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. The delivery was very difficult and Maria Manuela survived the birth of Don Carlos for only 4 days.

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, Don Carlos' parents were double first cousins. Due to the incestuous marriages of his immediate ancestors, Don Carlos had only 4 great-grandparents, instead of the usual 8, and two of them were sisters1: Juana "the Mad" and Maria of Castile. At that time Juana the Mad (1479-1555) was still alive, shut away in the castle of Tordesillas.

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 intelligent Joanna assumed the regency for Philip II during the periods that he was out of the country. She tried to take care of Don Carlos too, but he rejected the attempts she made to win him over.

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, but Philip found Mary physically repellent and complained of her disgusting odour. In August 1555 he returned to Spain. In the spring of 1557 he was back in England, but only for a few months. Mary died in 1558.

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, because he couldn't pronounce the letters 'r' and 'l'. At the age of seven he was removed from female tutelage. Hardly 9 year old, he tortured little girls, servants and animals, even maiming the genitals of a dog. During his father's absence in the 1550s, there was a distinct regression in Don Carlos' behaviour. He was self-willed and obstinate and when he had a plan in mind, no one could divert him from it. His temper was wild and unpredictable and it came combined with a kind of shrewd animal cunning. Once, Don Carlos went into the stable and maimed the horses so severely that twenty of them had to be destroyed. He was fond of roasting small animals alive, especially hares. Once he bit the head of a ring-snake. Eating seemed Don Carlos' other great hobby and this he did very greedily. Originally short and thin, he began to put on weight as he grew towards manhood.

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 for the daughter of one of the servants. It may have been in pursuit of her, that he stumbled down dark stairs and suffered a great gaping wound in his head. When he was found, he was unconscious and had to be carried to his bed. Soon erysipelas set in and he was bled again and again. His head swelled to enormous proportions and he lost his sight completely. A surgeon performed a trepanning, in vain. Philip II hurried to Alcalá, spent his days and nights in prayer and called in quacks, while Don Carlos raved in delirium. Then the Franciscan monks brought in their precious relic, the remains of the holy Fray Diego who had died a hundred years before. The holy mummy was put in the bed with the sick Prince. That night Don Carlos dreamed of the blessed Diego, and from that time his pulse steadied and he gained strength gradually.

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, Don Carlos underwent a "cure" at the hands of physicians and apothecaries and a final test followed. Afterwards, Don Carlos hurried to the Austrian Dietrichstein to boast that he had passed the test, "and five times over". The doctors, however, were of the opinion that the results were inconclusive. The French ambassador wrote that it seemed very unlikely that the Crown Prince would ever have children and added: "He is usually so mad and furious that everyone here pities the lot of the woman who will have to live with him."

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, threatening his life. The cardinal fell on his knees begging for mercy. Another time he threatened Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba5, with his sword. The Duke seized him roughly by the arm and took the sword away. Incidents like these no doubt strained the relations between father and son, and Philip II seems to have become more hostile towards Don Carlos.

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 Dutch leaders. Philip planned to make a journey to the Netherlands himself, taking Don Carlos and his Austrian nephews with him, but when the ships finally sailed, they carried troops under the Duke of Alba, with orders to suppress the rebellion. In 1566 and 1567 Queen Elisabeth, who had always been friendly to her stepson, gave birth to Princesses and Don Carlos may have felt even more neglected and left out.

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 to preside over the state council, but Don Carlos turned all the business of the council upside-down. He tried to involve his illegitimate uncle Don Juan in a plot, but Don Juan informed the King. Around the same time Don Carlos told his confessor that he wanted to kill "a man" and everything suggested that this "man" was Philip II. On January 17, Philip returned to Madrid and immediately held a meeting with his political and theological advisors. That night, as Don Carlos lay in bed surrounded by weapons, the door of his chamber suddenly flew open. By the flickering light of torches, he saw his father enter with his advisor and confessor. Don Carlos fell on his knees, begging his father to kill him outright. He was forcibly prevented from throwing himself into the fire that burned on the hearth. "If you kill yourself, that will be the act of a madman," his father said coldly. "I am not mad," Carlos wept, "but desperate." His Aunt Juana and his stepmother Elisabeth tried to intercede on his behalf, but their attempts were to no avail. Don Carlos was confined in the tower of Arévalo castle, where his mad ancestor Isabel of Portugal had ended her days. The only light in the room came from a window high in the wall.

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.

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