George Gordon, Lord Byron
  (1788 - 1824)

Journey through Portugal
Friday 7th July till Sunday 23rd July 1809 (21)

Byron and Hobhouse sailed from Falmouth, England on 2nd July 1809, arriving at Lisbon on 7th July.

Map of Byron's journey through Portugal and Spain

Byron's journey through Portugal and Spain

Political and military background

The two men were travelling through a war zone. In the two years preceding their arrival, hostilities had been continuing between the Portuguese and Spanish on one side, and the occupying forces of Napoleonic France on the other.

In November 1807, the Portuguese royal family had fled to Brazil (where they remained until 1821) just before a French army commanded by General Jean-Androche Junot arrived in Lisbon. The royal family took with them most of the aristocracy (10,000 people and 9,000 sailors on 54 ships) and considerable amounts of treasure.

On 1st August 1808, a force of 14,300 British troops landed at Figuera da Foz, about 200 km north of Lisbon. They were joined by 2,300 Portuguese at Leira, and, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, marched towards Lisbon. A French force of 4,300 men commanded by General Delaborde evacuated Batalha, retreating southwards, and was engaged by Wellesley on 17th August near the village of Roliça. The battle resulted in a French withdrawal. Wellesley did not pursue Delaborde, preferring to cover the arrival of 4,000 further British troops at the Bay of Maceira, deploying his forces in and around Vimeiro (about 60 km north of Lisbon) for that purpose. The decisive battle occurred here on 21st August, when Junot's army of 14,000 men was defeated after attempting a daring series of attacks on Wellesley's positions.

Junot requested and received an armistice, control of the British forces having passed to first Sir Harry Burrard, who arrived during the battle, and prevented Wellesley from pursuing the fleeing French, and then Sir Hew Dalrymple, who arrived the next day, and who negotiated the infamous Convention of Sintra.

In October 1809, Wellesley writes confidentially:

I never saw such desperate fighting as we had on the 17th Aug., or troops receive such a beating as the French did on the 21st; and it is unfortunate that I was not allowed to carry my own measures into execution after the action of that day. If I had, we should have destroyed them entirely. As usual, I had an unanimous army, who would have undertaken anything for me; and I took care that the troops should be well provided with every thing they wanted... You will have seen that the public are not satisfied with the result of the transactions in Portugal; and I think they have attributed to me more than my share of the blame for them. When the action of the 21st Aug. was not followed up, when the principle of all my measures was altered, and the corps which I had proposed should cut the French off from their strongholds south of the Tagus was diverted from its destination, it was very clear to me that we should never get the French out of Portugal excepting by an agreement; and that we should be very glad to make an agreement with them in December, after we should have lost half our army, if we had refused to make it in August. (JGDW, p132)

Arthur Wellesley requested leave to return to England on 17th September, and left Lisbon on 20th September.

Sir John Moore, to whom overall control of the army in Spain afterwards passed, commented:

Sir Hew Dalrymple was confused and incapable beyond any man I ever saw head an army. The whole of his conduct then and since has proved him to be a very foolish man.

Major Charles Bevan wrote:

Sir Hew, if he had a military feeling would have shot himself. (AHWS, p46)

A contemporary cartoon sees it as follows:

This is the city of Lisbon


This is the gold that lay in the city of Lisbon

These are the French that took the gold that lay in the city of Lisbon

This is Sir Arthur, whose valour and skill, began so well but ended so ill, who beat the French who took the gold that lay in the city of Lisbon.

This is the Convention that Nobody owns that saved old Junot's Baggage and Bones, altho Sir Arthur, whose valour and skill began so well and ended so ill, had beaten the French who took the gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.

These are the ships that carried the spoil that the French had plundered with so much toil after the Convention which nobody owns, that saved old Junot's Baggage and Bones, altho Sir Arthur, whose valour and skill began so well and ended so ill, had beaten the French who took the gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.

