D Sebastião: The Return of the King

Lynne Booker


If there were to be a vote for the worst king of Portugal then you might think that D Sebastião would be a clear favourite, far ahead of a field including such incompetents as D Afonso V and D Afonso VI. He led a cripplingly expensive crusade to North Africa, in which his army was completely destroyed and he himself was killed. Even more disastrously for the monarchy, he left the kingdom with no viable heir and ripe for a takeover by the King of Spain, Portugal´s long standing and mortal enemy.


It is therefore a surprise to find that many Portuguese cannot wait for him to return! Legend has it that one misty morning D Sebastião will reappear and with him Portugal´s wealth and greatness will be restored. Before he was born he was referred to as O Desejado (the desired one) and after his catastrophic invasion of Morocco he was still called O Desejado, as indeed he is today. What is it about Portugal´s King Arthur that has given rise to such a myth and to such a fanatical belief in a king who brought his country to ruin?


D Sebastião was certainly seen as a saviour at the time of his birth. The dynasty of Avis was struggling to survive. Of D Manuel´s 13 children, the only survivors were D João III and his brothers the Infantes D Luís and Cardinal D Henrique. D Luís was unmarried and had only one bastard son, and as a cardinal, D Henrique was not able to marry. Of D João III´s 9 children, the only survivor was the sickly Príncipe D João who was married to his double first cousin D Joana de Áustria as soon as possible. (They were aged 16 and 17 respectively). With bated breath, the whole of Portugal waited for the birth of a male heir. Having performed his dynastic duty, the exhausted Príncipe D João died 18 days before the birth of his son, D Sebastião, who had been begged from God with so many tears, pilgrimages, processions and alms.


D Sebastião came to the throne at the age of 3 when his grandfather, D João III died at the early age of 55. At first, grandmother D Catarina was regent during D Sebastião´s minority, and then great uncle Cardinal D Henrique took over. D Sebastião was educated by the Jesuits and his greatest desire was to be a crusader. He took little interest in the task of government and he dreamed of military conquest and the expansion of the faith. His major and indeed only aim was to conquer Morocco. He was not a strategist or planner; these were cowardly traits. His motto could have been the same as that of the SAS: Who dares wins! When he assumed his duties as King at the age of 14, he took no advice from the experienced D Catarina and D Henrique and the way to his heart was through flattery and admiration. Avoiding Lisbon and the possiblity of unwanted advice, the young king travelled around the Alentejo and the Algarve with like-minded young aristocrats. He developed a craze for physical fitness and he took violent exercise in all weathers: he would hunt, go hawking, joust and he would fight bulls (but he would not kill them or allow them to be killed).


From an early age he suffered a lifelong chronic ailment which affected his sexual organs. He had an apparent dislike of women and there were grave doubts of his generative abilities. The Spanish Ambassador at Lisbon said that speaking to him about marriage was like speaking to him of death. Although he received numerous proposals on behalf of marriageable Spanish or French princesses, he was just not interested.


But he was passionately interested in Morocco. Because the Portuguese fortresses in Morocco (Alcácer Seguer, Arzila, Azamor and Safi) had become expensive to maintain and unproductive and because the increasing demands of Empire proved that there were just not enough men to occupy them, D João III had abandoned these outposts of Empire. D Sebastião was determined on a crusade to win them back again. Having surrounded himself with useless aristocrats and fawning favourites, D Sebastião set about making concrete his vision of Empire. Needing money, he raised special taxes; he borrowed 400,000 cruzados at 8% from a banker in Augsburg (in return for a 3 year monopoly on the sale of pepper); and for 240,000 cruzados, Portuguese New Christians bought from him a papal Bull which temporarily suspended the right of the Inquisition to confiscate their captives´ property.


In 1573 D Sebastião spent six weeks in the Algarve examining his levies and the defences against the corsairs. In Tavira, after he had examined the Forte do Rato, the delighted town staged a bullfight, and the king demonstrated his great upset when one of the bulls was killed.


D Sebastião visited the Portuguese fortress of Ceuta in Morocco for the first time in 1574 and by the summer of 1578 he had finally managed to gather an invading force. It consisted of 14,500 infantry, made up of Portuguese and mercenaries from Italy, Germany and Spain and 1900 cavalry and 36 guns. That great historian of Portugal, C R Boxer, calls the campaign that ensued one of the worst managed in recorded history. The invading force landed at Arzila and the infantry marched 33 km southwards towards Larache and then 32 km southeastwards towards Alcácer Quibir towards the waiting Moorish army.


D Sebastião was young, nervous and incompetent. Because he had not ordered any reconnaissance whatever, he was unaware of the size of the Moorish army (50 000 men, innumerable horsemen and 27 guns) or its proximity. He insisted that he was the only one who could give the order for any attack; he physically pushed fidalgos and soldiers whom he considered out of place; he offended the Spanish commander, who publicly regretted his participation in the invasion; he delayed giving the order to attack and when he did, it was only to the cavalry, apparently forgetting everyone else. D Sebastião refused to flee even when it was obvious that the battle was lost and many aristocrats were killed because they could not leave him. D Sebastião was eventually surrounded and cut down. Only about 100 Portuguese escaped from the scene of the battle and about 6,000 survived as prisoners. The cost of this ridiculous adventure was 1,000,000 cruzados (one half of the state´s annual income). Portuguese schoolchildren are taught that the battle was lost because of the sabotage of Spanish mercenaries. Spain of course was in a position to gain if D Sebastião were killed.


When D Sebastião´s body was eventually returned to Portugal in 1582, it was interred in the Mostério dos Jerónimos in Belém. A century later, his tomb was completed with the following verse (here translated from the Latin):


In this tomb lies buried Sebastian - if the story is true -

Who in the sands of Africa was gathered in by impatient death

Do not say that they are mistaken who believe that the king still lives

He was fated to die, and in his death he lives on


Strangely, despite the humiliating defeat and annihilation of the expedition, Portuguese people did not blame D Sebastião. He was regarded as a tragic hero of epic proportions whose disappearance was only temporary. At first it was believed that he was in hiding and his people called him O Encoberto (the hidden one). During the years 1580 - 1640, when Spanish kings occupied the throne of Portugual, people put their faith in a Messianic deliverer, D Sebastião O Adormecido (the sleeper) who would wake from the dead to inspire them. This strong belief is now known as Sebastianismo and is associated with a forceful and heartfelt patriotism, which may have underwritten Portuguese belief in its Empire right down to 1974. Ironically, therefore, it could be seen that this headstrong and militarily inept youth, by leading his countrymen to a tragedy of epic proportions in the sands of Africa, indirectly contributed towards the comparative longevity of his nation´s American, Asian and African empires. The ´spin´ does not work for me. I think D Sebastião emptied Portugal´s coffers, wasted thousands and lives and lost Portugal its independence. For these reasons he gets my vote as Portugal´s worst king!