The History of the National Palace of Sintra
The Palace of Sintra is first referenced by Al-Bakrî, a 10th century Moorish geographer, in conjunction with the castle that he placed in the lofty peaks of the surrounding hills, today entitled the Moorish Castle. In 1147, following the conquest of Lisbon by Afonso Henriques, the Almoravids of Sintra surrendered to bring an end to over three centuries of Moorish domination. On the site of the current palace, then named Chão da Oliva, there probably once stood the residence of the Moorish governors but with the remains still for discovery.
Practically every king and queen of Portugal spent some time in residence at the National Palace of Sintra for varying lengths of time but nevertheless leaving behind their own respective marks and memories of their lives. Over the course of time, the palace was shaped by different styles influenced by the different artistic trends prevailing in each period, reflected today in the various architectural styles with the Gothic and Manueline particularly evident. There is also a very heavy emphasis on the Mudejar style – a symbiosis between Christian and Muslim art – particularly to the fore in the exuberant Hispano-Moresque tile finishings. The current building configuration stems broadly from the construction campaigns undertaken during the reigns of kings Dinis, João I, Manuel I and João III.
The first document testifying to the existence of a palace in Chão da Oliva dates to 1281. This stems from a contract reached between King Dinis (reigned 1279-1325) and the free Moors of Colares. Dinis lowered their fiscal burdens in exchange for their efforts to conserve the palace. At this time, the Royal Palace extended only to the upper section of the current palace and a chapel dedicated to the Holy Divine Spirit, whose worship was introduced to Sintra by Saintly Queen Elizabeth, wife of Dinis.
The Palace and town of Sintra and the surrounding lands were bestowed upon Saintly Queen Elizabeth in 1287 by King Dinis. While the property remained in the hands of the crown, the queen became the beneficiary taking receipt of all income and tax revenues. A century later, the gifting of Sintra to queens had become a constant practice. On receiving the town and its palaces, the Queens of Portugal became masters of a vast area with the income ensuring they could maintain a House, that is, the large number of people who directly depended on her. The House of Queens was therefore the set of palace, properties, rents and persons in her charge for safeguarding: ranging from noble ladies and officers down to servants and enslaved individuals.
During the reign of King João I (1356-1433), the palace was subject to fairly wide reaching interventions. That which was the palace of Queen Philippa of Lancaster was also becoming a favourite of the king who here wanted to, through the opulence displayed in the new rooms, affirm his statute as founder of the new Avis dynasty, as is the case with the Swan Room. The new palace was structured around the Central Patio and also fitted with a kitchen complete with two enormous conical chimneys.
It was in the Palace of Sintra in 1413 that King João I received the spies sent to the court of Sicily on a supposed diplomatic mission but with the real objective of collecting strategic information on the port of Ceuta. Such information was essential to the attack launched by the Portuguese king against that city with its conquest symbolically marking the beginning of the Portuguese period of expansion into North Africa.
During the 15th century, the presence of the king in the palace became more frequent. The hunting was one of the main attractions bringing the court to Sintra as the region brought together perfect conditions both for hunting larger (wild boar, deer) and smaller (hare, partridge) animals. Another reason was the progressive emergence of Lisbon as the bureaucratic centre of the kingdom’s governance and hence leading the court to circumscribe its travels to an increasingly narrow radius around the leading Portuguese city. Throughout this period, the town of Sintra maintained the House of Queens even while the palace also steadily became a home for the kings of Portugal.
Under Manuel I (1469-1521), the Palace received the decorative features that still today make up its distinctive characteristics, especially the Hispano-Moresque tile finishings. He added the imposing Room of the Coat of Arms, with its cupola ostentatiously displaying the coats of arms of Manuel, his children and the seventy-two most noble households in the kingdom. The Eastern Wing also dates back to this period. By the end of his reign, the Palace of Sintra was one of the most grandiose of all in Portugal, with its rooms decorated in the gold brought back from the lands in the meantime colonised by the Portuguese.
During the reign of King João III (1502-1557), a new Palace was built through interconnecting the main chambers to the south with the north-eastern wing of the Palace that housed the Room of the Coat of Arms and the chambers of Queen Catherine of Austria (1507-1578). The palace was under frequent habitation throughout the 16th century and was one of the favourite places of King Sebastião (1554-1578).
In the 17th century, there came more sombre times for this royal residence. Following six years in exile on Angra do Heroísmo, to where he had been sent by his brother who deemed him incapable of ruling, Afonso VI arrived at the Palace of Sintra. There, he was incarcerated in the room that still today bears his name from 1674 to the time of his death that took place nine long and wearisome years after.
Following the major earthquake of 1755, which severely impacted on this complex, the Palace of Sintra underwent reconstruction while retaining the silhouette that it had already displayed ever since the middle of the 16th century and is still present today.
With the end of the Ancien Régime and the founding of a Constitutional Monarchy in 1822, the Palace of Sintra was adapted for a royal family that was no longer the centre of political decision-making. The utilisation became more domestic oriented and closer to contemporary models.
The revolution of 1910 brought an abrupt end to the time of the Palace of Sintra as a royal residence with Queen Maria Pia, widow of King Luís, the final monarch to live in the Palace and from where she departed into exile. In this same year, the National Palace of Sintra was declared a National Monument.
However, it would take until the late 1930s for the Palace to open its doors to the public on a regular and museum-like basis. Throughout this decade, there was deep reaching work undertaken so as to portray an image of Portugal’s grandiose past. Already under the dictatorial Estado Novo regime (1933-1975), this highlighted the positive role of Portugal in the globalisation process even while overlooking the true scale of its impacts.
In recent years, the Palace of Sintra has re-emerged as one of the most important cultural poles in the heart of Sintra. This forms an integral part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, registered by UNESCO as World Heritage on 6 December 1995. Ever since September 2012, the monument has been under the management of Parques de Sintra and accepted as a member of the European Royal Residences Network in 2013.
In this palace, Parques de Sintra has carried out a range of different conservation initiatives with the most recent incorporating the full restoration of the Preta Garden, which can be visited free of charge. The company has also invested in enriching the monument’s collections and, in 2019, integrating into the exhibition circuit a rare 17th century State Bed, a unique piece in the Portuguese context. In museum terms, there was the recent restoration and opening to the public of the Chambers of Maria Pia of Savoy. This new exhibition and museum project integrated into the visitor route a total of eight new areas and around 100 new pieces and works, ranging from furniture to paintings and the decorative arts that had hitherto been inaccessible to viewing by visitors.