31 October 2018
Finding the legacy of
Josefina de Comerford,
the family ‘feme fatale,’
in the streets of Seville
During my visit to Seville last week, I went in search of the places in both Seville and Tarifa that were associated with the extraordinary life of Josefina de Comerford, who was involved in Spanish political intrigues in the early 19th century.
She was given the title of Condesa de Sales and is the one figure in the history of the Comerford family who stands out as a femme fatale.
In recent years, Josefina has become the subject of Spanish biographical studies, but even before her death she inspired romantic semi-fictional biographies. To this day, her legacy has divided Spanish historians, who have seen her as a fanatic, an extremist, a romantic heroine, or an early feminist.
Her great-grandfather, Major-General John Comerford (ca 1665-1725), also known as Don John de Comerford, was born in Finlough in Loughkeen, Co Tipperary, and was a member of one of the Callan branches of the Comerford family in Co Kilkenny. He was sworn a freeman of the City of Waterford on 23 August 1686, and during the Jacobite Wars he was an ensign in the Jacobite Bagnall’s Regiment of Foot alongside his brother, Henry Comerford.
By 1709, John Comerford was the colonel of the Regiment de Waterford in the Spanish army. Later, he was promoted to the rank of Major-General and knighted by the King of Spain. He died in Badajoz, 200 km north of Seville, close to the Portuguese border, on 18 May 1725. His widow, Henrietta O’Neill, died in Madrid in 1747. Her first husband was another Irish exile in Spain, Colonel Henry O’Beirne, an Irish colonel in the Spanish army.
Henrietta Comerford was a daughter of Henry O’Neill of Eden, Co Antrim, and his wife, Sarah O’Neill, of Shane’s Castle. Henrietta Comerford’s brother, John O’Neill, was the father-in-law of Richard Butler, 7th Viscount Mountgarret, and was the grandfather of Lord O’Neill, who was killed at the Battle of Antrim in 1798.
Henrietta Comerford and her first husband were the parents of Maria Therese O’Beirne (died 1777), Maid of Honour to the Queen of Spain. In 1726, she married the attainted Philip Wharton (1698-1731), 2nd Duke of Wharton.
A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine later referred to the Duchess of Wharton’s step-father, John Comerford, as her father, and in her will she referred to her half-brother, Joseph Comerford, as ‘my deceased brother Comerford.’
John and Henrietta Comerford were the parents of one son and four daughters:
1, Joseph John Comerford (1719-post 1777), also known as Don Joseph de Comerford.
2, Elinor, who also married into the O’Beirne family. She was living with her half-sister, the Duchess of Wharton, at her house in Golden Square, London, when she died in 1777. She was the mother of three daughters.
3, Frances (Doña Francisca) Magdalene.
4, Dorothea, who appears to have been dead by 1777, when her half-sister, the Duchess of Wharton, died in London.
The only son of John and Henrietta Comerford was:
Joseph John Comerford (1719-post 1777), also known as Don Joseph de Comerford. He was born in 1719 in Barcelona. He was a Knight of the Order of Calatranta and was living in 1744. He married Maria Magdalena de Sales, Madame de Sales, a widow sometimes described as Marquesa de Sales. Doña Maria Magdalena de Sales, Marquesa de Sales, was a native of Annecy in the Duchy of Savoy, and a member of the same family as Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva. Don Joseph de Comerford was still living in 1777 when his half-sister, the Duchess of Wharton, died in London.
Joseph and Maria Comerford were the parents of two sons:
1 (Major) Francisco Comerford (ca 1749?-1808).
2, Enrique Comerfort, Conde de Bryas.
Their eldest son:
Major Francisco Comerford (ca 1749?-1808) lived much of his life in Cádiz. He was a godfather or sponsor at the baptism of Carlos O’Donnell y Anethan, father of Leopoldo O’Donnell y Jorris (1809-1867), the first Duke of Tetuan, and Spanish Minister of War, and grandfather of Carlos O’Donnell y Alvarez de Abreu (1834-1903), the second Duke of Tetuan and Spanish Foreign Minister.
Francisco Comerford proved the will of his aunt, the Duchess of Wharton, in 1777.
He was a major in his grandfather’s Regiment of Ireland. He was stationed in Tarifa, next to Gibraltar, with his regiment, and in 1805 he was an eyewitness of the Battle of Trafalgar.
He married Maria MacCrohon from SanSebastian, and he died in 1808. They were the parents of one daughter: (Doña) Josefa Eugenia Maria Francisca Comerford MacCrohon de Sales (‘Josefina’ de Comerford) (1794-1865).
