Within a royal family that has been dominated by inbreeding and madness for centuries, Maria I of Portugal (1734-1816) was the first and maddest Queen regnant. When her loved ones died one after the other, she began suffering from delusions. The most agonising shrieks echoed through the palace corridors..

Maria was born on December 17, 1734, as Maria Francisca Isabel Josefa Antónia Gertrudes Rita Joana, daughter of Joseph I of Portugal (1714-1777) and Mariana of Spain (1718-1781). Many of her relatives suffered from religious mania and melancholia. Maria's maternal grandfather was Philip V of Spain (1683-1746), who was periodically afflicted by fits of manic depression, sometimes lethargic, at others passionate and excitable. In his more lucid periods he was driven by two obsessions: sex and religion, and as a result, torn between desire and guilt. Maria's paternal grandfather, João V of Portugal (1689-1750, to the right), was also highly sexed and religious, choosing nuns to be his mistresses1. From 1742 onwards, João V suffered several strokes, paralysing the left side of his body. Gradually, he, too, sank into a deep melancholia. Near the end of his life João V had left the government in the hands of incompetent advisors, mostly churchmen. After his death Maria's irresolute father, Joseph I, busied himself with hunting and playing cards, while Portugal was governed by Sebastiao José de Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782), who received the title of Marquis of Pombal in 1770. Despite his enlightened reform, Pombal's reign was a reign of terror, arousing social discontent. Portugal's prisons were soon crowded with noblemen and priests.

Maria and her sisters Maria Ana (1736-1813) and Dorothea (1739-1771) grew up together at court. Maria’s mother had several miscarriages before the birth of the youngest sister, Benedita, in 1746. The royal family often travelled from one palace to another, and their furniture and furnishings travelled with them, including their beds, bedding, and even glassware. Maria's father was font of music, and royal singers and musicians travelled with the royal family to the country palaces. The King really loved his daughters and enjoyed playing with them and taking them on walks. The palace of Belém had an indoor riding school, where Maria learned to ride horses. She studied French and read Latin, and she was taught to draw and paint by the best artists in the country. She and her sisters were proficient on different instruments, and also studied singing. In addition, Mary studied religion and theology.
In her youth, Maria already spent long hours at her devotions, enthralled by the ritual. Attending morning mass and evening prayers at the palace chapel, she also joined in the festivities of the many saint’s days and other religious festivals, like the celebration of the salvation of converts. She used to kiss the names of God, Mary, and all saints and angles in any book she opened. Saintly dolls of all sorts and sizes were scattered around her bedroom. At times, Maria longed to enter a convent. Her faith was strengthened further in the summer of 1753, when she nearly died of a “violent inflammatory fever”. She was bled six times, and a wooden statue of Jesus, believed to have miraculous powers, was placed in her bedroom. Early next morning, some of the worst symptoms began to remit, and, gradually, Maria regained her strength. She became tall and slender with sharp features and a warm smile. She was kind and affectionate, timid and shy. In her teens, Maria already suffered from bouts of melancholy and nervous agitation.

An earthquake, followed by a tidal wave, hit Lisbon in 1755 and 30,000 people were killed. Although the Royal family was in Belém at the time of the earthquake, for a long time Joseph I refused to enter any of his surviving palaces, preferring to live in a tent. One evening in September 1758 Joseph returned to Belém2, when his coachmen, finding a gate jammed, took a side road. Suddenly, three mounted men appeared under the darkness of an arch and fired several shots at the Royal carriage. The King was hit, and ordered his coachman to drive straight to his surgeon at Junqueira, thus avoiding a second ambush. Joseph was treated for bullet-wounds in his arm, shoulder and chest. Rumours circulated that he had been ambushed by the Távora family. The Marquis of Távora was an enemy of Pombal and his daughter-in-law was one of Joseph's mistresses. Nothing more was heard of the affair until December, when the Távoras, the Duke of Aveiro, a few other nobles and a number of jesuits were arrested. Confessions were produced under torture and later retracted, but the Marquis and his second son withstood the torture and revealed nothing. On a public scaffold the elder Marchioness of Távora and her two sons were beheaded. The old Marquis and the Duke of Aveiro had their bones broken and the whole scaffold was set alight. Thus Pombal removed all resistance to his rule, while the King remained passive and idle.

