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OpenEdition Books Etnográfica Press Antropologia Elites 7. Aristocratic Succession in Por...


João de Pina Cabral
Antónia Pedroso de Lima

Part III. House and Heir

7. Aristocratic Succession in Portugal (From the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries)1

Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro

Texte intégral

Successor, Succession, Immediate Successor

  • 1 Based on: Monteiro 1993a, Monteiro 1993b, Monteiro 1998.

1Unlike the situation in contemporary Western societies - where such terms are generally used by analogy with earlier historical contexts - in the period between 1600 and 1830, in Portugal, the terms 'successor' and 'succession' were in general everyday use. We will start, therefore, with a discussion of the meanings that were attributed to them at that time.

2Bluteau's Portuguese dictionary of 1727 defines successor as 'he who succeeds another in his place, dignity, office, or wealth and property'(1712-29). But in the terminology used by the Portuguese aristocratic elites of the time these terms had rather more specific meanings. Despite the fact that we only possess a limited number of diaries, memoirs, volumes of correspondence and other records from the period, those we do have allow us to assess the extent to which these categories were clear primary definitions for classifying individuals and their relations to each other in society.

  • 2 Those quotations were taken from local lists of eligible citizens, to the Municipal Councils of Via (...)

3The first and fundamental distinction between persons among the aristocracy was that between first-born heirs and others. Even outside the circles of the main court nobility, among the higher municipal elites in the provinces, eligible persons could be thus classified: on the one hand, there was the 'lord of the house' or 'eldest son, successor to the house' (Viana 1808); and, on the other hand, there were situations where it was said 'he is a second son' (ibid.) or 'he lives on rent provided by his brother' (Ponta Delgada 1787).2

4To 'have a succession' meant guaranteeing the existence of successors. This was a fundamental duty for presumptive 'lords of the house', and required that they marry and have many children, just as in any reigning family. One of the best accounts of this commonplace and obsessive obligation is to be found in the memoirs of the last Countess of Atouguia, the wife of one of the accused in the Conspiracy of 1758. Right at the start, she tells us that 'as the Count of Atouguia was an only son, no sooner had I married than I began to invoke the names of many of the saints, that they might prevail on God to give me succession for the house', an objective that she achieved after ten months of marriage. But it was not enough: 'as two years went by without my having any more children other than this one son, the Count of Atouguia started to want very much that the house should have more successors'. And this too would be fully achieved: 'while married, I had three sons and three daughters, all of whom were living when my father-in-law arrived from Baía and I presented them to him with much pleasure, hoping that with this number of descendants his house would be free of the danger it had faced at the time when there was only one single heir, of passing into the ownership of another' (Atouguia 1916: 5, 9, 13).

5The status and responsibilities of successors were passed on to 'immediate successors', even if these were not biological descendants. As Martini Correia de Sa, fourth Viscount of Asseca, stated in the middle of the eighteenth century:

I find myself without succession in my House, and with no grounds for hope in my own House, my brother Lus José Correia is my immediate successor, and he is not of an age where he can afford to wait very long: both from the political, and from the Catholic point of view, I must have him married. Politically, because I have to preserve the splendour of my House, since this is the purpose for which they are founded. And from the Catholic point of view, because I am burdened with debts (...) and must therefore seek a successor who out of mercy will wish to do the same that I did for my Father's debts, rendering me a service by taking on my debts.

  • 3 Arquivos Nacionais/Torre do Tombo, Ministério do Reino, maço n.°943.

6And about the same time he added, in a letter to the Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, with reference to this same brother: '(he is) my immediate successor who should be regarded as my first-born son'.3 At around the same time, the Countess de Atouguia, whom we have already encountered, wrote on this same subject:

When I was little, my parents told me that I would become a Sister of the Mother of God, and I expected this to happen; but they said this to me because they did not want to talk to me of marriage until they had settled me, because since I was the immediate successor of their house, it is certain they did not intend me to become a nun (Atouguia 1916: 4).

7Successor and 'immediate successor' are terms that have a clear origin in the laws that provided for entailment. It is precisely in that body of rights that the figure of 'immediate successor' is to be found. He or she was granted ample rights since, amongst other things, the immediate successor had to be consulted whenever loans or obligations were undertaken with guarantees given by the first-born or heir to the entailment, and he or she could request additional means of subsistence. These terms, therefore, allow us to establish something that is of fundamental importance: the group under study looked to the rights of entailment as one of its fundamental points of reference.