This is John Bull in great dismay, at the sight f the ships which carried away the gold and silver and all the spoil the French had plundered with so much toil after the Convention which nobody owns, that saved old Junot's Baggage and Bones, altho Sir Arthur, whose valour and skill began so well and ended so ill, had beaten the French who took the gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.

Published by Thomas Tegg, engraved by Woodward, February 1809

Newly in control, Sir John Moore marched north to assist Spanish forces, but on 6th November 1808, Napoleon himself arrived with reinforcements to take charge of the French campaign. By late December, Moore was forced to retreat to Corunna, from whence the British troops were successfully evacuated. Moore himself died fighting the rearguard action to cover the embarkation.

Sir Arthur survived the parliamentary inquiry into the Convention of Cintra, though his military victories had been somewhat tarnished by his participation in the armistice negotiations. But, at all events, in April 1809, he was put in sole command of the British forces in Lisbon, replacing Sir John Craddock. On his return to Lisbon, he made two sorties, one to the north, and a second to Talavera (120 km southwest of Madrid), where the combined British and Spanish forces (20,000 and 34,000 men respectively) held off strong French assaults (27-28th July 1809, while Byron and Hobhouse were in Seville). Wellesley eventually retreated with the remains of his army (he had lost some 6,000 men in the battle) to Lisbon, where he began to fortify the whole peninsula on which Lisbon stands (between November 1809 and September 1810), giving himself a secure bastion which could be defended by land and sea against any possible French attack.

He was created Viscount Wellesley of Talavera in recognition of his achievements.

Lisbon and Sintra (Cintra): arrived Friday 7th July, departed Friday 21st July

Byron records their arrival at Lisbon in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold!
Her image floating on that noble tide,
Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,
But now whereon a thousand keels did ride,
Of mighty strength, since Albion was allied,
And to the Lusians did her aid afford,
A nation swoll'n with ignorance and pride,
Who lick, yet loathe, the hand that waves the sword,
To save them from the wrath of Gaul's unsparing lord.

Albion being England, the Lusians being the Portuguese, and the Gauls being the French, and, all told, not very complimentary to the Lusians. But it gets worse.

But whoso entereth within this town,
That sheening far celestial seems to be,
Disconsolate will wander up and down,
'Mid many things unsightly to strange ee,
For hut and palace now show filthily;
The dingy denizens are reared in dirt;
No personage of high degree
Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt,
Though shent with Egypt's plague, unkempt, unwashed; unhurt.

The meaning of the last line presumably being that despite their filthy habits, and the consequent threat of disease, they were unharmed.

The full text of Childe Harold relating to Portugal is available here

William Beckford, travelling in Portugal in 1787, has similar observations to make:

The more one is acquainted with Lisbon, the less it answers the expectations raised by its magnificent appearance from the river. Could a traveller be suddenly transported without preparation or prejudice to many parts of this city, he would reasonably conclude himself traversing a succession of villages awkwardly tacked together, and overpowered by massive convents. The churches in general are in a woful taste of architecture, the taste of Boromini, with crinkled pediments, furbelowed cornices and turrets, somewhat in the style of old-fashioned French clock-cases, such as Boucher designed with many a scrawl and flourish to adorn the apartments of Madame de Pompadour. (WBIS, p89)

Even Pessoa's guide to Lisbon written in 1925 has a similar juxtaposition of distant promise and local filth.

For the traveller who comes from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region.


... we pass by one of the most picturesque quarters of Lisbon - Alfama, the old fishermen's quarter ... The tourist who can spend a few days in Lisbon should not omit to visit this quarter; he will get a notion no other place can give him of what Liston was like in the past. Everything will evoke that past here - the architecture, the type of streets, the arches and stairways, the wooden balconies, the very habits of the people who live there a life full of noise, of talk, of songs, of poverty and of dirt. (FPL)


Engraving of Lisbon c1878
Lisbon, T.Taylor del, C.Laplante sc

Byron and Hobhouse came ashore at 10:00am on Friday, and spent Friday 7th, Saturday 8th, Sunday 9th and Monday 10th in Lisbon where they stayed at the English hotel (Barnewell's Buenos Ayres).

