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Of inbreeding, royal marriages and their ultimate consequence

In 1496, Princess Juana of Castilla, daughter of their most Catholic majesties Fernando and Isabel, married Philip the Beautiful, son of Maximilan I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, scion of the Hapsburg dynasty.

Juana la Loca
Juana of Castilla

At the time of her marriage, Juana was not expected to inherit the combined kingdoms of Aragón and Castilla. She had an older brother – the obvious heir to both his mother’s and father’s kingdoms – and, failing that, there was an older sister, already safely married to the king of Portugal. Not that Juana cared; she was heads over heels in love with her handsome husband, and over the coming ten years the couple was blessed with six children. Not that the marriage was entirely happy: Philip was a handsome man who liked women, and Juana was a pathologically jealous wife, going to great extremes to ensure her husband’s continued fidelity. This would ultimately backlash on Juana. A woman that jealous had to be mentally unstable somehow…

In 1497, Juana’s brother Juan died. Juana moved one step closer to the Spanish thrones. In 1498, her older sister Isabel died in childbirth, and suddenly Juana was the de facto heir. This greatly appreciated her value in the eyes of her husband and her father-in-law, but in Spain, Juana’s parents were less than pleased, as Juana relatively early on had demonstrated signs of being high-strung and doing things her own way and – even worse, according to her very devout mother – showed a marked indifference towards all religious matters.

In 1504, Juana became queen of Castile upon the death of her mother. The actual ruling was handled by her father and husband, who was proclaimed king of Castile. In 1506, Juana’s beloved husband died. Over eight months, Juana followed her husband’s bier from Burgos (where he’d died and been buried before she ordered him disinterred) to Granada, and her displays of grief were such that she became known as Juana la Loca (Crazy Juana). Using her temporary mental instability as a pretext, her father seized control over Juana’s kingdom. After all, what was he to do? Allow this crazy woman to destroy what he and his wife had built up?

Fernando of Aragón

In 1516, Fernando of Aragón died, naming Juana as his heir. (Rather strange, given that he’d kept his daughter sequestered for the last decade or so. For her own good, of course; the poor woman was incapable of taking care of herself as per her father.) The Aragonese refused to have a crazy queen, but luckily Juana had a son, Carlos, and this capable 16-year-old assumed the governance of both Castile and Aragón, while keeping his mother locked up in Tordesillas. After all, he’s been told his mother was a raving lunatic, and it was much better if she remained where she was.

Juana’s captivity was harsh – and long. She spent the last 46 years of her life as the prisoner of first her father, then her son. Nice guys…

Carlos I
Carlos I – not the best of sons

With Carlos, the Hapsburg dynasty seated itself on the Spanish throne. The older kingdoms were joined into one, and while Carlos spent a lot of time outside of Spain – he barely spoke the language when he took power – there’s no denying he was an energetic and hard-working king, even more so as he also was the Holy Roman Emperor. He must have spent most of his time travelling.

Carlos married his first cousin – not an entirely unusual practise at the time, after all, their most Catholic majesties, Fernando and Isabel were second cousins. The problem with the Spanish branch of the Hapsburgs, however, was that they would almost exclusively marry within the family.

Felipe II

Carlos son, Felipe II was married four times: first with his first cousin, Maria Manuela of Portugal, then with Mary Tudor, then with Isabel Valois, and finally with Ana of Austria, who was the both his niece and his second cousin. With Maria Manuela he had a son, a sickly young man who died young. With Ana of Austria he had five children, of which four died young.

The surviving son, Felipe III, married… yup, his second cousin, Margaret of Austria. Surprisingly, the majority of their children made it into adulthood, and his son, Felipe IV was a vigorous king much given to supporting the arts. It is Felipe IV who was the patron of Velazquez, it is Felipe IV whose daughter is the centrepiece of that delicious painting, Las Meninas. It is also Felipe IV who had a problem producing a surviving male heir – a consequence, perhaps, of all those previous marriages between close relatives.

Felipe IV

Felipe IV started off by marrying Isabel of Bourbon – no blood relative, thank heavens. And still, of all the children she bore him, only two made it beyond childhood: Maria Teresa, future wife of Louis XIV of France (and yes, they were first cousins) and Baltazar Carlos, upon whom rested all the hopes of the Spanish kingdom. Sadly, Baltazar Carlos died at 17.

