Hugh Thomas completes an absorbing trilogy that tells the story of the creation of the world-wide Spanish Empire in the 16th century with a lively narrative of the conquests that took place under Philip II. His Philip is a less dour figure than the introverted king who, according to some historians, buried himself alive among his financial papers in the echoing rooms of the Escorial palace. But most of the time, in Thomas’s narrative, he is not at centre stage. Philip’s agents, if one can call them that, were busy establishing conquests for their own benefit in the Yucatan Peninsula, in Chile, in Paraguay and in Florida (to keep out the dastardly French interlopers). This great system was propped up by financiers who were variously Genoese, converted Jews and rich citizens of Burgos.
Thomas’s account of the Spanish entry into the Philippines—where Spaniards did not simply take charge of the indigenous population but challenged the claims of local Muslim sultans—will open the eyes of readers to a forgotten part of the Spanish empire. The extraordinary annual voyages of the Manila galleons that linked the Philippines to Mexico and Peru, bringing shiploads of Chinese luxuries across the Pacific, receive their due. Fascinating, too, is his account of Spanish schemes for the conquest of China. These were abandoned in the wake of the defeated Spanish Armada, but he surmises that Spanish rule would have been no worse than that of the equally foreign Manchus. Hugh Thomas brings the era of Philip II to life with his customary clarity, fluency and attention to detail.