Book Review: “Portugal: A Short History” by Harold V. Livermore

Livermore states in the preface that he was invited to produce a history of Portugal for a series of short histories on various countries. He had already written a longer “History of Portugal” and a more compact “New History of Portugal” so for this version, he decided to concentrate on the evolution of Portuguese society. This volume covers the main important political events with some interpretation of social organization.

The early chapters cover the origins of Portugal from pre-Roman times to the accession of Afonso Henriques, the first Portuguese king. This section covers pre-Roman, Roman Portugal, the Suevi, the Muslims and the territory of Portucale. I found this section a bit of a slog. Livermore gives a general outline of social history here but he basically relies on the reader to know some of the events and people he is writing about. This is basic information and I’ve found other books that go into more detail about this era.

Next up is the formation of the country of Portugal, peninsular integration and the Age of Discoveries. This section holds more interest and details much of Portuguese society in medieval times and the improbable rise of Portugal and their seaborne empire. Again, there is a basic outline of the Portuguese discoveries but this book is not meant to cover this era in detail. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this section as it covered the medieval era and has some interesting characters.

Livermore has a good section on the integration of Portugal with the Spanish monarchy. Relevant to my research was an excellent explanation for the expulsion of the Spanish government and the restoration of the monarchy by naming the Duke of Braganza king and the commencement of a new dynasty. The author devotes a long chapter on the eighteenth century, the absolute monarchy and the dictatorship of Pombal. This section includes a lot of economic data and information on trade with the Portuguese colony of Brazil.

From this point on in the book, I really enjoyed Livermore’s description of the “Liberal Monarchy” and the various political factions that emerged in Portuguese government. While all of this is a genuinely tangled web, Livermore makes it comprehensible. The book ends with the dissolution of the Braganza dynasty of kings and the commencement of a republic in Portugal. This is a great little volume and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Catherine of Braganza” by Janet MacKay

Mackay Braganza book cover


I’ve been doing some research on the seventeenth century and found a used copy of this book, originally published in 1937.  MacKay wrote this twenty-nine years after Lillias Campbell Davidson wrote her definitive biography.  I have been unable to find any biographical information on MacKay, who authored one other book.

There are many primary sources documenting Catherine’s life.  MacKay’s writing is flavored with description and fantasy but overall she adheres to the historical truth.  I found Mackay has a considerable amount of insight into the personalities of Catherine of Braganza and King Charles II and it makes for interesting reading.

The first chapter on Catherine’s life is short, about twenty pages but this is the only part of Catherine’s life that is not well-documented.  The narrative then picks up momentum and describes the various negotiations regarding her marriage to Charles II, the newly restored Stuart King of England.  There’s a great description of Catherine’s leave-taking of her mother, her brothers and her beloved Portugal.  Once she is in England, her troubles begin with the difficult Lady Castlemaine and Charles’ insistence that she relent in allowing Castlemaine to become a Lady of the Bedchamber.

MacKay gives a succinct and compelling retelling of the Popish Plot which threatened Catherine’s life.  Although her time in England had its ups and downs, Charles stood by her the entire time.  She was devastated by his death in 1685.  Catherine remained in England another seven years and worked tirelessly to return to Portugal.  Her marriage contract allowed this but she had a difficult time getting a ship to take her home and some illness which delayed her.  Astonishingly, there are eighty letters written by Catherine in the British Library, many of them written to her brother regarding arrangements for her return to Portugal.  MacKay quotes these letters extensively to tell the story.

The last few years spent by Catherine in Portugal are well covered here.  The book has several portraits.  There is an adequate bibliography but it is poorly footnoted as many books were from this era.  Nonetheless, MacKay has written an insightful biography which I enjoyed very much.

