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This was to have been my contribution to this year's Hallowe'en story quest. Although I missed the deadline, and was almost imemdiately cut off from e2 by the server move, it's a story I'm keen to tell. The events described all really happened, and I have not thought it necessary to embellish them. The gruesome nature of this narrative, the aptness of its timing, and its tragic consequences are sufficiently horrible not to need any further development.

Much of Madness and more of Sin

Three hundred and three years ago, one of the longest constitutional crises in European history had just arrived at its disastrous conclusion. The eyes of the world had been fixed on Madrid, where the Spanish branch of the illustrious and ruthless Habsburg dynasty was disappearing forever. Generations of racial paranoia following the Christian reconquest of Iberia had prompted a level of inbreeding then unparalelled in European royalty. The result of centuries of unions that other nations would regard as incestuous was the pathetic figure of Carlos the Second, known as 'the Sufferer', or less sympathetically, 'the Bewitched'. Carlos' mother, Maria Anna of Austria, was the niece of his father, Felipe IV. The same relationship pertained between the parents of Felipe III, Felipe IV's father. Felipe III's wife, Margaret of Austria, was his second cousin, and the sister of Maria Anna's grandfather, the Emperor Ferdinand II.

The tragedy, 'Man'

The reinforcement of unhelpful genetic traits had taken its toll. Carlos had the distinctive Habsburg lower jaw and hanging lip, which also gave his cousin and brother-in-law, the emperor Leopold, an unintelligible lisp. In Carlos, it left him unable to chew his food properly, a factor which combined with naturally poor digestion to mean he seldom derived the normal benefit from his many meals. His nose was mis-shapen, and as he aged, his looks aged faster. Moreover, he was unable to walk without some pain and difficulty, and was barely literate. It was not these disabilities which troubled the rest of Europe, though, but an entirely invisible trouble. All other failings would be forgiven if the king could produce an heir.

Having read this account of the king's debility, do not make the mistake, as some of his contemporaries did, of thinking him altogether an idiot. Carlos was well able to appreciate his position, and had a clear idea of what was required. That idea, however, only became apparent to others when it was too late. Carlos had become king as a young child, on the death of his father, Felipe. He had demonstrated his ability to think for himself by taking the reins of power from his mother, the regent, as soon as he had come of age.

Lo! 'tis a gala night

Carlos, now king in his own right, was encouraged by all around him to find a bride. The chosen candidate was his cousin, Marie Louise of Orleans, the niece of Louis XIV. She was horrified at the prospect, but was persuaded to go to Madrid by her powerful uncle. The couple were duly married, and to celebrate the union, a great auto da fe was arranged, lasting fourteen hours. Carlos watched the entire grisly spectacle with only a single quarter-hour break, and even lit the pyre himself. Eighty-six people were killed.

The rigours of the Inquisition had long been a part of his dynasty's fervent Catholicism. Although other nations had enjoyed the attentions of the Holy Office, it was the southern Habsburgs' enthusiasm for the fires which could purge the peninsula of all that was not Catholic and European that established the unequalled reputation of the Spanish Inquisition.

Vermin fangs / In human gore imbued

Carlos also exhibited great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and had himself painted kneeling in adoration before the sacred elements which he believed were the body and blood of Jesus. Devotion to the sacred blood characterised much religious life in Spain at the time, and dedication to the royal blood had made Carlos what he was. Blood was considered to have great power in those days, and was believed to have magical applications. Charms and ritual incantations were used to prevent blood loss, and shed blood was treated with great care for fear of theft and magical abuse. The obsession with racial purity which characterised Spain following the Reconquista at the beginning of the Habsburg era manifested itself in terms of blood as well. The desired perfection was referred to as limpieza di sangre - purity of the blood. Blood in this sense was held to have the same nature as other body fluids, and in Carlos' case this was where the self-defeating nature of the obsession revealed itself.

A play of hopes and fears

Some time after her marriage, Queen Marie Louise confided in her uncle's ambassador that she was no longer a virgin, but felt she would never be a mother. The reason was not that the king lacked the physical ability required, but rather that he was not producing anything of sufficient quality to make a difference. In short, she believed the king to be sterile. Others rumoured that she was being given abortion-causing drugs by her French relatives, or that there was a curse on the royal couple. This sad situation lasted for nine years, and then, unexpectedly, the queen died. The king's health had long been a source of concern, but he lived on, and rumour had it that the queen had been poisoned. She was duly replaced by Maria Anna of Neuberg, daughter of the Elector Palatine and sister to the Empress Eleonora, Leopold's third wife. Where Marie Louise had been sympathetic to the French, Maria Anna was unquestionably the creature of the Imperial party. Her father, Philip William of Neuberg, was a member of the House of Wittelsbach, and enthusiastically exported daughters to Catholic courts all over Europe. Another of Maria Anna's sisters became Queen of Portugal, and still another was Duchess of Milan. Carlos did not take as well to the new wife as he had to the old one, and used to descend to the outer tomb in his Monastery-Palace of the Escorial to spend time close to Marie Louise. However, Carlos' advisers were afraid that this new German queen would, if childless, be able to persuade the king to pass his domains on to one of his Austrian cousins.