Baltazar Carlos

When Isabel died, Felipe decided to marry his niece (and cousin), Mariana of Austria. The young woman had been promised as bride for his son, the deceased Baltazar Carlos, and seeing as Felipe IV was newly widowed and in dire need of an heir, he suggested himself as a replacement. I’m not sure the bride did cartwheels of joy, seeing as the bridegroom was 29 years her senior, but princesses in those days had no choice: they were but pawns in the political relationship game and were expected to shut up and obey.

Felipe IV and Mariana had a number of children. Only two survived; a daughter that would go on to be the next empress of Austria (by marrying a cousin) and the last Spanish king of the Hapsburg dynasty, Carlos II.

Carlos II

Poor Carlos II. In him, all signs of inbreeding surfaced. Known as Carlos the Bewitched (how else to explain all his deficiencies?) this boy didn’t speak until he was four, he didn’t walk until he was eight, and so fearful were his caretakers of taxing his weak intellect and physical frailty that he was allowed a life of total indolence, even to the point of refusing to change his clothes or allowed himself to be washed and combed. The young prince was all that remained of the Hapsburg line, and so it was paramount that he marry, with everyone crossing their fingers and hoping that here, at least, he would not be deficient but produce the lusty Spanish heir the country craved.
The problem, of course, was to find him a wife. While royal princesses were married off as their fathers pleased, most European sovereigns were fully aware of just how deformed and weak the Spanish king was. Still, an alliance with Spain was quite the jewel in the crown, and in 1676 Louis XIV decided to ensure that jewel came to him by offering his niece, Marie Louise of Orleans as Carlos II’s bride.

Marie Louise was granddaughter to Louis XIII of France and Charles I of England. By all accounts she was a vivacious and intelligent young woman with other hopes and aspirations, but while it is said that she asked her uncle not to do this to her, Marie Louise had been raised with a keen sense of duty – she was a petite-fille de France, and it was her obligation to serve her country (and her uncle, the king) as well as she could. So, in 1678 she was wed by proxy to Carlos II in France, and in November of 1679, the real marriage was performed in Spain.

480px-Marie_Louise_d'Orléans_by_Mignard_wearing_Marie Louise d'Orleans
Marie Louise

It must have been somewhat of a shock for this educated young lady, raised in a lively, colourful court, to see her new home. The Spanish court was austere – to say the least – and this frivolous young bride was eyed askance, however much she was commended for her beauty. Further to this, there was her husband, who apparently fell totally in love with her upon seeing her. I’m not sure the feelings were reciprocated, but Marie Louise had no choice but to make the best of things, however far from good that best might be.

A little dramatisation of Marie Louise’s meeting with Carlos follows below:

“Mother of God,” Madame Juliette muttered, retreating behind one of the heavy curtains that framed the impressive doorway to the royal bedroom. Her dearest Marie Louise to wed that? She pinched at her cheeks a couple of times, straightened her spine and entered the room with a bland smile, curtseying deeply before the young man who stood in the middle of the floor, half naked for all that it was almost noon.
“Your Majesty,” Madame Juliette said. There was no reply. The king tilted his head, dark eyes regarding her like a thrush might regard a worm – with casual interest but no understanding. The fat man presently struggling with the king’s dark breeches said something in Spanish, his tone making the young monarch’s face crumple.
“My apologies, Madame Juliette,” a soft voice said from somewhere to her right. “Please rise.” Madame Juliette did, having to curb the desire to rub at her aching back. She bowed slightly in the direction of the latest speaker, the dowager queen Mariana. They were of an age, Madame Juliette would hazard, but the queen showed little of her age, carriage so erect Madame Juliette assumed the supporting corset must be most uncomfortable.
“My son is not at his best this early in the day,” the queen said, moving over to pat the king’s cheek. The young man smiled, his overlarge tongue sliding out of his mouth. Drool dribbled over his chin and he tried to say something – to Madame Juliette an incomprehensible jumble of guttural sounds, but mayhap this was Spanish, although it did sound markedly different from the language in which the queen replied. “I trust your lodgings are to your liking?” The queen said, turning back to Madame Juliette.
“Oh yes,” Madame Juliette replied, thinking that a drearier place she had rarely seen before. Everything was in dark wood, all the rooms were hung with dark fabrics, and so far she’d seen no one wearing anything but black.
“And tomorrow is the great day, no?” the queen chirped. “You’re looking forward to meeting your bride, aren’t you, my little Carlos?” The king beamed, nodding so vigorously Madame Juliette feared his head might become dislodged.

