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The Palace Built Over a Hellmouth

The essay below is taken from the new anthology Spirits of Place, which features the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Iain Sinclair and many others taking us on a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, or even consulted with, ‘spirits of place’ – ” the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse.”

More information, and links for ordering Kindle, paperback and hardcover editions, can be found at the Spirits of Place website.


The Palace Built Over a Hellmouth

by Maria J. Pérez Cuervo

Only a king or a queen has the power to move the capital of their kingdom to their preferred location. For King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), this place was at the very centre of the Iberian Peninsula, not far from the city of Madrid, in an area called El Escorial on the southern slopes of Mount Abantos. Here he vowed to build his life’s plan: a royal residence that would also be a pantheon, a monastery, a library, a museum and a centre of studies. To bring it to life, he hired a group of architects, experienced masons and theologists, who evaluated the terrain positively but, given the monarch’s interest in esotericism and alchemy, probably warned him of an ancient legend: that the Devil himself had lived in a cave at the foot of the mountain, after he was expelled from Heaven and before he opened up seven doors to enter his new abode in the Underworld. The location of one of these doors was El Escorial.

The locals whispered stories of monsters, visions and curses, of frequent electrical storms with lightning constantly hitting the area. Nevertheless, on the 30th of November 1561, the king’s experts travelled to El Escorial to make a final decision. Their official chronicler, Father Sigüenza, describes how the group was stricken by a gale that “didn’t allow them to reach their destination”, which the friar interpreted as the Devil trying to dissuade them from erecting a religious complex over what was rumoured to be a Hellmouth. But the king dismissed the ominous signs in a letter to his men, noting that there had also been a tempest in Madrid. And so the works started a year later, after the court was moved to Madrid, and lasted for over two decades. The complex remains the best-known symbol of Spanish royalty, with its rows of kings and queens resting in the Pantheon. But, in spite of Philip II’s Catholic fervour, it seems as though the chthonic currents managed to seep through the soil and leak into the rich marble and gold, into the silver crosses, statues of saints and reliquaries, playing with the senses of the palace’s inhabitants, driving them to madness and perdition.

To me, the centre of the Peninsula has always felt suffocating. I grew up on the south coast, in a luminous, heavily-built Mediterranean city where my dad was also born. My mum came from a small village in the north, all high mountains, coalmines and fog. They met in Madrid, almost exactly halfway, when Franco was still alive, and moved to the south after they got married. In the summers, my dad would drive us to the north in his rumbling Renault 14. It was a long journey, and it helped to think of it in two halves: before and after Madrid. In those days there was no seat belt to be worn, so I wriggled in the back seat, kneeling and twisting to catch the best sights on the way. One of the most intriguing was an enormous cross on the horizon, silhouetted and looming over its surroundings: the so-called “Valley of the Fallen”. Once I said I’d like to see it up close, and my dad frowned: “That’s where Franco and his pals are buried. We’re not going there.” I didn’t know much about the Civil War then, but I knew enough to find the sight disturbing, like a monstrous shadow of the past creeping over us, triumphant. Perhaps on the same trip, or on a different one, I was also told about the most powerful king Spain ever had, who built a huge palace-monastery, not far from that cross, many centuries before the bones of the Fallen had been buried in that soil.

I never liked that central part of the journey – the flat, monotonous roads, the merciless heat, the strange absence of the sea on the horizon, still too far from the fresh green meadows of my mum’s homeland. Travelling to the centre of the Peninsula in the summer was like slowly descending into a pit of burning coal, a journey to the centre of the Earth, from which one could only exit either side.

For many centuries, the Spanish court was itinerant and the capital city changed depending on where the monarch was established. Before Philip II’s decision, the honour fell on Toledo, a centre of tolerance and cooperation between Christians, Jews and Muslims until the establishment of the Inquisition brought turmoil. By the 16th century, the city was the focus of civil revolts against Philip’s father, King Charles I, but it also had one of the most important archdioceses in the Catholic world, second only to Rome. In contrast, Madrid was only a relatively important city, with no ports nearby and no navigable rivers. There was nothing there that could overshadow the king: barely any local aristocrats; no significant religious power. Perhaps he saw this relative isolation as an advantage, as a clean start in the exact centre of the Peninsula, an area with good terrain and benevolent climate.

