History, Restoration of Independence Day, 1st December

Restoration of Independence Day, 1st December

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The first of December is a public holiday in Portugal which celebrates the restoration of Portuguese independence after 60 years of Spanish rule from 1580-1640. It all began when Dom Sebastião, the boy-king (he became king at the age of three) made a very misguided attack on Morocco in 1578 resulting in the 24-year-old king’s death, along with 8000 of his troops, including most of the male line of the Portuguese royal family.

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‘Portrait of King Dom Sebastião I of Portugal’ by Cristóvão de Morais c.1570-75, in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

This reckless act ultimately resulted in Portugal losing its independence to Spain. After Sebastião’s death his great-uncle Cardinal Henrique became king, but as he was old and childless there was a succession crisis. There were several claimants to the throne, the three main ones being grandchildren of Dom Manuel I: Felipe II of Spain; Infanta Catarina, Duchess of Bragança; and Dom António, Prior do Crato (an illegitimate son of Dom João III’s brother). António was the popular choice and when Dom Henrique died in 1580 António became Dom António I. However, Felipe II invaded Portugal almost immediately and António fled to France allowing Felipe to take the throne and become Filipe I of Portugal.

The 60 years of Spanish rule were ultimately disastrous for Portugal. Relationships with Portugal’s two former allies, England and Holland, were broken as Portugal was seen to be associating with Spain, the enemy of both countries. The English were angry that the Spanish Armada was being equipped in Lisbon and Filipe I forbid Portugal to trade with the Dutch, resulting in the Dutch taking over the spice trade routes that Portugal had monopolized up to that point. During this time a myth developed around Sebastião based on an idea that he wasn’t really dead and would one day return to rule Portugal. Several men claiming to be Sebastião appeared during this time. After Filipe I’s death, the two subsequent kings, Filipe II and Filipe III, showed no interest in Portugal and spent very little time there.

The disenchanted Portuguese, led by João, the seventh Duke of Bragança (and the grandson of Infanta Catarina, Duchess of Bragança), planned a coup and on 1 December 1640 they stormed the royal palace in Lisbon and assassinated the secretary to the governor. This resulted in João taking the throne and being crowned Dom João IV.

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Portrait of Dom João IV, attributed to José de Avelar Rebelo, in the Museu Nacional dos Coches, Belém

However, the Spanish would not give up Portugal easily and a 28-year War of Independence was fought, which finally ended in 1668 with a Portuguese victory. The House of Bragança ruled Portugal until 1910, when the last king of Portugal was assassinated and the Republic was proclaimed.

The day is celebrated in Lisbon with a parade down the Avenida da Liberdade, accompanied by military bands, and a ceremony in the Praça dos Restauradores attended by politicians and the armed forces, where wreaths are placed on the ornate monument to the men who fought in the War of Independence.

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Praça dos Restauradores, Lisbon
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Praça dos Restauradores, Lisbon
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Praça dos Restauradores, Lisbon