Prestage, Edgar (18691951), historian and Portuguese scholar, was born in Manchester on 20 July 1869, the only surviving child of John Edward Prestage (1828/91915), solicitor, and his wife, Elizabeth Rose (1843/41917), both of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Towards the end of his life he attributed the awakening of an interest in Portugal to the reading of stories of adventure, particularly Vasco da Gama's voyage to India. While still at school at Radley College, he began to study Portuguese, using a shilling grammar. He was converted to Roman Catholicism with his mother in 1886, and in 1891 he first visited Portugal, where the kindness of his reception, at a time when Lord Salisbury's ultimatum had caused a wave of anti-British feeling, gave him a permanent bond with the Portuguese. Religion, he said, proved a closer tie than nationality. His lecture Portugal: a pioneer of Christianity (1933) was perhaps the fruit of this early approach.
From Balliol College, Oxford, Prestage graduated with a second class in modern history in 1891, and from 1896 to 1907 practised as a solicitor in his father's firm, Allen, Prestage, and Whitfield, at Manchester. His first published work (1893) was a translation from the French of the celebrated Letters of a Portuguese Nun (Marianne Alcoforado), now generally considered the work of a professional writer rather than the lovesick nun of Beja to whom Prestage himself, in common with tradition from the seventeenth century, had originally attributed the work. Prestage became convinced that the book was a literary fabrication and refused to allow further editions of his translation after the third. He also translated for the Hakluyt Society the fifteenth-century chronicler of the discoveries, Azurara, in collaboration with C. R. Beazley (2 vols., 18969). Between 1891 and 1906 he often visited Lisbon, mainly for historical research, and made friends with a number of prominent Portuguese scholars and writers, including most of those forming part of the celebrated coterie Os Vencidos da Vida (the Vanquished in Life). He had already, in the 1890s, been elected to the Portuguese Royal Academy of Sciences. He was introduced in Lisbon to the salon of Dona Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho, herself a distinguished writer and widow of the Brazilian (Parnassian) poet Gonçalves Crespo. In 1907 Prestage married their only daughter, Maria Cristina. His mother, who had a strong influence over him, opposed his intention of settling in Portugal, but his wife, who is said not to have been accepted in English society owing to her non-European blood, was unhappy in Southport, Lancashire, and they soon returned to Lisbon. There they occupied the flat over Dona Maria Amália's in the Travessa Santa Catarina until, in the wake of his wife's suicide in 1918, Prestage returned to England.
During the period of his permanent residence in Lisbon, between 1907 and 1919, Prestage saw little of the English colony, identifying himself with his adopted country. He worked continuously at his researches in the Portuguese state and private libraries. A traditionalist by temperament, he was much attached to the monarchy, and never reconciled himself to the first Portuguese republic. He later supported the dictator Salazar, while remaining friendly with the exiled king Manuel II, whose three volumes on early Portuguese printed books he helped to revise. Prestage published many articles in Portuguese historical reviews, completed his long biography, in Portuguese, of the great seventeenth-century writer Don Francisco Manuel de Melo (1914), and published some of the Lisbon parish registers. From 1917 to 1918 he was press officer at the British legation in Lisbon.
In 1923 Prestage was appointed as the first Camões professor of Portuguese at King's College, London. There was almost no undergraduate teaching in the nascent department of Portuguese for many years, and the chief work of the professorship consisted in giving public lectures at which the Portuguese or Brazilian ambassadors presided, and in conducting the research to publish books and pamphlets. In 1924 Prestage married Victoria, daughter of Charles Davison Cobb, who was half-Spanish and had family connections with Porto. They settled down at her Queen Anne house in London, 16 Holland Street, Kensington, visiting Lisbon frequently in the spring of each year.
At this time Prestage's main publications were connected with the period of the Portuguese restoration of 1640. He printed much of the relevant diplomatic correspondence, including (in collaboration) that of João F. Barreto, Relação da Embaixada a França em 1641 (1918), and F. de Sousa Coutinho, Correspondência diplomática (1920, 1926, vol. 3 unpublished). His account of the Diplomatic Relations of Portugal with France, England and Holland from 1640 to 1668 was published at Watford in 1925 and in Coimbra in 1928. It is a valuable survey of the whole subject, skilfully reduced to readable proportions, but limiting itself mainly to the narrative of events. In 1929 he published an account of Afonso de Albuquerque, which was followed by a general survey of the Portuguese discoveries, The Portuguese Pioneers (1933), which was translated into various languages. He delivered the Norman MacColl lectures at Cambridge in 1933, and his short although rather incomplete account of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance was presented as a lecture to the Royal Historical Society and included in the society's Transactions for 1934.
After this Prestage wrote no major work, for in his later years he was more concerned with his lifelong commitment to Catholicism than with his further research, although he contributed chapters to several publications, and compiled a bibliography on Portugal and the War of the Spanish Succession. He remained professor until 1936. He was elected FBA in 1940, was a grand officer of the order of Santiago, a corresponding member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, the Portuguese Academy of History, and the Lisbon Geographical Society. He died at his London home, 16 Holland Street, Kensington, on 10 March 1951.
Prestage was a devoted and meticulous scholar, who, like many of those who pioneered the study of foreign countries in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, displayed remarkable sympathy and identification with an adopted people and language. With Aubrey Fitzgerald Bell, he was the chief early pioneer of Portuguese and Lusophone studies, but the dryness of his writing style, and the limited range of the subjects to which he applied himself, meant that his impact on making things Portuguese known in Britain was limited.
H. V. Livermore, rev. C. A. R. Hills
E. Prestage, in H. V. Livermore and W. J. Entwistle, Portugal and Brazil (1953) [autobiographical memoir] · personal knowledge (1971) · private information (2004) · Prestage MSS, King's Lond. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1951) · J. F. Laidlar, Edgar Prestage: Manchester's Portuguese pioneer, British Historical Society of Portugal: 23rd Annual Report and Review, 1996 (1997), 5575
Harvard U., Houghton L., commonplace book
King's Lond., corresp.
King's Lond., corresp. and papers relating to the history of Portugal | U. Edin. L., corresp. with Charles Sarolea
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1943, NPG
Wealth at death
£26,087 9s. 2d.: probate, 23 May 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales