Charles II of Spain was just 38 years old when he died on November 1, 1700. His health had been so poor throughout his life, though, that it was surprising he lasted as long as he did. Indeed, in their magisterial series The Story of Civilization, the historians Will and Ariel Durant once said he was “always on the verge of death, but repeatedly baffled Christendom by continuing to live.”
Born in 1661 in Madrid, Charles was fathered by King Phillip IV of Spain. Phillip had been on the throne for 40 years and was already 56 when Charles was born. Phillip’s first wife, Elisabeth of France, had borne him seven children, only one of whom was a boy – a potential heir – but he had died aged 16. Elisabeth herself had died two years earlier, in 1644.
Charles’ mother, meanwhile, was Phillip’s second wife, Mariana of Austria, whom the king had married in 1646. Mariana was also Philip’s niece, and she bore him five children. Disturbingly, by modern standards, intermarriage between blood relatives was commonplace among members of the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled several European kingdoms. Yes, their idea of keeping it all in the family was rather too literal.