12 October 2012

Executed: Diogo, Duke of Viseu—Portugal 1484

It is a commonly held belief that the court of England has a monopoly on ruthlessness and treachery when it comes to dirty deeds done in the name of the king. There was the assassination of Thomas à Becket caused by an ‘inadvertent’ suggestion during a rant by Henry II, who was later turned upon by his own wife and sons. Edward II and Richard II were forced to abdicate and then imprisoned, both eventually succumbing under mysterious circumstances while in custody of their keepers. Add to that the still unsolved disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, the atrocities committed by Henry VIII, the infamous reign of Bloody Mary, and the list goes on. But just because well-read Anglophiles have found more information available about their monarchs, does not mean it didn't happen elsewhere. There have been similar acts carried out in the name of securing the succession throughout time immemorial.

The urge to eliminate the competition runs strong in every culture. All of the aforementioned acts are very shocking, indeed, but none more so than the brutal stabbing of Diogo, Duke of Viseu by his cousin, King João II of Portugal. Anyone who has read even a bit of European history knows that the thrones of several major countries were constantly intermarrying with each other and are all related by blood in one way or another. This is also true for the ruling house of Portugal. In 1387, John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III of England, married two of his daughters to the future kings of Portugal and Castile. On the Portuguese side, his daughter, Philippa of Lancaster, wed João I, and along with the direct line of succession to the throne, they also begat the seeds of the dukedoms of Braganza and Viseu. Three generations later, João II, who had earned the moniker ‘the Perfect Prince’—because he was incorruptible and impervious to external influence—sat on the throne and his cousins, Fernando and Diogo, managed their respective territories.

During the reign of King João’s father, Afonso V, Fernando had supported and accompanied the king on his expeditions and had been rewarded with many favors. He had amassed honors and riches, and had fostered a friendly relationship with rulers of the neighboring country of Castile. In 1478 he inherited the Dukedom of Braganza and soon became the richest and most powerful aristocrat in all of Portugal. He believed that he had as much right to the Portuguese crown as his cousin and had let his opinion be publicly known.

The nobles who had increased their riches under King Afonso were now in danger of losing their wealth under João. They formed a conspiracy to back the strong and valid claim of the Duke of Braganza, going so far as to even seek support from Isabella and Ferdinand of Castile. They were so confident in their cause that they became lax about security, and their illicit correspondence was intercepted by royal spies. Braganza was arrested, charged with treason, convicted, and beheaded at Évora on June 20,1483. His supporters fled to Castile, and his estates were confiscated by the Portuguese crown.

After the execution, João suffered recriminations from other members of the aristocracy who claimed that what he had done was reprehensible and perhaps even illegal. How dare he try a man of royal blood in the courts designed for the common man? Even if Braganza had been a traitor, shouldn't exile have been enough? João, being a very shrewd man and a quick study, took it all in and decided to learn from his mistake. He would not have his spotless reputation and his reign tainted by a second such scandal, so the following year when he sought to reprimand his other cousin, Diogo, Duke of Viseu, he went about it in a very different manner.
João invited Diogo to his royal apartments under the guise of a personal meeting and stabbed him to death with his own hands. He then summoned Diogo’s younger brother, Manuel, and after commanding him to give homage, João showed him his brother’s murdered corpse. The duke had been stabbed several times in the abdomen, and João defended his actions by accusing Diogo of treason and the heading of a conspiracy to do away with the king and place himself on the throne. He terminated the audience by granting Manuel the ducal titles and estates, insisting that he should now consider the king as his own father.

Manuel went on to become the most revered ruler in Portuguese history. During his reign the beloved king accomplished much for his country. He was a staunch supporter of the exploration and foreign trade that had expanded the Portuguese Empire and made it a world power. He established trade treaties and diplomatic relations in the Orient. He was a religious man and had sought to enlighten the people of the new Portuguese colonies through the work of missionaries. He reformed the courts and modernized taxes. He used the country’s wealth to attract the attention of illustrious scholars and artists to his court, even inspiring the Manueline style of architecture. The second half of his reign was considered the most prosperous period in Portuguese history.

But to this day, very little is known about Diogo. Information about him is so scarce, in fact, that I could not even find a picture of him for this article. He would seem a minor personality, and yet João found him important and charismatic enough to construe him as a threat. It is true that mystery breeds romance, and it was this intriguing paradox that influenced my decision more than 500 years later to dramatize these scandalous events in the novelette Maria’s Story: A Tale from Renaissance Iberia and use Diogo as the basis for the father of the title character in the full-length book, El Rey: A Novel of Renaissance Iberia.

Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a Christian who writes historical fiction with a 'clean' love story at the core. Although having researched, written, and self-published her first novel, El Rey: A Novel of Renaissance Iberia, in just under two years, she still does not consider herself a writer. She took first prize in the Rosetta Literary Contest 2012 with The Converso, a novelette chosen from a field of worldwide submissions. She is currently in the finishing stages of her second novel, The Welsh Healer: A Novel of 15th Century England, which takes place during the reign of King Henry V and will be available later this month at Amazon.