. A large and important collection of letters and other documents, almost all signed by the King, mainly to Diego de Orellana de Chaves, Corregidor of the Four Towns of the Sea on Spain’s North Coast, on the naval war against England and France, etc. Location: Spain (chiefly the various residences of the Court; Santander, Laredo, etc.); various dates from 20 November 1591 to 10 July 1597.

Physical Description

174 letters and documents, all in Spanish: 172 manuscript, 2 printed. All the manuscripts are in contemporary Spanish secretarial hands; a few are in the writers’ autographs. 159 of the letters are from King Philip II, all signed: 52 with the King’s autograph signature and 107 with official stamped facsimile signature; all the other documents signed autograph except for a very few contemporary secretarial copies. Many letters are with contemporary wax impressions of the seals, and with contemporary endorsements. In all, 379 leaves: 184 1/2 pages written and 5 mainly printed. Letters are all folio or small folio (varying from about 315 x 220 mm to about 280 x 205 mm). A very few documents slightly frayed or stained, without impairment of the text: some trimmed at lower edge, losing no main text but occasionally having a portion of original summary or signed initials missing: all writing fine and clear. Cased, in a box.

Historical Context

Vital and original documentation of Spain’s struggle with her English, French and Dutch enemies in the waters of Western Europe, this unbroken series of royal letters and state papers brings to light fresh information, hitherto unused, on the crucial period of Philip II’s reign from the defeat of the Armada in 1588 up to the King’s death in September 1598. The 174 letters and documents — the great majority of them from the King — are mostly addressed by him to Diego de Orellana de Chaves, from the summer of 1592 his corregidor (royal governor) of the nodal points of Spain’s northern littoral — the Castile coast facing England and the west of France — on the Bay of Biscay, which was the arena for this era of close engagement at sea and amphibious warfare on land between the Armada efforts of 1587–89 and 1597–1600.

The documents come from Orellana’s archive as governor of the so-called “Four Towns,” the Cuatro Villas of the Cantabrian coast, which were the only northern seaports lying in the principal Spanish kingdom of Castile, and hence more directly ruled by Philip than the autonomous Basque towns further east or the ports of Asturias and Galicia further west. Grouped under this title (recalling the comparable Cinque [actually, in the end, 7] Ports of the south coast of England) were the thriving harbors of Santander, Laredo, Casto Urdiales and San Vicente de la Barquera which, like the English Cinque Ports, had no overlord save the respective Crown. Through their corregidor, the Cuatro Villas de la Mar enjoyed much autonomy, having, e.g., the power to issue letters of marque or patents for privateering warfare on enemy shipping, the right to negotiate to pay a lump sum for their taxes in lieu of suffering a royal assessment, and the privileges of having royal forces billeted only by agreement and of securing leading positions in the Spanish Navy for mariners recruited in the Towns : all these powers are reflected in the present correspondence.

The main drama unfolded in this archive is that of Philip II’s daring naval strategy for dispensing with major, Armada-type fleet assaults sent directly from Spain against England in favor of less dramatic but more damaging assaults on English and allied ports and shipping, and harassment of their trade and communications, creeping forward from advanced bases in Brittany to which the raging religious civil war offered Philip easy access (1592–1598). Such, in particular, were the great naval harbor of Brest behind Cape Finisterre ; the neighboring bay of Douarnenez dominated by the height of Crozon (often called by the English Croydon) which the Spaniards fortified almost impregnably ; and, further south, the most redoubtable and lasting Spanish base — Blavet (now Port Louis), across the harbor from Lorient. These bases, originally seized from a paralysed central government by the Duke of Mercoeur and ultra-Catholic Bretons under the influence of the Catholic League which opposed the accession of the Protestant Henri of Navarre (Henry IV) to the French throne left vacant by the death of the last Valois king in 1589, and which wanted Philip II’s daughter there instead, were quickly made available to Philip should he want the bases nearer, and to the windward of, England, as the Armada campaign had shown he badly needed.

Distrusting his French allies, Philip quickly garrisoned the ports with Spanish troops — shipped and supplied through the Four Towns — and based powerfully-armed galleys and other vessels of war upon them, thereby providing five years of danger to English and Dutch Channel trade, often interrupting Queen Elizabeth’s aid to Henry IV, and making necessary such dogged and expensive counter-attacks as that on Crozon in November 1593 which cost the life of the explorer and mariner Sir Martin Frobisher. Brest itself was held only until its recapture for Henry IV by the English in 1594, but Blavet was retained till Spain evacuated it voluntarily when Philip, at the end of his life, came to terms with the unchallengeable Henry in the Treaty of Vervins (1598). In the meantime, Spanish arms achieved several glorious feats, a whole generation of naval and military officers being trained under such outstanding captains as Don Diego Brochero, Don Pedro de Zubiaurre, Don Juan del Aguila (general of the force invading Ireland at Kinsale in 1600) and the engineer Cristóbal de Rojas, all of whom are frequently referred to in the present archive. The assaults on the English coast and shipping were far more devastating than anything the great Armada actually achieved, most notably the 1595 attack on Cornwall by Don Carlos de Amezola’s four galleys, when neither the county authorities nor Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth could prevent Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole being burnt.

