Army size: number of effectives, demography, and military recruitment

For a correct assessment of the issues surrounding the size of armies in early modern Portugal, some aspects that existed from before, in the medieval period, must be pointed out. First, there was no “national” army, something which can even be considered artificial and which would materialize only in the modern period. The army that the king was able to gather, mostly transiently, was nothing more than the product of smaller armies combined. Thus, it was composed not only of the contingents directly under the king’s command (such as the municipal militias, members of the royal demesne, or paid mercenaries) but also of the seigniorial armies.20 According to the recruitment estimates by Francisco Pereira Pestana for c.1530, only 55 per cent to 60 per cent of the total number of troops were summoned directly by the monarch, and these included dependents of the royal household and men recruited from the royal jurisdictions. The remaining came from the military orders, the secular church, and the high nobility.21 While these figures pose a number of issues (discussed later on), they illustrate the royal dependency on peripheral powers.

A second, connected aspect is the permanence of seigniorial recruitment until late in the early modern period. Because the right to recruit, at the local and regional levels, in many cases was in the hands of the nobility, the king always depended on the nobles to increase his recruitment capacity. Thus, the dichotomy of cooperation and (occasional) conflict between these two stakeholders was very much alive throughout all of the early modern period.22

Finally, there were differences between the estimated numbers of recruitment, the contingents actually mustered, and (most of the times) the number of men who actually made it to the battlefield, the latter being the most reliable to estimate army sizes.23 After these considerations, the major question is whether the number of effectives on the battlefield increased.

In the long run - that is, from the early fifteenth century until the ending of the dynasty of Aviz (1578-80)-the most relevant military episodes clearly always involved a number of effectives between sixteen thousand and twenty thousand (Table 4.1). This remained true well into the early modern period.24 Exceptions to this threshold of twenty thousand units seem to have been theconquests of Ksar es- Seghir (1458) and Asilah (1471), where Afonso V was able to gather, respectively, twenty-two thousand and twenty-three thousand effectives.25 That the difference in numbers in the conquest of Ceuta (1415) and King Sebastiao’s in the battle of El-Ksar el-Kebir (1578) is so short seems staggering. Similarly for the battle of Alfarrobeira, the army of King Afonso V against his uncle, the regent infante Pedro (1449), was not radically different in size from the one that conquered Azemmour in 1513. This is especially relevant given that the king’s army, at the inherent context of civil war, did not represented the sum of all Portuguese effectives.

TABLE 4.1 Number of effectives in Portuguese armies in the Iberian and North African war theatres (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries)

Setting or battle

Portuguese effectives














El-Ksar el-Kebir



Sources: Encarnacao, “A batalha de Toro,” 148; Hespanha, “Introducao,” 9-11; Monteiro, A Guerra, 90-94; Monteiro, “The evolution of the army,” 228; and Sousa, “The war on land,” 247-248.

TABLE 4.2 Size of European armies, 1475-1595




















15,000 (1559)








20,000 (1578)

Sources: Table 1; Parker, “A Military Revolution,” 44; Lynn, “Recalculating French Army” 125; and Lindgren, “Men, Money and Means,” 130—1.

Comparisons with other European powers on Table 4.2 put this evolution into perspective. Pondering the size of armies in early modern Europe, on the basis of the number of effectives, reserve troops, and mercenaries, is complex.26 In the case of Portugal, the number of effectives in campaign was seemingly not far from the real recruitment capacity, setting aside the issue of there being “paper soldiers.”

