After far too many posts outside of my favourite era, I feel an urge to return ”home”. The 17th century beckons, and I long for men in breeches and coats, lace collars and cuffs, for women with covering skirts, with their hair tucked out of sight. I long for the swaggering of young musketeers, for the determination of the people who crossed the seas to better themselves. So, dear 17th century, here I come!
I thought I’d begin this little 17th century frenzy with a post about a Spanish queen. Now, as many of you know, the 17th century is Spain’s Golden Age. El Siglo Dorado, as the Spanish themselves say, some of them with a somewhat crooked smile, as it is also the century that effectually bankrupted Spain, leaving it weak and economically unstable for centuries to come. How? Why? I hear you asking, and to keep this very brief and simplistic, the Golden Age is an explosion of art and culture, of exquisite paintings, of fantastic literature, of a court dripping with jewels – all of it paid for by the riches that came from overseas, from Spanish America.
Problem was, the Spanish imported the gold and silver, sent it on to (mostly) present day Netherlands to be converted into objects of beauty, and paid through their noses for the artisan’s added value. So, in actual fact, it was the goldsmiths of the Netherlands that amassed wealth. Plus, of course, it didn’t help that Spain was constantly at war, its huge sprawling empire attacked on all fronts by the greedy French, the belligerent Italians, the rebellious Flemish, the sneaky English and the back-stabbing Portuguese. Wherever Spain looked, it saw an enemy – well, more or less. More, as per the Spanish…
In actual fact, El Siglo de Oro is a gilded veneer on a society that was anything but golden, with rampant poverty in various parts of Spain, with the excessive wealth offered by the colonies controlled by a relatively small upper class. For the common man, there was nothing golden about 17th century Spain. It was as dark, dirty and dreary as the preceding centuries had been. For us modern people, the outpouring of cultural activity in El Siglo de Oro is a treasure trove. Probably because we don’t have to sleep with rats running over our faces, or live off bread and watery bean soup.
Anyway, before I get all carried away and turn this into a deep dive into the dark underbelly of the 17th century in general – being poor is never a good thing to be, no matter in what age, and the number of poor in Europe was substantially higher back then than now – allow me to introduce my leading lady – Mariana of Austria.
Born in 1634 as Maria Anna, this young woman was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III and Maria Anna of Spain (to avoid confusion, she was therefore called Mariana). In keeping with Hapsburg tradition, Ferdinand and Maria Anna were closely related – they were first cousins, which meant that Mariana’s maternal grandmother also was her paternal great-aunt. Intermarriage, however, had been going on for ages, and this was a tradition the Hapsburgs saw no reason to break, which is why Mariana early on was selected as the future bride of her first cousin, Baltasar Carlos of Spain.
Baltasar Carlos was the only son of Felipe IV of Spain. Despite several childbirths, Felipe IVs wife, Elizabeth of France, had failed in giving her husband more than the one precious son and one surviving daughter. The male heir was frequently portrayed – the equestrian painting by Velazquez that graces the top of this post is especially famous – and by all accounts Baltasar Carlos had it in him to be a good future king and a handsome husband. Except, of course, that he died of smallpox at the tender age of sixteen.
Oh dear, oh dear. Spain was left without an heir, Mariana was left without an intended. Being of a pragmatic nature, Felipe IV came up with an elegant solution, very much egged on by his sister: he could marry his little niece, thereby ensuring Mariana ended up Queen of Spain as promised. Everyone thought this was a splendid idea, and all that consanguinity further up the family tree was waved away as being irrelevant – after all, there were papal dispensations for each and every one of them.
What Mariana might have thought is unknown. From being promised to a young boy five years her senior, she was now to marry her uncle, almost thirty years older than her. Being a princess back then was not exactly a bed of roses – but Mariana had been raised to do her duty by her family, and in any case there was little she could do. So in October of 1649, not yet fifteen, she married Felipe IV. In July of 1651, she presented her husband with the first of their children, a little girl called Margarita Teresa. This little princess is the central figure in Velazquez’ masterpiece Las Meninas.
A girl, however, was not good enough. Felipe IV already had a daughter, Maria Teresa, who at the time was 13 or so, a mere four years Mariana’s junior. There was a growing opinion that Felipe should name his eldest daughter his heir – Spain had no Salic law, which meant a woman could inherit as well as a man – but Felipe was not about to give up hope of a son. The pressure was on, and as months became years with no sign of a royal pregnancy, one imagines Mariana grew increasingly nervous. After all, her husband had fathered multiple children – some of them on the wrong side of the blanket.
Other than failing at her duty to deliver a male heir, Mariana was isolated at court, too young to be a valuable companion to her husband, too naïve to be included in any political discussions. She took solace in religion, becoming so devout it raised brows even in the extremely religious Spain. I imagine her praying and praying for that elusive son, weeping every time her period came – a symbol of her failure to deliver.
It took four years before the next royal baby entered the world in December of 1655. A girl. A sickly girl who died within 15 days. Felipe may have looked grim. Mariana may have been despondent. Did they comfort each other as well as they could? Who knows, but two years later, Mariana was delivered of a boy – a prince named Felipe after his father.
