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My dearest cousin and husband – of a Spanish queen

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation (Margaret of Austria)

It strikes me, sometimes, just how short the lives of some historical people were. Take, for example, Margaret of Austria.
Exactly: who?
Well, for one thing she was the mother of Philip IV of Spain. She was also her son’s third cousin – on multiple sides. When her son went on to marry his own niece some years later – Margaret’s granddaughter, Mariana – all those incestuous marriages came home to roost. Which is why Margaret of Austria has the dubious honour of being the paternal grandmother to the last of the Spanish Hapsburg kings, Carlos II, El Hechizado (the bewitched. The poor man was a borderline idiot, handicapped both mentally and physically. It is somewhat fortunate he was never capable of producing any children, no matter that he enthusiastically tried.)

We can’t blame poor Margaret for all this mess. She was a victim of the Hapsburgs’ idiotic ambition to keep their blood lines pure. One wonders where the pope was in all this – after all, marriages between people so closely related required dispensations. Oh, right: the pope was safely tucked into the pocket of the Hapsburgs, not about to risk the ire of the Spanish or Austrian Emperor.

It’s all very complicated, this Hapsburg intermarrying: Charles V (or I of Spain) started by marrying his cousin, then went on to marry his daughter, Maria, to his nephew, Maximillian II, Holy Roman Emperor. A first cousin marriage – the first of many.
Maximillian and Maria had a daughter, Anna, who was married to Charles Vs son, Philip II (yet another product of Charles Vs cosy marriage with his first cousin). Philip II’s bride was therefore not only his niece but also his second cousin. They had a son, the future Philip III.

Philip III

Maximillian had a brother, Charles. This gentleman was also, per definition, a cousin of Philip II and Maria. Charles had a daughter. This was Margaret, the heroine of today’s post. At the age of fifteen, she was married to Philip III, her second cousin, whose DNA was already a somewhat lethal cocktail given the borderline incestuous marriages that had engendered him.

But before we leap into Margaret’s married life, let us give her some more context. Margaret had a brother, Ferdinand, who was to become the Holy Roman Emperor in 1618 as Ferdinand II. If one wants to be nasty, one could blame the Thirty Years’ War on Ferdinand – his intolerant approach to his future Protestant subjects sparked the so called Bohemian Revolt, seen as the starting point of this European tragedy. Ferdinand, of course, would probably blame it all on the Bohemians – and on that rapacious Count Palatinate, Frederick, who made a grab for the Bohemian crown. (see here)

Margaret also has an indirect connection to Sweden in that two of her sisters were married to Sigismund, King of Poland and (for a while) Sweden. Apparently, Sigismund was so happy with his first Hapsburg bride that when Anna died in 1598 (she haemorrhaged while giving birth), he decided to replace his beloved wife with her much younger sister, 22 years his junior.


Like all her numerous siblings, well, like most of her relatives, Margaret was very pious. Too pious, many thought, and there were mutterings here and there that Margaret was far too much under the thumb of various representatives of the Holy Roman Church. A devout Catholic, Margaret considered all Protestants heretics, an opinion she shared with her extensive family. It did cause a number of uncomfortable moments, this implacable view on Protestants – like when Margaret’s older sister, Anna, was crowned queen of Sweden and more or less refused to show herself or interact with her disgustingly Protestant Swedish subjects…neither here nor there, at least not in this post.

Felipe IV and Maria Anna
Two of Margaret’s children, Maria Anna and Philip IV

Despite all this religion and consanguinity – or maybe because of it – Margaret was happy in her marriage to Philip III, only some six years her senior and quite smitten with his wife. Even better, within six years of their marriage, Margaret proudly presented her husband with the first of three sons, the future Philip IV. All was well in the Spanish Empire – the succession guaranteed, and the True Faith adequately defended by the queen and king.

Well, if you were to ask Margaret, all was not so well. Margaret exerted substantial influence over her king, as she should, being his wife. Another source of influence was her husband’s paternal aunt, the widowed Empress Maria (see further up: the lady who married Maximilian II and was sister to Philip II) who had returned to Spain upon her husband’s death to breathe in the invigorating, heretically unpolluted air of her homeland. Despite these formidable ladies, the real mover and shaker was Philip III’s favourite, Francisco Gómez Sandoval y Rojas – or the duke of Lerma for short.

This rather flamboyant character resented the queen’s influence over the king. Or rather, he smirked at her attempts to play a political role in her new country. After all, Lerma had been in control of Philip’s kingdom since the moment the king took over back in 1598. At the time, Philip was 20, Lerma a seasoned 45 or so.

