Last month, I visited the Portuguese town of Ponte de Lima – a beautiful Roman and medieval settlement that still has an ancient bridge and part of its old walls. Standing guard over Ponte de Lima is a statue of Teresa – the town’s founder and a friend of the Knights Templar (though not of her own son).
Teresa was born in 1080 at a time when the 350 year old grip of the Muslim caliphate on what is now Spain and Portugal was loosening by degrees. Christian kingdoms had formed in the northern half of the Iberian peninsula and Teresa was the daughter of king Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon. She was married off to Henry of Burgundy, a nobleman from a part of modern France which would be the cradle of the Templar order and home to the great saint and protector of the Templars, Bernard of Clairvaux.
The Burgundians lent their muscle to the fight against the Muslim rulers of what would become Portugal. A new territory was carved out that became known as the “County” of Portugal. Teresa took the lead in pushing south past the Mondego river towards what is now Lisbon but was then an Arabic city called Al-Usbunna. In this endeavour, Teresa began to grant land to the Templars as shock troops – particularly in the area between the rivers Mondego and Tagus where neither Christians nor Muslims seemed to have the decisive upper hand. It was a very dangerous no-mans’ land.
The Muslim “Moors” were not about to lie down and let Teresa push them back and attempted to take back the city of Coimbra, which she successfully defended. As a result of that victory, Pope Paschal II referred to her as “Queen” of Portugal – thus recognising Portugal as not just a county but a kingdom.
This infuriated the Christian kingdom of Leon, which regarded Portugal as just a county, an appendage of their realm. To complicate matters, Alfonso VI of Leon had died and his kingdom was now ruled by a legitimate daughter called Urraca – effectively half sister of Teresa. They now went to war and an additional source of friction was that the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela (firmly in Urraca’s lands and home of James the apostle’s relics) was trying to assert ecclesiastical supremacy over the Archbishop of Braga (firmly in Teresa’s territory).
Teresa saw off Urraca but her star wanes from this point onwards while her son, Afonso Henriques, took a more intransigent position than his mother asserting full independence from Galicia for Portugal. By one of those strange twists of fate, Teresa found herself at war with her own son defending Galicia’s interests – I’m not going to even try to explain how this happened in a short blog post – you’ll have to read it up. But it is completely bizarre and typical of medieval dynastic power politics. At the battle of Sao Mamede – Afonso Henriques defeated his own mother and became first king of a truly independent Portugal.