The composer Verdi made Spanish Crown Prince Don Carlos (1545-1568) the hero of an opera. In reality, Don Carlos was sadly disturbed. In his rages he would attack even the highest officials of the Court, while the only thing he liked to do with girls was to whip them. Finally, his father decided to take drastic measures..
When 16-year-old Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) married Maria Manuela of Portugal (1527-1545),
his father, the Emperor Charles V, told him not to overstrain himself: he was not marrying to
enjoy sex, but to produce heirs. The warning seems to have been unnecessary, because
Philip II had always had a cold reserve and a gravity of manner. Within a few months he
was reproached by both his father and his parents-in-law for treating his young wife
coldly. Less than 2 years after the marriage, Maria Manuela went into labour, but no experienced midwife could be found.
Don Carlos was deformed from birth; hunchbacked and pigeon-breasted with shoulders of uneven height and his right leg considerably shorter than the left. The crippled child was also retarded and slow in both his physical and mental development. He was sickly and often had fevers. He spoke in a high-pitched, girlish voice, and stuttered badly. Don Carlos may have suffered a brain dysfunction at birth, which can cause indiscriminately aggressive and impulsively violent behaviour. There also seems to have been a recurring streak of madness in the Portuguese Royal Family. Both Don Carlos' mother and grandmother were Portuguese Princesses. In addition,
With his mother dead and his father often out of the country, Don Carlos was lonely and shy and preferred seclusion. His governess was the pious Leonor de Mascareńas, who had previously been his father's governess. The most important relative in his life was probably his aunt Joanna (1537-1573), Philip II's youngest sister. But in 1552 she left to marry the Crown Prince of Portugal. She returned after the death of her husband in 1554, leaving her son Sebastian2 in the care of his grandparents. A widow at 16, charming and
Philip II had been a widower for 9 years, when he married Queen Mary I of England3 in 1554. Both were religious fanatics; Philip had his inquisition, while the Queen's prosecution of Protestants in England had earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary". On his way to the coast Philip II went fishing, hunting and dining with young Carlos. On his arrival in England, Bloody Mary adored her 11-year-younger husband with a girlish ardour,
Even as a little boy Don Carlos had been difficult. He used to bite in the breasts of his wet-nurses and it was said that three of them nearly died of the resulting wound. He finally started talking at the age of five, but it remained difficult to understand what he said,
In 1555 the Emperor Charles V abdicated, making Philip II King of Spain. Tired and melancholic, the ex-Emperor retired to a monastery in Spain. Upon hearing this, Don Carlos got the idea to visit his grandfather. His governor had great difficulty preventing him from mounting a horse there and then to go and see him. In May 1556 some negotiations took place for a betrothal of Don Carlos and his cousin, the Archduchess Anna (1549-1580). Other proposed brides for Don Carlos were Mary I, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Joanna, Dowager Princess of Portugal, had plans to marry her nephew, too. Another possible bride was Elisabeth of France (1545-1568), who was of the same age as Don Carlos, but in 1560 Philip II married her himself. The young Queen was suspected of having an affair with her stepson Don Carlos, but this seems highly unlikely4.
Don Carlos' tutor admitted to Philip II that there was nothing he could do to make the Prince learn. Courtiers tactfully argued that "Habsburg children are always late developers", but as the years went by Don Carlos still showed little interest in anything except food, wine and women. In 1562 he was established at Alcalá de Henares to attend lectures at the university. There he developed a passion
After two months, Don Carlos had sufficiently recovered to be able to walk into the next room, but he was never the same again. He began exhibiting new signs of derangement. At first, the only results of the fall were silence and a strange solemnity, alternated with most peculiar and meaningless questions. Later, his conduct grew increasingly erratic, violent and sadistic. Notorious were his tantrums and rages.
In the spring of 1564 Don Carlos' cousins Rudolf (to the right) and Ernst of Austria came to Spain. Their father had sent his representative, Adam von Dietrichstein, to accompany them and to revive the plan for a marriage between Don Carlos and the Archduchess Anna. When Dietrichstein inquired about the marriage, however, the replies became evasive. Meanwhile, the Austrian Archdukes discovered that the curbs of the Spanish court etiquette were even more stringent than the Inquisition itself. Philip II always dined alone. He did not eat with the Queen except on feast days. The family passed the summer of 1564 in Aranjuez. Philip II was taken ill with fever, but his sister Juana and his pretty young wife Elisabeth rode out hunting with the Austrian Archdukes. In August 1564 Don Carlos finally met his cousins and together they travelled to Madrid.
