Don Sebastian

Don Sebastian—the Lost King of Portugal

King Sebastian of Portugal, who inherited the throne in 1557, seems, even from his infancy, to have exhibited a remarkable love of warlike exercises, and at an early age to have given promise of distinguishing himself as a warrior. At the time of his accession, Portugal had lost much of her old military prestige; the Moors had proved too strong for her diminished armies; the four strongholds of Arzilla, Alcazar-Sequer, Saphin, and Azamor, had been wrested from her; and Mazagan, Ceuta, and Tangier alone remained to her of all her African possessions. Consequently, the tutors of the boy-king were delighted to see his warlike instinct, and carefully instilled into his mind a hatred of the Paynim conquerors.

The lesson was well learnt, and from the moment King Sebastian reached his 14th year (the period of his majority), it was evident that all his thoughts centred on an expedition to Africa, to revive the former glories of his house, and to extend his empire even beyond its former limits. In 1574 he set out, not to conquer the land, but simply to view it, and with youthful audacity landed at Tangier, accompanied by only 1500 men. Finding no opposition to his progress, he organized a hunting expedition among the mountains, and actually put his project into execution. The Moors, by this time thoroughly incensed by his audacity, mustered a force and attacked his escort, but he succeeded in beating them off, and escaped in safety to his ships, and reached his kingdom unharmed.

This peculiar reconnaissance only strengthened his resolution to wrest his former possessions from the Moslems; and although Portugal was impoverished and weak, he resolved at once to enter on a crusade against Muley Moluc and the Moors. The protests of his ministers were unheeded; he laid new and exorbitant imposts on his people, caused mercenaries to be levied in Italy and the Low Countries, and reluctantly persuaded his uncle, Philip I. of Spain, to promise a contingent. His preparations being at last completed, and a regency established, he put to sea in June 1578. His armament consisted of 9000 Portuguese, 2000 Spaniards, 3000 Germans, and some 600 Italians—in all, about 15,000 men, with twelve pieces of artillery, embarked on fifty-five vessels.

On the 4th of August the opposing forces met. The Moorish monarch, who was stricken with a fatal disorder, was carried on a litter to the field, and died while struggling with his attendants, who refused to allow him to rush into the thick of the fight. The Portuguese were routed with great slaughter, notwithstanding the valour with which they were led by Don Sebastian. Two horses were killed under the Christian king; the steed on which he rode was exhausted, and the handful of followers who remained with him entreated him to surrender. Sebastian indignantly refused, and again dashed into the middle of the fray. From this moment his fate is uncertain. Some suppose that he was taken prisoner, and that his captors beginning to dispute among themselves as to the possession of so rich a prize, one of the Moorish officers slew him to prevent the rivalry ending in bloodshed. Another account, however, affirms that he was seen after the battle, alone and unattended, and apparently seeking some means of crossing the river. On the following day search was made for his body, Don Nuno Mascarcuhas, his personal attendant, having stated that he saw him put to death with his own eyes. At the spot which the Portuguese noble indicated, a body was found, which, though naked, Resende, a valet of Sebastian, recognised as that of his master. It was at once conveyed to the tent of Muley Hamet, the brother and successor of Muley Moluc, and was there identified by the captive Portuguese nobles. That their grief was sincere there could be no doubt; and the Moorish king having placed the royal remains in a handsome coffin, delivered them for a heavy ransom to the Spanish ambassador, by whom they were forwarded to Portugal, where they were buried with much pomp.

But although the nobles were well content to believe that Sebastian was dead, the mob were by no means equally satisfied that the story of his fate was true, and were prepared to receive any impostor with open arms. Indeed, in some parts of Portugal, Don Sebastian is supposed by the populace to be still alive, concealed like Roderick the Goth, or our own Arthur, in some hermit's cell, or in some enchanted castle, until the fitting time for his re-appearance arrives, when he will break the spell which binds him, and will restore the faded glory of the nation. During the incursions of Bonaparte, his appearance was anxiously expected, but he delayed the day of his coming. But if the real Sebastian remains silent, there have been numerous pretenders to his throne and his name.

