The name Peniche seems to have its origin in the Latin word peninsula (paene
) which literally means "almost an island". This origin, apparently proved through known historical documentation, indicates a cyclical picture of a certain insularity, probable due to the rhythm of the tides and whose memory has perpetuated in a place name which, thanks to oral use, has evolved to the present word: Peniche.
This region from Estremadura quickly gave rise to the interest of the Palaeolithic communities composed of hunter-gatherers who, due to the variety of resources decided to stay.
The main known pre-historical stations in the municipality correspond to cave occupations. An important set of sites is located southeast of the municipality, in the Cesaredas Plateau. However, the most important pre-historical station in the municipality is the Furninha Cave.
Nowadays located close to the sea, this station was occupied between the Middle Palaeolithic and the end of the Chalcolithic, and was dug in 1880 by the scholar Joaquim Nery Delgado. This cave, occupied during the Palaeolithic as shelter and during the Neolithic and Copper Age as necropolis, supplied vast archaeological assets, such as osteological traces of several hominids, namely Homo Sapiens (Neanderthal) and Homo Sapiens Sapiens (present Man); traces of fauna from the Quaternary period (fishes and mammals); lithic utensils (bifaces, arrow points, or polished rock axes); bone utensils; and several items of Neolithic pottery (the famous hanging vases from the Furninha Cave).
During the Roman era the economy consolidates based on the cultivation of the fertile alluvial lands next to the S. Domingos River and the Ferrel Stream, as well as on the exploration of resources from the sea and the estuary.
This last component took on a special relevance, demonstrated by the discovery of a pottery complex from the first century A.D. close to Murraçal da Ajuda (Peniche). This complex had four kilns and probably produced, essentially, amphorae for the preservation of fish. The economical activity of the – at that time – island of Peniche most certainly based its economical activity in the exploration of resources from the sea, mainly producing fish preserves. After two thousand years, this industrial activity is still present in this piscatorial region.
The Roman presence also seems to have been confirmed in the Berlengas Archipelago. Today a natural reserve, the Berlenga Island ’s sheltered waters were, at that time, crossed by Roman vessels. This has been demonstrated through the identification and recovery of about twenty lead anchor pieces as well as of several Roman amphorae in these waters.
Regarding the Middle Ages, historical sources mention the island of Peniche integrated in the administrative and economical scope of the important estate – and afterwards village – of Atouguia da Baleia.
This area, nowadays situated inland and somewhat distant from the sea, underwent through a great economical development during the Middle Ages due to its port, considered at the time of D. Dinis one of the most important in the kingdom. This economical growth, made possible thanks to the profitable fishing activity which rested upon the capture of species such as whales (cetacean which gives its name to the village) allowed the administrative autonomy of this territory in view of the neighbouring settlement of Óbidos. This autonomy is achieved in 1158 when D. Afonso Henriques grants the estate of Touguia to Guilherme de Corni, Frankish crusader who helped this king conquer Lisbon .
Up to the 16th century, the scarcely populated island of Peniche lived in the economical and administrative scope of the village of Atouguia da Baleia; however, from this period on, due to the slow formation of the present dune ridge which connects Peniche to the mainland and the resulting silting up of the port in Atouguia da Baleia, the young settlement of Peniche develops and, in 1609, is promoted to village and head of municipality, obtaining its autonomy from Atouguia da Baleia.
This urban growth, resultant from the progressive increase of the number of inhabitants in this settlement, was made possible thanks to the intense exploration of the economical resources available in the peninsula of Peniche . The main activities were a kind of agriculture based on the cultivation of cereals and, obviously fishing.
On the other hand, the phased construction of a solid defensive system, a process initiated by D. Luís de Ataíde (Count of Atouguia and Vice-Roy of India between 1568-71 and 1578-81), seems also to have contributed to a certain prosperity, inhibiting the frequent North-African Muslim pirate attacks and making it impossible for hostiles to disembark. In effect, after the English landing in 1589 close to Consolação, in which an invading army led by D. António Prior do Crato, pretender to the throne of Portugal, and the English general John Norris, marched with relative ease until Lisbon, the third dynasty and, above all, D. João IV, decided to fortify the peninsula of Peniche with a solid and majestic defensive system in order to avoid future conquests or landings by hostile forces.
This complex defensive system, concluded in the 17th century, was composed of several fortifications which hung over the sea and guarded the access to several coastal areas considered to be of vital strategic importance. The access to the village of Peniche was conditioned by the presence of the Fortress of Peniche, and also by a long curtain wall which spread out in a perpendicular line in relation to the peninsula of Peniche and connecting the Fort of Cabanas, South of the peninsula, to the Fort of Our Lady of Light, up North. Also part of this region’s defence mechanism, there were the Fort of S. João Baptista, in the Berlenga Island , and the Fort of Our Lady of Consolation, located in Consolação.
During the so-called Modern Times (19th-20th centuries) it is possible to corroborate the consolidation, in the Peniche municipality, of a social and economical structure based on the exploration of farm resources and an intense fishing activity. This reality still endures today.
Away from the sea, the presence of water courses, such as the S. Domingos River or the Ferrel Stream enabled the development of an important agricultural activity in this period which has sprinkled the rural landscape with fertile plots and orchards; however, in the coastal side of the municipality, mainly in the peninsula of Peniche, fishing and fishing-related industries have prevailed as the main subsistence activities.