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In the cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Genève.

Portugal has a chapel in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Geneva, one of the most emblematic of Switzerland, where two Portuguese princesses are found. Both were owners of the Prangins Castle, now the Swiss national museum. The fate wanted that the two both mother and daughter, had the same fate, since their marriages, fruit of a great passion, ended in separation…

During a visit to the historic center of Genève in 2016, I came across the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre with the Chapel of Portugal. On a tombstone in the chapel, I soon realized that Emilia Nassau and Maria Belgia, Portuguese princesses, were there and the literature revealed in this tombstone the historical reasons why the chapel of Portugal existed. The name of Maria Belgia was already my acquaintance, because in 2005, someone had spoken to me, in an unapologetic way (we will see later on why), a little about her life in Switzerland, and it was then revealed that it was, after all, the name of an avenue in Lausanne and with several other tombstones elsewhere in Switzerland. Facts that I could easily see, using various sources… It was however unknown to this person the existence of the chapel of Portugal ..


Cathédral de Saint-Pierre, transformed into a Protestant temple in 1535, was acclaimed European patrimony by the European Union in 2011. An honorable distinction, without a dough for Portugal and for the Portuguese, thanks to the princesses Emília de Nassau and Maria Belgia, her older daughter, who are both entombed in the chapel. But who were these Portuguese princesses to deserve such distinction? With strange names, nothing Portuguese, as were they princesses of Portugal?

Emilia and Manuel secretly get married in Haia

Emilia of Nassau, Princess of Orange, daughter of Guillaume Le Taciturne, born in 1569, in Belt, Calvinist, marries in secret in the city of Haia, in the year of 1597, with Manuel of Portugal, born in 1568, in Lisbon, prince of Portugal, son of D. António, Prior of Crato and Ana Barbosa. Given the enormous religious differences between the two, hence the secrecy of it, one has to ask how was it possible to have this marriage? They met in Flanders. Emilia of Nassau had fallen madly in love with the Portuguese prince…

To better understand this case, it may be best to go back to the dynastic crisis of 1580 (see narrative on D. Antonio’s life on page ……). D. António, father of D. Manuel, was acclaimed king of Portugal, in Santarém, but a month later on 25th of August of 1580 was defeated in the battle of Alcantara, which ends with his fiery reign. At that time, even with the support of France and England in several battles, he could not liberate Portugal from the Castilian dominion, for it never succeeded in defeating Philip II, who was acclaimed king of Portugal, in 1581, in the Cortes of Tomar. Two years later, D. António was forced in exile in France. It was for this reason that D. Manuel, who used the title of prince heir of Portugal, during the short while his father reigned, accompanied D. António to his exile in France and later joining Flanders in 1588 and then going to England in 1590, where remained until 1595, at which time his father had already passed away and so he returns to Flanders

Two years later on 17th of November of 1597 the marriage of Prince Portugal and Princess Emilia of Nassau happens. This marriage was marked not only by the differences between them, which implied strong family opposition, but also because of the of D. Manuel lack of regard to hi claims to the Kingdom of Portugal, under Spanish rule (for 60 years), having as a result the separation of the couple leaving D. Manuel with the his two Catholic children, in Brussels, where he settled and Emilia stayed with her six daughters. 

Emilia of Nassau acquires the Castle of Prangins

Due to his Calvinist faith, she sought refuge in Genève in 1626 (already a city of Calvino’s religion) she went to inhabit in a house, which became known as the Royal Castle (‘Château Royal’) which had belonged to two prestigious families, Viry and Gallatin. A year later the Princess Emily bought a house, which is currently at 7 rue de Verdaine. Finally, in 1627 bought the family Diesbach, the Barony of Prangins, near Nyon, a vast expanse of land of medieval and feudal origin that is comprised of the present localities of Vich, Bursinel, Gland, Genolier, Arnex and Givrins, some of which are today cities of considerable population size.


Emilia of Nassau, despite being a rich heiress, always had economic difficulties throughout her life, due to the excessive spending of her husband, D. Manuel and later with same spending habits as her father, his daughter, Maria Belgia. She quickly became very popular in Prangins, abolishing the free work in fields and also giving up many of her own privileges, which in no way favored her. Worsening this situation, Emilia would maintain a conflict with his half-brother, Frédéric-Henri, concerning his inheritance rights and refused to even receive an income that his brother, Prince Maurice (a great defender of the Protestant faith, honored in Genève, where his statue is clearly visible in the Reformers), had attributed it to her and her daughters, for she simply disagreed with it. All this greatly aggravated their financial difficulties in such a way that their incomes were not enough to cover the big expenses.

Maria Belgia, against her mother’s will, falls in love with a young German colonel.

But the worst was yet to come, Maria Belgia, born in 1599 in Delt, in the Netherlands, bearer of rare beauty, renounced for love, against the will of her mother, a marriage economically advantageous, having fallen in love with a young German Colonel Jean Théodore de Croll, a native of Heidelnerg, who had moved to Genève at the service of the Margrave of Baden-Durlach. Her mother had assigned to her, a Calvinist nobleman, holder of wealthy fortune. To be able to marry Colonel Croll, Maria Belgia rebels against her mother, the Hague, to negotiate with his uncle, Fréderic-Henri, the inheritance rights of her mother, from which she obtained an income for herself and for her heirs and requests the inheritance of her aunt, Maria de Nassau, Countess of Hohenlohe.  D. Manuel, was at the time a notable military man, with diverse battles, in defense of the interests of the Netherlands. Later, under the protection of the King of Spain and having been very well received by the Archduchess Elizabeth, who ruled the Netherlands, had attributed him with annual pension.

