Sebastian of Portugal

Dafato Team | Jan 24, 2023

Table of Content


Sebastian I (Dom Sebastião) was king of Portugal from 1557 to 1578. He was born in Lisbon on January 20, 1554, St. Sebastian's Day (hence his name), and died at the Battle of the Three Kings in Ksar El Kebir on August 4, 1578. He was the penultimate monarch of the Aviz dynasty.

The regency

Son of Crown Prince John-Manuel and the Infanta Joan of Spain, he was born eighteen days after the death of his father. At the age of three, he succeeded his grandfather John III. His mother Joan returned to Austria shortly after her husband's death, and his Spanish grandmother Catherine of Castile took over the regency from 1557 to 1562. Very popular, she resigned after five years, and passed it on to the king's great-uncle, Cardinal Henry of Evora from 1562 to 1568. The young king was taught by Jesuits and Dominicans. He was under the influence of his confessor, Luis Gonçalves de Camara, and his brother, Martim, who became Sebastian's chief minister when he reached the age of majority, a favor he kept until 1576.

The period of the regency corresponds to the Portuguese colonial expansion in Angola, Mozambique, Malacca and the annexation in 1557 of Macao. At the legislative level, most of the regency was devoted to the development of Church affairs: new bishoprics in the metropolis and overseas, strengthening of the Inquisition and extension of its power to the Indian colonies, ratification and application of the decisions of the Council of Trent, establishment of a new university in Évora (1559) whose teaching was entrusted to the Society of Jesus. The erection of the Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Goa was begun in 1562 to celebrate the conquest of the city by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510.

In exchange for this submission to the Church, the regents obtained papal bulls that obliged the Portuguese clergy to support the defense of the colonies and the metropolitan territory.

In power

As soon as he came of age in 1568, Sebastian took control of the government. "Virgin king" and "knight king", Dom Sebastian was interested in both government and plans for conquests aimed at North Africa, in order to propagate the Christian faith. For De Oliveira Marques, he was "sick in body and mind"; for D'Antas, he was "in the grip of a continual overexcitement of body and mind". Religious, austere, chaste, it is of a violent, carried away character, even despotic; impassioned by all the exercises of the body, such hunting or the joust, it is also extremely bellicose, feature in which his courtiers confirm it. If at the beginning of his reign he still left bits of power to his grandmother, he ended up doing without her advice, and launched himself with his favorites in the construction of an Empire. To do this, he demanded the necessary funds from the Church, and raised additional taxes to take from the population what the clergy could not pay. Since the funds were still not sufficient, Sebastian was forced to take out loans, and in exchange had to grant certain benefits, such as a monopoly on the sale of spices for a limited period of time. The king also exchanged funds to the new converts for the papal promise not to confiscate the property of those condemned by the Inquisition. He knighted himself in Sagres by lifting the huge sword of Alfonso I of Portugal.

During this period, and until the end of Sebastian's reign, the internal government of Portugal was plagued by struggles for influence between Queen Mother Catherine and her opponents. A sumptuary law was promulgated in 1570, supported by the clergy who saw it as respecting the commandments of the Church: this law defined, among other things, the meats that were permitted or forbidden, how to spend one's money, outlawing most of the imports while forgetting to specify what was luxury and what was not. But the king was not interested in the internal situation of his country: to go to Africa to cover himself with glory was his only concern. John III had abandoned some African conquests to refocus the Portuguese colonizing effort on India, but Sebastian intended to pick up laurels where his grandfather had given up, and to expand Portuguese Morocco even further.


Having organized an elite infantry corps in 1571, Sebastian wished to exercise it on the battlefield. In 1574, he went to Morocco for three months to confront the Moors. But his army was small and could only launch a few skirmishes without success. On his return, he prepared a new expedition against the Moors. For this purpose, he promised his help to Mulay Muhammad Al-Mutawakkil, Sultan of Morocco dethroned in 1575 by his uncle Mulay 'Abd al-Malik who had the support of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III. Always ready to cross the strait, Sebastian tried once again to interest Philip II in his expedition. His emissary at the Spanish court also negotiates a marriage with the girl (elder according to some historians). The king of Spain agrees to lend galleys and men, but hardly believes in the success of the project, just like the powerful duke of Alba, favorite of Philip. However, Philip receives Sebastian in Guadalupe at Christmas 1576, and accepts the intervention of Portugal in Africa, under conditions that the expedition takes place during 1577, and does not go further than Larache. But Philip abandoned the king of Portugal in front of the Moroccans, undoubtedly partly because of the resumption of the hostilities in Flanders, and partly also because of the lack of preparations on the Portuguese side.

