Maria I

Portrait of Maria I, c. 1760-1780. Image Credit: Carlos Mota/WikiCommons.

By Holly Marsden

Queen Maria I was born on 17th December 1734 in Lisbon, Portugal, baptised Maria Francisca Isabel Josefa Antónia Gertrudes Rita Joana. She married Pedro in 1670, later given the title King Pedro III when consort, who was her paternal uncle and seventeen years her senior. Maria ascended to the Portuguese throne in 1777 after the death of her father, José of Braganza, and became known as ‘Maria e Piedosa’ or ‘Maria the Pious’ due to her devout Catholicism. Under her reign, Lisbon’s Academy of Science and Royal Orphanage were founded and Maria continued educational reform that has been instated by her father. Her rule also saw the rise of a mercantile upper-middle class and business and trade prospered. Maria was Portugal’s first queen regnant and, although Pedro was dubbed ‘King,’ she maintained sole power.

Unfortunately, Maria’s achievements as queen have been less documented than her ill health. The first account of Maria suffering from mental illness notes an episode of delirium in 1781. A great deal of loss both preceded and followed this illness. Particularly, the death of her husband in 1786 and of her eldest son Joseph and her confessor Brother Inácio both in 1788. News of the 1789 French Revolution further exacerbated her deteriorating mental state, and Maria suffered a mental collapse in 1792. She was treated by George the III of England’s doctor, Dr Francis Willis, for her depressive symptoms, bouts of religious mania and cardiovascular problems but was ultimately deemed unfit for rule. Rule was given to Maria’s second-born son, prince João. Although he governed from 1792, João was officially named prince regent in 1799.

Napoleon’s Army invaded Portugal in 1808 and under British encouragement the House of Braganza fled to Brazil, then a colony of Portugal. Maria became Maria I of Brazil and Portugal, reinstating the court in in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, Maria became known as ‘Maria a Louca’ or ‘Maria the Mad’ which unfortunately responded to her worsening mental and physical health. Staying in Brazil even after Napoleon’s armies were defeated in 1815, Maria became queen of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves when the country was given kingdom status in the same year. In March 1816 Maria I died of cardiovascular symptoms, at the age of 82.

Multi-nicknamed Queen Maria has since been defined by her ‘madness’ and ‘religious mania,’ and her achievements have been largely forgotten. However, Maria’s legacy continues to be celebrated in Portugal and Brazil and her story provides an insight into the way mental health was viewed and treated in the eighteenth century.

Recommended Reading

Clive Willis and Timothy J. Peters, “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 24.3 (2013): 292-307

David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal, third edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

James Maxwell Anderson, History of Portugal (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Incorporated, 2000). Accessed January 20, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central

Jennifer Roberts, The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2009).


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