The King was sixty years old in 1775. Illnesses and mistresses had aged him beyond his years, and he spent hours in meditation on sin and death. He wondered had he been right in following the policies of his minister. Had he been just to the Jesuits? Those nobles and priests in prison—he would gladly have pardoned them, now that he sought pardon for himself, but how could he mention such an idea to the unrelenting Pombal, and what could he do without Pombal? On November 12, 1776, he suffered an apoplectic stroke, and the court almost visibly rejoiced in expectation of a new reign and a new ministry. The heir to the throne was his daughter Maria Francisca, who had married his brother Pedro. She was a good woman, a good wife and mother, a kind and charitable soul, but she was also a fervent Catholic, who had so resented Pombal’s anticlericalism that she had left the court to live quietly with Pedro at Queluz, a few miles from the capital. The foreign diplomats notified their governments to expect an early reversal of Portuguese policies.
On November 18 the King received the sacraments; on November 29 Maria became regent. One of her first acts was to end the bishop of Coimbra’s long imprisonment; the seventy-four-year-old prelate was restored to his see amid almost universal rejoicing. Pombal saw his authority waning, and noted with somber premonitions that courtiers lately subservient to him now looked upon him as politically moribund. In a final act of despotism he took a wild revenge upon the village of Trefaria, whose fisherfolk had opposed the forcible impressment of their sons into the army; he ordered a platoon of soldiers to burn the village down; they did it by flinging lighted torches through the windows of the wooden cottages in the dark of night (January 23, 1777).
On February 24 Joseph I died; the regent became Queen Maria I (r. 1777-1816), and her husband became King Pedro III (r. 1777-86). Pedro was a man of weak mind; Maria absorbed herself in piety and charity. Religion, which was half the life of the Portuguese people, rapidly recovered its power. The Inquisition resumed its activity in censorship and the suppression of heresy. Queen Maria sent forty thousand pounds to the papacy to partially reimburse it for expenses incurred in caring for the banished Jesuits. On the day after Joseph’s burial Queen Maria ordered the release of eight hundred prisoners, most of them incarcerated by Pombal for political opposition. Many of them had been in the dungeons for twenty years; when they emerged their eyes could not bear the sun; nearly all were in rags; many looked twice their age. Hundreds of prisoners had died in jail. Of the 124 Jesuits who had been imprisoned eighteen years before, only forty-five still lived.33 Five nobles condemned for alleged complicity in the plot to kill Joseph refused to leave prison until their innocence had been officially declared.
The sight of the released victims of Pombal’s hostility, and the news of the burning of Trefaria, brought his unpopularity to the point where he no longer ventured to show himself in public. On March 1 he sent to Queen Maria a letter resigning all his offices and asking permission to retire to his estate in the town of Pombal. The nobles who surrounded the Queen demanded his imprisonment and punishment; but when she discovered that all the measures which they resented had been signed by the late King, she decided that she could not punish Pombal without laying a public stain upon her father’s memory. She accepted the minister’s resignation, and allowed him to retire to Pombal, but she ordered him to remain there. On March 5 he left Lisbon in a hired chaise, hoping to escape notice; some people recognized him and stoned his carriage, but he escaped. At the town of Oeiras his wife joined him. He was seventy-seven years old.
Now that he was only a private citizen he was assailed from every side by suits for debts he had neglected to pay, for injuries he had inflicted, for properties he had taken without adequate compensation. Bailiffs besieged his doors at Pombal with a succession of writs. “There is not a hornet or a gnat in Portugal,” he wrote, “that does not fly to this remote spot and buzz in my ears.”34 The Queen helped him by granting continuance for life of the salary he had received as minister, and added to it a modest pension. Nevertheless countless enemies urged the Queen to summon him to trial on charges of malfeasance and treason. She compromised by allowing judges to visit him and subject him to examination on the charges. They questioned him for hours at a time through three and a half months, until the old dictator, exhausted, begged for mercy. The Queen delayed action on the report of the examination, hoping that Pombal’s death might relieve her embarrassment; meanwhile she sought to appease his foes by ordering retrial of those who had been convicted of complicity in the attempt upon her father. The new court confirmed the guilt of the Duke of Aveiro and three of his servants, but exonerated all the rest of the accused. The Tavoras were declared innocent, and all their honors and property were remitted to their survivors (April 3, 1781). On August 16 the Queen issued a decree condemning Pombal as an “infamous criminal,” but adding that since he had begged for pardon he was to be left at peace in his exile and in the possession of his property.
Pombal was entering upon his final illness. His body was almost covered with pus-oozing sores, apparently from leprosy.35 Pain kept him from sleeping more than two hours in a day; dysentery weakened him; and his doctors, as if to add to his torments, persuaded him to drink a broth made from the flesh of snakes. He prayed for death, received the sacraments, and ended his sufferings on May 8, 1782. Forty-five years later a party of Jesuits, passing through the town, stopped at his grave and recited a requiem, in triumph and pity, for the repose of his soul.