Prince of Asturias
Portrait by Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1564
Born8 July 1545
Valladolid, Crown of Castile
Died24 July 1568(1568-07-24) (aged 23)
Madrid, Crown of Castile
FatherPhilip II of Spain
MotherMaria Manuela, Princess of Portugal

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


Carlos was born in Valladolid, Spain on 8 July 1545 to double first cousins Philip of Spain and María Manuela of Portugal. His paternal grandfather, Emperor Charles V, was the reigning king of Spain. Carlos's mother Maria died four days after the birth of her son from a hemorrhage she had following the birth.[1]

Carlos was born with unequal leg length and lordosis, resulting in his shoulders and stance being asymmetrical.[2] His physical abnormalities and behavioral issues are often attributed to inbreeding as he was a member of the House of Habsburg and the House of Aviz.[3][a] Carlos had only four great-grandparents instead of the typical eight,[5] and his parents had the same coefficient of relationship, 25%, which is equivalent to them being half siblings. He also had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the maximum 16;[5] his maternal grandmother and his paternal grandfather were siblings, his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother were also siblings, and his two great-grandmothers were sisters.

Portrait of Don Carlos by Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1560

Early years

Following the death of his mother, Carlos was raised by his paternal aunts, Maria and Joanna, until their marriages in 1548 and 1552.[6] His childhood was "emotionally deprived": Philip II spent long periods abroad and, after Joanna's departure, Carlos endured a marked lack of affection.[7] According to the courtier Gamiz, Carlos was spoiled and prone to tantrums.[8] At some point, Philip appointed Honorato Juan as the prince's tutor,[9] and later García Álvarez de Toledo y Osorio.[10]

Carlos began exhibiting violent behavior at a young age, often directing his aggression towards servants and animals.[11] He reportedly once tried to force a shoemaker to eat shoes that he found unsatisfactory.[12] His conduct and character gained notoriety at court, drawing the attention of foreign ambassadors.[13] The Venetian ambassador, Girolamo Soranzo, thought that Carlos was "ugly and repulsive".[14] Another Venetian, Paolo Tiepolo, wrote: "He [Prince Carlos] wished neither to study nor to take physical exercise, but only to harm others."[15] It is unclear whether he had any intellectual disabilities, or whether his intellectual ability was impaired by the 1562 brain injury.[16]

In 1556, Emperor Charles V abdicated and retired to the Monastery of Yuste in southern Spain, leaving the Spanish holdings of his empire to Philip, Carlos's father. While en route to Yuste, the Emperor paused at Valladolid and met his grandson.[10] Perceived as reckless and ill-mannered, Carlos left a poor impression.[17] Charles was so displeased with the prince that he cautioned Philip against bringing him to Flanders for the homage ceremony from the states.[18]

In 1559, Carlos became engaged to Elizabeth of Valois, eldest daughter of King Henry II of France.[19] However, to hasten the reconciliation between Spain and France, Elizabeth married Philip instead.[20] Three other brides were then suggested for the Prince: Mary, Queen of Scots;[21] Margaret of Valois, youngest daughter of Henry II of France;[22] and Anna of Austria, who was a daughter of Philip's cousin, Emperor Maximilian II and Philip's sister Maria. Although it was agreed in 1564 that Carlos should marry Anna,[23] the marriage was continually postponed by Philip,[24] much to Carlos's frustration.[25] Anna would later become Philip's fourth wife.[26]

Beginning in 1560, Carlos suffered recurrent feverish attacks, suspected to be caused by malaria.[27] For the sake of his health, court physicians advised that the prince be moved to Alcalá de Henares.[8] In 1561, Philip arranged for Carlos to be educated in the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares alongside his uncle, Juan of Austria, and cousin, Alexander Farnese.[28]