For years, Don Carlos' possible impotence had been a subject of discussion at the Spanish court. The only thing Don Carlos liked to do with young girls was to whip them. In the account books are records of money being given to fathers of girls "beaten by order of His Highness". With the plan of a marriage to the Archduchess Anna in mind,
In his rages Don Carlos would attack his servants and even the highest officials of the Court. Throwing himself on one of his staff, he tried to hurl him out of the window. A shoemaker who presented Don Carlos with a pair of boots that were not to his liking, was forced to cut up the boots and eat them. Once Don Carlos flew at the throat of a cardinal, shrieking with rage, dagger in hand,
In the 1560s, a revolt broke out in the Netherlands, where Philip II (to the right) was determined to stamp out Protestantism. Don Carlos dreamed of ruling over the Netherlands. He tried to borrow money and conceived wild plans to flee to Flanders. He may even have made contact with some of
The Venetian ambassador noted that Don Carlos was given to appalling rages and that he was extremely arrogant, but he also spoke of his love of truth, his religious devotion and his charity. In December 1567 Philip II allowed his 22-year-old heir
From that moment on the heir to the throne was to be kept in confinement, dead to the world. It was forbidden to mention Don Carlos in conversation or even in prayers. To the Pope, Philip II explained in a private letter: "It has been God's will that the Prince should have such great and numerous defects, partly mental, partly due to his physical condition, utterly lacking as he is in the qualifications necessary for ruling, I saw the grave risks which would arise were he to be given the succession." To his Aunt Catherine, Queen of Portugal6, Philip wrote: "I have been compelled to place my son in strict confinement. [..] This determination has not been brought about by [..] any want of respect to me; nor is this treatment of him intended by way of chastisement - for that, however just the grounds of it, would have its time and its limit. [..] The remedy I propose is not one either of time or of experience, but is of the greatest moment [..] to satisfy my obligations to God and my people."
In confinement Don Carlos went on hunger strikes and was force-fed with soup. Then he started swallowing things - even a diamond ring7. His general behaviour became more disturbed. A process was brought against Don Carlos in which he was not allowed a defending counsel. On July, 9 1568 the judgement pronounced Don Carlos guilty of treason for he had plotted the death of his father the King, and had conspired to become sovereign of Flanders. The penalty, it said, was death. Philip II said he believed that his son's health was in such a state that a relaxation of the precautions of his diet would eventually result in excesses leading to his death. Then Philip II shut himself away and sat, melancholy and taciturn, in an armchair for days on end.
Meanwhile, Don Carlos was seized with a raging fever and incessant vomiting. He poured ice water on the floor of his prison chamber so that he might lie naked in it. Snow was brought in great vessels. For days he ate only fruit. Then he asked for a pastry. An enormous, highly spiced pie was made for him and he devoured it all and drank more than 10 litres of water with it. Afterwards, he became violently ill. When the last sacrament was administered, he vomited the host. On July, 24 Don Carlos was dead - poisoned at his father's insistance, it was rumoured. The French minister wrote that they gave Don Carlos soups that were prepared primarily in the chamber of Ruy Gómez, who was in charge of the Prince. According to Antonio Pérez, a member of the household of Ruy Gómez, a slow poison was mixed with the Prince's food.
It was announced briefly that the heir to the throne had "died of his own excesses". Philip's young Queen, 22-year-old Elizabeth of France (to the right), grieved so bitterly over her stepson's death that Philip II forbade her to weep. She was several months gone with child, the longed-for heir to replace Don Carlos. Early October she fainted, was bled again and again and gave birth prematurely. Both mother and child died almost at once. In 1570 Philip II married his niece, the Archduchess Anna, thus starting a new series of incestuous marriages that would in 1661 result in another monstrous heir to the Spanish throne: Carlos II.
Copyright © 2000, 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 In stead of 16 great-great-grandparents, Don Carlos had only 6.
2 Sebastian I of Portugal was Don Carlos double first cousin and he was unbalanced, too.
3 Bloody Mary was daughter of Catharina of Aragon, a sister of Juana the Mad.
4 Elisabeth wrote home to her mother that her sexual encounters with Philip II were very painful.
5 "Alba" is pronounced as "Alva".
6 Catherine, Queen of Portugal, was Don Carlos' maternal grandmother.
7 Don Carlos thought that diamonds were poisonous.