Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Fate of a Reckless Prince

In 1568 died Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, the son of Philip II. of Spain; and in the same year died Isabella of Valois, the young and beautiful queen of the Spanish monarch. Legend has connected the names of Carlos and Isabella, and a mystery hangs over them which research has failed to dispel. Their supposed love, their untimely fate, and the suspicion that their death was due to the jealousy of the king, have proved a prolific theme for fiction, and the story of the supposed unhappy fate of the two has passed from the domain of history into that of romance and the drama, there being more than one fine play based on the loves and misfortunes of Carlos and Isabella. But sober history tells nothing of the kind, and it is with history that we are here concerned.

Carlos, the heir of the throne of Spain, was born In 1545. He was a bold, headstrong boy, reckless in disposition, fond of manly exercises, generous to a fault, fearless of heart, and passionately desirous of a military life. In figure he was deformed, one shoulder being higher and one leg longer than the other, while his chest was flat and his back slightly humped. His features were not unhandsome, though very pale, and he spoke with some difficulty. He was feeble and sickly as a boy, subject to intermittent fever, and wasted away so greatly that it seemed as if he would not live to manhood.

Such were the mental and physical characteristics of the princely youth who while still young was betrothed by treaty to the beautiful French princess Isabella of Valois. The marriage was not destined to take place. Before the treaty was ratified, Queen Mary of England, Philip's wife, died, and his name was substituted for that of his son in the marriage treaty. The wedding ceremony took place at Toledo, in February, 1560, and was celebrated with great splendor. Carlos was present, and may have felt some resentment at being robbed by his father of this beautiful bride. Romantic historians tell us that Isabella felt a tender sentiment for him, a very unlikely statement in view of the fact that he was at that time a sickly, ill-favored boy of only fourteen years of age. Shortly after the marriage Carlos was formally recognized as heir to the crown.

Two years afterwards a serious accident occurred. In descending a flight of stairs the boy slipped and fell headlong, injuring his head so severely that his life was despaired of. His head swelled to an enormous size; he became delirious and totally blind; examination showed that his skull was fractured; a part of the bone was removed, but no relief was obtained. All the arts of the doctors of that day were tried in vain, but the boy got no better. Processions were made to the churches, prayers were offered, and pilgrimages were vowed, all without avail. Then more radical means were tried. The mouldering bones of a holy Franciscan, who had died a hundred years before, and had always been the object of the prince's especial veneration, were taken from their coffin and laid on the boy's bed, and the cloth that had enclosed the dead man's skull was placed on his forehead.

That night, we are gravely told, the dead friar came to Carlos in his sleep, bidding him to "be of good cheer, for he would certainly recover." Soon after, the fever subsided, his head shrank back to its natural size, his sight returned. In two months from the date of the accident he was physically well, his recovery being partly or wholly due to the skill of an Italian surgeon, who trepanned him and by this act restored him to consciousness.

Likely enough the boy was never cured. The blow may have done some permanent injury to his brain. At any rate, he became strikingly eccentric and reckless, giving way to every mad whim that came into his mind. The stories of his wild doings formed the scandal of Madrid. In 1564 one of his habits was to patrol the streets with a number of young nobles as lawless as himself, attacking the passengers with their swords, kissing the women, and using foul language to ladies of the highest rank.

At that time it was the custom for the young gallants of the court to wear very large boots. Carlos increased the size of his, that he might carry in them a pair of small pistols. Fearing mischief, the king ordered the shoemaker to reduce the size of his son's boots; but when the unlucky son of St. Crispin brought them to the palace, the prince flew into a rage, beat him severely, and then ordered the leather to be cut into pieces and stewed, and forced the shoemaker to swallow it on the spot—or as much of it as he could get down.

These are only a sample of his pranks. He beat his governor, attempted to throw his chamberlain out of the window, and threatened to stab Cardinal Espinosa for banishing a favorite actor from the palace.

One anecdote told of him displays a reckless and whimsical humor. Having need of money, Carlos asked of a merchant, named Grimaldo, a loan of fifteen hundred ducats. The money-lender readily consented, thanked the prince for the compliment, and, in the usual grandiloquent vein of Castilian courtesy, told Carlos that all he had was at his disposal.

"I am glad to learn that," answered the prince. "You may make the loan, then, one hundred thousand ducats."

