History of Portugal, Part I: Early History until Afonso I

I can now see George R.R. Martin may have got some of his ideas from.

Roman mosaic found in ancient Lusitania

I’ve become a big fan of Portugal after my most recent visit there. The more I traveled throughout the country, the more I wanted to learn about its fascinating history, and so I did.

The Portuguese people are very proud of their long, glorious and often tumultuous history. From occupying a land that at one time was believed to be at the end of the Earth to ruling half the known world, the little land of Portugal has come a long way.

And so we begin.

Early History of Portugal up until the Visigoths

Houses of the Cultura Castra, one of the earliest civilizations of early Iberian history

The history of Portugal goes way back. We however are only going to go back 30,000 years or so the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era, at least only for a bit. Anthropologists and archaeologists know that there were people living in this region at that time due to animal engravings that have been found. About six to seven thousand years ago, whoever was here started to build a relatively complex society, as can be seen from communal tombs and primitive stone structures that have been unearthed. This early civilization began to change rapidly around 1000 – 700 BCE when a Celtic peoples entered the region. Historians conveniently call these people the Celtiberians (Celts of Iberia). Known to have been fierce warriors, they lived a relatively isolated life in fortress-like towns known as citânias. One of the more famous of these citânias is Citânia de Briteiros, near modern-day city of Braga.

Citânia de Briteiros

It is perhaps the development of this civilization that attracted the more sophisticated peoples of the Mediterranean to venture into this region for trade and commercial purposes. While there aren’t too many records of the indigenous groups who once occupied the region, we do have evidence of Phoenician traders setting up outposts along the coasts from at least 700 BCE. Greek traders followed them a few centuries later and set up the foundations of towns such as Sargunto and Alcacér do Sal.

Phoenician traders

Life in the region was relatively peaceful until the 4th century BCE when the Carthaginians crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and took over the trading posts and colonies that the Phoenicians and Greeks had established. Being the arch-nemesis of the Romans, the latter arrived in the peninsula to drive them back, finally defeating them and taking all of their territories for themselves. This gave them a base to take over the rest of the peninsula, an area that they later named Hispania.

Roman mosaic of chariot found in Mérida, what was once the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania

The Roman incursions weren’t without local resistance. The indigenous peoples, most notably the Lusitanians, put up fierce resistance against Roman rule. Led by the fearsome chieftain Viriato, the Roman advance was kept in check for decades. However with Viriato’s death, the result of a Roman bribe and betrayal by one of his own, Lusitanian resistance more or less vanished and Lusitania was incorporated into the Empire.

Death of Viriatus by José de Madrazo

Despite his defeat, Viriato is still remembered in Portugal as the country’s first real national hero.

Statue of Viriato

During the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284 – 305), Hispania was divided into five sections, two of them encompassing today’s Portugal. In the north above the Douro River was the province of Gallaetia with its capital at Braga, while in the south was Lusitania with its administrative center at Mérida. Due to being on the periphery of the Empire, the Romans didn’t develop Gallaetia and Lusitania as much as other more centrally located regions. They did though build roads, bridges, and aqueducts as well as bring along their religion. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, so too did the majority of people in these two provinces.

Roman Empire and Lusitania

Germanic Invasions and Collapse of Roman Authority

As with all ancient Empires, the Roman state eventually began to decline and disintegrate. By the fourth century, Rome’s hold on its most western of provinces was tenuous at best. In 409 the Alans, one of tribes of the Vandals, and another tribe known as the Suevi, expanded out into the Iberian Peninsula. They were followed less than a decade later by a people known as the Visigoths. The Suevi’s established a kingdom with Braga as the capital. The Suevi converted to Christianity but soon adopted Arianism, a sect that was considered heresy by the mainstream Catholic church in Rome. They were later converted back largely due to the efforts of St. Martin of Dume, who would later go on to become the first bishop of Braga in 569.

The Visigoths had never really gotten along with the Suevi and in 585 their King Leovigild defeated them in battle and incorporated their domains into his realm. What is interesting is that Leovigild was an Arian and persecuted the Suevi who had recently converted back to the Christianity of the Roman church. As if all for nothing, his son and successor Recared converted back to Roman Catholicism and made it once again the official religion of the kingdom. The Visigoth capital at the time was the city of Toledo, southwest of modern Madrid.

The Moorish Conquest and Rule of Portugal

It’s hard to think of Portugal as anything but a Catholic country. Think about it. Portugal has been a staunch defender of Catholicism for centuries. It was also very instrumental in spreading Christianity into parts of Africa, India, the Far East and of course, the Americas. Brazil today is the largest Catholic country in the world because of Portugal’s fervent promotion of Catholicism.

However, many forget that the land we today call Portugal was ruled for centuries by Christianity’s great medieval rival, Islam. The Islamic religion and Muslim culture that came with it cast a huge footprint on both the landscape and language of Portugal. The Moors (the Arab and Berber Muslims that came from North Africa to the Iberian peninsula) and their legacy are just as much a part of Portugal’s past as are the Romans, Visigoths and the Catholic monarchs that followed.