Book Review: “The Royal House of Braganza” by Francis Gribble

In searching for books on the royal House of Braganza, this title surfaced. Originally published in 1915 and reissued in 1970, it appeared to be just what I was looking for and turned out to be a complete surprise. I had never heard of Gribble before. I’m unable to find much information about him other than he was born in Barnstaple in the United Kingdom, he lived from 1862 to 1946 and is described as a writer, critic and a prolific literary biographer.

He has a pretty extensive body of work having written biographies of Honoré de Balzac and Emperor Francis Joseph as well as books on the lovers of Lord Byron, Georges Sand, Madame de Stael, and Chateaubriand and his court of women, among others. Curiously, he wrote a great deal about women in history, appearing to specialize in the topic. This is evident in this volume as he describes the women of the House of Braganza as the “men” in the family and writes admiringly of them.

I’m not sure how historically accurate this book is. However, I will say this. It’s a great read. Gribble’s sole purpose for writing this book is to explain the fall of the Portuguese monarchy and how the personalities of the monarchs themselves contributed to their demise. Gribble obviously doesn’t think much of the monarchs of the Braganza dynasty and he tells some pretty fantastic stories. He seems to take great delight in describing the physical appearance of these monarchs, how they dressed, their mannerisms and their personalities, their mistakes and their foibles. This really makes for some fun reading and I found myself laughing as I read it.

Gribble begins and ends the book with the tale of a Parisian dancing girl and her relationship with Dom Manuel II, the last monarch of the dynasty. While this poor woman was not the sole reason for Manuel being chased from the Portuguese throne, she is described as a catalyst. Gribble wrote this book a mere five years after Portugal became a republic so he has a cogent and immediate perspective on events. From reading other histories of Portugal, Gribble’s description of the intellectuals of the University of Coimbra (think the Philosophes of the French Enlightenment) and their proposals and conspiracy to form a republic is very well described and accurate. As I say, I’m not sure about the accuracy of the history of the kings themselves here but I really enjoyed this book. If anyone out there knows of this work and can vouch for its correctness, please leave a comment below.

Book Review: “A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: Volume Two” by A.R. Disney

A.R. Disney published a two volume history of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire in 2009. Volume One covers the history of the country from the beginnings to 1807. This volume covers the history of the Portuguese Empire beginning with the conquest of Ceuta in North Africa and the exploration missions sponsored by Henry the Navigator down to 1807 and the late colonial era.

Disney bases this work on all the latest scholarship published on Portuguese history as he did with Volume One. This book is a great companion to Charles R. Boxers “The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825”. While Boxer’s book gives a generalized summary of the entire empire, this book breaks down the history by each area of the world where the Portuguese touched down. Whether this was just for exploration purposes, a stop on the way somewhere else or the establishment of a small or sprawling colony each era is given a great summary of their history.

The social history of each area is explained along with the implications for world-wide trade. I especially enjoyed the history of the Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands, São Tomé and Principe. It is fascinating how these islands were colonized, developed and for the most part ruined although in some cases, the vegetation was restored. The breakthrough to Maritime Asia and the Empire in the East is reported. The colony of Goa in India must have been a pretty remarkable place under the Portuguese viceroys stationed there.

A great deal of the book covers the history of Brazil and the Brazilian Empire. There is an informative section of maps illustrating where the Portuguese explored and settled. There is also a comprehensive bibliography. This book and Volume One give the reader a great grounding in all aspects of Portuguese history, especially for those who don’t speak or read Portuguese. I highly recommend both volumes.

Book Review: “A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: Volume One” by A.R. Disney

I’m just going to get straight to the point here. I’ve been doing in depth research into the history of Portugal and I love this book. The first of two volumes of Disney’s work covers the history of Portugal from pre-Roman times to the French invasion of 1807. The country of Portugal has no geographical reason to exist. As the country exists today, it has no political roots in its Roman, Germanic or Islamic past. Then in the fifteenth century, this tiny country on the Iberian Peninsula began an unlikely expansion into an economic empire which spanned the entire globe.

