Leaving from Sintra, Lord Byron must have experienced a great sense of anticipation on his way to Mafra. The complex of Baroque buildings was intended to be the envy of all Europe. Completed 70 years before Byron’s visit, it was built by one of Portugal’s most extravagant monarchs, João V, in close proximity to a vast hunting estate.
Consisting of a massive basilica intended to rival St Peter’s in Rome, it stood alongside an enormous palace and Franciscan monastery. At the peak of construction, a labouring force of 45,000 men was employed supervised by 7,000 soldiers.
The complex contains 880 rooms flanked by 4,500 doors and windows. It has the world’s largest carillon of bells and a much heralded library with tens of thousands of books. A prestigious architectural team, master builders, carpenters and masons were brought from Italy and by the end of its construction an estimated 48 million ‘cruzados’ had been spent.
Rumours circulated that Dom João had built the basilica and monastery as a method of securing acceptance in heaven. He was a man prone to sexual excesses and, judging by the size of Mafra, he believed he had a great deal to do to atone for his sins!
Byron had already visited numerous religious buildings in Portugal – and plenty of houses of ill-repute – but Mafra was a subject worth writing home about. To his mother he proclaimed:
… the palace of Mafra, the boast of Portugal, as it might be of any other country, in point of magnificence without elegance. There is a convent annexed; the monks, who possess large revenues, are courteous enough, and understand Latin, so that we had a long conversation: they have a large library and asked me if the English had any books in their country.
Throughout his Grand Tour, Byron corresponded regularly with his mother although during his childhood their relationship had been fraught. She was inclined to smother people with affection or attack them in a rage and when Byron was a small boy his father, ‘Mad Jack’, disappeared to France having extorted most of his mother’s money.
A nursemaid, May Gray was appointed to assist with Byron’s upbringing, teaching him the scriptures as well as seducing him in her bed. This formative part of his childhood is described as a furtive blend of Christianity and sex.
Combining these two subjects into his epic poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, he describes the dome inside Mafra’s great basilica:
But here the Babylonian whore hath built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen
The Whore of Babylon, the Mother of all Prostitutes, features in the Book of Revelations but only Byron would have thought to connect her to the basilica’s ostentatious ceiling. He must have envied the Portuguese court at Mafra where religion and carousing had been enjoyably combined.
And church and court did mingle their array,
And mass and revel were alternate seen
Byron was enthralled by lavish architecture and when, at age 15, he first saw Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, he was suitably impressed.
It was an unexpected inheritance from his great uncle, ‘Wicked William’, the 5th Baron Byron. It was similar to Mafra in that the property consisted of ecclesiastical buildings alongside a home.
Within weeks of his arrival he had fallen in love with his cousin, Mary Chaworth, who lived on a nearby estate. The relationship ended when he overheard Mary mocking his unfortunate limp, an affliction thought to have been caused by a mild form of spina-bifida. Deeply self-conscious about this deformity, Byron was traumatized by her remark.
Due to the impact of Mary’s hurtfulness, May Gray’s licentious affections and his mother’s changing moods, Byron became confused and emotionally stunted. Throughout the rest of his short life he was unable to develop solid relationships with women.
Instead of Newstead becoming a family home, it was a place of riotous fun and decadent parties attended by testosterone-fuelled men. The buildings, in need of structural repairs, were neglected as the new owner squandered his small fortune on superficial decorations and entertaining.
He had to borrow money for his travels to Portugal accompanied by his servants – Fletcher, Murray and Freise – and his platonic friend John Hobhouse. After the sojourn in Mafra, the two gentlemen set off overland for Spain looked after by a hired guide, Sanguinetti. The three servants went on ahead with the luggage by packet ship to Gibraltar whilst their master tarried, enjoying a final sexual encounter before leaving Portugal.
Read about it in the next episode by joining Byron in the fortified border town of Elvas.
A Series by Carolyn Kain
Photos: NEIL ADAMSON