Philip lived in the shadow of his father, Charles I, powerful warlord, cosmopolitan adventurer, silver-tongued speaker. It must have been a heavy burden to bear, especially because their talents were so different. Philip, the sole male heir, wanted to build a suitable place to bury his father, so there was definitely a component of filial duty in the original idea. But when we look back in history we are often tempted to speculate, so I imagine Philip – the shy, meticulous, taciturn king often dressed in black – consumed by an idea: that the holy palace-monastery he had envisioned and carefully planned must be built over a land that the Devil had claimed as his own for centuries. Once erected, El Escorial would become a symbol, a feat, and, in turn, he would be remembered as the devout, all-powerful monarch who sealed a Hellmouth with a sacred building, making his dynasty and his empire rise over all evil.

The architect he chose to be in charge was Juan Bautista de Toledo, Michaelangelo’s right-hand man in the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. He was to be assisted by Juan de Herrera, who would complete it after Toledo’s death. Herrera modified the original designs and was ultimately responsible for the final appearance of the complex, characterised by austerity and geometric rigour, so different to the then en vogue Plateresque that it became a style of its own – Herrerian, named after its creator.

In the upper portion of the main façade of the Basilica, the statues of Solomon and David stare at each other, sceptres in hand, flanked by other kings of Judah. The wise king of the Bible was a constant in Philip II’s life. When he married Mary I of England, Cardinal Pole gave a speech where he compared Philip to his father Charles I:

I can well compare him to David, who though he were a man elect of God, yet, for that he was contaminate with blood and war, he could not build the Temple of Jerusalem, but left the finishing thereof to Solomon, which was Rex Pacificus. So may it be thought that the appeasing of controversies of religion in Christianity is not appointed to this Emperor, but rather to his son, who shall perform the building that his father had begun.

Philip, more introverted and spiritual than his father and less inclined to a life of action, surely welcomed this parallelism. Through Solomon he found his own identity as a king. The comparison was repeated many times throughout his life, and reinforced in several paintings.1 It doesn’t come as a surprise that, centuries before Freemasonry’s fixation with the esoteric qualities of the Temple, the Catholic king sought to reproduce its perfect structure – according to the Bible it was designed by God – in his magnum opus.

As well as its architecture, there are many other Solomonic details in El Escorial: the central fresco in the library depicts the Biblical king next to the Queen of Sheba, and both the prior’s cell in the monastery and the entrance to the monarch’s bedchambers display a representation of the episode of the baby, a symbol of the legendary character’s abilities to discern between good and evil.2

The complex also served to commemorate the 1557 Battle of San Quentin, where the king’s troops, allied with England after his marriage to Mary I, defeated the French. It took place on the 10th of August, the feast of Saint Lawrence, a Roman deacon who was roasted alive for his Christian beliefs, hence Philip’s decision to consecrate his new building to him. Some have said it is shaped like a gridiron, a tribute to Saint Lawrence’s grisly death. Whether this is true or not, the patron’s statue in the west façade is rumoured to keep another secret: he might be looking to the burial place of a treasure that has never been found.

The monastery, an essential component of the original plan, was entrusted to the relatively new Order of Saint Jerome, also known as the Hieronymites, reputed for their austerity. It was another proof of the monarch’s commitment to Catholicism: not only did he become a patron of the order, he also focused on eradicating Protestantism and strengthened the Holy Inquisition that his ancestors had established in the 15th century. With these credentials it might seem paradoxical that he was quietly fascinated by the other side – the underworld, the occult. These obsessions were consistent throughout his life, and intensified around the time of his death.