In 1585 a man appeared who personated the dead king. He was a native of Alcazova, and a person of low birth and still lower morals. In his earlier days he had been admitted into the monastic society of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, but had been expelled from the fraternity on account of his misconduct. Even in his later life, when, by pretended penitence, he succeeded in gaining re-admission, his vices were found so far to outweigh his virtues and his piety that it was necessary again to confide him to the tender mercies of a sacrilegious world. He fled to the hermitage of Albuquerque, and there devotees visited him. Widows and full-blooded donnas especially frequented his cell; and the results of his exercises were such that the Alcalde threatened to lay hands upon him. Once more he disappeared, but only to turn up again in the guise of Don Sebastian. Two of his accomplices who mixed among the people pointed out his resemblance to the lost monarch: the credulous crowd swallowed the story, and he soon had a respectable following. Orders from Lisbon, however, checked his prosperous career. He was arrested and escorted by 100 horsemen to the dungeons of the capital. There he was tried and condemned to death. The sentence was not, however, carried into effect; for the imposture was deemed too transparent to merit the infliction of the extreme penalty. The prisoner was carried to the galleys instead of the scaffold, and exhibited to visitors as a contemptible curiosity rather than as a dangerous criminal. So ended the first sham Sebastian.

In the same year another pretender appeared. This was Alvarez, the son of a stone-cutter, and a native of the Azores. So far from originating the imposture, it seems to have been thrust upon him. Like the youth of Alcazova, after being a monk, he had become a hermit, and thousands of the devout performed pilgrimages to his cell, which was situated on the sea-coast, about two miles from Ericeira. The frequency and severity of his penances gained him great celebrity, and at last it began to be rumoured abroad that the recluse was King Sebastian, who, by mortifying his own flesh, was atoning for the calamity he had brought upon his kingdom. At first he repudiated all claim to such distinction; but after a time his ambition seems to have been aroused; he ceased to protest against the homage of the ignorant, and consented to be treated as a king. Having made up his mind to the imposture, Alvares resolved to carry it out boldly. He appointed officers of his household, and despatched letters, sealed with the royal arms, throughout the kingdom, commanding his subjects to rally round his standard and aid him in restoring peace and prosperity to Portugal. The local peasantry, in answer to the summons, hastened to place themselves at his service, and were honoured by being allowed to kiss his royal hand. Cardinal Henrique, the regent, being informed of his proceedings, despatched an officer with a small force to arrest this new disturber of the public tranquillity; but on the approach of the troops Alvares and his followers took to the mountains. The cardinal's representative, unable to pursue them into their inaccessible fastnesses, left the alcalde of Torres Vedras at Ericeira with instructions to capture the impostor dead or alive, and himself set out for Lisbon. He had scarcely reached the plain when Alvares, at the head of 700 men, swooped down upon the town and took the alcalde and his soldiers prisoners. He next wrote to the cardinal regent, ordering him to quit the palace and the kingdom. He then set out for Torres Vedras, intending to release the criminals confined there, and with their assistance to seize Cintra, and afterwards to attack the capital. On the march he threw the unfortunate alcalde and the notary of Torres Vedras, who had been captured at the same time, over a high cliff into the sea, and executed another government official who had the misfortune to fall into his clutches. The corregedor Fonseca, who was not far off, hearing of these excesses, immediately started at the head of eighty horsemen to oppose the rebel progress. Wisely calculating that if he appeared with a larger force Alvares would again flee to the hills, he ordered some companies to repair in silence to a village in the rear, and aid him in case of need. He first encountered a picked band of 200 rebels, whom he easily routed; and then, being joined by his reinforcements, fell upon the main body, which his also dispersed. Alvares succeeded in escaping for a time, but at last he was taken and brought to Lisbon. Here, after being exposed to public infamy, he was hanged amid the jeers of the populace.

