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The reigns in Spain are anything but plain. I know that trite play on words from the famous song has been done to death, but it sums up the royals rather well, especially for the House of Habsburg whose reign in Spain ended in pain.

Sorry, I will stop that now. This is the story of incest and ambition, of a family so intent on creating a powerful empire, they ended up destroying it.

Rudolf I of Germany

Among the topmost branches of the Habsburg family tree sits a man named Rudolf. Rudolf was an influential feudal lord, powerful noble and the son of a count from whom he inherited vast swathes of land in what is present day Switzerland and Germany. To cut short the complex details that we fell asleep through during history class, he was elected to become king by the prince electors in 1273 and ruled for 18 years. After a 300 year long succession of Habsburg kings, mostly all known as Albrecht, Frederick or Leopold, we arrive to 1508 when Maximilian I is crowned king and hence begins our Spanish tale.

Maximilian I - 'The Last Knight' of a new era.

Maximilian was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire - the head of state of an empire that included most of Europe during the Middle Ages. He was defender of the Catholic faith and ruler by divine right. He inherited the title from his father despite it being an elected position and came to be known as a popular and competent leader. Max wasn’t considered very bright as a child. He suffered a speech defect which was probably due to the jutting jawline and prominent lower lip that was to plague his male descendants for many centuries to come. However, as an adult, he proved to be an excellent linguist, sportsman, author, painter, musician, patron of the arts and statesman. He also excelled in common trades such as farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, and he was recklessly brave.

Maximilian I

He was an all-rounder with a foot in two worlds – a conventional chivalrous medieval knight of the Middle Ages and an enlightened forward-thinking Renaissance man. He understood the idea of publicity and self-image and this tendency towards self-promotion was legendary. If Max had lived today, he would have been entertaining everyone on Facebook about his reforms and exploits, uploading photos and videos to TikTok of his hunting successes and latest mistress, or tweeting pithy quotes from famous poets and painters. He later wrote in his ‘Memoria’; “He who makes no memory of himself during his lifetime will have none after his death and will be forgotten with the tolling of the final knell.” He made excellent use of the recent invention of the printing press by creating “propaganda” news sheets and pamphlets that attacked his enemies and extolled his own accomplishments.

The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel.

Maximilian’s connection to Spain begins when his wife, Mary of Burgundy, ruler of the Burgundian territories, has a boy child named Phillip and a girl child named Margaret. The children grow up and in a stroke of genius and a bigger stroke of luck, get married to the son and daughter of Queen Isabel of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, (also known as the Catholic Monarchs of Spain). Besides managing to cancel out the required dowries, these convenient marriages were a decisive move to strengthen the alliance between Spain and Austria and appropriate the Italian peninsula by driving out the French.

Philip the Fair and Joanna the Mad – a one-sided love story.

Phillip married Joanna and Margaret married Joanna’s brother, Crown Prince John, the following year, but sadly she died shortly after. After John, the next in line to the throne was his older sister Isabel who had married Manuel, the King of Portugal, and had a son. As Joanna was fourth in line to the throne, there was little chance Phillip would become king consort. But fortune is a fickle friend, especially in an age of high infant mortality and dodgy medical practices. In 1495 Isabel dies in childbirth, her brother John dies of tuberculosis in 1497 and Isabel’s son dies before his second birthday. In a few short years, Joanna and Phillip have become heirs to the throne of Castille and Aragon. This is why nobody likes history exams.

Philip ‘The Fair’ was a 16th century heartthrob, according to what the French king Louis XII had said on meeting him; “Here is a beautiful Prince!” Going by the portraits of Philip at the time, it may have been sarcasm, but he was attractive enough to become a philanderer and for his young wife Joanna to fall madly in love with him at first sight. Philip had inherited the territories of the Duchy of Burgundy and the Low Countries from his mother which kept him away from his wife in Spain for long periods of time. This made Joanna highly distraught and according to her biographers, a little crazy. She longed to be with her beloved and became exceedingly jealous of his love interests.

Philip "The Fair"

Queen Isabel of Castille died in 1504, making Joanna queen, and here accounts differ as to her competence as a monarch. There is nothing like unrequited love to make a passionate woman go a tad mad. But the problem may centre on the role Queen Isabel’s husband, King Ferdinand played as he was only king of Aragon, meaning Castille was now in the hands of his daughter and her ambitious foreign husband. Ferdinand felt Castille should be under his rule as husband of the late queen, Joanna felt (rightly) that she was queen regnant, and Philip felt the royal duties were his responsibility because he had more experience than his wife in such matters. A legal agreement was eventually reached that they would rule jointly but Philip and Ferdinand increasingly clashed over political affairs while Joanna became increasingly excluded from them.

