What sustained borrowing without third-party enforcement in the early days of sovereign lending? Philip II of Spain accumulated towering debts while stopping all payments to his lenders four times. How could the sovereign borrow much and default often? We argue that bankers’ ability to cut off Philip II’s access to smoothing services was key. A form of syndicated lending created cohesion among his Genoese bankers. As a result, lending moratoria were sustained through a ‘cheat-the-cheater’ mechanism. Our article thus lends empirical support to a recent literature that emphasises the role of bankers’ incentives for continued sovereign borrowing.