You can roughly divide Portugal’s complex history according to her rulers:
1385 to 1580 – monarchy rule by the House of Avis.
1580 to 1640 – monarchy rule by Spain (the House of Habsburg).
1640 to 1910 – monarchy rule by the House of Braganza.
1910 to 1926 – the Primeira Republica Portuguesa (the 1st Republic).
1926 to 1974 – the Estada Novo dictatorship.
1974 to date – democratic republic and member of the European Union (1986).
Pirates and privateers.
The final years of the House of Avis were a golden age for Portugal and particularly for the Azores. A series of armadas in the late 1400s had established the Carreira da India – the sea-route from Portugal to India. Due to the islands’ stragic importance as a resupply point, the Azores became one of the cornerstones of the country’s economy. As kings of a worldwide empire, Dom Joao III (reign: 1520 to 1557) and his successor Dom Sebastiao I (reign: 1557 to 1578) were both conscious of the threat pirates and privateers posed to the Portuguese fleets, their vulnerable ships heavily-laden with treasures and spices from India and the Orient.
Italian military engineers Tommaso Benedetto and Pompeo Arditi were hired to draw up defensive plans for the islands of Sao Miguel, Faial, and Terceira. On Sao Miguel, the Forte de Sao Bras still dominates the quayside in Ponta Delgada, as the command post of the Military Zone of the Azores:
Whilst on Faial, the Forte de Santa Cruz was saved from ruin in 1969, becoming the Pousada da Horta hotel. This fort is worthy of a blog in it’s own right – it has a particularly interesting history involving Sir Walter Raleigh (in 1597), and the largely-forgotten War of 1812 between the USA and UK:
But it was Terceira where the most formidable defensives were constructed. Favourable winds and sea currents made Terceira the island of choice for most trade ships – an ideal resupply point before making the final push home to Lisbon.
An impenetrable line of fortresses were built along the island’s south coast, protecting the most-crucial anchorages – from Porto das Cinco Ribeiras in the west to Praia da Vitoria in the east. It’s quite a list: the Forte das Cinco Ribeiras, Forte da Igreja, Forte Grande, Forte das Mare, Fort da Ferramenta, Forte de Negrito, Forte do Acougue, Forte das Cavalas, Forte do Caninas, Forte das Mos, the Forte de Sao Sebastiao and the Forte de Sao Joao Baptista:
Terceira’s forts now sit in varying degrees of ruin, their heavy walls long-since recycled as building materials for homes on the island, although traces can be found if you know where to look. Some have even been repurposed and are now popular swimming spots.
Two of the best surviving examples are in Angra itself, overlooking the city’s main harbour: the Forte de Sao Sebastiao and the Forte de Sao Joao Baptista. Like the fort on Faial, the ruins of the Forte de Sao Sebastiao were converted (in 2006) into one of the island’s most popular hotels: the Pousada Sao Sebastiao:
The Forte de Sao Joao Baptista sits just across the bay, on the flanks of the extinct Monte Brasil volcano. It’s military role never ended, although today the fort is more a national monument of historic importance than a base for the armed forces:
The fall of the House of Avis.
Dom Sebastiao I continued with the construction of the fortresses when he succeeded his grandfather as king in 1557. He never married, never had children, and died at the disastrous Battle of Alcacer el Kebir in 1578, aged 24. Leaving no direct heir, the crown was passed to Sebastiao’s great uncle Henrique:
Aged 66 and in ill-health, Henrique understood the need for an heir in order to maintain Portugal’s independence from it’s powerful Iberian neighbour Spain. However, Cardinal Henrique’s Holy Orders and his vow of celibacy prevented him from taking a bride. He passed away heirless on his 68th birthday in 1580, plunging Portugal into a crisis of succession.
King Felipe II of Spain becomes King Filipe I of Portugal.
