Bad Decisions in History: featuring Alfonso VI

I suspect I’ve got something a little more obscure for this month’s Bad Decision in History. At least, it was for me. I hadn’t even heard of Alfonso VI of Portugal, or his more popular brother Prince Pedro, or Alfonso’s wife Princess Maria Francisca of Savoy until I came across their rather scandalous story in a correspondingly rather scandalous book, Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics, by Eleanor Herman. I recommend this book, by the way. Spanning multiple countries as well as centuries, it provides an often witty but well-researched and informative view of queens and princesses in history and their state marriages, exploring the nuances of the political climates as well.

Bad Decision: Constantly acting like an utter buffoon in spite of knowing the entire country prefers one’s charismatic rival as a potential king.

In the summer of 1666, Princess Maria arrived in Portugal for her wedding to King Alfonso VI. When her ship arrived, her husband-to-be was nowhere to be seen. He was sulking in the palace, since he didn’t even want to get married and only agreed to the match because he feared that if he didn’t, his younger brother Pedro would ascend the throne instead.

By the time Maria met Alfonso, she probably wondered if being Queen of Portugal was worth the price of being his wife. By all accounts, Alfonso VI was a ridiculous figure. Afraid of catching cold, he rarely ventured outside, and when he did, he wore half a dozen coats and several hats, perched one on top of the other.

they could tell

As with Joey, people could tell. Especially when Alfonso wore four hats.

He was also immensely obese, and allegedly preferred to be served his meals while lying down in bed, eating and drinking to the point of being sick. Not clever, he had once tried to shoot a comet out of the sky. He had little regard for the well-being of his subjects, and one of his favourite past times was apparently to gallop through the streets with his friends, knocking down hapless pedestrians. He was also rumoured to be impotent, possibly as a result of a near-fatal fever as a child. In order to combat these rumours, he hired prostitutes to tell tales of his bedroom prowess, and found a young girl who resembled him so that he could claim her as his illegitimate daughter. (Later, the girl’s mother swore that Alfonso had tried but been incapable of sleeping with her and her daughter was not his).

young alfonso

Okay, obviously no painter dared to portray an unflattering picture of mentally unstable Alfonso wearing seven coats and four hats. This one of him as a child is the best I could find. It kind of looks like he might poke himself in the eye though.

In contrast, Alfonso’s younger brother Prince Pedro was well-regarded by the people. Gallant and handsome, he seemed a better match for Maria, and indeed, a better candidate for the King of Portugal.  He and Maria became close and visited each other for hours every day.

Due to Alfonso’s impotence, as well as his and Maria’s distaste for each other, the marriage remained unconsummated, and it seems that Maria and Pedro cherished hopes of the marriage being annulled. If Alfonso were deemed incompetent to rule, not a farfetched idea given his erratic behaviour and inability to produce an heir, then Maria and Pedro would likely be able to obtain a papal dispensation to marry and reign instead.

They were not the only ones who wished for this. Alfonso was a cruel and unpredictable enough ruler that an anti-Alfonso faction naturally grew around Maria and Pedro, who was seen as more politically astute and peaceful. Alfonso allowed his favourites to behave however they wished, and his favourites were mostly like him, crude and drunken, sometimes vicious. Allegedly, he routinely brought prostitutes to the royal bedchamber, and in spite of their instructions to spread tales of his sexual prowess, it seemed to be generally well-known within the royal residence that Alfonso mostly watched his favourite courtiers lie with them, unable to fully participate in the act himself.

Maria knew of this, but cared little about her despised husband’s activities. However, when Alfonso began insistently inviting her to his bedchamber in the following spring, nearly a year after the still-unconsummated marriage, she refused. Royal custom dictated that the King should come to the Queen’s chambers, where her ladies would be nearby. Maria knew Alfonso desired an heir, believing it would cement his position as king and decrease Pedro’s credibility as a rival. Possibly fearing that he planned to have one of his favourites sire an heir in his stead, or perhaps just sick of the marriage altogether, she retired to a convent in November of 1667 and announced that she considered the marriage null and void due to nonconsummation. The bishop of Lisbon agreed, and Prince Pedro and his retinue of soldiers prevented Alfonso from forcibly removing Maria from the convent.

maria francisca

Maria Francisca of Savoy. Maybe it’s just a flattering portrait, but she even looks like someone clever who would take matters into her own hands when necessary.

Maria’s dowry, which should have been returned now that the marriage was over, had already been spent, so the councilor’s suggested she marry Pedro instead. Maria and Pedro wed in April of 1668, and Pedro agreed to reign as regent since his brother was still alive. Alfonso was placed in confinement in the Azores. He was not ill-treated, unless one considers providing exceedingly generous portions of food and alcohol as such. Alfonso continued to gain weight and suffered ill-health, including dropsy (the historical term for swelling of the feet and legs). Allegedly, sometimes he preferred to lie down on the floor and have an attendant roll him down the hallway instead of walking. He died of a stroke in 1683, at which point Maria and Pedro officially became Queen and King, although they had been acting as such for fifteen years already. Pedro ruled as Peter II. He and Maria had one child together early in their marriage, but no others. When Maria died shortly after Alfonso, Pedro remarried in order to produce more heirs.

Outcome: Alfonso’s fear of his brother as a rival came true, since he was dethroned and replaced by Pedro as ruler of Portugal. Always somewhat a figure of ridicule, his reputation took a turn for the worse. He died in confinement at the age of forty.

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