The Bewitched King

While the birth of Charles II on November 6, 1661 caused universal celebration throughout Spain, the joy was tempered by worries about his health. Nobody realized at the time that he would have one of the most disastrous reigns in Spain's history.

As the only (legitimate) surviving son of King Philip IV of Spain, Charles represented the last, best hope of the Hapsburg Dynasty that had ruled the country for generations.  Although he had an illegitimate half-brother, Don John of Austria, Charles was the one to ascend the throne when his father died in 1665.   Given that Charles was only four years old at the time, his mother Mariana of 210px-Juan_de_Miranda_Carreno_002[1] Austria was appointed regent.  It was a position that she would keep for much of her son's lifetime and her habit of giving priest-confessors political power likely added to the civil unrest that broke out in Spain over the next few decades.   By the time she was finally removed from power in 1677, most of the damage had already been done.

Even from birth, it was readily apparent that Charles was unlikely to live long.  He suffered from numerous medical problems as well as facial deformities.  Along with mandibular prognathism, a.k.a. the Hapsburg lip  (his lower jaw being larger than his upper ) which made him unable to chew food properly, his oversized tongue left him prone to drooling and he didn't learn to speak until he was four years old.   Breastfed until the age of six (using a series of wet nurses), he was treated as an infant for most of his childhood.  Charles didn't  learn to walk until he was eight and was spared the need for schooling or even basic hygiene.    Nobody really expected him to live to adulthood or to rule the country as long as he did and it was the uncertainty over who would take his place that paralyzed the Spanish government.   The lack of confidence helped lead to a major depression in Spain as industry declined (not that it ever really recovered from the Jewish expulsion in 1492).

There have been numerous historical speculations concerning the exact nature of Charles' medical problems but the cause seems readily apparent:  inbreeding.   Not only was his mother also Philip IV's niece (making Philip Charles' father and great-uncle at the same time) but the habit of Hapsburg inbreeding had continued for generations.    Along with being a descendant of Joanna of Castile (a.k.a. Joanna the Mad) on both sides of his family,  his bizarre pedigree featured numerous examples of uncles marrying nieces, cousins marrying cousins, etc.    From 1550 until Charles' time, there was virtually no outbreeding in his family.  While royal inbreeding was hardly restricted to the Hapsburgs, the same medical problems that are commonly associated with excessive inbreeding inevitably cropped up.  Especially so in Charles' case and medical estimates have suggested that as many as 25% of his genes were identical copies of one other (a degree of homozygosity greater than with brother-sister pairings). 

Not that this could be publicly admitted of course.  Being a more superstitious era and given the powerful influence that the Spanish Inquisition had on Spain as a whole, supernatural explanations for the King's illness were preferred.  Charles became commonly known as El Hechizado (the Hexed) and, sure enough, scapegoats weren't hard to find.   While anti-witch hysteria had not actually been common in Spain up to Charles' time (the Inquisition was too busy rooting out heretics instead), that all began to change during his reign.   Being easily influenced by his religious advisors and his powerful mother, Charles himself came to believe that he was the target of witchcraft and often accused friends and acquaintances of working magic against him.    On one occasion, when discussing a former statesman that Charles had arrested, he announced that a "servant of God" had revealed that the fallen statesman was consorting with the Devil.    Freedom of expression largely faded in Spain as the Inquisition tightened its grip and a decree in 1680 banned the publication of any book or pamphlet without prior examination by a tribunal.  Similar decrees banned freedom of public discussion in Spain's universities and all printers were directly regulated by a Superintendent of Printing.

Charles conducted auto-da-fes (public burnings of heretics) regularly and even held one to celebrate his first wedding.  In January 1698, Charles consulted with the Inquisitor General of the time,  Tomas de Rocaberti, about the rumours that his medical problems were caused by sorcery.    Rocaberti consulted a fellow Inquisitor, Froilan Diaz, about finding a cure for Charles' illness.  Diaz knew about an outbreak of demonic possession in a nearby convent and, when the possessed nuns were put to the question (tortured), the demons supposedly revealed that Charles had been bewitched at the age of fourteen.  The spell had been cast on April 3, 1675 by giving Charles a cup of chocolate containing ingredients taken from a corpse  (the Inquisitors used repeated torture sessions to make the nuns provide as much detail as possible).    Rather conveniently, the Queen Mother was identified as the one who cast the spell and the demon said that the only antidote would be to separate her from her son.    The queen was naturally furious at being accused but Charles' gullibility worked against her.  The issue of Charles' bewitchment (and how it could be exploited) attracted interest by governments across Europe.  The Austrian government revealed that a demon-possessed man in Vienna had provided additional information about the spell on Charles and sent a well-known exorcist, Fray Manes Tenda, to Spain to cure the ailing king. 

Suffice it to say that the exorcism didn't work and Charles' condition only got worse.  When Queen Mariana was accused of casting a second spell on her son, she took matters into her own hands and arranged for a new Inquisitor General to be appointed.   Manes Tenda and Froilan Diaz were both arrested and tried by the Inquisition.  Although Charles tried to protect them, he was too weak-willed to stand up to his mother.    The case led to a major break between the Spanish Inquisition and the Vatican which was never really settled during Charles' lifetime.  

As for Charles, there were more important issues at stake, including the question of who would rule Spain after he died.  It's hardly surprising that both of his marriages were childless (and likely unconsummated given his lifelong impotence).  His first wife, Marie-Louise d'Orleans died after ten miserable years leaving Charles heartbroken.  His second wife, Mariana of Neuberg managed to outlive him although her life was hardly a happy one.   As Charles became increasingly ill in the final years of his life, he grew even more paranoid and bizarre as he faced growing pressure over who he would name as his heir.     His habit of changing advisers (depending on who happened to be in favour) and the continuing interference of his mother and his wife made life at the Spanish court intolerable.   Different factions pressured Charles to choose an heir from one of Europe's other royal house (King Louis IV of France and  Leopold 1 of Austria both sent ambassadors to influence the king).   

Although Charles appointed Philip. Duke of Anjou (who also happened to be the grandson of his half-sister as well as Louis IV), his death on November 1, 1700 still triggered the bloody War of the Spanish Succession.   Thirteen years of brutal war followed before Philip was reaffirmed as King of Spain.  The royal House of Bourbon has ruled Spain ever since (King Juan Carlos 1 is Philip's descendant).   It would take generations to undo the political and economic damage of Charles' reign (and Spain never regained its former glory).

Hapsburg inbreeding would continue to haunt European royalty for centuries although Charles II is still the most famous example.   Medical problems would be a common occurrence in numerous royal families including Austria, Bohemia, Bavaria, Spain, Portugal, and Transylvania (which likely contributed to the political turmoil experienced in those different countries).    While the medical consequence of inbreeding have become more well-known (and the political role of royalty diminished),  the case of Charles II remains a graphic example of the inherent danger in hereditary monarchy and how medical science and politics can interact in unexpected ways.

And, yes, there is such a thing as too much good breeding




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