We think of the Crusades as a series of battles between Christianity and Islam that took place in the Middle East. But in fact, the Crusades were fought in many places including modern Spain and Portugal.
When the Knights Templar were founded in 1119, the Iberian peninsula was divided between an Islamic caliphate in the south and several Christian kingdoms in the north. Separating these two very different and warring realms was a buffer zone that swapped hands over and over.
Between the rivers Mondego and Tagus in Portugal lay lands referred to in the medieval period as ‘nullis diocesis’ – territory with no bishop or patriarch. Church and state had no firm hold over these lands. Instead, crusaders and Moors (the Muslim armies) fought each other bitterly gained and losing the advantage.
It fell to the Knights Templar to try and hold the line. The king of Portugal gave the Templars control over nullis diocesis hoping their combination of religious zeal and military courage would be enough to push back the Moorish invaders.
The knights built a string of castles to defend their position. One such was the fortress at Tomar, which you can still see today. It’s famous for an octagonal church that lies within it referred to as the ‘charola’ – allegedly modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The Portuguese Templars at Tomar elected a grand master for their new nation and the most famous of these was a formidable character called Gualdim Pais. You can still see a statue of him in the town square. He holds a kite shield and resembles a Norman knight of that period.
He had served in the Holy Land and been present at the Siege of Ascalon in 1153 – when Fatimid Egypt had been soundly defeated. Back in his native country, he fought yet another crusade. The difference being that this war, by and large, was moving in favour of the Christian side. Bit by bit, the Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus, that had ruled much of Spain and Portugal for four hundred years, was gradually being driven back.
However, in 1190, Gualdim faced a dire threat he might never have anticipated. A vast army from Morocco surged through southern Portugal and arrived at the mighty stone walls of Tomar. So bitter was the hand to hand combat that a door into the city is still called the Gate of Blood. The ground was crimson as both sides thrust and cut at each other.
Five years later, Gualdim died and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Olival, which you can visit today.
Tomar is a beautiful Templar town in Portugal where the order held out after being crushed throughout Europe. On top of a hill overlooking the winding streets of the medieval town is a Templar ‘charola’ or octagonal church built like a fortress. Attached to it is a semi-ruined convent constructed in the 16th century Manueline style.
Tomar was recently chosen to be the global HQ of The International Order of the Knights Templar – OSMTH – and this has led to the first ever Templar festival being held in the town. Quite why it hasn’t happened before I can’t imagine. Having visited Tomar every year since 2009, I can assure you that this is a must see for any Templar.
I wish I could have given you more notice but I only found out about the event yesterday, which is happening between the 23rd and 26th of this month. Full details in Portuguese can be found HERE. If you can’t make it – then please browse the images below from my last visit in August, 2012.
This is a Templar jewel – something everybody should visit. It’s the burial place of the Templar grand masters of Portugal – a church in the town of Tomar built in the very century that the order was formed by Hugh de Payens. Every Templar Grand Master from Gualdim Pais onwards was interred in this modest church until the Templars were suppressed by order of the pope. It’s difficult to find the graves of all the masters and a simple plaque indicates the remains of Pais – a legendary figure in his own lifetime who fought the Moors alongside the first king of Portugal.
These are photographs I took there in August this year.
I never ceased to be amazed by the level of violence and gore in the Middle Ages – maybe an unhealthy fascination! In my book Quest for the True Cross (click HERE to download) – I depict a battle scene where a crusader army under King Dom Afonso Henriques of Portugal is poised to take the Muslim city of Al-Usbuna – which will become the city we now call Lisbon in Portugal. The chapter begins with my hero, William de Mandeville watching as a huge siege engine approaches the walls. On the Christian side, there is tension between the Catholic bishops and the Templars, both fighting for the kingdom of Portugal – but in very different ways. The Muslim rulers within Al-Usbuna watch helplessly as the crusaders prepare to storm Al-Usbuna, which they have held for over four centuries. Read on…CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT
The Bab al-Bahr
A ghoulish spectacle presented itself before the gate where Joao Peculiar had declared war on Al-Usbuna. Standing proud and tall was the reconstructed siege engine. Nicholas was inside with knights and infantry ready to overrun the Moors. The battering ram was primed and ready to smash into the gates and open up an entrance to the medina for the Templars and secular knights. The ox skins had once more been placed all over the engine to protect it from fire. But Geraldo Geraldes had added another ingredient to make the siege engine a much more fearful sight.
Along the top, he had placed some more heads acquired in Almada, which he had not catapulted over the battlements but retained for this purpose. And tied to the front of the siege engine begging for mercy was the extended family of eight he had captured outside the eastern arribalde, lured to their fate by free gifts of food. In four rows of two, they spanned the engine from top to bottom, spread-eagled and screaming.
