Everybody knows the Knights Templar were on crusade in the Holy Land. But how many people realise that an equally bloodthirsty and prolonged crusade was fought in what’s now modern Spain and Portugal. And that the Templars played a leading role.
From the end of the Roman Empire to the year 711CE – what we call the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was ruled by Germanic Visigoths. They had invaded as Rome’s might waned. And contrary to what is often stated, they had established a wealthy and functioning civilisation. But they were no match for the new kid on the block in the eighth century.
DISCOVER: Medieval Girl Power in the Middle Ages
Because out of the deserts of Arabia stormed an army infused with a new faith: Islam. They weren’t necessarily superior militarily or culturally. But what they had was bags of self belief. And they were adept at exploiting divisions within their enemies’ ranks.
The Visigoths could be a fractious bunch. And it was a rogue prince who invited a Muslim army over from Morocco to side with him in a dispute. The rest, as they do say, is history. What resulted was seven centuries of Muslim rule over most of the peninsula.
From early on, a Christian fightback took root in the northern mountainous areas. These were small crusader kingdoms like the Kingdom of Leon and later the Kingdom of Castile. In the the first years of existence in the 9th and 10th centuries, they had to repel both Muslim and Viking raids. Life was tough and their prospects must have seemed very poor at times.
Here is the flag of Leon.
It was a big contrast to the south. The Muslims possessed the richest parts of Iberia with impressive cities like Seville, Toledo and Cordoba. They must have felt that Iberia was now a permanent part of the Islamic world. It was certainly valued for its fertile lands. And by the 11th century, some historians believe that through a mix of conversion and invasion – the majority of the Iberian population was Muslim.
Being half Portuguese myself, I can tell you that this is still a sore topic with some. I’ve been told flatly that there was no large scale conversions to Islam among the indigenous people. But I’m afraid reality is a stubborn thing. If you wanted to get on in life, then you fell in with the religious views of the elite – whatever they were. And you also avoided paying the Jizya tax that was levied on Jews and Christians.
One of the greatest Islamic rulers of Spain – Abd al-Rahman III (891 to 961AD) – was the son of a Christian concubine and descendant of Christian Spanish nobles on one side of his family. It’s recorded that his skin was white and his eyes were blue – and that he had to keep dying his hair black.
Fortunately for the Christian kingdoms, divisions began to appear in the caliphate – especially in the 11th century. And after 1118, these kingdoms had a new fighting force to help them in their battles with the caliphate: the Knights Templar.
The Christian kingdoms embraced the Templars with gusto. These monastic warriors were exactly what they had been waiting for – brave, Catholic and prepared to go in the front line. Which is exactly where the new Kingdom of Portugal put them. As the Portuguese pressed forwards against the caliphate – they placed the Templars right at the front. They were the shock troops who held the line and selflessly risked everything to protect Christianity.
To get an idea of the enemy that the Templars faced, here is my picture from a decade ago of the great mosque in Cordoba built by Abd al-Rahman. It’s an incredible piece of architecture and shows a massively sophisticated civilisation.
In the Christian kingdoms, churches were often built like fortresses – and for good reason. At any moment, a Muslim army could appear to take back what the caliphate had lost. Below is the cathedral in Porto. Ignore the later flower additions and look at the main structure dating back to the 12th century. It’s basically a castle.
This story of prolonged warfare in Iberia is fascinating and central to my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.
Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.
In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.