Early Modern Histories

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Printed histories of Portugal (Part 1)

In 1600 an English edition of The Historie of the Uniting of the Kingdom of Portugall to the Crowne of Castill was printed in London for Edward Blount.[1] A sizeable volume of over 300 pages, it opens with Blount’s dedication to the Earl of Southampton. Blount declares that this work – first written in Italian, then translated into French, and finally into English – is worthy of merit and dissemination at this present juncture.[2] After this comes the author’s ‘apologie to the reader’ in which he emphasizes the importance of impartiality when writing history: ‘a Historiographer doth not wrong any nation’ but rather relates ‘with truth the misfortunes and calamities’ of a nation along with its successes’.[3]

The Historie describes at length the physical and religious landscape of Portugal. The country described has three archbishoprics: Braga, Lisbon and Evora, ‘whereof the first is Lord both spiritual and temporal’. It has many ‘most assured and capable ports’, such as Lisbon and Setúbal, and The Historie also acknowledges that ‘the seat of the country is commodious for all partes of the world’. In Lisbon the ‘air is very wholesome and temperate… there bloweth always a temperate wind, which doth refresh it.’[4] But the reader is also reminded throughout that the country’s many advantages have made it a popular target for invasion. It has ‘many times received men base and unworthy’, which have cost her dearly.[5] Portugal’s battles with the moors are described at length but it is Spain that is described as her persistent foe. For example, after the Portuguese had ‘subdued the moors’ they:

began… to make war with the Kings of Castill, although their Dominions were always greater then the Portugals; the which they did so often and with such obstinacie, that these nations all of one continent, issued from one stocke, & of one language, were enflamed one against the other with so mortall a hatred, that it remaineth even until this daie, but more with the Portugals then the Spaniards.[6]

Portugal’s turbulent history is persistently linked throughout with that of its neighbour and ‘enemy’, Spain. Editions of this text were printed and sold in Lisbon, as the English edition notes.[7] However, the English audience is also informed that many ‘private personages of the realme’ of Portugal had ‘abhorred’ the dissemination of this text, which detailed Portugal’s recent, difficult past. The Union, bemoaned these Portuguese ‘private personages’, had resulted in ‘the increase of power to so mightie a king’, an increase of which they hardly needed reminding.

The Portuguese were likewise pointing out that this text, being sold in England and Portugal, also reminded both parties of that key Anglo-Portuguese failure: the failed attempt of Francis Drake, John Norreys and Don António, in 1589, to provoke an uprising against King Philip, to remove him from the Portuguese throne. As this text reminded its English readers, the action ended badly for both England and Portugal, resulting in huge financial losses for the English, and sounding the death-knell for António’s claim to the Portuguese throne.

Blount’s allegedly impartial text states that Philip’s continuation as king was due to ‘diverse accidents [which] happened in so short a time, contrary to common hope’.[8] To the Portuguese, it acted as a reminder of the consequences of a failed Anglo-Portuguese attempt to remove a monarch. Portugal is therefore presented to the English as a nation dominated by their mutual enemy, and one whom they had failed. This was not the only work presented to an English audience, which emphasized Spain’s constant pursuit of more territories, by using England’s old ally as its central example.

In 1612, the first English edition of The General History of Spain appeared in London’s bookstores.[9] The text was translated by Edward Grimeston, who expanded the work beyond its original scope, adding a new section covering the years 1583-1612. The original, pre-1583 translated text details the firm hand Philip II had used in thwarting any attempts to stop the Union happening, whilst noting that ‘there was a great joy, as also in Portugal, and thanks given to God for so happy a victory, which put King Philip in a peaceable possession of the Realme of Portugal’.[10] Post-1583, in Grimestone’s additions, the tone is decidedly different.

Book 31, for example, lays heavy emphasis on the belief that Dom Sebastian had not perished in battle on 4 August 1578. (Disputing the Spanish accession, a number of different pretenders would emerge in the aftermath, the last of whom, proven to be Italian, would be hanged in 1619.) The witness testimonies of those claiming to have met with O Desejado (‘the desired one’) are described at length, challenging the previous assertions within the earlier part of the same text that Philip was the legitimate king, welcomed by the Portuguese.[11]

In The General History Portugal exemplifies an intriguing hybrid space through which both pro- and anti-Spanish sentiments can be explored. The earlier text, which is in no way anti-Spanish, is printed alongside its anti-Spanish, English conclusion. The former could potentially appeal to recusant, pro-Spanish readers; the latter would obviously appeal to English Protestants, fiercely opposed to Spain. This juxtaposition therefore presents both an exemplum of amicable and beneficial union and a warning about Spanish domination within the same text.

Both Protestants and Catholics could potentially view Portugal through to their own lens. The continual references to lineage and friendship therefore depict Portugal as potentially attractive to both sides of the confessional landscape. The printer is able to produce the text without censorship because it is a merely a translation, but one whose paratext is decidedly English. This presentation of Portugal as appealing was not just in an academic, literary sense either. Given this long history of alliance, Portugal was also a viable option to some as a place of residence.


[1] Conestaggio, Gerolamo Franchi di., The historie of the vniting of the kingdom of Portugall to the crowne of Castill containing the last warres of the Portugals against the Moores of Africke, the end of the house of Portugall, and change of that gouernment. The description of Portugall, their principall townes, castles, places … Of the East Indies, the isles of Terceres, and other dependences (London: A. Hatfield for Edward Blount, 1600) STC 5624.

[2] Conestaggio, The historie…, sig.A2r.

[3] Conestaggio, The historie…, sig.A3r.

[4] Conestaggio, The historie…, pp.2-3.

[5] Conestaggio, The historie…, p.4.

[6] (My emphasis.) Conestaggio, The historie…, p.5.

[7] Conestaggio, The historie…, sig.A3r.

[8] Conestaggio, The historie…, sig.B1r.

[9] Mayerne, Louis Turquet de, The generall historie of Spaine containing all the memorable things that haue past in the realmes of Castille, Leon, Nauarre, Arragon, Portugall, Granado, &c. and by what meanes they were vnited, and so continue vnder Philip the third, King of Spaine, now raigning; written in French by Levvis de Mayerne Turquet, vnto the yeare 1583: translated into English, and continued vnto these times by Edvvard Grimeston, Esquire (London: A. Islip and G. Eld, 1612) STC 17747.

[10] Mayerne, The generall historie of Spaine, Book 30, p.1128.

[11] Mayerne/Grimeston, The generall historie of Spaine, Book 31, pp.1229-1337.

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