Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Habsburg Lip

I know it's a little bit of a strange thing to have been considering at any great length, but I've been thinking about the physical phenomenon of the Habsburg Lip and all it's associations. This has a lot to to with my recent reading (a re-read of Antonia Fraser's Love & Louis XIV: The Women In The Life Of The Sun King). Reading about the dynastic inbreeding of seventeenth century royalty cannot fail to bring the Habsburg Lip to anyone's attention. This wasn't a seventeenth century occurrence: hundreds of years of intermarriage between close relatives brought with it a whole gamut of problems, ranging from high infant mortality to chronic health problems. The Habsburg Lip was simply the most recognisable physical manifestation of an extremely shallow gene-pool.

A Mandibular Prognathism is, quite simply put, the lower jaw extending further than the upper, thus resulting in the appearance of a jutting chin. It was particularly prevalent in the royal House of Habsburg (or House of Austria).

 Velazquez, Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain (later Queen Marie-Therese of France), c.1652
Velazquez's portrait of Queen Marie-Therese of France (wife of King Louis XIV) shows that she had the Habsburg Lip. Such a physical trait was not seen as an unsavoury by product of inbreeding, but rather an honourable indication of royal pedigree and status. 

Juan Carreno de Miranda, King Charles II of Spain, 1685
Following the death of Marie-Therese's mother, Elisabeth of France, her father King Philip of Spain married again, selecting as his bride his fourteen year old niece Mariana of Austria. This ghoulish sounding union produced the much needed male heir, Charles (thus his own mother was also his cousin). As a consequence of such close interbreeding, Charles was born both physically and mentally disabled and with acute medical problems. His Habsburg Lip, coupled with an over-large tongue meant that he could barely speak or chew, and he did not learn to walk until he was eight years old. Although heir to the Spanish throne, Charles' education was only flippantly pursued, and his infirmaties meant that he was indulged to an even higher degree than was usual. At the age of eighteen he married Marie-Louise d'Orleans, niece of Louis XIV. Charles' physical deformaties, illnesses and behavioural eccentricities were common knowledge at the French royal court. The prospect of marriage to Charles caused the devastated Marie-Louise to weep at the knees of Louis XIV, begging to be spared such a fate. Louis did not yield and the pair were married. Unsurprisingly, the couple had no children and Marie-Louise died aged twenty-six.

Jacques-Louis David, Marie Antoinette On The Way To The Guillotine, 1793.
King Charles' difficulties were certainly extreme, but sadly unsurprising given the circumstances. The Habsburg Lip usually took a noticeable but less debilitating form, as seen in Queen Marie-Therese. Perhaps the most famous royal connection for Mandibular Prognathism is Marie-Antoinette. Some artists took great pains to lessen the severe effect of her jutting chin and aquiline nose in her portraits, and Marie Antoinette herself bemoaned the fact that her facial features gave her the appearance of haughtiness, and did not fit at all with eighteenth century ideals of feminine beauty. Unlike her predecessor Marie-Therese, Marie Antoinette viewed her Habsburg Lip not as a source of pride, but as a barrier to how she wished to be seen by the outside world. There are official portraits of the French queen which do show her strong features, but arguably the most accurate reflection is to be found in David's hastily rendered sketch of Marie Antoinette on the way to her execution. She is haggard and aged beyond her years, but the jutting Habsburg jawline is evident. Within the all too closely knitted blood lines of European royalty, it is worth noting that such rampant inbreeding was regarded as normal. After all, how else could political alliances between countries be cemented, and what better method to ensure the purity of a supreme royal bloodline? Sexual relationships between a brother-in-law and sister-in-law, although not related by blood, were seen as incestuous, but to marry uncle to niece and first cousin to first cousin was an entirely acceptable and necessary facet of dynastic ambition.


  1. To me, this was not a strange thing to consider at all...which is why I so enjoyed this post. Fascinating. You made my morning, actually. So much more interesting than what's on the runway! (I think you and I are a dying breed.)


  2. I'm so very glad you think so and I couldn't agree more. Thank you so much for your encouragement, Catherine, it means the world to me...

    (and yes, it's quite possible we are a dying breed... :))

  3. I agree - not strange at all and most worthwhile to read too... I am just wondering what happened to this rather strange feature - is there any person living who is its inheritor?!

    1. I believe the Spanish royal house still has it, although it is much more in proportion now.

  4. What an interesting post. Isn't it also interesting how today's view of Marie Antoinette is so very different from what she actually looked like - somewhat glamourised I'd say... All that said, I hope you won't be too disappointed when you find out that I'm actually as shallow as a teaspoon and I'll have a lot more posts on things I'd like to buy, things I have bought and pretty things I'll probably never own...I just can't help it ;-) Love from London x

  5. Excellent summary of this physical feature. I am looking forward to reading more from you.