Deformities of the Hapsburgs

Switzerland was so incredible, I wound up spending about twice as long there as I had intended. I could have stayed twice as long again, but Austria beckoned!

My first destination in Austria was the mountain city of Innsbruck. People make an awfully big deal of the mountains surrounding Innsbruck, but after the scenery I had just come from in Switzerland, I thought Innsbruck’s little mountains pretty unremarkable. I guess I’m jaded. Or elitist.

But I didn’t need mountains, because now I was back in a city filled with history! I visited two royal residences in Innsbruck: the Hofburg Palace which was a seat of the 18th century Habsburgs, and Castle Ambras, seat of the 14th, 15th, and 16th century Habsburgs. One of the most interesting things I found was the Hapsburg Portrait Gallery in the Castle Ambras.

After gazing at hundreds of portraits of this massive and incestuous family spanning the 14th through the 17th centuries, I began to notice something… Most of these people were massively unattractive.

But I don’t think I’m being too harsh on their looks. Think about this: paintings, unlike photographic portraits today, are a great medium for hiding flaws, because each detail is controlled and reproduced by the hand of an individual who is being paid tons of money to portray the subject in the best light possible. For instance, we know that most people in renaissance and baroque Europe, even of the aristocracy, had terrible hygiene by modern standards, and that in the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance, perfume and makeup literally replaced bathing. I’m not kidding. Bathing went out of fashion, so if you smelled, you just kept deodorizing and spritzing (the reason that the French developed the reputation that one could smell their copiously-applied perfume long before you saw them). Nevertheless, most of these people look quite good in their portraits. No acne, generally shapely bodies, comely faces, etc.

But these Habsburgs, despite what must have been the best efforts of their court painters, still manage to look marvelously hideous.

I took photos of some of the choicest examples:

Maybe it’s hard to see, but if you look closely you can see that one eye is not only lazy, but also is sort of.. messed up in the pupil.

She too has one eye larger and higher than the other, a small but weak-looking mouth, and a pronouncedly hooked nose. And, well… let’s not talk about her outfit. In my opinion, the 17th century was one of the low-points of European fashion.

I don’t even really know where to begin… With her receding hairline, or her apparent rosacea?

I guess there’s no thing actually wrong with her, just that her face is unusually pointy, and again there’s something a little off about her eyes…

Now, I’m no expert on the Habsburgs, but I know several things: They were an enormous family, with several significant branches that eventually ruled most of the major courts of Europe; They were very adept at arranging strategic marriages to maintain and increase their power; at some point, they controlled so much of Europe that the only logical monarchs with whom to marry and breed were… other Habsburgs, and this is succinctly why the Habsburgs, peaking in the latter 16th century, started to show their inbreeding by producing heirs who were increasingly physically deformed and mentally unstable.

One of the most distinctive family traits was the famous “Habsburg jaw.” I’m sorry I can’t tell you precisely who this is, but you know he’s a Habsburg because, well… look at his freaking jaw!!!

And of course, when a man with a huge jaw breeds with a woman who has a large jaw…

Mariana of Austria

They produce a child with… an even larger jaw.

King Charles II of Spain, son of Mariana of Austria and Philip III of Spain.

I present to you King Charles II of Spain, possibly the most unfit ruler Europe has ever seen, and a tragic consequence of dynastic inbreeding. According to accounts, Charles II’s jaw was so large that he had difficulty chewing, and his tongue was so large and thick that it was difficult to understand when he spoke. But this was not all. Charles was also epileptic and physically deformed (of course you can see his face in the portrait, but his body was all out of sorts as well, due to a spinal defect), and, shall we say… slow. He did not learn to speak until age four, and did not walk until he was almost eight. Genomists have studied his ancestors and concluded that almost 25% of his genes were homozygous, about the amount that would be expected from the marriage of a brother and sister.

I’m so pleased by this picture: Charles II’s marble bust, in profile. I rest my case.

