Unearthing Portugal’s trading past in England

 In News, Recommended, Trade

Portugal and England have the oldest unbroken alliance in the world having existed since 1373 when the Treaty of Windsor was signed. On the back of the alliance, trade between the two North Atlantic seafaring nations flourished and a surprising number of Portuguese coins have been discovered that backs up its importance.

Text: By Chris Graeme

Coins are a tangible record of commercial history. Unlike manuscripts they don’t rot and generally survive for centuries beneath fields, building and excavation sites, in shipwrecks and collections highly prized by numismatists.
But they can also tell us something about commercial trading pattens, and the places they are unearthed pose intriguing questions for historians and archaeologist alike as to why they were found in a particular place, what was so important about that place, and who were the people using them and why?
Numismatist Tiago Gil Curado studied the commercial contacts between England and Portugal in the Medieval and post-Medieval periods through the coin record found in many places in England and the UK.
Portuguese coins were hoarded, lost or discarded at a time which was often turbulent in English history with the Hundred Years War between France and England in the first half of the 15th century and the subsequent Wars of the Roses or ‘Cousins Wars’ which followed them as a result from 1460 to 1485, ending with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Tiago Gil Curado did a degree in archaeology at Lisbon University and an MA at Durham and did his thesis and researched all the Portuguese coins found in the UK looking at how, when and why they ended up there.
As part of his Master degree, Tiago Curado spent time in the United Kingdom and recorded 291 coins dating between the 13th and 18th centuries which had been recovered from archaeological digs, shipwrecks and metal detecting forays.
He says that it was during the Medieval period that Portugal and England started a closer relationship and this can partly be seen from a significant increase in trade after the Treaty of Windsor in 1387 which was cemented by the marriage of the daughter of John of Gaunt (Gaunt was a son of Edward III of England) Philippa of Lancaster to King John I of Portugal.
Formal commercial relations, however, go back further. In 1353 a commercial treaty was signed with England to protect Portugal’s trade rather than stimulate it after Portuguese vessels had been mistakenly attacked by the English at the Battle of Les-Espagnols-sur-Mer and which had thereby created a huge risk for Portuguese ships trading in England, Normandy, Flanders and Zeeland. Portugal-English trade really took off, however, from the 1370s and 1380s onwards.
Tiago Curado says that from the distribution of coins the most popular port of call for Portuguese ships was Bristol, followed by the South-West of England (Cornwall and Dorset), then London, the Isle of White and Sussex.
At that time, there were two types of Portuguese coins which were legal tender in England. One was the Chinfrão minted under King Afonso V (1438-1481). The Chinfrão circulated at the same value as a half Groat (two silver pennies).
“Seventy-seven coins came from 18 hoards hidden in isolated places. In all of these hoards Portuguese were mixed with English currency and sometimes other foreign coins showing that they were as valuable as the local ones.
“There were all types of denominations in copper, billon (alloy), silver and gold. I also registered six coins from three different shipwrecks: one off the coast of Cornwall sunk in 1526, another wrecked in the Bristol Channel in 1583, and a third in the mid-17th century,” he says.
Tiago Curado’s research took him to excavations, journals and regional proceedings, scouring information from over 400 books. “Evidently the number of Portuguese coins found in this group is smaller than the casual finds, nevertheless there are 17 well-documented finds associated with archaeological sites,” he says.
One coin was found on the site of the old Bartholomew’s Hospital, Bristol and could have been a keepsake belonging to a Portuguese mariner who lived at the hospital from 1445 onwards. Four others came from abbeys and priories.
“This could be the result of donations from Portuguese travellers in the forms of indulgences, blessings or alms in return for monks offering prayers of protection or to give thanks for safe passage. The other 12 coins came from cities and villages,” he said.
In the 15th century, the number of Portuguese ships and traders in England became irregular, possibly because of the 100 Years War and the Wars of the Roses that followed. This does not mean that Anglo-Portuguese trade was less frequent, rather that Portuguese merchants had opted to concentrate their business operations in Flanders while English and Italian traders shipped commodities from Portugal to England.
This percentage dropped to 3% in the fifteenth century. Yet Portuguese commodities, especially wine, continued to reach British ports like Bristol. With the end of the Hundred Years War, wine from Gascony had become extremely expensive for English traders, so Portuguese wine was one of the cheaper alternatives that English merchants found, and the number of Bristolians selling English commodities in Lisbon grew significantly.
“We know that during that period, since more people could have access to luxury goods they were buying and importing them more than ever. Art, clothes, the finest technology at that time were being bought to Portugal not only from England but also France and Italy for example. The same happened in other countries where people were buying those Asian, African and American goods that the Portuguese were trading. Evidence comes not only from old chronicles, but also by the distribution of the objects found which are today in museums and also from items found at archaeological sites” says Tiago Curado.