The Legend of the Hellmouth

For all its royal grandeur, there’s a peculiar association to the name “El Escorial”: it sounds suspiciously similar to “escoria”, Spanish for “scum”. Perhaps aiming to scrub off its supposedly lowly origins, more modern theories suggest the name might derive from the Latin aesculus, the genus that comprises oaks, which grow abundantly in the area. Father Sigüenza, however, believed its etymology was linked to the mining industry and the resultant débris, since the area had been rich in mines of silver and gold.

Oral tradition connects the existence of the mines with the legend of the Hellmouth. Similar ideas appear in different cultures: Hell is underground, and descending into the mine, closer to the centre of the Earth and its core of molten lava, means approaching Satan’s dwellings. Whatever lives underground is thought of as evil. Whatever crawls, close to the chthonic forces that come from Hell, is also thought of as evil – hence the association between the Devil and the Ancient Serpent of the Old Testament. Perhaps a flat journey, from the coast to a central land, conveys the same feeling, as if one were replicating the descent into the abyss.

Not far from El Escorial, in the Guadarrama Mountains, there is an unusual construction known as The Seat of Philip II, a set of platforms and seats carved in granite. Oral tradition tells that the king used it as an observatory to comfortably supervise the works, but its origins are not known. A recent theory suggests it was a pagan altar where human sacrifices were offered to Mars, the god of war. Less than a mile away, another toponym asserts the Devil’s claim over the land: La Pisada del Diablo, “The Devil’s Footprint”, is what looks like a single impression of a cloven hoof on a rock. According to the legend, Satan, dressed as a pilgrim or a peasant, tried to lure a pious young girl to his side, but she didn’t give in. In his frenzied anger, the Devil jumped onto the rock – and the hoof-like mark he left can still be seen today.

All these ancient legends about the malevolence of the place became enriched and embellished while El Escorial was built. Father Sigüenza describes how, in 1577, the builders reported having seen “a big black dog dragging chains and occasionally howling frightfully” among the works of the monastery after dark, jumping “as if it had wings”. It was said that the dog was Cerberus, the monstrous guardian of the Greek Underworld, who had escaped Hell using the portal the king had attempted to cover. Superstitious fear spread among the locals, and the atmosphere of horror penetrated the walls of the sacred compound.

Sigüenza writes that a black dog sneaked into the monastery – a real dog that supposedly belonged to the Marquis of Las Navas, who must have lived nearby. His howls interrupted the early morning prayers and spooked the monks. Two of them were brave enough to venture out and found it, a flesh and bone animal, not a ghostly one. They hanged it from the cloister, where it remained for days for everyone to see: the beast taken by the monks, the demon defeated by the holy men. But, according to the legend, the Black Dog of El Escorial, like its counterpart the Black Shuck, was a portent of doom – and it would be seen again by none other than the king.

The Palace of the Dead

My first visit to El Escorial was on a school trip. We were 16 or 17, mostly girls, travelling with our convent school teachers. We stayed in Madrid, where I had already been a few times, and on a hot afternoon the coach took us to the monastery we had learned of in our History lessons. Its severity and stillness were violated by high-pitched teenage voices and exuberant gestures. It was sizzling, the open space lacking in shade, and we were almost gasping for air. I remember very little about the trip – the façade with the statues, the grandeur of the library and the basilica – but what really stuck with me was the Pantheon of the Kings.

It’s a relatively small chamber, with twenty-six marble sepulchres identically designed, all in sumptuous black and gold, each one labelled with the name of its occupant. But, whereas in most churches and cathedrals each tomb has a personality, the Pantheon, like an unbending monk, seems to express revulsion towards portraying the real individuals beyond the pomp that corresponds to their earthly function. I remember it as unnerving, orderly and severe, a bizarre juxtaposition of luxury and sternness. It is as if the building itself prosecuted anything deviating from the norm. Perhaps it was this whiff of repression and intolerance – or perhaps my nervous disposition and overbearing imagination – that made me walk out, back to the sweltering heat, close to having a panic attack.