This macabre scene was sanctified by the presence of Archbishop Joao Peculiar. Resplendent in his most spectacular chasuble and wearing a hulking pectoral cross that heaved with amethysts set in gold, he blessed the siege engine with a liberal sprinkling of holy water.
Behind him, a group of Templar knights held up the True Cross. King Afonso and Hugo Martins rode behind it with the combined might of the Templar Order and the army of Portugal. Afonso felt as if the True Cross was radiating a power across his soldiers that would make them truly invincible. Its presence meant victory was an utter certainty. God had delivered it into their hands and whatever they did that day had divine sanction.
Gualdim Pais had brought his vast Templar army of knights and serjeants into the fray. They had fought so long and hard in nullius diocesis that peace was a mystery to them, a long distant memory. War was their only reality and today Qasim and his men would face an enemy whose zeal could easily match any Almohad. If the Moors of Al-Andalus thought for a moment that they could regain their lost lands, then Gualdim Pais would teach them a lesson that they and their children would never forget.
But Pais had another objective. On his index finger, he bore a ring. Engraved in the gem was a creature with snake coils for legs. Abraxas! William had once seen a Templar in Tiberias bearing a similar symbol and not understood why. Pais and battle-hardened Templars like him had sworn oaths to each other. The Old Testament was the Age of the Father who had been a fierce God. The New Testament was the Age of the Son who had created a church that had corrupted his message. But Pais and the Templars who wore this ring would usher in the Age of the Holy Spirit when the church would be swept away and the Trinity would be brought to power through the sword.
We will plant our standard in every church within this city – those jewel-covered prelates will not stand in our way.
From Monte Fragoso came Saher of Archelle and the Norman and English armies to join forces and make the great breakthrough into the city. Pedro Pitoes, Bishop of Porto, stood proudly next to the Norman leader. His time as a hostage had been well spent. With his new friends, he would ensure that mother church was victorious in the city and not the Templars. First he would deal with the heretical Christians in the city and then he would undermine, using every ounce of cunning and guile he possessed, the Order of the Temple.
This will not be your day!
Notably absent were the Flemish and men of Cologne. Christian of Ghistelles had succeeded in getting his sappers to create a two hundred foot breach in the wall by the eastern arribalde. The gap revealed the streets of the medina and the large dwellings further up in the qasba, as if the skin had been ripped off a portion of the city’s body revealing muscle and sinew beneath. The city’s people and soldiers were hurriedly filling the gap as best they could. But Christian of Ghistelles could see his opportunity to get into Al-Usbuna before the Normans and sack the city first. He had forbidden all other armies to come near and threatened them with force if they did.
Qasim watched the Franks assembling. The siege engine rolled up the narrow stretch of beach before the Bab al-Bahr. On its front hung Geraldo’s hostages, crying pitifully. The al-kaid signalled to his archers to end their suffering.
“Aim well! Kill them quickly!”
With tears running down their faces, the archers dispatched the eight martyrs. Their bodies, pierced by arrows, now hung limp over the ox skins. But the sight struck terror into the hearts of the Moorish defenders as Geraldo Geraldes had intended.
Qasim gave his last orders before combat got underway.
“Prepare the Greek Fire. Heat up the braziers. Have the garrison ready to defend the Bab al-Bahr. Archers – draw your bows.”
Once more the walls of Al-Usbuna pulsed into life as a hail of arrows spewed out, followed by heavy rocks and stones from the ballistae. Every watchtower hurled down great missiles that demolished rows of Franks. An arrow struck one of the oxen towing the siege engine and its progress stalled.
“The tide is rising,” called a Norman knight, pointing at the estuary. “The wheels need support!”
The dead ox was cleared and a group of serfs from Ipswich in Suffolk volunteered to go in front of the siege engine and lay down wooden planks that would give the wheels more purchase. To do this without being killed by the Moorish archers, they hid under a large wicker roof that resembled a small house.
This house ran along the beach absorbing arrows as it went. Working at speed as rocks and boiling sand were dropped on top of the roof, its inhabitants dug away at the sand and laid down wooden planks. Then the wicker roofed contraption moved away.
“Welsh cat got here in time,” an English knight said to Nicholas.
“What?” The boy answered. “I see no cat.”
The company inside the siege engine laughed.
“There it is.” He pointed at the roof now moving at breakneck speed to dodge the Moorish missiles. “That’s a Welsh cat!”
Sidray squinted to view the unfolding battle from the qasba. The calm detachment with which he’d observed the conflicts before had gone. He no longer had the True Cross to flourish at Ibn Arrik if he got too close. As an apple tea was brought to Sidray, he sent it flying across the cobbles with a furious sweep of his hand.
“I have no time for that!”
His thinkers had been caught trying to leave the city under cover of night and he’d placed them under arrest in some rooms in the qasr – not an uncomfortable prison. But some in Al-Usbuna were fairing a lot worse.
Market traders and their customers in the souks had been overheard disparaging their ruler.
