King Joseph the first said, “Nothing can ever be built here for all time!”
A fun history “did you know” By Daniel J Bockman
(Research credit: Dana Schwartz)
In the middle of the night in 1758, the king of Portugal was riding in his carriage back from Lisbon where he had just had a rendezvous with his mistress. No one had any idea that the king was meeting up with his young lady friend every so often except his driver and a few hired footman. King Joseph the first was a man who love all the lavishness of being king with the long wigs that went to the middle of his back and the eccentric robes with jewels and furs. But on this night, the king was incognito and he was riding in a plain looking unmarked carriage. None of his footman or driver were from the palace liver.
As they traveled along the dark road, the carriage came to a stop. The horses spooked and bade as two highwayman stepped out of the brush along the road. A shot rang out and then another shot. King Joseph pulled back the curtains of the carriage to see what was going on and then another shot was fired hitting the king in the forearm and in the side. Without taking anything from the king or the unmarked royal coach, the highwaymen rode off into the night.
King Joseph survived his wounds but his driver was very badly wounded. The King was in a rage about what had happened and decided that he would open his own investigation into the murder attempt on him and his clandestine driver.
Historians have no way of knowing if this was a true assassination attempt on the king or if they were just two random highwaymen that happened to come across the carriage. But what we do know is that King Joseph and his prime minister would use this moment to wipeout the Portuguese nobility in an elaborate conspiracy that would bring the nation of Portugal under years of grizzly executions and terror.
As the saying goes. “If you come at the King, you better not miss!”
This story actually begins in 1755 when an earthquake hit the Portuguese town of Lisbon. It was November first and the weather was unseasonably warm. Many people were still celebrating All Saints Day and candles were still lite in every home and building. At 9:35 in the morning, a 5 minute earthquake shook the town of Lisbon so hard that modern seismologists estimate to be a magnitude 8.4. The aftermath was complete chaos. Every church in the town collapsed killing everyone in side and most of the old brick homes came crashing down. With all the candles still lit from the celebration, the entire city caught on fire.
Those who did survive ran to the shore line to only see their homes and city of Lisbon being destroyed. But the disaster wasn’t over yet. Soon they noticed the sea pulling back to reveal the muddy ocean floor littered with old sunken ships and other debris. The tsunami coming at them was visible and came crashing up the river wiping out everything in its path. All the people on the shoreline were swept away in the back wash along with ships and earthquake debris. Some historians estimate that 30,000 people were killed that November day between the collapsing building, fires, and the tsunami.
King Joseph and his family survived the quake but he didn’t know what to do. His leadership was known to be abysmal at best even during good times so he looked to one of his ministers, Sebastiao Pombal, for answers. Pombal confidently said to the king, “Let’s bury the dead and help the living.” Minister Pombal was immediately put in charge of the disaster by King Joseph. Pombal was kind of like an 18th century FEMA director but his power would evolve from this disaster into the central authoritarian power of all Portugal. Pombal handled the aftermath of the earthquake with swift, decisive, and comprehensive action by rebuilding the city and disbanding the looters with force. I say force because he hung most of them as an example to keep more looters from coming in.
Pombal was so efficient he actually created one of the first seismology reports in history that can still be read to this day.
King Joseph was not a King that liked to lead. He liked luxury and spending his time hunting, drinking, and meeting up with his mistresses. He took advantage of his ministers and courtiers that tried to gain favor of the king by them doing all the real work of running his country. King Joseph was more of a delegator than a leader.
Pombal was the son of a lowly country gentlemen which being a gentleman gave his son Sebastiano favor for the nobility. In the 18th century, being a sophisticated gentleman that was a productive and successful member of the community gave you minimal favor of the crown. Unlike the children of the commoners, a gentleman’s son had a chance to work for the crown, like being a son of a senator is today. Pombal was able to work his way up the ranks of the court and gain extreme favor of the king by handling the earthquake disaster.
