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Castle of São Jorge
Restored Medieval Hill-top Castle in Portugal

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The Castle of São Jorge is a castle that occupies a commanding position overlooking the city of Lisbon and the Tagus River beyond. It was originally built by the Moors, but in its present configuration the strongly fortified citadel dates from medieval times.

It is located on top of the highest hill in the historic center of the city. In Portuguese it is called the Castelo de São Jorge

It is one of the main historical and touristic sites of Lisbon. The gardens of the Castelo are beautiful and well maintained. A five-arched Ogival House, once part of the 17th century jail located within St George Castle is worth seeing. The museum complex, the Interpretation Center for the City of Lisbon, is also worth a visit.

 


Address:
Castle of São Jorge
Lisbon
Portugal

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Small scale map showing the location of
Castle of São Jorge

Google map showing the location of
Castle of São Jorge

Large scale map showing
Castle of São Jorge

History

 

Although the first fortifications on this Lisbon hilltop are known to be no older than the second century BC, archaeological research has shown that humans have occupied the site since the sixth century BC, and possibly earlier. The hill was employed in early times by indigenous Celtic tribes, and others, probably Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians, have also left their cultural footprints there. Afterwards, Roman, Suebic, Visigothic, and Moorish settlers lived where the castle now stands.

A Visigoth fortress on the site of St George Castle fell to the Muslim Saracens in the 8th century

The castle and the city of Lisbon were won from the Moors by King Afonso Henriques during the Christian Reconquista, with the help of northern-European crusaders associated with the Second Crusade. (The Siege of Lisbon, which took place in 1147, was the only notable success of the Second Crusade.) According to legend, the knight, Martim Moniz, noticed that one of the doors to the castle was open, and he prevented the Moors from closing the door again by throwing his own body into the breach. He sacrificed his life but, in doing so, allowed Christian soldiers to enter.

Ownership of the castle helped Lisbon to protect itself against the Moors during the last years of the twelfth century. When Lisbon became the capital of the kingdom, in 1255, the castle became the royal palace, the Alcáçova. It was extensively renovated around 1300 by King Dinis I.

Between 1373 and 1375, a new city wall was built around Lisbon (locally, called the Cerca Nova or the Fernandina) by King Ferdinand I, of which some remnants survive. This wall, which partially replaced the old Moorish walls, was designed to encircle previously-unprotected parts of the city. It had 77 towers and a perimeter of 5400 metres, and it was completed in only two years. The castle and the city resisted the Castilian army several times during the 14th century, notably in 1373 and in 1383-4.

Before 1371, the fortress was simply known as Lisbon Castle. It was renamed St George Castle after King João I (John I) of Portugal married an English princess, Philippa of Lancaster. St George is the patron saint of England and his fabled slaying of a dragon also made him a popular hero in Iberia (Portugal is still England's oldest ally.)

From the 14th to the early 16th century, one of the towers (the Torre de Ulisses or Torre Albarrã) of the castle housed the archives of the kingdom. For that reason, the National Archive of Portugal is still called the Torre do Tombo, that is, the Tower of the Archive.

As the royal palace, the castle was the setting for the reception of the navigator Vasco da Gama, when he returned after discovering a maritime route to India. King Manuel I received him there, in 1498, with all appropriate honours and celebrations. Also in the castle, the pioneering playwright, Gil Vicente, staged, in 1502, his Monólogo do Vaqueiro, to honour the birth of Manuel I's son and heir, the future João III.

During the early 16th century, as Manuel I built a new royal palace on the edge of the Tagus river (the so-called Ribeira Palace), the old castle began to lose importance. An earthquake in 1531 damaged the castle, and this contributed to further decay and neglect. In 1569, King Sebastian ordered the rebuilding of the royal apartments in the castle of São Jorge, because he intended to use it as his residence. However, this project was never completed. Starting in 1580, when a Portuguese dynastic crisis opened the door to sixty years of Spanish rule, the castle was used as a barracks and a prison.

The great 1755 Lisbon earthquake severely damaged the castle and contributed to its degradation. Inspired by the trauma of the earthquake, in 1788, the first geodesic observatory in Portugal was assembled at the top of one of the towers of the castle; it is called the Torre do Observatório.

From 1780 to 1807, the charitable institution Casa Pia, dedicated to the education of poor children, was established in the citadel.

The castle's period of neglect ended in the 1940s, when an extensive renovation was undertaken. Most of the incongruous structures added to the castle compound in earlier centuries were demolished. The castle then became a big tourist attraction, known especially for the wonderful views of Lisbon that it offers.

 

Castle of São Jorge

 
 

View of Lisbon and Castle of São Jorge in the early 16th century. The illumination comes from the Chronicle of Afonso Henriques, by Duarte Galvão.The twin towers on the upper left side of the castle were part of the Royal Palace(Alcáçova), now in ruins.

 

Castle of São Jorge Barbican

 

Castle of São Jorge barbican in front of the main wall, and a tower. Note the talus and arrow slits

 

 

Architecture

 

The castle's plan is roughly square in shape, and it was originally encircled by a wall, to form a citadel. The castle complex consists of the castle itself (the castelejo), some ancillary buildings (including the ruins of the royal palace), gardens, and a large terraced square from which an impressive panorama of Lisbon is visible. The main entrance to the citadel is a 19th-century gate surmounted by the coat-of-arms of Portugal, the name of Queen Maria II, and the date, 1846. This gate permits access to the main square (Praça d'Armas), which is decorated with old cannons and a bronze statue of Afonso Henriques, the Portuguese monarch who took the castle from the Moors. This statue is a copy of the 19th-century original by the romantic sculptor, António Soares dos Reis, which is located near Guimarães Castle in central Portugal.

The remnants of the royal palace are located near the main square, but all that is left are some walls and a few rebuilt rooms like the Casa Ogival. It now hosts the Olissipónia, a multimedia show about the history of Lisbon.

The medieval castle is located toward the northwest corner of the citadel, at its highest point. Hypothetically, during a siege, if attackers managed to enter the citadel, the castle was the last stronghold, the last place available to take refuge. It is rectangular in shape, and it has a total of ten towers. A wall with a tower and a connecting door, divides the castle courtyard into halves. A series of stairways allow visitors to reach the walkway atop the wall and the towers, from which magnificent views of Lisbon can be enjoyed. The Tower of Ulysses (where the Torre do Tombo archive used to be) now has a periscope that allow tourists to have a 360-degree view of the city.

Apart from its main walls, the castle is protected, on its southern and eastern sides, by a barbican (barbacã), a low wall that prevented siege engines from approaching the main castle walls. The northern and western sides of the castle, on the other hand, were naturally protected by the steep hillside sloping downward from the castle's foundations. The castle is also partially encircled by a moat, now dry. The main entrance is fronted by a stone bridge across the moat. On the west side, there is a long curtain wall extending downhill, ending at a tower (the Torre de Couraça). This tower served to control the valley below, and it could also be used to escape, in case the castle was taken by enemies.

Castle of São Jorge at night

 

Castle of São Jorge ramarts

 

Castle of São Jorge barbican from above

 

 

 

 

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