Joes from Brazil

There are also finds which reflect the gold Portuguese coins in the 18th century that were legal tender internationally called ‘Joes’ minted in the reigns of kings Joseph I and John V.
During the 18th century a continuing trade surplus with Portugal in her favour was funded by Brazilian gold and Portuguese gold coins were permitted to circulate in the United Kingdom. There were two series: the Moeda d’ Ouro (Moidore) worth 27 shillings, the half Moidore (13 Shillings, six pence) struck in Bahia, Brazil, and the quarter Moidore (6 Shillings, nine pence); and the second series, the ‘Peça’ or ‘Joe’ (from the names and portraits of John V (1706-1750) and Joseph I (1750-1777) worth 36 shillings, this series running from 72 Shillings (£3,12s) down to 4s 6d. The coins themselves are found occasionally in England and Wales and weights made for checking them survive in large numbers.
Later, during the Napoleonic Wars when French troops invaded Portugal and the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil, the British led the military defence of Portugal. “This was a very profitable agreement for the British that syphoned much of the Brazilian gold to London.”
For centuries, in many of the ports around Europe there was a register of the goods imported and exported by sea. The aim of these registers was to not only control trade, but also for customs to ensure merchants paid their taxes. Today, there are not many surviving port customs books that have survived and Portuguese records were destroyed in the Great Lisbon Earthquake, however it is still possible to find in the United Kingdom some of these books that managed to escape fires, humidity, wars and robberies.
“Through them we can read a few references to Portuguese vessels and their cargo which is very useful when it comes to tracking what was coming from Portugal to England. It’s also important to remember that the register system back then was not systematic, so it’s more likely that not all the vessels and cargo were registered in these books. However, although not 100% reliable, they are some of the best sources of information we have” says Tiago Curado.
And from the goods exported from Portugal, among the items frequently mentioned are figs and raisins, but also olive oil, skins, honey, dry cloth, and also, after the Portuguese expansion, some imports from the ‘new worlds’ like porcelain and spices from the East. Exports from England to Portugal include English cloth, bed-hangings, hose, lead, tin, corn, lances and wainscots.

Did You know:

The English word ‘palaver’ meaning a big fuss or commotion comes from the Portuguese word ‘palavra’ learnt by English merchants buying Portuguese goods and African slaves from noisy Portuguese merchants negotiating in the ports of Bristol and Liverpool.

When infamous King Richard III was looking for a new wife after the death of his Queen Anne Neville, he negotiated for the hand of Portuguese Princess Joana daughter of King Afonso V of Portugal and planned to marry off Elizabeth of York (‘The White Princess’) to the future King Manuel of Portugal. It never came off. Richard was slain by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and married Elizabeth of York himself, uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster and bringing an end to the Wars of the Roses.

Richard III’s brother George Duke of Clarence allegedly elected to be executed by drowning in a butt (barrel or vat) of Madeira malvasia wine or ‘malmsey’ as punishment for conspiring against his other brother who was, at the time, King Edward IV.