Charles II

Charles II (1661-1700), the last Hapsburg king of Spain, reigned from 1665 to 1700. Known as "the Bewitched," he was a foolish and weak monarch at a time when Spain direly needed strong leadership.

Charles II, the son of Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, was born in Madrid on Nov. 6, 1661. On his father's death in 1665, Mariana became queen regent, and until her death in 1696 Charles was almost completely under her control. He was a rachitic, ugly, and feeble-minded weakling who by the age of 6 could barely stand and could not walk at all. His education was very poor; when he was 14, he could read only with great difficulty. Throughout his life he remained an ignorant and sickly man.

In 1675 the 14-year old Charles was officially crowned king of Spain. For his country these were agonizing years. The economy was stagnant, there was hunger in the land, and the power of the monarchy over the various Spanish provinces was extremely weak. In foreign affairs Spain was experiencing defeat after defeat; in 1697 French armies would easily occupy Catalonia, one of the most important Spanish provinces.

Charles reigned but did not rule. Effective power was wielded either by the incapable Mariana or by powerful noblemen such as the Count of Oropesa, who later served as first minister from 1685 to 1691. In 1680 Charles married the pretty French princess Marie Louise, but she died childless in 1689. He then married Maria Ana of Neuburg, who became the controlling influence in his life after his mother's death.

As the century drew to a close, all Europe was aware that Charles was sterile and dying. France, Austria, England, and the Netherlands had designs on the Spanish Empire. In Madrid the dying king presented a pathetic spectacle. Afflicted with convulsive fits, Charles was believed to have been bewitched, and exorcists and visionary nuns employed every means known to the Church to free him from the devil.

The unfortunate monarch felt increasing pressure from those who wanted him to will his empire to Archduke Charles of Austria and from those who argued that the empire could be kept together only if it were willed to Philip of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV of France. Charles decided for Philip and on Oct. 2, 1700, named him heir. On November 1 Charles died. When his heir entered Spain as Philip V, however, England, Austria, and the Netherlands would not recognize him as the legitimate Spanish king. In 1703 they declared war against Philip and France, and the long and bloody War of the Spanish Succession began.

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Further Reading on Charles II

The life of Charles II, as well as the history of his reign, has been generally ignored by historians. In English, the only account of Charles II is John Nada's gloomy biography, Carlos: The King Who Would Not Die (1963). For a brief but scholarly account of the situation in Spain during Charles's reign, J. H. Elliott, Imperial Spain: 1469-1716 (1963), is highly recommended.