Weird Ideas, Weird Behaviors: Bringing the Habsburg Family Skeletons Out of the Closet
The Habsburg family is one of the most important royal families in the history of Europe. This may be somewhat surprising, as many of the rulers from this family behaved strangely, had some weird ideas, and were apparently mentally ill. A mysterious mental illness may actually have been one of the reasons for the fall of their dynasty.
The Habsburgs started to rule in Europe during the 11th century. The dynasty’s name comes from the name of a fortress built around the 1020s in the territory of modern Switzerland. The first king in this family was Rudolph of Habsburg who became the king of Germany in 1273. In 1438, the Habsburgs took the throne of the Holy Roman Empire and they kept it until 1740.
The rich family history was created around the thrones of countries like Croatia, Ireland, the Kingdom of Bohemia, England, France, Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and many others. They created a hermetic reality based on people of Habsburg blood - a royal blood empire which was thought to be perfect. However, their story contains many shameful and weird episodes.
Rudolph I of Habsburg. (Public Domain)
Joanna's Impact on the Genes
The story of mental illness in the Habsburg family probably started with the marriage of Joanna of Castile with Phillip the Handsome. Due to this marriage, the Habsburgs took the throne of Spain in 1496. Joanna was a young and lovely woman, but she was already known for her abnormal behaviors.
Although she was very intelligent, she was also very sensitive – she suffered from melancholia or perhaps even schizophrenia. Although the suggestions that she had to be mentally ill if she was interested in Martin Luther's works should be ignored, Joanna was famous for being a malicious person.
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Joanna and her husband with their Spanish subjects. (Public Domain)
Joanna probably received genes predisposing her to mental illness from her mother’s family - specifically from her maternal grandmother: Isabel of Portugal, who had the same symptoms as Joanna. In Joanna’s case, the first signs of her instability took place in 1506 when her husband died. She did not want to bury him and tried to continue her life with Phillip’s dead body. Her depression grew so strong that there was no way to save the poor woman. She spent her life in the castle near his grave. According to many resources, she never understood that he was dead.
Charles, A Man Who Wanted to See His Own Funeral
The Habsburg family has many more sad and weird stories. It is impossible to describe all of the cases in just one article. However, the story of Charles V is one of the most spectacular examples of Habsburg madness.
Portrait of Charles V. (Public Domain)
The king of Spain and Holy Emperor Charles V was well-known for his unique personality. Since the day he became king, he began working on his funeral ceremony. One of the main goals of his life was preparing a perfect funeral - a celebration of his life and death, which he wanted to be greater than any other. Charles did not feel remorse over too many things in his life, but he surely regretted that he was unable to see his own funeral. However, he did get to include the place where he wanted to be buried in his last will…and it was a special request.
When he knew that his life was going to end, Charles had a final rehearsal where he laid in his funeral shroud surrounded by monks holding black candles. He ordered them to hold a mass and prayed with them to save his soul.
Charles V at the Castle of Torgau, by Lucas Cranach, 1544. (Public Domain)
He ate lunch after the bizarre ceremony, but it was a sunny day and the heat affected him. He had a stroke and died on September 21, 1558. He expected it - so he was prepared. He died with a book by Thucydides, and held a cross at the moment of his death. That same cross would be held in the hands of Queen Isabel and Phillip II when they were dying.
Charles wanted to be buried with half of his body under the altar and the other half in front of it - just to make sure the priest would stand on the king’s chest during religious ceremonies. This wish was fulfilled for the next 26 years, after which he was exhumed and buried in a different place.
Searching for the Source of Mental Health Problems
Mental disorders increased through the centuries for the Habsburg family. Many of the family members became exceptionally cruel or depressed. Moreover, due to the small rate of newly married princesses and princes without Habsburg blood, with time their bodies started to be deformed as well as their minds.
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According to the results of research published in the magazine Nature:
''Inbreeding increases the odds that offspring inherit two copies of a recessive mutation that causes disease. Charles, for instance, was believed to suffer from at least two conditions caused by recessive mutations in different genes: pituitary hormone deficiency (which can result in infertility) and distal renal tubular acidosis, a cause of kidney failure.
Charles's infertility kept such mutations from being transmitted to subsequent generations, at least along his lineage. To determine indirectly whether other harmful mutations had been weeded out of the Habsburg family — including branches that outlived the Spanish Habsburgs — Ceballos and Álvarez counted deaths during infancy (birth to age one, excluding miscarriages and stillbirths) and childhood (ages one to ten) in the family’s history. The team recorded 502 pregnancies that resulted in 93 infant deaths and 76 childhood deaths.''
Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. of Austria and his wife Infanta Maria of Spain with their children. (Public Domain)
The End of a Dynasty
The Habsburgs lost the Spanish throne in the 1700s - the beginning of the end of their domination. By then, the rulers’ bodies were very ill and deformed as well. The family started to search for marriages in other families which were not connected to them before. Due to this action, many European families may currently claim that they have roots connected to the Habsburgs.
The Spanish and Austrian Habsburg Dominions in 1700. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Habsburgs lost much of their power during the 20th century. They are still a very important family in Europe, but without the recognition and tools to influence politics in the same way as they once did.
Top image: Members of the Habsburg family. Source: Public Domain
Stanisław Grodziski, Habsburgowie: dzieje dynastii, 1998.
Andrew Wheatcroft, Habsburgowie, 2000.
Emil Franzel, Habsburgowie, 1999.
Geoffrey Parker, Filip II, 1985.
Manuel Fernández Álvarez, Cesarz Karol V, 2003.
Inbred royals show traces of natural selection by Ewen Callaway, available at: