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Posted on Apr 7, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Battle of Aljubarotta – Part One, Prelude

By Luis Reis

Why an article about the Battle of Aljubarrota? Well, there are a lot of answers for this question, but the main reason is its relation with The Hundred Years’ War. That’s right; this Portuguese battle is also part of the great wars that marked the 14th century in Europe.


The King of Portugal engaged in battle at Aljubarrota

After the Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 under the command of Tarik Ibn-Ziyad, they eventually occupied the majority of the region. The only territory that escaped their control was the mountainous kingdom of Asturias. As early as 718 (although there’s still some dispute on this date) Pelayo, a Visigoth King, led the Christians on a counter-attack and a victory against the invaders. By 1086 significant progress was achieved in the fight against the Moors and the Peninsula became a land of opportunity to all the second sons of the important families of France. One of these second sons was D. Henrique, the 4th son of Henri, the Earl of Burgundy and a great-grandson of King Robert of France.

D. Henrique needed little time to leave a positive impression on Alfonso VI, the King of Leon and Castile; he gained the hand of one of the King’s daughters and a County to rule. This small County grew in importance and so did the noblemen that lived on it. They, however, realized they were too far from the King and there were few opportunities for them to rise to a higher status. With this in mind it is easier to understand why Portugal became a separate kingdom with D. Afonso Henriques (the son of D. Henrique) at the helm of their destiny. One should also appreciate that the new Portuguese King would become a vassal to the Spanish king (according to the Treaty of Zamora signed on October 5th, 1143), making the latter an Emperor (by now it was Alfonso VII, who was a direct cousin of Afonso Henriques). The Pope took a while to back the Portuguese King’s pretensions, but ultimately in 1179 decided that having another monarch fighting the Moors was a plus for Christianity.

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With the papal approval we can consider the Portuguese Kingdom “official” and D. Afonso Henriques the first King of the first dynasty. This dynasty would survive a lot of conflict until 1383, the year that D. Fernando I died leaving no son to inherit the Portuguese crown. He only had a daughter who was married to Juan I of Castile, her name was Beatriz and she was the rightful heir to the throne. It’s easy to understand that not all the Portuguese noblemen were thrilled with the idea of becoming a secondary territory in the ever-growing kingdom of Castile, especially the ones accustomed to being a part of the King’s court; suddenly would have none of that importance. Equally, it’s only fair to mention the Portuguese noblemen which lived in the frontier areas (closer to the Castile influence) were in favor of the merge of the two crowns.

From October of 1383 onward there were effectively two factions growing further apart by the minute. In the middle of this divided scenario was the widow of the late King D. Fernando I, D. Leonor Teles. She was by right Queen of Portugal, but as she showed a growing sympathy to the Castile party (witch was the party of her daughter), the “nationalists” party began to look elsewhere for a new “rightful” monarch. By December of 1383 the Portuguese nobles had found their man in D. João, the Master of Avis (a religious-military order). D. João was also a bastard son of D. Pedro I (the father of D. Fernando I).

D. Leonor Teles had chosen the Count Andeiro to become her main counselor in the Regency of Portugal and soon there were rumors the Queen wasn’t mourning for the late King and that the Count Andeiro was also a “night counselor.” These rumors grew on people’s minds, so much so that on December 6, 1383 D. João managed to kill Count Andeiro and be acclaimed by Lisbon. All the main cities of the shoreline hailed D. João as well. The Queen had to flee to Alenquer and she called her son-in-law for help. Juan I took no time to gather an impressive military force and invade Portugal in January of 1384. D. Leonor Teles abdicated as regent. In Lisbon the people proclaimed D. João to be the governor and defender of the realm. D. João immediately began to prepare an army and sent a mission to England to recruit soldiers for his cause. The bourgeoisie of Lisbon, enriched by commerce, decided to support D. João and donated substantial sums for war expenses. Money also arrived from the bourgeoisie in Oporto, Coimbra, and Évora. The majority of the nobility took the side of Juan I of Castile, which gave him the support of fifty castles, mainly on the frontier. A few nobles, however, including D. Álvaro Pais, D. João Afonso, and D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, were more attuned to national sentiment and sided with the Master of Avis.

On March of 1384, Juan I marched to Lisbon and besieged the city by land and sea. In April, in the Alentejo, D. Nuno Álvares Pereira defeated the Castilians at the Battle of Atoleiros. This victory was assisted by a new military tactic — forming defensive squares from dismounted cavalry. It is a sure sign of the English involvement in the conflict. Like the English in Crécy and Poitiers, the Portuguese had far fewer troops than the enemy. The siege of Lisbon was broken after seven months by an outbreak of the plague in the Castilian camp and Juan I retreated to Seville to prepare another invasion the following year.

The retreat of the Castilians gave D. João an opportunity to legitimize his claim to the throne. In March 1385, a Council (in Portugal the term is Cortes) was summoned to resolve the succession. D. João’s case was argued by D. João das Regras, who attacked the claims of the various pretenders to the throne. On April 6, the opposition ended and D. João was proclaimed King as D. João I. The new King named Nuno Álvares Pereira constable of Portugal. At the same time, a contingent of English longbowmen began to arrive. The Constable marched north in order to obtain the submission of Braga, Guimarães, and other places loyal to Juan I, who responded by sending an army to attack Viseu, who was loyal to the Portuguese King’s cause. The Portuguese routed this Castilian force at Trancoso in June 1385 using the same new military tactic which brought them victory at Atoleiros. Nonetheless, Juan I was still intent on besieging Lisbon and led his army southward. D. João I and D. Nuno Álvares Pereira decided to engage Juan’s army before it arrived in the capital. The two armies met on the plain of Aljubarrota …

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