The mentally and physically handicapped King Afonso VI “The Glutton” of Portugal (1643-1683) is described as “a grinning moron”. His mode of dress consisted of six or seven coats one over the other and three or four hats perched one on top of the other. Afonso preferred wild pastimes, and used to pay surprise visits to nunneries to make love to the nuns. Instead of rising to attend mass in the chapel, Afonso requested the chaplain to celebrate it in his bedroom, while he snoozed between the sheets. He had fixed a very short time limit for sermons anyway. After his marriage, Afonso neglected his ambitious wife, who soon conspired to have him dethroned.

Portugal had been an independent Kingdom until 1580, when the main royal line became extinct, and the country was occupied by Spain for 60 years. After a swift coup, Joao of Bragança (1604-1656) was proclaimed King Joao IV of Portugal in 1640. The Duke of Bragança had stayed on his estate, while others completed the coup for him. Joao descended in the male line from an illegitimate son of King Joao I “The Great” of Portugal (1358-1415), and in the female line from King Manuel I of Portugal (1469-1521). The new King soon became depressed, possibly as a result of the strain of the government and the insecurity of Portugal’s independence. An attempt on his life by an assassin, paid by Spain, aggravated his mental condition. In 1647, Joao proposed to abdicate and retire to the Azores, but the plan was never carried out. With his wife, Luisa de Guzmán of Medina Sidonia (1613-1666), Joao had 5 surviving children, but both Theodósio (1634-1652) and Joana (1636-1653) died as teenagers. Their undisciplined younger brother, 10-year-old Afonso, shed no tears, but exclaimed jubilantly: “Hurrah! Now I shall be King of Portugal.” Three years after the death of his eldest son, King Joao, suffering from kidney-stones and the family affliction of gout, died on November 6, 1656.
Afonso was proclaimed King Afonso VI, and his capable Spanish mother assumed the regency. Luisa de Guzmán vigourously pursued the war against Spain, and succeeded in marrying off her only surviving daughter to the English King1. King Joao had not appointed tutors to his younger sons, Afonso and Pedro (1648-1706), but had kept them by him. Now their mother appointed Francisco de Faro to instruct Afonso. Although he spent most of his time in riding, and watching dog-, cock- and bull-fights, Afonso did at least learn to read and write.

Alfonso VI was born on August 21, 1643. An illness at the age of 3, possibly a form of poliomyelitis, left him partially paralysed in the right side. It may also have affected his understanding. A disfigured foot made him limb. He grew up as a vicious, unpleasant moron, who savagely killed animals for his pleasure. Looking out of the palace windows, Afonso used to watch the street boys throwing stones and fighting in the streets. One day, he had spotted Antonio Conti, who offered him knifes and toys, and persuaded him to join their games. Thus, Afonso and Antonio became friends. Their favourite game was boxing, and one day the King was found with a swollen and bleeding nose. His mother tried to wean him from these wild pastimes, and forbade Antonio Conti to enter the palace. Deprived from Antonio’s company, Afonso became completely unmanageable, and refused to eat food. Thus, his attendants gave way, and allowed Antonio Conti to return. He soon established himself in a room next to Afonso, and began to lead the King off on nightly excursions, attacking respectable citizens, and raiding taverns. Groups of street boys streamed through the palace’s anti-chambers, and arranged dog-fights on the palace grounds. Soon Antonio Conti assumed all the airs of a royal favourite. Afonso invested him with the Order of Christ, and made Antonio’s younger brother an Archdeacon. He also bestowed honours and emoluments on Antonio’s companions, too.
In June 1661, Luisa de Guzmán (to the right)2 had the favourite arrested, and put on a ship for Brazil. Afonso was furious. With the help of his attendants, 17-year-old Afonso declared that his minority had ended, and assumed the government. His new favourite, Luiz de Vasconcelos e Sousa (1636-1720), Count of Castelo-Melhor, gained full power. Afonso’s loyal supporters started shouting abusive epithets, and throwing missiles at his mother, especially when she was engaged in prayer. Due to these insults, Luisa de Guzmán decided to retire to a convent. In Februari 1666, she was dying and summoned Alfonso to her side. He was hunting in Salvaterre, and lingered 3 days on the way. When he finally arrived, his mother was already death.

