Consanguinity, the act of marrying a biological relative, has been a mainstay of royal families for about as long as there have been dynasties. On paper, the idea makes perfect sense: marry a relative, keep the bloodline utterly pure by producing children from consanguineous marriages, and if a dispute should arise within the family, have the conflicting parties get married. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, actually. As we now know, with the modern science of genetics and the hindsight of so many royal disasters, inbreeding leads to diseases and deformities, some of which were so severe that entire dynasties were brought to their knees. In fact, some historians have even suggested that the inbreeding of European royals was a leading factor of World War I. Thank goodness it pretty much ended then.
Considering that children in royal families tended to have much higher mortality rates than the general population, it can pretty well be concluded that being royalty wasn’t always all that it was cracked up to be. This list will give you some pretty good reasons to be thankful that you aren’t a king or queen.
1. King Charles II of Spain Could Barely Speak or Eat
For hundreds of years, the Habsburgs were one of the most powerful families in all of Europe. The line began in the thirteenth century and ruled Austria, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire) until the 1900s. Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, was herself from the Habsburg line.
However, the royal line suffered acutely from massive inbreeding; in fact, inbreeding may have been what led to the downfall of the dynasty. In fact, one of the Habsburgs, Joanna of Castille, appears in the family tree no fewer than 14 times! The family was particularly known for what is identified as the Habsburg jaw, an oversized jawline and large tongue that made activities such as eating and speaking difficult. The last Habsburg king of Spain was Charles II, and he was so severely inbred that his “inbred quotient” was higher than if his parents had been siblings. He had such a severely oversized jawline that he was barely able to eat or speak. He was also known to drool a lot. Additionally, he was unable to walk until he was eight years old, and even then could only walk with great difficulty. Not exactly a lady’s man.
Despite being married twice, the king was unable to procreate, quite possibly an effect of his severe inbreeding. He died in 1700 at the age of 39, leaving behind no heir to the throne and thereby effectively ending Habsburg rule in Spain.
2. Joanna of Castile Slept Beside Her Husband’s Corpse
Before Charles II, there was Joanna of Castile, the older sister of Catherine of Aragon. She was from the house of Trastamara, which had been engaging in cousin marriages for centuries. Her parents, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, were second cousins. The family’s long tradition of inbreeding may have been at least partially the reason why Catherine couldn’t bear any children. Joanna set the stage for her posterity to have their own challenges, as she married into the Habsburg line.
As a child, she was known to be intelligent, inquisitive, and somewhat moody. At age 16, she entered into an arranged marriage with the son of the Holy Roman Emperor (who was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an emperor), Philip the Handsome. Himself the product of inbreeding, he was known for being a philanderer, but Joanna was completely smitten with him.
When she ascended to the throne, due to the unpredicted deaths of her older siblings, she had a full mental breakdown, exacerbated by Philip’s behavior towards her. When she found one of his mistresses, she stabbed her in the face. Still, she remained madly in love with her husband. When he died unexpectedly, she held onto his corpse and slept beside it every night.
3. Ferdinand I Of Austria Liked to Roll Around in the Trash Can
A descendant of Joana of Castile, Ferdinand I of Austria was born in 1793 to double first cousins, Emperor Franz II and Marie-Therese. Ferdinand was born with hydrocephaly, another condition that was common to the Habsburgs. Hydrocephaly, or water on the brain, causes pressure on the sensitive tissue and leads to brain damage. He also had the infamous Habsburg jaw and epilepsy. Despite Ferdinand’s feebleness, the king insisted on him being the heir to the throne to continue the royal bloodline and principles of the monarchy’s succession.
During his lifetime, he served as king of Hungary, Austria, Bohemia, Lombardy, and Venetia. Because of his disabilities, he did not directly control matters of the state; these were under the mastery of counselors and regents. During his reign, one of his favorite activities was to sit down on the open end of a wastepaper basket and roll around on the floor. Surprisingly, he held the throne for a full 18 years — abdicating to his nephew Francis Joseph in 1848 — and died at the age of 82. Following his tenure, no other Habsburg was crowned king of Bohemia.
4. Queen Victoria May Have Spread Hemophilia Throughout European Royalty
Much of European royalty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could be traced to Queen Victoria in some way or another. Her daughter, Princess Alice, was the mother of Tsarina Alexandra Romanov, the last Tsarina of Russia; grandmother of the last Viceroy of India; and great-grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh. Victoria’s genes went all over Europe.
