In terms of countries, Portugal is supposed to be our oldest friend. That doesn’t mean we haven’t invaded its territory. We have, on a number of occasions. At least we were often doing it on behalf of the Portuguese, or a faction among them.
As early as 408, a British-born general, Gerontius, leading an army that probably included Britons, invaded Lusitania in what is modern-day Portugal on behalf of Constantine III. To be fair, Gerontius may not have had many local allies in his invasion, but, as the history of British intervention in the area progressed, that was to change.
An early appearance of British forces in Portugal on the side of the Portuguese was in the Second Crusade. This Crusade started in response to the fall of Edessa, one of the Crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land created by the First Crusade. But like other Crusades, the Second Crusade had a slight tendency to spread beyond its original remit. In 1147, a detachment of Crusaders set off from Dartmouth by ship. They were aiming for the Holy Land, but due to weather they had to take a break in Portugal. Here they were duly recruited to the campaign of King Afonso I to take Lisbon from the Moors, and after four months of siege, with the help of Briton’s Crusaders, Lisbon fell to Afonso.
In 1384, English troops were rushed to Portugal to help the Portuguese in the vital battles of Trancoso and Aljubarrota against the Castilians.
Then, with the arrival of the Spanish in Portugal, things became temporarily more complicated. For instance, we all know that the Spanish Armada was a famous disaster for the Spanish, but what doesn’t get such wide publicity in Britain is that our own version, the English Armada, which set sail for the shores of Portugal and Spain just after the Spanish one, was not a great success either. Spain had occupied Portugal, and the Portuguese clergy and aristocracy had accepted Philip of Spain as their king at the Cortes of Tomar in 1581. The British idea was that we would arrive in Lisbon with a fleet and the Portuguese would rise up, shower us with flowers and plentiful supplies of fortified wine, and throw out the Spanish. The reality was rather different. Sir Francis Drake as admiral and Sir John Norreys as general led a fleet of almost 150 ships along the northern Spanish coast, failed to take Corunna and landed finally at Lisbon. Unfortunately for them, instead of finding welcoming Portuguese, they found determined Spanish defenders and no sign of a mass Portuguese insurrection. Eventually, after burning the Lisbon granaries, but not achieving much else, they had to give up and try their secondary mission of establishing a base in the Azores. When that failed too, they were left with little other option but to limp home. Drake managed to plunder Porto Santo in Madeira as part of a series of minor plundering and ship-seizing operations, but all along Britain’s armada had been steadily losing ships, men and hope. Many ships didn’t make it home and nor did a lot of men.
In the seventeenth century, after the English Civil War, in a little-known but interesting saga, Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I, commanded a Royalist squadron that refused to give up even after the execution of the king in 1649. By 1650 it had been forced out of its former base in Kinsale and had taken refuge in Lisbon harbour. An English fleet under Robert Blake arrived off the Tagus and blockaded Rupert inside, while molesting Portuguese shipping. After unsuccessful attempts to escape, Rupert finally managed to get his ships out and into the Mediterranean, only to lose most of them to Blake near Cartagena. Eventually, Rupert made his way across the Atlantic to the West Indies looking for a safe haven, before heading back to France. Rather a long way round, really. Assorted other examples of military involvement with Portugal followed. During the Seven Years War we were back to rushing British reinforcements to help Portugal against the Spanish, and a combined British and Portuguese force under John Burgoyne and Charles Lee retook the Portuguese town of Vila Velha in a battle in October 1762. There were other naval operations in Portuguese waters, including in 1780, when we defeated a Spanish squadron at the Battle of Cape St Vincent.
During Napoleon’s assorted rampages across Europe we returned to Portugal once again, this time to help kick out the French. After a period moving to and fro across Portugal’s frontier with Spain, much of the action in the Peninsular War took place in Spain, so we will look at it in more detail in the Spanish section. It is worth briefly mentioning two incidents: the unfortunate Convention of Cintra, in which, rather embarrassingly, we agreed for the Royal Navy to transport a trapped French army with all its equipment out of Portugal, causing a massive political scandal in Britain; and the Lines of Torres Vedras. When things were a bit problematic with the French, Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, decided to secure his base in Lisbon by constructing a massive, intricate system of defensive fortifications protecting the Lisbon Peninsula. The French arrived, the British sat back all cosy behind the lines, and eventually the French were forced to retreat to Spain.
Again there were more naval actions, including another victory for us over another Spanish (they were allied with the French at the time) fleet at another Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.
It was also during the Napoleonic Wars that we ended up occupying Portuguese territory for a time. Twice. Madeira was important to us, partly because of the wine, of course, and the English community on the island associated with it, but also because it had become a place where merchant ships were collected into convoy to go through the Channel. We occupied it briefly from 1801–02 when it seemed like Portugal might be turned against us. Then in December 1807, with Portugal under severe pressure from the French, we returned. A force of eight warships and fifteen transports under Rear Admiral Samuel Hood sailed in with over 3,500 troops. We annexed the island for four months, during which time it was a Crown colony, before un-annexing it once we were sure the Portuguese were really on our side. Four months – some Brits go on holiday to Madeira for longer than that today. It was a friendly occupation and we returned Madeira to the Portuguese safely in 1814.
Later in the nineteenth century we tried intervening in Portuguese politics again. This time we became involved in the delightfully named Liberal Wars. Nothing to do with David Steel or Nick Clegg, but an argument over the rights of the Portuguese crown and who should be wearing it. We took the Liberal side and dispatched a naval detachment. After a disappointing start, in which a squadron under Commander Glasscock positioned itself in the Douro and managed the unenviable achievement of being shelled by both sides, we made ourselves useful escorting Liberal forces to that place beloved of today’s Britons, Faro on the Algarve. Then, while we destroyed the other side’s navy, at the (yet another) Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Liberals took Lisbon. Finally, after a few more plot twists and turns, peace was declared and our side had won.
That was almost the end of it, in terms of us conducting military operations in Portuguese waters and on Portuguese soil, but it’s worth mentioning one more incident in the history of Britain and Portugal, one that, though it didn’t end in invasion, shows that even with this old friend there was still a potential for a serious disagreement. In 1889–90, in the Anglo-Portuguese Crisis, things got slightly heated between us when what the Portuguese called a ‘Portuguese scientific expedition’ and what we called a ‘Portuguese potential invasion force’ strayed out of Portuguese-controlled territory in West Africa and into what we regarded as our sphere of control. We responded with a naval show of strength, including sending a British squadron to Gibraltar, just along the coast from Portugal, and made assorted other threats, so that eventually the Portuguese withdrew their scientists and soldiers.
Anyway, when all’s said and done, British tourists who splash in the waters off Portugal today are only following a tradition established centuries ago.