Inheritance and head injury

The 15-year-old Carlos was recognised in 1560 as the heir-apparent to the Castilian throne,[29] and three years later as heir-apparent to the Crown of Aragon as well.[30] He was also heir-presumptive to the throne of Portugal as a paternal cousin of King Sebastian.[31] Because of his eminence, he often attended meetings of the Council of State (which dealt with foreign affairs) and was in correspondence with his aunt Margaret, who governed the Low Countries in his father's name.[32]

Portrait of Don Carlos by Jooris van der Straeten

In April 1562, while at the University of Alcalá, Carlos sustained a severe head injury after falling down a staircase.[33] Initially deemed non-threatening, his condition rapidly deteriorated; within ten days he was experiencing delusions and excruciating pain.[34] Fearing for his son's life, Philip sought various remedies, consulting numerous physicians and resorting to placing the relics of Diego de Alcalá by the prince's bedside.[27] By late May, Carlos's condition began to improve. While Philip credited the miraculous power of the Franciscan corpse,[35] modern historians attribute the prince's recovery to either a trepanation of the skull performed by the anatomist Andreas Vesalius or the application of ointments by a Moorish doctor.[36] After his recovery, Carlos became even wilder,[37] more unstable in his temper and unpredictable in his behaviour.[38]


Allegedly, Carlos sympathized with Flemish rebels[39] and made contacts with representatives of Count Egmont and Floris of Montmorency,[40] leaders of the revolt against Philip in the Low Countries.[41] There were purported plans of fleeing to the Netherlands and declaring himself king, with the support of the rebels. While it is known that Carlos harbored a strong desire to go to the Netherlands,[42] most historians have dismissed the theory that he was involved with Flemish insurgents.[43]

Throughout 1567, Carlos exhibited escalating emotional instability, marked by violent episodes.[44] One notable incident involved his command to set a house on fire after he was accidentally splashed with water thrown from a window of the house.[45]

Carlos often complained about his father's resistance to giving him positions of authority. Hoping to placate his son by increasing his sense of responsibility,[45] Philip appointed Carlos president of the Council of State in 1567.[46] However, the prince showed no interest in the Council or in familiarizing himself with political matters.[47]

Although he initially promised Carlos rule over the Low Countries in 1559,[48] Philip came to realize his son's inability to be trusted with positions of power.[47] Consequently, instead of fulfilling his promise, Philip granted the position of Governor of the Netherlands to the Duke of Alba.[49] Outraged at being robbed of his position, Carlos attempted to attack the duke but was quickly restrained.[50]

In the autumn of 1567, he made another attempt to flee to the Netherlands [51] by asking John of Austria to take him to Italy.[52] John asked for 24 hours to make his decision, during which he revealed Carlos's plan to Phillip who immediately denied permission for the trip.

After being denied Carlos attempted to shoot John of Austria. A servant had unloaded Carlos's gun while he lured John into his room. After Carlos discovered his gun was unloaded, he attacked John with bare hands. After hearing about the attack, Philip ordered that Carlos be confined in his room without contact to the outside world.

Just before midnight on 17 January 1568, Philip II, in armour, and with four councillors, entered Don Carlos' bedchamber in the Alcázar of Madrid where they declared his arrest,[53] seized his papers and weapons, and nailed up the windows.[54] Carlos threatened suicide, which then caused him to be banned from having knives or forks in his room.


In addressing public opinion and other European courts, Philip attempted to justify Carlos's imprisonment without revealing the prince's actual transgressions or mental state.[55] This absence of transparency fueled widespread speculation that would later be weaponized by Philip's enemies.[56][b] By July, Carlos's hunger strikes left him in an "appallingly thin" state.[60] On 24 July 1568, the prince died in his room, probably as a result of starvation. His death was used as one of the core elements of the Spanish Black Legend in the Netherlands, which needed to justify a revolt against the king, which subsequently caused The Eighty Years' War. It was later claimed that he was murdered on the orders of King Philip, especially by William the Silent in his Apology, a 1581 propaganda work against the Spanish king.[61] The idea of the poisoning had been held by central and north European historians, based on the pieces of propaganda produced in the Netherlands, until the 20th century, while most Spanish and Italian historians kept claiming that evidence and documentation pointed at a death by natural causes.[62][27] Modern historians now think that Don Carlos died of natural causes.