Poor Grimaldo was thunderstruck. He tremblingly protested that it was impossible,—he had not the money. "It would ruin my credit," he declared. "What I said were only words of compliment."

"You have no right to bandy compliments with princes," Don Carlos replied. "I take you at your word. If you do not, in twenty-four hours, pay over the money to the last real, you shall have bitter cause to rue it."

The unhappy Grimaldo knew not what to do. Carlos was persistent. It took much negotiation to induce the prince to reduce the sum to sixty thousand ducats, which the merchant raised and paid,—with a malediction on all words of compliment. The money flew like smoke from the prince's hands, he being quite capable of squandering the revenues of a kingdom. He lived in the utmost splendor, and was lavish with all who came near him, saying, in support of his gifts and charities, "Who will give if princes do not?"

The mad excesses of the prince, his wild defiance of decency and decorum, were little to the liking of his father, who surrounded the young man with agents whom he justly looked upon as spies, and became wilder in his conduct in consequence. Offers of marriage were made from abroad. Catharine de Médicis proposed the hand of a younger sister of Isabella. The emperor of Germany pressed for a union with his daughter Anne, the cousin of Carlos. Philip agreed to the latter, but deferred the marriage. He married Anne himself after the death of Carlos, making her his fourth wife. Thus both the princesses intended for the son became the brides of the father.

The trouble between Carlos and his father steadily grew. The prince was now twenty-one years of age, and, in his eagerness for a military life, wished to take charge of affairs in the Netherlands, then in rebellion against Spain. On learning that the Duke of Alva was to be sent thither, Carlos said to him, "You are not to go there; I will go myself."

The efforts of the duke to soothe him only irritated him, and in the end he drew his dagger and exclaimed, "You shall not go; if you do I will kill you."

A struggle followed, the prince making violent efforts to stab the duke. It only ended when a chamberlain came in and rescued Alva. This outrage on his minister doubled the feeling of animosity between father and son, and they grew so hostile that they ceased to speak, though living in the same palace.

The next escapade of Carlos brought matters to a crisis. He determined to fly from Spain and seek a more agreeable home in Germany or the Netherlands. As usual, he had no money, and he tried to obtain funds by demanding loans from different cities,—a reckless process which at once proclaimed that he had some mad design in mind. He went further than this, saying to his confidants that "he wished to kill a man with whom he had a quarrel." This purpose he confessed to a priest, and demanded absolution. The priest refused this startling request, and as the prince persisted in his sanguinary purpose, a conclave of sixteen theologians was called together to decide what action it was advisable to take in so extraordinary a case.

After a debate on the subject, one of them asked Carlos the name of his enemy. The prince calmly replied,—

"My father is the person. I wish to take his life."

This extraordinary declaration, in which the mad prince persisted, threw the conclave into a state of the utmost consternation. On breaking up, they sent a messenger to the king, then at the Escorial Palace, and made him acquainted with the whole affair. This story, if it is true, seems to indicate that the prince was insane.

Royal Palace, Madrid


His application to the cities for funds was in a measure successful. By the middle of January, 1568, his agents brought him in a hundred and fifty thousand ducats,—a fourth of the sum he had demanded. On the 17th he sent an order to Don Ramon de Tassis, director-general of the posts, demanding that eight horses should be provided for him that evening. Tassis, suspecting something wrong, sent word that the horses were all out. Carlos repeated his order in a peremptory manner, and the postmaster now sent all the horses out, and proceeded with the news to the king at the Escorial. Philip immediately returned to Madrid, where, the next morning, Carlos attacked his uncle, Don John of Austria, with a drawn sword, because the latter refused to repeat a conversation he had had with the king.

For some time Carlos had slept with the utmost precautions, as if he feared an attack upon his life. His sword and dagger lay ready by his bedside, and he kept a loaded musket within reach. He had also a bolt constructed in such a manner that, by aid of pulleys, he could fasten or unfasten the door of his chamber while in bed. All this was known to Philip, and he ordered the mechanic who had made it to derange the mechanism so that it would not work. To force a way into the chamber of a man like Carlos might not have been safe.

At the hour of eleven that night the king came downstairs, wearing armor on his body and a helmet on his head. With him were the Duke of Feria, captain of the guard, several other lords, and twelve guardsmen. They quietly entered the chamber of the prince, and the duke, stealing to the bedside, secured the sword, dagger, and musket which lay there.

