Charles II (Spain) (1661–1700)

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CHARLES II (SPAIN) (16611700)

CHARLES II (SPAIN) (16611700), king of Spain, Naples, and Sicily (16651700), son of Philip IV, and the last Habsburg ruler of Spain. From the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in the fifteenth century through that of Philip IV in the mid-seventeenth century, Spain was the major power in western Europe, possessing a rich colonial empire and respected for its military prowess as well as its literary and artistic accomplishments. The reign of Charles II is perhaps best known for the decline of this empire. Plagued by poor leadership, monetary inflation, bankruptcy, and a series of military defeats, Spain in the later seventeenth century surrendered its primacy on the European stage to France.

Charles as an individual was sadly symbolic of this decline, as he was known more for his physical infirmity and absence from government than for his accomplishments. The product of generations of inbreeding between the Spanish and Austrian branches of the Habsburg family, he was sickly, frail, and possibly epileptic. Given Charles's weak physical condition, it was generally assumed that he was lacking in intelligence as well, and little was required of him in the way of educational training. He was never able to read and write well, and did not master other basic courtly skills such as horsemanship and fencing. Even in adulthood he did not often attend the meetings of important government councils or countersign their deliberations; official documents generally bear a facsimile of his signature rather than the original. In the last years of his life he was rumored to be bewitched and underwent an exorcism to expel his demons.

Charles's reign was characterized by factionalism in which various figures in the court competed for control in the power vacuum left by the absence of a strong king. Charles inherited his throne in 1665 at the age of four. His mother, Mariana of Austria, acted as regent and relied on a series of favorites (including her confessor, Juan Everard Nithard, and Fernando de Valenzuela, the husband of one of her servants) to assist her in the tasks of government. When Charles came of age in 1676, he too depended on the assistance of others in the court. As a result, there was constant competition to gain access to the king, and factions developed around the individuals most likely to be able to control him. In addition to Mariana of Austria, the most significant of these were Charles's half-brother Don Juan José of Austria (an illegitimate son of Philip IV), a charismatic and popular figure in the court and a constant focus of opposition to the queen mother, and Charles's second wife, Mariana of Neuburg, whom he married in 1689. During the 1680s and 1690s, the king also relied on the assistance of a series of ministers. This practice increased the influence of the aristocracy in the court, but because of factional conflicts, no single minister was able to accomplish much or to remain in power for more than a few years. Charles's final failure was his inability to leave an heir. Anticipating this, the other European powers, particularly France and Austria, spent much of his reign designing plans to partition Spain, and his death in 1700 resulted in the twelve-year War of the Spanish Succession.

Historians of Spain have paid little attention to the late seventeenth century, and those who have described Spain during the reign of Charles II reserve their harshest criticism for the king, associating his personal weaknesses with Spain's decline. Recent studies of the "decline of Spain" argument, however, have questioned whether Charles's reign was truly as disastrous as it appears. While the court in Madrid was preoccupied with its internal power struggles, other regions of Spain experienced a gradual recovery. Although military dominance in Europe clearly passed to the French, recent research indicates that within Spain, population growth, agricultural output, and textile manufacture all began to recover under the reign of Charles II. In fact, much administrative and fiscal reform that has been attributed to the reign of the Bourbon kings in the eighteenth century may well have had its roots in the last decades of the seventeenth in the regions outside Castile. Even artistic production, which had declined in Castile because of a lack of court patronage, flourished in provincial cities such as Seville. Although Charles II is a king more often regretted than celebrated in the annals of Spanish history, the negative impact of his personal failings on Spain has been much exaggerated.

See also Habsburg Dynasty ; Spain ; Spanish Succession, War of the .


Darby, Graham. Spain in the Seventeenth Century. London, 1994.

Kamen, Henry. Spain in the Later Seventeenth Century, 16651700. London, 1980.

Maura, Gabriel Maura y Gamazo, duque de. Vida y reinado de Carlos II. Revised edition. Madrid, 1990. Originally published in 1942; somewhat outdated but still the most thorough and detailed account of Charles and his reign.

Jodi Campbell

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Charles II (Spain)

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