© John Magnet Bell

Forbidden love

She was a nun and he was the king, and they lived one of the most passionate love stories in Portuguese history.

Paula was a nun without a call for religious life. Her father was an impoverished goldsmith who, facing hard times, had no option but to send two of his daughters to the monastery of Odivelas, first the elder, Luz and then his second daughter, Paula. But while Luz accepted her fate meekly, not so Paula, who rebelled against her father’s wishes and for a time was a troublesome novice.

After a certain time she discovered there were things going on inside the monastery that were not compatible with the idea she had of a religious life, but even the abbess seemed to accept such a state of affairs. For instance, the nuns were treated very differently according to their social status, meaning those who came from wealthy families behaved as if they were ladies of the court, wearing rich clothes and forsaking all religious duties; Paula being poor, they mocked her cruelly, and none more so than the one who looked like the leader of the group, called Madalena Máxima. When Paula heard rumours that Madalena was visited by a very important gentleman, none else than the King, John V of Portugal, she understood the reason for her arrogance, as everyone treated the king’s mistress with the utmost respect.

But the King was not the only prominent figure who visited the monastery, and one day Paula ran into a Count, who was a trusted advisor to the king, and he was besotted with her. She took him as her lover and this gave her the status she craved, that of a mistress of an important man. The Count was generous, giving her beautiful clothes and helping her family and, a widely travelled and very experienced man, he also instructed her in the arts of love.

One day Paula left the monastery with a group of other nuns to go to a party, and there was the King. When he saw Paula he was immediately captivated by her and wanted to know who she was. Not even the fact that she was a nun at the same convent where his current mistress lived deterred him. As for Paula, when she saw him she was lost, she was struck by a feeling so strong she could not and would not resist – she knew she was helplessly, madly in love.

Soon the King went back to the monastery, where his former lover had given birth to a baby boy – his bastard son – but he would not even see her, he went straight to Paula’s cell and that day they began a passionate love affair that would last for a decade. The king came more and more to Odivelas, and soon everyone at court – including his Queen – knew about his new lover.

In her passion Paula forgot everything, her former lover the Count, her chastity and poverty vows, but she would not forget revenge, and she convinced the King to take Madalena Máxima’s son from her, to be raised elsewhere. On the day the King’s men took the child from his mother she almost went mad, and Paula heard her desperate cries and asked herself what she had done, as no one seemed to deserve such pain.

As the King and Paula lived their passionate love story, many forces were against them: intrigue was rife at court, the Queen was very jealous and the King was not always free to come to her as he had state affairs to attend to. So she would make a scene, taunt him because he would not come, refuse to see him, shut herself in the magnificent rooms he had generously given her and shout for him to go away…but then they could not live without each other; reconciliations were passionate and this powerful man who had had so many mistresses found this one so special that he needed no one else. He always carried with him a handkerchief she had given him with her name embroidered on it, saying he would never let it go as it was a token of the most precious thing in his life – her love.

But fate was not kind to the lovers and when Paula became pregnant the ever jealous Queen was enraged at yet another royal bastard. Paula gave birth and the King visited her and together they rejoiced in their baby boy but a few weeks later the Queen had him kidnapped and then, only then, did Paula realize the pain she had inflicted on her former rival Madalena, as she was also left with her arms empty crying the loss of a son.

Paula blamed the King for not protecting her and her son, and for not bringing him back. She played a last trump card and made a bargain with the Queen: if her son were returned to her she would never see the King again. As much as she knew this would break her heart, her love for her son was even stronger, a greater love than the one she had for her lover, and she made her choice.

The Queen kept her promise and soon Paula held her son in her arms, and she never received the King again. At first he thought this was just another quarrel, but after a certain time he understood she would not see him anymore, he understood he had lost her forever. His heart was broken and hers was too, for she truly loved him, but she knew she had to keep her promise.

I suppose I had heard about this story long ago, but had never really known any details until recently the series was announced on television. It was based on the book “Mother Paula”, written by Portuguese journalist Patrícia Muller. I began watching the series and then read the book, and thoroughly enjoyed both. There has been some controversy about the series, as it includes very explicit sex scenes, but I believe they do justice to the nature of this passionate relationship of forbidden love, in a time – 18th century – when morals were loose and many people had secret vices that would lead to their downfall should they be discovered by the dedicated agents of the Holy Inquisition.


Paula raised her child who became an inquisitor himself. When the King passed away, she had been spending the last decades of her life in total seclusion, dedicated to God and a life of piety. But she never forgot him, and legend says that the day she learned about his death and was grieving in her cell, she suddenly heard two servants passing by in the corridor, talking about the king, and she listened:

“Do you know what I heard about the King?” – one of them said.

“No – what?” – asked the other.

“On his deathbed he was shouting that he wanted a handkerchief, that he needed it before he died, that he wanted to be buried with it…it seems the name of one of his mistresses was embroidered in the handkerchief, but then he had so many mistresses…”.

“Oh my God” – said the other “and what was the name of that particular mistress, so special to him?”

At that moment, her heart started beating faster, as in those long ago days when she saw him at the door of her chambers and ran into his arms. If only she would have this last confirmation of his love, all would have been worthwhile. And then it came.

“Paula” – was the servant’s reply – “her name was Paula”.

Photo © John Magnet Bell