Keep it in the Family: 8 Fascinating Cases of Historical Incest
All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest

Natasha sheldon - October 17, 2017

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Maria I, Queen of Portugal by Giuseppe Troni. Google Images

Maria I of Portugal

Traditionally, many European royal families have kept close ties with each other, with cousins intermarrying for generations. However, few have practiced incest in quite the same way as the Portuguese royal family in the eighteenth century. Maria, I of Portugal was born on December 17, 1734, the daughter of King Joseph I. Attractive and well educated, Maria was also extremely devout. When doctors saved her from a life-threatening illness, she believed it the result of divine intervention. The Princess even expressed a desire to become a nun. On the face of it, she was an unlikely candidate for incest.

When court officials were suggesting marriages for the Princess, Maria could have had her pick of European Princes. Instead, she settled on her father’s 43-year-old brother, Pedro. On June 6, 1760, the pious, 25-year-old entered into incestuous wedlock with her uncle. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one. The royal couple was devoted to each other – despite their age gap and close family ties.

Maria became pregnant several times. She also lost several children to miscarriage but managed to successfully provide a son and heir, Joseph, as well as several spares. It was Maria’s son Joseph who continued with the incestuous tradition established by his parents, by marrying his aunt- Maria’s sister- when he was fifteen and the lady in question thirty. Fortunately, this marriage produced no children!

In 1776, Joseph I had a stroke and Maria became the first Queen regent in Portugal’s history. On her father’s death, she became Queen Maria I with Pedro as her King consort. However, on May 25, 1786, Pedro died suddenly, and grief sent his widow (and niece) into a spiral of depression that drove her mad. By 1790, she was in a deep state of melancholia. She took to roaming the palace moaning and wailing incoherently and declaring herself damned. In 1799, the Queen’s mental state was so sorry that Portugal’s officials installed Joseph as regent.

However, Joseph did not have to bear this burden for long. In 1807, Napoleon invaded Portugal. The royal family, complete with all the wealth they could carry and the mad queen fled to Brazil. There, on seeing the welcoming natives, Maria truly believed she had entered hell. While the rest of her family settled on a country estate, Maria I was cared for in a convent where she died in 1816.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Gorgos of Sparta. Google Images

Leonides and Gorgos, Queen of Sparta

King Leonides of Sparta is known for his doomed but heroic standoff against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. What is not so well known, is that his wife, Gorgo, was also his niece: the daughter and only child of his half-brother, the former King, Cleomenes I. People do not usually associate the Greeks with incestuous unions. So why did the match occur?

Firstly, unlike its Roman counterpart, Greek law was not against all incestuous marriage. There were restrictions: it was illegal to marry a sibling sharing the same mother, for instance. However, brothers and sisters with different mothers but the same father could marry- and so could uncles and nieces. When Leonides succeeded his brother after Cleomenes suicide in 489 BC, his decision to marry his teenage niece was not so outrageous. Gorgo was her father’s only child. Thus Uncle and niece were merely establishing a strong claim to the throne.

This motive aside, Leonides was marrying a canny woman and one well able to manage Sparta while he was at war. Gorgos is one of the few women considered worth a mention by name by the historian Herodotus- a clear indicator of her worth. According to Herodotus, her political acumen existed at a young age. When Gorgos was a child, her father, Cleomenes, was visited by a foreign diplomate intent upon persuading Sparta to support a revolt against the Persians. Gorgos advised against it- and Cleomenes listened to her.

Gorgos also proved her wisdom during the Persian invasion of 480BC. Herodotus tells the tale of Demaratus, a Spartan in exile at the Persian court, who warned his homeland of Xerxes’ impending invasion. To disguise the message, Demaratus wrote it on a wooden tablet- and then covered it in wax. On arrival in Sparta, the tablet perplexed everyone but Gorgos who saw through the ruse and ordered the wax melted away.

Gorgos was also loyal. She knew that Leonides was going off to inevitable death when he set off for Thermopylae. Despite the fact that she would never be answerable to him again, she still asked him for instructions on what to do once he was gone. Leonides told her to marry a good man, have more children and live a good life. Whether Gorgos did marry again is another matter. What is relevant is she ensured Pleistarchus, her son with Leonides, grew to manhood to rule Sparta until his death around 458BC.