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Portugal’s Mad Queen

In the late 18th century, a French invasion force marched into Portugal. Napoleon was insisting that Portugal must close its ports to British shipping. When it failed to comply, the invading army was given orders to march on Lisbon and seize the royal family. The Queen and her family fled to Brazil, and by this time, Maria I of Portugal had been insane for more than fifteen years. 

On December 17th, 1788, Queen Maria I held an official audience to celebrate her fifty-fourth birthday. The occasion took place in the palace of Ajuda in Lisbon and the British envoy, Robert Walpole, wrote that the widowed Queen ‘exhibited a considerable degree of affliction’.

Maria had suffered a string of tragedies over the previous three months. Her elder son, José, died of smallpox on September 11th. Her only daughter, Mariana (who had married into the Spanish royal family), died of the same disease on  November 2nd, followed by Mariana’s husband and newborn son. And on November 29th, Inácio de São Caetano – Maria’s confessor for more than thirty years, the man on whom she placed her entire trust and confidence – died of a massive stroke in the palace of Queluz.

Despite her grief, the Queen went through the birthday formalities with her usual grace. She engaged Robert Walpole in conversation and they spoke of the mental health of George III who was suffering his first attack of dementia, a symptom of porphyria which the doctors mistook for madness. The illness had first appeared six weeks earlier and George was in the care of Dr Francis Willis (1718-1807), who specialized in treatment of the insane. During her conversation with Walpole, Maria ‘expressed concern for His Majesty’ and asked him to pass on ‘her sincere wishes for a speedy re-establishment of his health’.

This was a poignant request, for Maria herself was on the cusp of insanity. Her maternal grandfather, Philip V of Spain (1683-1746), and her uncle, Ferdinand VI (1713-59), both suffered from mental illness and both were completely mad by the end of their lives. There are many parallels between their symptoms and Maria’s illness which began to appear at about this time.

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