19th January 1568 was the last day on which anyone saw Don Carlos, the son of King Philip II of Spain, alive. It is possible that he died on this day, although his death was only announced officially on 24th July. There is a lot about the story of Don Carlos that lies shrouded in mystery.
It is known that he was born on 8th July 1545, and that his mother died shortly after his birth, aged only 17. There are stories that he was mentally unbalanced from childhood, but a more likely explanation for his later mental state is that he hit his head after an accidental fall when aged 18.
There is a story that his life was despaired of until somebody had the bright idea of moving the mummified corpse of a long-dead saint to lie alongside him in bed. This sounds not only bizarre but grotesque, but it appears to have done the trick as far as saving his life. However, the powers of the saint do not appear to have extended to mending Don Carlos’s brain as well as his body, because his behaviour after his recovery was extremely odd.
Again, there are stories that can be believed or not, but Don Carlos does seem to have been subject to fits of murderous fury that expressed themselves in sadistic acts performed on people and animals. It seems true that he developed a hatred of his father, possibly because Philip had married 14-year-old Elizabeth of Valois in 1559, and Elizabeth had originally been intended as Don Carlos’s bride.
Whatever the cause of Don Carlos’s anger, Philip took the view that he was far too dangerous to be allowed out in public and his palace rooms became his prison. On 19th January 1568 Philip personally supervised the arrangements, making sure that all doors and windows were nailed shut. The only people allowed to make contact with Don Carlos, then aged 22, were his jailers.
What caused Don Carlos’s death is another focus for conjecture. Philip clearly had a motive for wanting him dead, which was to exclude an obviously deranged man from his position as heir to the throne. It is entirely possible that Philip had his son poisoned.
The story received considerable embellishment in the play “Don Carlos”, written by Friedrich Schiller, which was first performed in 1787. This formed the basis for several operas, most notably that of Giuseppe Verdi which was premiered in 1867. In these works dramatic reality probably took precedence over historical truth and the actual facts of what happened are still uncertain to this day.
© John Welford