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.
In the magnificent entrance hall of the Sao Bento station in Porto, northern Portugal, is a display in painted tiles of key scenes in medieval history from that country. It’s an amazing riot of historical kitsch that has visitors to the city craning their necks to take it all in. Every time I go, out comes my camera and I have to take yet another series of snaps.
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.
Igreja de São Francisco – or the church of Saint Francis in English – is a fascinating place. In the first quarter of the 13th century, Franciscans started to build a church and cloister. Over the next two hundred years, the church expanded into its current Gothic form. There was a cloister attached but it burned down about 150 years ago during a violent social uprising. It was never replaced and the stock exchange sits on the site.
Like many Portuguese churches, it then got a generous coating of gold decoration in the 18th century in the Baroque style. This includes a chapel depicting Franciscans being decapitated by Saracens as a punishment for trying to spread their faith in the Muslim world. A rather morbid sculpture!
But it’s what lurks underneath the church that’s a must see. A truly eerie crypt with lots of skulls and piles of human bones. Here is a glimpse below…
I was in Porto, Portugal a few years back in the church of Saint Francis when I saw a gruesome image of a Saracen beheading a Franciscan friar – and another lying on the ground without his head. Couldn’t resist a sneaky photo, which I’m sharing with you here.
All of which raises the question – how did these friars get in to this situation? Where were they martyred?
Saracens: Islam in the medieval European imagination is a good starter on the subject and its author John Victor Tolan gives some interesting detail. The Orders of Friars Minor – Ordo Fratrum Minorum – was found in the early 13th century, just under a hundred years after the founding of the Templars. Saint Francis of Assisi took an early view that the Muslims needed to be brought back to Christianity and his friars were well suited to the task.
The trouble was, Tolan relates, they resorted to abuse as a primary approach – insulting the Prophet and seeking the ‘palm’ of martyrdom….which they got. Tolan makes the point that Christians in the early days of the Islamic caliphate in Spain, four hundred years before, had also insulted Mohammad in order to die an honourable death and the Muslims had obliged. So the friars followed this largely unproductive example. In 1212, Francis tried to get to Morocco where he clearly hoped to be martyred but fell ill and only reached Spain.
But this hostile approach proved unsatisfactory for the growing number of more intellectual Franciscans and as the century wore on, they tried to dispute on very serious terms with the Muslims.
Saint Francis however was not up for round table debates – he still wanted to go and tell the forces of Islam exactly what he thought and didn’t care much if he was slain in the process. So he joined the Fifth Crusade full of zeal and believing he could win over the heretics. He was apparently captured by Egyptian soldiers, beaten badly and then presented to the Sultan whose main weapon against Francis seems to have been excessive kindness and bribery – he offered lots of lovely gifts which the ungrateful friar turned down as “so much dung”.
Francis egged on the Sultan to martyr him but the Muslim ruler refused to oblige. Fellow Franciscan, Thomas of Celano, who wrote up this story shared Francis’ discomfort at having to return home very much alive and un-martyred. So he concluded that God had something far better in store for Francis and was saving him for now. Eventually, the saint died a pretty painful death – a prolonged illness – and Thomas cheerfully noted that this was a kind of martyrdom.
Before dying, Francis was told of five Franciscans martyred in Marrakesh and this seems to have cheered him up enormously. I’m assuming the tableau below is those friars coming to their grisly end.