The first chapter covers ancient Portugal which included hunter-gatherers and Iron Age farmers. Disney explains the economy of Portugal during this period with its strong emphasis on the mining of natural resources. This era was followed by the Celts and then the Romans. Next, Portugal was invaded by the barbarians including the Visigoths and the Suevi. Finally, the Peninsula was conquered by the Muslims from Africa.

Medieval Portugal sees the Reconquest, the expulsion of the Muslims and rise of the Kingdom with the Burgundian dynasty and later the Avis kings. Although there is conflict and war with neighboring Castile, the time period witnessed the Golden Age as described by Disney. After this there was an era of decline which was followed by the taking of the throne by the Hapsburgs. This lasted from 1580-1640 when the House of Braganza restored the monarchy.

Disney covers the Restoration of the monarchy, the Baroque age, the years of the dictatorship of Pombal, the late eighteenth century and the invasion by Napoleonic France. All of this is told in brilliant and economical detail. Disney’s writing flows and is a joy to read. This is the first history of Portugal to be written in English in a generation and takes into account all the new scholarship since the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. Disney’s research is meticulous with copious footnotes and a long bibliography. He includes all interpretations of the latest historians. Volume Two of this history covers the Portuguese Empire and review of this work is up next. If you are interested in an exact, precise and accurate history of Portugal, this is your book.

Book Review: “Portugal: A Companion History” by José Hermano Saraiva

This book is part of a series published by Carcanet Press Limited called “Aspects of Portugal” which includes volumes on poetry, history and other books in Portuguese which have been translated into English. Eugénio Lisboa, who formerly worked as Cultural Counsellor at the Portuguese Embassy in London writes in the preface that he was constantly asked for a good short history of Portugal written in English. Lisboa and a friend approached imminent and popular Portuguese historian and television personality José Hermano Saraiva, asking for permission to translate his ‘História Concisa’ into English. Saraiva suggested he write an entirely new volume and so this book came into being.

Published in 1997, this short and concise history is a pleasant read. It really just hits the highlights of Portuguese history. The first chapter is entitled Ancient Roots and covers the origins of the Portuguese, Roman colonization, the barbarian and Islamic invasions and the Reconquest. The chapter is only twelve pages long so it is short on detail. The rest of the book entails various chronological eras in the same manner. This book is really meant to be a rudimentary introduction to the subject.

Perhaps the highlight of this book is the section of maps which were chosen, organized and added by the editors. The maps explain a wide range of history and each one has several paragraphs of description and clarification. The final map illustrates the country of Portugal and is accompanied by an historical gazetteer of place names. There is also a handy chronological timeline and a section of brief biographies of key historical figures.

The bibliography is selective and broken down by topic such as art and architecture, military, history, economics, politics, travel, etc. I especially liked the last chapter which contained a lively discussion of the history of Portugal from 1910 to the present. This book is perfect for someone who wants a basic background on the topic of Portuguese history and the added appendices will be important as reference material for future research. An enjoyable, if brief, read.

Book Review: “Richard III: Brother Protector King” by Chris Skidmore

A friend on Twitter alerted me that Chris Skidmore was looking for people interested in reading his new book. After contacting him, he was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book and I’m very glad he did. It is outstanding and thought-provoking.

This is the third biography I’ve read about Richard III and by far the best. Skidmore has managed to produce a methodical and accurate analysis of the chronicles of the time, providing significant insight into the many complexities of Richard’s life. He also gives us a unique perspective on the political climate of the Wars of the Roses. Every controversy is covered here. While he may not implicate or exonerate some of the major characters, he explains what would have been believed at the time and how this made a difference in the actions taken. This is how Richard’s contemporaries would have viewed him.

The book has already been released in the UK and will be available in the US in April of 2018. There are beautiful color illustrations in the book as well as several maps and family trees. This is a measured and unbiased account of Richard’s life. It is thoroughly engrossing, riveting and impeccably researched. I had a hard time putting this book down and highly recommend it. This should become the new definitive biography of this controversial monarch.