14th August is an important date in the history of Portugal and in Portuguese/British relationships. It was the day of which the Battle of Aljubarrota was fought in 1385, with far-reaching consequences.
The central figure of the story was João o Bastardo, which translates as John the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of King Pedro I, and therefore not able to inherit the throne when his father died. However, when João’s half-brother also died the throne fell vacant and widowed Queen Leonor was persuaded to invite John I of Castile (a Spanish kingdom) to become King of Portugal as well.
This move did not please a group of Portuguese noblemen, one of whom, Pereira Nuno Alvares, urged João to seize power on his own behalf. Queen Leonor fled the country and implored John of Castile to invade Portugal in order to defeat her late husband’s half-brother. This he did, assisted by a contingent of 2,000 knights from France.
John’s army was met by that of João and Pereira at Aljubarrota, which was on the road to Lisbon. João also had a powerful ally, namely England, which supplied a brigade of longbowmen.
1385 was well within the period known as the “Hundred Years War” when English and French monarchs did battle against each other for mastery within western Europe. On this occasion the struggle for Portugal became a proxy battle in a much larger conflict. The battle turned out to be an echo of earlier ones (notably Poitiers in 1356) and a model for later ones (such as Agincourt in 1415) in that it featured French mounted troops facing English bowmen and coming off worse.
The most familiar feature was the ability of a relatively small force to defeat a much larger one by the use of superior tactics. John of Castile sought to outflank the Portuguese/English force by taking a long march on a hot day that only succeeded in exhausting his troops. João and Pereira merely had to wait in their well-defended positions for the enemy to approach and be soundly defeated. Losses were heavy on both sides, but the Portuguese victory was decisive.
The French and Castilians were eventually forced to withdraw, with many of them being killed by Portuguese civilians as they tried to escape back to Spain. King John fled the field but was able to escape by sea to Seville.
João, now firmly established as King of Portugal, thus established the independence of his country. He showed his gratitude to the English the following year by signing the Treaty of Windsor that pledged “an inviolable, eternal, solid, perpetual and true league of friendship”. The alliance has indeed remained solid down the centuries and is the oldest in European history. João cemented the alliance by marrying Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, brother to Edward the Black Prince.
Pereira was also well rewarded for his efforts and later used his riches to found a Carmelite monastery. Some would say that his reward was the best of that of all the participants in the Battle of Aljubarrota, in that – some 500 years later – he was declared a saint.
© John Welford