They changed one hundred pounds sterling at an unfavourable rate with an English merchant, attended the theatre twice, the second time to see some 'very very indecent Spanish dancers' who 'were applauded with enthusiasm by the house', bathed in the River Tagus twice (presumably it was during one of these episodes that Byron swam the Tagus from the south bank to the tower of Belem, a distance of about a mile as the crow flies, but, due to the currents, in fact he swam more than two miles), watched General Crauford's military parade, and visited the monastery of St Jerome at Belem. On Sunday, Hobhouse notes 'atoned for all our misdeeds in Lisbon this day', though he does not specify the misdeeds, but, on past form, it probably involved over-indulging in drink and sex. At dinner, they were regaled with stories of 'crimes monks commit with boys' by a soldier called Swanio Marsden.

map of Lisbon and environs showing places visited by Byron and Hobhouse

On Tuesday 11th Hobhouse went with Marsden to Marialva's palace (now called the Seteais palace) and the gardens at Monserrat, home of the author, connoisseur and super-rich 'prophet of pederasty' William Beckford between 1794 and 1798. He (Hobhouse) stayed in Sintra overnight. Byron went to Mafra.

Engraving of Mafra
Palace of Mafra, D.Roberts del, E.Finden sc, 1833

On Wednesday 12th, Hobhouse visited the monastery of Nossa Senhora de Pena, where there were just four monks, and then the Cork convent, where there were seventeen, 'from the strictest Franciscan order who take neither meat nor wine, and indulge in flagellation'. He was shown the underground cell in which the monk Honorarius spent thirty years, of whom Byron comments in Childe Harold, Canto I, verse 22: 'Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell / In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell'. He next continued on to Collares, noting 'the villa very beautiful indeed - vine abundant, wine not unlike claret', then returned to Sintra via Monserrat.

Engraving of Nossa Senhora da la Pena
Sintra, Convent de la Pena, Batty del, Finden sc, 1833

On Thursday 13th, Hobhouse again went to the palace of the Marquis of Marialva, this time by invitation from the sister of the Marquis and with Byron. He considered it to be 'magnificently furnished in the English style', and saw the 'very room in the right wing where the famous Convention was signed', an observation which is not generally supported by historians, as the convention appears to have been signed at the Palace of Queluz, close to Lisbon.

On Friday 14th, having returned to Lisbon, they went to the Placa de Commercio to find a ship, thence to the monastery of Jesus, where they saw a fine collection of books, busts of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke, and 'a compartment under lock and key filled with livres défendus'. He notes that 'the library used before the French came - of whose devastations we saw several signs - to be open to everybody. It is now shut.'

On Saturday 15th, he notes nothing, lamenting a lost day.

On Sunday 16th, they walked through the city and into a church where they saw 'a woman kneeling intent on prayer at the altar, three or four monks indecently assaulting another woman', then 'walked in the public gardens with well designed promenades'.

Byron writes to Francis Hodgson from Lisbon on 16th July 1809:

I must just observe, that the village of Cintra in Estramadura is the most beautiful, perhaps, in the world.

He goes on:

I am very happy here, because I loves oranges, and talks bad Latin to the monks, who understand it, as it is like their own,- and I goes into society (with my pocket pistols), and I swims the Tagus all across at once, and I rides on an ass or a mule, and swears Portuguese, and have got a diarrhoea from the mosquitoes. But what of that? Comfort must not be expected by folks that go a pleasuring. (RPLJ1, p266)

Later travellers have been equally happy in the area. Henry Herbert, 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, writes in 1828:

In the evening we wandered through the Pena Verde gardens to the spot where the heart of John de Castro is interred. The periwinkle and wild strawberry covered the ground, and the cork tree clothed with ivy, and the gigantic stone-pine formed a dense canopy overhead. A delightful mixture of northern and southern vegetation is found in many parts of Portugal, and especially at Cintra, where plants peculiar to the south of Europe, and even some that have been transported from the Madeiras, grow luxuriantly under the shade of the British oak.

