Carlota Joaquina of Spain was born on 25 April 1775 as the daughter of Charles IV of Spain and Maria Luisa of Parma. She was hardly out of the cradle when her marriage to the future King John VI of Portugal, though at the time he was not expected to succeed, was arranged. She was then sent to Portugal at the age of ten to be married. Her husband was 18 years old. At the same time, her new sister-in-law was married to her uncle Infante Gabriel of Spain. Reportedly some of the people of Lisbon said that they had given Spain a whiting in exchange for a sardine. She was considered to be marked by smallpox, and she was a restless and mischievous child.1
She was not considered to be beautiful and later in life she was described as, “Her unruly and dirty hair was bound with pearls and diamonds of extraordinary beauty. Her dress was also sewn with pearls of an inestimable value. She wore in her ears a pair of earrings such as I have never seen on any other person; a pair of pear-shaped diamonds, as long as my thumb and of a water as limped as crystal. These were superb and most beautiful ornaments. But the face they framed was so horrible that their beauty was eclipsed. I had the impression that I was looking at some strange being not of our own species.”2 Her fashion sense was also widely mocked. “I was once at Queluz when she was starting out. When I saw this figure, so strange in itself, now weirdly dressed, I felt as if I were gazing on some fantastic apparition. She was sitting astride a little black horse, small like all Portuguese horses, but bad-tempered enough to make a good rider nervous.”3
When she arrived at the Portuguese court, her mother-in-law, Queen Maria I had begun her mental deterioration. As time passed, Carlota and her husband became more and more annoyed by each other. She considered him to be obstinate and eccentric; he often carried grilled chicken legs to gnaw at idle moments. Four years after her arrival in Portugal, her marriage was consummated, and for Carlota, this kickstarted years of childbearing. They would go on to have nine children. Life changed in 1788 when her husband suddenly became the heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother José, Prince of Brazil of smallpox. He had been married to his aunt, Infanta Benedita of Portugal but they had had no children together. In 1792, Carlota’s mother-in-law had deteriorated so much that a council of physicians declared that there was no hope of recovery and so Carlota’s husband became Prince Regent of Portugal.
In 1806, Carlota plotted to have her husband declared insane as his mother had been. He had simply been ill but Carlota wrote, “I appeal to you (her father) in the greatest consternation to inform you that the prince is every day becoming more deranged, and as a consequence I am in danger of ruin, for those men (the prince’s circle) are becoming daily more powerful. The time has come for you to help me, and your grandchildren… The only remedy is for you to send intimation that you wish me to enter the government and that you will not accept a refusal, or else your reply will be to take up arms to avenge the affronts and insults to which you I am constantly exposed… This is the only means of preventing the spilling of much blood in this Kingdom, because the Court wants to draw sword on my behalf, and the people also… for it is obvious to all that the Prince is out of his mind….” A similar letter was sent to her mother.4 In the end, her plotting came to nothing, though her relationship with her husband never recovered. They began living completely separate lives.
The following year, the family was forced to flee to Brazil as Napoleon invaded Portugal. Carlota sent her eldest surviving son to join his father and grandmother on board the Principe Real while she and the other children boarded the Affonso d’Albuquerque. The arrival at Rio de Janeiro was pitiful. Carlota and her children had been compelled to shave their heads and wore white muslin caps as they entered the harbour. At least they were free from the clutches of Napoleon. The family continued to live apart while in exile. Carlota adored her second surviving son Miguel, who lived with her. She and her husband communicated through letters and hardly saw each other for the next four years.
In 1816, Queen Maria I died at the age of 81 and Carlota’s husband became King John VI. The following year, their eldest son married Maria Leopoldina of Austria and Carlota made a rare public appearance to attend her son’s wedding. Portugal was also at last released from Napoleon but the new King was hesitant to return, and the political situation was quickly becoming problematic. It wasn’t until 1821 that Carlota returned to Portugal, taking the coffin containing the body of Queen Maria I with her. Upon arrival, the body was reclothed in a black robe, a cap, gloves, shoes and stockings and four orders. Queen Maria had already been dead for six years, and one of the Princesses attending the ceremonies fainted twice. The body was exposed for two days as the nobility came by to the kiss the gloved hand. Carlota and her husband continued to live apart, and she never went out in public. In truth, she was simply biding her time and continued to plot against her husband. In the end, the Palace of Queluz became her prison.
On 10 March 1826, King John VI died leaving the throne in the hands of the regent Infanta Isabela Maria until the “legitimate heir” returned to the Kingdom. His eldest son had been proclaimed Emperor of Brazil, and it was unthinkable that Portugal should become a dependency of Brazil. It was then decided that Pedro should abdicate the Portuguese throne in favour of his eldest daughter Maria and that she should marry her uncle Miguel, her father’s younger brother. The Brazilian throne would go to Maria’s younger brother. Miguel pretended to accept this situation but usurped the throne immediately upon his arrival. The situation would not be resolved until after Carlota’s death.
Carlota had always supported her son Miguel over her granddaughter. She usually had a miniature of him pinned to her chest. When he left his mother with his troops, she had exclaimed, “Cut off heads for me!”5 From her prison at Queluz, she had grown old and weak. As the end neared, she could not bear to be touched, and she spoke to no one. She died on 7 January 1830; she was still only 54 years old. Just four years later, her beloved son Miguel was banished from Portugal, and the young Maria was restored to the throne.