A king without a kingdom

Duke Duarte Pío, the 67-year-old pretender to the Portuguese throne, says his lack of an official role doesn't frustrate him

Antonio Jiménez Barca
Duarte Pío, Duke of Braganza and pretender to the throne of Portugal, in the grounds of his palace in Sintra.
Duarte Pío, Duke of Braganza and pretender to the throne of Portugal, in the grounds of his palace in Sintra.FRANCISCO SECO

The house of the Duke of Braganza sits in the noble area of the noble town of San Pedro de Sintra, 40 kilometers from Lisbon.

Our appointment with the Duke takes place on a cold and foggy morning. He lives in a large old house, beautiful in its decadence, with a sprawling garden in the back. The dark rooms feature carpeted floors, high ceilings and walls filled with the portraits of ancestors who died long ago; there are also gun racks with as many as 15 hunting rifles, elaborately painted tiles skirting the walls, and old catalytic heaters.

Duke Duarte Pío, heir to the nearly thousand-year-old dynasty of the kings of Portugal (which has been a republic since 1910), arrives on time. The 67-year-old is tall, affable, attentive and, all in all, looks like a nice guy. He speaks good Spanish. Showing me into the dining room, he points at the full-length portrait of a knight in armor with an unfriendly look on his face. I am informed that it is Nuno Álvares Pereira, the constable who defeated the Spanish armies in Aljubarrota. What an ominous start to the interview...

"He defeated the Castilians. But look here, he treated the enemy with great dignity," he says. "He was canonized not long ago, and I pulled some strings in Rome to have it so, because the Spaniards didn't want it to happen."

Duke Duarte Pío is the last link in a lineage founded in the 12th century

Lunch is frugal and each diner (including the duke) serves himself. There are no servants in sight. Outside the window facing the garden, the rain starts coming down quietly, sadly, like so many other winter mornings in Sintra.

Duarte Pío de Braganza was born in exile, although technically he was on Portuguese soil: he came into this world at the Portuguese embassy in Bern in 1945. He is the last link in an ancient lineage founded by the legendary Afonso Henriques in the 12th century. The branches of his family tree are entwined with all the royal houses of Europe.

In 1950, the Portuguese dictator António de Salazar allowed the return of the royal family, which had been languishing in exile since the proclamation of the Republic in 1910. But he made sure that none of its members would seek to overshadow him or make too much noise.

"Once, at an event that I attended with the daughter of the president of the Republic at the time, Américo Tomás, there was a photocall for the newspapers, and the next day I saw they had pulled me clean out of the picture," he recalls.

The day after a photocall, I saw they had pulled me clean out of the picture"

Don Duarte Pío, as the Portuguese refer to him, studied at a Jesuit school, attended university in Lisbon and got a degree as an agricultural appraiser. After that he did his military service in Angola, at the height of the colonial war, where he flew combat helicopters. One of the portraits that clog the house shows him as a smiling young man wearing his leather aviator jacket.

The Carnation Revolution, which restored democracy to Portugal, caught him completely off-guard in Saigon. "The president of the parliament of Southern Vietnam called me up at the hotel to inform me of it. And since I'd told him that I agreed with General Spínola and the position of the military who opposed the dictatorship, he told me: 'Hey! Your guys have won!' I got up and sent a telegram to the victors, to congratulate them."

In 1976, following the death of his father, Duarte Nuno, he became the melancholy heir without a throne, the eternal pretender waiting for a chance that just won't come in a country with a very visible president of the Republic who takes on all the tasks that any hypothetical king would perform.

Is this frustrating? The duke's reply comes fast, as though he had been asked this question many times: "It isn't, I think there are many Portuguese who want a king. And there are many who feel it is good for the Royal House of Portugal to exist even within a republic, in order to be able to help out without having any obligations."

Republicans are about the short-term. Monarchy looks more at the long term"

Duarte Pío claims that surveys show around 30 percent support for the monarchy, and that CDS, one of the parties that make up the current conservative coalition in government, has a lot of royalist leaders in its ranks.

The heir apparent lists his occupations: presiding a pro-monarchy foundation, attending the few-and-far-between meetings of the Council of the National Confederation of Agricultural and Credit Cooperatives, occasionally convening a private royal cabinet of sorts that includes a few former ministers, university professors and intellectuals, and visiting the 50 or so municipalities that ask him over every year. Occasionally he also publicly expresses his opinion about national affairs, with more or less media success.

Right now he is also working on a research piece on the history of Portugal dedicated to foreigners, and taking notes in order to write his own memoirs. The Portuguese government -- which pays none of his expenses, he notes -- gave him a diplomatic passport long ago, and in a sense this liberates him from the legal and institutional limbo in which he was living. All of his expenses, including the technical team that assists him, are paid out of his own pocket.

"I travel in economy class and my car is over 10 years old," he adds, trying to underscore that he dislikes wasteful spending, a fault that he sees in a few political leaders of the recent past in a country that is now drowning in debt.

"There have been governments here of varying political colors that spent a lot of money on useless things, on highways and on the Expo. You cannot borrow money to pay for those kinds of luxuries when Portugal has nothing to pay them with. Salazar never borrowed any money. Well, only to pay for the 25 de Abril Bridge. The republican mentality is very much about short-term thinking. Monarchy looks more at the long term."

He has known the Spanish monarch's family since forever. "We don't see each other as much as I'd like to, but there's just no time," he explains, adding that he sees Crown Prince Felipe of Spain mostly at Europe's royal weddings.

He is a Catholic, he abominates Portuguese governments that have "encouraged abortion instead of encouraging women to give the child up for adoption," and he admires minority parties. "They are after an ideal, not there for personal profit, which is more than you can say about those who belong to larger parties," he says.

At the age of 50, the duke married Isabel Inés de Castro Curvelo de Herédia, just when many chroniclers were forecasting a desolate future for him as a contumacious bachelor with no issue, a fact that would doom the Portuguese royal house to another suicidal lawsuit over succession. But they were wrong. The couple had three children. The eldest, Afonso de Santa María de Braganza, is already 16 years old. His father says Afonso will study something connected with biology, and that the teenager is already concerned about his dynastic future and pondering whether he wants to become another abstract, accessory king without a kingdom.

"It is quite a responsibility, to accept the leadership of a royal house with nearly 1,000 years of history, and serving the people wherever the people say, whether you are reigning or not," says the duke.

Will he want to?

"I think so."

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