He was also, of course, sterile. But this didn’t keep him from trying to produce an heir with two wives. Those poor, poor ladies… D:

Here’s another gem, Charles II’s great-uncle, Don Carlos of Asturias:

Here we have another mentally unstable individual with pronounced physical deformities. He died before he could succeed his father Philip II to the Spanish throne. According to his ancestry, he had only four great-grandparents, where he should have eight, and only six great-great grandparents, where he should have sixteen. Womp womp. 😦

And to finish off, I want to stick to my guns and reassert that the 17th century was a fashion-tragedy. I love historical costume and fashion, but even I have to ask, “How did people ever think this was attractive?!”

Some gems:

I should probably put something here about “Those poor people, it’s not their fault their family waged war in the marriage bed and didn’t yet know about genetics. They’re a product of the times – it’s not their fault!” So, okay, I acknowledge that, but these people also had it all: they were born fabulously wealthy and everyone had to do what they said. It’s a much better fate than if they had been born poor, where they would be ridiculed and probably considered the village idiot, would be unemployable and probably end up homeless begging for their food. Of course I know being king is not an easy task, and the wise man is probably he who doesn’t want to be king. So let’s not get into the discussion about the relative merits of a system that grants absolute power to an individual simply because they were born to the right parents, even if they’re the least qualified person in the world for the job of ruling… Oy vey.

And all that being said, I would still pick being a princess over any other possible occupation.

More posts on the Habsburgs and Austria coming soon! They’re a fascinating family!

OH bonus, totally forgot about that awesome time when 30 Rock parodied the hyper-inbreeding of the Habsburgs:


28 thoughts on “Deformities of the Hapsburgs

  1. Catherine says:

    What a fabulous post. You’ve seen the 30 Rock episode about this I’m sure?

  2. oldwisebill says:

    Studied the family when I was in Austria a few years ago. This post made me laugh out loud!

    • Glad to spread a bit of fun trivia haha 😉 Can I ask what about them you were studying, and why?

      • Kim says:

        Our family tree traces back to the Hapsburg’s. The Hapsburg jaw continue down the line to this day. My brother was born with the Hapsburg jaw.. luckly in today’s day and age he was able to undergo corrective surgery 🙂

  3. marianne says:

    The Fritzls are another inbred Austrian family, and no-one finds that very amusing.

  4. AK says:

    To add all else, Habsburg women had high rates of death in childbirth.

    And contagious disease such as smallpox was a constant threat.

    Even today, acne rosacea is difficult to treat — I have it myself. At least today, there are many tasty beverages that are alternatives to wine and hard liquor; back in the old days, there was no alternative. Wealthy people had the kind of diet that was a set up for acne rosaca.

    Make up was also quite exaggerated in those days as well.

    And, lest we forget, no novocaine, no modern dentistry.

  5. […] set. But because of inbreeding, an attempt to keep control within the family, the Habsburgs became freakishly mutated—their jaws protruded, their intelligence waned, their reproductive capacities petered out. In the […]

  6. M j willis says:

    Had DNA testing and found out I am a Hapsburg descendant. Prob ably most of Europe Is. Busy busy people!!’m

  7. […] set. But because of inbreeding, an attempt to keep control within the family, the Habsburgs became freakishly mutated—their jaws protruded, their intelligence waned, their reproductive capacities petered out. In the […]

  8. John T. says:

    Actually M J, given the degree of inbreeding they practiced for so long, they’ve probably produced fewer descendants than other royal houses of that time period.

  9. Becky says:

    I was looking for facts about the Hapsburgs, but instead came upon this ugly, mean-spirited piece. Post a picture of yourself so that we can see you are perfectly beautiful and perfectly dressed. Well?

    • shania says:

      LMAO get over it the habsburgs died out hundreds of years ago… their feelings aint gettin hurt. this article was funny and informative. r u mad bc ur inbred?