Mortal remains were paramount in the conception of El Escorial – not only those of the kings and queens of Spain, but also those of the Catholic saints that rest within its walls. Over 7000 relics are kept in two altars in the basilica, in a location close to the king’s bedchambers, so he could have easy access to them. In Sigüenza’s words, Philip was possessed by a “holy greed” for relics, and in 1567 he was granted permission from the pope to collect them. Whenever a new one arrived in the monastery, the usually self-restrained monarch would kiss it fervently, and examine it before finding a space for it in the collection. Some of them still preserve a label written in his own hand. Of these 7000, around 300 are known as “the authentic ones”, since they were sent by bishops and priors, who included a certificate of authenticity. There are 12 whole skeletons, 144 heads and thousands of bones from all known saints, except three: Saint Joseph, Saint John and Saint James the Elder. The altars are displayed to the public only on All Saints’ Day, though in the past, these relics – and others that are no longer kept here – played a crucial role in the lives of the inhabitants of El Escorial.

The most notable case is perhaps that of King Philip’s son Prince Don Carlos, born in 1545. His early portraits depict a heavy-lidded young boy with an icy, indifferent gaze and the mandibular prognathism that characterised the Habsburg dynasty as it advanced in its inbreeding. An ambassador’s report reveals he took pleasure in roasting hares alive, and there were rumours that he enjoyed maiming dogs’ genitals and blinding horses from the royal stables. Aged 18, as he was chasing after a maid in the palace, he fell down the stairs and badly injured his head. The wound festered and very quickly the infection spread to his neck and chest, causing his head to swell. His situation was so dire that the eminent anatomist Andreas Vesalius was brought to El Escorial to perform a trepanation, but the prince was given hours to live. Seeing his father’s despair, the king’s confessor, Bernardo de Fresneda, advised that “since there was no longer any hope for an earthly remedy… they must seek instead for a cure from heaven”. His recommendation was Fray Diego de Alcalá, a local miracle-maker who had the peculiarity of having been dead for a century. As Fresneda had probably anticipated, mortality wasn’t an obstacle for King Philip, who ordered Fray Diego’s sarcophagus to be opened and his remains brought to the prince’s room, where they were laid next to Don Carlos. Days later, the boy recovered and claimed to have dreamed of the friar, whose mummy he’d briefly seen before slipping into oblivion. Among the clamour of the people, Fray Diego was canonised. His shrivelled remains are now worshipped in the Cathedral of Alcalá.

The practice of tucking human remains into the beds of agonising monarchs continued for several generations. The mummy of Isidore, later proclaimed the patron saint of Madrid, was kept in Philip III’s bed while he was gravely ill. The king’s recovery led to Isidore’s beatification, who from then onwards enjoyed an even higher status than Saint Diego de Alcalá. In the late 17th century, a locksmith pulled out one of the mummy’s teeth to give it to the king: this was the tragically inbred Charles II, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain and Philip II’s great-grandson, whose story is the epitome of the bizarre concoction of Catholicism, morbid superstition and fear of Hell that also defined the lives of his ancestors.

The Bewitched King

Suffering from a debilitating prognathism which gave him a speech impediment and chronic drooling, prone to high fevers and seizures, Charles II (1661-1700) avoided vigorous activity and lived a secluded palace life. After his father’s death, his mother acted as Queen-Regent, and even after he turned 14 and was legally allowed to rule without a regent, his health problems kept him away from power, which was exerted by a series of favourites. It was a period of civil unrest and courtly intrigues, and the king was rushed into marriage with the sole object of producing a fit descendant. His beloved first wife died without having provided an heir, and his second marriage didn’t prove any more fruitful than the first. The court and his subjects whispered about his weird appearance, his melancholy, nervous temper and his series of misfortunes, and called him “El Hechizado”, The Bewitched. He was an outcast in the orderly world designed by Philip II, a changeling-king who could have emerged from the shadows beneath El Escorial.

