1759: The Tavora family

Two and a half centuries ago today, Portugal’s noble Tavora family was extirpated in Belem.

[A] scaffold eighteen feet in height was erected in the market-place of Lisbon, during the night of the 13th, round which was drawn up a cordon of military. Precisely at 7 o’clock in the morning, the old Marchioness of Tavora, as the most guilty, was brought upon the scene, her hands bound, and a rope round her neck. She was placed on a chair, and her eyes being bound, the executioner struck her head off without the previous utterance by her of any complaint. After her came the twenty-one-year-old son, Joseph Maria de Tavora. They bound him on a cross raised aloft, broke his arms and legs with iron clubs, and then strangled him with a rope. The same fate befell [Tavora son-in-law] Jeronimo de Ataide, Count of Atouguia, the young Marquis Luiz Bernard de Tavora, colonel of cavalry, his servant Blasius Joseph Romeiro, Corporal Emanuel Alvarez Fereira, valet of the Duke of Aveira, and the body-page, John Michael. Their corpses were all flattened upon wheels, which were placed on poles, and this proceeding took up so much time that fully half an hour elapsed before another execution could be proceeded with.

Other outstandingly gory images of this day’s business are here.

After the page Miguel or Michael, the executioner took the old Francis d’Assis de Tavora, bound him on a St. Andrew’s cross, gave him three blows on the chest with an iron rod that resounded to a distance, shattered his arms and legs, and then gave him his coup de grace through the heart. The executioner’s men then, amidst wild shrieks, shattered the arms, legs, and thighs of the ninth victim, the old Duke of Aveiro, while still alive, then killed him by a blow on the chest, and threw him into the blazing fire. Finally, the tenth delinquent, the valet Anton Alvarez Fereira, brother of the above-mentioned Emanuel, was conducted before the corpses of the nine who had been previously executed, each one being shown to him; he was then bound to a stake, round which was placed a heap of wood, and this being set fire to, was raked together until he was completely consumed* … When the execution was over, the scaffold, together with all the dead bodies, was set on fire and burnt to ashes, which were thrown into the Tagus.

Oh, and one last thing:

[T]he palaces of the high nobility who had been executed were pulled to pieces and levelled to the ground, and salt strewed on the places where they had stood, as a sign that they should never be built up again.


This stone marker was placed on the site of the razed palace of Jose Mascarenhas, the Duke of Aveiro. “On this infamous land,” it announces, “nothing may be built for all time.” Copyrighted image courtesy of Ludgero Paninho.

Seems someone got the idea that the Tavoras tried to kill (and more problematically, failed to kill) Portuguese king Joseph I.

Circumstantial, torture-adduced evidence put the scheming Marchioness Eleonora de Tavora and clan behind an apparent assassination attempt, wherein a couple of assailants had shot at the king’s unmarked carriage as it returned on a little-used road from a rendezvous with his mistress. (One of the circumstances was that the mistress was a Tavora, which put the accused in a position to know the king’s secret travel plans. Others argue the gunmen might have just been common highwaymen who had no idea they were setting upon the royal person.)

Whatever the facts of the matter, obscure behind a quarter-millennium, its attribution to the Tavoras and the spectacular revenge thereupon visited was effected by the king’s competent and ruthless minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the future Marquis de Pombal.

A monumental plinth surmounted by Pombal dominates the present-day Lisbon plaza named for him.

His able handling of the recent Lisbon earthquake had cemented his position as the throne’s right-hand man in a trend of centralizing absolutism not much appreciated by the old aristocracy (nor by the hidebound clerical orders, which explains why the aforesaid gory account of the execution ground comes from a German anti-Jesuit polemic).

And he would not miss the opportunity an attack on the king’s person gave him to sweep away his opponents.

The peers of the realm were summoned to witness their fellow blue-bloods so nauseatingly dispatched, and the Jesuits — “reported to have inflamed the Tavora family to their [the Jesuits’] desired pitch … in revenge for what had justly been done to them in South America”** — were forthwith suppressed.

(Functionally a progressive secular dictator — or an enlightened despot, to use a more 18th-century description — Pombal would eventually push political conflict with Rome so near the brink of outright schism that the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Melo characterizes it as “a sort of disguised Anglicanism,” adding that “many of the evils from which the Church now suffers are a legacy from him.” His ascendancy is the “Pombaline Terror” in Catholic annals.)

Melo/Pombal exercised the power of the state for the rest of Joseph’s life, but the king’s daughter and successor Maria I dismissed him — though she did not take punitive action against Pombal for his persecutions, as his enemies demanded.

