Byron was right

In 1809, Byron wrote a friend from Lisbon :

I must just observe, that the village of Cintra in Estramadura is the most beautiful, perhaps, in the world.

We also find an expression of this in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
The horrid crags, by toppling convent crowned
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,

And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at our ‘Lady’s house of woe’;
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell…

According to Paul Scott of Adnax Publications,

Byron later notes that he misunderstood the name of the convent, taking Peña (rock) for Pena (woe). Peu importe. He also conflates the two convents he saw.

It’s spelled penha rather than peña in Portuguese, but we’re getting the idea. A. Hamilton Thompson (1873-1952) commented likewise:

The convent of Nossa Senhora da Penha, i. e., Our Lady of the Rock. Byron mistook penha (a rock) for pena (pain), and was corrected, as he noted in the second edition, by sir Walter Scott. He left the passage unaltered: ‘I may well assume the other sense from the severities practiced there.’

However, as every tourist/visitor knows, the toylike or toonlike castle on the top of the rock at Sintra is called the Pena Palace, and it stands on the site of a former Hieronymite monastery called Our Lady of Pena (Nostra Senhora da Pena). There is a mansion with a garden in Sintra called A Penha Verda, the Green Rock, but it’s not the place Byron had in mind.

It turns out that Byron got the spelling right the first time around and was right to keep it unchanged despite Scott’s well-intentioned but misleading remark. Terence McMahon Hughes, who traveled both in Spain and Portugal in 1845-46, condemned Scott’s interference in forceful terms:

The blunderer who communicated this intelligence to the noble poet managed to correct that which was right already, and to substitute what is grossly erroneous. The informant was probably some low-bred ignoramus as deficient even in his own language as in every other. To this day it is a common mistake amongst these folk to suppose that the Pena here signifies a rock. But it means no such thing. The convent was founded by Dom Manoel, at the very commencement of the sixteenth century, in acknowledgment of the Indian discoveries of Vasco da Gama, and was dedicated to “Our Lady of Punishment,” corresponding to “Our Lady of Grief” commonly known to Spanish readers as “Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.” (Chronica de Dom Manoel, Rei Felicissimo). The Portuguese word, signifying a rock, is written penha; the word peña with the same signification, is Spanish, and the tilde over the ñ belongs to that language, and has no existence whatever in the Portuguese. The critical genius, therefore, who led Lord Byron astray, was bewildered by a very slight smattering of Spanish, and moon-eyed in its application through the low intelligence which characterises his class.

Hughes has his facts right – Damião de Góis does say in his Chronicle that Dom Manuel (or Manoel, i.e., the Portuguese king Manuel I the Fortunate) founded a convent de nossa Senhora da Pena.  Hughes was probably unaware that the “blunderer” was not a critic (a class H. scorned) but a novelist; it’s amusing to see Walter Scott described as a “low-bred ignoramus as deficient even in his own language as in every other.” As a young man, Scott read and translated German poetry and drama, but his expertise in Portuguese and Spanish was probably insubstantial.

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