The Bostonian Singer Who Married a Portuguese King and Had Her Inheritance Taken From Her

Lisbon owes much of its tourism today to her

Paulo da Silva
Feb 18 · 7 min read
Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal.
Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal.
Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Katia de Juan on Unsplash.

It reads like a typical chapter of Portuguese history — by which I mean it reads like a melodramatic soap opera replete with intrigue, betrayal, the good guys being duped, and the bad guys walking off with all the loot.

Welcome to Portuguese History 101.

Her name was Elise Friedericke Hensler, later to be created Countess of Edla solely for the purpose of marrying Dom Ferdinand II, King of Portugal, in 1869.

King Ferdinand’s reign had ended in 1853, due to the death of his wife, Queen Maria II of Portugal, but he had retained his title.

A King could not marry a commoner — and an unmarried mother at that! Their upcoming wedding was a scandal.

Elise was born on May 22, 1836, in Switzerland, and relocated with her family to Boston when she was still very young.

Accounts differ on her age at the time of her relocation— she was either two, or nine, or twelve. The first thing you must know about Portuguese history is that finding accurate historical records is extremely difficult.

What is certain is that she received an exceptional education in the arts in Boston. She had a successful premiere at the Boston Music Hall in 1852, then continued her studies at the Paris Conservatory the following year, embarking on an artistic career which would take her to Italy, Austria, and finally to Oporto in 1859 where she would meet the King and begin a relationship with him.

She was created Countess of Edla on June 10, 1869, by Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the King’s cousin, just before her wedding ceremony on the same day.

“Despite all the philosophizing, marriage is always better than concubinage.” — King Ferdinand II, in a letter to Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha [1]

King Ferdinand II and the Countess of Edla.
King Ferdinand II and the Countess of Edla.
King Ferdinand II and the Countess of Edla. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Ferdinand and Elise’s mutual passion was the Park of Pena in Sintra, whose afforestation they dedicated their lives to.

The King conceived the plans for the park, but Elise eventually took on almost sole responsibility for their execution.

Anyone who has been to the Park of Pena will know that it is an exquisite, magnificent, fantastical work of magical beauty. Walking the park feels like walking through Middle Earth.

Park of Pena, Sintra, Portugal
Park of Pena, Sintra, Portugal
Park and National Palace of Pena, Sintra, Portugal. Photo by Red Mirror on Unsplash
Castle in lake in Palacio da Pena, Sintra, Portugal. Photo by Alberto Frías on Unsplash

In 2017, the various parks and monuments of Sintra welcomed 3.2 million visitors. At an entrance fee of about $15 (not counting guided tours) for the Park of Pena alone (there are other monuments to visit, each with its own price tag), that’s a mind-blowing $48,000,000 income stream at least. All income made from the Sintra parks gets reinvested into the region’s monuments, but when you tally up the hotel costs, bus fees, trinket sales, tourist shops, restaurant costs, you start to get an inkling of how much wealth this park brings to Sintra, and also to Lisbon.

Because, hey, if you’re in Sintra, you might as well catch the train and go to Lisbon city thirty minutes away.

Portugal owes her a great debt.

Elise also had a “House of Delights” built on the Western end of the park, which is today known as “The Countess’s Chalet.”

The countess’s chalet in Sintra
The countess’s chalet in Sintra
The Countess’s Chalet. Photo by the author.

“My dearly beloved,
I miss you and that beloved chalet so much,
that it’s terrible to be sitting here [in the Palace of Necessities].
How beautiful the moonlight must be;
doubtless there is no wind as here not even a leaf is stirring.”
— King Ferdinand II, to the Countess of Edla

Elise was also the patron of two great Portuguese artists who might not have attained their stellar statuses were it not for her support.

The first was pianist and composer José Vianna de Motta, for whom the Vianna da Motta International Music Competition — a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions — is named. There is a statue of him in Lisbon.

“When I finished playing, the Countess was already interested in my future, telling my father to get me the necessary education and expressing her willingness to help towards this end.”
— Interview with Viana da Motta in the O Século newspaper on May 22, 1929

The other artist was Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, a Portuguese Realist painter.