      • They died out? No, they didn´t 😉 Im from Austria myself and there still are members of the Habsburg family, including the name and status etc. I don’t even know how a family like that could die out 🙂

      • Kim says:

        They didn’t die out Shania, the family line still exists today. Even though they no longer sit on the thrown. Our family tree traces directly to the Hapsburg, my poor brother inheriting the Hapsburg jaw …I’m glad to say that our IQ’s have drastically increased since the 17th century

    • Matty K Wiggins says:

      This article is titled “Deformities of the Hapsburgs,” and is clearly a blog from a tourist, not a journalist. The author even acknowledges that perhaps the persistent unfortunate physical appearance of this family was due to the time period that they lived. This piece is entertaining. It is not presented as an encyclopedia entry.

    • kkh369 says:

      In other words…calm down already.

  10. […] a royal member of the Hapsburg family, showing an extreme example of the deformities they suffered from. Inbreeding has its […]

  11. kkh369 says:

    The man in the first pic up above Charles II is actually Leopold I, and yes he was a Habsburg and was related to Charles II. These people all have the same giant heads, protruding jaws and noses so hooked, the are practically touching their mouths. In Charles II’s case, it actually WAS. And like you said, these artists were probably told to make their subjects look “attractive”, so think about that when you look at the Charles II paintings. The one you posted isn’t even that bad. There are some doozies.

    Have you looked at the actual family tree? OMG…spread it around a little, people. Just arrows all crossin

  12. I was searching for Habsburg portraits, because one of the classes I am teaching this semester is a class in Art History, and happened on this interesting little post that happened to have some female portraits that are VERY hard to find.It’s important to bring these things to light because wars happen over such things: the War of the Spanish Succession, for one, brought about by the death of a King of Spain because of congenital abnormality from persistent inbreeding. Changes in art history, too, are brought about by wars; so this is a subject that bears discussion, for good reason. The remarks about the singular unattractiveness of some of the Habsburgs are correct: they were, by modern standards, quite homely. But the “Habsburg unter Lippe” was considered, at the time, a mark of desirability because they WERE Habsburgs. The concept of “Noble and Royal” being somehow “better” (because of a bloodline) is a really foreign one to Americans; we are not raised with that social convention, not concerned with ancestry as much as wealth. But those people,in Europe, back in the day, cared a lot about it. It was extremely important. The fabulous Spanish artist Velasquez who painted the immortal masterpiece “Las Meninas” was extremely proud of his newly minted status as a noble, and wears the Cross of Santiago on his chest in his painting. The little Habsburg Princess, the Infanta in “Las Meninas”, eventually married her Uncle: she did not live beyond her early twenties. Two of her portraits are above. The modern- day demise of arranged marriages is perhaps a good one: the newest crop of Habsburgs (yes, they are alive and quite well, and much better looking than their ancestors!) don’t do that any more.What we DO have from them is a fabulous collection of beautiful art, throughout a thousand year history: they were mighty collectors. Thanks for the post, with those missing portraits!

  13. Sibila says:

    The woman you tag as Mariana of Austria is Margaret of Austria, wife of Philip the third. 🙂

  14. Kim says:

    Guess I don’t need a DNA test. My brother actually suffered from the Hapsburg jaw and had an operation to correct it some 15 years ago. He is certainly intelligent so that seems to have corrected itself overtime.

  15. Nicolas says:

    And Charles ii is son of Philip iv

  16. FedUpOfIdiots! says:

    You think they didnt know about inbreeding then? Well, what a stupid unread idiot you are. And it is not true that the monarch had absolute power; indeed, often it was those around them urging tem to cement their line in order to bring about stability.

    Try reading a book!

  17. Klaudia says:

    I find this post quite rude. I assume the author is a genetic and phenotypical perfection. You should come to Poland and you’d see tons of people with weak jaws or lazy eye. I myself pretty much look like I could be part of the Habsburg family yet I still consider myself moderately attractive and I even find a lot of the people on those drawings to be so. No need to be a bully.

  18. Eric says:

    Had a brief history of the Hapsburgs in
    “History of Western Art”. Same historical facts by the professor at that time. AZ State Univ.
    Deformities and all. Including the fact that the 3 foot high adulds were nannies to Spanish royalty. Don’t mess with the midgets…or you’d get your head chopped off!

  19. Donna Richardson says:

    Habsburg portraits must be the origin of the phrase, “putting lipstick on a pig.”

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