Knights Templar - Portugal

Synonymous with the town of Tomar in the heart of the Ribatejo region, the legendary Knights Templar played a very important role in the reconquest of Portugal in the 12th century.

In March 1147, they participated in the Battle of Santarém orchestrated by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, which triggered a decisive chapter in Portugal’s long and chequered history.

They first acquired their gallant title when King Baldwin of Jerusalem housed them in his palace (once a Jewish ‘temple’, hence the name) and driven by a monastic vow of poverty, chastity and obedience the knights pursued their crusade-like mission for around 200 years.

With the passing of time their focus shifted, firstly as defenders of pilgrims and later to become protectors of the Christian states of the Holy Land.

Dedicated to expelling the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula (which was mostly occupied by Islamic kingdoms at the time), much of the history of this military-religious group of warrior-monks is centred around the magnificent town of Tomar in central Portugal where their Grand Master, Gualdim Pais, built an imposing castle in 1160.

‘Worthy of housing the Holy Grail’, as he once said, the castle he erected featured an impressive Charola, octagonal in shape (in the style of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) and glittering with gold in the Byzantine style.

Spiritual tenacity was an integral part of the Order’s force and the purpose-built Charola enabled the Knights Templar to strengthen their moral conviction whilst attending mass still mounted on their warhorses.

The Knights Templar’s military influence continued to grow and the Order was rewarded with land grants in exchange for chasing out the Moors from Portugal, becoming wealthy and powerful in the process with a series of castles, churches and towns founded under their protective mantle, much to the detriment of future Portuguese kings.

The story of the Knights Templar in Portugal

During his reign therefore, King Dinis (1261-1325) transformed (some historians claim ‘suppressed’) the Knights Templar movement into the Order of Christ (on the instructions of Pope Clement V) of which Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) became Grand Master in the 15th century.

The Order of Christ subsequently helped finance his expeditions during the Age of Discovery, a time of exploration and conquest, with the sails of his caravels bearing the great squared scarlet cross on a white background.

King Manuel I (1469-1521) maintained the momentum and during his reign several nautical milestones were achieved, most notably the epic, pioneering sea voyage of Vasco da Gama to Calicut (India) in 1498 and Pedro Álvares Cabral’s discovery of Brazil in 1500.

To show his gratitude, the king ordered a sumptuous Manueline church (the Convent of Christ) to be built around the Charola in Tomar (indicated on the Google map below), which his successors continued to embellish and enrich with an abundance of exotic oceanic iconography associated with that ground-breaking era.

Today, the church’s cloister and courtyards remain a precious showcase of Portuguese art and architecture from the 12th to the 17th centuries, a true masterpiece of the Manueline style that is so expressively Portuguese.

A few kilometres south of Tomar on an island in the River Tagus stands the amazing castle of Almourol, which was also built by Gualdim Pais, the first and most famous Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar, on existing Roman fortifications in 1171.

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