Cape St. Vincent was already sacred ground in Neolithic times, as standing menhirs in the neighborhood attest. The ancient Greeks called it Ophiussa (Land of Serpents), inhabited by the Oestriminis and dedicated here a temple to Heracles. The Romans called it Promontorium Sacrum (or Holy Promontory). Strabo, in his Geography call this cape the most western tip of the known world and reports the place was considered magical. Common people believed the sun sank here hissing into the ocean, marking the edge of their world, which Strabo qualifies as "common and vulgar reports" and attributes to Posidonius.
According to legend, the name of this cape is linked to the story of a martyred fourth-century Iberian deacon St. Vincent whose body was brought ashore here. A shrine was erected over his grave; according to the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, it was always guarded by ravens and is therefore named by him Church of the Raven. King Afonso Henriques (1139?1185) had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to Lisbon, still accompanied by the ravens. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon.
The area around the cape was plundered several times by pirates from France and Holland and, in 1587, by Sir Francis Drake. All existing buildings?including the Vila do Infante of Henry the Navigator?fell into ruins because of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The Franciscan friars who cared for the shrine stayed on until 1834, when all monasteries were disbanded in Portugal.
Several naval battles were fought in the vicinity of this cape:
- In 1337 a Castilian fleet defeated a Portuguese fleet in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1337).
- In 1641 during the Dutch Revolt a Spanish fleet under the 2nd Duke of Ciudad Real defeated a Dutch fleet in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1641).
- In 1661 a Spanish fleet under Marquess of Villafiel defeated a Brandenburguese squadron under Thomas Alders in the Action of 30 September 1681
- The French Admiral Anne Hilarion de Tourville defeated a large Anglo-Dutch naval fleet commanded by George Rooke escorting a convoy of between 400 and 500 English and Dutch merchant ships at the Battle of Lagos on 27 June 1693. The "Smyrna fleet" disaster, as it also came to be known, saw 94 of the richly-laden merchant ships either captured or sunk; this event led to the dismissal of two English admirals whose convoy escort had turned back off Ushant, France.
- In 1719 a Spanish fleet under Admiral Rodrigo de Torres defeated a British squadron under Commodore Philip Cavendish in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1719). The Action of 28 November 1751 took place off Cape St. Vincent and was a Spanish victory over an Algerian squadron.
- In 1780, this cape was the site of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1780) between a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney over a Spanish squadron under Don Juan de L?ngara
- Admiral Jervis with Commodore Nelson defeated the Spanish fleet in 1797 at a second Battle of Cape St. Vincent on 14 February 1797. St. Vincent Street in Glasgow was named to commemorate the battle.
- In 1833, in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1833) a Loyalist Portuguese fleet defeated the Miguelites during Portugal's Liberal Wars.