Magazine article History Today

Marriages Divorced from Reality: Jenifer Roberts Looks at the Series of 18th-Century Weddings Which Led the Portuguese Royal Family into Dynastic Crisis

Magazine article History Today

Marriages Divorced from Reality: Jenifer Roberts Looks at the Series of 18th-Century Weddings Which Led the Portuguese Royal Family into Dynastic Crisis

Article excerpt

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. …

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