Charles II Of Spain's Health Problems Destroyed His Dynasty And Plunged Europe Into War

He could barely eat because of his disfigured jaw. He suffered from rickets, hallucinations, and an oversized head. He was impotent and infertile. Charles II of Spain, king of one of the largest empires in the world, was barely able to talk or walk - all because his dynasty was so inbred. 

Royal inbreeding caused mutations and birth defects that could be even worse than the already estimable genetic mutations from incest. In fact, Charles II of Spain's inbred birth made him more inbred than the children born of a union between brother and sister. And that's what ultimately explains Charles II of Spain's cause of death: by 35 all his hair fell out and he could barely walk, and before he turned 39 he died without an heir, plunging Europe into a bloody war as various nations vied for his crown.

Charles II of Spain's family tree was intentionally inbred. His father married his own niece, meaning that Charles's mother was also his cousin, and his dad was also his uncle. And that was just the beginning: the Spanish Habsburgs intermarried on purpose for over 200 years, making them among the weirdest royals in history.

With all these genetic issues, it's difficult not to wonder: what did Charles II of Spain look like? His prominent Habsburg jaw made it nearly impossible for the king to eat, and he constantly drooled. He was short, thin, and weak. But the family hired artists to make him look strong and healthy. Still, there was no hiding the outcome of centuries of inbreeding. Charles was the last Spanish Habsburg, a powerful dynasty that killed itself through inbreeding.

  • Most Of Charles's Health Issues Were Caused By Genetic Disorders
    Photo: Juan Carreño de Miranda / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Most Of Charles's Health Issues Were Caused By Genetic Disorders

    The Habsburg gene pool was even worse than that specific relation would indicate, because the family had generations of inbreeding leading to Charles II. 

    Two of Charles's great-grandfathers married their own nieces, while another married his first cousin. Because his parents were closely related, Charles was also his own mother's first cousin and his father's great-nephew. His grandmother was also his aunt. Charles's family tree traced back to a single couple: Philip and Joanna of Castile, who lived in the 16th century.

    Charles likely suffered from two genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis. The first, caused by a mutation in the gene necessary to produce hormones in the pituitary gland, was responsible for Charles's short stature, infertility, and impotence. It could also cause weak muscles and digestive problems. 

    The second, caused by a gene mutation, makes it difficult for the kidneys to get rid of acid through the urine. It can lead to bloody urine, weak muscles, and a large head relative to the size of the body.

  • Paintings Of A Healthy King Hid His Decrepit Body
    Photo: Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Paintings Of A Healthy King Hid His Decrepit Body

    Although painters tried to depict Charles II as a healthy, strong king, they hid the truth of the ruler's physical conditions. He suffered from epileptic seizures that grew increasingly worse as he got older, and he was constantly plagued by diseases including measles, rubella, a plethora of dental and bronchial infections, frequent diarrhea, and vomiting. He also had the famous Habsburg jaw. The jutting jaw made it nearly impossible for Charles to chew his food. According to a British envoy, Alexander Stanhope, Charles II, "swallows all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands so much out, that his two rows of teeth cannot meet."

    Charles married twice - first at the age of 18, and then at 29 - but was unable to have children either time, with one wife complaining that Charles was impotent. By his 30s, Charles reportedly looked like an old man. In 1698, French Ambassador Marques d'Harcourt wrote to Louis XIV, Charles had "swollen feet, legs, abdomen, face and sometimes even his tongue so that he can not speak" and was "so weak that he [could] not be out of bed for more than one or two hours."

    He struggled so with so many physical ailments he garnered the title of "the Bewitched" and the reputation extended even after his death. The royal court performed a post-mortem examination. It was uncommon for most royals, but Charles II was a rare exception. According to the autopsy the Bewitched King had "a very small heart of the size of a grain of pepper, the lungs corroded, the intestines putrefactive and gangrenous, in the kidney three large stones, a single testicle as black as coal and his head full of water." The results may have been exaggerated, but it's demonstrative of his reputation among his contemporaries.