He also gives a more detailed description of the Cork Convent, which he found:

...a building ill-constructed, but well placed at the foot of a richly-wooded hill; a paved walk overhung with fine cork trees leads to the entrance, which is curiously ornamented with shell-work....

They pulled the bell cord, and waited;:

At length a boy appeared, and led us through a court full of hydrangeas and fuchsias into a wretched apartment called a refectory; benches, doors, and roofs were all constructed of cork, and sometimes the crag in its native state formed part of the wall. Here, while we feasted on bread and wine, young Hopeful told us that, afraid of being enlisted for the army, he had taken refuge in the convent, and woefully he complained of the non-existence of breakfasts and the scanty supply of dried fish at dinner. The rosemary grows luxuriantly in the gardens above, where we enjoyed a fine view of Colares embosomed in wood, and then descended into the miserable cave, where 'Honorarius long did dwell / And hoped to merit heaven by making earth a hell.'

Engraving of the Cork Convent, Cintra, Finden, 1833
The Cork Convent, Cintra
Finden, 1833

Of the road to Colares, he notes:

... nature seemed to exhaust itself in the endless variety and extreme beauty of the vegetation: there the olive, the wild olive, the arbutus immensely high, the tulip, the plane, and the gigantic stone-pine environed us: we passed cork trees everywhere, bending over the road in the most fantastic shapes, with fern growing on its huge trunks, and mistletoe hanging profusely from its branches; jasmines, sparkling with their snowy blossoms, loaded the air with their perfume; and various kinds of creepers overran the trees, oppressed them with their rank luxurance, and sometimes covered and entirely concealed their foliage. We found oak in abundance; orange and lemon groves were mixed with Indian corn and water-melon, fruit trees of every description lined the road, and the vine, not topped and trained as in France, but hung over trellis-work, appeared no longer a formal but a graceful plant. (HHPG, p16)

On Monday 17th, Hobhouse got up sick. Marsden gave him Daffy's Elixir, a concoction including brandy, aniseed, cochineal, elecampane, fennel seed, jalap, manna, parsely seed, raisin, rhubarb, saffron, senna and spanish liquorice, developed by a clergyman called Thomas Daffy of Redmile in Leicestershire in 1647, and extensively used in Great Britain and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By evening he felt better. They visited Mr Frere, the Secretary of State (this was John Hookham Frere, who was recalled to England in August 1809, having been partially blamed for the debacle of Sir John Moore's retreat to Corunna, and whose mock heroic poem Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work in ottava rima was the inspiration for the form of Byron's own Beppo and Don Juan). It is not clear why Hobhouse likened him to 'Jew King', a London moneylender. It was presumably Mr Frere who directed them to M de Castro for passports.

On Tuesday 18th, Hobhouse and Byron were again in the commercial centre, and they again saw Mr Frere. They then made their way to the monastery of St Jerome once more, where they saw the 'embalmed body entire of King Ildefonsus - 302 years old', and pictures of the 'life and adventures of St Hieronymus (Jerome) - one showed him tempted by the devil with Cicero's works - the next his flagellation by the angels for his transgression'. His transgression was reading Cicero instead of reading the Bible.

Painting, The Vision of St Jerome
The Vision of St Jerome, Bernadino Mei, c1657, oil on canvas

That evening they went once again to the theatre, and were attacked by four men in the street. Byron records in a note to Childe Harold, canto I, stanza 21, line 9, '... this purple land, where law secures not life':

I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o'clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend, had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt we should have adorned a tale instead of telling one.

