The ‘Kidnapping’ of the Rector of the University of Coimbra during the French Invasions of Portugal

This post has been contributed by Carlos Fernando Teixeira Alves, a doctoral candidate in History in the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.  It explores an intriguing incident in the life of Francisco de Lemos (1735-1822), Rector of the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

The beginning of our history

Francisco de Lemos was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1735, and became an essential piece in Portuguese eighteenth-century political chess.  He was a bishop, counselor, deputy and the Rector of the University of Coimbra, holding this latter position the longest (1770-1779 and 1799-1821).1

From 1772, Lemos was crucial in a process “[…] which saw one of the most far-reaching and ruthlessly authoritarian reforms at Coimbra”.2  After this period, the university went through an important phase with several curricular changes.  The natural sciences and natural law came to occupy an important place, the faculties of philosophy and mathematics were created, and theology, medicine and legal faculties were reformed.

During his second rectorate, French troops, led by General Junot, entered Portugal and assumed the governance of the country.  And in that same year the Rector received a brief but illuminating letter which is partially presented here in the original language and translation:

“[…] Monsieur m’avait monté le desir d´envoyer une Deputation à Sa Majesté l´Empereur, et Roi, mon Maitre,et ce voeu m´a été exprimé depuis par toutes les classes du Royaume […] Sa Majesté […] y a consenti et aprouve la liste, que je lui ai adressée, et dont vous faites partie.”3

“[…] I had a desire to send a Deputation to His Majesty the Emperor, and King, my Master, and this wish has since been expressed to me by all classes of the Realm […] His Majesty […] has consented and approves the list, which I have sent to him, and of which you are a member.”

In this brief letter, the French general made it clear that this was an invitation he could not refuse.  Current historiography agrees with some contemporaries of the Rector when they said that this letter was nothing more than an irrefutable order, aiming to make the rector a hostage.4  Together with the Rector, thirteen more invitations of this kind were sent to other outstanding individuals. With the aim of emptying the country of its most important figures in order to end any kind of opposition to the government of Junot and Napoleon in Portugal.

But why still use the expression “kidnapping” to describe this moment in the life of Francisco de Lemos?  Apart from having the aim of taking the rector to France, where he was closely observed by the French authorities, at no time was he informed of the date of his return.  Thus, this invitation without return meant that he would remain in France as long as his “captors” wanted him to.

rector portugal

Francisco de Lemos, c.1800, unknown artist

Without being able to refuse this invitation, the 73-year-old Rector travelled to France (Bayonne) for the first of two meetings with Napoleon.  On September 16, 1808, Lemos had his first meeting with the French Emperor.  But, what to say, or rather, what strategy to follow?  Other members were present along with the Rector, but the approach and priorities had been previously outlined by Lemos:

  • loyalty to the Portuguese crown;
  • preserving the cohesion of the Portuguese empire;
  • willingness to negotiate other smaller aspects than the previous ones.

On the other side, the demands were quite opposite, and all went to a central point: promote the renunciation of the Portuguese crown.  The meeting ended without any understanding; Lemos and the other members were commissioned to draft a memorandum on the meeting which was subsequently sent and kept on display in Portugal.  The next meeting was in Bordeaux in 1809.  But this was even more fruitless than the first one.  He and other members – perhaps guessing the outcome of the meeting – were not present and this ended up being the last meeting involving Lemos and the remaining members.5

Nevertheless, Francisco de Lemos remained in France, receiving no justification for his enforced stay.  His luck changed only in 1810, where he was contacted again to meet the French Emperor, but this time on an individual basis.  Analyzing one of the many letters that the Rector wrote during this period, he mentioned that the Emperor had in mind a mission for himself and that this implied that he would have to return to Lisbon.  But what mission?  We do not know for sure.  In the various sources analyzed we were unable to obtain a concrete answer, nor did the Rector put forward an answer, even mentioning that he himself was never informed of the content of that mission.  Some authors have already defended the idea that Napoleon wanted to keep Lemos away from the beaches of La Teste de Buch, where he would probably be in contact with English spies.  We risk saying that Lemos preferred to hide the nature of his mission so as not to compromise his situation when he returned to Portugal, we must not forget that in this period the French forces were already losing ground.

