One of the most influential royal houses of Europe that produced all sorts of kings and emperors was the House of Habsburg, also known as the House of Austria.
The Habsburg kings and emperors ruled over various kingdoms back in the day: Bohemia, Croatia, Portugal, Germany, as well as Spain, just to name a few.
Charles II of Spain was the last ruler of Habsburg Spain and although he had the responsibility to run a large and powerful kingdom, he went down in history as an infirm ruler remembered by how his physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities affected his work. He was also known as “the Bewitched”.
Charles was born in Madrid in 1661, as a son of King Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, Mariana of Austria. By the time of his death, Philip IV was survived only by Charles as the single surviving legitimate son and heir. Unfortunately, Charles’s physical and mental disabilities were largely the result of his ancestors, whose marriages were frequently based on incest. Such relationships were common among 17th-century European nobility, and the Spanish royal house was no exception. Moreover, the Habsburgs were an extreme case. They had won their extensive holdings of powers mostly through inter-marriages and were unwavering when it came down to mixing with other families.
Charles II struggled with health and mental issues through most of his life and he died at the age of 38, just five days before turning 39. Childless and without an heir, all potential Habsburg successors had already died before his death occurred. In his will, the infamous king had named his 16-year-old grand-nephew Philip, Duke of Anjou, as an heir. At the same time, Philip was a grandson of the reigning French king Louis XIV, as Charles II’s half-sister Maria Theresa of Spain happened to be the first wife of the famous French ruler. It almost sounds like a scenario from a Spanish telenovela.
Though Charles II failed in his duty as a king, his kingdom was still active and its empire spread around the globe. The question of who would succeed him had long troubled ministers all around the European continent. When he finally died, it was a period of political crisis and imbalance of power in Europe, leading to the War of the Spanish Succession shortly after the death of Charles.
However, perhaps a more intriguing aspect related to the death of Charles II of Spain was not the culminating political crisis, but the strangeness of his final days and the condition of his dead body.
Towards the end of his life, Charles’ health was becoming more and more fragile; he became strange and hypersensitive. Allegedly, at one point he demanded that the bodies of his family be exhumed so he could look upon their corpses. He retreated after surviving a nervous breakdown, caused by the huge pressure put on him to attempt to pull Spain out of the economic crisis it was going through. From then on, he lived a simpler life, supposedly playing games and spending his time on similar idle activities – not so typical for a ruler of any grand civilization.
After he died in Madrid on 1 November 1700, the physician who performed his autopsy had reportedly stated 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.” American historians Will and Ariel Durant, co-authors of the book The Story of Civilization, had further described Charles II as “short, lame, epileptic, senile, and completely bald before 35, he was always on the verge of death, but repeatedly baffled Christendom by continuing to live.”
Under the reign of Charles II, the situation of Spain became hazardous on many levels. Spanish power and prestige declined at an unimaginable pace. The economy almost collapsed, being especially weak between 1650 and 1700. Low productivity, famines, and epidemic outbursts were just part of the major challenges that the kingdom was faced with. In addition, the population decreased and the territory of the kingdom shrank too. If nothing else, it’s an epic lesson that if a civilization wants to sustain its status of greatness, it should always produce leaders who can demonstrate greatness too.