Nine years later, in 1594, another impostor appeared, this time in Spain, under the very eyes of King Philip, who had seized the Portuguese sovereignty. Again an ecclesiastic figured in the plot; but on this occasion he concealed himself behind the scenes, and pulled the strings which set the puppet-king in motion. Miguel dos Santos, an Augustinian monk, who had been chaplain to Sebastian, after his disappearance espoused the cause of Don Antonio, and conceived the scheme of placing his new patron on the Lusitanian throne, by exciting a revolution in favour of a stranger adventurer, who would run all the risks of the rebellion, and resign his ill-gotten honours when the real aspirant appeared. He found a suitable tool in Gabriel de Spinosa, a native of Toledo. This man resembled Sebastian, was naturally bold and unscrupulous, and was easily persuaded to undertake the task of personating the missing monarch. The monk, Dos Santos, who was confessor to the nunnery of Madrigal, introduced this person to one of the nuns, Donna Anna of Austria, a niece of King Philip, and informed her that he was the unfortunate King of Portugal. The lady, believing her father-confessor, loaded the pretender with valuable gifts; presented him with her jewels; and was so attracted by his appearance that it was said she was willing to break her vows for his sake, and to share his throne with him. Unfortunately for the conspirators, before the plot was ripe, Spinosa's indiscretion ruined it. Having repaired to Valladolid to sell some jewels, he formed a criminal acquaintance with a female of doubtful repute, who informed the authorities that he was possessed of a great number of gems which she believed to be stolen. He was arrested, and on his correspondence being searched, the whole scheme was discovered. The rack elicited a full confession, and Spinosa was hung and quartered. Miguel dos Santos shared the same fate; but the Donna Anna, in consideration of her birth, was spared and condemned to perpetual seclusion.

The list of pretenders to regal honours was not even yet complete. In 1598, a Portuguese noble was accosted in the streets of Padua by a tattered pilgrim, who addressed him by name, and asked if he knew him. The nobleman answered that he did not. "Alas! have twenty years so changed me," cried the stranger, "that you cannot recognise in me your missing king, Sebastian?" He then proceeded to pour his past history into the ears of the astonished hidalgo, narrating the chief events of the African battle, detailing the circumstances of his own escape, and mentioning the friends and events of his earlier life so fluently and correctly that his listener had no hesitation in accepting him as the true Sebastian. The news of the appearance of this pretender in Padua soon reached Portugal, and spread with unexampled rapidity throughout the country. Philip II. was gravely disturbed by the report, knowing that his own rule was unpopular, and that the people would be disposed to rally round any claimant who promised on his accession to the throne to relieve them from the heavy burdens under which they groaned. He therefore lost no time in forestalling any attempt to oust him from the Portuguese sovereignty; and despatched a courier to Venice, demanding the interference of the authorities. The governor of Venice, anxious to please the powerful ruler of the Spanish peninsula, issued an order for the immediate expulsion of "the man calling himself Don Sebastian;" but the "man" had no intention of being disposed of in this summary manner. Immediately on receipt of the order he proceeded to Venice, presented himself at court, and declared himself ready to prove his identity. The Spanish minister, acting upon his instructions, denounced him as an impostor, and as a criminal who had been guilty of heinous offences, and demanded his arrest. He was thrown into prison; but when the charges of the Spanish minister were investigated, they failed signally, and no crime could be proven against him. At the solicitation of Philip, however, he was kept under arrest, and was frequently submitted to examination by the authorities, with a view of entrapping him into some damaging admission. At first he answered readily, and astonished his questioners by his intimate knowledge of the inner life of the Portuguese court, not only mentioning the names of Sebastian's ministers and the ambassadors who had been accredited to Lisbon, but describing their appearance and peculiarities, and recounting the chief measures of his government, and the contents of the letters which had been written by the king. At length, after cheerfully submitting to be examined on twenty-eight separate occasions, he grew tired of being pestered by his questioners, and refused to answer further interrogatories, exclaiming, "My Lords, I am Sebastian, king of Portugal! If you doubt it, permit me to be seen by my subjects, many of whom will remember me. If you can prove that I am an impostor, I am willing to suffer death."

The Portuguese residents in Italy entertained no doubt that the pretender was their countryman and their monarch, and made most strenuous exertions to procure his release. One of their number, Dr. Sampajo, a man of considerable eminence, and of known probity, personally interceded with the governor of Venice on his behalf. He was told that the prisoner could only be released upon the most ample and satisfactory proof of his identity; and Sampajo, confident that he could procure the necessary evidence, set out forthwith for Portugal. After a brief stay in Lisbon, he returned with a mass of testimony corroborating the pretender's story; and, what was naturally considered of greater importance, with a list of the marks which were on the person of King Sebastian. The accused was stripped, and on his body marks were found similar to those which had been described to Dr. Sampajo. Still the authorities hesitated; and explained that in a matter of such importance, and where such weighty interests were involved, they could not act on the representations of a private individual; but if any of the European powers should demand the release of their prisoner it would be granted.