Rubens – The Duke of Lerma

To this day, opinions as to Lerma remain divided. Was he only out to feather his own nest, or was he devoted to the young king? Seeing as Philip III preferred to spend his time on religious rituals and festivals, maybe his favourite did him a favour by relieving him of the tedious business of ruling. And Lerma wasn’t a total catastrophe, although he did bring the country to the brink of bankruptcy. After all, it was Lerma who negotiated the twelve year truce with those pesky Dutch insurgents in 1609. It was Lerma who brokered the various Austria and France marriages, it was Lerma who approved of Felipe’s support of Ferdinand’s bellicose efforts against the Protestants (and here Lerma and Margaret were in total agreement) thereby indirectly bringing Spain into the Thirty Years’ War. Not so sure this was a good thing, though.

It was also Lerma who expelled the Moriscos  from Spain in 1607, a human tragedy of enormous consequences. 300 000 Moriscos, i.e. former Moors, since generations converted to Catholicism, were forced to leave the land of their birth. This earned Lerma uncountable brownie points with the Spanish clergy – it also helped fill the very empty royal coffers, as what the Moriscos couldn’t carry with them automatically became the property of the king.

Anyway: Margaret didn’t like Lerma (although she applauded his actions vis-à-vis the Moriscos. Very much in line with her family’s intolerant approach to all but those of the Catholic faith…) The king, however, had no intention of burdening himself with the actual ruling part of his position, and at some point Margaret gave up. Lerma was simply too powerful, and besides, she was kept busy birthing baby after baby.

Bartolomé González y Serrano (1564–1627), Alfonso, the son of Philip III of Spain
Bartolomé González y Serrano – Infante Alfonso

And this is where I come back to my original comment, namely that about how brief some life spans were. Our Margaret died in 1611, not yet 27 years old. She died in the aftermath of childbirth – a fourth son, Alfonso, who would die within a year. Over ten years, she’d given the king eight children, of which six survived infancy. The king was devastated. Crushed. He never re-married, holding himself to the memory of his beloved wife.

As a little codicil, it might be interesting to know that some years after Margaret’s death, Lerma finally hit the dust. Lerma’s own son manoeuvred his father’s fall from grace – and this Machiavellian plotting probably deserves a post (or a book) of its own. Had it not been for the fact that Lerma had recently succeeded in having the pope make him a cardinal (a very effective form of life insurance), God alone knows how things would have ended for Lerma. But in all this furore, someone had to hang, pay for the sins of the former favourite, and the beady eye of Lerma’s son stuck on Lerma’s private secretary, Rodrigo Calderón.

Rubens – Rodrigo Calderón

Suddenly, people started muttering that Queen Margaret had not died in childbirth – no, she’d died because Calderón had used witchcraft on her. A ridiculous accusation, but Calderón was a haughty, unpopular man who most definitely had grown very rich during the years he served Lerma. Calderón was arrested, tortured, and somewhere along the line, his tormentors found a real murder they could pin on Calderón, that of a soldier in 1614. He confessed – after hours of torture. In 1621, Calderón was beheaded, a gesture to appease all those who bayed for Lerma’s blood but couldn’t get it, what with all that scarlet the new, very devout, cardinal wore.

Retrato_de_Felipe_IV,_by_Diego_Velázquez (1)
Philip IV by Velázquez

By then, Philip III was also dead and Spain was now ruled by a boy of sixteen, Philip IV. Once again, the reins of government would be placed in the hands of a favourite, the Duke of Olivares. Once again, the Spanish king would wed a close Austrian relative, Queen Mariana (see post here). But this queen would not succeed in giving her husband the healthy heir he so desired – their DNA was too damaged by generations of in-breeding. Somehow, I suspect those oh, so devout Hapsburgs chose to blame God instead. Or the Protestants.

8 thoughts on “My dearest cousin and husband – of a Spanish queen”

  1. European royal families weave such a tangled web of heredity. And, yes, it’s probably all the fault of the Protestants, or the Catholics, [or the Government?!]

  2. Thing is, they knew of the risks – which was why the Church forbade marriage if you were too closely related. But blue blood is blue blood, right? Can’t have it mixed with the ordinary red stuff – then what do you get? Purple?

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  6. It didn’t help that there was already a lot of inbreeding in the House of Trastamara who Joanna of Castile was from even before the Habsburgs ruled Spain

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