In spite of the opposition of Juan de Mascarenhas, Portuguese general, followed by the cautious advices of Catherine of Austria, the so much wished offensive is prepared for the summer 1578. The pope apparently granted the king of Portugal a bull of crusade. The king of Spain renewed his advice of prudence several times (in particular on the occasion of the condolences offered after the death of Catherine, in February 1578), even if certain chroniclers advance that Spain had much to gain whatever the result of the African adventure. Similarly, from Tangier, Mulay Muhammad urged the sovereign not to lead the expedition, for fear, he said, that the Moors would believe that the Portuguese were coming to subdue the country (which was probably Sebastian's plan). But in 1577, the city of Arzila, held by a supporter of Al-Mutawakkil, submitted to the Portuguese governor of Tangier, rather than to Abd al-Malik's forces. This "victory" fueled the Portuguese king's haste to cross into Africa at the head of his troops.

The expeditionary corps was then only a weak, undisciplined and unorganized army. In addition to the Portuguese forces, "German" mercenaries (in fact Flemish, sent by William of Nassau), Italians (to be sent by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and finally stolen from the pope (enlisted directly by Sebastian) accompanied the expedition: in all, 15,500 infantrymen, more than 1,500 cavalrymen, and a few hundred supernumeraries embarked at Lisbon on June 17, 1578 (or on June 24) and disembarked at Tangier on July 6, under the direct command of the king. About half of the troops were not Portuguese.

Three days after Tangier, the troops embarked for Arzila, where they waited another twelve days for supplies from the expedition. During this wait, a confrontation took place with a small corps sent on reconnaissance by Abd al-Malik, promptly repulsed by the Portuguese army and its allies. Sébastien was deceived by this slight success, to the point of despising the warnings that Abd al-Malik gave him on July 22. The latter sent him a letter of remarks, notably on the fact that the king of Portugal supported the one who had besieged Mazagan and massacred Christians there; despite Mulay Muhammad's promises, the latter had no territory under his authority, whereas Abd al-Malik could offer, in exchange for peace, to give certain territories and cities (except the most important ones) to the Portuguese protégé. Sebastian saw this letter as proof of the terror his troops would arouse in the enemy, and immediately convened a council of war to decide what to do.

Three options were examined at this council: to transport the troops by boat and disembark at Larache to take the city, to lead the troops along the coast without losing sight of the fleet, or to pass inland in order to shorten the journey and meet the enemy directly. The last proposal was the one that the king retained, in spite of the recommendations of the Count of Vimioso (pt), who recommended the rapid capture of Larache, in order to have a harbor there which would make any other operation simpler. But Sebastian wished to leave as quickly as possible, directly on the enemy army, to take Alcácer-Quibir if necessary and then to fall back on Larache. The fleet was ordered to reach Larache directly by sea. Taking only a few days' worth of supplies, the land army left Arzila on 29 July, and, after a detour to refuel, made difficult progress in the African territory, facing heat and harassment from the native troops. It was quickly decided to return to Arzila, but the fleet had already left this point, and could therefore not rescue them: Sebastian ordered on August 2 to resume the march forward, following the Oued al-Makhazin, a tributary of the Loukkos, which was not yet dry.

Pressed by the difficulty of crossing the Loukkos, the Portuguese preferred to cross the Makhazin in order to free themselves from the constraints of the tide. After this crossing, made on August 3, the army is in a very favorable position, covered by the Makhazin and the various arms of Loukkos. They had two choices: to cross the Loukkos in turn, in the direction of Alcácer-Quibir, where Abd al-Malik's army was located, or to head for the ford in the direction of Larache. Despite the exhortations of Mulay Muhammad, who soon found himself under direct threat from the royal favorites, the troop moved towards the enemy forces, who did the same: the confrontation took place during the hottest hours of the day, those least favorable to the Europeans.

