The Madness of Queen Maria by Jenifer Roberts

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


I was fortunate to be lent a copy of The Madness of Queen Maria, The remarkable life of Maria I of Portugal, published in 2009 by the Templeton Press. The author is Jenifer Roberts, who also wrote Glass: The Strange History of the Lyne Stephens Fortune, published in 2003, also by the Templeton Press. The Lyne Stephens book was well researched and documented the rise of a family whose fortunes were made at the time of the reconstruction of Lisbon. It was nitty-gritty history, weighty and a very good read. The Madness of Queen Maria is at the other end of the scale. It is personal history seen through the life of the Queen, and it does not rely on first hand evidence to nearly the same degree.


The history of Portugal in the eighteenth century is dominated by the immense fortunes imported from the Brazilian gold fields and the intense religiosity of D João V and his court; halfway through the century occurred the earthquake of 1755 followed by the rise and fall of the Marquês de Pombal. It was Pombal who with methods both authoritarian and cruel tried to drag the country out of its suffocating religiosity and into the late eighteenth century. After his master D José died in February 1777, Pombal was immediately dismissed by the new monarch, D José´s daughter D Maria I. She was the first female monarch of Portugal and was of a religious frame of mind and unfortunately not well educated. Under her influence the country began to slip back again to the priest ridden ways of D João V. It would be true to say that the country essentially drifted without direction whilever she occupied the throne. She had no policies, she employed old and trusted ministers of no great energy (many of whom were so old that they begged without success leave to resign and it seemed they could leave office only by dying) and had no real idea of government. Neither did her consort, D Pedro III, who was also of course her uncle.


One of the ideas I drew from this book was that the Laws of Lamego from the twelfth century decreed that while a woman might succeed to the throne, she might not marry a foreigner. The author quotes as follows: 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. If the king´s daughter marries a foreign prince or noble she shall not be recognized as queen. This law presented D José with a problem since the only Portuguese who was of sufficient rank to marry his heiress was the Duke of Bragança, who was in fact deemed unsuitable because it was feared that male Braganças might try to muscle in on the succession. All difficulties vanished however when the Crown Princess was induced to marry her uncle, D Pedro, who was her father´s brother. He became King Consort and was known as D Pedro III. His hobbies included attending mass and hearing religious music. His inclinations, although dull, perfectly matched those of his niece and spouse, and their marriage was apparently happy.


In a curious historical coincidence, D Maria suffered madness at almost the same time as George III of Great Britain. Her attacks were brought on by the immense dissociation she had in her mind between the old religiosity that she preferred and the competing modernising forces introduced by the Marquês de Pombal. Nor could she bring herself to accept that her own dear father had authorised the cruel despotism of Pombal. D Maria suffered a number of emotional blows quite close together and they completely deranged her sanity. First, to her great grief, D Pedro died in 1786. Second, she was most bitterly affected when her son the Crown Prince died. D José Prince of Brazil was her elder surviving son who had been born in 1761 and he caught smallpox in 1788 and quickly succumbed. The Queen had recently refused an inoculation for him (because it was contrary to the will of God) and so felt personally responsible for his death. Third, when Louis XVI was guillotined in Paris in August 1792, the whole institution of monarchy was grossly affronted, and she took the affront personally. The affront was compounded by the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October 1793.


Soon after the execution of Louis XVI, D Maria sank into a low-spirited state with uneasiness and apprehensions, and it was determined to send for the doctor who had apparently treated with success the mad George III. In the book there is a very short section which covers the treatments of Dr Willis, who prescribed, among other remedies, long and calming sea voyages, but these cures were not approved of, and he did not stay long. Instead, a new confessor was appointed for D Maria. He was the Bishop of the Algarve and he disastrously preached hellfire and damnation. This confessor succeeded in so thoroughly upsetting the Queen that her madness got worse rather than better, and she became completely unhinged. When she arrived in Rio at the beginning of the exile of the royal court to Brazil, she was plainly immensely distressed by the continuous noise of the artillery salutes, and they were curtailed to satisfy her. While the court was in Rio (1808-1822) D Maria never recovered her sanity, and she died in 1816, dutifully mourned by the new monarch, her son D Joao VI. And so it was that this unremarkable woman suitably ended her life at the age of 82, not with the banging of the cannonades which she detested but with a whimper.


There were many precedents for madness in D Maria´s family. Her grandfather, Philip V of Spain (d 1746) and her uncle Ferdinand VI of Spain (d 1759) had both died mad and their symptoms were similar to those inherited by D Maria. It seems that the Braganças, like the Hapsburgs, were destined to carry madness in their genetic make up. Some of her successors were eccentric, but I do not know of any who was thought mad before the fall of the monarchy in 1910.


Although it is possible to feel sorry for this queen so obviously out of her depth, she also brings feelings of frustration at opportunities missed. Yet there were moments of achievement. This book would certainly have been more satisfying to me if there had been an attempt to show something of the legacy of D Maria I, or if the author had shown some acknowledgement of the successes of her reign. She might have mentioned for example the founding of the Academia Real de Ciências de Lisboa (1779), the Real Biblioteca Pública da Corte (1796) and the Casa Pia de Lisboa (1780). These important foundations of course still exist under different names. In 1785 D Maria issued a decree to prevent industrial development in Brazil, and during her reign scientific missions visited many parts of the Empire (Angola, Brazil, Cabo Verde and Mozambique). The author might even have mentioned the hot air balloon, which took a monkey for a flight over Lisbon. D Maria called this monkey Estrela, which was also the name that she chose for the Basilica, which she founded in Lisbon after the birth of her son and heir, and which is today a world famous landmark. I have a minor quibble with the way in which the author dispenses with the customary honorifics Dom and Dona in the book. I found this unnecessary change confusing.


This book is beautifully produced and in it I counted a total of 200 pages. Of the 200, only 134 are necessary for the story. There are 13 pages of appendix, a simple glossary, a list of dramatis personae, a select bibliography and index, plus two useful genealogies (37 pages in total), and there are fifteen colour photographs in the centre of the book. But the overall impression is that it is lightweight and we infer that the reason must be that there is little to say about this Queen. Although born to be Queen, she was not educated or prepared for her duties, and Portugal suffered from the fact that she was a nonentity. This biography shows that D Maria I, far from having a Remarkable Life, was a very uninteresting person, who lived her life in a very uninteresting way.