Nothing daunted by their failure, the believers in the claims of the so-called Sebastian endeavoured to enlist the sympathy of the foreign potentates on behalf of one of their own order who was unjustly incarcerated and deprived of his rights. In this they failed; but at last the government of Holland, which had no love for Philip, espoused the cause of his rival, and despatched an officer to Venice to see that justice was done. A day was appointed for the trial, and the prisoner being brought before the senate, presented his claims in writing. Witnesses came forward who swore that the person before them was indeed Sebastian, although he had changed greatly in the course of twenty years. Several scars, malformed teeth, moles, and other peculiarities which were known to be possessed by the king, were pointed out on the person of the pretender, and the evidence was decidedly favourable to his claims; when, on the fifth day of the investigation, a courier arrived from Spain, and presented a private message from King Philip. The proceedings were at once brought to a close; and, without further examination, the prisoner was liberated, and ordered to quit the Venetian territory in three days. He proceeded to Florence, where he was again arrested by command of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The reason for this harsh treatment is not very clearly apparent, but it was probably instigated by the Spanish representative at the Florentine court; for no sooner did the news that he was in confinement reach Philip, than he demanded the delivery of the prisoner to his agents. The duke at first refused to comply with this request, but a threatened invasion of his dominions led him to reconsider his decision, and the unfortunate aspirant to the Portuguese sceptre was handed over to the Spanish officials. He was hurried to Naples, then an appanage of the Spanish crown, and was there offered his liberty if he would renounce his pretensions; but this he staunchly refused to do, saying, "I am Sebastian, king of Portugal, and have been visited by this severe punishment as a chastisement for my sins. I am content to die in the manner that pleases you best, but deny the truth I neither can nor will."

The Count de Lemnos, who had been the minister of Spain at Lisbon when Sebastian was on the throne, at that time was Viceroy of Naples, and naturally went to visit the pretended king in prison. After a brief interview, he unhesitatingly asserted that he had never seen the prisoner before; whereupon the pretended Sebastian exclaimed, "You say that you have no recollection of me, but I remember you very well. My uncle, Philip of Spain, twice sent you to my court, where I gave you such-and-such private interviews." Staggered by this intimate knowledge of his past life, De Lemnos hesitated for a minute or two, but at last ordered the gaoler to remove his prisoner, adding to his command the remark, "He is a rank impostor,"—a remark which called forth the stern rebuke, "No, Sir; I am no impostor, but the unfortunate King of Portugal, and you know it full well. A man of your station ought at all times to speak the truth or preserve silence!"

Whatever the real opinion of De Lemnos may have been, he behaved kindly to his prisoner, and treated him with no more harshness than was consistent with his safe-keeping. Unfortunately, the life of the ex-ambassador was short, and his successor had no sympathy for the soidisant  king. On the 1st of April 1602, he was taken from his prison and mounted upon an ass, and, with three trumpeters preceding him, was led through the streets, a herald proclaiming at intervals:—"His Most Catholic Majesty hath commanded that this man be led through the streets of Naples with marks of infamy, and that he shall afterwards be committed to serve in the galleys for life, for falsely pretending to be Don Sebastian, king of Portugal." He bore the ordeal firmly; and each time that the proclamation was made, added, in clear and sonorous tones, "And so I am!"

He was afterwards sent on board the galleys, and for a short time had to do the work of a galley slave; but as soon as the vessels were at sea he was released, his uniform was removed, and he was courteously treated. What ultimately became of him was never clearly ascertained, but it is certain that on more than one occasion he succeeded in confounding his opponents, and by his startling revelations of the past led many who would fain have disputed his identity to express their doubts as to the justice of his punishment. The probability is that he was a rogue, but he was a clever one. Rumour says he died in a Spanish fortress in 1606.