Interred today in one of Portugal’s most exquisitely carved tombs, Inês de Castro enjoyed no royal finery during her tragically brief life.
Question: Which commoner-turned-queen inspired poems, operas, and even a cliché after being exhumed for her coronation?
Answer: Inês de Castro of Portugal
The Portuguese precursors to Romeo and Juliet were Dom Pedro and Inês de Castro, star-crossed lovers facing the disproval not only of noble families but actual royalty, and the stakes were as high as their passion was intense.
Dom Pedro, son to King Alfonso IV, was betrothed to the Infanta Constança, a daughter of the Castillian King. Unfortunately, Pedro fell in love with Constança’s lady-in-waiting (and bastard cousin), Inês Pérez de Castro. Praising the beauty of her “heron’s neck,” Pedro pledged his affection to Inês, even though he also did his royal duty and married her cousin as expected.
Constança was no idiot: she saw what was going on and tried a sneaky interception. She made Inês the legal godmother to her first child with Pedro; in theory, since the lovers would now be family under Catholic law, it would be incest if they continued the affair. This had no effect at all; the couple persisted.
Pedro’s own father took Constança’s side and banished Inês from Portugal. But when Constança died, Pedro—able to cast off claims of incest or obligation—retrieved her and renewed the love affair, which produced three children. Worse yet in the eyes of the king, Pedro fell under the sway of Constança’s brothers, who wanted them to marry and try to seize the throne of Castile away from their relatives, which would have prompted a civil war and been seen as aggression from Portugal against Spain.
Convinced that this love affair was a risk to his kingdom, the king and three counselors waited till Pedro was out of the country and then cornered Inês, planning to execute her. She begged Dom Alfonso IV to ask himself whether he could do such a thing to the mother of his grandchildren; he could not—so he left the room and let his advisors kill her.
Naturally, Pedro was both grief-stricken and enraged. Two years later, when he took the throne himself, he had the advisors tortured to death by having their hearts ripped from their chests to symbolize his own heartbreak. Then, he announced that he and Inês had secretly been married all along, and so declared her queen. Her body was exhumed and her head crowned, while his loyal employees were made to kiss what was left of her hand.
It may have made Pedro feel better, but obviously did nothing for Inês. This led to a Portuguese maxim: “It’s too late; Inês is dead” (Agora é tarde; Inês é morta). That’s a long way to say something simple: there’s no point. Along with many books, plays, poems, and a whopping 120 operas, that maxim shows how the story of a queen who got her crown too late has ruled Portuguese culture for more than 500 years.
5 More Portuguese Expressions Explained
- Don’t throw fireworks before the party (Não lances os foguetes antes da festa): A cousin to “don’t put the cart in front of the horse,” this expression tries to warn off someone getting ahead of themselves and counting on something that hasn’t yet happened.
- Where Judas lost his boots (Onde Judas perdeu as botas): This stems from the Portuguese telling of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the Bible; in this version, Judas hid the 30 pieces of silver were in his shoes, but then hung himself. When he body was recovered, his shoes and silver were nowhere in sight. “Where Judas lost his boots” can refer to the location of a lost object you can’t find, or a destination you don’t know how to get to.
- The corrections would be worse than the sonnet (Pior a emenda que o soneto): Portuguese poet Maria Manuel Barbosa du Bocage once refused to offer suggestions about another poet’s sonnet, saying it was unsalvageable and that corrections would only make it worse. The meaning of this adage is akin to “out of the frying pan into the fire,” and suggests not to make a bad situation worse.
- He went from horse to donkey (Foi de cavalo para a burro): With a hint of schadenfreude, the term notes that someone has gone from having something nice to something less nice (most often a house, a job, or a mate). It comes from the old idea that nobility rode horses and everyone else saddled up on donkeys, which would be a downgrade.
- Move your horse out of the rain (Tira o cavalo da chuva): Nobles would leave their horses and attendants standing outside the entry when visiting others’ homes; if they lost track of time or if it started to rain, the horses were moved indoors to stable-like spaces to wait out the return of the nobles. This saying means to give up waiting for something because it might not happen and, if it does, you won’t be able to guess when.
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