551. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 6 October-6 November 1800

551. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 6 October–6 November 1800 ⁠* 

Monday Oct. 6. 1800

You saw Mafra from the sea, a magnificent object [1]  – but like every thing in Portugal it looks best at a distance. its history you know from the last letter in my first edition – in the second the anecdotes are omitted at my Uncles desire. [2]  a pity – for they are good stories & true. We yesterday went there from Cintra – a distance of three leagues (12 miles). A quinta of the Marquis Pombal on the way forms a pleasing object from the olives which are planted to screen the vines – the grey foliage & the lively sunshine as it were – of the vines contrasting very well, the quarries are near whence the fine stones is dug for the Lisbon buildings. two columns are now lying by the road which in the great Pombals time were hewn for the Square at Lisbon, each of a single stone. a foolish waste of labour only becoming Barbarian pride for columns whose parts are put together upon the spot look as well & are in reality as firm. there they lie – like the Square itself, & the half-finished streets, & the missing kingdom – monuments to the memory of Pombal. Two leagues on the way lies a place called Cheleiras, – it may contain 50 scattered houses. – I assuredly speak on the outside its number – but the place is a town, & its inhabitants strangely jealous of its title. Some lads lately passing thro enquired the name of the village; the man replied angrily it was a town – & as they, not believing it, laughed at him – he raised an uproar – & they were actually in danger of being stoned by the offended townsmen. A bridge has been lately built here over a valley; & a great work it is, – xx it happens to be in the Princes [3]  road from Queluz [4]  to Mafra, & on that account this improvement has been made. the valley in which Cheleiras stands would not be noticed for beauty in a cultivated country, but here it appears beautiful from the contrast of vine & olive yards with naked & sun burnt hills. the people are in fault not the climate. trees will grow where ever they will plant them – but planting xxxxx indicates fore-sight, & beasts, & savages & Portugueze never think of the future. a stream runs thro it, which in the rainy season must be wide & rapid, – this sweeps down the soil from the mountains & fertilizes the bottom. a circuitous road round the hill top to avoid a steep descent leads to Mafra. there is a bye path nearer by two miles, which I advise none but a pedestrian to take. – Mafra itself is a small place, the estalagem [5]  rather better than is usual, & not worse than a dirty English alehouse. Saturday had been the day of St Francisco [6]  – a holy day in all Franciscan communities – more especially here because the Prince conceives himself under great obligation to St Francisco & regularly attends his festival at Mafra. of course the country was assembled there – food & fruit exposed for sale in the Plaza, & all the women equipped in all their finery. we went to mass – the Prince followed the Host as it was carried round the church – in the evening there was a procession – & the Prince paraded with it. & thus the Regent of Portugal passes his time – dangling after saints & assisting at puppet-shows – & no doubt he laid down last night thoroughly satisfied that he had done his duty!

The church & convent & Palace are one vast building – whose front exhibits a strong & trusty Portugueze mixture of magnificence & meanness. in part it has never been faced with stone – a mud plaister is in its place. the windows are not half glazed, red boards filling up the work-house looking casements. the church is beautiful – the library the finest book-room I ever saw, & well-stored – tho poor in English books. the friar who accompanied us said it would be an excellent room to eat & drink in & go to play afterwards – “& if we liked better to play in the dark – we might shut the windows!” He heard the servant remark to me that there <were> books enough for me to read there – & asked if I loved reading – & I said he – love eating & drinking. honest Franciscan. he told us also that the dress of their order was a barbarous dress. & that dress did not change the feelings. I suspect this man wishes he had professed in France. A Portugueze of some family was a nun in France: after the dissolution of the monasteries her brother immediately engaged with some <a> Portugueze abbess to receive her, & wrote in all haste for the distressed nun – she wrote in answer that she was <much> obliged to him – but she had was married.

You have a superb convent here – said I. yes said the Monk, but it is a wretched place in winter. we suffer so from the cold – the rheumatism kills many. we have no fire in our cells – only in the kitchen. – such is Mafra – a library whose books are never used, a palace with a mud wall front – & a royal convent inhabited by wretches who loathe their situation! The Monks often desert, in that case they are hunted like Deserters, & punished if caught with confinement & flogging. I heard of one poor fellow who was apprehended in a garden, where he had for three months earned his living honestly & usefully as a labourer. They take the vows young – at fourteen. those who are most stupidly devout may be satisfied with their life – those who most abandoned in all vice may do well also. but a man with any feeling, any conscience, any brains must be miserable. The old men, whose necks are broken to their yoke, whose feelings are all blunted, & who are by their rank or age exempt from some services, & indulged with some privileges – these men are happy enough. A literary man would be well off – only that literature would open his eyes.