Like elsewhere in Europe, the evidence for military recruitment available does not always corroborate the propensity to stagnation that is observable in the Portuguese number of effectives. On the contrary, it is excessively optimistic.27 One good example is the recruitment estimates mentioned earlier from Francisco Pereira Pestana, a distinguished military officer, which were transmitted to King Joao III (r.1521-1557) around c.1530. The context during this period was of Moorish power being asserted in North Africa. Repercussions in Portugal took the form of a debate regarding the possible invasion of the Kingdom of Fez or the conservation of the existing Portuguese outposts.2" Pestana, unrealistically, declared that Joao III would be able to gather between forty thousand and forty- five thousand effectives, consisting of 7,100 horse riders, thirty thousand infantry (ten thousand town militia and twenty thousand foot soldiers), plus mercenaries and artillery.29 This estimate was a fallacy, not only because Pestana included troops which would be hard to muster - from garrisons in North African and Atlantic outposts to the private forces of ecclesiastics and lay lords (discussed in the segment about warfare culture) - but also because of the extraordinary costs, since the enterprise would cost an estimated 150,000 cruzados (or 150,000 ducats). This sum would be difficult for the monarchy to obtain, in a context of an increasing public debt and escalating financial rupture (see the state expenditure segment).

All the previous estimates on the number of effectives have to be compared against the demography of the realm, focusing on its evolution from the mid fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century. Recent scholarship has argued that during the decades before the depression caused by the Black Death (c.1320-30), Portugal had around a million inhabitants.30 This was lower than the first reliable numbers, dating from the Numeramento (1527-32) ordered by King Joao III, in which the overall population number (depending on the coefficient of individuals per household) falls between 1.12 million and 1.25 million.31

On one hand, the second half of the fifteenth century was a period of growth, both in the economy and in terms of population, the latter increasing to numbers close to pre—Black Death levels.32 This period of growth, which became steadier as the sixteenth century drew nearer, suggests a total population close to that indicated in the Numeramento. On the other hand, there were factors which, other than stopping this growth, perhaps diminished its increase rate. From 1400 onwards, famine, bad crops, episodes of war, and epidemics happened all around the kingdom, making steady demographic growth difficult.33 After 1500, there was another issue to consider: the emigration to India, from the opening of the Cape Route. Authors diverge slightly on figures and averages: both indicators vary according to period and context. Guinote, Frutuoso, and Lopes stressed that until 1524 the maximum number of people emigrating per year to India was three thousand. The figure increased to four thousand on at least two occasions: the armadas of 1528 and 1571.3J In turn, Godinho presented slightly higher figures suggesting that more than four thousand individuals shipped to India in 1524 and in 1538 between four thousand and five thousand.35 Despite these variations, clearly, some thousands (usually men in active age) were sent overseas per year, and many did not return, dying in shipwrecks, from diseases, and as war casualties. Other factors, such as natural disasters (the plague in 1506, 1527, and 1569 and an earthquake in 1531) and food shortages, point to making a more conservative estimate of the total population.

Table 4.3 presents the ratio of effectives per setting (as described in Table 4.1) when compared with the closest benchmark for estimating population. As can be seen, the percentages of effectives in the period covering between 1415 and 1580 were close to 2 per cent. Despite not being especially populous, Portugal’s military recruitment capacity was considerable throughout this period.36 When compared, the ratio of effectives - the percentage of population in the army - in the mid sixteenth century would be, in theory, slightly inferior to Spain’s (close to 2 per cent from the second quarter of the sixteenth century), comparable to Sweden’s (around 1.5 per cent in 1555), and far superior to France’s (less than 0.5 per cent throughout sixteenth century).37

TABLE 4.3 Ratio of effectives per total population, 1415-1580

Effectives (year)

Total population estimates (year)

Ratio of effectives per total population (percentage)

18,600-19,000 (1415)

1 million (1415)

1.86%-l .90%

16,000 (1449)

900,000 (1450)


19,000-19,600 (1476)

1 million (1500)


20,000 (1513)

1.12 million (c. 1530)


20,000 (1578)

1.2 million (1580)


Sources: Table 1; Rodrigues, Historia da Populate, 519.

This evidence suggests that military needs on the mainland could be satisfied by the existing recruitment ratio. Major challenges would be met as overseas requirements increased, since the demand for the navy and the outposts in Africa and Asia was continuous.

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