Entailment Rights

8The genealogy of entailment in Portugal generated a huge body of legal literature. The most important Portuguese jurist at the end of the ancien régime summarized it thus:

... whatever analogies may be made between the earliest Constitutions based on legal rights and the rights of primogeniture... their model, type, and origin, such as we now admit, have as their fundamental basis and prototype the Laws and Customs of our Nation... The first fundamental Laws govern the succession to the Kingdom as a true entail (Sousa 1814: 9); ... our basic Law was similar to that of the Kingdom of Spain, and our entailments were established in imitation of our monarchy, just as there they were also the imitation of the Spanish monarchy (Sousa 1814: 14).

9In fact, the first Portuguese legal compilations (the Ordenações Afonsinas of 1446 and the Ordenaçôes Manuelinas of 1512-14) made no mention of this subject, which was only introduced in the Philippine compilation (1603, book 4, article 100). 'The Taurine laws of 1505, and the New Recompilation of the Kingdom of Spain... were in part the source and model for our own ordinances' (Sousa 1814: 14). In summary, Portuguese entailment rights were modelled directly on the model of succession used in the monarchy, and very closely resembled entailment rights in Spain or, more precisely, in Castile.

  • 4 'Si sunt nobiles, melior est quandoque aliorum filiorum dispersio quam hereditatis divisio; si sunt (...)
  • 5 About the inheritance and succession practices of European aristocracies the best overview is still (...)

10In fact, in the Iberian peninsula, entailment rights as practised in Portugal were probably those that most closely resembled the Castilian example. Even though it relates back to a remote feudal legacy, best illustrated by the famous words of St Bernard,4 Castilian primogeniture in a way shows a resistance to the general European trend of the period. It represents a re-assertion of the principles of primogeniture within a wider doctrinal context where the acceptance of the European jus commune was tending to favour the division of inheritance among all the heirs. In most European countries, after the sixteenth century, there was a tendency for the rights of entailment and primogeniture to weaken: in legal terms at least, they persisted in a mitigated form, or gave way to less restrictive rights of succession (like strict settlement in England).5 In the Iberian peninsula, on the contrary, the rights of entailment, supported by an ample body of legal treatises, were perpetuated as an extreme form of primogeniture among the nobility, and were recognized as such in the legal literature of the period. Bartolomé Clavero wrote in this connection that 'Castilian primogeniture was to become the European model for an anthropology of the nobility' (1989b: 588).

  • 6 Luís de Molina quoted in Clavero 1989a: 211

11Thus the mayorazgo, a late legal construct that went counter to the general trends in Europe and was characteristic of the Iberian peninsula, can be defined as 'the right to succeed to the assets left by the founder of the house, on the condition that they remain perpetually indivisible within his family, so that the first-born in order of succession may take and possess them'.6 While the principles of perpetuity, indivisibility, primogeniture, primacy of male heirs and the right of representation can be regarded as being of a very general nature, the reality was that the specific form of succession was defined by the founder. In the case of Portugal, prior to the Marquis of Pombal's legislation of 1769-70, which imposed the Castilian model of regular entailments as the only model allowed, there was in fact a great diversity of rules of succession. It was possible to make entailments in favour of second-born children or of freely chosen or nominated persons. In addition, there were a great many different types of clauses and rules. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that entailments in favour of the first-born male heir were always by far the most common.

  • 7 The first Portuguese entailments were studied by Rosa 1995, although in a different perspective fro (...)
  • 8 Having described the practice of dividing inheritance amongst the heirs of the great houses in the (...)

12If we move on from the legal history to the social history of the institution of entailment, the chronology is rather different. Although the first entails in Portugal were created in the late Middle Ages7 by the Portuguese fidalgos (nobles, who represented about I per cent of the total population at that time), they were a long way from being commonplace. It was only in the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries that most of the entails of the various different branches of the Portuguese nobility were founded. The members of this class were engaged in intense competition for status, wealth and power. As in the case of Naples, we can probably assert for Portugal that 'Primogeniture was adopted at the beginning of the sixteenth century by a somewhat restricted group of feudal families, and became more widespread from the second half of that century onwards' (Visceglia 1988: 37). The practice of strict family discipline required by the entail model of reproduction, which we shall discuss below, also became the norm during this period8, even though the granting of comendas (commanderies) to the second-born, which later became very rare, still persisted (Olival 1986-1991: 574-5). The only available demographic study suggests, moreover, that there was increased social differentiation within the fidalgo population between 1383 and 1580, with an increase in celibacy and the gradual social disqualification of the second-born branches, precisely because primogeniture was becoming the norm (Boone 1986).

