History of Portugal, Part II: Afonso I, Portugal’s First King

Alfonso I

Without Afonso Henriques, there would be no Portugal.

This is second part of a series on the history of Portugal. For background and some historical context with regard to the life of Afonso Henriques, please check out Part I: Early History until Afonso I.

Without Afonso Henriques, there would probably not be a nation state known as Portugal. In fact, those who today call themselves Portuguese might have actually been speaking Spanish had Afonso not shown up. Without a strong and capable leader such as Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s history would no doubt have been very different.

Afonso is King

Afonso I of Portugal

As the newly crowned king of a new nation whose legitamacy was questioned, Afonso Henriques could waste little time. One of his main objectives was to maintain Portugal’s independence from León and Castile, kingdoms that were ruled by his relatives. Another was to further his domain in the south by pushing back the Muslims who had occupied the region for the past four centuries. Afonso was largely successful in completing these two objectives during the course of his life.

The new king made many gains to consolidate and preserve Portugal’s independence. After the death in 1126 of Queen Urraca (who was techinically his aunt), Afonso refused to recognize the sovereignty of her son, Alfonso Raimúndez, who assumed the throne name of Alfonso VII of León. The good news for Afonso I was that his cousin was simultaneously having problems with the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon. Between 1130 – 1139, Afonso made an alliance with Aragon and waged war on the frontiers of Alfonso VII’s possessions in Galicia. During that time, Alfonso VII also unsuccessfully invaded Portugal.

Finally in 1143, after over a decade of fighting, the two kings made peace in what was known as the Treaty of Zamora. In return for putting an end to the conflict in Galicia, Alfonso VII recognized Afonso Henriques as Afonso I, the legitamate King of Portugal. The folowing year, Pope Lucius II also accepted Afonso as Portugal’s King, thereby making him a vassal to the Papacy. He was now officially Afonso I, King of Portugal.

Battle of Ourinique

With independence formally complete, Afonso I could focus on campaigns to the south of his kingdom against the Moors, or Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula. He had already won an important battle against them at Ourique in 1139 that allowed him to exact tribute from the Muslim kingdoms along his border. However in 1147, Alfonso made a big push southward and captured the city of Santarém from the Moors and soon after that, Lisbon. The latter was taken in a seventeen-week siege in which not just Portuguese but several thousand knights from other European kingdoms, mostly Crusaders heading towards the Holy Land, participated.

Stamp commemorating the Siege of Lisbon and the Moorish surrender.

The conquest of Lisbon broke the back of Moorish forces in the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula. With the help of Catholic military orders such as the Knights Templar and Knights of Santiago, as well as legendary adventurers such as Geraldo “Sem Favor”, the Portuguese under Afonso I pummeled the smaller and less unified kingdoms of the Muslim south. By 1168, the Portuguese and their allies had conquered the cities of Évora, Moura, Serpa, Juromenha and Trujillo.

At the Battle of Badajoz, Afonso was thrown off of his horse and severely injured his leg. His son-in-law, now King Ferdinand II of León who at the time was an ally of the Moors, took him as a prisoner. Ferdinand let Afonso go, but only after he forced him to relinquish his claims to Badajoz and all of the lands he had conquered east of the Guadiana River. Though he was able to return to Portugal to rule, his broken leg prohibited him from combat operations. Thus, the military career of King Afonso I came to an end. 1

Afonso’s Legacy

While no longer the battlefield, Afonso I started what became a strong royalist tradition in Portugal for centuries to come. This was aided both by his relatively long reign as king (46 years) as well as his decision to have his son and heir, Sancho, rule jointly with him for the last 15 years of his life. The latter created a strong protegé which also allowed there to be no dispute as to who would succeed him. He also strengthened the position of the Church in Portugal to make it independent from the dioceses in Toledo and Santiago de Compostela.

Despite the crippling injury to his leg, Afonso ruled Portugal with an iron fist. Being the founder of the modern nation-state of Portugal, a country whose borders have more or less remained contiguous for nearly 800 years, Afonso is remembered in his native land as being a great warrior and also for his wisdom. Legends tell of the massive size of his sword, an object that supposedly took ten men to carry. It is also said that he was fond of one-on-one combat and challenged many kings to duels. However, given his reputation as an expert swordsman, no one every actually accepted such an offer from him.

Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, died on the 6th of December in 1185. He was succeeded by his son and heir, Sancho I.

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  1. Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vol. 10