Joanna "The Mad"

Here history has not been kind to Joanna, painting her as “loca” (mad), prone to fits of hysteria and deep bouts of depression. Both Joanna’s father and husband convinced the Cortes she was unstable and unfit to rule, and she became a pawn in their power struggles. Whether Joanna genuinely suffered from mental illness or not is disputed by historians but either way, she ended up outliving them both because Philip mysteriously dropped dead, most likely from poison, in 1506 at the age of 28.

Whatever Phillip managed to accomplish in his short life is overshadowed by what happened to him in his death. Again, the accounts that have survived the centuries no doubt originated from the need to discredit her sanity, but it is said Joanna was so struck with grief she toured the country with his coffin, opening it regularly to gaze upon his face and even having the corpse share her bed when they stayed at inns. This popular gory story has been repeated so often it has successfully cemented the idea of a Juana la Loca in the collective mind, but it was a good enough excuse for her father to lock her away in a convent in Tordesillas where she remained till her death at the ripe old age of 75.

'Doña Juana "la Loca"' by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz

Charles V – Holy Roman Emperor of an empire on which the sun never sets.

Joanna had six kids with Phillip, and her oldest son, Charles, who had spent his entire childhood in Flanders, was 16 when Ferdinand died. Taking advantage of his mother’s impotence, Carlos quickly set himself up jure matris, (Latin – ‘by right of his mother’) becoming ‘co-monarch’ but keeping her well locked up and out of mind. Charles hardly spoke a word of Spanish when he rode into his new realms and despite the initial distrust of his subjects and the Cortes, Charles won them over by promising to learn the language, not appoint foreigners or remove precious metals from the lands, and recognise his mother as sovereign.

Charles V Holy Roman Emperor/ Charles I of Spain

Carlos inherited everything from his four grandparents, even the prominent chin and protruding jaw; he was Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, King Charles I of Spain (when his mother died), Duke of Burgundy with lands from Germany, northern Italy and Austria as well as the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. He was the first monarch of a unified Spain, uniting the crowns of Castile, Aragon and Navarra. Spain was also just beginning to reap the riches from the colonies set up in the Americas, thanks to Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, so money was coming in and the powerful empire was growing. But, as defender of the faith, most of the money went into trying to crush the Protestant Reformation, which failed badly, and to contain the Muslim Ottoman Empire to the east.

When it came to royal marriages, besides being to strengthen ties with potential rival kingdoms, there was always a fierce desire to keep it all in the family, so the genetic similarity in the royal lineages has consistently been one of their idiosyncrasies. But the Habsburgs took inbreeding to the next level. Charles’ Spanish grandparents had been first cousins and he followed suit by marrying Isabel of Portugal, daughter of King Manuel of Portugal and Maria of Castile - younger sister of both her husband’s deceased first wife and the sister of Charles’ mum. The Habsburg lineage was soon to get interesting.

Philip II – the bureaucrat of a Golden Age

From the age of high neck ruffs, the paintings we have of Philip II show that the Habsburg chin is not about to go away any time soon. His well-groomed head sits snugly on the frills like a hairy rugby ball in a voluminous nest and his earnest gaze says a lot about his temperament. Philip ruled when Spain and the rest of the Habsburg empire was at its pinnacle, stretching from the Americas in the west and across Europe to his namesake in the east, the Philippines. Philip picked up the baton of his father’s burdens and became champion of the Catholic cause. The Protestant problem in Europe was looming ever larger and the fear of uprisings among the Moors in Spain and north Africa, along with the Ottoman wars were a constant threat. But Philip truly believed he had God on his side and was intent on creating a global religion.