13It must be stressed, however, that the entailment model did not become totally dominant, owing to the remarkable fluidity and mobility of the society of the nobles in sixteenth-century Portugal. We can identify a number of factors that contributed to that. For example, at that time it was still possible to accumulate large fortunes in India and the Far East, and the hierarchy of the nobility was relatively poorly defined. The Crown was the institution that was most crucial in defining the structure of the titled elites, but political instability (e.g. the crisis of 1580) adversely affected its capacity to give continuity to its actions. We must, therefore, briefly devote some attention to the operation of those factors that prevented the full establishment of the entailment model.

14First, a distinction must be made between succession and inheritance. Unlike the situation in other European contexts, there was no difference here between the transfer of status and the transfer of property (Augustins 1982). They were indivisible, and the rights to succession to both were vested in the 'successor' or heir. However, in each generation, the new property accumulated by the lord of the house in his lifetime (including improvements in entail property) was to be regarded as free assets (bens livres). Unless any of his sons or daughters expressly renounced their right to these free assets (for example, by reason of entering a convent or receiving a dowry), they were to be equally divided among the children, except for the terça (one-third of such assets). Despite the provisions made at the time of the founding of the entailments (requiring the inclusion of the terça) and the strength of the culture of the aristocratic house (which encouraged the other heirs to renounce their rights) this issue remained contentious, and even led quite often to legal actions. But throughout the eighteenth century the effects of this situation were greatly lessened by the fact of aristocratic indebtedness: in many cases, the free assets of the inheritance were insufficient to cover the debts of the deceased lord of the house, so that there was nothing to divide.

15Secondly, the fact remains that throughout the sixteenth, and through part of the seventeenth, centuries not only did the amounts given over as dowries increase, but entailments were also joined by way of marriages that deliberately sought to tie together two entailed houses, despite the existence of both general and specific legal provisions to the contrary. In fact, the legislators often protested against this practice. Furthermore, at the end of the sixteenth and during the seventeenth centuries, repeated complaints were presented to the Cortes (Parliament) arguing that the ranks of the nobility in the service of the Crown had decreased owing to the reduction in the number of 'houses'. Moreover, the last compilation of ordinances of the Kingdom, in 1603 (book IV, article 100, 5 and following), clearly condemned these practices, and required that entails that had been joined by marriage in this way should once again be separated whenever the income of one of them was greater than a certain amount, in a similar fashion to Castilian legislation on this matter. But, as in the neighbouring kingdom, these measures had only limited success (Clavero 1989a: 247-59).

16From the middle of the seventeenth century, and along with the dynastic change of 1640, significant developments took place in the hierarchy of the nobility. It was at this time that a 'first (or higher) court nobility' came to be defined, which was made up of those with titles and other holders of office in the Palace. This group was to acquire tremendous stability after the end of the war with Spain and the consolidation of the new dynasty in 1668. This change of dynasty had a fundamental effect on the behaviour of the aristocratic elites. The kings of the new Bragança dynasty granted very few titles or other honours. The existing ones, therefore, became a sign of undisputed social pre-eminence. In actual fact, it seems that these titles granted the 'lords of the houses' who held them such a strong personal claim to identity as to allow them to contemplate the possibility of the eventual disappearance or absorption of the house into other titled houses. In this new context, therefore, the rights of entailment, long since incorporated into the body of general law, took on new and more restricted forms.

The Nature of Assets Transferred

17In the case of the higher court nobility (from the seventeenth century up to 1832), assets transferred byway of succession were threefold in nature: First, there were entailed assets. By definition, the original and oldest assets of the houses were tied up in entailment, even when they included lordships and Crown property donated in medieval times.

18Secondly, there were assets or property of the Crown and military orders. Being gifts of the Crown, these assets were governed by specific legal provisions and rules of succession, as defined in the Lei Mental of 1434. The grant was subject to confirmation in each new lifetime or at certain specific moments in time. The assets of the Crown and the orders included all the lordships, commanderies, and titles, and even Palace offices.

19Before continuing, three general comments must be made about this second type of asset. In the first place, this was the factor that most strongly identified the 'house'. By reason of the status that they granted, it was the lordships, the Palace offices and, if they existed, the titles that served to designate an aristocratic house. In the second place, the relative weight of the assets of the Crown and the orders in the total income of the houses increased consistently over the period under study, finally reaching an average total of over 54 per cent of all income. Finally, something must be said about the famous Lei Mental and what it implied for the development of the law of succession. This law defined strict principles of indivisibility, inalienability, primogeniture and male succession, and gave no recognition to the right of representation. In theory, it favoured not only the reversion of these assets to the Crown (in the case of female succession) but also defined possibly different destinies to be given to entailed assets and Crown assets respectively. Instances of both of these did occur, however. After 1640, the Crown granted the request of the representatives of the nobility in the Cortes and made a permanent change to the initial version of the law, agreeing that preference should be given to lineal descendants over lateral (indirect) lines in the succession to Crown property. Above all, it accepted the tacit principle that female succession was not subject to the Lei Mental, even although exemption still had to be requested on a case-by-case basis, and also conceded exemptions in many cases for collateral succession. In practice, succession to entailed assets and to the property of the Crown and military orders nearly always passed to the same persons.