Charles genuinely believed he had been hexed or, even worse, possessed by the Devil. The English Ambassador Alexander Stanhope notes how “neither his buffoons, dwarfs nor puppet shows can in the least divert him from fancying everything that is said or done to be a temptation of the Devil”, and how the king never thought himself safe “but with his Confessor and two friars by his side, whom he makes lie in his chamber all night”. It was his confessor, Father Froilán Diaz, who finally asked Cardinal Rocaberti, the General Inquisitor, to investigate his enchantment. Rocaberti knew of a case of possessed nuns in a convent in Cangas de Narcea, in the northern province of Asturias, and resolved that their acquaintance with the Devil would make them a good source of information. Chaplain Argüelles was put in charge of the mission. In a letter to Rocaberti he revealed the result of his inquiries: “Last night the Devil told me that the king has been hexed to rule and to breed”. Satan had kindly given him some details: that the king had been jinxed in 1675, aged 14, with a mug of hot chocolate – his favourite drink – spiked with the brains, intestines and kidneys of an executed criminal. The beverage would have been prepared by his own mother, thirsty for power, to remove him from the throne, destroy his health and “corrupt his semen”, thwarting the possibility of a descendant.

The story told by Argüelles tapped into the country’s milieu, confirming the existence of political intrigues and invoking the powerful archetype of the ambitious witch queen, so it’s hardly surprising it became a sensation. To remove the spell, the monarch was treated with questionable remedies that caused his health to worsen. At the same time, hoping for a miracle, he was also sharing his royal bed with the trusty mummies of Saint Isidore and Saint Diego. Meanwhile, the king’s men searched for the women who conspired and supplied the dead man’s body for the potion, whom Argüelles named as Casilda Pérez, and María or Ana Díez, but the mission was fruitless. In further letters, the chaplain seems to have back-pedalled, alleging that the demons he spoke to were “being rebellious”, and that Lucifer had now sworn the king was free from any spells.

In 1699, since the king’s health was rapidly deteriorating, Father Froilán contacted an itinerant Neapolitan exorcist, Mauro de Tenda, who was rumoured to be a spy, but who claimed to have travelled to Spain wanting to rid Charles II of his demons. After several private interviews, Tenda discovered that His Majesty carried with him a little pouch he religiously placed under his pillow every night. Suspicious of its nature, he asked the queen to get hold of it. The contents of the pouch – eggshells, toenail clippings and hairs – were suggestive of witchcraft, but the king, who thought them relics and trusted they were protecting him from the Devil, couldn’t recall who’d given them to him or when. Father Froilán’s first impulse was to destroy the pouch and its contents, but Tenda refused, arguing that this may precipitate the king’s demise. He based his decision on an episode that had taken place only some years earlier, when Charles’s father Philip IV was dying: similar objects were found in his deathbed, and, just after they were burnt, he expired.

Tenda exorcised the king and queen in a bizarre ritual, both of them naked and kneeling in front of him; and later he gave Charles a recipe to expel the Devil from his body, with instructions that read halfway between a prayer and a spell: His Majesty needed to “cross himself three times over his head or on whatever part of the body hurt him, as soon as he notices any pain, pronouncing the common incantation and asking the Devil to leave in the name of God Almighty”.

The Neapolitan was pleased with his patient’s progress, but the king’s mood was as dark as ever: proof of this is that he was transfixed by the sight of human remains, especially those of his family members, buried in the sumptuous Pantheon of the Kings. Austrian Ambassador Count Harrach spent some time in El Escorial and witnessed how Charles asked for his mother’s coffin to be opened. The Queen Mother had specifically demanded not to be embalmed nor her corpse to be altered in any way, yet when her son contravened her wishes they discovered her body remained perfectly preserved three years after her death. Morbidly fascinated, the king ordered the doctors to undress her and examine her entrails, but when they proceeded, the dead queen’s complexion turned brighter and redder, as if she was suffering a fit of otherwordly anger. The doctors kneeled down in front of her, terrified, begging for her pardon.