As Maria grew up, marriages were proposed to much elder men, like a Britisch Prince, one of her Spanish uncles3, or her Portuguese uncle, Pedro (1717-1786), but nothing came of it. Maria was already in her twenties, when talk of a marriage to Pedro resurfaced. Finally, on June 6, 1760, at age of 25, Maria married her 42-year-old uncle Pedro. Despite the age difference, their marriage was quite happy. The couple was very pious and visited several masses every day.
Pedro had inherited the palace of Queluz, but he had it torn down and started constructing a pink miniature Versailles, which wasn't completed until 1794. There, the couple lived and brought up their children. Their first child, Joseph (1761-1788), was born shortly before midnight on August 20, 1761, in a room filled with priests, secretaries of state, courtiers and attendants. The birth of an heir was celebrated with cannon-fire and illuminations. Maria attended a bullfight in honor of her newborn son on September 24. The next year, in October, she miscarried in the sixth month of her pregnancy. The following September, Maria gave birth to a Prince, who lived for just 3 weeks. Two healthy children followed: João (1767-1826) and Mariana (1768-1788). Two more daughters, born in 1774 and 1776, died young. Pombal arranged that his adherents educated Maria's eldest son, because he knew Maria was opposed to his policy.
In 1776, Joseph suffered from a stroke that deprived him of speech and his wife assumed the regency. Before his death in February 1777, he married Maria's eldest son, 16-year-old Joseph, to Maria's youngest sister, 30-year-old Benedita (1746-1829). Mercifully, this incestuous marriage remained barren.

At Maria's accession, her husband-uncle Pedro III (to the right) was given the title 'King', coins were struck in their joint names and all acts and deeds mentioned them both, but the Queen was the real sovereign and her uncle-husband only her consort. Maria dismissed Pombal, amnestied his political prisoners, including the surviving Távoras4, and recalled all exiles except the Jesuits. Maria's rule soon calmed the discontent among the nobility, but her conscience was sorely tried. She found it difficult to undo things that were done in her father's name, but she also thought her father's soul might be suffering eternal torment for having permitted Pombal to persecute Christ's representatives on earth. Once, in 1780, Maria scratched out her signature exclaiming that she was "condemned to very hell". She was carried off to her apartments in a state of delirium. By 1786, the Queen's behaviour had become increasingly odd.

Pedro was chiefly concerned with prayers and masses. A contemporary noted that Pedro talked much about goodness and justice, but that he had no knowledge of mankind or business and that he was easily governed by those immediately around him, especially if they belonged to the church. Apparently, he was also unable to read or write. Still, Maria and Pedro were deeply devoted to each other, and Maria suffered intense grief at his sudden death on May 25, 1786, after a 12-day illness. On the evening of the 27th Maria kissed her husband's hand for the last time before the coffin left the palace. Royal festivities were banned, and state receptions resembled religious ceremonies. Their pregnant daughter Mariana wasn't told about her father's illness and death until several weeks after she had given birth to a son.
Two years later, Maria's eldest son, Joseph, who had married his aunt Benedita, died childless of smallpox5. Within two months, Maria's only surviving daughter Mariana had died, too, a few days after giving birth. In the same year Maria's confessor and chief minister had both died, too.