Sebastian's army, in addition to the 15,000 infantrymen who had landed in Tangier, now included more than 2,000 horsemen thanks to the followers of Mulay Muhammad, as well as thirty-six cannons. However, this army was composed mainly of heavily armed troops, whereas much lighter troops would have been needed to fight under these conditions. Abd al-Malik's army, on the other hand, was over 14,000 infantry and over 40,000 cavalry, accompanied by irregulars and some forty cannons. Moreover, Moorish spies were well aware of the composition of the Portuguese troops. The Portuguese did not know the composition of the opposing army, being totally unaware of the presence of artillery among their opponents.

On the morning of August 4, it was the battle of Alcácer-Quibir (Ksar El Kébir): Sebastian forbids his troops to attack without his order, and goes up to the assault with the vanguard, leaving the rest of his army without a leader to command it, which deprives him of most of his men. The vanguard being very advanced in the center of Abd al-Malik's device, a cry of retreat is heard, in order to make the junction with the main part of the royal troops, changing quickly into a stampede in front of the charge of the Moorish troops. The Portuguese artillery is quickly silenced and taken by the enemy. The battle turned into a melee, and Sebastian, who refused the offer to save himself by returning to Arzila or Tangier, was eventually killed. About 7,000 other Portuguese fighters followed his example, the rest being taken prisoner, and less than a hundred Portuguese were able to return to Lisbon. Abd al-Malik died during the battle, as did Mulay Muhammad who drowned in the Wadi Makhazin while fleeing.

The adventure thus caused the most disastrous defeat in Portuguese history, as well as a cost of one million cruzades, about half the annual revenue of the Portuguese crown. Among the prisoners and the dead were almost the entire governing and military elite, killed or held hostage for many years, including his cousin Anthony, Grand Prior of Crato. The remains of the king of Portugal were preserved by Abd al-Malik's successor, Ahmed al-Mansur, who had the royal remains recognized by the prisoners. The body was first buried on August 7 in Alcácer-Quibir, while mortuary ceremonies were organized in Lisbon. In December 1578, the royal remains were dug up and taken to Ceuta, to be reburied in the Church of the Trinitarians. Finally, they were exhumed in November 1582 and brought back to Portugal by order of Philip II and transferred to the Hieronymites' monastery in Bélem, together with the infants of Manuel I and John III, whose bodies were brought to Bélem from Évora, escorting the funeral procession.

Between August 12 and 27, news of the disaster gradually reached Lisbon. An official censorship was quickly put in place, but this did not prevent the most alarmist rumors from spreading. The governors ensuring the regency during the expedition call Henri, the uncle of Sebastian, then announce the rout on the 22. On the 27th, the representative of the prisoners still held by the Moors informed the court of the details of the king's death and the defeat of his army. Henri then took over the succession under the name of Henri I, but he also died without a descendant. Four pretenders are then made known, all making go up their pretensions to Manuel Ier of Portugal, Jean III not having any more alive heirs. Ranuce I Farnese, is the son of Marie, grand-daughter of Manuel; Catherine is the other grand-daughter of Manuel, and married to the duke of Bragance Jean I, relative of the house of Portugal; Philippe II is the grand-son of Manuel by his mother Isabelle and king of the nearby Spain; Antoine, big prior of Crato, is the illegitimate grand-son of Manuel.

Ranuce's father, Alexander Farnese, governor of the Spanish Netherlands, claimed his son's rights to the crown, but eventually renounced them. In spite of the claims of Catherine and her husband, they did not obtain real support, and it is Antoine, who had the support of the people and the Church, who was proclaimed king and Elizabeth of England also brought him their support. But the Spaniard Philip II brought an army under the command of the Duke of Alba into Portugal, which reached Lisbon. Antoine was defeated at the battle of Alcántara on August 25, 1580 and forced into exile in France: the kingdom was conquered, the Iberian Union made. On July 26, 1582, the Franco-Portuguese fleet led by Philippe Strozzi was defeated in the Azores at the battle of Terceira, sounding the death knell for the return of Antoine. The duke of Bragance, giving up his claims, is honoured with the charge of constable of Portugal, function that he had asked in vain before to Henri I, and the collar of the Golden Fleece.

The contradictions between the accounts of Sebastian's death, as well as the apparent absence of a corpse (which would not return to Portugal until after Philip II's conquest of the country), led many Portuguese to believe that the king had just disappeared, and that he had escaped death in the company of his favorite Christovam de Tavora and George of Lancaster (pt), Duke of Aveiro. As soon as the fleet returned from Tangier in August 1578, a rumor spread that the king was in fact on board. This was referred to as the "sleeping king" who would return to Portugal in times of trouble to save the kingdom.

