17 April 2009

Not so much as a gene pool as a damp smear

On Wednesday the Times carried an article about research into the downfall of the Spanish Habsburgs. A study led by Gonzalo Alvarez, of the University of Santiago de Compostela showed how inbreeding drove one of Europe’s most celebrated dynasties to extinction. (One comment asked the following “Will Dr Alvez be producing any more 'research' stating the obvious?? How about a study demonstrating that water is wet?”) Still it amuses me to paraphrase the article and add some background plus pictures of the pulchritudinous princes and princesses.

Joanna the Mad

The first Habsburg monarch was Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) who ascended the Spanish throne in 1516. Although his father was known as Philip the Handsome, it is perhaps ominous to note that his mother Juana is known to history as Joanna the Mad.

Philip IV

He was succeeded by Philip II, the Philip III, neither of whom look as if they would land a role playing banjo in Deliverance. However they did seek to consolidate their royal house with consanguineous marriages which contributed to the famous “Habsburg jaw”. The jaw can be seen distinctly in the next monarch Philip IV who married his niece.

Charles II of Spain

The final Spanish Habsburg was Charles II who was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a sickly, disabled and mentally retarded man. Known as El Hechizado (The Hexed), he was short and weak, and suffered from rickets, intestinal problems and blood in the urine. He had learning difficulties, a large head relative to his body size, and his two wives reported that he suffered from impotence or premature ejaculation. Dr Alvarez’s team said that his symptoms would have been well explained by two recessive genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis.

The Habsburg family tree (or should that be pillar?)

That Charles II may have suffered from genetic illness in perhaps to be expected: he was so inbred (see above!) that his risk of inheriting a genetic disease was comparable with that of a child born to a brother and sister or father and daughter, maybe greater.

The Habsburgs’ poor prospects were further compounded by an extremely high rate of mortality in infancy and childhood, which may also have been a result of their inbred character. Half of all royal children died before the age of 10, compared with 20 per cent of children born in ordinary Spanish villages in the same period.

Ah well the death of Charles II did lead to a war which gave a certain John Churchill the chance to shine as one of Britain’s greatest ever military commanders. Err perhaps that is not the best of endings!


Silent Hunter said...

Interestingly enough, Charles I was the nephew of Catherine of Aragorn. The fact that he was occupying Rome and keeping the Pope prisoner in 1529 prevented Henry VIII from getting what would have otherwise been a routine annulment.

Thus another key consequence.

Sean Jeating said...

Interesting that in such a genetic isolate the sun would never set, hm? :)

Anonymous said...
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jams o donnell said...

Ah I didn't think of that Hunter. He didn't do Henry many favours before either.

Haha Sean. It's amazing he wasn't born a fish!

feefifoto said...

Considering that portraitists sometimes beautified or idealized their subjects, can you imagine how the Habsburgs might have looked in real life? Eek.

jams o donnell said...

Gah I didn't think of that. I shudder to think what they really looked like!

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Methinks, Jams, that you may enjoy the very informal discussion here:


Warning: don't hold a drink near your keyboard when reading!