blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

Part I: An Illness

How many children had Philip II, and what records exist of any serious illnesses among them, especially around 1560, the year estimated in the Smithsonian catalog for the monk's manufacture? What seemed like a wincing long shot of an opening question almost immediately yielded descriptions of the accident and subsequent illness sustained by Don Carlos, firstborn of eight children by four successive wives, whose mother, María of Portugal died in childbirth. Heir to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos was 17 years old in 1562 when, possibly on an illicit errand, he took a fall down a flight of little-used stairs in his royal lodgings in the university town of Alcalá de Henares, and struck his head against a closed door in the passageway below.

Don Carlos himself? The hero of Giuseppe Verdi's great nineteenth-century opera, infamously murdered (in Verdi's portrayal) by his father only six years later in 1568?

The great historian William H. Prescott, in his 1874 History of the Reign of Philip the Second [5], describes what happened to Don Carlos after the fall:

He was taken up senseless, and removed to his chamber, where his physicians were instantly summoned, and the necessary remedies applied. At first, it seemed only a simple contusion on the head, and the applications of the doctors had the desired effect. But soon the symptoms became more alarming. Fever set in. He was attacked by erysipelas; his head swelled to an enormous size; he became totally blind; and this was followed by delirium. It now appeared that the skull was fractured. The royal physicians were called in; and after a stormy consultation, in which the doctors differed, as usual, as to the remedies to be applied, it was determined to trepan the patient. The operation was carefully performed; a part of the bone of the skull was removed; but relief was not obtained. [6]

All accounts of this illness, including one in the recently published volume Philip of Spain by Henry Kamen [7], describe a grief-stricken king rushing to Alcalá from Madrid with his Councils of State and the best physicians in the land, among them the great anatomist Andreas Vesalius, to attend Don Carlos. Prescott continues:

Meanwhile, the greatest alarm spread through the country at the prospect of losing the heir-apparent. Processions were everywhere made to the churches, prayers were put up, pilgrimages were vowed, and the discipline was unsparingly administered by the fanatical multitude, who hoped by self-inflicted penance to avert the wrath of Heaven from the land. Yet all did not avail.

A magnificently detailed recent article entitled "Putting Don Carlos Together Again: Treatment of a Head Injury in Sixteenth-Century Spain" by L. J. Andrew Villalon takes us through day by appalling day of the ordeal, from April 10 to May 9, quoting from the written accounts of the prince's surgeon and his personal physician. [8] On the afternoon of May 9, as Villalon tells it, in the aftermath of an attempt to trepan the patient's skull (a full trepanation was not carried out), the townspeople of Alcalá gathered at the Church of Saint Francis.

With Franciscan friars in the lead, they marched toward the palace, carrying with them the remains of a fifteenth-century member of the order, Diego de Alcalá, for whom they had long hoped to win sainthood. They entered the sickroom, and in the presence of their kneeling monarch they set down beside the patient the remains of Brother Diego. Although Carlos was only semiconscious and blinded by infection, he asked for his eyes to be forced open in order to see the blessed remains. The chief steward, hoping to spare the young man further pain, refused to allow this; however, the desiccated corpse was moved close enough for Carlos to reach over and touch it, after which he drew his hands across his diseased face. (p 356)

Prescott transmits the story a little differently, having the king himself and his court fetching "the mouldering remains of the good father, still sweet to the nostrils, as we are told." Laying the corpse on the prince's bed, they removed the cloth that wrapped the dead man's head and placed it on Carlos' forehead (p 469). And yet another account—more about this one later—refers to the mummy of the friar being placed in the sick boy's bed with him.

So certain did Don Carlos' death seem on the evening of May 9, that the king took his closest advisors and departed at midnight rather than watch his son slowly die, and he began the journey back to Madrid in despair. But that night Don Carlos slept peacefully for the first time in weeks. And the very next day commenced a sudden, extraordinary recovery. He regained his sight a week later, his fever disappeared soon thereafter, and within a month, he was completely healed. [9]

In the aftermath of Don Carlos' stunning recovery, Villalon tells us, there was no small controversy about how the cure was brought about. Vesalius was praised by some, and among the ten attending physicians who had labored so hard over the prince there were a few who felt they were due the major part of the credit. But very soon attention came to focus on Fray Diego de Alcalá, with a groundswell of feeling that here was the agent of a miracle: a corpse 100 years dead. We ourselves can look back and be sure that the physicians' prodigious efforts, complete with the usual bleeding and purging, and the continual probing of the wound with nonsterile instruments, would have accumulated more against than in favor of the chances for survival (. . . "[the doctors] went on placing upon the exposed portion of the skull a powder made of iris and birthwort, and on the lips of the wound a mixture of turpentine and egg yolk." [10]) But the most dramatic evidence came from Don Carlos himself:

In Counter-Reformation Spain, a physician would risk heresy to contest such royal testimony to divine intervention.  


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