Something About Maria

Welcome back friends! We’ve missed you here at Uneasy Lies the Crown. Summer vacation is over and we are back and ready to dive right into our newest royal mystery. This month we are headed to…drum roll please…Portugal! And…..Brazil! 

Our story starts in Portugal in December of 1734. Maria de Braganaca was born in Lisbon to Mariana Victoria (daughter of King Philip V of Spain) and Joseph (the future King Joseph I of Portugal). Unlike the majority of the monarchies that we have studied, Portugal actually didn’t have a law that prevented women from inheriting the throne and so as the oldest of four sisters, Maria was her father’s legal heir. As a child, she was known for her religious piety and constantly feared for the state of not only her own soul, but the souls of those around her. She feared in particular for the fate of her father, who, as we will explore later in this series, may have inadvertently passed his own demons to his daughter and future heir. 

Shook Me All Night Long

One of the most significant events of Maria’s early years was also one of the most significant in Portugal’s history. On November 1, 1755, the people of Lisbon, Portugal were enjoying a nice church holiday – All Saints Day. What they didn’t know is that a catastrophic event was about to change their lives and their city forever. That event was a devastating earthquake which leveled the city, triggering multiple tsunamis and deadly fires. The earthquake and its aftermath killed between 30,000 and 50,000 people (I know that’s a significant discrepancy but it was a long time ago, so the takeaway is that a lot of people died). To the relief of the royal family, they had left Lisbon that same morning for one of their other residences, and narrowly escaped the same tragic fate of their subjects. Maria herself was 20 years old at the time, impressionable and devoted to her religion. Like many people in the church, she viewed the earthquake as a punishment from God for the peoples’ sins. This belief in punitive divine intervention grew throughout Maria’s life and was manipulated by those around her to exacerbate her fears during her most vulnerable years. 

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake brought chaos and destruction to Portugal’s capital.

We Are Family

As the heir to the throne, it was imperative that a suitable husband was found for Maria, and Portuguese law greatly restricted the princess’s ability to marry outside of the Portueguese aristocracy. This is probably one of the reasons that Maria wasn’t married until the age of 25, an old age to still be single in those days (can’t even imagine what they would think of my current relationship status). Finally, a suitable match was found for the future queen, and I just have to say that Portugal and I have very different definitions of “suitable”, because Maria’s husband-to-be was her father’s brother, Pedro. As in, her uncle. Yea, I would rather be single, thanks. When Maria eventually took the throne, Pedro took the title Peter III as king consort, the “consort” part being significant because it meant that he was not the King of Portugal in his own right, nor did he have any authority as king. Think England’s Queen Elizabeth and her late husband Prince Philip, as he was never given the title or authority of king.

Is it just me or do they even look like they are related?…

Despite the creepy origins of their relationship, Maria and Pedro seemed to have a strong and productive marriage. In 1761, Maria gave birth to her first son, Jose. Over the next 15 years gave birth to seven children in total, although only two boys and a girl survived past the age of two. Maria was in her 40s when her last child was born, an impressive feat in any time period, but sadly the child died after only a month. Nevertheless, she had done her duty and produced an “heir and a spare” as they say. And as we will see, her younger son Joao would have a significant role in Portuguese history.

Public Enemy #1

Any royal story is not complete without the addition of a villain who got a little too big for his britches. This story’s villain, at least as he was viewed by our protagonist Maria, was Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, or the Marquis de Pombal (“Pombal” for short)  as he is known to history. Pombal had spent years working his way up through government positions but his big break came when he became a minister to Maria’s father Joseph. He was key in rebuilding Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake, and his power and influence only grew from there. For the span of King Joseph’s 27 year reign, Pombal seemingly held the reins and called the shots when it came to government reforms. Maria genuinely disliked the Marquis, due largely to the fact that much of the stress and anxiety she experienced in her younger years were results of Pombal’s continuous clashes with the Catholic Church. Pombal spearheaded a campaign to banish all Jesuit priests from court, including those who were near and dear to Maria’s heart. Following a failed assassination attempt on King Joseph, Pombal took advantage of the opportunity and pinned the crime on a group of innocent Jesuit nobles and priests – people that Maria knew and cared for. The group was executed, and it was something that haunted Maria for the rest of her life. Those around her could tell the terrible toll it had taken on the princess as “writers of the time refer to Maria’s expression of melancholy and it was public knowledge that her mind was deeply impressed with the tragic catastrophe” (Entertaining the Braganzas). To make matters worse, Maria was not sure how much of the decision making had been her own father’s and how much was the puppet master Pombal. Either way, the Marquis had made an enemy out of the future queen, and his fall from power was mighty indeed when King Joseph died in 1777.

The Marquis de Pombal pointing to the city he helped rebuild in the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake.