The dark spaces in the palace built by his great-grandfather seemed to have taken possession of Charles II’s mind: the Devil crawling out of the soil and into his chambers to poison his soul; the decaying flesh of his family members, sealed under layers of gold and marble, returning to haunt him. None of the exorcisms or bizarre rituals he underwent would convince the unfortunate king that he could live a lighter, less tormented life. He died in 1700, soon after Tenda’s interventions; fittingly, on All Saint’s Day, when Spain prays and honours the relics of its dead and indulges in eating ossuary-like piles of bone-shaped marzipan. Charles’s body, now resting in the Pantheon of the Kings, had to be subject to a post-mortem examination due to the suspicions of malefice. What the doctor saw then was “a very small heart, the size of a peppercorn; corroded lungs, gangrenous, putrid intestines; three large kidney stones; a single testicle, black as coal; and a head full of water”. After his death, El Escorial would pass into the hands of his great-nephew Philip V, and therefore to the House of Bourbon.

Escaping the Inquisition

Even before extreme consanguinity produced the ailments of The Bewitched, the health of the Habsburgs had already been poor. As Philip II got older and felt death nearer, he strengthened his patronage of alchemy. His secretary Pedro del Hoyo was said to have sparked up his interest, which initially seemed to be more practical than spiritual, probably born from necessity, since the coffers of the empire’s treasury were in debt after his father’s military campaigns and the constant need to please the mutinous Army of Flanders. After commissioning several attempts that proved futile, the king became sceptical of promises of alchemical gold and claims of metal transmutation. Nevertheless, he was still fascinated by Raymond Lully’s work on the preparation of quintessences as medicine, and in 1585 work began to build the laboratory of El Escorial. Independent of the infirmary and the monastery, it would focus on producing essences, distilled oils and the mythical potable gold, and it would gather experts such as Giovanni Vincenzo Forte and Richard Stanyhurst. The latter was an Irish Catholic who wrote several treatises on alchemical medicine, stating it could treat “incurable” diseases such as leprosy, consumption, syphilis or gout. The king certainly suffered from gout, and it’s been speculated that he might also have been affected with congenital syphilis, which could explain his personal interest in Stanyhurst’s work. In his letters, the Irish alchemist wrote that his work at El Escorial was highly confidential and a matter of state, and, as well as undertaking research, he prepared potable gold, the elixir of long life, to restore the king’s health.

Alchemy wasn’t prohibited by the Inquisition, but there was a fine line between some practices and what the Catholic Church would have considered appropriate. The library of the monastery also pushed the boundaries of acceptability. In 1574, the first librarian, Antonio Gracián, facing the task of organising the volumes after completing an inventory, advised that “it could be done here as it’s been done in the Vatican Library: to have two sorts of libraries, a public one and a secret one.” A decade later, the new librarian Arias Montano produced an inventory of books proscribed by the Inquisitorial index of 1584, concluding that they kept around 50 on the library shelves. A natural diplomat, he arranged with the king that the forbidden books would not be destroyed, but would be kept locked away instead. Nevertheless, the secret collection grew, since, 36 years after Philip’s death, a new inventory revealed a total of 400, although only the prior, the librarian and some dons were allowed to read them – and the presence of annotations in their margins reveals that they did so regularly.

Above and Below

In summer 1598 Philip II retired to El Escorial, feeling death was near. On the 6th of July, in spite of his poor health, he asked his men to take him on a tour to see all the corners of his beloved monastery for a last goodbye. After that date, his ailments confined him to his chambers until he met his fate.

Philip II’s agony was prolonged and horrendous. Sigüenza writes that he was “consumed by the malignant fire that had turned him into skin and bones”, a combination of fever, osteoarthritis, dropsy, incontinence and abscesses caused by gout. The meticulous, dapper king – “by nature the most clean, neat and tidy person that has ever lived on this earth”, according to his valet Jehan Lhermite – literally rotted in his bed, amidst maggot-infected ulcers and his own excrement. His long torment was only relieved by the sight of his collection of relics. They were brought to his chambers and laid out so he could kiss them, one by one. In spite of his delirious state, he was able to remember which ones he hadn’t kissed yet, and asked the friars to bring those to him.