On Wednesday 19th, they 'went ... to the packet', presumably with Murray, Fletcher, and Friese who were to travel to Gibraltar with the baggage by sea, then 'to the new church like St Paul's in miniature'. This was the Sao Domingo, built after the earthquake of 1755 which had practically destroyed the old town of Lisbon. They then visited the English burying-ground, where they tried but failed to find the grave of the novelist Henry Fielding (called by Byron the 'prose Homer of human nature'), who had died in Lisbon in 1754.

Hobhouse writes of Lisbon generally that:

Junot was much liked - used to ride about wth no guard, only a young groom in the English fashion. He managed so well that he made the Lisbonites believe that a large French force was left in the city, whereas he left only a thousand men there, when he went to fight the English at Vimeiro. Afterwards many French murdered.... There is a good police guard of 1500 horse and foot to prevent disturbances in Lisbon, who were picked out of the troops by the French, and continued by the English - but there is not justice, no punishment but imprisonment except in extraordinary cases, and that may be bought off. .. Convents, most of them, supported by begging - people are denounced if they do not give - of ten fish which a fisherman brings to market two are carried off by purveyors to the monks, two by the officers of the court. Dead bodies are exposed in the churches with a plate on them, and are not buried until sufficient money is collected to pay the priest.... Army recruited by surrounding the public gardens and taking all the persons not married... Inquisition not abolished quite - twenty people lately sent there - dungeons under the great square Roccio.

He also notes the high proportion of ecclesiastics to the population as a whole, and the fact that everybody has to have a full water-cask in his bedroom at night in case of fires, water which is provided by natives of Galicia, 'very strong - who have a sort of chartered company', and who make a great deal of money, returning to their own country to buy land.'

Of the sexual mores, he writes:

Married women, many of them, prostitutes for pay, which they divide with their husbands.... Boys well-dressed attend the lobbies of the theatres for the purpose of branler le pique aux gens polis.. Sanguinetti told us he had seen the thing himself done in the streets - stabbing not so common, but everyone wears a knife - Sanguinetti saw a man killed by a boy of thirteen, in a chandler's shop.

Sanguinetti was the guide hired by Byron and Hobhouse for the overland trip to Cadiz.

To his mother, Byron writes on 11th August 1809 from Gibraltar:

.. the village of Cintra, about fifteen miles from the capital, is perhaps in every respect, the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description, natural and artificial. Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts, and precipices; convents on stupendous heights - a distant view of the sea and the Tagus [river].... It unites in itself all the wildness of the western highlands, with the verdure of the south of France. Near this place, about ten miles to the right [in fact to the north], is the palace of Mafra, the boast of Portugal, as it might be of any other country, in point of magnificence without elegance. There is a convent annexed; the monks, who possess large revenues, are courteous enough, and understand Latin, so that we had a long conversation: they have a large library, and asked me if the English had any books in their country.

Photograph of the library at Mafra
The library at Mafra

On Thursday 20th July, they (Byron, Hobhouse, Sanguinetti, and Rushton) crossed the Tagus to Aldea Gallega, where they saw 'the first of Portugal's road inns'.

On Saturday 22nd July, they made their way to Arryolos, Venta de Duque, Estremoz, Alveciras, and Elvas, where they arrived just before the gates shut and had to show their passports to the governor, it being a 'fortified frontier town'. He writes that, coming in by moonlight:

The very grand aqueduct struck us very much indeed.

Engraving, the aqueduct Elvas
Elvas, the aqueduct

He observes that the accommodation they found here was not only very bad, but also very expensive, and that 'when there is anything to eat, the people always spoil it with stinking oil and salt butter'.

On Sunday 23rd July, they breakfasted well at a Caza de Caffee, and he 'kissed a saint for sixpence', a euphemism for somewhat more intimate contact with a member of the opposite sex, which he was later to regret. Harris's List, a compendium of prostitutes in London at the end of the eighteenth century details charges between five shillings, for a 'low born errant drab' to five pounds. He had had, apparently, what could therefore be considered a bargain.

Voyage through Spain

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