Legend and literature

His coat of arms as the Prince of Asturias (1560–1568).

The idea of King Philip confining and murdering his own son later played a minor role in establishing the anti-Spanish Black Legend[61][27] in England, and a major one in forming it in the Netherlands, Germany and central Europe.[63][64] The propaganda created from it formed the basis for Friedrich Schiller's 1787 tragedy Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien.

Schiller based his work on a novel written in 1672 by the French Abbé, César Vichard de Saint-Réal, which was also the source used by the English writer Thomas Otway for his play Don Carlos, Prince of Spain. In both works, romantic tragedies that combine nationalism and romantic love, Carlos incarnates the ideal of the romantic knight, noble and brave. He is presented as the lover of young Elizabeth of Valois, Philip's wife, as they both fight for freedom and for their love against a cruel, despotic, merciless, and far-too-old-for-Isabel Philip II and his court of equally cruel and despotic Spaniards. Finally, the hero is defeated by treason due to his excess of nobility.[65]

Schiller's play was adapted into several operas, most notably Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos (1867, also known under its Italian title, Don Carlo). Verdi's opera is probably the version of the story most familiar to modern audiences, as it is a mainstay of the operatic repertoire and is still frequently performed.[citation needed] In it, Carlos is portrayed sympathetically as a victim of court intrigues, and little reference is made to his mental instability or violent tendencies.

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, starts with a different premise, and was likely inspired by a combination of religious reflection and Plato's cave, in the line of Spanish Neoplatonism.[66]

In popular media

The role of Carlos is portrayed by Canadian actor Mark Ghanimé in the CW show Reign.[67] He was portrayed as a sexual deviant, who enjoyed being whipped, and showed interest in ruling Scotland with a crown matrimonial. Reign does hold true to the facts of brain damage, but instead of a fall, Don Carlos's head is impaled by a piece of wood from his "sex horse".

Carlos is portrayed by Joseph Cuby as a 14 year old sadist betrothed to Princess Mariella (Francesca Annis) in the TV series Sir Francis Drake (1962) episode "Visit to Spain".

In Foxe's Book of Martyrs

John Foxe, in Actes and Monuments, better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs (2nd ed., 1570), wrote the following about Carlos:

One prince, indeed, intended to abolish the inquisition, but he lost his life before he became king, and consequently before he had the power so to do; for the very intimation of his design procured his destruction.

This was that amiable prince Don Carlos, son of Philip the Second, king of Spain, and grandson of the celebrated emperor Charles V. Don Carlos, possessed all the good qualities of his grandfather without any of the bad ones of his father; and was a prince of great vivacity, admirable learning, and the most amiable disposition.—He had sense enough to see into the errors of popery, and abhorred the very name of the inquisition. He inveighed publicly against the institution, ridiculed the affected piety of the inquisitors, did all he could to expose their atrocious deeds, end even declared, that if he ever came to the crown, he would abolish the inquisition, and exterminate its agents. These things were sufficient to irritate the inquisitors against the prince: they, accordingly, bent their minds to vengeance, and determined on his destruction. The inquisitors now employed all their agents and emissaries to spread abroad the most artful insinuations against the prince; and, at length, raised such a spirit of discontent among the people, that the king was under the necessity of removing Don Carlos from court. Not content with this, they pursued even his friends, and obliged the king likewise to banish Don John, duke of Austria, his own brother, and consequently uncle to the prince; together with the prince of Parma, nephew to the king, and cousin to the prince, because they well knew that both the duke of Austria, and the prince of Parma, had a most sincere and inviolable attachment to Don Carlos. Some few years after, the prince having shown great lenity and favour to the Protestants in the Netherlands, the inquisition loudly exclaimed against him, declaring, that as the persons in question were heretics, the prince himself must necessarily be one, since he gave them countenance. In short, they gained so great an ascendency over the mind of the king, who was absolutely a slave to superstition, that, shocking to relate, he sacrificed the feelings of nature to the force of bigotry, and, for fear of incurring the anger of the inquisition, gave up his only son, passing the sentence of death on him himself.

