Friday, August 20, 2010

The Madness of Queen Maria

This book was a real surprise as it is well written and well researched. These are rare qualities for many modern books with royal subjects. Jenifer Roberts is the author of The Madness of Queen Maria, which is subtitled The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal (Templeton:£12.95).

This is a biography of Queen Maria I of Portugal (1734-1836), the first female sovereign of Portugal. She was born at a difficult time in Portuguese history, as the country struggled to move beyond a battle between the Roman Catholic church and the state.

Maria was unsuited to be queen. She was a woman of great contradiction, she was fragile, and eventually succumbed to mental illness. Nor was Maria prepared to be Queen during a time when women did not reign, and were not well-educated. Maria was an overly devout Roman Catholic.

Maria was the eldest of four daughters of King José and Infanta Mariana of Spain. She was "affectionate, timid and shy," and she suffered from "bouts of melancholy and nervous agitation." This is not a surprise if you consider the fact that Maria was a member of a very inbred family. Her religiosity would play a role in Portugal's struggle to move toward reform and secularization. The Marquis de Pombol was in Maria's eyes, her greatest enemy. He sought to modernize Portugal, to lessen the powers of the Roman Catholic church, and, after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, he sought grow and rebuild Portugal's capital.

In 1760, Maria was married to her paternal uncle Pedro. The couple had six children. She succeeded to the throne in 1777. One of her first acts was to dismiss the very popular Marquis de Pombal because of his perceived role in the Tavora affair. The Tavoras were among the most important aristocratic families in Portugal, but de Pombol was determined to destroy the power of these families, which were conjoined by the influence of the Jesuits. Maria's father's mistress was the wife of the head of the Tavora family. In 1858, the king slipped out of the palace to visit the Marquise. Several shots were fired, but the king escaped with minor injuries. Pombol saw the assassination attempt to bring down the Tavoras and other families. Some year earlier, de Pombol had wanted to marry a member of the Tavoras family, but he was seen as too provincial to marry into such an important family. Now was his opportunity to take revenge.
Through his spies and torture the Marquis obtained his evidence, and the entire Tavora family was found guilty of treason. Most were executed.
Maria never forgot, and never forgave.
The Queen's madness was first noticed in 1786, shortly after the death of her husband. Her mental state continued to deteriorate by the time her eldest son died in 1791. A year later, she was declared mentally ill, and her younger son was named as Regent.
In November 1807, the Portuguese Royal Family was forced to flee to Brazil, where Maria died in a convent in 1816.

Jenifer Roberts has written a very competent book that is based on good research. She exhausted official sources in Portugal and in the United Kingdom. A truly impressive work on the life of a very unknown Queen.

The book can be ordered POST FREE from the Book Depository in the UK.

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