Anybody who has been following this blog for any length of time knows that I’m obsessed with the Templar history of Portugal. I’ve been all over Europe and the Middle East to see Templar sites, but I always come back to Portugal. Being half-Portuguese of course has nothing to do with it 🙂
August will see me visiting some incredible places and events and blogging to you direct from them:
Tomar – the evocative headquarters of the Knights Templar. A small town now dominated by a Templar fortress on top of a hill. The peaceful beauty of Tomar today belies its violent past as the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe in the Middle Ages. I’ll share with you some thrilling Templar stories and great pictures
Santa Maria da Feira – this town hosts an extremely popular festival called the Medieval Journey. They stage a huge mock battle and this year the theme is King Afonso IV. He was the son of King Dinis of Portugal who saved the Templars by cunningly renaming them the Order of Christ and giving the knights royal protection
Viana do Castelo – I’ve been visiting this town for over forty years and in August, it stages a festival for Our Lady of Agony This includes several women who dress as Mary, mother of Jesus, with fake swords plunged in their chests (well, they appear to be!) to symbolise the agonies she endured at the crucifixion
Sintra – A forest just outside Lisbon with fairytale castles, a huge wall built by the invading caliphate in the medieval period and tunnels some believe are linked to the Knights Templar
Porto and Lisbon – the first and second cities of Portugal both dripping with history but quite different. Porto, the launchpad for the crusader invasion of Lisbon, which was then under Muslim control and called Al-Usbunna
This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.
But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.
In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.
It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.
Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.
The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.
I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.
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.
A hilltop medieval city owned by the Trenceval family in the Middle Ages that subsequently became a flashpoint during the crusade against the Cathar heresy. It’s incredibly beautiful and though heavily restored, looks like one of those walled towns you see in illuminated manuscripts. I went there on a stag weekend but remained sober long enough to appreciate the sights!
I’ve been to Tomar every year since 2009 though I’m taking this year off to give the town a rest from me. Overlooking Tomar is a great hulk of a Templar fortress with its walls intact and a fortified, octagonal chapel with exquisitely painted walls. Bolted on to this chapel are the very well preserved ruins of a 16th century convent. The town is quite sleepy but this makes it all worthwhile. My advice – make it part of a wider visit to Lisbon.
Acre in Israel
The modern town of Akko in Israel is home to a castle built by the Templars and Hospitallers. The whole structure is pretty much intact and underneath is a very odd, long tunnel. Quite what it was for still has archaeologists guessing. Base yourself in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and make this an obligatory day visit.
A sprawling Templar built castle with a vertiginous drop to the town below. It held out for years against the armies of Saladin but then eventually succumbed and there are various Ayyubid additions. Again, as with Acre, there is evidence of more Templar tunneling. In fact, the hill is riddled with tunnels.
Royston cave in England
This place really has historians flummoxed – a seventeen foot high cave re-discovered in 1790 and covered in the most bizarre carvings of what we think are saints and biblical representations. There are any number of theories about what the Templar builders were depicting here.
Medieval wall around the city that borrows from the Moorish style
Seagull on the medieval wall
Cathedral, built like a fortress
Pillory in front of the cathedral
Pedro Pitoes street
Inside the cathedral
Porto is my mother’s birthplace so hugely significant to me – a place where I developed a love for medieval history. Looming above the eighteenth century city centre is a mass of granite topped by the medieval cathedral. In front of it is a pillory, a statue of the warrior Vimara Pires and a huge palace for the bishop.
The hill with the cathedral became the centre of Porto under the Suevi invaders who succeeded the Romans – who had developed Porto as a commercial harbour town. It fell to the Moors in 711 with most of Iberia but in the 9th century, a Galician warlord called Vimara Pires drove out the Moors. They came back occasionally but Porto became part of the ‘county’ of Portugal – not a fully fledged kingdom. That would come later.
The Moors ruled southern Portugal from the year 711 till 1147 when Lisbon was taken by King Afonso Henriques and eventually the Algarve was incorporated into the kingdom of Portugal. The crusade against the Moors in Lisbon embarked from Porto when the city’s bishop, Pedro Pitoes, rallied a huge army of crusaders from all over Europe to march southwards – with a promise of significant booty. I describe this event in my book Quest for the True Cross.
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.
Moniz did not survive the battle as, according to legend, he rammed his not inconsiderable frame in to an open gateway to prevent the Moors closing it on the invading crusaders. His body was crushed between the gates but his heroism allowed the Portuguese to enter and win.
This story has been challenged but I’ve incorporated it in to my fictional account of that siege which features in my book Quest for the True Cross – out very shortly!! The Portuguese comedian Herman Jose lampooned this story in his show, broadcast in the 1980s, where he played Moniz being interviewed…and as he comes on, the scenery crushes him. If you speak Portuguese – this may be treat, depending on your sense of humour.