Maria (to the right) had always shown a tendency toward religious mania. When her loved ones died one after another, she retreated into uncontrollable grief and melancholia. She was afflicted by stomach pains, depression, fever and insomnia. The melancholy fits and recurring nightmares increased. Reports of the revolution in France further disturbed her. The Queen's courtiers, who had been rotting for years in prison, were vengeance-obsessed and often half-crazed, and their presence did not much to enlighten the atmosphere at court.
Around 1790, Maria sank into a state of permanent melancholia. The English author William Beckford visited the pink palace and reported: "Queen Maria, fancying herself damned for all eternity, therefore on the strength of its being all over her, eats barley and oyster stew Fridays and Saturdays and indulges in conversations of a rather unchaste nature." She fancied she saw her father's image "in colour black and horrible, erected on a pedestal of molten iron, which a crowd of ghastly phantoms were dragging down.".

In 1792, the ministers concluded that their Queen was mad and turned to her only surviving son, the amiable João, with the request to "assume the direction of public affairs". In the meantime, they summoned Dr. Francis Willis, who had treated George III of Great Britain, to come to Portugal in order to treat the Queen. At first Maria seemed to show some signs of improvement, but they did not continue for long. Soon, she took a turn for the worse. Willis left Portugal in 1793 without realising any improvement in her condition.
In 1795, a fire destroyed the Ajuda Palace and the whole court moved to Queluz. There, Maria often lay all day behind closed shutters, her quarters resounding with her demented cries. At times, she ran about the palace corridors pitifully wailing "Ai Jesus!" in a state of delirium. Beckford wrote: "The most agonising shrieks - shrieks such as I hardly conceived possible - inflicted on me a sensation of horror such as I had never felt before. The Queen, herself, whose apartment was only two doors off from the chambers where we were sitting, uttered those dreadful sounds, "Ai Jesus. Ai Jesus!" did she exclaim again and again in the utterances of agony."

In 1799, good-natured João was officially named Prince Regent. He was a clumsily built, lethargic and awkward youth, who had never been known to loose his temper, and yawned at parties. João always carried in his pocket 2 small boxes, one containing snuff and the other grilled chicken's legs to gnaw at idle moments. He had already fathered 4 children with his young bride, the Spanish Carlota Joaquina, who was known as "the ugliest royal ever" with bloodshot eyes, a hooked noose, bluish lips, uneven teeth and "unruly and dirty hair" - even on her hands. She stood hardly more than 4 feet, 6 inches in height.

Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807 and the Royal family fled, carrying the Royal gold, state papers and art treasures with them. The convoy of coaches and mule carts was accompanied by shierks of "Ai Jesus!". On November 29th, a wind sprang up from the east and the ships finally sailed off. When the French entered Lissabon, they were still in sight of the shore. Heavy storms raged for several days, shattering the convoy, and the entire court suffered from seasickness. The mad Queen, however, seemed to benefit from the sea air.
The ship landed in Bahia, Brazil, on January 22, but it was not until March 7, that the Royal Family entered Rio de Janairo. The Brazilians welcomed the Braganças warmly, but Maria was terrified of the natives prancing around her chair. She screamed that she was in hell with devils pursuing her. Afterwards, the Royal family settled in a rich planter's estate near Rio the Janero, where Maria was confined to an old convent of the Carmelites. She suffered from dysentery and fever, and oedema in her hands and feet. Every day the mad Queen was taken around in a wheelchair. For the last 2 months of her life, Maria was confined to bed. Every day, when her son, João, came to visit her, she screamed: "I don't want to see anyone! I want to die!" She fianlly died on March 20, 1816. Her only surviving child became King João VI.

Copyright © 1997-2011 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.



1 João V's favourite convent was the nunnery of Odivelas, where he kept an apartment lined with carpets and mirrors. Two of his many bastards were conceived there.
2 Joseph I was returning from an evening with his favourite mistress, Teresa Leonor, wife of Luis Bernardo, heir of the Távora family. See also: The Tavora Affair.
3 The British Prince was William Augustus (1721-1765), Duke of Cumberland, who was to remain a bachelor.
The Spanish Infante was Luis (1727-1785) resigned his ecclesiastical dignities in 1754, but remained a bachelor until 1776.
4 The remaining Távoras refused to leave prison until their innocence was proclaimed.
5 Maria had refused to have him vaccinated.


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