Tariq ibn Ziyad on currency

In 711, the Moors with an army of 8,000 – 12,000 men under Tariq bin Ziyad set foot onto the Iberian Peninsula from what is today known as the rock of Gibraltar. Though ruled by the Visigoths, Tariq and his men had ostensibly come to aid one of the sides in a dynastic civil war that was going on. At the Battle of Guadalete, the Visigoth King Roderic (Rodrigo) as well as many members of the royal family and nobility died along with most of their army.

Battle of Guadalete

With victory in battle and the death of the Visigoth king, the way was paved for further invasions into the remaining Visigoth lands of Iberia. With more reinforcements arriving from North Africa, the Moors pushed further into peninsula, winning battle after battle and capturing virtually all of the cities that stood in their way. The final battle with the remaining Visigoths forces ended in 713 with the fall of Mérida. The Moors also overran the Portuguese cities of Beja and Faro. The Muslim armies under Musa ibn Nusair marched further on until they took over Saragossa (Zaragoza), León and Astorga. In 716, Musa’s son Abd al-Aziz conquered Évora, Santarém and Coimbra, cities in modern Portugal.

Stages of Moorish conquest

Moorish rule in the northern regions of Portugal was short-lived. Not agreeing with the land and climate (or perhaps overextending themselves), Moorish rule in the northern parts of Portugal evaporated relatively quickly. In addition, the Christian kingdom of Asturias was forming and consolidating its power in the mountainous regions of the north. As their power grew, they advanced further south and began taking back territory that the Moors had captured just decades before. One of their kings, Afonso I, captured Galicia (old Roman Gallaetia) and the cities of Braga, Porto, Viseu and Chaves. This area between the Minho and Doura rivers became the shifting frontier between Christian forces in the north and the Moors in the south; by 900, this frontier had shifted further south to the Mondego River. By the way, keep track of all of the people named Afonso from here on out because there are going to be a lot of them.

Despite constant conflicts with their Christian neighbors, the Moors held a tight grip on most of their territories in the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula. For the most part after the battles had ceased, life went back to normal for the people under Moorish rule. The majority of Visigoth subjects, most of who were peasants, converted relatively easily to Islam. This allowed them to avoid paying the hatedjizya, a tax on all non-Muslim subjects. Many of the former Visigoth nobles also accepted Islam as a means of maintaining their political and economic influence. Jews, most of who had suffered tremendously during Visigoth rule, also prospered under Muslim rule.

The areas of Moorish Iberia flourished and became known as the Caliphate of Córdoba. Ushering in a “Golden Age,” the Moors used the vast resources at their disposal to support large-scale public works projects such as mosques, universities, libraries and hospitals. They were especially known for their support of mathematics and scientific endeavors. Many Greek and Roman philosophical texts at this time were translated into Arabic. Commerce and trade also prospered across their realm with the government subsidizing foundries and mines in addition to building canals and complex irrigation systems. At the time, there was nothing in the European world to compare with what was going on in Moorish Spain and Portugal. These Muslim rulers were probably the wealthiest in the world at the time, save for the Caliphs in Baghdad and perhaps the emperor in China.

Artist depiction of the Moors; artist unknown

Though one of the most powerful and wealthy states in the medieval world, the Iberian Umayyad Caliphate and its prosperity eventually came to an end. Around the 11th century, the once powerful and strong central government in Córdoba began to weaken and disintegrate into separate city-states and fiefdoms known as taifas. The most powerful of these within Portugal were Lisbon and Évora. This collapse from within allowed remaining groups of Christians, many of them descendants of the Visigoths, to unite and slowly conquer these weakened taifas for themselves, beginning a long process known as the Reconquista, or the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

In the year 868, a knight by the name of Vímara Peres was put in charge of the city of Porto, today on Portugal’s western coast. The region under him began to grow in importance, both militarily and economically and with this, gained more autonomy. Being on the periphery of a great conflict zone, the people of this region had to really fend for themselves against both Moorish invaders and seaborne attacks from Viking raiders.

In the late 980s, the powerful Muslim vizer/dictator Almanzor smashed the Christian cities of western Iberia, destroying Coimbra in 987. Seven years later, he rebuilt the city and populated it with Muslim colonists. He attached and destroyed other cities including Lamego, Viseu and most infamously, Compostela, where he stole the church bells from the city’s great cathedral and hung them in the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

In 1031 the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula received a great stroke of luck when the caliphate in Córdoba collapsed and disintegrated into taifas. This proved advantageous for the relatively unified Christian forces who began to carve away mercilessly at the weakening Muslim kingdoms within their midst. One of these great conquers was King Ferdinand I of León and Castile, who by 1064 had taken the cities of Seia, Gouveia, Lamego, Viseu, Tarouca, Travanca and Coimbra.