Pombal knew how to use the King’s favor to his advantage. Pombal also hated the nobility of the court. The nobility resented Pombal because he himself was not of noble bloodlines. After many years, Pombal was able to work his way up to absolute power. Even when Pombal married the niece of a noble family, (set up by King Joseph) the niece’s family was aghast by her social falling by marrying Pombal. The church was no help to Pombal either. Jesuits were going around town saying that God was upset with the King’s lack of leadership, by extension Pombal’s leadership, and was punishing them with the earthquake.
After the earthquake, Pombal was promoted to Prime Minister of Portugal giving him power only shadowed by the King. Pombal knew exactly how to exploit situations to his favor by being the king’s favorite and now, being Prime Minister. The King was paranoid after the disaster and feared God, likely as a result from the Jesuits propaganda. Pombal played on that paranoia like any good courtier would do, and there would be no better circumstances to play on than that of the assassination attempt on the King! He could use the assassination attempt and his new found power to finally get rid of the nobles he hated.
Pombal started to put the pieces together of the assassination attempt, or at least put it together to get what Pombal wanted the most, – to get rid of the noble families that were making his life hell. Pombal constructed a theory to the king that would make total sense to him. The rendezvous with his mistress was completely secret. Only the driver and the mistress were privy to the affair. The driver was not even part of the palace so he had no motive and plus, the driver was shot in the ordeal. The King’s mistress was married to a noble so the husband must have had something to do with it. The king’s mistress, Theresa Tavora, was married to a man named Louise Bernardo who was also heir to the noble Tavora family. The way Pombal saw it, who else but Bernardo could have planned the assassination attempt?
Pombal knew Bernardo hated him for his low station in life and making it to the king’s favor. Pombal concocted that Bernardo was taking advantage of finding out about the affair as a way to killing two birds with one stone. Kill the king, who was sleeping with his wife, and get rid of Pombal!
Soon, Pombal put together a special counsel to investigate if the Tavora family had anything to do with the assassination attempt. Officers arrested the whole Tavora family including the king’s mistress. They also arrested many of the Jesuits who were close friends of the Tavora family. Pombal was issued special dispensation to use torture to find out all he could about the noble Tavora family’s plot to assassinate the king and also about a rumor that one of the Dukes of the family was plotting to marry one of the King’s daughters to overthrow the monarchy.
Of course, while under torture, the family admitted to the plot. The entire Tavora family was found guilty and sentenced to death. Pombal erected a large executioner’s scaffold in the heart of Lisbon that would hold the entire family. He made sure the scaffold was 18’ tall so that all of Lisbon who attended the executions could have a clear view. The king was in attendance on the day of the executions and of course in jocular humor drinking and hanging on two other mistresses. All the other Portuguese nobles were required to attend the executions as well so that the fate of the Tavora’s would be an example to them.
Pombal designed each family members execution to be symbolic. The women were permitted a quick death by swift beheading, known as a nobleman’s death. They were also allowed to have expert swordsman do the beheadings so that it was swift and clean. In those days you could pay to have the best executioners cut your head off. This is why it was called a nobleman’s death. A poorer criminal who could not pay generally had to settle for some guy that was willing to do it with an axe. A lot of times these executions were botched and took many swings of the axe to complete.
The men were given a far more torturous deaths, (even though they were noble), that took much longer and far more barbaric. I won’t even get into how these grizzly executions were done! After the executions were complete, the bodies were all burned and the stench of the smoke lingered throughout the town of Lisbon well into the night. This was also Pombal’s plan. The greasy black smoke of burning human flesh served as a reminder and example to the current nobles and the towns people to not even think about killing the King or try to overthrow the monarchy.
But for Pombal, executions of an entire family was not enough for him. He wanted to display his absolute power that would never be forgotten well into the future. He had the Tavora family crest banded forever and all of their palaces condemned stone by stone. All the topsoil was stripped from the Tavora properties and salt was laid over the barren property so that nothing would ever grow there again. Plaques were erected forbidding anyone from building on the property that once belong to traders.
Pombal wanted to go even further and start executing the Tavora children and younger women who could soon have children. He wanted to wipeout any chance of the existence of the Tavora family. King Joseph was fine with more executions but the King’s wife and daughters soon intervened and told the King there had been enough killings.