20The third and final form of asset to be taken into consideration here is the top civil, military and Church offices of the monarchy (appointments such as Council Presidencies, to military and colonial governorships, and the main dioceses). With some notable exceptions - which, however, disappeared in due course - none of these offices ever became subject to formal succession. However, in accordance with the prevailing political culture, the choice of appointees during this period nearly always ended up falling within a very restricted group of aristocratic houses of the higher court nobility. Moreover, the services performed in the execution of these official duties were rewarded with new royal grants.

House Codes and Vocabulary

  • 9 From the will of Fernão de Sousa (1632), Arquivo da Casa de Bragança, Vila Viçosa.

21In his will, written in 1632, Fernão de Sousa wishes 'that there may be no disagreements, or opportunities for such, between my heirs... in this way they will continue to improve and increase the house of their ancestors, a duty that binds us all to hold nothing in greater respect than its renown... it is not my intention to give advantage to one son over another, but only to preserve and improve the house and family of my ancestors'.9

  • 10 These words had at the time a meaning similar to that given by J. Goody 1983: 16 and 224-8.

22At the outset, we should bear in mind the distinction between the house (casa) and the lineage (linhagem).10 A nobleman was identified by his surname. This family name was important in so far as it established a connection with an old medieval lineage and because it was associated with a coat of arms, a fidalgo family. That was precisely what made up the lineage of the Portuguese aristocracy, a concept for which Severim de Faria put forward the following definition in 1655: 'an order of descent which, having its beginning in one person, continues and extends to children and grandchildren, so as to form a parentage or lineage; which since ancient times and for clarity of definition has been called noble' (Faria 1740: 8). The origins of Portuguese higher aristocratic families and their respective family names are the subjects of a vast literature, which also contains descriptions of the deeds of their founders and the variations in the respective coats of arms. The primary sources of identification for these were the richly informative Portuguese medieval 'books of lineage', but the truest definition of the group is perhaps contained in the 72 coats of arms painted on the roof of the Sintra royal palace at the beginning of the sixteenth century (Freire 1973). In fact, there was a qualified and perhaps reluctant admission that there were more noble families than those mentioned in Sintra, either because some had in the meantime arrived from abroad or because they had subsequently been elevated to the ranks of nobility. But the truly significant lineages were always very few, and corresponded to the older lines or to those whose founders had provided significant services to the monarchy.

23Belonging to a particular lineage was achieved by way of the male line of succession (varonia), albeit with some restrictions. In effect, there was in the system of parentage that prevailed among the Portuguese aristocracy, as in others in Europe, a combination of elements of patrilineal and of bilateral descent. Portuguese law (in particular the Philippine Ordinances, book 5, article 92) unequivocally adopted the principle that nobility and peerage could be inherited either through the father or the mother: 'From which Ordinances can be deduced that whether by way of their mothers or by way of their fathers, nobility can be passed down to the children, who may freely use the family names and the arms of one as of the other' (Sampaio 1725: 30). Thus, it was also the case that the more common form of proof of noble origin relied on the 'four grandparents' test. While the institution of entailment helped to reinforce the principles of primogeniture and male succession, the reality was that the normal form of succession in entailments included the 'right of representation' (or, in other words, it granted preference to grand-daughters who were daughters of the first-born over uncles who were second-born), so that entailments involving a strictly male line of succession were exceptional. Despite the importance of the male line of succession, 'good' and 'bad blood' could be inherited as much from the mother as from the father, a fact that had major implications for marriage policy.

24However, the importance of lineage declined after the fifteenth century, a time when it was still the basis for alliances among the aristocracy. The decline of the importance of lineage was caused by the increase in the number of houses using the same family name. This was due to the adoption of names associated with the old lineages. Sometimes these names were transmitted by the women. But sometimes people just started using them without any real right to do so. In fact, Portuguese nobles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were born into a particular 'house', founded in more recent times, and initially associated with a coat of arms belonging to a particular lineage and a family name (which all the subsequent heirs were required to use) and identified by the possession of certain entailed property or assets, of a comenda, of a lordship, of a Palace appointment or of an aristocratic title. Particularly after the dynastic change of 1640, the notion of lineage gradually came to be devalued in favour of the notion of the house (especially if the house had been granted an aristocratic title), although at no time did the notion of the family (which corresponded, in name only, to the idea of the male line of succession) disappear completely.

