Printer Friendly

Marriages divorced from reality: Jenifer Roberts looks at the series of 18th-century weddings which led the Portuguese royal family into dynastic crisis.

Enriched by the gold and diamond mines of Brazil, Lisbon in the early 18th century was one of the richest and most opulent cities in Europe. Every year treasure fleets arrived with cargoes of predous stones and metals, wealth used by King Joao V (r. 1706-50) to enrich the Portuguese church until it equalled the Vatican in pomp and splendour. 'This king's gaieties were religious processions', wrote Voltaire. 'When he took to building, he built monasteries; when he wanted a mistress, he chose a nun.'

Joao was equally extravagant when it came to the marriages of his children. In one of the most glittering occasions in Portuguese history, a double marriage at the Spanish frontier in 1729, his eldest son Jose (known by the title Prince of Brazil) married the Spanish princess, Mariana de Borbon (1718-81), and his daughter Maria Barbara (1711-58) married Mariana's half-brother Fernando, Crown Prince of Spain (1713-59).

Thousands of labourers worked day and night to build a palace at Vendas Novas for royal accommodation on the journey and a pavilion was built over the river Caia (which formed the border between the two countries). The nobility spent fortunes on new clothes and carriages. The British envoy asked for 'a special grant of at least 1,000 [pounds sterling]' (almost 100,000 [pounds sterling] in today's values) to cover the costs of accompanying the court to the frontier in appropriate style. 'Everybody knows', wrote another envoy some 30 years later, 'that the immense cost of clothes and equipage when the double marriage was celebrated at the frontier of Spain depressed the noble families for many years; some have not yet recovered from that wound.'

Joao and his family left Lisbon on January 8th, 1729, travelling in a cavalcade of more than 200 vehicles coaches, barouches, chaises, wagons--accompanied by priests and confessors, hundreds of servants and 2,000 household cavalry. They spent ten days on the journey and on the 19th, to the sound of trumpets and kettle drums, the royal cortege approached the border from the town of Eivas. Meanwhile, on the Spanish side of the river, Felipe V (r. 1700-46) and his entourage approached from Badajoz.

Supported by a stone bridge, the pavilion over the river was 65 feet long, lined with tapestries, crimson damask and gold brocade and divided into three separate areas: an anteroom at each end for the two royal families and a central hall where the exchange of princesses would take place. This arrangement ensured that neither king would set foot in an alien country.

It was bitterly cold in the pavilion and, while the betrothed couples eyed each other intently, the British ambassador in Madrid (who had accompanied the Spanish contingent) observed that the nobles in their fine new clothes were 'almost frozen to death: The 11-year-old Spanish princess wept as she said farewell to her parents; 17-year-old Maria Barbara looked 'pale like death' as she struggled to hold back her tears.

After each princess had been led away into the opposite anteroom, the royal families separated. The Spanish cavalcade returned to Badajoz and the Portuguese to Elvas where, later that night, Jose and his child bride were married in the cathedral.

Mariana reached puberty in 1732. Jose joined her in the marriage bed and his first child was born in December 1734, a daughter named Maria (d. 1816). During the next 15 years the marriage produced three more daughters, but no sons, and when Jose succeeded to the throne in 1750 (as Jose I) his eldest daughter became crown princess with the hereditary title of Princess of Brazil.

In November 1755 Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake which destroyed thousands of buildings, including the royal palace. Five years later the city was still in ruins when Jose arranged the marriage of his eldest daughter. Maria was 25 years old, a late age for a princess in the marriage market, but this was the first time a woman was heir to the throne of Portugal. As the British envoy explained: 'The succession is a most tender point and attended with circumstances of equal difficulty and importance.'

Under the fundamental laws of the country (the 12th-century Laws of Lamego) Maria was forbidden to marry a foreign prince:

If the king have no male issue and have a daughter, she shall be queen after the death of the king provided that she marry a Portuguese nobleman. The law shall always be observed that the eldest daughter of the king shall have no other husband than a Portuguese lord in order that foreign princes may not become masters of the kingdom.

Despite this law there had been several half-hearted attempts to arrange a betrothal with a foreign prince, including the Duke of Cumberland (third son of George II). These came to nothing, as did an early attraction between Maria and her father's first cousin. The law about the marriage of a crown princess had never been tested and it was feared that, if Maria married into the Portuguese aristocracy, the succession would be disputed by male members of the Braganca family.


Maria's grandfather, Joao V, had proposed a solution as early as 1749. He suggested that she marry her uncle Pedro (1717-86), her father's younger brother, bur Mariana opposed the idea. Pedro was 'suspected to have great sway over his brother' and, fearing that he was ambitious for power, she brought Jose round to her point of view. At the same rime Pedro's enemies spread rumours that he was impotent, that he suffered from 'some natural defect which will not allow him to become the Princess of Brazil's husband and will oblige him, in all likelihood, to enter into holy orders'.

But Pedro was harmless enough and soon lost his more youthful ambition. The rumours of impotence died away, people continued to talk of the marriage (in 1754 it was 'impatiently expected by people of all ranks') and Jose and Mariana changed their minds.

On the morning of June 6th, 1760 the British envoy attended an audience in honour of the king's birthday:

Which happened upon so extraordinary a day, when the court was so agreeably surprised with a most welcome declaration of his Majesty's intentions, that a marriage should be that evening celebrated between his brother, the Infante Dom Pedro, and his daughter, the Princess of Brazil. I need not mention how long and how ardently the nobility, the whole people of this kingdom, have sighed for this interesting event, or the great and universal joy with which the almost unexpected accomplishment of their wishes was received.