  • Charles's Problems Were Apparent From Childhood
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Charles's Problems Were Apparent From Childhood

    When Charles II was born in 1661, his parents must have thought he would not live long. Contemporary writings called the baby "big headed" and a "weak breast-fed baby." Charles did not speak until he turned four, and he was unable to walk until the age of eight. In spite of paintings that tried to show him as a healthy baby, Charles was weak and ailing from birth.

    According to Jacques Sanguin, an envoy for King Louis XIV sent to confirm the baby's sex amid rumors that he was not a male heir, Charles "seems extremely weak, both cheeks have a herpes-type rash, the head is covered with scabs, and below the right ear a type of suppurating duct or drainage has formed."

    Charles inherited the Spanish throne at the age of four when his father died. But even his own family doubted that he could ever rule alone - his mother became the boy's regent. Historian Stanley G. Payne described young Charles as a "pathetic prince,"and "the degenerate product of five generations of Spanish Habsburg inbreeding."

  • The Spanish Habsburgs Had Higher Infant Mortality Rates Than The Peasantry
    Photo: David Teniers the Younger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Spanish Habsburgs Had Higher Infant Mortality Rates Than The Peasantry

    The 17th century wasn't a great time to be a peasant. Agricultural production dropped, famine destroyed communities, and epidemics swept across Europe. But peasants were still better off than the Spanish Habsburgs in one important way: they weren't killing themselves off from intentional inbreeding. 

    Charles's father, King Philip IV, was only 10 years old when his parents arranged his first marriage, to the daughter of the French king. Out of their eight children, only two were boys, and both died before inheriting the throne. After the death of his first wife, Philip remarried his own niece, Mariana of Austria. The couple had two daughters and two more sons who died as children.

    Between 1527 and 1661 - the year Charles II was born - the Spanish royal families produced 34 children. Nearly 30% of them died before the age of one, and a full half died before their 10th birthdays. Shockingly, one of the wealthiest families in the world suffered from worse mortality rates than Spanish commoners, whose infant mortality was around 20%. And it was all because of choosing to marry within the family.

  • The Habsburgs Intended To Strengthen Their Line Of Succession
    Photo: Vicente Poleró y Toledo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Habsburgs Intended To Strengthen Their Line Of Succession

    Inbreeding was common practice for Europe's royalty - it was known as royal intermarriage. And for two centuries, the Spanish Habsburgs married within their family to maintain their royal heritage. The vast majority of their marriages during the 16th and 17th centuries were between blood relatives.

    The Habsburgs justified their inbreeding by claiming the practice strengthened lines of succession and helped secure political alliances. During an era when royal blood was considered substantially different from common blood, rulers wanted to marry other rulers - but sometimes there weren't many options outside of cousins. The practice of intermarriage, meant to insure the purity of the bloodline, brought a host of genetic ailments and deformities that destroyed the monarchy.

  • Spain's Colonial Expansion Caused Economic And Political Strife
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Spain's Colonial Expansion Caused Economic And Political Strife

    Charles inherited a massive empire that dated back to the 16th century, when his ancestor Charles V had ruled over Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and an enormous amount of territory in the New World. His vast territories were described as "the empire on which the sun never sets."

    Wealth poured into Spain through its major port city, Seville, which Cervantes described as "just the place to find adventure, for in every street and on every street corner there were more adventures than in any other place.” Spain's transatlantic fleet appeared twice a year carrying gold and silver along with exotic luxury goods like cocoa, pineapples, and chili peppers. But all of the Spanish Empire's wealth couldn't prevent the decline of the Habsburg monarchy.

    Spain faced a long decline in the 17th century. While millions of pounds of silver flooded the country between 1580 and 1630, the mass amounts the Spanish empire brought into the European market caused extreme inflation for the Spanish currency. The monarchy took on enormous amounts of debt while funding a multitude of war efforts in both Europe and the Americas.

    But poor leadership from the Habsburgs also contributed to the decline. Historian J.H. Elliot described the rule of Charles II in his book Imperial Spain: "This last pallid relic of a fading dynasty was left to preside over the inert corpse of a shattered monarchy, itself no more that a pallid relic of the great imperial past." The king was simply unable to rule his empire, which would never again reach the heights of the 16th century.