Infanta Benedita of Portugal was born on 25 July 1746 as the eighth child but fourth surviving one of Mariana Victoria of Spain and King Joseph I of Portugal. Benedita’s three elder sisters were Maria (the future Queen Maria I of Portugal), Mariana and Doroteia. Her mother had suffered several stillbirths and without a son, her eldest sister Maria would become Portugal’s first Queen regnant. Her baptism took place on 10 August 1746, and she was named for Pope Benedict XIV who was also her godfather. Around this time, Benedita’s mother lost her father and sister, and the news was initially kept from her.
The four sisters grew up together and spent most of their time in Lisbon. However, Benedita was the youngest by seven years, so they were all in different stages of their life. Their education focussed heavily on religion, and they attended mass every morning and said prayers every evening. They also studied music and painting. Benedita and her sisters were born during the reign of their grandfather King John V of Portugal, and their father eventually became King in 1750. Benedita and her sisters were present when their father took the oath as King – the ceremony was an acclamation rather than a coronation. By then, their mother had not been pregnant for four years, and Maria was recognised as the heir to the throne. Nevertheless, her mother continued to believe well into her 40s that she might be pregnant.
In 1758, Benedita was being considered as a bride for King Ferdinand VI of Spain who had recently been widowed – he had been married to Benedita’s aunt Barbara and was 33 years older than Benedita. Nothing came of this as Ferdinand died the following year. The second option was a little closer in age – Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, who was just five years older, and he had been widowed in 1763. However, he ended up remarrying to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, but the plan to marry Benedita was briefly revived in 1767 when Maria Josepha died of smallpox.
The then 21-year-old Benedita was being showered by suitors, and it seems rather unclear why none of these matches ever took place. She was, after all, “extremely beautiful and agreeable.”1 Perhaps her father was reluctant to let her go. Even the marriage of Benedita’s elder sister Maria did not take place until 1760 when she was already 25 years old. Maria ended up marrying her uncle Peter, who was 42 at the time of their marriage. Benedita, her sisters and mother had prepared Maria for the marriage bed by undressing her, perfuming her and laying her between the sheets. The two middle sisters Mariana and Doroteia never married. Doroteia was ill for the last seven years of her life, and the condition was described as “hysteric, accompanied by an almost total lack of appetite which has reduced her to a state of extreme weakness.”2 She was prescribed constant bleedings, which only weakened her further and she died at the age of 31 in 1771.
Benedita’s future husband was born on 20 August 1761, and he was the eldest son of her sister Maria and their uncle Peter, and he was named Joseph for his grandfather. Maria conceived eight times over the next 15 years, but only three children would survive infancy. At the time of his birth, the match with his aunt probably wasn’t even a consideration, but the papal dispensation for it had been requested around October 1775. On 20 February 1777, as Benedita’s father lay dying he expressed the “great desire” that the wedding between his daughter and grandson should take place without delay.
The following day, Benedita married her 15-year-old nephew Joseph in the chapel of Sintra Palace with only the immediate family present. After the ceremony, they made their way to the dying King’s bedside to kiss his hand. It was now Maria’s turn to help undress her sister and prepare her for the marriage bed. On 24 February, the King died, and Maria became Queen. Joseph now became Prince of Brazil and Duke of Braganza as the heir to the throne. Author Alberto Pimentel wrote, “D. Maria Benedicta was still beautiful, and quite intelligent, and understand the energetic and noble soul of her nephew who, for his part, had shown himself since childhood very affectionate towards this sister of his mother. They loved each other because they understood each other.”3 The groom’s father was said to have been against the match, but we do not know Maria’s opinion of it, nor Benedita’s. Several foreigners at court criticised not only the close relationship between the two newlyweds but also the disparity in age. An Englishman even prophesied, “One should not be surprised that there will be no descendants of any kind of such a union.”4