Carlos II of Spain, Political Childhood, and Spanish Decline: Deconstructing History, Reconstructing His Story

Friday, January 4, 2013: 11:10 AM
Balcony J (New Orleans Marriott)
Silvia Z. Mitchell, University of Miami
The figure of Carlos II of Spain (1661, r. 1665-1700) has long been associated with the decline of the Spanish monarchy. Fear of a succession crisis that could plunge Europe into a pan-European war, French propaganda that predicted his early and imminent demise, and highly effective eighteenth-century Bourbon historiography, eager to present itself as the best alternative to the "degenerate" Habsburgs, gradually created a highly distorted image of the king. The figure of a “feeble” king thus was extremely useful in writing the history of Spain in the later seventeenth-century and was the perfect metaphor for the monarchy’s decline. Based on what is written about the king, one can argue that Carlos II was synonymous with Spanish decline.

My paper corrects this narrative, first by deconstructing it and then reconstructing it. The inextricable link between Carlos II and late seventeenth-century Spain have much more to do with the politics of childhood during a royal minority than historical reality. My paper calls into question the sources that have been used to create the image of a virtually moribund  child-king by relying on less hostile and more objective sources, such as the household records, private correspondence among people who had direct contact with Carlos, state council deliberations on his marriage, in which ministers discussed the king’s maturation process frankly and extensively, and his personal letters, written as a boy between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Furthermore, it is important to compare Carlos II’s childhood experiences with that of other children growing up in the Spanish Habsburg court in order to ascertain how unusual – or how normal – his childhood was. This critical examination and careful reconstruction is a first, but critical step, on the way to reassessing this important, albeit little studied, period in the history of Habsburg Spain. 

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