The Portuguese considered the Spaniards to be invaders, and many hostile demonstrations took place to resist foreign domination. The Spanish reaction to this hostility did not spare the supporters of Philip II, who saw little or no reward for their services. The king granted only personal favors, but refused any request which concerned the generality: the amnesty requested after the fratricidal fights of the crisis of succession was accepted but included fifty-two exceptions, aiming in particular at the clergy which had given a strong support to Antoine. The Spanish courtiers were even more extreme, arguing that the University of Coimbra should be closed, so that its students would come to study in Spanish universities. For his part, John of Braganza complained about the small rewards he had received, even though he had been promised the kingdom of Brazil, the perpetual grand mastery of the Order of Christ, and the marriage of one of his daughters to the infant Diego, and had just been stripped of the connétablie. After one year and half spent in Lisbon, Philip II set out again on February 11, 1583 for Madrid, not without having convened the Cortes of Tomar: guarantee of the conservation of the Portuguese laws, independence with respect to Spain (Philip II governing the two kingdoms by a personal union), and recognition of the infant Philip as heir of the Portuguese crown. In his absence, the government was placed in the hands of Cardinal Albert, assisted by the Bishop of Lisbon, Pedro de Alcáçova and Miguel de Moura (pt), but this form of government did not offer more benefits to the Portuguese people. In the period that followed, several people claimed to be King Sebastian, and received significant support from the Portuguese, largely due to nationalist sentiment.

Four suitors made themselves known between 1584 and 1598:

As late as the 19th century, "Sebastianist" peasants in Brazil believed that King Sebastian would come to liberate them from the "atheistic" Brazilian republic.

King of Portugal and the Algarves, on both sides of the sea in Africa, Duke of Guinea and of the conquest, navigation and trade of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India by the grace of God.

King Sebastian and his expedition was the inspiration for :


  1. Sebastian of Portugal
  2. Sébastien Ier
  3. a b c d et e « Sébastien Ier », dans Louis-Gabriel Michaud, Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne : histoire par ordre alphabétique de la vie publique et privée de tous les hommes avec la collaboration de plus de 300 savants et littérateurs français ou étrangers, 2e édition, 1843-1865 [détail de l’édition]
  4. a et b d'Antas 1866, p. 1
  5. a et b d'Antas 1866, p. 2
  6. de Oliveira Marques 1998, p. 222.
  7. Felipe II de Castela era filho do imperador Carlo  V e D. Isabel.
  8. O préstito fúnebre teve a direcção do vedor Francisco Barreto de Lima, era composto pelos seguintes fidalgos: D. Francisco de Castelo Branco, Jerónimo Moniz de Luzinhano, D. João de Castro, Ruy Lourenço de Távora, Henrique Correia da Silva, D. Lucas de Portugal, D. Lourenço de Almada e Diogo da Silva.[15]
  9. Em resposta à objecção de o corpo de D. Sebastião ter já sido enviado para Portugal, como fora atestado pela nobreza portuguesa que sobrevivera à batalha, ele dizia que o corpo tinha sido produzido para facilitar a sua fuga, e que a nobreza o atestara por esse motivo. Posteriormente, alguns membros da nobreza admitiram que o corpo estava tão desfigurado com feridas que era impossível sabê-lo.
  10. ^ Rendered as Sebastiam in Archaic Portuguese
  11. ^ Timothy Coates, "Habsburg Iberia Points West", History Today (March 2018) 68#3 pp. 14–16.
  12. ^ Anthony Disney: A History of Portugal and the Portugues Empire from Beginnings to 1807 Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 173-175
  13. ^ Ruth MacKay, The Baker Who Pretended to Be King of Portugal (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
  14. ^ Dian Fox, "From King Sebastian of Portugal to Miguel de Cervantes and don Quijote: A Genealogy of Myth and Influence". MLN 135, no. 2 (2020): 387–408.
  15. Kamen, 2012, p. 93.
  16. a b Kamen, 2012, p. 94.
  17. E. W. Bovill, The Battle of Alcazar. An Account of the Defeat of Don Sebastian of Portugal at El-Ksar el Kebir, Londres, 1952.
  18. Kamen, 2012, p. 95.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?