The noise now wakened Carlos, who sprang up, demanding who was there.

"It is the council of state," answered the duke.

On hearing this the prince leaped from the bed, uttering threats and imprecations, and endeavored to seize his arms. Philip, who had prudently kept in the background until the weapons were secured, now advanced and bade his son to return to bed and keep quiet.

"What does your majesty want of me?" demanded the prince.

"You will soon learn," Philip harshly replied.

He then gave orders that the windows and doors of the room should be strongly secured and the keys brought to him. Every article of furniture, even the andirons, with which violence might have been done, was removed from the room. The king then appointed Feria keeper of the prince, and bade the other nobles to serve him, with due respect, saying that he would hold them as traitors if they permitted him to escape.

"Your majesty had better kill me than keep me a prisoner, exclaimed Carlos. "It will be a great scandal to the kingdom. If you do not kill me I will kill myself.'

"You will do no such thing," answered Philip. "That would be the act of a madman."

"Your majesty," replied the prince, "treats me so ill that you drive me to this extremity. I am not mad, but you drive me to despair."

Other words passed, and on the withdrawal of the king the voice of Carlos was so broken by sobs that his words could scarcely be heard. That night the Duke of Feria and two other lords remained in the prince's room,—now his prison. Each succeeding night two of the six appointed lords performed this duty. They were not allowed to wear their swords in the presence of the prince, but his meat was cut up before serving, as no knife was permitted to be used at his meals. A guard was stationed in the passage without, and, as the prince could not look from his barricaded windows, he was from that day dead to the world.

The king immediately summoned his council of state and began a process against the prisoner. Though making a show of deep affliction, he was present at all the meetings and listened to all the testimony, which, when written out, formed a heap of paper half a foot thick.

The news of the arrest of Don Carlos made a great sensation in Spain. The wildest rumors were set afloat. Some said that he had tried to kill his father, others that he was plotting rebellion. Many laid all the blame on the king. "Others, more prudent than their neighbors, laid their fingers on their lips and were silent." The affair created almost as much sensation throughout Europe as in Spain. Philip, in his despatches to other courts, spoke in such vague and mysterious language that it was impossible to tell what he meant, and the most varied surmises were advanced.

Meanwhile, Carlos was kept rigorously confined, so much so that he was not left alone day or night. Of the two nobles in his chamber at night, one was required to keep awake while the other slept. They were permitted to talk with him, but not on political matters nor on the subject of his imprisonment. They were ordered to bring him no messages from without nor receive any from him. No books except devotional ones were allowed him.

If it was the purpose of Philip to end the life of his son by other means than execution he could not have taken better measures. For a young man of his high spirit and fiery temper such strict confinement was maddening. At first he was thrown into a frenzy, and tried more than once to make way with himself. The sullenness of despair succeeded. He grew daily more emaciated, and the malarial fever which had so long affected him now returned in a severe degree. To allay the heat of the fever he would deluge the floor of his chamber with water, and walk for hours with bare feet on the cold floor. He had a warming-pan filled with ice and snow brought him, and kept it for hours at night in his bed. He would drink snow-water in immoderate draughts. In his eating he seemed anxious to break down his strength,—now refusing all food for days together, now devouring a pasty of four partridges at a sitting, washing it down with three gallons or more of iced water.

That he was permitted to indulge in such caprices seems to indicate that Philip wished him to kill himself. No constitution, certainly not so weak a one as that of Carlos, could long withstand these excesses. His stomach refused to perform its duty; severe vomiting attacked him; dysentery set in; his strength rapidly failed. The expected end came on the 24th of July, six months after the date of his imprisonment, death releasing the prince from the misery of his unhappy lot. One writer tells us that it was hastened by a strong purgative dose, administered by his father's orders, and that he was really assassinated. However that be, Philip had little reason to be sorry at the death of his lunatic son. To one of his austere temperament it was probably an easy solution of a difficult problem.

Less than three months passed after the death of Carlos when Isabella followed him to the grave. She was then but twenty-three years old,—about the same age as himself. The story was soon set afloat that Philip had murdered both his son and his wife, moved thereto by jealousy; and from this has arisen the romantic story of secret love between the two, with the novels and dramas based thereon. In all probability the story is without foundation. Philip is said to have been warmly loved by his wife, and the poison which carried her away seems to have been the heavy doses of medicine with which the doctors of that day sought to cure a passing illness.