Maria I (December 17, 1734 – March 20, 1816) was Queen of Portugal from February 24, 1777 until her death in 1816. Known as Maria the Pious in Portugal and Maria the Mad in Brazil, she was the first undisputed Queen Regnant of Portugal and the first monarch of Brazil.
Maria was the eldest daughter of King José I of Portugal and Infanta Mariana Victoria of Spain, the eldest daughter of King Felipe V of Spain and Queen Elisabeth Farnese.
King João V appointed his granddaughter Maria as the Princess of Beira on the day of her birth.
Maria’s grandfather João V died on July 3, 1750. Her father, Prince José, then succeeded to the throne as King José I. As José’s eldest child, Maria became his heir presumptive and was given the traditional titles of Princess of Brazil and Duchess of Braganza.
On June 6, 1760 Maria married her uncle Pedro of Portugal. Maria and Pedro had six children: José, João Francisco, João (later King João VI), Mariana Vitória, Maria Clementina, and Maria Isabel. Only José, João, and Mariana Vitória survived to adulthood. Maria also delivered a stillborn boy in 1762.
King José died on February 24, 1777. His daughter, Maria, then became the first undisputed queen regnant of Portugal. With Maria’s accession, her husband became nominal king as Pedro III, but the actual regal authority was vested solely in Maria, as she was the lineal heir of the crown. Also, as Pedro’s kingship was jure uxoris only, his reign would cease in the event of Maria’s death, and the crown would pass to Maria’s descendants.
Upon ascending the throne, Maria dismissed her father’s powerful chief minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, who had broken the power of the reactionary aristocracy via the Távora affair, partially because of his Enlightenment, anti-Jesuit policies. Noteworthy events of this period include Portugal’s membership in the League of Armed Neutrality (July 1782) and the 1781 cession of Delagoa Bay from Austria to Portugal. However, the queen suffered from religious mania and melancholia and this would take a toll on her health.
The early part of Maria’s reign witnessed growth in Portugal’s economy. Maria had a number of national buildings constructed and renovated, leading to the completion of the Palace of Queluz and the inauguration of the Palace of Ajuda and other new monuments. The death of her husband in 1786, followed by the deaths in 1788 of her eldest son José and her confessor Inácio de São Caetano, caused the queen to develop clinical depression. Her second son, João, then served as prince regent.
In February 1792, Maria was deemed mentally insane and was treated by Francis Willis, the same physician who attended the British king George III. Willis wanted to take her to England, but the plan was refused by the Portuguese court. Potentially as a result of Willis’ more advisory role in Maria’s care, rather than the hands-on care of King George III, Willis deemed the queen incurable. Maria’s second son, João, now Prince of Brazil, took over the government in her name, even though he only took the title of Prince Regent in 1799. When the Real Barraca de Ajuda burnt down in 1794, the court was forced to move to Queluz, where the ill queen would lie in her apartments all day. Another potential cause of her mental illness was her incestuous ancestry, this is substantiated by two of her sisters who had similar conditions.
With Napoleon’s European conquests, Maria and her court moved to the Portuguese colony of Brazil in 1807. After Brazil was elevated to a kingdom in 1815, Maria became Queen of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves.
In 1816, she died at the Carmo Convent in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 81. After her death, the prince regent was acclaimed as King João VI. Maria’s body was returned to Lisbon to be interred in a mausoleum in the Estrela Basilica (Portuguese: Basilica da Estrela), which she had helped found.
Maria is a greatly admired figure in both Brazil and Portugal due to the tremendous changes and events that took place during her reign. In Portugal, she is celebrated as a strong female figure. Her legacy shines at Portugal’s Queluz Palace, a baroque-roccoco masterpiece that she helped conceive. A large statue of her stands in front of the palace, and a pousada near the palace is named in her honour. A large marble statue of the queen was erected at the Portuguese National Library in Lisbon by the students of Joaquim Machado de Castro.