Composition of the Archive

The documents are basically important on the direction of this important naval offensive against England, but they also include essential materials on the Spanish interest in Ireland and Scotland as well, of course, as in the civil wars of France : such are a 1592 letter directing aid to be given to the Spanish-backed Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, the ill-fated Edmund Macgauran who was infiltrated into Ireland by Spanish ships and killed there in 1594, and 1593 letters ordering searches for Scottish smugglers and spies and reporting the admissions of James VI of Scotland that his subjects were forging his licenses to sail. Besides highlighting the work of the main commanders mentioned, other pieces give further evidence on the activities of Martín de Bertendona, the admiral of Armada fame; and one of the letters of marque is issued and signed by Orellana’s predecessor Don Luis de Fajardo, later Captain-General of the treasure fleets and commander of the High Seas Fleet which swept the Caribbean clear of the Dutch in 1605. Some documents were drawn up, and were counter-signed, by the royal Secretary Juan López de Velasco, compiler of the first comprehensive geography of America, the great standard survey assembled from completed colonial questionnaires in the 1570’s (see : J. Zaragoza [ed], Geografía y descripción universal de las Indias…de Juan López de Velasco [Madrid, 1894]; R. Beltrán y Rózpide, América en tiempo de Felipe II según el cosmógrafo-cronista Juan López de Velasco [Madrid, 1927], and more recent work on the Cosmographer). Extremely interesting at other points are orders given about the revenues of the dukedom of Infantado in the Four Towns, due to be paid to “Madama,” i.e., Barbara von Blomberg, formerly mistress of the Emperor Charles V and mother of Don John of Austria (1547–1578), and about conserving the inheritance due to the heirs of Don John’s servant, the former Secretary Juan de Escobedo, who had been embarrassingly done to death, with Philip II’s connivance, by the King’s secretary Antonio Pérez in 1578 — a matter which at this time, now [that] Pérez had just taken refuge with Henry IV and was broadcasting Philip’s secrets across both France and England, it must have been painful for the King to recall.

Included is a whole series of notable intelligence reports on English intentions, in a few cases received direct, but more often via Ireland, Flanders or France, and there are prominent references to Spanish counter-preparations, especially to the recruitment of pilots and the enlistment of mariners, particularly for the galleys at Blavet, to where, as these documents show, regular drafts of convicts were sent via the Cuatro Villas. Much attention is given to local levies and to the new national militia, and a great deal is said about the defenses of the Four Towns, especially the extension of the castle at Santander, which had been one of the 1588 Armada’s principal ports of refuge, and was to have been attacked by Drake in the English campaign of 1589. Most interesting of all, besides the evidence of Philip II’s favor to merchants in the Four Towns and his concern for the maintenance of the Cantabrians’ northern fishery, are his concern to secure vital raw materials such as lead, hemp, salt, cordage and even paper, and his never-failing attention to such problems as plague in the ports (1597), increasing royal revenues and tax yields (both the printed documents of 1596, etc.), and secretly restricting the independence of the Inquisition and of its over-numerous Familiars (1595 : no. 113). One of the main aspects of the King’s interest in writing to the Four Towns is, however, shown by his insistence on prompt reports about foreign merchants, ships and seamen, his requirements that censuses of shipping and mariners be made and his exhortation to train landsmen in fighting and seamanship : also made clear is the energy and versatility of his enthusiastic preparation of the new great royal galleons building at Santander (the “Twelve Apostle”) to replace the disastrous losses suffered in 1588.

The documents are housed in chronological sequence and are all either addressed to Corregidor Orellana de Chaves or directly concern him: the patent of his initial appointment in 1592 is included, and so is a letter to him from his son. Such few of the letters as are not from the King himself are mainly signed or initialled by the Councillors of Castile: the letters signed with the King’s stamped signature have, of course, status equal to those signed autograph, for stamping the royal signature was made usual practice in these last ten years of Philip’s life when gout and other debilities were seizing hold of him, and the stamp was applied only by a royal Secretary with the Council’s permission. The present documents seem never to have been employed by local historians, let alone national or maritime ones: hence they have so far contributed nothing to germane studies and were not drawn upon for standard works on naval warfare in the time of Philip II and Elizabeth I such as Sir Julian Corbett’s Drake and the Tudor Navy (2 vols., London, 1898), or Captain Cesáreo Fernández Duro’s Armada Española… Vol. III (Madrid, 1897), which set out to detail fighting in the Bay of Biscay and the Brittany campaigns. They seem to have remained unknown to more recent historians, and were omitted by Don Martín Fernández Navarrete from his great collection of transcripts now in the Museo Naval, Madrid (ultimately issued in the edition of Kraus Reprints, Nendeln, 1971), by M.A.S. Hume from the British Calendar of State Papers, Spanish (4 vols., London, 1892–99) and from the comprehensive index to Philip II’s naval correspondence, V. Fernández Asís (comp.), Epistolario de Felipe II sobre asuntos de mar, (Madrid, 1943).

Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome.

Tejedor de las cartas: Richard Hacken (Hacken@byu.edu).