San Lorenzo de El Escorial, or simply El Escorial, just outside of Madrid, is a 16th century royal palace recognized for its opulence and the curious cast of monarchs who called it home. One such monarch is King Charles II of the Habsburgs, but it’s unfortunately not his exploits or ruling acumen for which he is best known.
No, Charles II, nicknamed Charles the Bewitched, is notorious for being the peculiar last Spanish Habsburg. The end of the line. Physically and (likely) intellectually disabled, afflicted with the infamous Habsburg jaw, and infertile, Charles was the unfortunate culmination of generations of inbreeding, something for which the Habsburgs are especially known, and to which we attribute the ultimate extinction of the Spanish branch of the family. In order to keep the the bloodline pure and power consolidated, cousin-to-cousin and niece-to-uncle marriages were almost exclusively arranged—indeed Charles’ father, King Philip IV of Spain, was the maternal uncle of Charles’ mother, Mariana of Austria (of the Austrian branch of the family).
Charles was an indolent child, never forced to attend school or even clean himself. Due to his crippling jaw deformities he drooled and had difficulty eating and speaking. It is said his only interest was shooting on the grounds El Escorial. He was married twice but produced no heirs. He was often sick and suffered from seizures, and became so disturbed later in life that he reportedly ordered his relatives to be unearthed from the mausoleum, simply to look upon them. Not surprisingly, once Charles took the throne in 1661, he was a wildly ineffectual ruler, allowing Spain to become ravaged by war and economic stagnation.
By the time of Charles’ death in 1700, at the age of 38, his brothers and sisters had predeceased him (the Habsburg’s consanguineous marriages weakened the gene pool to such an extent that their infant and early childhood death-rate was higher than that of the area peasants). With no apparent heir, the Habsburg reign in Spain came to a crushing halt, and the Bourbon house has occupied the Spanish throne, more or less, since.
Wandering the halls of El Escorial, now a national museum, provides insight into the life of Charles II, his noble family, and their legacy on Spanish history.
El Escorial, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is approximately 50 km from Madrid, accessible by train or bus. Join our scholar-led excursion for an in-depth historical and architectural look at the site.
For some scientific insight into the condition of Charles II and the inbreeding of the Habsburgs, we recommend this article.