One of the most decisive conflicts in the history of Portugal – the famous Battle of Aljubarrota – took place on an isolated plain in the centre of the country well over six centuries ago.
It was the site chosen by the Holy Constable, Nuno Álvares Pereira, to halt the advance of the Castilian army and on the 14th of August 1385 a fierce battle ensued, which lasted little more than an hour in the intense midsummer heat.
Early that morning the Portuguese army had heard mass at Porto de Mós before following the track and taking up a strong defensive position on the plain.
Supporting Juan, the Spanish pretender, the Castilians (accompanied by French allied cavalry) were intent on conquering Lisbon and removing King João I from the Portuguese throne.
But João I (son of Pedro I) thwarted their plans by leading a popular uprising (the first revolt of its kind in Europe) before defeating them at Aljubarrota.
He later signed a diplomatic agreement with England called The Treaty of Windsor (the world’s oldest alliance) and married Philippa of Lancaster, with their third son Prince Henry the Navigator now fondly remembered as the brains behind Portugal’s great Age of Discovery.
The Castilian army was far superior in numbers to King João’s forces, who were bolstered by some five hundred English archers sent by John of Gaunt, the great British military leader.
But the Portuguese somehow overcame the Castilian onslaught and João’s monumental victory secured the independence of Portugal until the dynasty of Aviz was brought to an end two hundred years later (once again by the Spanish).
King João I’s long reign of almost fifty years was the most extensive of all the Portuguese monarchs and saw the beginning of the country’s overseas expansion, which culminated in one of the greatest world empires of all time.
Located close to the site, the Battle of Aljubarrota Interpretation Centre (indicated on the Google map below) portrays the incredible events of that day with an instructive and captivating collection of weapons, armoury, maps and a fascinating multimedia display.
Visitors to the region can also see the small chapel of São Jorge de Aljubarrota standing on the very spot where Nuno Álvares Pereira raised his standard before marching into battle. Look out for the beaker of water left out for thirsty travellers – a tradition kept up by the same family for hundreds of years to commemorate Alvares’ intense thirst during the heat of battle.
Legend also has it that the nearby town of Aljubarrota was defended by a tenacious lady baker by the name of Brites de Almeida who managed to fend off the Castillian army with her baking spoon, slaying several Spanish combatants in the process!
Moments before battle commenced, and being faced with seemingly impossible odds, King João I vowed to the Virgin Mary that he would build a huge church should he be victorious, and thus, work on the great Dominican monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória in nearby Batalha began just three years later.
The double tomb of King João I and Philippa of Lancaster can be found in the church’s magnificent Founder’s Chapel, with the crowned couple lying open-eyed and hand in hand. The king is clasping the sword of Aljubarrota and his armour bears the crest of the House of Avis, the dynasty he founded.
Widely considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe, the great church of Batalha was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and features the formidable Royal Cloister, a space where visitors can see the unique combination of superb Gothic arches and richly-carved Manueline decoration.
Lying just 5 miles to the south-west of the battle site, the impressive Monastery of Alcobaça was built in 1152 and is another must-see church in this enchanting part of central Portugal.
Need more sightseeing ideas for your next visit? Why not listen to or download the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…