Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, was the son of King Philip II of Spain by his first
wife Maria Manuela, daughter of John III of Portugal. He was born at Valladolid,
and his mother died a few days after his birth.
No doubt many of his problems stemmed from the extreme inbreeding that was a chronic
aspect of the House of Habsburg and the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. Carlos
had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the more normal 16, and two of
his great-grandmothers were sisters. His namesake, King Carlos II of Spain, was also
highly inbred and debilitated as a consequence. Despite his many afflictions, in
1560 he was recognized as the heir to the throne of Castile, and three years later
to that of Aragon.
The young Infante Carlos was delicate and deformed. He grew up proud, willful, and
indolent, and soon began to show signs of insanity. Although provided with the most
famous and learned academics of Europe for his tutors, Carlos was barely literate
and some of his surviving exercise books consist of nothing but Tourette-style strings
of obscenities (in five languages) and pornographic drawings.
Among other quirks, Carlos was the original gun nut. The prince kept an arsenal of
the primitive matchlock arquebuses and wheel-lock pistols of the time in his rooms,
and he had a disconcerting habit of firing them off indoors into the walls and the
furniture, and also taking pot shots out of his windows at anything that moved, man
or animal. His health wasn't improved by his habit of beating the Spanish heat by
sleeping on a bed of ice, which was brought down from the peaks of the Pyrenees for
him in special wagon convoys at immense expense.
Carlos as an adult was erratic, arrogant, and sexually depraved. Being the heir to
the greatest empire the world had yet seen (it included Spanish America and huge
chunks of Europe, including the Netherlands and most of Italy and Germany) he could
indulge himself, which he did in the form of what today we would call S & M. He found
sexual relief by whipping young women almost to death. He did this mostly with prostitutes,
who were brought to his chambers in the Escorial Palace outside Madrid, and when
they ran short he flogged and tortured female servants. Eventually there were some
scandals involving his behavior with court ladies—one court lady in particular.
In 1559, Prince Carlos was betrothed to Elizabeth of Valois, a daughter of King Henry
II of France, but owing to a change in the political situation, a few months later
she became the third wife of his own father, King Philip II. Elizabeth was sweet
sixteen, and even allowing for the fact that she was a princess, she was regarded
by contemporary commentators as the most beautiful girl in Europe, as well as being
gentle and devout. There were rumors that one of the reasons Philip married her himself
was because he was genuinely touched by her beauty and innocence, and he wanted to
save her from his son's perversions. Carlos had been looking forward eagerly to marrying
her, and no doubt working her over on their wedding night, and when Daddy snatched
the hottie from him and married her himself, what little that remained of his sanity
seems to have slipped. He hated his father and plotted against him for the rest of
his short life.
Other brides were then suggested for the prince: Mary Queen of Scots, Marguerite
de Valois, another daughter of Henry II of France, and Anne of Austria, a daughter
of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, who after Carlos's death was to become his
father's fourth wife. Meanwhile, Carlos's mental derangement became more acute, and
his condition could no longer be kept secret.
Don Carlos continued his bouts of bondage. Accounts of life in his wing of the Escorial
sound kind of like a sixteenth-century Abu Ghraib. In 1562, he "met with an accident
which was followed by a serious illness," as the more discreet chroniclers put it.
He was whipping the daughter of his steward, the girl escaped and fled, and while
he was chasing her he tripped and fell over a banister and into a stone-floored courtyard,
cracking his head badly, which swelled to twice its normal size. The most eminent
physicians in Spain were called in, and they performed what appears to have been
some kind of crude brain surgery to relieve the pressure and fluid in his skull.
Amazingly, considering the lack of sterilization and the primitive medical techniques
of the time, the boy lived.
After his recovery, Carlos showed more obvious signs of insanity, while his conduct
both in public and in private was extremely vicious and disorderly. He took a marked
dislike to the Duke of Alva, the most famous and victorious general in the Spanish
army, possibly because he wished to proceed to the Netherlands as governor instead
of the duke. In view of the fact that the Protestant half of the province was in
armed revolt, led by the Dutch national hero William the Silent, putting this young
lunatic in charge would have been catastrophic, and Philip wisely sent the brutal
but efficient Alva instead. Carlos also exhibited continued morbid antipathy towards
his father, whose murder he even contemplated, and he apparently made several attempts
to seduce and/or rape his stepmother, Queen Elizabeth, to whom he had once been betrothed.
Yet all this, his father forgave him. Pathetically, Philip still loved his son, until
finally the crazed Carlos went too far and threatened the empire itself. In January
1568, proof was discovered that Carlos had been in contact with the Protestant rebels
in Germany and the Netherlands, and he was making preparations to flee from Spain
and join the Protestants, who would have used him as a kind of figurehead pretender
to the throne.
In the early morning hours of January 17th, 1568, King Philip personally led a squad
of soldiers, a team of carpenters, and his entire royal council to his son's chambers
in the palace. He found the young man in bed, and held his hand while he directed
the nailing and boarding up of all windows and doors in the room, finally sealing
his son inside and forbidding anyone in the empire except for one servant who fed
him to have any communication at all, written or verbal, with his son, on pain of
death. In July of the same year, Don Carlos of Spain died mysteriously in his sealed
room in the palace, possibly from poison. Every year thereafter, on the anniversary
of his son's death, King Philip would wear mourning, shut himself into his study,
The mad prince did obtain immortality, though. The opera Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi
is based on the 1787 drama by Friedrich Schiller, which in turn is loosely based
on the historical conflict between Carlos and his father. The opera was first performed
in French in Paris in 1867. Later, an Italian version was prepared that is referred
to as Don Carlo.