Interestingly enough, the one Tavora family member that escaped the execution was Theresa Tavora, the king’s mistress. She and the other young Tavora women and children were imprisoned in a monastery. The king still had slight feelings for Theresa Tavora so he gave her a small pension and permitted her to have occasional visitors in her cell. You can imagine that one of those occasional visitors was likely the king himself. Theresa lived out the rest of her life as a convent prisoner.
Pombal also implicated 10 other Jesuits in the assassination and overthrow plot on very thin charges. Understand, these were the 10 Jesuits that had created the most trouble for Pombal’s rise to power. They were imprisoned for the rest of their life as well.
While the current nobles had witnessed Pombal’s scorched earth approach to disloyalty of the King during the executions of the Tavora family, there was still disdain among the nobles toward the king. If Pombal even heard about one of the nobles whispering something about the monarchy, he had them locked up. The charges were incredibly lengthy, trumped up, and vague. Pombal’s brother helped in using his imagination in creating charges against nobles that did not show complete loyalty to the king.
The nobles were so used to their lavish lifestyles that years of imprisonment drove many of them mad. So mad, to the point they were never permitted to get out of prison even after their sentence had elapsed. The nobles were now convicted crazy people, a very convenient condition of a noble for Pombal. One of the Marquises nobles who was imprisoned was so mad and crazy that he couldn’t even understand the questions at his parole hearing. The judge at the hearing whispered that this was not right what they were doing to these people. Soon after, that judge was shipped off to an overseas island never to oversee another tribunal ever again.
The Marquises was found to not be fit for society and was sentenced to death. The list of his charges being read on the day of his execution took two hours to read. Because the Marquises was a noble and was not being charged with anything that looked like overthrowing the monarchy, he was permitted a bloodless execution. I know that sounds like it should be a better way to be executed and in fact, the bloodless death was designed to be a more dignified death for a noble, but in reality, the executioner just strangled him to death with a rope! I think a beheading would have been far more… “noble.”
For 19 years Pombal ruled all of Portugal by extension of the crown. Pombal had the king’s ear at all times and served at the king’s pleasure. He was an authoritarian ruler who executed or imprisoned anyone who challenged him or talked bad about the King while at the same time, fancying himself as a benevolent modern ruler. Pombal’s position and rise to absolute power is the classic case of a weak king that was too lazy to rule his country and only had interests in young women, hunting, and mead. Pombal took advantage of this weakness and was the ultimate courtier. A situation that is not unfamiliar to us in modern day business!
But Pombal’s power would only last as long as the king did and when King Joseph die in 1771, so did Pombal’s power. The King’s daughter Maria the first took power as queen. Maria had no problem with the Jesuits and like the nobles. She reopened the Tavora case and pardoned the remaining living Tavora family. As for Pombal, Queen Maria took pity on him. For all she knew, he was just acting on the wishes of her father, the sign of a loyal courtier and a good prime minister. But that pity didn’t stop her from stripping Pombal from all of his power. At 70 years of age by now, Pombal was sent out of Lisbon and was required to stay at least 20 miles away from Queen Maria the first at all times. This could be histories very first restraining order!
Today, 300 years later there is really no way for us to know if the Tavora Family was really guilty of an assassination attempt on King Joseph. The family never fled town after hearing the attempt was botched and they seemed to just continue with their lives like nothing happened. You would think a guilty conscience would act differently. The only evidence Pombal had was extracted under torture and they probably would say anything to stop the torture. Who really knows?
Writing about history is so much fun in today’s modern era but it does take a lot of work. My time for research on these historical “Did you knows” is limited so I do the best I can to make this fun and interesting. Remember the Tavora family property that was condemned, salted, and proclaimed that nothing will ever be built on that site again for as long as time? Well… Google Earth is a fascinating thing once you know about these historical stories.
If you go to Lisbon and you and find the Alley of the Salted Earth you will find a tall monument with a plaque written in Portuguese that basically says, “This land was occupied by traders and they were executed and burned. No one is to build on this land for all of time, as a directive from King Joseph the first.”
While most people of Lisbon followed this directive for a long time, if you look today in 2021 at the Alley of the Salted Earth –the place forbidden to build anything on, – now has a Starbucks!
Here’s the Google Earth image I found of the Alley of the Salted Earth