The Battle of Ourique, 25 July 1139

The Battle of Ourique (25 July 1139: St. James Day) saw the forces of Portuguese Prince Afonso Henriques (of the House of Burgundy) defeat the AlmoravidMoors led by Ali ibn Yusuf.

It was during the Battle of Valdevez against Alfonso VII of León that Muslim forces attacked and destroyed Leiria and Trancoso. Afonso Henriques’s anxiety at this incursion at his southern frontier hastened his negotiations with Alfonso VII of León after Valdevez, leading to the Treaty of Zamora and freeing Afonso Henrique’s troops to deal with the Muslim attack.

Historians are divided as to the location of this battle. At the time, the name “Ourique” designated a large area south of Beja. Since 12th century chroniclers where unfamiliar with the region where the battle took place, they might have decided to call the location “camp of Ourique” for lack of a more precise term.[1] Nonetheless, the great distance that separated Ourique from the Christian lines farther north has led some historians to suggest various localities in central Portugal, abandoning the traditional idea that the combat occurred in Ourique in the Alentejo.[2] It would have been difficult for the then Count of Portugal, with a realm little beyond theMondego River, to go all the way south to battle five Moorish Kings. One plausible alternative is Vila Chã de Ourique, located some ten miles from Santarém.[3]

However, incursions by Christian armies deep in Muslim territory were not unheard-of. Alfonso VII had directed expeditions that had reached Cordoba and Seville, well beyond the limits of Castillian dominions, and in 1147 he managed to conquer the Mediterrenean port of Almería, south of Granada. This was possible because the largest Almoravid armies were positioned at the frontier, while armies stationed in small towns would rather retreat into their castles than face a strong enemy force. It is not at all unfeasible that Afonso lead a raid into the Gharb, and then, while retreating, was intercepted by sizable Almoravid troops intending to crush his army.[4]

Despite the fact that the Christian Portuguese forces were strongly outnumbered, the Muslim armies were weakened by internal leadership problems, which led to Afonso Henrique’s victory and subsequently his proclamation as King of the Portuguese, as Afonso I, with the support from his troops, vanquishing and slaying, so legend says, five Moorish kings.

The earliest accounts provide little detail. In one account the Moorish forces are led by five Kings (Life of St. Theotonius), while in another, the Muslim forces are under the command of one King, Ismar (Chronicles).[3]In the more detailed Chronicle of the Goths, Ismar waited until Henriques penetrated into Moslem territory, then systematically sent his troops from SevilleBadajozElvasÉvora and Beja against the Portuguese count.[3] Further, the Portuguese forces were surrounded on the hilltop where they encamped, Ismar hosted knights, who were executed later by Henriques, and that the Moorish king escaped in defeat.[3] Arab and Spanish accounts do not clarify the circumstances, and confuse the issue, identifying the Ismar as, alternatively, Ismar Abuzicri or Ismar and Abuzicri, with later historians identifying Abu Zakariya, the governor of Santarém, as the protagonist. It is also likely that the numbers were inflated by the chroniclers from a large-scale raid to grand assault by Muslim forces.

It was presumed that after his victory over the five Moorish kings, the nobles acclaimed Afonso Henriques as king.[8] In reality, documents after his victory continued to refer to Henriques as Prince or Infante.[8][9]

Immediately after the battle, Afonso Henriques is said to have called for the first assembly of the estates-general (PortugueseCortes Gerais) of Portugal at Lamego, where he was given theCrown from the Bishop of Braga, to confirm the Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León. This was a patriotic falsification perpetuated by the clergy, nobility and supporters who promoted the Restoration of Portuguese sovereignty and the claims of John IV, after the Iberian Union.[10] The documents that refer to the estates-general were “deciphered” by Cistercianmonks from the Monastery of Alcobaça to perpetuate the myth and justify the legitimacy of the Portuguese crown in the 17th century. The author of this falsification was Oliveira Marques, and even in 1632[11] there were misgivings about the validity of the chronicler’s account or the existence of the Cortes of Lamego[12] The account continued to support the notion that in the 12th century a meeting of the Cortes occurred in the Church of Santa Maria de Almacave, in Lamego, in 1143.[10] During this meeting, after being acclaimed by estates-general, Afonso Henriques accepted a group of laws on royal succession and excluded the Castilian line of Kings from the Portuguese throne, made provisions for the nobility, on justice and the independence of Portugal.[10] But, even as Spanish jurists and diplomats later demonstrated that the document was uncreditable, the Portuguese defended the authenticity of the account.[13] Alexandre Herculano later recounted the patriotic re-imagining in his História de Portugal, which caused its own controversy, and was later perpetuated by the writings of Alfredo Pimenta (who defended the existence of the Cortes of Lamego).[13]

In commemoration of the Battle of Ourique, the first Portuguese coat-of-arms appeared that included five small shields, to represent the five defeated Moorish kings (from one interpretation), which was later challenged by many authors.


The vision of D. Afonso Henriques

Some years later, the idea of a miraculous intervention in the battle by Saint James in favor of the Portuguese appeared in the chronicles of the battle. Saint James was widely venerated in Iberia (with a main center of veneration in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, where his tomb was believed to be located), being generally seen as the Matamouros (English: Moor-slayer). As a consequence of Portuguese independence this legend was embellished with time, in order to distance the Portuguese from Spanish devotional practices and beliefs. Later interpretations replaced Saint James with Saint George and, finally, with Jesus Christ.

In the legend, Afonso Henriques is visited before the battle by an old man who saw in a dream that Henriques would be victorious because God would intervene in his favour.[8] He advised the nobleman to leave the encampment alone when he heard the bell of the local chapel. Riding off he was surprised by a ray of light that showed him (in one interpretation) the sign of the cross and Jesus Christ on a crucifix. Afonso Henriques knelt in its presence and heard the voice of Christ who told him he would defeat the Moors, which he, through courage and his faith, succeeded the following day.

The legend of the miracle of the Battle of Ourique served thus as a political instrument to defend Portuguese independence as divine will. Yet, the legend first appeared in the 15th century and was forged by the monks of the Monastery of Santa Cruz, during the battles between John and the Kingdom of Castile.[8] It was in 1419 that the legend first appeared in the Crónica de Portugal, and was accepted as fact, until Alexandre Herculano first reexamined the event, judging it a “pious fraud”, in his investigation in the middle of the 19th century.

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