Her besotted lover, Prince Albert, was actually her first cousin, meaning that all of her children were inbred. She also had the blood-clotting disorder hemophilia, which she passed on to her children before it went all throughout European royalty. She did not suffer significantly from the disease, but one of her children and five of her grandchildren died from complications caused by it.
Hemophilia is caused by both parents having the recessive gene for it, and Queen Victoria’s was a very unique subtype known as Haemophilia B. Speculations have been raised as to whether Edward, the Duke of Kent was actually her biological father. Prince Albert and Victoria had to have both had hemophilia for it to be passed on to their children. For such a rare, recessive disease to be so strongly present among cousins, there is speculation that the queen herself may have been the product of inbreeding.
Age: 82 (1819-1901) Birthplace: Kensington Palace, London
5. Alexei Romanov’s Hemophilia May Have Destroyed the Empire
Alexei Romanov, the grandson of Queen Victoria, inherited what came to be known as the “royal disease” for how it was inherited by a disproportionately large number of European royals: hemophilia. His frequent bouts of bleeding were so life-threatening that his mother, Tsarina Alexandra, sought help from the mythical Rasputin.
Rasputin went on to gain an unwieldy amount of influence over the royal court in his efforts to save Alexei from the most severe effects of the disease. Alexandra and her husband, Tsar Nicholas, were sure that his treatments were healing their son. However, aristocrats and others close to the royal family weren’t quite so sure. Rasputin’s character was tainted with alcoholism and sexual promiscuity, as well as dabblings in the occult. While he may or may not have been guilty of those things, to the Russian people as well as the aristocracy, he symbolized everything that was wrong with the royal family. Disorder and discontent grew, and in 1917, the Russian Revolution began.
The jury is still out on whether or not Alexei’s illness could be considered a causative factor in the Russian Revolution, the fall of the Romanovs, and the execution of the royal family. However, it certainly didn’t help.
Age: 14 (1904-1918) Birthplace: St. Petersburg, Russia
6. Princess Victoria Melita’s Royal Headaches Never Ended
Princess Victoria Melita, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was spared the worst effects of inbreeding that spread throughout Europe: hemophilia. However, she got plenty of legal and familial headaches due to her lineage and all of its interconnectedness throughout the continent.
England’s greatest monarch, Queen Victoria, wanted her grandson, the Grand Duke of Hesse, to marry her granddaughter, Princess Victoria. The cousins, once married, fought constantly; Victoria was known for being especially volatile during their arguments. The Grand Duke was known for infidelity and, on more than one occasion, was caught by Victoria in bed with others. Their daughter, Elisabeth of Hesse, died when she was only eight years old; they also had a son, who was stillborn. Following the death of Queen Victoria, the unhappy couple was free to divorce.
The princess went on to marry the love of her life, who also happened to be her cousin, Kirill Vladimirovich. Due to Queen Victoria’s descendants marrying into royal households all over Europe, Kirill was a cousin to both Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra. However, because he and Victoria got married without the permission of the tsar, they were banished from Russia. They were only allowed to return when a series of deaths in the royal family put Kirill in line for the throne.
7. King George’s Blue Pee Caused the American Revolution
Queen Victoria was the last monarch from the House of Hanover, a family famous for its inbreeding and subsequent genetic abnormalities. King George III of England, known to history as the one who lost the American Revolution, also belonged to this house and may have suffered from a condition known as porphyria. Porphyria is a genetic condition that causes bouts of madness and also causes the one suffering to have purplish-bluish urine.
However, recent scientific analyses have cast doubt on the porphyria hypothesis and merely claim that the king had a mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, which could have been caused by the inbreeding within the House of Hanover. During his manic states, his writing was markedly different; sentences could be over 400 words long. He was even known to talk and talk and talk until foam came from his mouth. In fact, he is known to history as the mad king. His treatments involved the use of straitjackets and ice baths. It’s understandable how someone in his state of mind would have lost a war as momentous as the American Revolution.
He also suffered from skin conditions (possibly caused by inbreeding), which were treated with medicine made from gentian. Gentian is known to turn urine purplish-blue, thereby leading to the theory that the king suffered from porphyria.
8. Maria the Mad, Queen Of Portugal, Had Royal Temper Tantrums
Maria I of Portugal, known as both Maria the Pious and Maria the Mad, was born into a long line of inbreeding. She went on to marry her uncle, and their son, Prince Joao, was also her cousin. Maria was known to be deeply religious all throughout her childhood, sometimes to the point of what might be considered manic. She was known to howl and shriek animalistic noises throughout the estate. When her confessor died in 1791, she would have raging temper tantrums in which she would scream and wail because of her assured damnation.