Known for his “psychological portraits,” as well as an “observer of souls,” he was one of the Greats of Portuguese Art in the 19th century. There’s a street named after him in Lisbon.

It was Elise who financed his studies in France, where he studied the works of Courbert, Manet and Degas.

When Dom Ferdinand II died on December 15, 1885, he named her universal heir in his final will and testament. The Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle, all his estates were to pass down to her.

“I ask my dearly beloved wife to conserve, for my memory, the general system of arranging the plantings that she has pursued and managed with such intelligence and good taste, this system being the only one in these places which can conserve that unique character that we all recognize.” — King Ferdinand II, Last Will & Testament

This was contested immediately and forcefully by the reigning monarch, Dom Carlos I. Litigation ensued, and the Countess was forced to sell both the park and the palace to the Portuguese state for approximately $2,100, equivalent to about $53,189 in 2020.

A pittance.

The Queen granted Elise usufruct of the property until her death. But Elise did not stay, choosing to live with her daughter and son-in-law instead. She returned to the park for only four months of every year until the collapse of the monarchy in 1910. (Ironically, one of her proteges, the painter Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, was a well-known Republican, and was even asked to design the new Portuguese flag. It was this very collapse of the monarchy which sealed the Countess’s fate of never being able to return as a resident to her erstwhile home again.)

Judging from the following missive, it appears the park began to show signs of neglect:

“I thus noticed the pine in front of the chalet is also infested […]. I have already tried the remedy that I took the liberty of sending to Your Majesty. As the illness seems to have come from the top, and the trees are so tall, time and means will be needed to appropriately resolve this matter.” — Countess of Edla

After the monarchy fell in 1910, care of the palace was transferred to the Ministry of Estates, and control of the park was transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture. The chalet was practically abandoned in this time. Between 1950 and 1974 it became a vacation camp for students from the Boa Morte college.

“Boa Morte” means “Good Death,” and maybe there was something prophetic in that name because the chalet reached an extreme state of degradation and, in July 1999, was subject to a fire which “destroyed all of its interiors, roofs and part of the veranda leaving only the masonry structure.” (Quote from information panel at the Chalet.)

The fire burned through slow combustion, and it was days before anyone even noticed it. It would be eight years before anything was done to restore the chalet.

Today, the chalet has been fully restored as a result of herculean efforts by the recently-formed “Parques de Sintra — Monte da Lua” company. (The company name translates as “Sintra Parks — Mountain of the Moon,” referring to the granite massif on which much of Sintra rests). The Pena Park is today a juggernaut of Portuguese tourism.

There is another enormous restoration project going on in the Castle of São Jorge, the birthplace of Lisbon, eighteen miles away. The castle you see there today is not the castle which existed when Lisbon was born. That castle was mostly destroyed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

There was a Moorish village which existed in the castle’s immediate surrounds. This village was intentionally covered over to build the current castle which you see there, on orders of the Portuguese Dictator. Yes, Portugal was run by a madman until 1974. He did a lot of stupid shit.

The 1755 earthquake also unearthed a gigantic Roman amphitheater buried underneath Lisbon’s city center. It is impossible to excavate the entire amphitheater because houses and apartments have since been constructed over it. But an entire museum has grown around the archaeological site.

In that museum there’s a panel which demonstrates that Lisbon’s history extends nineteen meters (sixty-two feet) underneath the earth’s surface. When you stand on Lisbon’s streets today, you are standing upon a city built upon a city built upon another city. It is a city rich in historical knowledge which its people are now eager to discover.

Portugal was kept in darkness for centuries by its puppet Kings (they were puppets to the Grand Inquisitor), and then by its zealot dictator. If you spend only a few hours in Lisbon these days, you sense quickly the yearning for enlightenment. Thanks to this yearning, we now do know that the great benefactor of the Pena Park was a Bostonian by the name of Elise Hensler. We are learning other things, too.

The knowledge is no longer hidden. Portugal’s true history is finally being uncovered and restored.

[1] Quotes used in this article are courtesy of information panels on display at the Countess’s Chalet in Sintra, which the author visited.

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Paulo da Silva

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Loving Dad. Mostly mediocre. Totally not famous. Writes for a living.

Lessons from History

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