* Also doomed to burning alive was one Joseph Policarpo, who was able to escape the mass arrest a few weeks before and fled the kingdom. He was executed by effigy.

** This comment is from the letters of Christopher Hervey, an Englishman abroad in Portugal at the time of the execution whose 100+ pages’ worth of correspondence include live-at-the-scene reporting and English translations of the public pronouncements against the supposed culprits. As to the South American roots of Pombal’s conflict with the Jesuits, the order had resisted Pombal’s early schemes to reorganize and rationalize Portugal’s New World holdings in order to make the country a more competitive colonial power. Jesuit resistance to giving up the order’s control of education, and its humanitarian efforts to protect Indians, had been seen as contributing to an Indian rebellion that broke out in Jesuit-controlled territory — even to the point that Jesuits themselves were suspected of arming Indians in an effort to carve out church-controlled states. Hervey’s version has the Jesuits behind the plot in order to eliminate Pombal’s threat to their power. Others share this opinion … and Pombal, obviously, was keen to have his rivals inculpated for lese majeste in the public mind.

On this day..

23 thoughts on “1759: The Tavora family

  1. My grandmother claimed to be part of the Fernandes family and many of our family members have Fernandes as their middle name. She was from the north of England. We have a history of the massacre passed down to us in a document.

  2. I’m an amateur historian, aged 82, of English history and Russian, know some but not a great deal of European history but nothing of Portugal. So I’m very used to reading of executions. But this? On the say so of one man venerated with his statue on a column in Lisbon and still allowed??? I’ve never seen such wickedness, backed here by the RC church – and that’s saying something after the Inquisition, then the Jesuits and the RC rape of South America. This wholesale torture and execution of all of one family just beggars belief even if they were guilty. The baying crowds are also very much guilty. I’ve never before seen such a sadistic and wickedly cruel wholesale torture and deaths – until the Nazis. I’m truly staggered and shocked.
    Nothing whatsoever to be proud of Portugal, hang your collective heads in shame at your history here.

  3. The text above, description of the execution, who is it from?
    I would like very much to know the author, the source.
    Could you send it to me? Thank you, Jacques

  4. This was my family! Not all their close relatives were executed, my ancestors were exiled to Macau instead of being executed with the rest of their family. I have been told this story ever since I was a child, but only recently have I learned the name of the main family involved in the event. I had always thought it was the da Silva’s (as that’s my Grandma’s maiden name and she’s the one I heard the story from). We still hold they were wrongly accused. But, as someone said earlier, only God knows for sure.

  5. Where is the story about the one baby grandson who survived by being smuggled in a port barrel to Spain then to England?In 1821 he assumed the name Fernandes .He became Capt. of the First Yorkshire Yeo Cavalry as Joze Luis Fernandes. Please tell me more .I am presumed a relative

  6. Whilst only God is privi to the truth and we can ony go by what we “know” I am tempted to come to the conclusion these human beings were set up.The whole thing stinks of a man hell bent (and hell bound?) on total political control…..whos to say he did not see himself on the throne in fantasy…Even if they were ALL guilty the very vindictiveness mirrors Hitlers sadistic revenge on the failed bomb plotters who were hung on meat hooks and filmed for him to watch as often as he wanted.

    • I am related and a descendant of the Spanish Bourbon’s living in the USA. I find this barbarity abhorrent and disgraceful. Spain should of intervened with France to stop this shameful injustice.

      • While I cannot speak to the guilt or innocence of the Tavoras, I can point out that:
        (a) Such barbarities were commonplace and wholesale punishments for ‘lesser’ subjects and crimes in that era.
        (b) The innovation was that the ‘high’ nobility were judged criminals and treated accordingly.
        (c) Where political power is concerned, the same ferocity continues down to this day – even when it goes largely unreported.
        (d) This event was a drop in the bucket compared to the wholesale abuse the Catholic Church perpetrated for centuries in the name of ‘The Prince of Peace.’

        Apropos your comment “Spain should of intervened with France to stop this shameful injustice” – they were too busy with their own affairs: within 30 years the French Revolution (1789) was bringing the concept of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ to the world.

    • Modesty.

      For the same reason women convicted of treason and several other crimes in England were burned alive as hanging drawing and quartering would have required parts of their bodies to be exposed and presumably excite lust amongst the audience.

      To me the most bizarre and horrible thing is that the very worst death was reserved not to the Duke or the Count or the Marchioness or the Colonel but to a valet who was presumably the most junior member of the whole conspiracy.

      • I’d suggest “Rank has it’s privileges.” As usual the most important get off better (or in this case, less bad) than those at the bottom of the social rank.

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