Belém Tower or the Tower of St Vincent

Belém Tower or the Tower of St Vincent

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 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 lioz limestone and is composed of a bastion and a 30m, four storey tower.

The-Belem-Tower-Lisbon-by-Clarkson-StanfieldIn the late 15th century, King John II had designed a defence system for the mouth of the Tagus that depended on the fortresses of Cascais and São Sebastião 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 defences of Lisbon were inadequate, and that he had insisted on building fortifications along the entrance to the River Tagus to supplement the existing defences. To this end, he ordered the “making of a strong fort”, but died before any plans were drawn.

King Manuel I of Portugal revisited 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 an outcropping of basaltic rocks situated a short distance from the river bank, using some of the stones being collected to build the Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém. The tower was designed by military architect Francisco de Arruda, named “Master of the works of the Belém stronghold” by King Manuel, and by 1516 he began receiving 763 blocks and 504 stones for its construction, delivered by Diogo Rodrigues, treasurer for the project. As construction progressed, a man-of-war called the Grande Nau (Great Ship), a heavily armed, 1100 ton ship continued to guard the estuary at the mouth of the Tagus till the fort’s completion.

The building was finished in 1519, just five 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 honour of the patron saint of Lisbon.

belem-tower-lisbonSome years later (1571), Francisco de Holanda advised the monarch that it was necessary to improve the coastal defences 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 Belém 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.

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