Miguel de Vasconcelos e Brito (1590 – 1640)
The decline in the fortunes of Portugal can probably be traced to the death of the young king, Sebastian I, at the battle of Alcacer Quibir in 1578. Sebastian’s body was never found and he left no heir, prompting a succession crisis and the emergence of several imposters. This power vacuum provided the neighbouring king, Philip II of Spain, an opportunity to step in and unite the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the so-called Iberian Union.
For the Portuguese the opportunism of the Spaniards was not an ideal outcome. On the plus side the alliance with the Spanish did enable them to hang on to Brazil but their lucrative and monopolistic trading posts in the East which controlled the spice trade came under increasing pressure from the expansionist Dutch, French and English. This together with an attack on their dominance in the slave trade brought about an irreversible spiral of decline in the Portuguese fortunes. Coupled with this the Spanish diverted much of the wealth from Portugal to fund their participation on the Catholic side in the Thirty Years’ War.
Not unsurprisingly, the Spaniards were unpopular in many quarters and in 1637 a rebellion erupted, the Alteracoes of Evora, ostensibly as an anti-tax revolt in response to fiscal pressures exerted by Madrid and the demand that the Portuguese provide troops to wage war against the French. Some Portuguese noblemen, prompted by a promise from Cardinal Richelieu to support a pretender to the crown with ships and troops, began to conspire against the Spanish, espousing the claims of Joao of Braganza.
The rebels rejected the Spanish king entirely, claiming that his rule was illegitimate, not least because Portugal had a true king, Joao. He, though, cautiously rejected the initial clamour for him to become king but secretly started to recruit a private army. The rebellion petered out but the seeds of further discontent had been well and truly sown.
Miguel de Vasconcelos was, and had been, effectively the Prime Minister of Portugal since 1635 and by dint of his position was seen as the leading collaborator with the hated Spanish. In 1640 the Catalans rebelled against Philip IV and with the king’s forces otherwise occupied, the Portuguese saw this as their opportunity to strike.
On 1st December 1640 a group of noblemen raised the standard of rebellion. The citizens of Lisbon flocked to their cause and the rebels marched on the palace, seizing the Spanish governor, the Duchess of Mantua who happened to be the Spanish king’s cousin. But they were really after Miguel who was nowhere to be found. He had secreted himself in a closet with a gun to defend himself with. Alas, the sounds of his movement in such an enclosed space and the rustling of some papers soon alerted the rebels to his whereabouts. Without any more ado, he was shot and his body was thrown out of a nearby window for the mob in the courtyard to do with it as they liked.
Five days later, Joao arrived in Lisbon and he was crowned Joao IV, reigning until 1656 and founding a new dynasty, the Braganzas, as well as restoring an independent Portuguese monarchy. The Braganzas ruled Portugal until Manuel II was toppled by a revolution in 1910.