With no clear line of succession, the throne was initially claimed by Antonio, the Prior of Crato – the illegitimate son of Henrique’s brother Luis:
However, King Felipe II of Spain believed his line of succession was stronger. More widely known here in the UK for the Spanish Armada of 1588, Felipe was the son of Henrique’s elder sister Isabella and the powerful Charles V of Spain – head of the House of Habsburg, and ruler of an empire which included Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and most of present day Austria and Germany. When Felipe ascended the throne of Spain in 1556, he strengthened his claim to the Portuguese throne by marrying Dom Joao III’s eldest daughter Maria Manuela:
Antonio was proclaimed king on 19th July 1580, but his reign would be short-lived. As ruler of the Habsburg Empire, Felipe commanded one of the strongest armies in Europe, whilst the Portuguese armed forces had never fully recovered from the Battle of Alcacer el Kebir. Spanish troops landed at Cascais and marched on Lisbon, supported by an armada on the River Tagus. Antonio’s army was decisively defeated, and King Felipe II of Spain was crowned Dom Filipe I of Portugal.
Pretender to the throne.
With mainland Portugal lost, Antonio fled to Terceira, protected by Dom Joao III’s impenetrable network of fortresses. He established a government in opposition to Dom Filipe’s royal court in Lisbon – however, his rule was only recognised in the Azores. Through financial incentives and the promise of Portugal’s continued autonomy, Dom Filipe had already gained the support of the Portuguese nobles and high clergy. He was recognised as the official king and Antonio was proclaimed pretender to the throne.
In exchange for their support, Dom Filipe offered the Azorean nobles an amnesty, which was accepted by the inhabitants of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria but rejected by the other six islands. With support from a French fleet, Antonio set sail to subdue the two islands – meanwhile Filipe dispatched his own fleet with the intention of assaulting Terceira. In what became known as the Battle of Ponta Delgada, the two forces clashed on 26th July 1582 off the coast of present-day Vila Franca do Campo, on Sao Miguel:
Although the Spanish were outnumbered two to one, the improvised French fleet was defeated by their more experienced opponents. Antonio returned to the safety of Terceira, supported by a garrison in Angra of eight hundred French troops. Dom Filipe’s forces regrouped and returned in the spring in overwhelming numbers – ninety-eight ships and over fifteen-thousand men. His aim was to land an army; to take control of the fortresses lining the south coast and in doing so, take control of Terceira.
Antonio expected an attack to come from the sea via the main port at Angra – instead, the Spanish forces landed in the south east at Baia dos Mos where the defences were much weaker:
After just twenty-four hours of fighting, Terceira fell. The fortresses designed to protected the Azores now looked inwards – becoming barracks for the Spanish garrisons sent to control the islands’ rebellious inhabitants. With his rule now undisputed, Dom Filipe I and his descendants would rule Portugal and the Azores for the next sixty years.
Antonio & Elizabeth.
Antonio and a handful of his supporters fled to France, before fears of assassination by Dom Filipe’s spies drove him across the channel to England. After the failed attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588, ‘king in exile’ Antonio became a favourite in the royal court of Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1589, Antonio agreed to accompany Sir Francis Drake on an English Counter-Armada. Their mission was threefold: to destroy the Spanish Atlantic fleet in harbour (freeing up Spanish-dominated trade routes), to incite rebellion against Spanish rule in Lisbon (restoring Antonio to the throne), and to establish a permanent English military base in the Azores (with the blessings of the restored Dom Antonio).
The expedition was an unmitigated failure on all counts. The core of the 1588 Spanish Armada had been made up of Portuguese galleons, which now lay in ports along the north coast of Spain – under repair following the battles of the previous year. Drake was reluctant to enter the Bay of Biscay for fear of capture, and bypassed Santander where the majority of the ships were being refitted.
Drake had also hoped Antonio’s presence would provoke an uprising amongst the population of Lisbon. Sailing up the Tagus, the English forces began their assault by destroying the city’s granaries and food supplies, turning the population against them. When the people failed to rise and without sufficient artillery to take the city, Drake moved on to the third phase of the expedition: establishing a base in the Azores.
Whilst the English forces had been assaulting Lisbon, the Spanish had been marshalling their ships just beyond the mouth of the River Tagus. Surprise was on their side and the damage they inflicted was sufficient for Drake to abandon his plans for the Azores. Not wanting to return home empty-handed, Drake headed out into the Atlantic in search of Spanish merchant ships, but had to console himself with a raid on the weakly defended Madeiran island of Porto Santo, before storms forced him to return to England:
Antonio lived out his days in France on a small pension from the French monarch Henry IV. He died in Paris on 26th August 1595 and was buried in the Convent of Cordeliers – present-day site of the Sorbonne University.
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