Belém Tower or the Tower of St Vincent is a fortified tower located in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém in the municipality of Lisbon, Portugal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery) because of the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. The tower was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.

The tower was built in the early 16th century and is a prominent example of the Portuguese Manueline style, but it also incorporates hints of other architectural styles. The structure was built from lithium limestone and is composed of a bastion and a 30-meter (98.4 ft), four-storey tower. It has been incorrectly stated that the tower was built in the middle of the Tagus and now sits near the shore because the river was redirected after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In fact, the tower was built on a small island in the Tagus River near the Lisbon shore.

In the late 15th century, King John II had designed a defense system for the mouth of the Tagus that depended on the fortresses of Cascais and São Sebastião (or Torre Velha) in Caparica on the south side of the river. These fortresses did not completely protect the river’s mouth, and further protection was required. In his “Chronicle of John II”, which appeared in 1545, the author Garcia de Resende affirmed the king’s opinion that the defenses of Lisbon were inadequate, and that he had insisted on building fortifications along the entrance to the River Tagus to supplement the existing defenses. To this end, I have ordered the “making of a strong fort”, but died before any plans were drawn. King Manuel I of Portugal revised the proposal twenty years later and ordered the construction of a military fortification on the northern margin of the Tagus at Belém. In 1513, Lourenço Fernandes wrote a letter to his friends referring to the king’s intention of constructing a tower near Restelo Velho, having determined it to be essential.

The project was started on a basaltic rock outcrop at a short distance from the riverbank, using some of the stone being collected to build the Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém. Francisco de Arruda, named “Master of the works of the Bethlehem stronghold “by King Manuel, and in 1516 he began receiving 763 blocks and 504 stones for his construction, delivered by Diogo Rodrigues, treasurer for the project. As construction progressed, a man-of-war called the Great Nau (Great Ship), heavily armed, 1000-ton ship continued to guard the estuary at the mouth of the Tagus until the fort’s completion.

The building was finished in 1519, just two years before Manuel’s death, and Gaspar de Paiva was temporarily stationed to command the fortress, his commission was made permanent on 15 September 1521, when he was appointed the first Captain-General, or alcalde, and the fortress was named the Castle of St Vincent, in honor of the patron saint of Lisbon.

In 1571, Francisco de Holanda advised the monarch that it was necessary to improve the coastal defenses in order to protect the kingdom’s capital. He suggested the construction of a “strong and impregnable” fort that could easily defend Lisbon and that the Belem Tower “should be strengthened, repaired and completed … that it has cost so much without being completed”. D’Holanda designed an improved rectangular bastion with several turrets. In 1580, after a few hours of battle, the garrison stationed in the tower surrendered to Spanish forces under the command of the Duke of Alba. After this defeat, the dungeons of the tower served as a prison until 1830. It was also during the last quarter of the 16th century that the construction of the Philippine Barracks began. A rectangular two-storey space was constructed over the bastion, giving the tower the visual profile that it has retained to the present, with sculpted crosses of the Order of Christ and domed turrets.

In 1589, Philip I of Portugal ordered Italian engineer Friar João Vicenzio Casale to build a well-defended fort to be built in place of the “useless castle of São Vicente”. The engineer submitted three designs, proposing that the bastion would be surrounded by another bastion of greater dimensions, but the project never materialized.

The 1633 codex for the House of Cadaval was inserted into one of the floors, in one of the arches of the barracks, and in the four largest arches at the top of the southern façade. Similarly, a reference to the year 1655 was inscribed on a plaque placed on the northern wall of the cloister, which certified the tower’s function as a customs control point and for navigation along the Tagus; They were obliged to pay a tax as they entered the harbor, which was imposed incrementally.

Between 1780 and 1782, under the reign of Maria I of Portugal, General Guilherme de Valleré built the Fort of Bom Sucesso, whose battery was connected by a western corridor wall to the tower. When French forces invaded Lisbon during the Peninsular War, detachments of their troops were quartered in the tower from 1808 to 1814. After the French retreated, Lord Beresford advised that coastal artillery batteries should be reinforced along the Tagus, and specifically noted that be placed on the sides of the tower’s bastion, with carts placed to better protect the soldiers, since the walls were very low.
French ships exchanging fire with the tower at the Battle of the Tagus during the Liberal Wars (1831)

King Miguel I (1828-34) used the dungeons to imprison his liberal opponents, while another level was used as a custom house for ships until the duty on foreign ships was abolished in 1833. The tower received military upgrades in 1589 and 1809-14.

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