Ways to Get Royally Screwed: The Story of Charles II of Spain


Some say the best writing is that what comes out of the passionate pursuits of the writer. Things you are really enthusiastic about. Historical figures are one of my favorite things to read and totally geek out about, so I will share this passion with you. In this edition you will learn why it is generally not a good idea to marry your cousin… you can easily end up like Charles II of Spain.

If we think about a “genetic lottery”, Charles II of Spain comes out the jackpot winner, although it wasn’t really luck that brought him all the ailments he suffered in life, more like substantial investments from his ancestors that ended up in one giant trust fund. You see, Charles was the last Spanish Habsburg king. The Habsburgs were one of the most important royal houses in Europe and they ruled between the 16th and 18th centuries. Habsburgs were in power in Austria, Germany, Italy (Sicily and Naples), Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic (what used to be Bohemia), Portugal, and of course, Spain. The were also massive fans of marrying each other in order to keep the bloodline as pure as possible (and vast properties and money within the family). It was very common for first cousins or uncle-niece type of marriages. After several generations of this practice, we encounter this specimen of a man:


And this, my friends, is what we call “unfortunate looking”

His mother was Mariana of Austria and she was the second wife of his father Phillip IV of Spain. Mariana was the daughter of Phillip’s sister Maria Anna. That means, his new wife was his niece, which makes Mariana to be both Charles’ mother and cousin. If we start looking at the rest of the lineage, relationships get so freakishly complicated one has to wonder how this child was not going to be messed up. He has one thing in common with the subject of our previous article, Mary I of England. Her douchebag of a husband, Phillip II, was Charles’ great-grandfather (Mary herself was related to both Charles and her husband since she was the child of Catherine of Aragon; the latter was sister to Joana of Castille, Phillip’s grandmother. Told you, complicated lineage!). That’s about all those two had in common.


Charles’ story is one big mess for one very simple reason: he was mentally and physically disabled. He was the only surviving male heir of his family and from birth things seemed a bit, well, off. First of all he had a bizzarely-shaped head and his lower jaw protruded even more than any of his ancestors (a typical characteristic of the Habsburgs known today mandibular prognathism, which is also colloquially know as, oh yeah, the “Habsburg lip”). He had several bone abnormalities and weakness of the muscles, was prone to epileptic seizures, skin ulcers and horrible, horrible mood swings. Experts today think he may have suffered from acromegaly or even congenital syphilis (a gift from his daddy’s numerous brothel visits). By now you are probably thinking OMG, how did this abomination even make it pass childhood?

Well, basically it was clear to his minders the boy was frail and not likely to have a long life. Since he was the only male heir, well, they had to keep him alive until either another male child is born or until he miraculously fathers one. So to not overtax him with too much, they guy was raised (especially by his mother) pretty much like a little wild animal. He didn’t get much of an education, which he wasn’t going to cherish much due to his mental disabilities anyway. He wasn’t even expected to keep clean. Think about this people, we are in a century when people did not bathe often because they feared these would open their pores to disease. So the fact that this guy did not even comply with the bare minimum of cleansing of the time is enough to make you want to gag. And you want to know another interesting fact? Charles had a older sister Margaret Theresa who not only did not inherit any of his ailments, she was considered pretty enough to be immortilized in paintings, most famously in the famous work Las Meninas by Velazquez.


As a ruler Charles was basically pointless. When his father died, his mother was appointed regent on account of the new king’s disabilities. She did not manage the kingdom well and only really worked with those she favorited, regardless of their popularity with the court. The country was in severe financial crisis and in the middle of war with Portugal and with France in the Spanish Netherlands territories. Growing discontent led to a sort of “coup d’etat” against Mariana of Austria and led by Charles’ illegitimate half-brother Don Juan José. At least it was very clear Don Juan José may have had the best interest of his brother the king, when one time he visited and had to cover his nose (guess why…) and insisted the king would at least brush his hair.


I’m pretty certain this face represents his reaction the moment in that waiting room one of his brother’s minders say “you can come in now”

Clearly the hair brushing worked because it certainly helped him catch not just one, but two wives (obviously not both at the same time). His first wife was Marie Louise of Orléans, daughter of the duke or Orléans and grandaughter of the king of France. She was by all accounts a lovely girl who you have to give props to to even agreeing to marry this guy. Could you imagine when she had to have that conversation with her father?


She put on a brave face and married the guy and, in fact, they actually hit it off quite well in spite of, well, everything about him. Charles was madly in love with her from the moment he saw her. But that was not enough to make her married lofe pleasant. The Spanish court proved to be asphixiating for Marie Louise; in France she had lots of freedom, but in Spain the rules were very strict. She never truly had much entertainment in her new country and her close circle of French attendants were always in the midst of treason accussations. She was never truly accepted, and this was worse because she could not get pregnant (possibly because the king could’ve been impotent). She reportedly suffered from depression and overindulged in food, which made her overweight. She died at age 26, from what experts today say could’ve been appendicitis.

At this point you are probably wondering, shouldn’t this guy be dead by now, given all his ailments? This is exactly what the royal court thought so, too. Year after year, the man was “on the verge of death”, and year after year he survived. He even married again after the death of Marie Louise to Maria Anna of Neuburg (geez, another Maria Anna?) who was apparently kind of a bitch and widely unpopular. She also, did not provide the king with an heir.

Finally, at age of 39 (nearly old age back then), Charles II died in El Escorial castle leaving behind a country in turmoil. His death sparked the War of Spanish Succession, mainly between the Austrian Habsburgs and the House of Bourbon. Check out the current Spanish king’s full name for a hint of who (sort of) won.

To summarize:

Reasons Charles II of Spain was “royally screwed”:
Well, technically there is only one reason: his physical and mental health as a result of massive inbreeding. So let’s just, for fun, list all the stuff that was wrong with him:

  • His mandibular prognathism was so pronounced he was unable to properly chew
  • It also made everything he said unintelligible. Having a very large tongue did not helped in the matter. Plus, he drooled a lot
  • He only learned to walk at an age when most children are doing acrobatics that make parents fear for their offsprings’ lives. His severe bone deformities may have been related to the disease acromegaly (although experts say it was more a of combined pituitary hormone deficiency)
  • The disease may have caused also severe muscle weakness and digestive problems (he could not eat any food, only breast milk until age 5)
  • Impotence and infertility, which could’ve also been because of that disease
  • Epileptic seisures, spasm, and dizziness which may have been due to congenital syphilis
  • Also, suppurating ulcers. Ew
  • His abnormally large head may have been the result of distal renal tubular acidosis. That disease also causes massive bone and muscle issues, so he was basically screwed in that department
  • Developmentally and mentally impared. This was someone who had no notion of basic human hygiene, just to give you idea of the level of impairment
  • He was completely bald by age 35, which considering all above, seems like the final insult in the colorful life of the king. Big head? Let’s lose all that hair to make it more prominent, shall we?

His legacy is thus one that proves the expression “all in the family” is perhaps not to be applied when looking for a spouse and have children.

All photos from Wikimedia Commons

1 Comment

  1. jean

    yup, a warning from history .. informative / entertaining text there :]


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