The library was not originally a part of the foundation. the Franciscan order excludes all arts, all science. no picture ought to profane their churches. but when Pombal turned these beggarly vermin out of this Palace, he removed to it the regular Canons of St Vincent. [7]  an order well-born & well-educated. wealthy enough to support themselves, & learned enough to instruct others. his design was to make Mafra a sort of college for the education of the young Portugueze. the library was formed with this intention – in what manner this plan was subverted by the present Prince you may see in the old Letters [8]  – incredibly absurd as the story may appear it is undoubtedly & strictly true. – The Franciscan is by far the most numerous monastic family. A Convent that subsists upon its revenues must necessarily be limited in its numbers – but every consecrated beggar gets more than enough for his own support – so of course the more the merrier. Besides in an order of gentlemen, & such are the landed orders, the recruits are taken from the higher ranks of society. but the blackguard who would live without working, or escape serving in the army – frock themselves in the Capuchin dress. [9]  Among the mob they are popular because the favourite article of the Catholic – the immaculate conception & purity of the Virgin Mary, was a dogma of Franciscan invention. [10]  – this subject reminds me of an affair which makes some noise. the vicinity of a French emigrant regiment to a nunnery has produced some natural consequences. fourteen nuns are about to lie in – & the secret has not been kept. I am anxious to hear how it will end but fear a dark catastrophe.

My Uncle conveys this to England. he goes to take a small living in his own gift. [11]  we shall heavily miss his company & his assistance. every thing is extravagantly dear – & to mend the matter I lose 20 per cent upon the paper money. in which I receive half of what I draw for. today the news is that the Expedition [12]  is about to come in with their half starved men – half dead of scurvy Zounds will our idiots rulers never be tired of squandering lives!

In the printed copy – whenever that shall reach you – you will find Thalaba [13]  much improved since your manuscript was written. it goes at the same time with this – its produce is to apprentice Harry with a surgeon.

God bless you. I conclude in haste & will write speedily.

yrs affectionately. R Southey. Nov. 6. Lisbon. 1800.


* Address: To/ Lieutenant Thomas Southey./ H. M. S. Bellona./ Plymouth Dock
Endorsement: 8th
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 111–115 [in part; dated 6 October 1800]; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 120–122 [in part; dated 6 October 1800].
Dating note: Although the start of this letter is dated by Southey ‘October 6’, internal evidence in the previous letter to Tom Southey, 7 October 1800 (Letter 550), and the endorsement ‘8th’ suggests that this second letter was not finished and sent until ‘Nov. 6’, the date given at the end. The editors have therefore placed it after his letter to Tom Southey of 7 October 1800. BACK

[1] Huge Baroque complex, containing a palace, library, monastery and basilica, built 1717–1735. Tom Southey had seen it from afar in 1796; see Robert Southey to Tom Southey, 1 June 1796, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part 1, Letter 158. BACK

[2] Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol, 1797), pp. 542–543, told how the Franciscans had been deprived of Mafra by Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699–1782; Prime Minister of Portugal 1750–1777). Their loss was shortlived. As Southey explained: ‘When the Prince of Brazil married, his Confessor, who is a Franciscan himself, informed him that he never would have a child unless the Franciscans were reinstated in possession of Mafra. The Prince had faith, the mendicants had Mafra, St. Francisco had pity, and the Princess had a child’ (p. 543). These ‘anecdotes’ did not appear in the second edition of the Letters published in 1799. BACK

[3] John VI (1767–1826; King of Portugal 1816–1826), Prince Regent 1799–1816. BACK

[4] Queluz contained a 17th-century royal palace. BACK

[5] An estalagem was a Portuguese hostel or eating place for travellers. BACK

[6] St Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), founder of the Franciscan Order. BACK

[7] Congregations of priests living according to the precepts of St Vincent de Paul (1581–1660). Southey was mistaken: Pombal replaced the Franciscans with Augustinian Canons. BACK

[8] Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol, 1797), pp. 542–543; see note 2 above. BACK

[9] The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, an offshoot of the Franciscan order, founded in 1528. BACK

[10] In the medieval dispute as to whether the Virgin Mary was without sin from conception, the Franciscans had declared in favour as early as 1263, while the Dominicans were mainly opposed to the idea. BACK

[11] Herbert Hill was Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral. This gave him the right to appoint the incumbent of the joint living of Little Hereford and Ashford Carbonell. The post became vacant in 1800 and Hill appointed himself to the living on 5 December 1800. BACK

[12] The British Army had sent an expeditionary force to Holland in 1799. In 1800 there were rumours it would land in Portugal. However, the next destination for a British Army was Egypt in 1801. BACK

[13] The Islamic romance Thalaba the Destroyer, published in 1801. BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 2 times)