Emilia’s Funeral of Nassau with Princess Honors

Emilia de Nassau, sick and aggrieved by her life, died on 16th of March of 1629, at the age of 60, at the her house on the Rue de Verdaine in Genève, leaving a will, drawn up on 22nd of February of the year corresponding to her death. Maria Belgia, returning from Holland, witnesses the death of her mom. Her funeral, made on 18th of March of 1626, had princess honors and was rendered by the State of Genève and the coffin was covered with a velvet cloth, wearing on one side the arms of Portugal and the other of Nassau. She was buried in Cathédral de Saint-Pierre, in the Chapelle of Saint-Croix, later, with the Reformation, denominated Chapelle of Portugal. After a year of the death of Emília de Nassau, D. Manuel remarries with D. Luisa Osório a Spanish maid of honor of the Archduchess. He died at the age of 70 on the 22nd of June of 1638.

Maria Belgia becomes the owner of the Castle of Prangins and marries the Colonel Croll

Almost three months after her mother’s death in June, Maria Belgia manages to establish an agreement with her sisters, in which they renounced their rights over Prangins in and return to Holland, where they lived a large part of their childhood, with all the servants that came with their mother and Maria Belgia assumes all the existing debts in Switzerland. The intention to get married with the German colonel was strongly opposed by his uncle and the General States of the Netherlands, who with the authorities of Berne, who administered the entire Canton of Vaud were opposed to their marriage threatening to arrest Colonel Croll. Fearing the worst, Maria Belgia and Theodore de Croll fled through the night, through a subterranean castle, to Vevey. Although he expected them to also be opposed to union, Maria Belgia, making use of her influence, is finally able to marry in the church of Bümpliz, in Berne, but because he was below her status her new husband was seen as an opportunist. However, Croll was still given later on the title of Baron de Prangins.

They had six children, one boy and five girls. The city of Vevey accepted to be godmother of Émile-Catherine de Croll, second child of the couple, existing in the historical Museum of Vevey an allegorical picture of child, offered by the painter Claude Villarzel on the occasion of her birth. 

Maria Belgia’s marriage proves to be an unhappy one

The marriage was not happy and was first approved and then rescinded by the Berne government. However, before any definitive decision, in 1640, Théodore de Croll was assassinated in Venice, where he had retired to. Maria Belgia is obliged to sell a large part of her goods to pay many debts he has contracted.

Maria Belgia entombed in the Chapel of Portugal next to her mother

She died in 1647 at the age of 48 at her house on Verdaine Street in Genève and was buried next to the her mother in the Chapelle of Portugal, in the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre, in Genève. The municipality of Prangins stays with her eldest son, Berne-Theodore, godchild of the town of Berne, who died, in 1656 without descent and the bernoises authorities ordered the liquidation of all their assets.

Castle of Prangins totally razed and rebuilt


Of note that in 1732, the castle, in the possession of Baron Louis Guiguer, was completely razed to give place to a new castle, which today makes part of one of the four Musées Nationales Suisses existing in the country, being the only one in the Romande Switzerland.


Innumerable offspring


It is not be thought, however, that the descendants of the princesses did not leave a mark the Swiss society. Because of the descendants of her five daughters, Maria Belgia appears in the genealogy of many cantons of Vaud and Genève, including the Arcambal, Bory, Vauthier, Chatelanat, Nicollier, Chavannes, Palézieux, Rochemondet, La Harpe, Correvon, Exchaquet, de Coster, Nicole, Du Martherey, Bugnion, among others.


Several tombstones honor the memory of Princess Maria Belgia

In addition to the tombstone next to the temple located in front of the main courtyard of the Prangins. As well as a plaque with the denomination of Place Maria Belgia, in the square surrounding the Chapelle of Portugal, in the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre, both dated of 1910 as a request of the Viscount of Faria, historian and also descendant of the king of Portugal, there is still one a quay in Vevey and another that calls an artery of Lausanne with its name (Avenue Maria Belgia), between Avenues du Servan et de Montchoisi. Still there is a tombstone, evocative of the marriage of Maria Belgia with Jean Thédore Croll, in the church of Bümpliz in Berne, is also at the request of the Visconde de Faria and another one on Rue Verdaire, in Genève, in the building that replaces its old house of the sixteenth century in honor of her memory.

Inauguration of the Chapel of Portugal

The chapel of Portugal (now called Chapelle dite de Portugal), situated in a left of the main altar of the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre, with an area of approximately six four meters. Was after many years of being closed to the public, finally restored at the initiative of the Fondation Clés de Saint-Pierre, with the support of the General Consulate of Portugal in Genève, which with the help of several Portuguese companies and commissioning the famous Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira three banks, one small altar and a stylized cross, which lend to the chapel an interesting and sober decoration. The entry reminds us of the respect for silence letting us realize that is place of  cult. On the 10th of June of 2018, shortly after the restoration of the chapel was completed the national day of Portugal, called the Day of Portugal, Camões and Communities Was celebrated in Genève, in the Chapelle dite of Portugal. A commemoration that served to homage both to the two Portuguese princesses of the 17th century and the country that they were princess from.

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