'Philip II' by Sofonisba Anguissola

Philip has been portrayed in popular culture as rather a foul figure mostly due to the Black Legend created around Spain and Catholicism in general by the Protestants and other enemies of the empire. But in reality he was a hard-working, albeit somewhat obsessive, monarch who introduced a modern administrative system that allowed him to work from Spain rather than travel Europe visiting his kingdoms, which had previously been the norm. The title of Holy Emperor had been passed to his father’s brother, Ferdinand, leaving Philip to focus on uniting Spain and Portugal, increasing the spice and precious metal trade from the Americas and fighting the infidels. He ruled his empire from a desk in the newly formed capital of Madrid, delegating officials to travel to and communicate with the Low Countries and Italy. Yet he was also a bureaucratic king who read every dispatch, creating for himself an enormous workload, and consequently slowing the process down considerably.

Don Carlos – the sadistic son

'Prince Don Carlos' by Alonso Sánchez Coello

Philip was serious, devout, industrious, and prudent in his working life but extremely unlucky in his family life. His choices of wives were politically motivated yet mostly agreeable. His first wife, Maria Manuela, Princess of Portugal, was his double first cousin – daughter of Philip’s maternal uncle and paternal aunt – who gave birth to the infamous Don Carlos and died a few days later from a haemorrhage. With so much inbreeding already by his great-grand parents, grandparents, and parents, it comes as little surprise to learn Charles was born physically deformed, mentally unstable, sickly and grew up to be impulsively violent and deranged. As a young boy, he became notorious for his sadistic treatment of animals and later, the attempted murder of servants, the Duke of Alba and even John of Austria (Don Juan, Philip’s illegitimate half-brother). When Charles planned to kill his father and escape to the Netherlands to join the rebels, Philip was forced to imprison him in his rooms where he died at the age of 23.

Bloody Mary

'Mary I of England' by Anthonis Moor

Philip’s second wife was ‘Bloody Mary’ Queen Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary was his father’s cousin and had just been crowned the Catholic monarch of England much to the disappointment of the Protestants. Neither Philip nor the English population were overjoyed by the choice of husband, but Philip was keen on drawing the country into the Holy League and agreed to marry the woman. Mary was 10 years his senior and older than her age but had been very taken by the portrait sent her of the handsome young Spaniard. Philip however, upon their meeting, was apparently repulsed by the woman’s smell and looks. He was also frustrated by Mary’s false pregnancies and spent most of their marriage away, dealing with his other kingly duties. He was finally spared any more marital obligations when she died, probably of uterine cancer, four years later. Philip wrote to his sister, “I felt a reasonable regret for her death”.

Elizabeth of Valois

'Queen Elisabeth of Valois' by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz:

Philip’s third wife, Elizabeth of Valois, was not as closely related to her husband, so despite her youth and two miscarriages, she gave the king two healthy and intelligent daughters – Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Michaela. Elizabeth was only 14 when she married the 32-year-old king and had been originally betrothed to his son Don Carlos who by this time was proving to be a rather erratic heir. Philip and Elizabeth by all accounts were very fond of each other; he doted on his wife, and she found him a caring and charming husband. All was good until she died at 23 giving birth to a premature daughter, who also died. Philip was devastated but became very close to his daughters, especially Isabel with whom he trusted the affairs of the state such as translation of documents from Italian into Spanish and who looked after him when he became old and infirm. Upon marrying her off to her cousin Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, Philip ceded the Habsburg Netherlands for them to jointly rule.

Anna of Austria

'Portrait of Anna of Austria' by Sofonisba Anguissola:

You’d think by now Philip would have guessed that he was producing better offspring with people not so closely related to him, but the desire to produce a male heir and reinforce the Austrian ties led him to his next and final wife - his niece Anna of Austria, daughter of Maximilian II and Maria of Spain (themselves both first cousins). Sigh. Again, despite the age difference, the couple got on well and it was a happy marriage, except for the fact four out of their five children all died under the age of eight. The one surviving child was the desperately needed heir, Philip III.

Philip III – the Ineffective

While Philip II may have been maligned and reviled amongst his enemies, at least they found him competent. His son Philip III however was not held in the same esteem and was considered a weak, ineffectual monarch; “pallid”, “insignificant” and “undistinguished” were the most pleasant things said about him by historians. Born a sickly child, he grew up to be equated with a declining empire. Governing was not his strong point, and it was now more than ever that Spain needed a tenacious decisive leader. Spain was steeped in national debt, mainly due to the inflation caused by the amount of silver and other precious metals coming in from the Americas, and conflicts continued to drain the treasury.

