Philip II personally instructs his half-brother Don John on how to behave and command with honor

May 31, 2012

At the beginning of May, 1568, [King Philip] announced to D. John that the hour had come for him to take command of the galleys of Cartagena, first to meet and escort the fleet coming from the Indies, and then to clear the coasts of the Mediterranean of corsairs….

On saying good-bye D. Philip handed to his brother, for his guidance, the following document, written by his own hand, notable for the great maxims for the rule and conduct of a prince which it contains, and for the fraternal solicitude which it shows on the part of Philip II towards his brother:

King Philip II of Spain

Painted by Alonso Sánchez Coello 1570

“Brother: Besides the instructions which you have been given respecting the appointment of Captain-General of the Ocean, and its powers and duties: for the great love I have for you, and also that in your person, life and manners, you should possess the estimation and good name persons of your rank should have, with this end it has occurred to me to give you the following instructions. First, because the foundation and beginning of all great things and of all good counsels is God, I charge you much, that as a good and real Christian, you take this as the beginning and foundation of all your doings and enterprises, and that you dedicate to God, as your chief aim, all your business and affairs, from whose hand comes all the success of your undertakings, negotiations and labors. And that you will take great care to be very devout and God-fearing, and a good Christian, not only in reality, but also in appearance and demonstration, setting all a good example, that by this means and on this foundation God may show you grace and your name and fame may always be increasing.

“Be very particular to go to Confession, especially at Christmas and Easter and on other solemn days, and to receive the Holy Sacrament, if you are in a place where you are able to do so; every day, being on land, hear Mass; and perform your devotions with fervor at stated times, as a good and very Catholic Christian.

Don John of Austria

“Truth and the keeping of one’s word and promise are the basis of credit and esteem on which are founded and built up friendly intercourse and confidence. This is required, and is the more necessary for great ones, and those who have important public duties, because on their truth and integrity depend faith and public safety. Be sure that in this you take great care and pains, that it should be known and understood everywhere that trust may be placed in what you say, as besides its affecting public matters and your appointment, it matters much to your own honor and esteem.

“Use justice with impartiality and rectitude, and when necessary with the severity and example the case requires: as regards this be firm and constant; and also when the quality of persons or things permit it, be pitiful and mild, as these are very appropriate virtues in people of your rank.

Don John of Austria by Alonso Sánchez Coello

“Flattery and words leading to it are ignoble in those who use them, and a shame and offense to those to whom they are addressed. To those who make these professions, and treat you thus, show by your face and manner that they may understand how little acceptable to you such conversation is. Do the same to those who in your presence speak ill of the honors and persons of the absent, that such conversation should not take place, because, besides being prejudicial and an injury to the third person, it tends to turn them from your authority and estimation. You must live and act with great prudence as regards all that concerns the uprightness of your private life, because forgetfulness of this, besides being an offense to God, will bring about inconveniences, and cause a great stumbling-block to the work and fulfillment of what you have to do, and will entail other risks which are dangerous and of evil consequences and example. Excuse yourself, when possible, from games, especially cards and dice, on account of the example you should set others, and because, in gambling, it is not possible to act with the moderation and restraint which is required in persons of your rank. And it often happens that, through gambling, men in high positions lose their temper and dishonor themselves. I charge you, that if at any time you play to amuse yourself, you should preserve the decorum due to your person and authority.

“Swearing, without the greatest necessity which obliges one to do so, is very wrong for every man and woman, and takes away good opinion, but, above all, in men of position, in whom it is very indecent and goes against their credit, dignity, and authority, so I charge you to be very careful about swearing, and never to swear by God or other rare oaths, which neither are nor should be used by people of your rank.

“As I wish that your table, food and way of living should be suitable, use the decency, ostentation and cleanliness that is proper; but also it is well that there should be much moderation and temperance, because of the example that you have set to all, and because of the profession of arms which you have to follow, and because it is good, and it is well for you to show moderation and temperance, because your table has to settle the rule and order for the rest.

Don John of Austria Messina monument

“Be careful not to say anything rude or injurious to anyone, that your tongue may be used to honor and do favors, and to dishonor no one. You should punish those who err or commit excesses, being just to all. This punishment should not come from your mouth with haughty words, or from your hand. And also be very careful that in your usual ways and talk you use modesty and temperance without ill-temper or arrogance, which are things that detract much from a person’s authority. And at the same time have a care that your conversation and that which takes place in your presence is decent and straightforward, as is required by your rank and person.

“Also be very courteous in your intercourse with every sort of person, being very affable, quiet and gracious, maintaining the decency and decorum of your person and office, because affability gains people’s affection, but also preserves the reputation and respect that are due to you. In winter, and at other times, when you are not at sea, but on land, do not neglect the business of your appointment, to which you should pay great attention; occupy yourself in good exercises, especially those of arms; in which also those gentlemen who reside with you should occupy themselves, avoiding by these exercises, expenses, ostentation and excesses, and that all should be prepared for the real exercise of arms. The use of these will make the said gentlemen dexterous and expert in any occasion that may offer. And also by this means the said expenses and extravagance in vesture, clothes and everyday life are avoided, giving an example by what you yourself and your servants wear.

“This is what it has occurred to me to remind you about, confident that you will act in an even better manner than what I have told you.

“It is for you only, and for this, goes, written by my hand.

“At Aranjuez, the 23rd of May, 1568.

“I, the King.”


Rev. Fr. Luis Coloma, The Story of Don John of Austria, trans. Lady Moreton, (New York: John Lane Company, 1912),  pp. 158-162.

Nobility.Org Editorial Comment: —

These detailed instructions from Philip II to Don John illustrate well how the proper exercise of leadership by the nobility and analogous traditional elites must be well anchored in the Faith, and imbued with love of duty and honor, and a generous spirit of sacrificing oneself for the common good of the nation.
This disciplined and purposeful life is diametrically contrary to the ultra-liberal spirit of unbridled sensuality and anarchical rejection of all responsibility we frequently see in the pseudo-elites and celebrity “role models” presented by Hollywood and the media for universal emulation.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 182


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