The taifa is weak. Allah is not with him. He is a vain tyrant.
These wagging tongues were now nailed to the door of the Great Mosque as an example to anyone else who might think of expressing dissent.
Sidray had forbidden his Scorpions and Jackals to enter the fray. These African warriors, the Tangerines, were to stay in the qasba for his own personal protection. Not that Sidray wished to countenance the idea of the Franks bursting into the medina. But he had the eventuality covered.
The taifa’s astrologer bowed low before him.
“Yes, great lord.”
“If your horoscope proves to be in any way wrong, I will have you crucified on the walls of Badajoz. And I will force feed you your charts.”
William watched the siege engine’s uneasy progress, unable to help Nicholas, as Qasim unleashed Greek fire on to the tottering machine. Screeching, blazing jets arched out of the city’s watchtowers. The great tongues of hot yellow liquid filled the air with an acrid, sulphurous aroma. Nicholas gasped as the curling flames howled out of the city walls and spread over the front of the siege engine, cooking the eight bodies tied to the front instantly.
The Welsh cat reappeared, only this time to pour water over the flames.
“Get that engine moving before it is destroyed,” Hugo Martins yelled.
“I want to be inside that damned city,” King Afonso chimed in.
The oxen were whipped mercilessly. Crusaders took the ropes and pulled as well. Bit by bit, the siege engine moved. There were pockets of flames all over the front of the machine but this time Nicholas could see the walls of the city getting ever closer.
Qasim ordered more Greek fire and his soldiers fired endless arrows at the deathly contraption as it neared. The top of the siege engine was now visible within the medina and the womenfolk joined their husbands with burning material to throw at it. Anything that could be set on fire and hurled was now aimed at the devilish machine.
The first thud of the battering ram against the Bab al-Bahr resounded, but the formidable wooden doors barely moved an inch. Frustrated, a group of Norman soldiers burst out of the siege engine and pushed against the doors. But being out in the open, they were at the mercy of the al-kaid who signalled to his guards. In no time, boiling sand coated the over-enthusiastic infantrymen, cascading over their brimmed kettle hats and sticking to their bodies. The agonised screams chilled Nicholas’ blood.
The sudden loss of their comrades stunned the Normans and, at all levels in the tower, nobody moved or said anything. The ram fell silent and the wheels of the siege engine ceased to turn.
Having been twice to Tomar in as many years, I can tell you that this is the Templar destination to visit. You should treat yourself to a stay in the Hotel dos Templarios and during the day visit the ‘charola’ or circular Templar church built in the twelfth century by Portuguese Templar Grand Master Gualdim Pais.
The thick walled charola had an altar in the middle and Templar knights would originally have ridden in and been able to remain on horseback while a service was said by a chaplain standing in the middle. Then they could ride out to do battle with the Moors. This part of middle Portugal was fought over by the muslim ‘Moors’ – who still ruled the south – and the northern crusader kingdoms for many years. It was a kind of badlands where only the Templars were brave or foolhardy enough to take on the muslim forces.
In my conversations with a local historian, there is remarkable caginess about admitting that this was once a Moorish city. The official line seems to be that Tomar sits on two Roman towns, that it was largely unpopulated in the Moorish occupation and after being ‘liberated’ by the Templars, they founded the city as we know it. But it seems clear to me that within the Templar preceptory, there had been a Moorish settlement (a medina) and that the Templars used building techniques for their walls that have a strong Moorish influence. The names of the gates in to the preceptory indicate a Moorish influence as well.
The charola now joins on to a vast convent complex built largely in the sixteenth century – two hundred years after the Templars had been crushed under orders from the Pope. The Convent of Christ is an impressive building constructed in the ‘Manueline’ style – lots of rope motifs in the stonework and a famously elaborate window. But it’s the charola that I’m always drawn to. It’s a beautiful space, painted very elaborately – partly at the time but later as well.
French soldiers during the Napoleonic wars of the nineteenth century did some damage to the convent and the charola but nothing that would ruin your visit. The whole thing is eerily deserted of both Templars and the later monastic inhabitants. There are rows of empty cells flanking long corridors – very spooky.
Tomar also has a church where several of the Grand Masters are buried – Santa Maria do Olival. It’s a bit underwhelming as a building and set next to what looks like a housing estate. But note the pentagram window. You’ll have to ask where Gualdim Pais is buried because he’s not easy to find. Pais is viewed by the Portuguese as something of an Arthurian figure of legend – though unlike Arthur, we know Pais existed for certain. But he’s shrouded in a certain degree of mystery. One thing is certain is that he fought the Moors back time and again including a vast army that threatened to overwhelm Tomar in the 1190s.
Here is a north American visitor clearly overwhelmed by the charola at Tomar – I like his little video.
More randomly – here is a tornado that his Tomar last year – this doesn’t happen often!