Medieval kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula

In 1065 when Ferdinand I died, his kingdom was divided into three among his children. His eldest son Sancho received Castile and Navarre while his other son Afonso (Afonso VI) was given León and Asturias. The third son, García, inherited Galicia and what was known as Terra Portucalense. Sancho though was unhappy with his inheritance and instead chose to go to war with his brothers. Unfortunate for him, Sancho died in 1072, which allowed Afonso VI to take over not only Castile, but parts of Galicia and Terra Portucalense too. United with León, this kingdom was roughly the same as when Ferdinand I had possessed before dividing it amongst his sons. Afonso VI then pushed further southward and conquered Moorish territory including Toledo in 1085, a city that he turned into his new capital. His victory streak though was short-lived and the next year, Moors of the Almoravid dynasty counterattacked and regained much of the territory that they had lost.

Alfonso VI of Castile and León

Fearing the threat from the Almoravids, Afonso VI called for assistance from any Christians willing to fight with him. French mercenary knights, two of the most notable being Raymond and Henry of the House of Burgundy, answered his call. It also just so happened that Afonso’s wife, Queen Constance, was of Burgundy stock and related to Raymond and Henry. Raymond married Urraca, who at the time was only age 8 (the marriage though probably wasn’t consummated until she was at least 13 or 14). She was Afonso’s legitimate daughter and for the time being, heiress to his kingdom. Henry on the other hand married the younger Teresa, Afonso’s favorite but illegitimate daughter. He was given the Terra Portucalense and named Lord of Coimbra and later the Count of Portucale.

Painting depicting Henry of Burgundy being given control of the County of Portugal; painting by Claudius Jacquand (1803-1878)

Though Henry proved helpful in stemming the ties of the Moors (he had to as Terra Portucalense was on the Moorish frontier), he had greater ambitions than simply administering his domains. There was however a problem of who would succeed Afonso VI after his death. Raymond formed a pact of friendship and mutual assistance and promised to give Henry Toledo if he stood by him. However in 1107, Raymond died, leaving Urraca with two small children, a daughter, Sancha, and a son, Afonso (who would eventually become Afonso VII). Initially Afonso VI’s son Sancho was designated to be his successor, but then he died in battle in 1108, making Urraca the heir to the throne once again. Afonso VI decided to wed Urraca to her cousin Afonso of Aragon and Navarre, but the arrangement never went through; Afonso VI died in 1109.

Almoradvid domains

The Founding of the Kingdom of Portugal

Upon the death of King Afonso VI, Henry decided to take advantage of the situation by rebelling against the now Queen Urraca of León and Castile. He wanted to take León for himself but then died during a siege in 1112. With her husband gone, Teresa spent her time trying to hold onto her possessions, especially in the southernmost part of her domains, areas that had been recently conquered from the Moors. Defeating them and holding onto to the city of Coimbra, Teresa was hailed a savior to Portugal and called “queen” by the Pope of the time, Paschal II. This did not make her queen though because Portugal was still a vassal state to Teresa’s half sister, Queen Urraca.

Queen Urraca of Léon and Castile

To expand her power and claim a greater share of the county of León, Teresa fought against Urraca in 1116 and again in 1120. Ultimately she could not get what she wanted and so allied herself with a certain Fernando Pérez, a Count from the most powerful and influential family of Galicia, the House of Traba. Conveniently, he was also her lover.

In a battle in 1121, Teresa again lost to Queen Urraca’s army and was captured. The archbishop of the city of Braga intervened and negotiated a peace that allowed Teresa to be set free, provided that she returned to Portugal and remained a vassal to Urraca (the original arrangement). Teresa agreed and returned to Portugal, but not without the support of her lover Fernando Pérez, who went on to hold governorships of several Portuguese locales. In reality, Pérez had become the de facto ruler of the County of Portugal. By 1126, the Portuguese nobles had had enough of Teresa and Galician dominance of via Fernando. They instead rallied around Teresa’s then infant son, Afonso Henriques as their rightful ruler. He was only 17 years old.

A few years before in 1122, the young Afonso Henriques had turned 14, which in those days was the age that a boy legally became a man (like 18 in most parts of the USA). He definitely acted like a man for shortly after his 14th birthday, he made himself a self-appointed knight, raised his own army and began the process of taking over lands that were technically in his mother Teresa’s name but governed by Fernando.

In 1128, Afonso Henriques’ rebellion against his mother and Fernando Pérez came to a climax at the Battle of São Mamede, near present-day Guimarães. In the battle, Afonso Henriques and his troops were able to defeat Fernando Pérez’s forces, giving him full control over the County of Portugal. He sent his mother Teresa into exile and then declared Portugal’s independence from Galicia, Castile and León. By this time Queen Urraca had died, but her son and successor (and cousin to Afonso Henriques), King Afonso VII, put together his army and marched to meet Afonso Henriques. They met at Valdevez where in a battle (possibly a tournament amongst knights from both sides), Afonso Henriques’ side won. The two conclued a peace known as the Treaty of León which formarlly declared Portugal and independent country under Afonso Henriques, who became known from then on as Afonso I, the first true King of Portugal.

Alfonso I

Next up Part II: the adventures of King Afonso I and his new Portuguese kingdom. More territory, money, and royal squabbles.

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