'Philip III' by Andrés López Polanco

His faith in his nobles, particularly the Duke of Lerma, in whom he placed much of the political power, proved to be a major mistake. The Duke of Lerma was called “the greatest thief in Spain” and his influence in political matters and personal extravagance made him many enemies. Famine and plague further affected the economy and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Moriscos (Moors who had converted to Christianity during the reconquest) in 1609, while replenishing the royal treasury with the confiscated property, created a void in the supply of cheap labour, especially in the kingdoms of Valencia, Aragon, and Murcia.

Philip IV – the self-indulgent patron of the arts

Philip III died in 1621 after a long illness and left his 16-year-old son Philip IV to carry on the increasingly declining genetic line. Most of the images we have of this king were painted by the famous Spanish court painter Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velazquez, that portray a pale auburn-haired elongated face with the impassive Habsburg hooded eyes, fleshy pouty lips and prominent chin. His moustache turns upwards, as was the fashion of the day, probably compensating for the lack of a smile. Philip IV reigned for 44 years and though was more interested in hunting, theatre and other pleasures than reigning, he is still considered a better ruler than his father and the embodiment of Baroque earnestness.

'Philip IV' by Diego Velázquez

During Philip’s time on the throne, there were rebellions in the kingdoms, wars with Protestants, France, and Portugal, a loss of territories in Europe and continued financial problems. The empire was breaking up and his only son by Elizabeth of Bourbon died suddenly at 16 years old leaving him without an heir. Philip had married Elizabeth when he was 10 years old and she 13 and being more interested in toy soldiers and dolls than conserving an empire is not a good start to any marriage.

Philip was known to have many mistresses during his married life as well as many illegitimate children and his wife wasn’t spared his lust either, being pregnant eleven times and giving birth eight times. Unfortunately only two children survived beyond childhood - Balthasar Charles (who died at 16), and Maria Teresa who later married King Louis XIV of France.

'Marianna of Austria' by Diego Velázquez

Philip remarried at the age of 44, this time to his 15-year-old niece, Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria. Paintings by Velazquez of the new queen reveal an unhappy girl who looks remarkably like her husband. After Philip’s death, Maria Anna was regent for her sickly infant son, Charles, until he came of age, though it wasn’t looking hopeful he would in fact inherit the throne. Once again fortune proved to be fickle and the last spike of wheat of a failing crop amazed everyone by lasting 38 years.

Charles II

Here we come to the end of our saga and it’s a beauty. Finally, after dozens of generations of his family’s incessant inbreeding, the weak odd-looking baby Charles II is born on the 6th November 1661 in the Royal Alcázar of Madrid. From the start nobody expected him to live. Nicknamed “The Bewitched”, he was subjected to a variety of exorcisms and spells and his entire childhood is marked by people waiting for the poor boy to die. Born with a misshapen head, his profile resembled a crescent moon; the Habsburg prognathous chin had reached its zenith and the jutting jaw made it impossible to chew food properly resulting in stomach ulcers. He was unable to walk properly after contracting rickets and he was said to be epileptic.

A flattering portrait of Charles II by Juan Carreño de Miranda:

As if that wasn’t enough, he remarkably survived measles, chickenpox, rubella and smallpox. The visiting Ambassador of the Holy See wrote at the time: “His body is as weak as his mind. From time to time he shows signs of intelligence, memory and a certain liveliness, but not now; usually he has a slow and indifferent look, clumsy and indolent, seeming dumbstruck. You can do with him what you want because he has no will of his own.” He was given a basic education but not taught how to govern, though later he seemed to show a mental capability greater than he was given credit for. He had enough sense to put people in charge of important decisions and historians now believe he had more influence on the workings of the politics of the day than previously thought.

Whatever the truth about Charles’ aptitude is, it was fortunate he was unable to breed. Married twice, his wives bore no children and on his death the doctor responsible for his autopsy wrote descriptively, albeit a little exaggeratedly, of his findings: 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.”

It was the end of an era and with his death began the War of Spanish Succession between Philip, Duke of Anjou, France and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles of Austria. 16-year-old Philip, grandson of Maria Teresa who was sister of the last Spanish Habsburg, won the throne and was the longest-reigning monarch in Spanish history, ruling for 45 years. The House of Bourbon brought in reforms and dragged Spain kicking and screaming into the 18th century, uprooting the old family tree that in the end resembled more a crocheted handkerchief than a tree.

The House of Bourbon has produced its own fair share of interesting characters over the last 300 years, but that’s for another post.

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