25The basic entity for the study of aristocratic behaviour in the period under study was therefore the 'house', a term that conveyed a cohesive collection of material and symbolic assets to whose extension and reproduction all those who were born in, or depended on the house, were compulsorily committed. At that time, the house represented a basic value for (nearly) all social elites. The family, in the sense of a noble lineage of ancient origin, as evinced by the family name (and/or the male line of succession), came to be just one of the elements that identified the house. As has been stated previously, even though at the outset the aristocratic house generally had a connection with a particular place and building - a name taken from the entailment, the lordship or manor, or even the military order ('comenda') - and even if the house sought to perpetuate that name in its various titles, the fact is that the name of the original place continued to exist only as a remote allusion. It was even possible that the house might lose the right to the property but continue to use the name unchanged.

26Moreover, even though it was normal for lords, immediate successors and collateral (indirect) heirs (including sometimes members of the Church) as well as a host of servants (who were commonly also called the 'family') to live together, one should be careful not to confuse the house with the residential palace building. During the period in question the latter was invariably located in Lisbon, even though the original seat would have been elsewhere.

27One of the most crucial implications of this notion of the aristocratic house was the destiny that was mapped out for each child. The prevailing ideas in this domain were still perfectly clear at this time. The choice of whether to marry or place in the Church the daughters and later-born sons was a function of the strategic options of the house into which they had been born. Those who were destined for marriage, starting with the presumed heirs, were governed by the rules of politics of alliance between houses. If the other children remained celibate, it was expected that they would seek to increase the power and wealth of the house that had given them their being.

28The destiny of unmarried daughters had always been the convent. As the troubled Portuguese ventures in India and the Far East began to have ever more uncertain results in the course of the seventeenth century, so too the houses began to contemplate an ecclesiastical career as the normal destiny for their second-born sons. They were brought up from infancy for this. They were sent to the two royal colleges at Coimbra (the Colleges of St Peter and St Paul), where most of the boarders since the middle of the seventeenth century were the second-born of the grand aristocracy, sons of the highest nobility of the realm.

29It was expected that those who had gone into the Church, especially those who had reached the status of high dignitaries and rendered significant service to the king (bishops and cardinals) would donate, if not all their 'free assets', at least their services (which were, after all, their most valuable capital) to the houses of their brothers and sisters or nephews, so that the houses' endowments in tithes and benefits (comendas) would increase. Most of them did so. Many houses substantially increased their income and their distinctions in this way. Moreover, the houses not only capitalized on the services and associated incomes of their second-borns, they also sought to capture, by all means at their disposal, the prestige that went with these positions.

30The aristocratic houses supported their daughters and second-born sons, or alternatively, they provided them with the amount needed for a dowry or the endowment required to enter a religious institution. One of the features of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was indeed the levelling off of the amounts of aristocratic dowries, which meant that, in real terms, the amounts of those dowries actually declined.

The Practice of Succession Between 1600 and 1830

  • 11 Cf. bibliography in Cooper 1976 and Monteiro 1998.

31The group of houses that will be studied here was basically formed in the middle of the seventeenth century around the nucleus of about fifty grand aristocratic houses and a roughly similar number of houses from the higher court aristocracy, all of which ended up, almost without exception, becoming titled houses as well. The total number of titled houses in 1640 remained practically unaltered up to the last decade of the eighteenth century, although there was an appreciable recovery between 1640 and 1668. The remarkable stability achieved in the approximately 130 years after the end of the War with Spain (1668) has probably rarely been equalled by other European aristocracies. Moreover, it contradicts many very common notions about the inability of aristocratic groups to perpetuate themselves through time.11 Over more than a century very few houses were created and very few were abolished, and the central nucleus remained highly stable. Of the 50 titled houses that existed in Portugal in 1750, the date when they reached their highest level in terms of status (and also the year of D. João V's death and the entry of the Marquis of Pombal into the government), 34 had been granted their titles over a hundred years earlier and, of these, 7 dated back to the fifteenth century.

32It should be emphasized that, between 1670 and 1832, no titled house was extinguished or removed from the life of the court as a result of the decline in the economic fortunes of the holders of the title. Neither was any house extinguished by reason of its only direct legitimate succession's having been female. Where there was direct succession, whether male or female, the titles were always renewed.

33We can obtain a more detailed picture of the actual ways in which succession was passed down by studying the process of inheritance in 60 titled houses (elevated to the titled nobility before 1775) in the period from 1600 to 1830.

