Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

How Portugal Became a Great Kingdom

Portugal is the most westerly country in Europe. It is a narrow strip of land bordered on its northern and eastern frontiers by Spain, to the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean, and is, roughly speaking, about the same size as Ireland. It is a country of many contrasts, of barren rocky mountains with deep gorges and valleys, of bleak and treeless moor-lands and wind-swept plains, of sand-dunes, and bold, rugged headlands. A land also of vineyards, orange and lemon trees, of pine-forests and cork-woods, chestnuts, oak and eucalyptus, of olive groves and fruitful fields.

It is one of the smallest countries in Europe, but its early history is a long romance—the story of a little nation with a great heart. Were it not so, the Portugal of to-day would not exist at all.

Long, long ago, it was inhabited by men of the Celtic race; later on we read of it as belonging to the great Empire of Rome, and later still, as being overrun by Germanic tribes, Vandals, Alans, Suevis, and Goths. In the eighth century came the Moors from the North of Africa, and about the middle of the eleventh century Ferdinand "the Great" of Castile conquered the northern portion, and founded the "countship" of Portugal, as the country was to be henceforth called; and the Counts of Portugal became great feudal lords who owed allegiance to Spain.

There followed many years of fierce warfare with the Moors, who wished to regain their lost possessions, and the Spanish King, Alfonso VI., at last appealed for aid to the chivalry of Christendom, to help him in his battles against the Mohammedan warriors. Among the knights who joined his army was Count Henry of Burgundy, who distinguished himself greatly, and afterwards married one of the King's daughters, Theresa, and became Count of Portugal, and it is their son, Alfonso Henriques, born in 1111, who, in 1140, declared himself independent of Spain, assumed the title of King, and became the greatest hero of his country. He did so much for it, and his memory is still so highly honoured, that I must tell you just a little about him.

He was only three years old when his father died, and his mother acted as Regent till he was seventeen, when he took over the government himself. An old record tells us that at that time he was "a skilful and valiant knight," and "of very comely presence." He had, what is more, the dash and enterprise, the sound judgment, and the grace and courtesy of manner of a born leader of men.

He had already seen a great deal of fighting, and had earned the honour of knighthood when only a little lad of fourteen. The young Count found himself ruler of a land consisting chiefly of mountains, forests, and heaths, and surrounded by enemies. In the north and east he had to fight against the power of Spain, in the south he waged incessant war against the fanatical followers of Mohammed, but he gradually drove them back, till his "heroic exploits were the theme of the wandering troubadour in every Christian Court in western Europe."

The capture of Lisbon, Santarem, Evora, Beja, and many other towns and strongholds, added more and more to his fame, and it is pleasing to learn that it was by the help of some English Crusaders, who were on their way to the Holy Land, that after several failures he at last succeeded in taking the strong citadel of Lisbon.

As the King advanced in years, he deputed his son Sancho to carry on the fighting, and devoted himself to the internal administration of his country, dispensing justice, granting charters to many of his towns, laying down boundaries, and, in fact, doing all he could to promote the welfare of his subjects.

There is one scene in the life of Alfonso Henriques which I think you would like to hear about—the last great exploit before his death, which occurred the same year.

The Moors had gathered together a vast army, and had besieged Santarem. Sancho and his troops had done their best, there had been many bloody encounters, but at last the overwhelming numbers of the enemy began to tell, and the hard-pressed garrison were on the point of surrendering, when in the distance a large force of mounted men was seen riding furiously to the rescue. Nearer and nearer they came, the well-known banner of many a Christian knight waving in the breeze, and at their head rode the grand old King.

Worn out as he was by years of warfare, bowed down by age, and suffering from the effects of countless wounds received in his country's cause, this old man of seventy-four, on hearing of his son's peril, had led his knights by forced marches from the very furthest corner of the kingdom.

With the help of the now rejoicing garrison, who sallied out to join in the fray, he entirely routed the enemy, slew their leader, and drove the scattered host back over the Tagus and across their own frontier.

It is little wonder that with such a leader the people grew into a brave, chivalrous, and self-reliant race.

The curtain may be dropped for a time, to be raised again on the scene of a great wedding, which was solemnized at Oporto in 1387 with much pomp and splendour, between King John I., surnamed "the Great," and an English Princess, Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt, and the granddaughter of our own King, Edward III.

Not quite two years earlier, at the Battle of Aljubarrota, Dom John, the first King of the House of Avis, had gained a great victory over the Spaniards, who had disputed the independence of his country, and here again we read of 500 English archers fighting on the side of Portugal, and doing yeoman service. Eight months later the Treaty of Windsor was signed, the first great link between England and Portugal, binding them to stand by one another, and in fulfilment of which John of Gaunt, accompanied by his wife and two of his daughters, landed at Corunna with 2,000 English lances and 3,000 archers. His expedition against Spain proved successful, and ended in one of his daughters being given in marriage to the heir to the Spanish throne, and the other to King John of Portugal.

From this time, when English blood first flowed in the veins of the Royal House of Avis, dates the real power of Portugal. From an obscure little country, she rapidly became a powerful nation, with possessions and colonies in every quarter of the globe, and it was one of the sons of our English Princess, Henry, surnamed "the Navigator," who did so much to help on the explorations and discoveries which were to make Portugal one of the greatest colonial Powers in the world. In the course of twenty-four years—between 1497 and 1521—during the reign of Emanuel, "the Fortunate," her explorers sailed eastward round the coasts of Africa and India to the East Indian Islands, Siam, and China, and westward to the Brazils, and through the Straits of Magellan out into the Pacific Ocean.

It was a period of great deeds performed by gallant men, and just as mariners and soldiers bore high the honour of their country abroad, so also did the statesmen, poets, and chroniclers at home. Lisbon became the centre for all the commerce of the East. The trade of the Spice Islands, of Africa, Persia, India, China, and Japan, all passed through it, and it was the time of Portugal's highest prosperity and power.