Carlos, Prince of Asturias

Carlos, Prince of Asturias
Several of the Carlist pretenders to the Spanish throne were also known as Don Carlos.
Prince of Asturias and Portugal
Portrait by Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1564.
House House of Habsburg
Father Philip II of Spain
Mother Maria Manuela, Princess of Portugal
Born 8 July 1545(1545-07-08)
Valladolid, Spain
Died 24 July 1568(1568-07-24) (aged 23)
Madrid, Spain
Burial El Escorial
Religion Roman Catholicism

Carlos, Prince of Asturias, also known as Don Carlos (8 July 1545 – 24 July 1568), was the eldest son and heir of King Philip II of Spain. His mother was Maria Manuela of Portugal, daughter of John III of Portugal. Carlos was mentally unstable and was imprisoned by his father in early 1568, dying after half a year of solitary confinement. His fate was a theme in Spain's Black Legend, and inspired a play by Friedrich Schiller and an opera by Giuseppe Verdi.



Carlos was born at Valladolid, and his mother died a month after his birth. The young Infante Carlos was delicate and deformed. He grew up proud and willful and, as a young adult, began to show signs of mental instability. Many of his physical and psychological afflictions may have stemmed from the inbreeding common to the House of Habsburg and the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. Carlos had only four great-grandparents instead of the maximum of eight,[1] and his parents had the same coefficient of coancestry (1/8) as if they were half siblings. He had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the maximum 16;[1] his maternal grandmother and his paternal grandfather were brother and sister, his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother were also brother and sister, and his two great-grandmothers were sisters.

Portrait of Don Carlos by Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1558

In 1559 Prince Carlos was betrothed to Elizabeth of Valois, eldest daughter of King Henry II of France. However, for political reasons, she instead married King Philip in 1560. Three other brides were then suggested for the Prince: Mary, Queen of Scots; Margaret of Valois, youngest daughter of Henry II of France; and Anna of Austria, who was to later become Philip's fourth wife, and was a daughter of Philip's cousin, the Emperor Maximilian II.

Carlos was recognized in 1560 as the heir to the Castilian throne, and three years later as heir to the Crown of Aragon as well. He became also the 218th Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. He often attended meetings of the Council of State (which dealt with foreign affairs) and was in correspondence with the Netherlands regent, Margaret of Parma.[2]

In 1562 Carlos fell down a flight of stairs, which caused serious head injuries. His life was saved by a trepanation of the skull, performed by the eminent anatomist Andreas Vesalius.[3] After his recovery, Carlos became wild and unpredictable in his behavior. He took a dislike to the Duke of Alba, who became the commander of Philip's forces in the Netherlands, a position that had been promised to Carlos. Carlos possibly made contacts with representative of the Count Egmont from the Low Countries, who was leading the revolt against the Spanish. He also exhibited an antipathy towards his father, whose murder, according to Carlos' confessor, he supposedly contemplated at one time.[4] In the autumn of 1567 he made preparations to flee to the Netherlands.[4] However, Don Juan de Austria revealed these plans to King Philip.

In January 1568 Don Carlos was arrested and placed in solitary confinement on his father's orders. He died in isolation six months later.[5] It was later claimed that he was poisoned on the orders of King Philip, especially by William the Silent in his Apology, a 1581 propaganda work against the Spanish king.[6] Modern historians think that Don Carlos died of natural causes. He grew very thin and developed eating disorders during his imprisonment, alternating self-starvation with heavy binges.[7]

Carlos left an unfavourable impression on some foreign ambassadors. The Venetian ambassador Hieronymo Soranzo thought that Carlos was "ugly and repulsive" and claimed that Carlos liked to roast animals alive and once tried to force a shoemaker to eat shoes Carlos had found unsatisfactory. Another Venetian, Paolo Tiepolo, wrote: "He [Prince Carlos] wished neither to study nor to take physical exercise, but only to harm others."[8]


The idea of King Philip confining and murdering his own son later played a minor role in establishing the anti-Spanish Black Legend. It also formed the basis for Friedrich Schiller's 1787 tragedy Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien; Schiller's play was adapted into several operas, most notably Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos.

The story of a king jailing his own son is also the basis for the Spanish play La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) (1635), by Pedro Calderón de la Barca; however, this play does not explicitly refer to Don Carlos.



  1. ^ a b Parker p. 87
  2. ^ Parker p. 91
  3. ^ Parker p. 88
  4. ^ a b Parker p. 90
  5. ^ Parker pp. 90, 92
  6. ^ Parker pp. 92–93, 201
  7. ^ Parker p. 92
  8. ^ Marshall pp. 18-19


Further reading

Carlos, Prince of Asturias
Born: 8 July 1545 Died: 24 July 1568
Spanish royalty
Preceded by
Prince of Asturias
Title next held by

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