34Apart from the virtual non-existence of succession by an illegitimate heir (of which there was only one case), there is one feature that stands out from the above picture, and that is the large proportion of male heirs. There is no doubt that the numbers are very high, contrary to conventional wisdom on this subject. There were many houses that managed consistently to produce a male heir over a period of more than two hundred years. But even when that did not happen, their capacity for survival was remarkable: more than half the houses under study managed to last as such for over two hundred years. And it should be emphasized that in three cases they perished for political reasons (high treason connected to the conspiracy of 1758) and not for lack of biological heirs.

Table 7.1: Inheritance of Estates in Titled Houses (1600-1830)

Table 7.1: Inheritance of Estates in Titled Houses (1600-1830)

A – Direct male heir; B – Male succession - grandfather to grandson; C – Direct female heir; D – Female succession - grandfather to granddaughter; E – Collateral (indirect) male succession; F – Collateral (indirect) female succession; G – Illegitimate heir; H – Extinction or union.

35This unusual stability was the result of the combination of two factors: the choices made by the Crown in this matter, namely the systematic authorization of female succession; and the houses' own strategies for perpetuation and increase. I shall now focus on these.

36First of all, we should consider the demographic aspects. Nearly all male and female heirs succeded in getting married (on average, always more than 92 per cent of them), with very rare exceptions indeed (in fact, all of those who did not, died very young). The percentage of titled aristocrats without surviving heirs fluctuated between a minimum of 13 per cent and a maximum of 26.1 per cent, even though it tended to rise over the period. Moreover, the percentage of those who had surviving male heirs was always over 61 per cent, and in the earliest period under study (1600-1650) it was over 80 per cent. Titled aristocrats with surviving children had to place on average between 4.2 and 5 children, though the tendency was for the number of children to decline slowly. This remarkable statistic was the result of three closely-related factors: the very early average age at which young girls got married (it went from a minimum of 17.5 in the seventeenth century to a maximum of 21.7 years at the beginning of the nineteenth century), the non-existence of any contraceptive methods, and the lack of breast-feeding by the mother-this task was always entrusted to wet-nurses.

37However, when the succession failed, other elements of the aristocratic model of reproduction could be brought into play to guarantee the much-sought-after continuity of the noble house. For a start, the sons and daughters who were not heirs often went into the Church. Up until the spectacular fall in the numbers of those entering the Church (in Portugal as in other Catholic countries of Europe) in the second half of the eighteenth century, a total varying between a third and more than one-half of the daughters of the nobility remained unmarried. And up to 1760, over two-thirds, and at certain times over four-fifths, of the sons who were not heirs did not marry.

38It should he added that homogamy in marriage was a fundamental aspect of the reproductive pattern followed by the group. Up to the end of the eighteenth century, both heirs and daughters married within the circle of the grand aristocracy in 95 per cent of cases. This choice was fundamental in order to preserve the social identity of the group and thus to contribute to maintaining their monopoly over the principal high offices of the monarchy and their corresponding remuneration in the form of royal grants. Indeed, it was this line of thinking that dictated that the houses preferred to channel some of their daughters and second-born sons into the clergy rather than marrying them off 'beneath their station', possibly without a dowry and significant allowances. But this homogamy in marriage did have one potentially negative effect: it increased the risk of annexation of one house by another.

39To counteract these risks the aristocratic houses adopted a pattern of behaviour that was widely publicized among them and perfectly standardized.

40First, if the master of the house had no heirs, and was unlikely to have them, an immediate attempt was made to marry off the closest heir. Sometimes this only occurred when that heir had already reached an advanced age. There were frequent stories of clergymen who renounced their vows in order to get married, in the sometimes desperate attempt to produce descendants for the houses of their brothers.

41Secondly, when the succession fell to ladies, they would marry a second son with no house of his own almost without exception. Preferably this would be an uncle, so as to keep the surname of the male line. Even when no uncle was available and a suitable marriage partner had to be sought in another lineage and another house, the general rule, with a few exceptions, was to try to pass on the family name to the heir of the next generation. In any event, the husbands of these female heirs were to all intents and purposes adopted by the houses that 'took them in'. Their status, and in particular their economic status (food, lodging, etc.) was generally exactly the same as that of most married women in the aristocracy.

42Finally, whenever there was a perceived risk of potential union between houses, the dowry and marriage contracts were drawn up in such a way that they would be separated in the succeeding generation. These clauses were hardly ever observed; but at any rate they provide evidence of the house's intention of preserving its own separate identity.