Castelo-Melhor and the other ministers ruled without reference to Afonso, but at least they tried to make Afonso behave like a King. Told what to do, he did it; told what to say, he said it. Still, his way of life infuriated the Portugese clergy. Instead of rising to attend mass in the chapel, Afonso requested the chaplain to celebrate it in his bedroom, while he snoozed between the sheets. He had fixed a very short time limit for sermons, anyway, and ruthlessly banished from Portugal every preacher who exceeded it by even a second. He used to pay surprise visits to nunneries, making love to the nuns, or organising amateur theatrical performances in the convent chapels. He also had sex with women of light reputation. Men were assassinated, when he suspected them of being successful rivals in their affections. His councillors hoped that his behaviour would improve with the influence of a good wife and, after various negotiations; their choice fell on Duchess Maria Francisca of Savoy-Nemours (1646-1683, to the right)3.
In August 1666, Afonso’s 20-year-old bride arrived over sea. She was still suffering from seasickness, when Afonso rowed out to meet her. His greeting was simply a grin. At the age of 23, Afonso was already far too fat due to his gluttony and indolence. He used to take his meals in bed, and usually ate and drank so much that he was sick afterwards. His mode of dress consisted of six or seven coats one over the other and three or four hats perched one on top of the other. His bride must have noticed the difference between the ridiculous looking and stupidly grinning King Afonso and his athletic younger brother, Pedro4, who stood beside him. Afonso was not impressed by his beautiful bride, either. He escorted her to the church, but he found the ceremonies boring, and left her to preside over the celebrations, while he dined heavily in bed.

Maria Francisca of Savoy was ambitious. She requested and obtained admission to state council meetings. Soon, she allied with her 19-year-old brother-in-law and together they managed to force the count of Castelo-Melhor to retire. Afonso attacked the courtier who brought him the news with a dagger, and chased him round the room. The King was now in the hands of his wife and his brother, who had become quite font of each other. In November 1667, Maria Francisca moved her entire household to the Esperança convent and left a letter for Afonso, expressing regret that she had been unable to fulfil her marital duties. She asked for permission to return to France and a refund of her dowry. Afonso rushed to the convent and demanded admisson, but the gates were not opened. Afonso did not know what to do and returned to Lisbon. On November 23, Pedro (to the right) had his elder brother declared unfit to rule and forced to sign an act of abdication and a testimonial that his marriage had never been consummated. Afonso signed both documents. “Ah, well!” he is said to have remarked, “I don’t doubt that my poor brother will soon regret having been mixed up with this disagreeable French woman as much as I do.
Maria Francisca petitioned the church authorities for the annulment of her marriage on the grounds that it had never been consummated. Afonso was described as “impotentia coeundi et generandi” and evidence of his sexual incapacity was given in minute and intimate detail. Both Afonso and Maria Francisca swore oaths that they had made every possible attempt to consummate the marriage. Further examination of the two spouses, as demanded by canon law, was regarded as superfluous, and the marriage was declared null and void. The Cortes asked the regent not to allow Maria Francisca to return to France “for the necessity of succession”. Within a week of the annulment, Maria Francisca married Pedro and the marriage was a happy one with a daughter born in 1669.

Afonso was at first confined to rooms in the palace at Lisbon, but in 1669 he was taken to the Azores, where he made the life of his attendants as intolerable as his own. In 1672, a plot was discovered trying to restore Afonso to power and to marry him to the Spanish Queen-Mother, Maria Anna of Austria (1635-1696)5. The partisipants of the plot were executed. A fear of more plots caused Pedro to have Afonso transported back to the mainland in 1674, where he spent the last years of his life in close confinement at Sintra (above), where he trod out a path on the stone floor by pacing up and down. He had nothing to do except to grow even fatter. His former wife wrote to her sister: “Sometimes he talks as little as if he were of the other world; and he very nearly went there the other day, for, after getting drunk according to his wont, he fell with his head in a basin of water, where he would certainly have been drowned if someone had not promptly pulled him out; but, though he lives as a brute beast, he lives, and that is sufficient to keep us always axious and explosed to the malice of our enemies.” He had occasional occurences of reason, but his paralysis gradually got worse and he developed dropsy. If he wanted to be moved, fat Afonso had to ly down on the floor, in order that an attendant might roll him out into the passage. One morning in September 1683, Afonso woke up screaming and demanding that mass should be said. He died the same day. His former wife, Queen again, died three months later6.

Copyright © 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


  1   Catherine (1638-1705) married "Merry Monarch" Charles II of Great-Britain (1630-1685).
  2   Louisa de Guzmán was always depicted with a white streak in her hair.
  3   Maria Francisca was a daughter of Charles Amadeus of Savoy (1624-1652), Duke of Nemours, and Elisabeth de Bourbon-Vendôme (1614-1664). She was closely related to the French royal family; her grandfather was César de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, an illegitimate son of King Henry IV of France.
  4   Pedro had great physical strength and liked to twist horse-shoes between his fingers to show how strong he was.
  5   Maria Anna of Austria was the widow of her own uncle, King Philip IV of Spain (1605-1665).
  6   Pedro II remarried Mary Sophia of the Palatine, who bore him sons. Among their descendants were
        - Barbara of Portugal (1711-1758), who married King Ferdinand VI of Spain, and
        - Mad Queen Maria I of Portugal (1734-1816).



Content: Joan Bos. Info: FAQ, Mailing List or RSS Feed.