Despite the omission we know that Lemos did not refuse his mission because he saw an opportunity to escape from France, despite the inconvenience of being escorted by French troops.  For fear of entering Portugal alongside the enemy troops, he managed to delay one of the stops held in Spain to the point where the troops had to leave without him – health issues, said Lemos.  We conclude that this was finally the moment that the Rector managed to abandon his hostage situation and ended up entering Portugal alone at the end of 1810.

Francisco de Lemos met Napoleon twice, but in view of the complicated situation he was in and fearing reprisals for his stay in France, he did not write much about the French Emperor.  The testimonies of the Rector that have survived show us mainly someone who thought that this trip to France and any possible closer connection with the French authorities, including the Emperor – could be detrimental to his position in Portugal. Maybe that’s why he didn’t write anything about Napoleon, even though he was in two meetings with the Emperor.  He was able to predict correctly that the Portuguese authorities were preparing to accuse him and the other members as traitors and had to infringe a colossal prosecution process as soon as he entered Portuguese territory.

The traitor and the end of the journey

Francisco de Lemos’s predictions were correct, after the French forces left Portuguese space, the national authorities began to pursue all those who were somehow linked to the invaders.  His situation got worse when he was still in France, because the French authorities based in Lisbon circulated false information, the main one being especially negative: Lemos would be in France to invite Napoleon to occupy the Portuguese throne. False, as we have seen, this news had a considerable impact and was central to the narrative of the accusation.  Questioned twice, he ended up counting on the help of the regent to see himself innocent only three years later, in 1813.  His network of influences, which extended to the Court itself, was also effective in this positive outcome.

Very characteristic of the resilience and pragmatism that characterized his personality, in this stay in France we highlight a very significant action.  Francisco de Lemos, and perhaps this is why his personality generates so much interest, often showed a quite correct intuition and reading of reality.  Keeping himself informed of the progress of the conflict and the setbacks of the French forces – during his stay in France he maintained lines of communication with Portugal – he tried to prepare himself for the post-invasion.  Thus, throughout his stay in France he rejected any financial contribution from the French authorities, knowing that this would harm him.  Thus, he financed his stay and all expenses during the years he spent in Bayonne and Bordeaux, which cost around 37 thousand of Portuguese real (Portuguese currency in the period).

In 1813, he returned to his duties as rector of the University of Coimbra where he remained until he resigns from office for health reasons in 1821.  He died the following year without knowing for sure the cause.  He left a very important legacy in the field of ecclesiastical administration, but also in the area of higher education in Portugal, guiding the university in one of its most emblematic processes of university reform.

One of his biographies already left us a phrase well known in his study of the life of Francisco de Lemos: “Reconheçeram-se-lhe virtudes, teve defeitos. Era um homem.”6  In translation: “He was recognized for his virtues, he had defects. He was a man.”



[1] Carlos F. T. Alves, “O intermediário entre o arquitecto e a sua obra. A actuação de D. Francisco de Lemos no seu primeiro reitorado (1770-1779)”, Fragmenta Histórica, n. 4 (2016): 141–77; Carlos F. T. Alves, “O segundo reitorado de D. Francisco de Lemos na Universidade de Coimbra: uma ação conjunta?”, Revista HISTEDBR On-line 16, n. 70 (7 de Maio de 2017): 210–31,

[2] Robert D. Anderson, European universities from the Enlightenment to 1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 30–31.

[3] LEMOS, D. Francisco de, “Exposição dirigida a Sua Alteza Real o Príncipe Regente.” O Instituto, Revista Scientifica e Litteraria. Vol. 46 nº 4, nº5, nº8 bis, nº9 bis, nº10, nº10 bis e nº11. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 1899.

[4] Ana Cristina Araújo, “Revoltas e ideologias em conflito durante as Invasões Francesas”, Revista de História das Ideias VII (1985): 7 – 90.

[5] Francisco de Lemos refrained from being late, although he did not give any plausible explanation; nevertheless, the members present at the meeting followed a script previously written, again, by the Rector.

[6] Genoveva Marques Proença, “D. Francisco de Lemos de Faria Pereira Coutinho. Reitor da Universidade de Coimbra” (Dissertação para a licenciatura em Ciências Histórico e Filosóficas, Coimbra, Universidade de Coimbra, 1955).