After many years of inbreeding, King Charles II of Spain was destined to die childless. He was described as, “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.”1
We are dealing with a man who died of poison two hundred years before he was born. If birth is a beginning, of no man was it more true to say that in his beginning was his end. From the day of his birth they were waiting for his death.2
Yet, his childlessness was not for lack of trying, and the King married two times.
His first wife was Marie Louise of Orléans while his second wife was Maria Anna of Neuburg, who was born on 28 October 1667 at Benrath Palace in Düsseldorf as the daughter of Philip William, Elector Palatine and Elisabeth Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Charles really had no desire to marry again after the death of Marie Louise. Yet, the hope for an heir was still high, Charles was still only 28 years old. Charles was badgered into agreeing to marry again. Maria Anna was selected by the Queen Dowager on account of her family’s history of fertility. The marriage treaty was signed just three months after Marie Louise’s death, and the marriage by proxy took place on the 18th of August 1689. She departed Germany in early 1690, departing by ship from Vlissingen in January to sail to Spain. She did not make a good first impression and was considered to be imperious and hasty. During the festivities to welcome her, she sat unmoved in her new Spanish garb. Charles did not go to welcome his wife this time and patiently awaited her arrival in Valladolid. They met for the first time on 4 May 1690, and there was no affection on either side. Maria Anna was definitely not Marie Louise and immediately took charge and imposed her will upon her feeble husband. Despite being handpicked by the Queen Dowager, Maria Anna would prove to be the match of her mother-in-law.
When contradicted, Maria Anna would suffer from hysterical nervous crises, and her new husband would continue to go in mortal fear of provoking one.
The Queen has acquired such a dominion over the spirit of her husband that it may be said she alone reigns as sovereign of Spain… The authority of the Queen, however, is founded rather upon the fear of her anger than upon any love for her on the part of the nation. There is no people in the world so sensitive of praise as the Spaniards, and consequently none who are so much affected by contempt. The Queen professes contempt for the whole nation, and, as offensive discourse is the only revenge of those who are excluded from power, it is not surprising to hear all the evil things that the public detestation causes to be said about her. It is, however, very true that she gives plenty of reasons for the reproaches levelled against her with regard to her avidity in receiving and extorting presents, and there is no one more ingenious than she in finding excuses for appropriating everything that is valuable in Madrid, and for amassing every day fresh treasure for herself.
In 1683, the King was suddenly so ill that the physicians had almost abandoned all hope. Yet, he refused to declare a successor until he had received the last sacrament. Maria Anna had her own successor in mind, and she urged him to call Archduke Charles, the son of Maria Anna’s sister Eleanor, to Spain. He was a male line descendant of Emperor Ferdinand, the brother of Emperor Charles V, but his claim did bypass several female lines, including that of Charles’s elder half-sister Maria Theresa and full sister Margaret Theresa. Maria Theresa had, of course, married the Sun King and renounced her rights to the Spanish throne (dependent on a payment that was never made) while Margaret Theresa had married Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. At the time of Charles’s illness, Margaret Theresa was long dead, but she had one daughter Maria Antonia. The most obvious heir was the young Maria Antonia. And then, against all the odds, Charles recovered.
Maria Antonia married Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria in 1683. They had two stillborn sons before Maria Antonia gave birth to Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria in 1692. Tragically, Maria Antonia died just two months after her son’s birth and the Queen Dowager now vested all her succession hopes in her Bavarian grandson.
In May 1696, the Dowager Queen died at the age of 61 and with her, the support for the succession of Joseph Ferdinand. Maria Anna was still pushing for the succession of Archduke Charles. The King, going against his wife’s wishes for once, signed a secret will appointing Joseph Ferdinand as his heir. Maria Anna found out, and it led to one of her hysterical outbursts. During this time, the King was once again dreadfully ill, and in September 1697, at the insistence of his wife, the secret will was torn up.
The King is in a languishing condition, not in so imminent a danger as last week, but so weak and spent as his principle of life, that all I can hear is pretended, amounts only to hopes of preserving him some week, without any probability of his recovery.
The King’s long road to death had at last begun its final stages. Yet, he would hold on for two more years, and he would outlive Joseph Ferdinand, who tragically died on 6 February 1699 at the age of six. The succession was again wide open. On the Austrian side was Archduke Charles and on the French side, the descendants of Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa herself was long gone. Her only surviving son was Louis, the Grand Dauphin and he was to inherit the French throne, and the French did not want to join two realms under one crown. Luckily, Louis had three sons and so the second son, the Duke of Anjou, was chosen to succeed in Spain. Charles had a conference organised that decided in favour of the Duke of Anjou, but he still hesitated.
On 20 September 1700, the King took to this bed for the final time. He received the last sacrament a few days later. On 3 October 1700, a will leaving the throne to the Duke of Anjou was placed before him. He sighed, “God alone gives kingdoms for to Him all kingdoms belong.” Then he finally signed, saying, “I am nothing now.” On the 1st of November 1700, Charles the Bewitched died at the age of 38, the victim of many years of inbreeding.
The Duke of Anjou, now King Philip V of Spain, headed south immediately to take possession of his inheritance. Maria Anna was ordered to leave Madrid before the arrival of the new King. She headed for Toledo with a large pension of 400,000 ducats. She held up the pretence when Philip visited her in Toledo not long after his arrival and handed him the badge of the Golden Fleece. The Austrians were not about to let Spain slip from their grasp and the following war briefly made the Archduke Charles a victor, and Maria Anna welcomed her nephew with open arms. However, Philip was soon in power again, and Maria Anna was arrested.
Maria Anna was shipped off to Bayonne in France where she lived in retirement for nine years. She was allowed to return to Spain where she would spend the last 26 years of her life in the stately Morisco Palace at Guadalajara. She died on 16 July 1740.3
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