“I won’t do it! I can’t do it!” Marie Louise twisted her hands tight and threw Madame Juliette a despairing glance. “How am I to … Dearest Jesus! Look at him, he’s short and ugly, he can barely speak.” She paced the room. “I won’t do it.” She was pink with agitation, which if anything made her even more beautiful than usual, and in her wedding finery it was Madame Juliette’s opinion her young charge looked verily like an angel. At present a most upset angel, to be sure, eyes darting in panic towards the bed where the recent nuptials were to be consummated.
“You must,” Madame Juliette said. This is your duty in life, child.”
“I …” Marie Louise looked away. “I …”
“Think of your duty,” Madame Juliette said. “Close your eyes and pretend you’re somewhere else.”
Moments later, the room swarmed with attendants. Like a brood mare being led to the stud, Marie Louise was prepared for the marital bed, arranged in a welcoming position in the middle of the towering four poster. Madame Juliette wept inside for her sweet child, but kept an encouraging smile on her face. Long, dark curls were brushed to frame Marie Louise’s pale face, the exquisite lace of her chemise was expertly tweaked so as to reveal enough of the bride’s physical attributes. The king was led in, in only his shirt. He was helped onto the bed, his fat attendant positioning him just so. With a murmured reassurance the fat man backed away and the bed hangings were drawn closed. A heavy silence descended on the room. The bed creaked. It creaked and it creaked and there was a stifled gasp, a groan.
“It is done. Excellent,” said the queen dowager, rising from her chair. “I knew he would perform when needed,” she added with a bright smile before exiting the room, her train of black-clad assistants in her wake. Madame Juliette dithered, not sure whether to remain or leave. “Madame?” the queen called from the passage. “Come, Madame. We must leave the young couple to themselves. My son has waited a long time for his bride.”

Ten years later, in 1689, Marie Louise died, having produced no children. Today, it is assumed Carlos II was sterile – which was probably a good thing, given his damaged DNA. Carlos II married again, but there would be no heirs of his body, and in 1700 the last Spanish Hapsburg king died.

In one way, one can say that the Hapsburg dynasty was ushered onto the Spanish throne by the unhappy fate of one woman- Juana of Castilla – and closed with the unhappy fate of another, Marie Louise of France. And in between, there were so many princesses, so many young women who were never asked for their opinion but who were sent off as breeding stock from one European country to the other. I guess quite a few had to close their eyes and think of other things – things like home, like puppy dogs and cake – or why not princesses that laugh and dance, dressed in their best lace as they preen for the artist?

Las meninas. It is Felipe IVs daughter, Maria Teresa, that is the little girl in the middle

21 thoughts on “Of inbreeding, royal marriages and their ultimate consequence”

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  4. I taught high school history to a group of homeschool kids. I always told them, “The last thing you’d want to be is a princess. “

    1. Julian Gammon III

      Unless you were Eleanor of Aquitaine, in which case your were fabulously wealthy and much sought after.

  5. Hello!
    I read that there were instances of insanity (I hate that word! Mental health issues) on both sides re Isabella and Ferdinand? Can these issues be traced back? It wd be v interesting to see how far bk the royal houses of Spain’ mental health issues went.

    1. Isabel of Castile referred to the “black malady” that ran in her family, and yes, there were some very odd eccentrics in the House of Trastámara (to which both Fernando and Isabel belonged) Some would argue a tendency towards severe depression came with the genes, so to say…

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  8. Thank you for such an Interesting article. I could just imagine how traumatic it must’ve been for the poor princess to have to do “that” duty over and over with the king who was not all there mentally.
    The interbreading of the royals has changed in the United Kingdom. Thank goodness.

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