When Maria ascended to the throne, one of her first acts as Queen was to remove Pombal from his seat of power and surround herself with people she actually trusted. This included her mother, Mariana, who was a powerful and influential woman in her own right. It also included her husband Pedro, who was now officially the “king consort”. With the exception of a case of measles mere months into the beginning of Maria’s reign, her first three years wearing the crown went well. But in 1780, both her mother and her husband fell ill, instigating Maria’s first breakdown – an episode of “delirium” that would give an unfortunate sneak preview into the latter half of her life.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The year of 1786 brought tragedy after tragedy to Maria – loss that would have affected even the strongest of minds. In May, Maria’s husband Pedro passed away, and four months later their beloved oldest son Jose died of smallpox. As if that wasn’t enough, her daughter Mariana died of the same disease a few months later. Mariana had just given birth to a son and Maria’s newborn grandson succumbed to smallpox as well when he was less than a week old. It was a devastating series of events that also included the death of Maria’s son-in-law (Mariana’s husband) and Mariana’s father-in-law King Charles III of Spain. In a final crushing blow, Queen Maria’s trusted confessor whom she had relied on for decades also passed away. 

Not surprising in the least, Maria fell into a deep depression. By 1791, things had not improved, and it was at this point that Maria’s troubles began to interfere with her execution of duties as queen. In February of 1792, Maria was attending the opera when with seemingly no warning, Maria became so severely agitated that she had to eventually be carried out of the opera house as she screamed and yelled. It must have been a startling sight for those in attendance to see their beloved queen in such distress. And her condition only worsened from there. For weeks Maria experienced shocking physical and emotional fluctuations – extreme excitability, refusal to eat, refusal to take medicine or listen to music, fatigue, inability to sleep and incoherent speech. Maria’s doctors were desperate for answers and so they looked for help outside of Portugal.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

If you are an avid follower of ULTC (we love you), then you will remember our friend King George III of England, who suffered from what Riley theorizes was either porphyria or bipolar disorder. George sat on the English throne at the same time that Maria wore the Portuguese crown, and Maria’s doctors were aware of the apparent “success” that George’s physician had experienced while treating him. And so they made a desperate plea and paid an enormous sum (1 million pounds in today’s currency) for George III’s doctor, Francis Willis, to travel to Portugal and work his same magic on Queen Maria. But if Dr. Willis thought George was a formidable patient, then he was probably not prepared for Maria. And unfortunately for the queen, the British doctor turned to his usual playbook of “cures” for madness. This included “the straitjacket, coercion, blistering, and ice baths” (Portugal’s Mad Queen). It was enough to drive any sane person to the brink and Maria withstood it all as she insisted that her issues were punishments from God as opposed to some unidentified illness. Whatever it was that afflicted Maria, for those of us who are looking back on Francis Willis and his treatments, it is obvious that his time in Portugal was not going to improve Maria’s condition. He eventually left England, unsuccessful in his quest to cure Maria.

This was the type of treatment Maria would have received. Wow, can’t imagine why it didn’t work!!

The Reluctant Replacement

The reality of Maria’s condition began to set in and it was clear that her time as a true reigning queen was coming to an end. But as long as she was alive, the title was rightfully hers, meaning that it was time to turn to our trusty friend – the regency. As we’ve seen throughout the many stories we have covered at ULTC, when an opportunity for a regency presented itself, people close to the monarch chomped at the bit for a chance to sit on the symbolic throne. In Portugal’s case, the logical choice for regent was Maria’s oldest son Joao (also referred to as John), who was 25. But unlike many who were offered the opportunity, Joao was not keen on being named his mother’s official regent. Although he refused to carry the title “regent” for many years, Joao began stepping in officially for Maria in 1792. It was a hell of a time to have to step up. France was in the throes of the Revolution that would end its monarchy forever – and its European neighbors would not be able to escape the consequences. As France’s new emperor Napoleon Bonaparte went to war with England, Portugal suddenly found itself as the little guy stuck in the middle. And soon Joao and the Portugeuse royal family would receive an ultimatum that would change the future of more than one country.

Queen Maria was born and raised in Portugal, but it would not be where she would die. How did it happen that at the age of 74, Maria found herself across the Atlantic in the foreign world of Brazil? That’s a secret I’ll never tell. XOXO, Gossi…..just kidding, see you back in a couple of weeks!


“Earthquake Takes Heavy Toll on Lisbon.”, A&E Television Networks, 13 Nov. 2009,

Jenifer Roberts | Published in History Today Volume 57 Issue 12 December 2007. “Portugal’s Mad Queen.” History Today,

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755,

Peters, Timothy J, and Clive Willis. “Mental Health Issues of Maria I of Portugal and HER Sisters: The Contributions of the Willis Family to the Development of Psychiatry.” History of Psychiatry, vol. 24, no. 3, 2013, pp. 292–307., doi:10.1177/0957154×13482832.

Roberts, Jenifer. Entertaining the Braganzas. Pen & Sword History, 2019.

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