The prince, indeed, had what was termed an indulgence; that is, he was permitted to choose the manner of his death. Roman like, the unfortunate young hero chose bleeding and the hot bath; when the veins of his arms and legs being opened, he expired gradually, falling a martyr to the malice of the inquisitors, and the stupid bigotry of his father.[68]


Carlos' ancestry shown without duplicates

Male-line family tree


  1. ^ The extent to which inbreeding contributed to Carlos's poor health, as well as that of other members within the Habsburg and Aviz families, remains ambiguous and subject to debate.[4]
  2. ^ Notably, rumors circulated in France and Flanders that Carlos was imprisoned for being a Protestant.[57] For decades after his death, northern European literature depicted the prince as persecuted by Philip II and the Inquisition for rejecting Church doctrines.[58] However, most evidence suggests that Carlos was a devout Catholic.[59]


  1. ^ Kamen 1998, p. 20; Loth 1932, pp. 41–42; Walsh 1937, p. 73
  2. ^ Loth 1932, p. 72; Martínez-Lage & Piqueras-Pérez 2015
  3. ^ Parker 2014, p. 180; Fernández Álvarez 1998, pp. 398–399; Hume 1899, p. 88; Walsh 1937, p. 229
  4. ^ For further reading, refer to Theodorou, K; Couvet, D (2006). "On the expected relationship between inbreeding, fitness, and extinction". Genet Sel Evol. 38 (4): 371–87. doi:10.1051/gse:2006010. PMC 2689291. PMID 16790228.; Alvarez, G; Ceballos, FC; Quinteiro, C (2009). "The role of inbreeding in the extinction of a European royal dynasty". PLOS ONE. 4 (4): e5174. Bibcode:2009PLoSO...4.5174A. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005174. PMC 2664480. PMID 19367331.
  5. ^ a b Parker 2002, p. 87
  6. ^ Fernández Álvarez 1998, p. 399.
  7. ^ Parker 2014, p. §179
  8. ^ a b Fernández Álvarez 1998, p. 400.
  9. ^ Hume 1899, p. 88; Loth 1932, p. 72
  10. ^ a b Petrie 1964, p. 155.
  11. ^ Kamen 1998, p. 120.
  12. ^ Parker 2002, pp. 88–89.
  13. ^ Grierson 1974, p. 99; Kamen 1998, p. 91
  14. ^ Marshall 2006, p. 18
  15. ^ Marshall 2006, p. 19
  16. ^ Gonzalo Sánchez-Molero, José Luis (2004). "Lectura y bibliofilia en el príncipe don Carlos (1545–1568), o la alucinada búsqueda de la 'sabiduría'". La memoria de los libros. Estudios sobre la historia del escrito y de la lectura en Europa y América Tomo I (Instituto de Historia del Libro y de la Lectura): 705–734.
  17. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 189.
  18. ^ Loth 1932, p. 106.
  19. ^ Hume 1899, p. 64; Loth 1932, p. 123
  20. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 210; Hume 1899, p. 65; Loth 1932, p. 127
  21. ^ Loth 1932, p. 156; Walsh 1937, p. 425
  22. ^ Hume 1899, p. 89; Loth 1932, p. 152
  23. ^ Kamen 1998, p. 120
  24. ^ Hume 1899, p. 117.
  25. ^ Parker 2014, pp. 186–187.
  26. ^ Hume 1899, pp. 153–154; Grierson 1974, p. 141
  27. ^ a b c d Martínez-Lage, Juan F.; Piqueras-Pérez, Claudio (1 July 2015). "Brief account on the head injury of a noble youngster in the sixteenth century (Prince Don Carlos, heir to Philip II of Spain, 1545–1568)". Child's Nervous System. 31 (7): 1005–1008. doi:10.1007/s00381-015-2693-7. ISSN 1433-0350. PMID 25837577.
  28. ^ Petrie 1964, p. 156; Walsh 1937, pp. 268, 325–326
  29. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 265; Hume 1899, p. 90; Parker 2014, p. 136
  30. ^ Hume 1899, p. 92.
  31. ^ Parker 2014, p. 191.
  32. ^ Parker 2002, p. 89
  33. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 327; Loth 1932, p. 154
  34. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 328.
  35. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 335.
  36. ^ Walsh 1937, pp. 329–331.
  37. ^ Hume 1899, p. 91.
  38. ^ Loth 1932, p. 155; Martínez-Lage & Piqueras-Pérez 2015
  39. ^ Loth 1932, p. 179.
  40. ^ Petrie 1964, p. 231.
  41. ^ Walsh 1937, pp. 426–430.
  42. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 383.
  43. ^ Grierson 1974, p. 106.
  44. ^ Fernández Álvarez 1998, p. 410.
  45. ^ a b Walsh 1937, p. 431.
  46. ^ Hume 1899, p. 118; Petrie 1964, p. 158
  47. ^ a b Loth 1932, p. 174; Pérez, Joseph. «El Príncipe Don Carlos, un problema de Estado para Felipe II», Conferencia extraordinaria en la XXVIII edición de los Cursos de Verano de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, a cargo de Joseph Pérez, Premio Príncipe de Asturias de Ciencias Sociales 2014, 22 de julio de 2015
  48. ^ Kamen 1998, p. 120
  49. ^ Loth 1932, p. 175.
  50. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 432.
  51. ^ Parker 2002, p. 90
  52. ^ Kamen 1998, p. 121
  53. ^ Parker 2002, p. 90
  54. ^ Kamen 1998, p. 121; Martínez-Lage & Piqueras-Pérez 2015
  55. ^ Hume 1899, p. 120; Loth 1932, p. 181; Grierson 1974, p. 104
  56. ^ Loth 1932, pp. 183–186; Petrie 1964, p. 160
  57. ^ Hume 1899, p. 121.
  58. ^ Walsh 1937, p. 442.
  59. ^ Hume 1899, p. 122.
  60. ^ Parker 2002, p. 92
  61. ^ a b Parker 2002, pp. 92–93, 201
  62. ^ Fernández Álvarez, Manuel (2006). "1568: Annus horribilis-El príncipe don Carlos p.395-425". Felipe II y su tiempo. Madrid: Espasa Calpe. ISBN 84-670-2292-2.
  63. ^ Arnoldsson, Sverker. "La Leyenda Negra: Estudios Sobre Sus Orígines," Göteborgs Universitets Årsskrift, 66:3, 1960
  64. ^ Gibson, Charles. The Black Legend: Anti-Spanish Attitudes in the Old World and the New. 1971.
  65. ^ "Don Carlos". Instituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani. Retrieved 5 November de 2010.
  66. ^ José Manuel Trives Pérez, ed. (2012). "Inventario de representaciones de La vida es sueño".
  67. ^ "'Reign' Season 3, Midseason Finale Spoilers: Mary Uncovers Dark Secret About Prince Don Carlos". Latin Post. 25 November 2015. Retrieved 9 January 2016.
  68. ^ Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Chapter V


Carlos, Prince of Asturias House of HabsburgBorn: 8 July 1545 Died: 24 July 1568 Spanish royalty Preceded byPhilip Prince of Asturias 1556–1568 VacantTitle next held byFerdinand