An English Adventure in Portugal During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Departure from Lisbon for Brazil, the East Indies and America, engraving from c.1592 by Theodor de Bry (Flemish, 1528-1598), illustration in America Tertia Pars. Location: Service Historique de la Marine, Vincennes.

King Sebastian of Portugal, grandson of King John III, was killed in Morocco at the battle of Ksar el-Kebir in 1578.  He had never married and had no heir setting up a succession crisis.  The next in line for the throne was the brother of King John III, Cardinal Henry who became king.  Henry was old and sick (66) and broken with no energy or authority and no children.  It was painfully obvious he wouldn’t live long.  There were no other descendants of King John III left, only those of King Manuel I.

Manuel had two surviving sons:  Luis, who never married but had a natural born son Antonio and Duarte who was the father of two daughters.  Maria was the wife of Alessandro Farnese, the future Duke of Parma and governor of the Netherlands under the command of King Philip II of Spain.  Catarina was married to John I, Duke of Braganza.  Maria had a son Ranuccio who had the strongest claim to the Portuguese throne.  Catarina could make a good case for herself as well as for her husband who was a descendant of King John I.  In addition, King Manuel had daughters who produced sons that included King Philip II of Spain and Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Savoy.

Antonio had taken religious orders and was known as the Prior of Crato, the traditional title given to the head of the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (Hospitaller).  His title is a reference to the domains of the order around Crato in Portugal.  He was one of the richest men in the kingdom and joined the expedition to Morocco and participated in the Battle of Ksar el-Kebir where he was taken prisoner.  Due to his ingenuity, he was released with little or no ransom and returned to a warm welcome in Portugal.

Antonio Prior of Crato
Antonio, Prior of Crato

His claim for the throne of Portugal was strong as the only male heir remaining but his bastardy was an obstacle even though there was precedent for an illegitimate son to gain the throne (see King John I, founder of the House of Aviz).  He tried to prove that his father and mother had married and that he had been legitimized.  There was a distinct lack of evidence to prove this but due to his considerable charisma, he was able to convince many of the Portuguese people this was so.  He enjoyed extreme popularity with the regular working class.

The Cardinal-King Henry was anxious to secure a peaceful succession to the throne.  He hated Antonio and obtained papal backing for a declaration of his illegitimacy and banished him from court, forcing him into exile in Spain.  King Henry heavily leaned toward supporting the Duchess of Braganza but feared the might of King Philip II.  He formed an interim regency to name a successor and then dithered in his support until his death on January 31, 1580.

King Philip II of Spain was working behind the scenes to bribe anyone he thought would aid his bid for the Portuguese throne.  The people distrusted Spanish rule and supported Antonio who they felt was the only one brave enough to oppose Philip.  The intellectuals, bureaucrats, merchants, nobility and the clergy, were ready to give their support to Philip.  But they feared a popular revolt headed by Antonio who they viewed as a disreputable opportunist of dubious morals and character.

In late June, King Philip sent Spain’s best general, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, to invade Portugal with a strong army.  The Spanish fleet cruised the Portuguese coastline.  Antonio raised an army of about eight thousand and managed to have himself proclaimed king in Lisbon, Setúbal, Santarém and other places.  The Spanish landed in Cascais and easily routed Antonio’s army at Alcântara on August 25.

The rest of the country was pacified and some of Antonio’s supporters were executed for good measure.  King Philip entered Portugal and established his government in Lisbon.  He summoned a cortes at Tomar and was proclaimed Philip I, King of Portugal.  He would remain there for the next two years.

Antonio survived in the northern provinces for several months before escaping on an English ship in May of 1581.  He eventually made his way to France, taking with him the Portuguese Crown Jewels, including several valuable diamonds.  Catherine de’Medici, Regent of France, welcomed him and recognized him as de jure King of Portugal.  The Azores had not been claimed by King Philip and Antonio set out with a fleet of Portuguese exiles and French and English adventurers to conquer the islands.  He was roundly defeated in the summer of 1582.  In August of 1583, the island of Terceira, the last holdout for Antonio, surrendered to King Philip and Antonio returned to France.

Fearful of assassination by the agents of King Philip, Antonio made his way to England where Queen Elizabeth I allowed him to settle, convinced he would be a useful pawn in dealing with Spain.  The Queen was alarmed at the time as Philip was making moves for control in France and the Netherlands and had complete authority of Portugal, threatening the position of England as a Protestant country.  She welcomed Antonio to court but gave him no money.

In the summer of 1585, Sir Francis Drake attacked Portuguese settlements in the Cape Verde Islands.  In 1587, Drake sailed right up to the port of Lisbon.  Because of these attacks, along with other reasons, King Philip felt compelled to put into action existing plans to send his purportedly invincible Spanish Armada.  The ships for the Armada were based in Lisbon and five thousand men from Portugal were part of the forces. The Armada was a disaster for Spain and left Portugal vulnerable to attack from the English.

After the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, Sir Francis Drake went about raising support for a counter-attack on Spain that included landing English troops on the Spanish mainland.  Elizabeth’s principal minister, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley had a plan to send English ships to finish off the struggling Spanish ships as they made their way home between Ireland and Spain.  Elizabeth wanted to send Drake to divert and seize some of Philip II’s treasure ships in the Atlantic.  These ships could be worth as much as three million pounds.  If only one or two ships were taken, it would amount to a great bounty.  Elizabeth had no intention of putting into motion a risky military operation on Spanish soil.