Little Felipe Próspero’s arrival allowed Felipe IV to conclude his negotiations of marriage for his eldest daughter. Maria Theresa was dispatched across the Pyrenees to marry Louis XIV (and here bride and groom were first cousins on BOTH sides) something Felipe IV could safely do now that he had a male heir. But Felipe Próspero was frail, and he also developed epilepsy. It seems both his parents were resigned to the fact that their little son’s hold on life was anything but robust.(And IMO, this portrait is among the best ever)
There was another pregnancy, another son – but Fernando Thomas died the same day he was born, in late 1658. Mariana and Felipe, so aware of their son’s failing health, were frantic for another son. In 1661, Mariana conceived again. At the same time, Felipe Próspero’s health took a turn for the worse. In a sad little drama, Mariana was to lose one child on November 1 of 1661, only to welcome a new son into the world on November 6. But this time, there was no denying there was something seriously wrong with the baby boy. Prince Carlos was to be the recipient of all the drawbacks of recurring incest, starting with the infamous Hapsburg jaw, mandibular prognathism so severe he couldn’t chew – or talk all that much.
In 1665, Felipe IV died. The new king of Spain, Carlos II, was physically and mentally disabled (he couldn’t talk until the age of four, nor walk until he was ten) and was generally known as Carlos el Hechizado (Carlos the bewitched). Mariana assumed the role of regent, and one of the first things she oversaw was the send off of her daughter Margarita Teresa, who was destined to Vienna to marry Leopold, Mariana’s younger brother and future Hapsburg emperor. Yet another incestuous marriage, with Leopold being Margarita Teresa’s first cousin on her father’s side and maternal uncle. It’s no wonder that of four children only one daughter survived to bear a sickly son who died…
Mariana was not a competent regent. She was too unschooled in the political aspects of things, too unfamiliar with how the Spanish court worked. She relied heavily on favourites, first on a German Jesuit, later on the dashing Fernando de Valenzuela, rumoured to also be her lover. It didn’t help that her son was utterly dependent on her for everything, incapable of such simple things as keeping himself moderately clean.
In 1673, Mariana received the sad news that her daughter had died. It left her devastated – of all her pregnancies, all she had left was the son who was nothing but a huge disappointment. In 1675, her son reached his majority, and immediately a political struggle began between Mariana and her husband’s illegitimate son, Juan de Austria. Capable and robust, Juan had always been his father’s loyal servant until Mariana succeeded in discrediting him, hating that her husband should allow his bastard access to his royal person. Plus, Juan’s obvious vitality must have been a chafing thorn, a constant reminder that a mere actress had succeeded in giving Felipe IV what Mariana herself could not: a healthy son. During the last few years of Felipe’s life, he had therefore been estranged from his son, something Juan was very bitter about, having loved his father dearly. Now, Juan saw the opportunity to get his own back…
Juan’s first attempt to wrest power from Mariana failed, but in 1677 he succeeded, and Valenzuela was stripped of all his power and exiled to the Philippines. Mariana fled to Toledo, and over the coming three years Juan managed to restore some sort of capable government. Then, unfortunately, he died, and Mariana came into her own again. She was to remain in control for the rest of her life.
Seeing as Carlos II was a major disaster, the only hope left to Spain was to find him a wife and hope he would impregnate her with a healthy child. The girl chosen was Marie Louise de Orleans, niece to Charles II of England and Louis XIV. By all accounts a bright and intelligent young girl, she was sent off like a sacrificial lamb to marry the young man everyone in Europe considered a royal idiot. (For more on that, see here).
Carlos II adored his young wife. But no matter his efforts, there was no baby. All that inbreeding had affected his fertility as well. In 1689, Marie Louise died. There were rumours of poison, of Mariana wanting to rid herself of her barren daughter-in-law. Seems far-fetched, given how fond Mariana was of Marie Louise. A new bride was procured, one with whom Mariana had an anything but loving relationship. Maria Anna (they weren’t great on variation when it came to names back then) of Neuburg was a grasping German princess, who stole paintings from the royal collection and sent them to her family, who used her monumental temper to control her weak husband, and who in general made herself extremely unloved.
Mariana’s last few years were fraught. Constant conflicts with her overbearing daughter-in-law, constant shortage of funds, and then her son, so inept, so vulnerable. In 1696, Mariana succumbed to breast cancer. Her son would survive her another four years, and when he died in 1700, the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg family became extinct. Instead, Philippe, Duq d’Anjou, grandson to Louis XIV and Felipe IV’s daughter Maria Teresa, would ascend the Spanish throne as the first Bourbon king.
In many ways, Mariana’s life was a tragedy. Of all her children, only “the idiot” was left alive. She, whose duty it was to provide Spain with healthy heirs, had failed dismally, thereby allowing those rapacious French to claim the Spanish crown. But the little princess who was ordered to marry her uncle instead of her dead cousin did try – over and over again.