Author: Scarlett Chu
Editors: Anand Soma and Cynthia Zhang
Artists: Tiffany Chen
The Habsburg family is known for their practice of inbreeding to ensure a pure family bloodline and concentrate their power within the family. In the past, monarchs frequently married close relatives in such a way that uncle-niece, first cousins, and other consanguineous unions were prevalent. However, inbreeding produces families or lines with increasing degrees of genetic homozygosity—the inheritance of the same allele of a gene, one from each parent—in successive generations. In highly homozygous families such as the Habsburgs, recessive genes are more likely to be expressed and to produce undesirable traits, including loss of general vigor and fertility. As generations passed, this ultimately weakened and limited the gene pool, and, arguably, the Habsburg family’s intense belief of keeping the family bloodline pure caused their demise due to their monarchs’ many physical and mental defects.
Their most prominent symbol of incestuous practice is the “Habsburg Jaw”—known as mandibular prognathism in modern medical terms. It is a facial deformity that includes an everted lower lip, also known as the “Habsburg lip,” noses with a dorsal hump and overhanging nasal tip, also known as the “Habsburg nose” and sometimes an abnormally large tongue. Many monarchs of this family display this and other similar “Habsburg traits.” Below are some examples.
The second child and only surviving son of Emperor Frederick III and Eleonora of Portugal,
Maximilian I (1459–1519) is a rare exception of the high infant mortality among the Habsburgs and is commonly agreed upon to be the first person who demonstrated the Habsburg jaw. Many portraits of him show the deformation of his lower jaw that had resulted in an extremely prominent lower lip. He had a speech defect as a child caused by his prognathous jaw. However, Maximilian was very well educated and became a great patron of Renaissance art, commissioning numerous works to glorify not only his achievements but also those of his house. Despite his illness, he was also athletic, excelling at jousting, and spoke seven languages.
As seen in his portraits, Charles V (1500-1558) possesses the infamous Habsburg jaw. He also had epilepsy and was severely afflicted with gout, a painful, inflammatory disease of the joints caused by deposits of crystals of uric acid. Gout can be hereditary, and consumption of alcohol and a diet rich in protein aggravates it. As historians say, he had a ravenous appetite, particularly for meat, and downed copious quantities of wine and beer. His suffering, which began at the age of 28, limited his ability to write and travel and eventually, as many historians say, caused him to give up the throne at the age of 56. As Dr. Martyn Rady, a professor at the University of London, spoke in a lecture in 2000, he was carried around the monastery of St. Yuste in a sedan chair after his retirement, and people specially constructed a ramp to allow him easy access to his rooms. Charles V died of malaria two years after his abdication.
When his predecessors were capable of ruling their territories, Charles II (1661-1700) was not only physically and mentally unfit to rule his country; he was also impotent even in daily mundane tasks. The last of the Spanish Habsburg, Charles II was the son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and the epitome of Habsburg inbreeding. His mother was his father’s niece, his grandmother was his aunt, and his great-grandmother was also his grandmother. All eight of his great-grandparents were direct descendants of Joanna and Philip I of Castile, and Joanna appeared in his family tree no less than fourteen times.
His jaw was so pronounced that people claimed he could not chew his food and that the size of his tongue caused him to drool significantly. He also had mental issues and was considered mildly retarded. Even as an adult, his ability to speak was so weak that, often, he was unable to be understood by others. According to records, he was unable to speak until the age of four, could not walk until the age of eight, and during the last years of his life, he could barely stand up and suffered from hallucinations and convulsive episodes. Charles II was sterile and left no heir; his death triggered the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), in which the Austrian Habsburgs and the French Bourbons fought for control over Spain.
John Langdon-Davies summarised Charles II’s life in his book —“We are dealing with a man who died of poison two hundred years before he was born. If birth is a beginning, of no man was it more true to say that in his beginning was his end. From the day of his birth, they were waiting for his death.”
There are countless monarchs with the Habsburg Jaw and other deformities, such as Ferdinand II (1578-1637), Philip IV (1605-1665), and Mariana of Austria (1634-1696) a female Habsburg, among many others.
Constance Holden, "Random Samples," Science 313, no. 5788 (August 11, 2006): [Page 741],
"Emperor's Pain Diagnosed," Current Science, a Weekly Reader Publication, 2006,
"Gout," in Human Diseases and Conditions, Gale, 3rd ed. (Farmington, MI: Gale, 2017),
"Habsburg Dynasty," in Gale World History Online Collection (Detroit, MI: Gale, a Cengage
Company, 2019), accessed February 6, 2020.
"Inbreeding Linked to Fall of Spanish Dynasty," Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 16, 2009,
J.G. Arriola, "Homozygosity," in Brenner's Encyclopedia of Genetics, ed. Kelly Hughes and
Stanley Maloy, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science & Technology, 2013),
Lowery, Georgie. “The Habsburg Jaw and Other Royal Inbreeding Deformities.” Owlcation,
September 2, 2015.