Elizabeth and Sir Francis Drake
Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake (Photo credit:

In the meantime, Drake joined forces with his friend Sir John Norris and came up with a plan to sail to ports on the north coast of Spain where some of the disabled Armada ships were anchored with the intent of burning and looting in a surprise attack.  Drake and Norris augmented the plan with a scheme to invade Portugal, depose Philip and replace him with Antonio, Prior of Crato.  Once this was accomplished, they intended to search for the Spanish treasure convoy.

At the time, Antonio was living in Stepney.  Elizabeth had been neutral towards Antonio, using him when it suited her and ignoring him when it did not.  She most likely thought restoring the Portuguese claimant to the throne was an absurd idea.  But Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary, was a supporter of the plan and even convinced William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley.  The two ministers realized there were advantages to wresting Portugal’s large fleet and global trade network in the East Indies, West Africa and Brazil from Philip’s command and felt it was in England’s best interest to inflict a really hard blow to Spain before he could rearm and attack England again.

Lord Burghley convinced Elizabeth to back the mission but she only did so with two prerequisites.  She asked that the expedition cause havoc for the King of Spain’s warships and secondly, that they get possession of some of the Islands of the Azores in the Atlantic so they could intercept the treasure conveys arriving there each year.  Only after completing these two missions were Drake and Norris to even think about invading Portugal.

In return for their support, Antonio had promised his allies a payment of five million gold ducats, subsequent payments of two hundred thousand ducats a year in perpetuity, permission for the English to plunder Lisbon and garrison the Tagus forts at Portuguese expense and freedom to trade within the possessions of the Portuguese overseas empire. Elizabeth had no idea Antonio had made these preposterous concessions to Drake and Norris.

In the end, the entire expedition would be privately financed with Queen Elizabeth supplying twenty thousand pounds and six navy ships.  Investors would split the profits according to the size of their investment.  Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert, Devereux, Earl of Essex was chomping at the bit to join the expedition but Elizabeth would never agree to let him or any other English noble enlist in such a project.  Essex defied her and went without her leave.

The entire fleet sailed from Plymouth on April 4, 1589, heading for Coruña.  It consisted of one hundred and twenty ships and nineteen thousand men, including Antonio and his supporters.  Drake and Norris believed they would find two hundred Spanish ships but when they arrived, there were only five.  They headed for Lisbon.  About sixty miles north of the city, they met up with Essex who had sailed directly to Portugal.  The plan was to loot and burn any merchant ships in the harbor of Lisbon and then put Antonio on the throne.  Obviously, they had no intention of following Queen Elizabeth’s specific instructions.

Essex landed first and the castle of Peniche was captured and claimed for Antonio.  Norris marched his army south toward Lisbon and Drake sailed to meet him with the ship’s artillery.  It took the troops a week to arrive, leaving the soldiers weak and tired from the blistering heat.  The western suburbs of Lisbon had impregnable defenses and supplies were running low.  Antonio had insisted Norris confiscate nothing from the local population and only commandeer supplies from the Spanish.

It became clear the situation couldn’t be sustained and Norris delivered an ultimatum to Antonio.  He must raise reinforcements and supplies or the English would withdraw.  Drake was unable to penetrate the Tagus estuary and rendezvous with Norris without risking his cannon and ammunition so he attacked ships at anchor in the mouth of the river.  He captured sixty German ships laden with plenty of supplies.  Meanwhile, Essex was able to fight off a Spanish ambush of the English camp.

Antonio did nothing to raise troops or garner supplies.  Philip had complete control of Portugal and supporters never materialized.  Dysentery was beginning to ravage the camp.  A council of war was summoned and Norris ordered a retreat.  On June 8, all but twenty of the best ships departed for Plymouth with the booty captured by Drake.  Drake sailed toward the Azores but his flagship sprang a leak and bad weather scattered the rest of the ships forcing the fleet to stagger back to Plymouth.

During the expedition, more than six thousand had died from disease or were killed, resulting in a complete fiasco.  Essex and the men responsible were forced to face the music with the Queen.  After this abject failure, Elizabeth wanted nothing to do with Antonio.  He was living in poverty in Windsor and then moved to France where he lived on a small pension provided by King Henri IV.  The prospect of him becoming King of Portugal faded away and his supporters left him.  Some of them even went to King Philip II to offer their services.

Antonio wrote and published several papers defending his claim to the throne and authored a cento of the Psalms which was later translated into English and German.  Despite his clerical status, he fathered at least two illegitimate sons by two different women.  He died on August 26, 1595 and was buried in the choir of the church of the Convent of the Cordeliers in Paris which was demolished in 1811.  For his supporters and some historians, he is viewed as a king wrongfully robbed of his birthright.  To others, he was an unprincipled adventurer with very little to recommend him.  There is no doubt he was charming, personally determined and courageous and the people preferred him as their king.


Further reading:  “History of Portugal:  Volume I From Lusitania to Empire” by A.H. de Oliveira Marques, “Portugal:  A Companion History” by José Hermano Saraiva, “A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire:  Volume I – Portugal” by A.R. Disney, “Philip of Spain” by Henry Kamen, “Imprudent King:  A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker, “Elizabeth:  The Forgotten Years” by John Guy, “Elizabeth I” by Anne Somerset, “Portugal in European and World History” by Malyn Newitt