Monks, it’s believed. Specifically those who lived at Hieronymites (Jerónimos) Monastery which is of course in the Belém neighborhood of Lisbon. So the story goes, the monks there invented pastéis de Belém sometime in the 1700’s, the point at which the monastery was at its richest and most influential. That could be accurate given the history of the building, which to this day remains one of the jewels of Portuguese architecture. The first structure on the site was put up by no lesser person than Henry the Navigator in 1459, which makes sense as Lisbon is located where the magnificent Tagus river meets the Atlantic. It’s one of the world’s great natural ports.
The monastery was vastly expanded by King Manuel I starting in 1501. It was he who installed monks of the Hieronymite order there, whom he tasked with the full-time job of praying for his immortal soul. I sure wish I could afford a spiritual support staff like that, ’cause I tell you bothers and sisters, my soul could use it. Anyway, after Manuel’s 100-year project was completed the monastery was so magnificent that the Royal family of Portugal co-opted it as their private mausoleum. For the next several hundred years, Portuguese royalty as well as other national notables were buried there. No one else (living or dead) was allowed in.
In the rare moments when they weren’t praying for Manuel, the monks tended to the spiritual needs of sailors and navigators who sailed from nearby ports. It was from these spiritually needy ne’er do wells that the monks are thought to have acquired the sugar and spices they put to work in their pastéis. However since the monastery was sealed to outsiders after it became a repository for royal remains, the question remains: how did those pastries come to be so well-known? One theory has it that the monks sold their wares off-premises to make extra money.
But then extra money wouldn’t have been needed by such a wealthy monastery. At least not until the early 1800’s, the years of Europe’s great anti-religious upheaval. Those were the days when Catholic clerical properties (abbeys, lands and artworks) were being seized all over the Continent. That very thing happened to the Hieronymites Monastery in 1833. It’s said that in the years leading up to the, er, “acquisition” of the monastery by the Portuguese state, the monks were quite poor indeed. Some sources say they made and sold their creamy pastéis to make money. Others claim that out of desperation they sold the famous recipe to a local baker. Whatever the case, it is known that pastéis de Belém went up for sale to the general public starting in 1837. They’ve been a local tradition ever since.