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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon

What is Castelo de São Jorge?

Castelo de São Jorge, or Saint George's Castle in English, is a hilltop fortress in Lisbon that was originally erected by ancient settlers and then extensively rebuilt in the Middle Ages.

Castelo de Sao Jorge canon

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Castelo de São Jorge History

Since time immemorial, people have settled on this well-positioned hill. The very first fortification on the site dates back as far as the 2nd century BC, when the Roman Republic gradually extended its control across the Iberian Peninsula. This hill was the site of an ancient ‘oppidum’ (or town), the urban nucleus that would eventually form modern-day Lisbon. Traces of Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, and Muslim presence have been discovered during the various excavations carried out by archaeologists on the castle grounds, demonstrating the place’s relevance to a bewildering array of peoples. The Arabs, who occupied Lisbon before the Christian reconquest, also constructed a fortification on the same site. Built in the 11th century, it was captured in 1147 by the first king of Portugal, Afonso I. During the siege of the castle, Martim Moniz, a nobleman and close friend of Afonso, who’s commemorated throughout the city, is said to have sacrificed himself by using his body to prevent the Arabs from closing the castle gates. This was the battle, in fact, that expelled the Arab presence from Lisbon and was supported by soldiers from Christian Europe on their way to Jerusalem as part of the Second Crusade.

Until the end of the 14th century, the monument was called simply Lisbon Castle, but during the reign of John I it would change its name forever. The king named the castle after the chivalrous warrior and early Christian martyr São Jorge (or Saint George). The gesture was spurred on by a military victory over an invading army from Castile, in today’s northern Spain. Some 6,000 Portuguese soldiers combined with an enormous force of English archers, wielding their famous longbows, to stave off their neighbouring kingdom. During the battle, the Portuguese infantry shouted ‘Portugal and Saint George’ before charging into the fray. Thus, George was commemorated with this hilltop castle and later as the country’s patron saint. A shared patron saint is one example of long and ancient ties between the kingdoms of England and Portugal, which also explains the presence of those archers.

The original structure of the castle underwent several changes, including the addition of a palace where several defining moments in the nation’s history took place. It was here that King Manuel I held a reception for the return of explorer Vasco de Gama after his successful voyage to India, and where the famous playwright Gil Vicente, often referred to as the father of Portuguese drama, presented his first work to the public, the Monólogo do Vaqueiro (or ‘Monologue of the Cowboy’), on the occasion of the birth of King John III.

In 1531, the castle was shaken by a major earthquake, which resulted in its abandonment by the royal family, who moved to the Ribeira Palace, which once stood on the site of the Praça do Comércio. From this time on, the castle served only its military purpose, in which it endured until the late 19th century. As today’s building suggests, though, this fortress was devastated again, this time by natural causes: the infamous earthquake of 1755 that caused widespread destruction to Lisbon in general also dealt the killer blow for the castle. In the 20th century, there was little left of the original glory of this monument, which would undergo a major reconstruction in the late 1930s.

The castle’s towers, encircling two central courtyards, have been well preserved, which combine to remind us of the importance and grandeur of this fortification for the defence of Lisbon during the Middle Ages. Two of these towers played an important role in the history of the castle: the Keep, which stands out for its robustness and for being in the most privileged place, and the Tower of Ulysses, where the royal treasure and archive were once kept. While in the main square, you can admire the bronze statue of King Afonso I, a 1947 replica of the original, which was made by the artist Soares dos Reis in 1887. Thanks to dos Reis, Afonso, who captured the fortress nearly 900 years ago, still watches guard over his prized citadel.

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