Francisco Comerford’s younger brother, Enrique Comerfort, Conde de Bryas, married a cousin, Juana Francisca de Comerford y Sales, said to be related to Saint Francis de Sales. Following the French invasion of Spain, he resigned his army commission and left for Dublin, bringing his 11-year-old orphaned niece and god-daughter Josefina with him. Later, he attended the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and died soon after.
His niece, Doña Josefa Eugenia Maria Francisca Comerford MacCrohon de Sales (1794-1865), is known in Spanish history and in popular folklore as Josefina de Comerford. She was born in 1794 in Ceuta, a Spanish outpost in North Africa, although old biographies say she was born in Tarifa. She was baptised on 26 December 1794 in the Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios in Ceuta.
Her father moved with his regiment in 1798 to the port of Tarifa, on the Straits of Gibraltar and facing Tangiers on the Moroccan coast. Josefina always said she was born in Tarfia, taking four years off her life, because she liked this legendary city more than Ceuta, which was then little more than a prison. In 1805, Francisco Comerford was an eyewitness to the Battle of Trafalgar. When her father died in 1808, Josefina was adopted by her uncle Enrique Comerford, Conde de Bryas, and she moved with him to Dublin, where she appears to have been brought up in luxury and in a wide social circle.
She was in Vienna with her uncle when he attended the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Enrique Comerford died soon after, and she then moved to Rome at the suggestion of her Irish and Spanish family and friends.
She was fluent in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. At 18, says Agustín de Letamendi, who knew and treated her, ‘she was graceful, with a flowing waist and exquisite manners, a sweet and pleasant voice, very light brown hair, a shiny forehead, and her face was white, blue eyes, cheeks rosy, Greek nose, coral mouth, teeth like pearls, and her bearing and feminine grace inspired admiration, respect and affectionate affection in all who approached her.’
When she returned to Spain in 1820, she became involved in the ultra-royalist side in the political wars of the 1820s and 1830s. In Barcelona, she made contact with the Regency of Urgel, and so began her involvement with the main guerrillas in the ultra-royalist faction, including Antonio Marañón, known as ‘The Trappist.’ Some biographers seek to claim she had a romantic affair with ‘The Trappist.’
It is said she rode into battle with her whip in one hand and a crucifix in the other, burning villages by day and praying the rosary at night. She led her followers to believe they had the support of the Holy See, the French government and the Russian emperor, who would supply them with troops, money and arms.
She was involved in the capture of Seo de Urgel in Catalonia on 21 June 1822, followed by the proclamation of Ferdinand VII as absolute monarch. For this, the Regency rewarded Josefina with the title of Condesa de Sales or Countess de Sales, derived from her paternal grandmother’s family, a distinction later confirmed by King Fernando VII.
At the fall of the constitutional regime in 1824, she moved to Barcelona, where she continued plotting ultra-royalist activities. However, while she was in in Barcelona she was far from the main focus of the rebellion in Cervera, about 100 km west of Barcelona.
When the new absolutist movement was set up in 1826, ‘The Trappist’ died as a prisoner in a convent and Josefina was imprisoned in Barcelona. However, Josefina made good her escape from Barcelona and installed herself in Cervera, where she gathered a new ultra-royalist group, with the support of a large number of priests.
She led the fight from her horse, without letting go of her sword. Yet she would also lock herself in her library ‘surrounded by war books, taking notes, drawing sketches of the most advantageous squares by their strategic position, writing memoirs, proclamations and letters.’
When the ‘malcontents’ were defeated and the main leaders were shot and hanged, Josefina was arrested on 18 November 1827 was imprisoned in the Ciudadela or citadel in Barcelona. She was accused of holding meetings in her house that gave rise to the constitution of the Junta de Cervera, as well as having encouraged more than 150 people to arm themselves.
She denied all the charges against her but was found guilty. Her death sentence was commuted because she was a woman, and she was sentenced to live an enclosed life in exile in the Convento de la Encarnación, on the Plaza Vigen de los Reyes, beside the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace in Seville.
The whitewashed Augustinian convent is a Baroque building dating from 1547. It stands on the site of the 14th century Santa Marta Hospital, founded by Fernán Martínez in 1385. The hospital, in turn, was built on the site of a former mosque. It became a convent in 1591, and is still commonly known as the Convent of Santa Marta.
The convent is enclosed and can only be visited in the company of one of the nuns. The cloisters have an arcaded patio that is arcaded, and the walls enclosing the patio have wonderful ceramic tiles and 18th century paintings. The museum of sacred art on the second floor includes sculptures, small altars, 17th and 18th century statues of the Child Jesus and a collection of clothes to dress the statues.
