Portuguese Cortes

Not to be confused with Cortes Gerais.
Lamego (1)
Coimbra (10)
Leiria (4)
Guimarães (4)
Santarém (16)
Évora (13)
Lisbon (40)
Elvas (1)
Porto (2)
Atouguia (1)
Torres Novas (4)
Braga (1)
Viseu (1)
Estremoz (1)
Guarda (1)
Arronches (1)
Montemor-o-Novo (2)
Almeirim (2)
Tomar (1)
Portuguese towns which hosted Cortes

In the Medieval Kingdom of Portugal, the Cortes was an assembly of representatives of the estates of the realm - the nobility, clergy and bourgeoisie. It was called and dismissed by the King of Portugal at will, at a place of his choosing.[1] Cortes which brought all three estates together are sometimes distinguished as Cortes-Gerais (General Courts), in contrast to smaller assemblies which brought only one or two estates, to negotiate a specific point relevant only to them.[2]

Portuguese monarchs had always called intermittent "king's courts" (Curia Regis), consultative assemblies of feudal nobles and landed clerics (bishops, abbots and the masters of the Military Orders) to advise on major matters. This practice probably originated in the protofeudalism of the 6th-century Visigothic Kingdom. But, during the 13th century, with the growing power of municipalities, and kings increasingly reliant on urban militias, incorporated towns gained the right to participate in the king's court.[1] The Cortes assembled at Leiria in 1254 by Afonso III of Portugal was the first known Portuguese Cortes to explicitly include representatives of the municipalities. In this, Portugal was accompanying the pattern in neighboring Iberian kingdoms (e.g. the Kings of León admitted town representatives to their Cortes in 1188[1]).

Medieval Kings of Portugal continued to rely on small assemblies of notables, and only summoned the full Cortes on extraordinary occasions. A Cortes would be called if the king wanted to introduce new taxes, change some fundamental laws, announce significant shifts in foreign policy (e.g. ratify treaties), or settle matters of royal succession, issues where the cooperation and assent of the towns was thought necessary. Changing taxation (especially requesting war subsidies), was probably the most frequent reason for convening the Cortes. As the nobles and clergy were largely tax-exempt, setting taxation involved intensive negotiations between the royal council and the burgher delegates at the Cortes.

Delegates (procuradores) not only considered the king's proposals, but, in turn, also used the Cortes to submit petitions of their own to the royal council on a myriad of matters, e.g. extending and confirming town privileges, punishing abuses of officials, introducing new price controls, constraints on Jews, pledges on coinage, etc.[1] The royal response to these petitions became enshrined as ordinances and statutes, thus giving the Cortes the aspect of a legislature. These petitions were originally referred to as aggravamentos (grievances) then artigos (articles) and eventually capitulos (chapters). In a Cortes-Gerais, petitions were discussed and voted upon separately by each estate and required the approval of at least two of the three estates before being passed up to the royal council.[2] The proposal was then subject to royal veto (either accepted or rejected by the king in its entirety) before becoming law.[2]

Nonetheless, the exact extent of Cortes power was ambiguous. Kings insisted on their ancient prerogative to promulgate laws independently of the Cortes. The compromise, in theory, was that ordinances enacted in Cortes could only be modified or repealed by Cortes.[1] But even that principle was often circumvented or ignored in practice.

The Cortes probably had their heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, reaching their apex when the usurping John I of Portugal relied almost wholly upon the bourgeoisie for his power. For a period after the 1383–1385 Crisis, the Cortes were convened almost annually. But as time went on, they became less important. Portuguese monarchs, tapping into the riches of the Portuguese empire overseas, grew less dependent on Cortes subsidies and convened them less frequently. John II (r.1481-1495) used them to break the high nobility, but dispensed with them otherwise. Manuel I (r.1495-1521) convened them only four times in his long reign. By the time of Sebastian (r.1554–1578), the Cortes was practically an irrelevance.

Curiously, the Cortes gained a new importance with the Iberian Union of 1581, finding a role as the representative of Portuguese interests to the new Habsburg monarch. The Cortes played a critical role in the 1640 Restoration, and enjoyed a brief period of resurgence during the reign of John IV (r.1640-1656). But by the end of the 17th century, it found itself sidelined once again. The last Cortes met in 1698, for the mere formality of confirming the appointment of Infante John (future John V) as the successor of Peter II of Portugal. Thereafter, Portuguese kings ruled as absolute monarchs.[3] No Cortes were eassembled for over a century. This state of affairs came to an end with the Liberal Revolution of 1820, which set in motion the introduction of a new constitution, and a permanent and proper parliament, that however inheirited the name of Cortes Gerais.

List of Portuguese Cortes

Afonso I (1139–1185)

Sancho I (1185–1211)

Afonso II (1211–1223)

Sancho II (1223–1248)

Afonso III (1248–1279)

Denis (1279–1325)

Afonso IV (1325–1357)

Peter I (1357–1367)

Ferdinand I (1367–1383)

John I (1385–1433)

Edward (1433–1438)

Queen Eleanor of Aragon, (regent for Afonso V), (1438–39)

Duke Peter of Coimbra (regent for Afonso V) (1439–48)

Afonso V (in his own right) (1448–1481)

from Castile on behalf of the heiress, Joanna la Beltraneja.

John II (1481–1495)

Manuel I (1495–1521)

John III (1521–1557)

Catherine of Austria (regent for Sebastian) (1557–1562)

Sebastian (in his own right) (1562–1578)

Henry (1578–1580)

Philip I (II of Spain) (1581–1598)

Philip II (III of Spain) (1598–1621)

Philip III (IV of Spain) (1621–1640)

John IV (1640–1656)

Luisa of Guzman (regent for Afonso VI) (1656–1662)

Afonso VI (in his own right) (1662–1668)

Prince Peter (regent for Afonso VI) (1668–1683)

Peter II (in his own right) (1683–1706)

Absolute monarchy thereafter. No Cortes assembled in reigns of John V (1706–1750), Joseph I (1750–1777), Maria I (1777–1816), John VI (1816–1826), with the exception of the 1820 assembly of the Cortes Gerais e Extraordinárias da Nação Portuguesa to draft a new constitution. The other exception was during the reign of Miguel of Portugal (1828–34), when the constitution was suspended and an old-style Cortes was assembled by Miguel in Lisbon in 1828 to recognize Miguel as the sole legitimate heir to John VI.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 O'Callaghan, J.F. (2003) "Cortes, Leon, Castile and Portugal" in E.M. Gerli,editor, 2003, Medieval Iberia: an encyclopedia, London: Routledge
  2. 1 2 3 Coelho da Rocha, M.A. (1851) Ensaio sobre a historia do governo e da legislação de Portugal: para servir de introducção ao estudo do direito patrio Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade, p.102-03.
  3. J.H. Saraiva, (1993) Historia de Portugal p.231
  4. Livermore (1966: p.81)
  5. Livermore (1966: p.82)
  6. Barros (1885: p.264n)
  7. Lindo (1848, p.305)
  8. Almeida (1903: p.50)
  9. Almeida (1903: p.99)
  10. Lindo, 1848:p.313
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