The lonesome latter years

The question of the king's will now became crucial. Maria Anna failed to produce the needed heir, and people began to look further afield for a successor. Although Louis XIV and Leopold both advanced claims of their own, a compromise candidate was found in the form of Leopold's young grandson, Prince Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria. William III of Orange and England was the engineer of this choice, embodied in the First Partition Treaty of 1696. Joseph Ferdinand's father was not a Habsburg but a Wittelsbach, a division which would thus satisfy the French insistence that the vast empire of Charles V (Carlos I) should not be reassembled. The boy's mother was the only surviving daughter of Leopold by his beloved first wife, Carlos' sister Margareta. This would have satisfied all the parties, but the seemingly cursed house of Habsburg was not destined to be saved by the treaty. The unfortunate Electoral Prince died in 1699, aged just six. And still the Sufferer in Madrid held on, perplexing observers with his rapidly fluctuating state of health. Lacking even the enthusiasm he has shown during his first marriage, Carlos endured the pendulum swings of his unstable physical condition with stoicism. But in the autumn of 1700, he began to realise that his state was now such that he was unlikely ever to recover fully. Accordingly, under the eagle eye of the papal emissary Cardinal Portocarrero, he drew up a will.

The Conqueror Worm

The first version of the king's will was produced on 2 October, and specified that Spain's dominions should be kept intact, and not partitioned as had once been suggested. But at the king's request, blank spaces were left for the names of the beneficiaries. The following day, in the presence of the Cardinal and a notary, the king had the final addition made. The contents were not publically announced. Almost immediately, the king's always poor digestion began to break down altogether. It is likely that the collapse was brought on by the stress of composing the will. By 8 October he seemed nearly dead, but he survived, and made a further amendment to his will. But before long, the inevitable decline had advanced again. The queen spoon-fed her crippled husband with pearls dissolved in milk, a rich concoction whose cost as much as its chemistry must have commended it to the doctors. It did not help, and the king became utterly deaf. Realising the crisis that was approaching, the physicians next tried essence of cantharides. This drug, better known as the aphrodisiac Spanish fly, was painted onto the soles of the king's feet. At the same time, pigeons were killed and their still-warm carcasses placed to his head in the belief that they would draw the morbid humours from his body.

This also was ineffective, and on 29 October, more drastic measures were taken. The Escorial's courtyards must have echoed with dreadful sounds as beasts were slaughtered and their steaming guts and organs laid on Carlos' torso. They believed that this would impart vital energy to the king. But Carlos had already sunk so far that he could not speak at all, or inform those around him as to the effect of this treatment. The king who had insisted on the preservation of the glory of his royal ancestors was now entirely helpless, in a room which had taken on the appearance and atmosphere of an abbatoir. Finally, as a last resort, vast amounts of the astringent Agua de la Vida - the Water of Life - were prepared, and the king was bathed in the cooling liquid. This revived him somewhat, and he was able to speak once more. Preparations were made to celebrate another amazing recovery, and on 31 October the king's fever seemed to have broken. The king fell asleep that evening peacefully, seemingly past the worst of his terrifying illness. But at eleven minutes to three in the morning, his twisted body, worn out by the long struggle, finally ceased to function.

Vast formless things

Normally, when a monarch dies, the successor is considered to have become sovereign at the moment of death, and is duly proclaimed in all state. But now there were no cries of 'The king is dead, long live the king', because no-one knew who would succeed. Cardinal Portocarrero published the will that same morning, and revealed that Carlos had left his realm entire to Philip, Duke of Anjou, younger son of the Dauphin. This immediately opened up the possibility that the thrones of France and Spain might one day be united like those of England and Scotland, creating a vast superpower in western Europe. Messengers were dispatched to Versailles and Vienna with the news. Due to an ambush in Switzerland, Leopold suffered the ignominy of receiving the message from the French, rather than from his brother-in-law's court. In Madrid, Cardinal Portocarrero became the chief of a regency council to govern Spain until the king, to be known as Felipe V, arrived. The final codicil had been a wish that Philip should marry a Habsburg archduchess, but this was not to be. War broke out very rapidly, and raged for fourteen years. It was known as the War of the Spanish Succession, with a North American phase known as Queen Anne's War. Over a million people died. The original parties achieved none of their main aims. Leopold's younger son Charles, far from inheriting Spain, was in 1714 Holy Roman Emperor, and the only suriving male Habsburg. Philip did become king of Spain, but lost much of Spain's empire, in particular granting the Spanish Netherlands - later Belgium - to Austria. And Louis XIV was made to abandon his dream of a Bourbon superpower, as the Treaty of Utrecht required that France and Spain could never have the same ruler. Louis was succeeded not by Philip, but by Philip's nephew, Louis XV, following a smallpox outbreak at Versailles which killed Philip's father and brother. Philip tried to abdicate in 1724 in favour of his eldest son, Luis I, only for Luis to die the same year. Wearily, Philip took up the crown for another 22 years. But the Bourbons now had Spain, and are its monarchs to this day, as Carlos had wished.


The principal source for this work in The Habsburgs - Embodying Empire, by Andrew Wheatcroft (Penguin, 1996). Additional information has been gleaned from too many other history books to mention, mostly one fact at a time. I cannot now find a source for certain elements, such as the death of the courier in Switzerland, which I have included from memory.

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