Charles II of Spain was just 38 years old when he died on November 1, 1700. His health had been so poor throughout his life, though, that it was surprising he lasted as long as he did. Indeed, in their magisterial series The Story of Civilization, the historians Will and Ariel Durant once said he was “always on the verge of death, but repeatedly baffled Christendom by continuing to live.”
Born in 1661 in Madrid, Charles was fathered by King Phillip IV of Spain. Phillip had been on the throne for 40 years and was already 56 when Charles was born. Phillip’s first wife, Elisabeth of France, had borne him seven children, only one of whom was a boy – a potential heir – but he had died aged 16. Elisabeth herself had died two years earlier, in 1644.
Charles’ mother, meanwhile, was Phillip’s second wife, Mariana of Austria, whom the king had married in 1646. Mariana was also Philip’s niece, and she bore him five children. Disturbingly, by modern standards, intermarriage between blood relatives was commonplace among members of the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled several European kingdoms. Yes, their idea of keeping it all in the family was rather too literal.
At any rate, two of Philip and Mariana’s children survived into adulthood: Margaret Teresa and her younger brother Charles. And despite being ten years younger than his sister, Charles was the heir to the throne because he was male. As such, he was given the title “Prince of Asturias,” which traditionally went to whomever was due to inherit the Spanish crown.
Of course, the fact that Mariana was Phillip’s niece meant that her son Charles was actually also her first cousin as well as his father’s great nephew. Such are the complexities of having children by close relatives. Moreover, this interbreeding may well have been a factor in the poor health, both mental and physical, that plagued Charles from infancy.
Charles was four years old before he acquired the power of speech, and he was eight before he could walk. Consequently, he was treated as though he were a toddler until the age of ten. He also suffered from a quite severe deformation of the jaw – a characteristic abnormality among those of the Habsburg dynasty. This disability meant that he had great difficulty with both eating and speaking.
Indeed, the young prince was considered to be so sickly that no effort was made to educate him. The reason? In case the stress of learning was too much for his weak constitution. He was also given license to be completely lazy and rebellious. So much so, in fact, that at times he was notably dirty from not cleaning himself.
Despite this catalogue of failings, however, Charles was indeed crowned King of Spain when his father Phillip died in September 1665. At this point, Charles was still weeks away from his fourth birthday, so his mother – and cousin – Mariana was appointed regent to rule in his place.
Now let’s broaden our focus for a moment. Although Spain still had a mighty empire with its extensive territories in the Americas, the Pacific and Africa, it was an empire in decline following mismanagement by Phillip. Other difficulties included a couple of ongoing wars – specifically, with neighboring countries Portugal and France.
Meanwhile, the Spanish court itself, with Mariana at its head, was a hive of intrigue. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Mariana chose her often-undeserving favorites for positions of power. And one Juan Everardo Nithard, whom Mariana appointed as the Grand Inquisitor, emerged at the top of the pile.
With seemingly positive purpose, Nithard set about extracting Spain from its ruinously expensive wars; he signed a peace treaty with Portugal in 1668 and another with France that same year. But not everyone was happy with the concessions that Nithard made, and he was overthrown by John of Austria the Younger, a general who was Charles’ illegitimate half-brother.
The next man in the seat of power was another of Mariana’s favorites, Don Fernando de Valenzuela. But in 1675 John was again the man behind the overthrow that transpired, and the 14-year-old Charles was legally eligible to take on the powers of King of Spain. However, owing to his frailty, Mariana extended her regency, also reinstating Valenzuela to a senior position.
John didn’t tolerate this new situation for long, though, and in a 1678 coup he appointed himself prime minister, exiling both Mariana and Valenzuela from Spain. Less dramatically, John also now made efforts to smarten Charles up a bit by instructing him to keep his hair combed.
More importantly, to secure the succession of the crown after Charles, John decided that a wife must be found for the young king. The lucky bride? A French noblewoman, Marie Louise of Orléans – and the wedding took place in 1679 when the groom was 18 and his new wife 17.
John, meanwhile, had died a couple of months before the wedding, meaning Mariana was able to return to Madrid. But henceforth, in the absence of John, the power behind the throne came from Charles’ wives, of whom, as we shall see, there were to be two.
Sadly, Marie Louise failed in the single-most important thing that was required of her: the production of an heir. Of course, however, that may well have been due to Charles’ infirmities rather than any fault of hers. Then, in February 1689, Marie Louise died suddenly. And, wasting no time, Charles married again in August of that year – this time to Maria Anna of Neuburg.
Charles’ mother Mariana subsequently died in 1896, and so he now ruled without a regent. His second wife, Maria Anna, had no more success in producing an heir than did her predecessor, though. Hence, when Charles died in 1700, there was no clear and obvious successor to the throne of Spain.
However, before that, as the king’s life drew to a close – and though he was always a bit strange – he became increasingly peculiar. One of his oddest eccentricities was to order that deceased members of his family be disinterred. Why? Well, it seems this aberrant weirdness was motivated by his ghoulish desire to look upon their remains.
In keeping with this macabre theme, after Charles’ death, a post-mortem was performed on his cadaver. And the results were pretty freaky. The doctor who carried out the task said that the king’s corpse “did not contain a single drop of blood.” “His heart was the size of a peppercorn,” the physician continued. “His lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.” It seems that Charles was as bizarre in death as he had been in life.
Meanwhile, Spain’s position in the world had declined alarmingly during the reign of King Charles II. Economic chaos, pestilent disease and seemingly ceaseless wars had characterized his reign – or at any rate the reign of those who had actually wielded power. And with no clear heir, Charles had one final gift for Spain: more conflict. The War of the Spanish Succession lasted 12 years, engulfed Europe and saw the deaths of about a million people.