Choice and Succession

43Recent developments in the social sciences in general, and in social history in particular, have witnessed a growing mistrust of the reified use of the various categories of historical analysis and of rigid behavioural models. Even for those who distance themselves front the post-modern apologetics of the 'dissolution of society', the options are nearly always a renewed attention paid to the language used in documents and even a prominence given to individuals, to their experiences and to the way that their social identity has been formed. It is, therefore, perhaps understandable that I find it difficult to try to emphasize, as I am in fact doing, the rigidity of a particular social model and the surprising regularity with which the actors involved in that model reproduced the social roles allocated to them, which were markedly asymmetric.

44In this context, I can make two very general observations. First, it should be recalled that the social order at the time of the ancien régime contrasted strongly with contemporary Western individualism. Political and social culture and the institutions of the day embodied an idea of the social order based on a hierarchy of its different members, sanctioned by history. This essential truth had a number of implications that we have to take on board. Secondly, it should also be emphasized that, unlike unilinear notions of change and development, the case studied here is in no way illustrative of a transition from collective solidarity to individualized behaviour and personal destiny. Quite the contrary. Among the the higher levels of Portuguese society in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, behaviour was much more highly individualized than in the two centuries that followed. On the one hand, the destinies of individuals were less strongly influenced by the estate they were born into. And, on the other hand, the constraints that derived from groups of family relationships were a good deal less severe. The strengthening of the discipline in the aristocratic houses, with an ab initio prior imposition of a status on each of their members, went along with the emergence of the grand aristocracy of the court as a closed and almost inaccessible social group. It was only towards the end of the eighteenth century that the rigid patterns of behaviour in these houses would start to show signs of breaking, just a short time before we witnessed the first signs of some easing of the restrictions on access to the highest levels of the hierarchy of the nobility.

45In a system where individual destinies were in large measure already laid down at birth, the margins of choice were very limited. Furthermore, it was well known that one of the ways to ensure the desired outcome was to make a decision concerning a child's future at a very early age. Picking up old formulae from collective wisdom, people would say: 'our Portuguese normally destine their children for various different occupations. The first is a soldier, some follow a career of letters and others the Church. Parents know what the children want... and right from the earliest years they allocate to each one that which will be his lot. To learn any trade takes a long time, and life is short.' And with respect to daughters, they would add: 'like household pests, girls are thrown out as soon as possible. They are sent to be educated in the convents, or to take on the role of daughters in the houses where they are eventually to be mothers.' But, in spite of everything, there was still a degree of choice, even as far as inheritance went. In these circumstances, such a choice was, nearly always, exercised by a refusal to marry. During the period under study, most successors still married within their father's life-time, and it is in fact remarkable how usually everything went off smoothly, with few situations of open conflict. Contemporary reports and correspondence do give us accounts, now and again, of the tensions to which marriage negotiations were subject. The many sources from the first half of the eighteenth century also show that relatives still had an important role to play in these matters. But it was rare for any conflicts to arise directly as a result of any unwillingness or resistance on the part of the betrothed. Because they were the exception, the situations where individual choice was directly and openly opposed to the destiny that had been mapped out for the persons concerned were comprehensively documented in historical records and were in later years much publicized. Amongst these was a celebrated episode with the third Marquis of Gouveia, who, having married the daughter of a titled Spanish nobleman in 1718, ran off a few years later with a married Portuguese noblewoman.

46Daughters had little opportunity for opposition or resistance to the plans laid out for them. To marry or to go into a convent were practically the only acceptable options. Very few refused to accept the husbands suggested for them. By contrast, sons who were not in line for succession had a much wider range of alternatives. The vast majority were destined for the Church; but they could change their lives. They might find some female heir to a house and marry her, or they might risk a military career in the Indies, despite the fact that the chances of success there were by now rather slim. Whenever a war broke out on the European stage, many of them abandoned their ecclesiastical living in the hope of providing some valuable military service to the king, thereby receiving some royal grant and, consequently, obtaining their own separate income. A good indicator is provided by the list of student boarders between 1601 and 1727 at the royal schools in Coimbra, whose pupils were exclusively the sons of the higher nobility of the realm destined for a career in the Church. In fact, only 60 per cent actually died as churchmen, since a quarter of them became soldiers and a fifth even married. However, even in these cases, unless they had found a female heir within the court nobility, the alternatives nearly always meant a decline in social and/or economic status. To marry someone from the provinces or the daughter of a merchant was to lose status. And a military career in the East rarely allowed them to generate sufficient income to 'have their own house' at the level of the court aristocracy. A good ecclesiastical living provided a rather more secure income and a social position compatible with that into which they had been born.