During his last years, the monarch had accumulated a collection of triptychs and paintings by a Netherlandish artist named Hieronymus Bosch, who had died in 1516.3 Nominally, the painter was a Catholic, a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, but his hallucinatory work was crammed with perverse and terrifying representations of sin and eternal damnation. It’s been said that Bosch and his Brotherhood were secret Adamites, who believed sin was created by God, and consequently approved the pursuit of earthly pleasures as a divine experience. Whatever moved the enigmatic artist, it is clear that his complex visual narratives struck a chord within Philip II.

The Garden of Earthly Delights had been in El Escorial since 1593, and it was moved to the king’s rooms so that he could contemplate it in his agony. Even though the painting had been dismissed as heretical, Sigüenza defended the monarch’s fascination with it, writing that the three panels “are a satirical comment on the shame and sinfulness of mankind”. The first panel is a beautiful, celestial garden; but the lustful scenes of the central panel give way to a dark, haunting hellscape on the right.

Catholicism is dualistic: salvation cannot be understood without the threat of Hell. I often wonder if my Gothic sensibilities were shaped by my Catholic education – to one side, the sight of Jesus tortured on the cross, a stranger’s blood sacrifice for all our personal sins, and the unattainable purity of a feminine figure designed to taint and shame; to the other, my paralysing fear of Satan. Order and virtue cannot engulf darkness, much like the orderly design of a holy complex could not seal the Hellmouth opening up underneath.

Philip II’s last days are an extraordinary illustration of his beliefs: consumed by fever and intolerable pain, watching mass being celebrated from his window over the basilica, meditating on Bosch’s hellish landscapes, kissing mortal remains, the king was rapt in a trance-like state, his body maggot-ridden, his soul in a sort of Purgatory.

Writer Ricardo Sepúlveda collected in 1888 the oral tradition preserved by the neighbours of El Escorial. It was said that the Black Dog was seen in crucial moments of the king’s life, specifically, upon the deaths of three of his family members: that of his son Don Carlos; that of his third wife, queen Elisabeth of Valois; and that of his illegitimate half-brother, Don John of Austria. The monstrous beast the monks couldn’t take down became a harbinger of calamity for the royal family, howling every time Death claimed one of them. Legend has it that King Philip saw it too, on the day of his demise, by his deathbed, as though it were a reminder of what lay below – what he had been unable to seal, what would torment all of his descendants. Even though he was surrounded by his holy objects and his holy men, here, in El Escorial, he was also closer to the abyss than he would have been anywhere else.

1. Lucas de Heere’s painting in the Cathedral of Gante (1559) depicts Philip II as King Solomon. The Window of the King, in Saint Janskerk of Gouda (1557) contains a representation of Philip II next to his wife Mary I, with the inscription “ECCE PLVS QVAM SALOMON HEIC” (Here is that who is more than Solomon).

2. In The Judgement of Solomon (1 Kings 3: 16-28), when two women claimed to be the mother of the same baby, the king resolved he should be cut in two halves. His verdict was a trick to reveal who the real mother was, as she chose to surrender the baby to the other woman.

3. Philip II’s obsession with Hieronymus Bosch is the reason why El Prado holds so many of his paintings. As well as The Garden of the Earthly Delights, it owns The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness and The Haywain Triptych, among others.

Maria J. Pérez Cuervo (Málaga, Spain, 1980) is a freelance writer based in Bristol, UK. She graduated in Journalism, specializing in history and archaeology. In 2007 she completed an MA in Archaeology for Screen Media in the University of Bristol, and her dissertation on Archaeology and the Occult in popular culture – and her fake documentary on Frederick Bligh Bond and how he resorted to psychic archaeology to excavate Glastonbury Abbey – was awarded the Mick Aston Prize. For over a decade she has worked in television (Time Team, Tony Robinson and the Paranormal), print media and social media / e-media.
Maria is a regular contributor to Fortean Times, where she writes about weird history, myths and fairytales, and the Gothic imagination. She also blogs about dark mythology on Even though she’s mostly written Fortean essays and articles, she secretly aspires to become a pulp writer. Her first attempt at writing fiction, the folk horror story “The Village Below”, set in the north of Spain, was published in Book 3 of the literary magazine The Ghastling.

