Did the acquisition of Portugal in 1580 represent a greater success for Philip II than the victory at Lepanto in 1571?

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Did the acquisition of Portugal in 1580 represent a greater success for Philip II than the victory at Lepanto in 1571?

To judge whether the acquisition of Portugal represented a greater success for Philip II than the victory at Lepanto, the benefits and drawbacks of these two events must be compared.  Their impact on the defence of Spain and Catholicism, Spanish finances, and Philip's reputation, must be considered.

In 1580 Spain invaded and annexed its smaller neighbour Portugal, whose king had died without naming a successor.  It can be argued that this acquisition was 'the greatest triumph of [Philip's] reign' .  For Philip the annexation meant the unification of the Iberian peninsula under his rule, the acquisition of the sizeable Portuguese navy, and the wealth of Portugal and her New World territories.  However, the acquisition did not bring Philip glory in the way that the 'spectacular victory of the Christian forces'  did at Lepanto in 1571, and although the Lepanto battle was costly, it helped protect Catholicism and Europe from the aggressive expansionism of the Turks.  It can therefore be argued that the victory of Lepanto was more of an all-round success for Philip than the acquisition of Portugal.

With respect to defending Spain and Catholicism, the victory at Lepanto appears more successful than the acquisition of Portugal.  Elliott said that 'the danger in the Mediterranean receded after the victory at Lepanto' , a view supported by two paintings depicting the event: Titian's 'Spain Succouring Religion'  (1575) and El Greco's 'Allegory of the Holy League'  (1578).  Both paintings suggest that through the victory at Lepanto Philip successfully defended Christendom from the Turkish threat.  But the value of these paintings in understanding the scale of the success  is diminished, because both were commissioned by Philip himself, meaning the artists were likely to have inflated the significance of the victory.  In fact, contrary to Elliott's view that the victory reduced the Turkish threat, there is evidence that Lepanto had little effect on the Turkish assault on the Mediterranean.  Despite suffering defeat at Lepanto they launched another military campaign and captured Cyprus only weeks later, which certainly suggests that the success of the Lepanto victory in defending Europe was limited.  However, the significance of the victory must not be disregarded completely.  It has been argued that after 1571 the Spanish and Ottoman empires 'slowly...disengaged their forces' , which is supported by the fact that in 1578 a truce was concluded between Spain and the Turks, followed by a permanent treaty in 1580.  Furthermore, Lepanto dealt the Turks an enormous military blow.  They lost 200 galleys and 30,000 men, as well as their admiral Ali Pasha, so although the capture of Cyprus suggests otherwise, the Christian victory at Lepanto greatly reduced the Turkish threat.  Therefore the victory at Lepanto did, to an extent, represent a success for Philip in terms of defending Europe and Catholicism from the Turks.

The acquisition of Portugal gave Spain some defensive advantages.  It has been claimed that through the annexation Philip enjoyed 'greater security' , which is supported by the fact the combined Spanish and Portuguese fleet was 'the largest in the world' .  Together they weighed 300,000 tons, compared with the 232,000 tons of the Netherlands and the 42,000 tons of England, giving Philip an enormous defensive advantage.  However, the annexation also created some defensive problems.  For example Portugal's long Atlantic coastline was 'vulnerable to attack'  from those in search of West Indies treasure.  Furthermore, the Portuguese fleet was a target. In 1585 Sir Francis Drake raided 20 (mostly fishing) Portuguese vessels.  The defensive advantages of a larger navy did not outweigh the increase in danger of attack on the Atlantic coast, and so the acquisition of Portugal did not deliver an overall benefit in terms of defence.   Furthermore, Portugal was a 'fellow Catholic country' , so unlike the victory at Lepanto the annexation did nothing to defend Catholicism.  Although as Woodward says the 'Iberian peninsula was [now] under one Christian ruler' , the annexation seems to have done more to hinder Philip's desire to protect Catholicism than to help it.  The perceived aggression of the invasion and Philip's failure 'to appreciate how threatened his other neighbours felt'  damaged Spain's relations with other Catholic nations, thus weakening the Faith as a whole.  As Pope Sixtus V wrote in the second half of the 1580s: 'the preservation of the Catholic religion...is only a pretext for [Philip]' , an attitude that may originate in Philip's invasion  of Catholic Portugal.  However, Sixtus' attitude may also have been due to his 'deep and personal aversion to Spain and...low estimate of its king' .  (The difficult relationship between Philip and Sixtus V is illustrated by their squabble 'over whether the papal nuncio in Spain should be styled “monsignor” or “monsignor reverendissimo”'  ).  But with respect to the acquisition of Portugal Sixtus V was right in his claim, for defending Catholicism was neither Philip's motivation for annexing Portugal, nor the outcome of the invasion.  Therefore the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto, which marked the beginning of decline in Muslim threat to Catholic Europe, was a greater success for Philip in terms of protecting Spain and Catholicism than the annexation of Catholic Portugal, which on balance caused more defensive problems than it solved.

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However, in financial terms the acquisition of Portugal was certainly a greater success for Philip than the victory of Lepanto.  McKinnon-Bell observes that 'the acquisition of Portugal brought [Philip] huge new sources of revenue' , something echoed in a despatch sent by the Venetian Ambassador on Philip's death in 1598, which described Philip's acquisition of 'the important kingdom of Portugal, with all its territories and treasure' .  It is possible the Ambassador exaggerated the importance of the annexation out of respect for the recently deceased, but records of bullion import suggest that his assessment of the wealth of the ...

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