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His empress, his love – of Isabel, matriarch to the Spanish Hapsburgs

A young Carlos – something of a dreamboat?

Early in March of 1526, Isabel of Portugal finally got her dream prince. At last! The groom, Holy Roman Emperor Carlos I (or Charles V, depending on who you’re asking) had originally been less than interested in the match with his first cousin, and for years Isabel had waited for the man to come to his senses. After all, she was the best choice for him. Not only were they comfortably closely related (!!! But hey, we’re talking a rather toxic brew of Trastámara and Hapsburg here. Both families believed in keeping the blood pure) but she was well-educated, spoke fluent Spanish (which he did not, having been raised in Burgundy) and was an Iberian princess, something his Spanish magnates insisted on, given that they viewed Carlos with some suspicions seeing as he wasn’t a born and bred Spaniard.


In the intervening years, Carlos had attempted an alliance with England, proposing a match between himself and Princess Mary – yet another first cousin. But as Carlos grew older, so did his desire to father legitimate issue—he already had daughters born out of wedlock—and  Mary was much, much younger than him, which was why he finally agreed to marry Isabel. Plus, Isabel came with an impressive dowry, and Carlos always needed money—there was always a war going on somewhere in his huge, sprawling dominions.

While Carlos dithered, Isabel’s father had suggested other grooms, but Isabel refused: it was Carlos or no one, thank you very much. Our Isabel had her sights set on the top dog, so to say, and no mere king or duke could compete with Carlos and his multiple, multiple titles.

Her father, Manuel, sighed, but was preoccupied with his new, very young bride, Leonor, who was Carlos’ oldest sister and thereby Isabel’s first cousin. Very complicated this, isn’t it? It would become even more complicated several years down the line when Leonor’s daughter—and Isabel’s half-sister—Maria, was put forward as a potential bride for Isabel’s son, Felipe. But we need not go there.

So, on a March day in 1526  the twenty-six-year-old Emperor, a man of enormous wealth and power, wed his cousin, a mere three years younger than him. The wedding was held in Sevilla, and I imagine the sweet smell of azahar perfumed the air.

Carlos likely had very low expectations on his marriage—beyond fathering the much desired heir. It seems he hadn’t met Isabel prior to their wedding, and to everyone’s surprise, he was totally captivated. What was supposed to be a short and effective honeymoon became months at the Alhambra. To make her happy, he imported exotic seeds from Persia, converting the gardens of their various Alcázars into carpets of deep red—Voilá! The carnation had made its entry into the European flora.

Felipe II as a child

Soon enough, Isabel was with child, and in May of 1527, he presented her husband with a son. A healthy, bawling son that would one day grow up to be Felipe II. Carlos was, I imagine, ecstatic. But we all know one son isn’t enough, and a year later, Isabel gave birth to her second child, but this time it was “only” a daughter, Maria. (who was to marry her first cousin Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. And her daughter, Ana, would many years down the line become Felipe II’s fourth wife…)

In 1529, Carlos appointed Isabel regent of Spain and rode off to do his duty elsewhere. It was with evident reluctance he parted from his wife to continue with his hectic life as Holy Roman Emperor, but a man had to do what a man had to do. He was probably relieved to leave Spain in his wife’s competent hands – she was to prove herself more than capable of handling any issues in Spain. She was also pregnant, and they were both hoping for that second son. The baby, born in November of 1529, was indeed a son, Fernando, and everyone was so happy—well, not Isabel who missed her husband, wrote him regular and long letters but often had to wait months for a reply. Little Fernando died in July of 1530, and his father had neither seen him or held him.

Isabel threw herself into the task of monitoring the upbringing of her two older children—and governing Spain. Plus, she waited. And waited. And waited some more. In 1533, Carlos returned to the welcoming arms of his wife. Nine months or so later, Isabel was delivered of a stillborn son. This time, her husband was there to comfort her, and he was still there when, a year later, they welcomed a daughter, Juana.

Titian’s portrait of Carlos – impossible NOT to include…

But after over two years in Spain, Carlos set off, yet again leaving his wife with child. Another little boy, Juan, who lived all of five months and died in April of 1538. This time, Carlos seems to have been present, however briefly, because some months later, Isabel was yet again with child—and alone, hubby being out and about elsewhere.

Isabel may have missed her husband while he was gone, but she knew he had to go—he had duties to fulfil, other kingdoms, duchies, principalities etc. etc. to govern. Besides, they were a team: he managed all those foreign dominions, she ruled in Spain, their heartland (although I’m not entirely sure Carlos would agree with that definition. By all accounts, he found the Spanish severe and stolid) Plus, she was raising her son to be a Spanish king, severe and serious as a king should be.

Sometimes I wonder if on those occasions when Carlos and Isabel could indulge in pillow talk, they discussed just what to do with all his sprawling lands. He had moments of exhaustion, and maybe it was in talking to his wife that he started considering dividing up his dominions. “It’s simply too much for one man,” he may have said, and Isabel likely agreed, what with him being away from her so much. So, why not split it in two? One half for his eldest son, consisting of Spain, Flanders and the New World (plus other bits and pieces) the second half for a future second son, consisting of the rest of the Holy Roman Empire.

There wasn’t to be a second son. By late 1538, it was evident the Empress’ health was failing. People commented on how thin she was—skeletal, even—and her pregnancy wasn’t helping. “Almost transparent” people whispered, “as frail as a dandelion’s seed.” It probably didn’t help that Carlos was off again, and when she went into labour—much too soon—in April of 1539, she was in a seriously weakened state. The child died—yet another little boy. A couple of weeks later, Isabel died, all of thirty-five years old.

It is said Carlos was devasted by the loss of his wife. For two months, he locked himself into a monastery and grieved in private. Like his son would do several decades later upon losing his beloved third wife, Carlos was to wear black for the rest of his life, constantly mourning his Isabel. Well, not to the point that he never again indulged in intimate relations—he had an illegitimate son, John of Austria, who was born in 1547—but he never married again, never had a permanent liaison. When Carlos died in 1558—no longer an Emperor or even a king, having abdicated these positions several years before—he clutched the same cross Isabel had held as she lay dying. Whether it helped his passing, I do not know.

Isabel, posthumous portrait by Titian

What I do know is that Carlos and Isabel may have been happy, but they set a dangerous precedent for their descendants. When they wed, they were “only” first cousins on one side. Their son would marry as his first wife Maria Manuela of Portugal, with whom he was first cousin on both sides. No wonder the single child born from this marriage wasn’t all there. Many years later (after two intervening marriages) Felipe II would wed Ana of Austria, who was both his niece and his second cousin. From that union sprang Felipe III, who would in turn wed his first cousin once removed, Margaret of Austria. Their son, Felipe IV would marry his niece and cousin, Mariana, and father the most unfortunate Carlos II, last of the Spanish Hapsburgs. That fixation with keeping the bloodlines pure would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Spanish Hapsburgs, along the way leaving a wake of frail children who were either stillborn or died very young. But those problems lay very far in the future that day in March of 1526 when Isabel finally—finally!—wed the man she’s set her heart on.

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