It’s always exciting to have the chance to see one of the world’s historic cities, but Lisbon is even more alluring because of its ties to Regency England. Now, for those of you who know the era’s history, the Peninsular War looms large in the struggle between France and Britain. Napoleon seemed unbeatable on land, conquering most of Europe with his well-trained armies, while only the heart-of-oak British navy kept him from invading the Sceptered Island and perhaps ruling as a modern-day Alexander the Great.
In 1808, however, Napoleon deposed the reigning monarch and put his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain, which provoked a uprising by the Spanish people. Britain decided to send military support, and given the strategic port cities along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Lisbon became one of the main landing areas for the expeditionary armies . . .
But first, let’s take a short look at the earlier history of this ancient city. Legend has it that it was founded by Ulysses and named Olissopo, which derives from the Phoenician words "allis ubbo," meaning "enchanting port." Its nautical tradition continued from ancient times into the 15th and 16th century, when the Age of Discovery flowered in Portugal. Explorers like Vasco de Gama, whose discovery of an ocean route to India, made Lisbon one of the richest trading centers in the world, led to the establishment of colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil, making Portugal a wealthy maritime power.
Spain slowly became a more dominant power that its smaller neighbor, but Portugal still enjoyed great prosperity, and the magnificent—and sometimes extravagant—architecture of Lisbon reflected its wealth from spices, silks, gold and jewels. Built overlooking the Tagus River, it was known for its striking beauty.
However, on November 1, 1755, disaster struck. Three major earthquakes devastated the city, setting off raging fires and a tsunami. It’s estimated that perhaps 90,000 people were killed out of the 270,000 inhabitants, and the Royal Ribeira Palace was among the many landmark structures destroyed. The city was slowly rebuilt, but its former opulent splendor was never recaptured. (Which isn’t to say it isn’t beautiful—it is!) The disaster shook the rest of Europe. Voltaire wrote a long poem about it, and his critique on optimism in his famous book Candide, is said to have been partly inspired by the event.
When Napoleon’s armies marched into Spain, they continued on right to the sea, conquering Portugal in 1807 and forcing its Royal court, including Queen Maria I and the Prince Regent, the future John IV, to set sail from Lisbon to set up a temporary government-in-exile in Brazil.
I won’t attempt a detailed history of the Peninsular War here—it’s far too big and complex a subject (those of you who have read the Richard Sharpe books will have gotten a wonderfully vivid picture of the campaigns and the horrors of guerilla warfare, which was a harsh reality of the fighting through Portugal and Spain.) However, here are a few highlights.
In 1808, Arthur Wellesley—later made the Duke of Wellington for his military victories over the French—landed with British forces and marched south toward Lisbon. He won several skirmishes and set up a defensive line to protect the landing of reinforcements. Attacked by Junot, one of the top French commanders, he won the Battle of Vimeiro, which was the first time Napoleon’s offensive tactics of combining, skirmishers, battle columns and artillery fire were repulsed. Wellesley’s victory led to the French withdrawing from Portugal, though Wellesley himself ended up being recalled to England.
Later that year, Napoleon himself came to lead his troops into battle on the Peninsula and the British army was forced to retreat to La Coruna, where it was evacuated n by sea. Napoleon turned commanded over to General Soult and never again fought in Spain.
Wellesley returned in 1809 as head of the British-Portuguese forces. He reorganized the army—including riflemen with each brigade!—and beat Soult at Porto. From there he slowly moved into Spain, where he won the Battle of Talavera. He was later forced to retreat back to Lisbon, where he created elaborate defensive works called the Lines of Torres Vedras, which proved critical in defending the city.
I n 1811, Wellesley—who was now Viscount Wellington of Talavera— forced the French to retreat from Portugal, a turning point in the war. 1812 saw some of the most famous battles of the Peninsular War take place—Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca, and by 1813, victory at the Battle of Vitoria helped convince Austria to re-enter the war as a British ally, thus sealing Napoleon’s fate.
I’m looking to spending a lot of time in the museums. So far, I've discovered that there is a fabulous Coaches museum, a military musem with rooms devoted to the Napoleonic period, a Tile museum and a Decorative Arts Museum. (Oh, to have more than a few days there) And then of course there is that staple of Regency excess—port! Stay tuned for a full report on that famous Portuguese wine.
So what about you? Have you traveled to any interesting destinations this summer? Learned any new history about a spot that intrigues you? And lastly, if you could choose one city in Europe to visit, which would it be?