Why “Charles the Bewitched” Was the Last of the Spanish Habsburgs

Physical and mental infirmities from decades of inbreeding plagued Charles II

Tim Gebhart

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Portraits of Charles II of Spain around age 8 and 25 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

TThe House of Habsburg was a royal powerhouse. Members of the family sat on the thrones of Europe from 1273 until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The Habsburgs adopted a unique approach for maintaining and expanding their power. They followed a policy of marrying into other dynasties. While family members held power in various countries, two main branches emerged: the Austrian and the Spanish.

Although an effective political device, the repeated intermarriage caused inbreeding. It was so extreme, two Spanish geneticists referred to the Habsburgs as an “inbreeding laboratory.” Charles (Carlos) II of Spain is the poster child for the consequences. The law of genetics made him the last of the Spanish Habsburgs.

Experts say that in its 184-year-rule (1516–1700), more than 80 per cent of Spanish Habsburg marriages were between close blood relatives, including first cousins and uncles and nieces. Charles II’s parents were a prime example. His father, Philip IV, was the uncle of his mother, Mariana, making his grandmother also his aunt. Philip was a Spanish Habsburg; Mariana was an Austrian Habsburg. All of Charles II’s great-grandparents descended from Philip I, who ruled in 1504, and Joanna I, who ruled from her husband’s death until 1555. It perhaps didn’t bode well that she is known to history as “Joanna the Mad.”

Charles II was born on November 6, 1661. Madrid’s newspaper proudly announced he was “a robust male, handsome of face, well-proportioned head, black hair, and somewhat pudgy.” However, a report to France’s Louis XIV said Charles II “seems extremely weak, both cheeks have a herpes-type rash, the head is covered with scabs, and below the right ear a type of suppurating duct or drainage has formed.” That report is more accurate because health problems plagued his life.

“His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility,” says one online biography. In their multi-volume The Story of Civilization, historians Will and Ariel Durant were more detailed: “Short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on…

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Tim Gebhart

Retired Lawyer. Book Addict. History Buff. Lifelong South Dakotan. Blog: prairieprogressive.com