A breed apart
The Habsburgs. By Martyn Rady.
There were early hints that the union of Philip of Habsburg with Juana the Mad in 1496 might not be a happy one. It says a lot about the aristocracy of the era that the main problem came less from the bride's line than from the groom's: Philip counted among his ancestors such unpromising genetic material as Albert the Lame, Leopold the Fat and, in an age that excelled in the honest epithet, Frederick of the Empty Pockets.
Sure enough, the union proved disastrous.Eventually its worst sufferer was Don Carlos, the couple's deformed and mentally delusional great-grandchild, in whom ancestral inbreedings echoed.The family anriously treated its young heir to the most sophisticated medical cures then available but, despite being made to share a bed with the wizened body of a mummified saint, Don Carlos did not recover. Nor did the reputation of the Habsburgs.
Martyn Rady's new book is billed as "the definitive history" of the clan. Not, it must be said, a hotly contested title. Once the names of Europe's most powerful families- the Bourbons and Battenbergs and Garibaldis-were known across the world. Today, beyond the biscuit tin, they are largely forgotten.
Except, that is, for their eccentric matchmaking. If you have ever wondered why marrying your uncle is inadvisable, the Habsburgs can enlighten you. For centuries they experimented with marriages between first cousins, second cousins and cousins so multiply intertwined that the traditional familial vocabulary breaks down. A mother might double as a cousin; the wife of Leopold I referred to him throughout their marriage as "Uncle".
The result was less a family tree, branching and widening, than a convoluted web. At one point the mortality rate of Habsburg children reached 80%, four times the average of the time. Of those who lived, many were hideously misshapen, with the infamous drooping lip and jutting Habsburg jaw. It is one of the abiding puzzles of European history that its aristocrats, so good at breeding homes, should have been so bad at breeding themselves.