The convent faces a square that was once home to the Corral de los Olmos (the Courtyard of the Elms), a rogues’ inn that features in many of the writings of Spain’s literary giant, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Two plaques on the convent walls are reminders of the links between Cervantes and the convent.
Josefina failed in her appeal for a pardon in 1830. But she regained her freedom after the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833, and for the rest of her life she lived a secluded, almost hidden life in the Corral del Conde, a large mansion on Calle Santiago, and only a six-minute walk from Las Casas de Juderia, the hotel where I was staying in the Jewish Quarter of Seville.
The Corral del Conde (the Count’s Yard) is a typical 16th century Andalusian courtyard, and it is listed as an Historical Cultural Heritage. It is plain and stark outside, but inside it retains the charm and traditional features of a mediaeval courtyard, with a central paved patio, wooden galleries, bread oven and even its own chapel. The plants, flowers and fountain create an oasis in the heart of Seville.
It was first built when Seville was under Muslim, was rebuilt in the mudejárica style, but its present layout is influenced by the popular architecture of the 18th century. Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford stayed in the Corral del Conde in the spring of 1924, the year The Thief of Baghdad was released.
The Corral del Conde was refurbished and restored as an apartment building in 1982-1983. Many of the apartments are rented by artists, students and tourists.
Josefina made her will in Seville on 30 December 1863. She died in Seville of pneumonia on 3 April 1865, the Monday before Easter, at 8 Calle Garzo, now renumbered and renamed as 17 Calle García Ramos, in the Parish of San Vicente. She was buried in the Cemetery of San Fernando in grave number 527.
The first semi-biographical accounts of her adventurous life were written during her own life by her political opponents, including Agustín Letamendi (1849) and Francisco J Orellana (1856). Some of the accounts discredit her by alleging she had an affair with a young gardener in the convent where she was forced to live in Seville.
Don Antonio Pirala, the historian of the 19th century civil wars, tried to meet her in Seville in 1853 but was told either she was back in Catalonia or had returned to Ireland to settle family affairs and to recover some of her belongings.
He was disappointed not to meet ‘this extraordinary woman, who hates even the memory of the past but retains the genius, the strength of soul and manly breath of her youth despite her infirmities.’
Her life has been the subject of many popular Spanish romantic novels, so that the historical biographical details of her life are often lost in the fictional retelling of her legend. She is often described as ‘the woman general,’ ‘la dama azul,’ and ‘the fanatic,’ while other writers have defended her as ‘a defamed heroine,’ and even as the ‘Carlist Joan of Arc.’
Many of the historical accounts of her life are based on the semi-fictional two-volume book by Agustín de Letamendi, Josefina Comerford o el Fanatismo (Josefina Comerford or Fanaticism), published in Madrid in 1849, or the work of Francisco J Orellana, the author of El Conde de España o la inquisición military (The Count of Spain or the military inquisition), published in Madrid in 1856.
Letamendi’s book is influential, and many of the authors who wrote about the adventures of this Comerford countess drew on his semi-fictional book for their information, uncritically including its many errors. The details of her family origins and her guerrilla activities were copied from one book to another, reproducing silly details and many inaccuracies.
Cristóbal de Castro’s novel The English woman and the Trappist (1926) is misleading even in its title describing her as ‘the English woman.’ He rescues Josefina de Comerford as a heroine in his short, 60-page novel, in which she is portrayed as a beautiful and enigmatic woman who was known as la dama azul.
But he makes religious fanaticism the keystone of her life, and he invents the story of her affair with Frasquito, the gardener’s son. He ends with a degraded character who falls into alcoholism after her turbulent relationship held with the young man in the convent garden.
In 1948, Federico Suarez Verdeguer cited the treatment received by Josefina Comerford in history as an example of the total absence of political impartiality with which the history of 19th century Spain has been analysed. He compared her treatment with that of Mariana Pineda, who is considered a martyr for freedom because she had the courage to make a flag for liberals.
A few years later, in 1955, the ABC newspaper published an article by Pedro Sanchez Nunez entitled ‘Una heroína difamada’ (‘A defamed heroine’).
The historical and fictional accounts of her life include: Agustín de Letamendi, Josefina de Comerford o el fanatismo (Madrid, 1849), Betino Pérez Galdós, ‘Episodios Nacionales,’ in El voluntario realista (num 18, Madrid, 1976), Francisco José Orellana, El conde de España (Madrid, 1856), Antonio Pirala, Historia de la guerra civil y de los partidos liberal y carlista (Madrid, 1889-1891), Crisóbal de Castro, La Inglesa y el Trapense (Madrid, 1926), Crisóbal de Castro, La generala carlista (Madrid, 1931), Pío Baroja, Siluetas Románticas (Madrid, 1938).
Updated: 29 August 2022