Sebastianism: The Myth Of D. Sebastião, 16th King of Portugal

In this article I will be talking about Sebastianism, a myth about the 16th King of Portugal, D. Sebastião. Nowadays, it’s still talked about regularly and it’s something that marks our history as a nation, for sure. For some people this is taken as a joke but for others is viewed as a real thing! If you want to know what is, just keep reading! 

First, let’s talk a bit about this curious King. 

D. Sebastião (20 January 1554 – 4 August 1578) was the 16th King of Portugal, reigning for 21 years between 11 June 1557 and 4th August 1578. He was the penultimate Portuguese monarch of the House of Aviz; son of João Manuel, Prince of Portugal, and his wife, Joanna of Austria. He was the grandson of D. João III of Portugal, D. Catarina, the emperor Carlos V and D. Isabel of Portugal. 

Sebastião was born heir-apparent to the throne of Portugal, since he was born two weeks after his father’s death. He succeeded to the throne at the age of three, on the death of D. João III, his paternal grandfather. Soon after his birth, his mother Joanna of Austria left her infant son to serve as regent of Spain for her father, Emperor Carlos V. 

D. Sebastião was a bright and lively boy. Reports say he was fearless due to his great physical strength. Tall, slim, and blond, he was brought up by his grandmother Catherine, a domineering woman who exercised firm control over her grandson. Obedient as a child, he became obstinate and impulsive in later life. 

During D. Sebastião’s short reign, he strengthened relations with the Holy Roman Empire, England and France through diplomatic efforts. He also restructured much of the administrative, judicial and military life in his kingdom. In 1568, Sebastian created scholarships to assist students who wished to study medicine or pharmacy at the University of Coimbra. During the great plague of Lisbon in 1569, Sebastian sent for doctors from Seville to help the Portuguese doctors fight the plague. He created two hospitals in Lisbon to take care of those afflicted with the disease.

Now, let’s start talking about the mysterious myth of D. Sebastião. 

All this started after attaining his majority in 1568, Sebastian dreamed of a great crusade against the kingdom of Morocco, where over the preceding generation several Portuguese way stations on the route to India had been lost. 

After, in 1578, the king set sail for Morocco to claim more land for the growing Portuguese empire. A very religious man, he also had plans to discover the legendary Prester John, a fabled Christian king in Africa. Foolishly he brought him almost all his nobility and relations. He marched inland and was met in battle by the local leader at Alcácer Quibir. In what amounted to a crushing defeat, Sebastião was lost in the melee. After the defeat at Alcácer Quibir, many efforts were made to ransom imprisoned Portuguese soldiers in Morocco. Several soldiers returned to Portugal, which led many Portuguese to believe Sebastian had survived and would return.

The throne was passed to his great uncle, Henrique. Unfortunately for Portugal, he was a cardinal, known as ‘the Chaste’, therefore he had no offspring of his own. This led to the accession of Felipe II of Spain to the Portuguese throne. And because of that, for 60 years, Portugal was under Spanish domination. In these years a belief grew amongst the Portuguese that Sebastião would return and reclaim the throne for an independent Portugal. This belief was strongest during the Iberian Union when 4 pretenders in total tried to claim the throne. This led to Sebastianism, the messianic belief that Sebastião could return at any moment.

Later, the idea of Sebastianism became synonymous with a return to glory for Portugal. Even to this day, it is prevalent; when the crisis hit, the Portuguese still hoped to see their saviour D. Sebastião emerge from the mist!

PS: D. is used before the name of every important person in Portugal, especially kings.



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