During research for my book Conquerors about the Portuguese voyages of discovery I unearthed a remarkable connection to England and the region in which I live. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama rounded Africa in 1498 he was not just the first man to discover a sea route to India and join up the world – he was also the descendant of a Gloucestershire family.
It’s often said that England and Portugal are Europe’s oldest allies. Both are seafaring countries on the Atlantic sea board which traded with each other in medieval times. English crusaders stopped off at Lisbon in 1147 and helped the king of Portugal expel the Muslim rulers of the city. Many of the English stayed and settled down. Trading links and agreements followed. In 1373 Edward III concluded a treaty with the envoys of the Portuguese king to send archers to resist attacks from the larger neighbouring kingdom of Castile.
It was eight years before an expeditionary force could be assembled. The Duke of Cambridge gathered some 3000 men at Plymouth. Amongst those who went was ‘Frederick Sudley of Gloucestershire’. Frederick evidently originated from Sudeley, near Winchcombe, but his exact origins seem uncertain. He could not have been a son of John de Sudeley, 3rd Baron Sudeley, who died in 1367, as he had no direct heirs, but it’s possible to hazard a guess that he was a member of the family, and a figure of some importance. If so, Frederick would have contributed his own band of men-at-arms and archers to the expedition. Eight ships from Bristol sailed round to Plymouth to join the Duke of Cambridge – it seems likely that Sudley and his Gloucestershire contingent made the journey on these ships. They finally landed at Lisbon in June 1381.
|Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire
The English expedition achieved nothing. The men were unpaid and the whole enterprise quickly collapsed. After a few months they returned home. However Frederick Sudley decided to stay in Portugal where he prospered. His name, rendered as Sodré in Portuguese, became prominent. He had a son João (John) and a grand-daughter Isabel who married Estêvão da Gama, from a wealthy and titled family. Vasco, their son, was Frederick’s great-grandson.
|Vasco da Gama
It has to be said that the Sodrés and the Gamas were a rough lot. Two of Isabel’s brothers, Vicente and Brás Sodré, accompanied Vasco on his second expedition to India. These Sodrés were Vasco’s uncles but were hardly older than him. The anglo-portuguese crusading tendency remained strong. Vicente was a member of the powerful Christian Order of Christ, the Portuguese successor to the Templars, and the governor of its fortress town at Tomar. It’s likely that the Sodré brothers and Vasco da Gama had grown up together at Sines on the coast of Portugal and had shared experiences of piracy, raiding Muslim ports and capturing ships. When Vasco returned from his second voyage to India in 1503 Vicente Sodré remained in control of Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean, accompanied by his brother Brás . Unfortunately the Sodré brothers became distracted by the lure of plundering Arab merchant vessels and ended up being shipwrecked off the Arabian Peninsula. Vicente was drowned. Brás died in mysterious circumstances – it’s been suggested that the Sodré brothers had greedily kept the lion’s share of the plunder for themselves and that Brás was so hated that he was murdered by his own men. Recently there’s been the probable discovery of the remains of one of their ships off the coast of Oman.
|Cannon balls and the ship's bell from the shipwreck
The Sudeley connection is still recorded in modern Lisbon – the family gave its name to a riverside area beside the river Tagus, the Cais do Sodré (Sudeley’s Quay). Once a rough sailor’s haunt it’s now a trendy area of bars and restaurants, and a transport hub. There’s a Cais do Sodré railway and metro station and a ferry terminal across the Tejo. The ships that carried Vasco da Gama and a Gloucestershire name to India in the fifteenth century were built on the river banks nearby. In the wake of Vasco’s arrival in India, the Portuguese developed a wide-ranging empire and Frederick’s descendants sailed with them. Today you can find Sodrés across the Portuguese speaking world, particularly in Brazil. The Sudelies have travelled a long way from the slopes of the Cotswold Hills.
|Cais do Sodré in the past