47The indicators we have analysed above relating to the destinies of the children of the house can only be properly understood if we bear in mind the crucial significance of the idea of the 'house' for the group we are studying. The efficiency and stability of the system relied both on the restrictive legal framework, which set the limits to what could and could not be done in terms of succession and inheritance practices, and on paternal authority, which defined at an early age each child's place within the system. But the system also relied on a number of less obviously compulsory conditioning factors. First of all, it relied on the existence of a set of institutions (namely the ecclesiastical institutions) that were essential to the continuation of the universally applied reproductive model of the aristocratic house. Secondly - and this element was of crucial importance - it relied on the social actors involved absorbing certain values, namely the values of the house, thus enabling them to view their destiny as a natural destiny, at least at the earlier ages at which the important decisions were usually taken.

48Furthermore, levels of intra-family conflict were relatively low. Sometimes younger brothers and sisters would argue with the first-born about their allowances, or would take legal action to claim their percentage of their parents' free assets (those that were not part of the entailment or donated by the Crown). But such cases were never very numerous. And most of the unmarried siblings, that is those who had not been 'taken into' another house or had not founded another house, left their property and services to the house of the first-born or to their nephews-in other words, they gave their wealth back to the house in which they had been born.

49The remarkable stability achieved by this model of behaviour began to break down in the second half of the eighteenth century. First, because of the crisis that affected the world of the European elites as careers in the Church became less and less desirable. This was reflected in a drastic fall in the numbers of noblemen entering the Church. Within the space of a few decades after that, the very discipline of the house began to be questioned. Sons who were not in the direct line of succession, and even some daughters, began to marry into the families of holders of large fortunes who were clearly outside the restricted circle from which, up to that time, the choice of a spouse had been made. The twilight of the grand aristocracy was already visible before the Liberal Revolution of 1832-34, which hastened its decline. In spite of this, the model that is presented here, and that until then had been seen as a reference point for all ennobled elites throughout Europe, has endured as a stereotype of aristocratic succession to this day.


1 Based on: Monteiro 1993a, Monteiro 1993b, Monteiro 1998.

2 Those quotations were taken from local lists of eligible citizens, to the Municipal Councils of Viana do Castelo (1808) and of Ponta Delgada, Açores, (1787).

3 Arquivos Nacionais/Torre do Tombo, Ministério do Reino, maço n.°943.

4 'Si sunt nobiles, melior est quandoque aliorum filiorum dispersio quam hereditatis divisio; si sunt laboratores, faciant ut velint; si mercatores, tutior est divisio quant communio, ne infortunium unius alteri imputetur', quoted in Clavero 1989a: 438.

5 About the inheritance and succession practices of European aristocracies the best overview is still Cooper 1976.

6 Luís de Molina quoted in Clavero 1989a: 211

7 The first Portuguese entailments were studied by Rosa 1995, although in a different perspective from the one we use in this chapter.

8 Having described the practice of dividing inheritance amongst the heirs of the great houses in the fifteenth century, A. de Sousa Silva Costa Lobo emphasized that entailments became widespread 'front that century onwards' and that out of this process there emerged 'the class of the second-born, who were noblemen, but had no living other than that which was strictly necessary for their sustenance and who, because of the rules of society, could not redeem themselves from this fate and from the tutelage of the first-born, other than by entering the service of the state, or the idleness of an ecclesiastical office or a monastery... while daughters who had no dowry... retired to the convent' (Lobo 1903: 490-1). In actual fact, solidarity among members of a noble line age (identified by their surname and by the coat of arms) and the division of inheritance amongst close relatives seems to have been a good working model in a context where the accumulation of men and horses was decisive, given the remarkable fluidity of military and political events in the fifteenth century. It is a known fact that the house of Bragança itself adopted this model in an early phase (cf. Cunha 1990). But, later on, the widespread implementation of the practice of entailment and its reproductive models would prove to be irreversible.

9 From the will of Fernão de Sousa (1632), Arquivo da Casa de Bragança, Vila Viçosa.

10 These words had at the time a meaning similar to that given by J. Goody 1983: 16 and 224-8.

11 Cf. bibliography in Cooper 1976 and Monteiro 1998.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 7.1: Inheritance of Estates in Titled Houses (1600-1830)
Légende A – Direct male heir; B – Male succession - grandfather to grandson; C – Direct female heir; D – Female succession - grandfather to granddaughter; E – Collateral (indirect) male succession; F – Collateral (indirect) female succession; G – Illegitimate heir; H – Extinction or union.
Fichier image/jpeg, 71k


(Ph.D. Lisbon) is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon and Professor of History at ISCTE (Lisbon). His publications include O Crepúsculo dos Grandes: 1750-1832 (Lisbon 1998). His research interests are in the area of Social History, with particular emphasis on Portuguese elite groups from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

© Etnográfica Press, 2000

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