Featured Image: Do you notice anything unusual about Charles’s family tree?
Saturday, 23 February 2019, Paris, France – The Habsburg Dynasty was perhaps one of the most influential royal houses in European history, originating in Austria and spreading to almost every European country. The Habsburgs may have been successful in achieving power and influence, but their one key failure is well-known: inbreeding. After hundreds of years, the Habsburg gene pool became progressively smaller and smaller until the royal line was eventually unsustainable. This is the story of Charles II of Spain, and even today is known within Spain as El Hechizado, or “the Bewitched”.
Charles II was the last Habsburg monarch of Spain, and with his death in 1700 was the extinction of the Spanish Habsburgs. His parents were Philip IV and Mariana of Austria. The problem here is that Philip was Mariana’s uncle, and Mariana was Philip’s niece, which meant that Philip was Charles’s father and grandfather simultaneously. Now if you thought that an uncle having a child with his niece was nasty, just wait, because it’s about to get nastier. Charles was the victim of not only his own parents’ inbreeding, but hundreds of years of inbreeding during the history of the Habsburgs as well. He had numerous rare genetic diseases including acromegaly (overgrowth of bones and tissue), combined pituitary hormone deficiency (short stature and lameness), and renal tubular acidosis (an accumulation of acid in the body due to kidney failure).
Charles II of Spain, the most inbred man in human history.
Also worth mentioning is the mandibular prognathism (the lower jaw outgrows the upper jaw, resulting in a misalignment of teeth), a characteristic of the Habsburg family which progressively got worse as the inbreeding continued. Eventually, the mandibular prognathism got so bad it got its own nickname: the Habsburg lip. Charles’s Habsburg lip was so bad that he could barely speak or chew, and his royal assistants reportedly had to chew his food for him. He suffered fragile health for his entire life and was described as “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.” He died at the age of 38 in November 1700 without any children to succeed him. This triggered the Spanish War of the Succession, which lasted over a decade and caused nearly 400,000 casualties. Charles may not have had any kids, but this certainly didn’t mean he made no attempt to have children, though.
In 1679, Charles’s marriage to Marie Louise of Orleans was arranged. Marie strongly resisted this marriage, and rightly so, as the French ambassador wrote that “the Catholic King [Charles] is so ugly as to cause fear and he looks ill”. Despite this, the marriage went ahead, and predictably, it was a failure. Charles was already sterile from birth, which was perhaps nature’s way of putting an end to the hundreds of years of Habsburg inbreeding. Through no fault of her own, Marie became unpopular among European royalty due to the lack of an heir. To solve this problem, Marie was administered fertility treatments of the late 17th century, which did nothing except give her severe intestinal problems and clinical depression. By the end of his life, Charles was not only sterile, but also impotent as well.
If the inbreeding wasn’t enough, Charles’s reign from 1665 to 1700 was extremely stressful for not only him, but also for the Spanish Empire. He was born in 1661, but his father and grandfather Philip died in 1665, meaning that he became King when he was four years old. During his time as a minor, his mother ruled in his place. Even when Charles became an adult in 1675 (age 14) and theoretically began ruling in his own name, in practice his poor health meant that power was generally held by others, creating conflict within the Spanish power structure. The Spanish crown was bankrupt in the 1660’s and the Spanish Army was overloaded with military commitments. Thus, it was extremely important that Spain’s endeavours, both in commerce and military, be scaled back dramatically. The economic stress caused by endless wars with France on top of an incompetent leadership created a true crisis that Charles was in no way equipped to handle.
As charles ill health began to irreversibly deteriorate, it became increasingly important that Charles’s successor was determined. Since Charles had no children, and all of his ancestors were dead, the extinction of the Habsburg line was guaranteed. Even though he died in 1700, Charles officially retired several months before after suffering a nervous breakdown caused by the stress of Spain’s internal crises and conflict over his successor. He died five days before his 39th birthday, on 1 November 1700. His autopsy revealed that his body “did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water”. You can thank us for having that image in your head now. His life was summarised excellently by John Langdon-Davies, a British historian:
“We are dealing with a man who died of poison two hundred years before he was born. If birth is a beginning, of no man was it more true to say that in his beginning was his end. From the day of his birth they were waiting for his death.”
Yikes, that is harsh.