It was a remarkably austere wedding by royal standards, celebrated privately in the chapel of a wooden palace built after the earthquake in the suburb of Belem. Five years after the losses sustained in the disaster Jose was ensuring that 'the nobility and gentry are put to no expense'. He was aware of the cost of his own marriage and now, 'through his Majesty's paternal attention, things have been so managed that there will not be so much as the additional expense of a suit of clothes:

During the next 16 years Maria conceived eight children, three of whom survived to adulthood: Jose, Joao and Mariana. She inherited the throne (as Maria I) in February 1777, her father scribbling a note before he died to express his 'great desire' that his elder grandson Jose be married immediately to his youngest daughter Benedita.

This second incestuous marriage--between aunt and nephew--was intended to keep the succession safely in the Braganca family. Papal dispensation had been obtained in 1775, but the ceremony was delayed, partly because the bridegroom had not reached puberty, partly because the king was unwell. He hoped his health would improve so that he could play his part in another glittering occasion with due pomp and magnificence. Now, with just days to live, he wanted the marriage solemnised before his death.

Too late for a display of royal wealth, it was another austere wedding in the chapel at Belem. Prince Jose was 15 years old, his body still changing from boy to man; his bride was 30, full-bosomed and stout. Only the immediate family attended the ceremony on February 21st, after which they made their way to the king's bedchamber, knelt to kiss his hand, and 'retired very much affected.'

Jose I died three days later. In October 1777 the dowager queen returned to Spain to visit her brother, Carlos III, where she negotiated the betrothals of two of her grandchildren to members of her brother's family. Maria's daughter, Mariana, was pledged to Gabriel de Borbon, Carlos' fourth and favourite son; Maria's second son, Joao, to Carlota Joaquina, daughter of Carlos' eldest son.

Negotiations were completed by the time Joao celebrated his 17th birthday in May 1784; during the next ten months special couriers travelled between the two courts with last-minute adjustments of detail. It was customary in royal marriages for the ambassador of the bridegroom's country to make a formal demand for the bride. The Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors were to make their demands in Lisbon and Madrid on Match 27th, 1785, the marriages to be celebrated by proxy the following day, but Joao fell ill with measles a few days before the demand for his sister, so the proceedings in Lisbon were delayed.

On April 2nd news arrived in Lisbon of the proxy marriage between Joao and Carlota in Spain. Joao was now feeling better and the demand for his sister took place during the afternoon of April 11th. The following day there was a marriage by proxy, an entire wedding ceremony 'conducted with all due pomp and magnificence' in the chapel at Belem. Maria gave her daughter away, Pedro stood proxy for Gabriel and, when the formalities were over, the Spanish ambassador made his way to Mariana's apartment and gave her a likeness of her future husband. It was the first time she had seen his face.

That evening there were fireworks and concerts and the whole of Lisbon was in gala. This was another extravagant marriage and the British envoy was amazed at the cost:

When I consider the very great quantity of clothes and laces and everything belonging to the toilet, of the finest and of the greatest magnificence, as well as several new carriages, and also the presents that are to be made to the same extent and in as great a number as those to be given by the king of Spain, I am entirely lost in the excess of expense that will accompany the completion of these marriages.

This time the exchange of princesses took place at Vila Vicosa, a palace dose to the Spanish border. Maria and her family set out on the three-day journey on April 22nd, travelling in 'five four-wheeled carriages accompanied by a numerous and splendid train of courtiers'. The first night on the road was spent in Vendas Novas, the palace built by Joao V for the double marriage of 1729, the second in the bishop's palace at Evora.

The Spanish princess, Carlota Joaquina, celebrated her tenth birthday in Aranjuez on April 25th. Thirteen days later her cortege descended into the valley from Badajoz, crossed the Caia and travelled on to Vila Vicosa. Maria and Pedro were waiting inside the palace and, as Carlota made her entrance, they were surprised and disturbed by what they saw. For Carlota was not only a child, she was extremely small for her age and unattractive in appearance, with frizzy hair and ungainly features. That evening Maria wrote a disingenuous letter to Madrid, informing Carlos III 'of the safe arrival of our beloved Carlota, who is so pretty and lively and grown-up for her age'.

The Spanish retinue stayed in Vila Vicosa for four days, after which it accompanied Maria's 16-year-old daughter across the border into Spain. Mariana left the palace on the morning of May 12th. Later that day the family mounted their horses, but galloping after deer in the hunting park did little to take their minds off their loss. 'As soon as we reached the first thicket', Joao wrote to his sister that night, 'there was a great storm which crowned this sad and bitter day, a day when I passed not a single moment without tears in my eyes.'


The people of Lisbon were unimpressed by Carlota when the family returned to the city. The marriage of Jose and Benedita was childless, so the future of the monarchy depended on the fertility of this tiny child, who appeared to have stunted growth. They made the comment that, in the exchange of princesses, they had given away a grown fish in exchange for a sardine.

Joao and Carlota were married in person in the chapel at Belem on June 9th. During the ceremony the bride turned her head and bit her husband on the ear. It was a portent of things to come. During the next seven years Maria would lose her husband, her elder son and her senses; and in 1807 the royal family would sail into exile in Brazil. The double marriage of 1785 can be seen as the final flourish of absolute monarchy, before the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon brought the Braganca dynasty to the brink of ruin.

Jenifer Roberts is the author of The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal (Templeton Press, 2009). For more articles on this subject visit
COPYRIGHT 2011 History Today Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Royal Weddings
Author:Roberts, Jenifer
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Apr 1, 2011
Previous Article:England's Ruritania: as the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton approaches Michael Bloch tells the story of one of the more unusual...
Next Article:Reflections of empire: glittering monument to Britain's colonial achievement or fragile symbol of a fragmenting imperial dream? Jan Piggott charts...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters