The House of Habsburg was once one of the foremost royal houses in Europe: in 1273, Rudolf of Habsburg was elected as King of Germany, and in 1440, Frederik of Habsburg was elected Holy Roman Emperor – the first from the House of Habsburg.
From then on, the power of the Habsburgs grew across Europe, and members of the family became rulers of Spain, Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia, Portugal, Austria, and Mexico as well as other smaller principalities and kingdoms. However, for a noble family to consolidate their power and influence or to make new alliances, family members had to make politically advantageous matches.
Lack of genetic variation
These politically advantageous matches often involved marriages between relatives – some married distant cousins, others their first cousin or niece. Many of these close consanguineous matches needed papal dispensation: although the genetic issues of close marriages were not understood, they were still perceived as unnatural in some respect.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, centuries of this kind of close intermarriage led to a lack of genetic variation. Normally, a child is the product of two very different gene pools, but if your parents are cousins, chances are they share the same recessive genes.
Whilst these genes are not necessarily harmful, continually mixing them can cause them to become dominant, sometimes with rather unusual results.
In the case of the Habsburgs, this manifested itself most overtly in an enlarged lower jaw (known formally as mandibular prognathism), a large humped nose and a protruding lower lip.
More recently, as Queen Victoria’s many children and grandchildren married into the royal houses of Europe, often marrying their relatives – distant or otherwise – the recessive haemophilia gene became a problem.
Portrait artists have captured the distinctive Habsburg chin since the Habsburgs first came to Spain, and some of the Habsburg characteristics can be found in royal families across Europe – Marie Antoinette was part of the Austrian Habsburgs, and her protruding lower lip simply gave her the appearance of a constant pout.
The last Habsburg
Carlos II was the last of the Spanish Habsburgs. He was born with several physical disabilities, including a lower jaw so pronounced that he struggled to eat and talk. Historians and geneticists both believe that these stemmed from a rare genetic disorder, caused by centuries of inbreeding.
Carlos’ physical deformities were so noticeable, he earned the nickname El Hechizado – literally meaning the hexed one, or more colloquially, ‘the bewitched’.
Whilst he did marry twice, Carlos never produced an heir: some scientists think he was incapable of doing so, and his autopsy seemed to raise more questions than it answered. The physician who conducted it is supposed to have said:
“[His body] did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.”
Carlos’ death not only marked the end of the male line of the Spanish Habsburgs, but also triggered the War of the Spanish Succession, as the rest of Europe’s monarchs fought over how to divide up the extensive Spanish empire whilst maintaining some balance of power between other European powers.
Philip V, grandson of King Louis XIV of France, was eventually crowned King on the proviso that he swear to keep France and Spain as separate kingdoms.
The Habsburgs continued to rule the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution in 1806, and ruled Austria, then the new state of Austria-Hungary, until its dissolution in 1918. Only in 1961 did the Habsburgs renounce all of their claims to thrones, ending the supremacy of one of the most powerful, long-standing dyansties in European history.