Dr. Francis Willis, who was also treating England’s insane king, George III, was brought to Portugal to attend to the queen. He diagnosed her as insane and imposed upon her horrifying treatments, including ice baths, blistering (in which blisters were intentionally created), and administering laxatives. Surprisingly, none of those treatments worked. The queen was eventually unable to attend to her royal duties and had to have a regent serve in her place.
Prince Joao, who also suffered from the genetic challenges created by inbreeding, was considered incompetent for the job of regent in 1799. When France invaded Portugal, the royal family fled to Brazil, where the queen died in 1816.
Age: 34 (1819-1853) Birthplace: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
9. Austria’s Empress Elisabeth Was Depressed and Anorexic
Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s parents may have been cousins (and have also had aunt/uncle relationships, as well, due to inbreeding), and she went on to marry her cousin, Franz Josef. She was from the House of Wittelsbach, a clan notorious for its members’ inbreeding and their troubled behaviors.
Elisabeth was known for her beauty and today is often compared to Princess Diana. However, as is common among children who are products of inbreeding, she had a mental illness, leading to depression and anorexia. Throughout her reign, beginning with her marriage to the 23-year-old emperor, she was known for her timid, shy, and melancholic disposition. Plagued by nervousness and depression, she rarely ate and may have been anorexic. Not only did she rarely eat, but she exercised obsessively, usually for several hours every day.
Her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, thought these characteristics were charming and befitting of royalty. She spoke of her daughter-in-law’s beauty and the joy that she brought to her people.
Elisabeth’s son must have suffered from some form of mental illness as well, as he committed suicide. Following his death, the empress wandered about the globe, looking for solace, until an Italian anarchist murdered her in 1898.
10. Empress Elisabeth’s Cousin, King Ludwig II, Was Deposed for His Madness
King Ludwig II, also of the House of Wittelsbach, was known for being completely out of touch with reality. A century after Marie Antoinette of France (herself a Habsburg, who may have been spared some of the worst effects of inbreeding) was known for her excesses, and expensive tastes, King Ludwig II of Bavaria built grand, opulent palaces as a means of escaping reality. He was known for being mentally unstable and completely out of touch with the physical world around him.
When Ludwig was a child, his mother noted his penchant for dressing up and having a vivid imagination. When he ascended to the throne at the age of 18, he had no political experience but still possessed the vision of a little boy. To keep himself within the dream world that he had created, he became a personal patron of the composer Richard Wagner. In his world of grand palaces and artistic expression, he had all of the comforts of a king but carried out none of the responsibilities. Meanwhile, the government of Bavaria was struggling to run the state while controlling the king’s wastefulness.
When he was deposed and then murdered in 1886, his brother, Otto, ascended to the throne. However, a regent ruled in his place, as Otto was found to be even more deluded than Ludwig.
11. King Tut Had a Cleft Palate and Elongated Skull
Consanguinity didn’t begin in Europe. It could be seen as far back as ancient Egypt, when the goddess Isis married her brother, Osiris, in order to maintain a pure bloodline. Many pharaohs followed this tradition, including the parents of the legendary King Tutankhamen. While he is often viewed in pop culture as a boy king, one who would need an incredible amount of self-assuredness and physical strength, he was probably a frail, sickly child. Scans of his mummy show that he had a cleft palate, club foot, and elongated skull, along with persistent malaria. Rather than speeding down Egyptian roads in a chariot, he probably had to walk with a cane.
The first-ever DNA study that was conducted on an Egyptian mummy was done on King Tut, and it revealed that he was, in fact, the product of a high level of incest. In fact, his mother was probably not Nefertiti, as was previously assumed, but rather a sister of King Akhenaten. Because of the compromised immunity brought about by inbreeding, the boy pharaoh was probably not murdered but died due to his body’s inability to cope with the necrosis in his foot coupled with persistent malaria and other infections.
Despite his feebleness, King Tut made the same mistake as his father and married his sister. Their children did not survive.
12. Cleopatra Was Not Stunningly Beautiful — She Was Probably Obese
History remembers Cleopatra as not only a robust female ruler but also an enchanting seductress, who allegedly had herself smuggled to Julius Caesar by wrapping herself inside a rug. However, the Cleopatra of pop culture bears little to no resemblance to the actual queen of Egypt; in fact, today’s audience might not even recognize her.
Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, and as was the custom of that dynasty, her parents were brother and sister. In fact, kings were required to marry their sisters in order to acquire their power. Cleo herself was married to her 10-year-old brother when she was only 18 years old and eventually married the other one, as well. In keeping with her genetic line, she bore marks of inbreeding, one of which was probably obesity.
Archeologists have found that many Egyptian royals were overweight, owing at least in part to a diet heavy in beer and bread. However, incest may also have played a role. Cleopatra herself had a hooked nose, a round face, and fat hanging under her chin. Roman propaganda probably showed her as being the indomitable beauty that we think of today, but she wasn’t the Elizabeth Taylor who played her in the 1963 movie.
13. Princess Nahienaena’s People Turned Against Her For Incest
Protestant missionaries educated princess Nahienaena of Hawaii in the early 1800s. She was also romantically involved with her brother, King Kamehameha III, since childhood and was all too eager to marry him, much to the chagrin of the missionaries. Tradition ran against the power of the ministers, as the royal family was accustomed to intermarriage to keep the bloodline pure. When the siblings were married in 1825, she was expelled from the church.
Nahienaena was sincerely repentant, as she greatly respected the missionaries. However, her repentance was not accepted by the church, and she was soon found to be pregnant with her brother’s child. With her people now converted, they shunned her, and she lived in isolation until the child’s birth. The baby died within just a few hours, probably because of genetic problems stemming from generations of inbreeding, and the disgraced princess lived the rest of her life in shock and grief. She was finally accepted back into the church shortly before her death.
14. King Rama V Had Many Wives But Only Showed One In Public
King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, was immortalized in the fictionalized story of Anna and the King, as he was one of the children educated by the British educator, Anna Leonowens. The Chakri dynasty, of which Rama V was a member, routinely engaged in marriages among cousins and other relatives. Kings usually had harems, leading to dozens of children. Many of the half-siblings that grew up in these harems married each other.
Unlike many royals who suffered from the worse aspects of inbreeding, like the Habsburg jaw and insanity, King Rama V is credited with the modernization of Siam, now known as Thailand, and for keeping it from becoming colonized by the British. He built public hospitals and a railway and also abolished slavery. With his harem of 153 wives, concubines, and consorts, he fathered 77 children. Many of them were sent to Europe for formal education.
However, because of the disgrace which he knew would be looked upon him by Western leaders, he only showed one of his wives — Queen Saovabha — in public. The shame, he knew, would be due not so much to the polygamy but rather to the incest, as many of his wives were biologically related to him. However, he claimed that his preference for being shown with only one wife was due to custom.
Much modern scholarship has focused on trying to understand the darker underbelly of Roman culture, such as why there was so much lead poisoning and how it contributed to the fall of the greatest empire in history. One particular aspect of Roman history that is interesting to some historians is how incest and inbreeding may have generated insanity among the emperors. Moreover, perhaps no emperor is more famous for madness than Nero, the man who fiddled while Rome burned and was accused of having sex with his own mother.
The Roman royals often intermarried for the same reasons as later European royal families: to keep wealth and prestige within the family and reduce contention over who should be heir to the throne. Nero was the son of a niece and her uncle, Agrippina and Claudius, who may have had an inbred pedigree going back generations. Agrippina agreed to marry him to strengthen her son’s claim to the throne, something that ultimately proved to be a somewhat dangerous thing for the citizens of Rome. Not only had lead poisoning severely depleted his mental faculties, but his inbreeding may have assumed that he didn’t have many faculties to begin with.
16. Caligula’s Bloodthirst Was Likely Fueled By Inbreeding
Nero may be the most infamous of all Roman emperors, but he was not the only one to have a family tree that grew straight up. Caligula (also known as Gaius Caesar), who has been accused by many of engaging in incestuous relations with his sisters (something that he may or may not have done), descended from a pedigree of biological relatives marrying each other to keep money, power, and the bloodline intact. His reign was defined by both lust and lunacy.
His father, Germanicus, was beloved by the Roman people, and, believing Caligula would possess the same characteristics, they were more than happy to coronate him as the new emperor. However, after an illness six months into his reign, he proved that he was not the same person as his father. Caligula forced parents to watch the tortures and executions of their children. Claiming to be a god, he had a bridge built between the Temple of Zeus and his own palace so that he could more easily convene with the deity. He was assassinated by his unhappy public when, after a sports event, guardsmen stabbed him 30 times.
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