She can be found online at and on Twitter at @mjpcuervo.

  1. El Escorial Scholar
    A visit to El Escorial was certainly a highlight of my trip to Spain some years ago. I was hosted by the Spanish translator of my web site, Oscar David Calle Mesa, whose father was Basque and mother from the Canary Islands. During my time in Madrid, Oscar’s mom prepared a special spicy meal for me in the Canary Island style. I was shocked to learn that mainland Spaniards never incorporated New World peppers in there cuisine.

    Oscar was also my personal tour guide at El Escorial. The thing that perplexed me most about El Escorial was the inclusion of “evil” King Manasseh among the six Biblical kings featured in the courtyard of the kings at El Escorial. Statues of David and Solomon are only to be expected. Josiah and Hezekiah are also not surprising. But, Manasseh? And why is he paired with King Jehoshaphat? This is something I’d like to further investigate and hopefully explain some day!

    I enjoyed researching Philip II, Don Carlos and Don Juan as part of my book, Shakespeare: Much Ado About Elizabeth. (Philip II and Queen Elizabeth had parallel reigns.) In the book, I concluded that the Habsburgs were much more inbred than commonly believed. In fact, I concluded that they were maximally inbred and were disguising the degree of incest that they practiced (with full knowledge of the Church).

    I’m also curious about the author’s relationship with Tony Robinson (of Baldrick fame on the British comedy series Black Adder). I haven’t seen the Team Time or Paranormal series, but he seriously poo-pooed the whole Da Vinci Code thing, so I had him pegged as a hardened skeptic (anti-esoteric) type.

    1. Baldrick
      Funny, I can’t hear or read his name without thinking of Baldrick. Especially comes to mind turnip surprise. The turnip that was shaped exactly like a thingy. That cracks me up every time I think of it.

    2. King Manasseh at El Escorial
      Actually, it just dawned on me that I already knew the answer to this particular mystery, but didn’t even realize it! Biblical King Manasseh (a.k.a. Tirhaka/Taharqa) would have been one inspiration for Muhammad due to his African and Arabian power base and resistance to Mesopotamian dominance. In much later times, King Manasseh would have symbolized the over-arching Habsburg control of Muslim kingdoms. This was of course a highly sensitive and controversial relationship and had to therefore be represented in abstract/esoteric form. However, it seems that the Habsburgs could not resist the temptation of flaunting the world-wide scope of their operations.

      With Manasseh identified as representing the Islamic world, the accompanying statue of King Jehoshaphat (associated with the name Japheth/Put, at least in the historical context of this particular king) at El Escorial would then logically be a representation of the Northern/Nordic countries that were also under Habsburg control, again not directly/explicitly, but typically through the adoption of regional names/heritage.

      Josiah and Hezekiah were actually two different regional kingly identities of a single royal person. The choice of a dual representation at El Escorial again reflected Habsburg “shape-shifting” in order to manage a world-wide empire. Josiah-Hezekiah perhaps signified the Eastern component of Habsburg dominions.

      For the Habsburg claim to Islamic, Nordic and Asian territories, please see my book, Shakespeare: Much Ado About Elizabeth.
      (TDG members can contact me via my web site for a review copy.)

  2. hot chocolate
    [quote=]Satan had kindly given him some details: that the king had been jinxed in 1675, aged 14, with a mug of hot chocolate – his favourite drink – spiked with the brains, intestines and kidneys of an executed criminal. [/quote]

    ummm…I think I would have tasted a difference. That and the sudden chunkiness and red color of the cocoa 😛

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