Carlos II of Spain, also known as the Bewitched, was the last Habsburg ruler of the Spanish Empire.
His reign is often viewed as a period of managed decline, but recent historians have suggested a more balanced perspective.
In this article, we will delve into the life and reign of Carlos II, exploring his physical disabilities, the challenges he faced as a ruler, and the question of his succession.
Early Life and Physical Disabilities
Carlos II was born on November 6, 1661, as the only surviving son of Mariana of Austria and her uncle Philip IV of Spain. The Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs were known for their intermarriages, and Carlos II’s parents were one of two unions between uncle and niece.
This policy was driven by Spanish limpieza de sangre or “blood purity” statutes enacted in the early 16th century.
Carlos II inherited the so-called ‘Habsburg jaw’, a physical characteristic common to both Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs.
This pronounced jaw made it difficult for Carlos to chew his food properly, resulting in frequent stomach problems. He also suffered from other physical disabilities such as rickets, which left him unable to walk unaided until he was four and compelled him to wear leg braces until the age of five.
Historians Will and Ariel Durant famously described Carlos as “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.”
The degree to which inbreeding was responsible for his ill health is disputed, but his health problems may have derived from a herpetic infection shortly after birth, while his autopsy report indicates hydrocephalus.
Challenges as a Ruler
When Carlos II became king at the age of three in 1665, the question of succession was a prominent consideration in European politics.
His reign was marked by ongoing power struggles, personal conflicts, and economic instability. The Spanish Empire was facing increasing challenges from the Dutch Republic and England, and its position in Europe was destabilized by the expansionist policies of Louis XIV of France.
Despite these challenges, Carlos II’s administration played a prominent role in opposing the expansionist policies of Louis XIV of France.
Under his administration, Spain remained largely intact, and his successors inherited an Empire that was still a major global confederation.
Question of Succession
Carlos II married twice, but neither union produced children. On his death in November 1700, he was succeeded by the 16-year-old Philip of Anjou, grandson of his elder sister Maria Theresa of Spain and Louis XIV.
However, the question of who inherited the crown was less important than the division of his territories, and failure to resolve the issue through diplomacy led to the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701.
Since the Crown of Spain passed according to cognatic primogeniture, it could be inherited through the female line. This enabled Carlos’s sisters Maria Theresa and Margaret Theresa to pass their rights to the children of their marriages with Louis XIV and Emperor Leopold.
However, to prevent a union between Spain and France, Maria Theresa renounced her inheritance rights on her marriage; in return, Louis was promised a dowry of 500,000 gold écus.
Despite Carlos II’s efforts to ensure an undivided and independent Spanish monarchy, his death left the succession in dispute.
Most of the Spanish nobility disliked his second wife and her German courtiers and viewed a French candidate as more likely to ensure their independence.
In September 1700, Carlos became ill again, and on November 1, 1700, he died at the age of 39.
Carlos II of Spain was a complex historical figure, known for his physical disabilities and ill health, as well as the War of the Spanish Succession that followed his death.
However, recent historians have suggested a more balanced perspective on his reign, acknowledging the inherited issues faced by Spain and the prominent role it played in opposing the expansionist policies of Louis XIV of France.
Carlos’s personal life was also marked by tragedy and difficulty, from his physical disabilities to his failed marriages and inability to produce an heir.
His succession was a prominent consideration in European politics from the moment he became king at the age of three, and the question of who would inherit the crown ultimately led to war in 1701.
While Carlos’ reign has been viewed as a period of managed decline, his successors inherited an Empire that remained largely intact.
Despite government finances being in perpetual crisis and the ongoing power struggle between the Crown of Castile and the Crown of Aragon, the monarchy proved remarkably resilient and remained largely intact.
Overall, Carlos II of Spain left a complex legacy, one that continues to be debated by historians and scholars today.
*Feature Image: Juan Carreño de Miranda, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons