History Wednesday: When Divine Right Goes Wrong

This week History Wednesday takes a slightly a different tack. Unlike Qin Er Shi and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, today’s subject wasn’t a victim of his own greed or stupidity. Through no fault of his own, the problem with Charles II of Spain was that he shouldn’t have been on the world stage to begin with.

In the 17th Century the Hapsburg family ruled large portions of Continental Europe. Like other royal families, they were fond of marrying and having kids with each other to “preserve royal blood” or some shit like that. Now, according to my limited understanding of genetics this isn’t a good idea, as inbreeding is likely to cause, shall we say, problems down the road.

Unfortunately for the Hapsburgs, they didn’t have such sage advice at their disposal. Accordingly over time their dynasty gradually became less like the royal Übermenschen they wanted to be and more like the family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And so in 1661 Spain Charles, the Hapsburg’s analogue to Leatherface, was born.

Charles’ genotype was a mess even by royal standards of the day. His father, Philip IV, was married to his niece, which meant Charles’ mother was also his cousin. One relative was both his aunt and grandmother. Another was both his grandmother and great-grandmother. All eight of Charles’ great-grandparents were descendants of the same couple: Philip I of Castile and the aptly-named Joanna the Mad.

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Who was pretty hot. But still, Joanna the Mad ….

By the time Charles was born the Spanish Hapsburgs had an astonishing record of 16 GENERATIONS of inbreeding and a higher stillbirth rate than the peasants they ruled over. When it came to bad genes Charles hit a Yahtzee.

Just looking at the poor guy’s portraits indicates something was seriously wrong with him. From birth Charles was profoundly physically and mentally disabled, unable to chew his own food, unable to walk until age 8, and barely able to speak due to an enlarged tongue. It just got worse from there. By the time he was 35 he was effectively incapacitated.

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Even the artists didn’t give a shit at that point.

Charles became King of Spain basically by surviving infancy. He ascended to the throne in 1665 at the age of three. His mother/cousin, the only slightly more competent Mariana of Austria, served as his regent and de facto ruler for most of his reign. Almost immediately the brinkmanship and jockeying for position to succeed Charles began in every other royal house in Europe as he was not expected to live very long. Nevertheless Charles managed to live into his late 30s, to the surprise of pretty much everyone. Meanwhile Spain’s economy and standing on the world stage, which weren’t all that hot to begin with during Philip’s reign, steadily eroded.

Intensely religious and convinced his disabilities were caused by sorcery, the very few times he acted independently of his handlers usually dealt with issues regarding the church. Charles presided over some of the worst of the Spanish Inquisition, including the 1680 auto da fe during which 21 supposed heretics were burned at the stake.

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Which, in fact, everyone expected.

After Charles’ first wife (and fellow Hapsburg, natch) Marie Louise of Orleans died depressed and childless in 1689, Charles married yet another Hapsburg, Maria Anna of Neuburg, because hey, why not? Perhaps realizing the utter futility of this whole “produce an heir” business, Maria spent most of her time promoting a relative in Austria as Charles’ successor and grabbing whatever wealth she could from the practically bankrupt Spanish monarchy.

As the last surviving Spanish Hapsburg, Charles died what was probably among the most merciful deaths in history in 1700. According to the coroner’s report his body, “contained not a single drop of blood, his heart looked like the size of a grain of pepper, his lungs were corroded, his intestines were putrid and gangrenous, he had a single testicle which was as black as carbon and his head was full of water.”

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Still possible to accomplish, but not recommended.
Image credit: Trekphiler

Charles’ lasting contribution to world history is perhaps the war ignited by the subsequent free-for-all contest for his throne after his death, which eventually involved pretty much the entire Western world.

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