Political context prior to the Battle of Atoleiros
The death D. Fernando I on October 22, 1383, and the Treaty of Salvaterra de Magos, signed in April of 1383, initiative of Leonor Teles, the Count João Fernandes Andeiro and D. Juan I of Castile caused great displeasure in the people of the Kingdom of Portugal. The Treaty not only trusted the rule to D. Leonor Teles, unpopular with the great majority of the population, but also determined that the Portuguese Crown would belong to the descendants of the King of Castile, D. Juan I and the Kingdom’s capital relocated to Toledo.
The Kingdom of Castile would unavoidably reign over Portugal. This situation did not please the majority of the Portuguese population and a serious political crisis instated as a result.
A sector of the Portuguese population agreed that D. João, Master of the Military Order of Avis and his illegitimate son, D. Pedro I, had the right to the throne.
D. Juan I of Castile invades Portugal with his army, in January 1384, entering through the city of Guarda and then marching towards Santarém.
Having been informed of a Castilian incursion in Alentejo, in March, D. João nominates Nuno Álvares Pereira general of the district Between Tejo and Guadiana, with absolute powers (military, economic and political). In Lisbon he was authorized by D. João to choose 200 cavalry, of which 40 were cavalry of first nobility. He also had authorization to add approximately 1.000 men on foot to his army. Nuno Álvares Pereira then parts to the region of Alentejo.
He heads to Estremoz, where he is told that the Castilian army was already in Crato. The captains under his orders tried to discourage him to fight the Castilians, a much stronger army (and in which two of his siblings took part). D. Nuno responded:
“Friends ! You know that the Master has sent me to this land so that, with the help of God, you and I fight against all evil and harm the Castilians may want to inflict upon us; and that such act will forever grant you great honour and a good name; We will do a good deed to ourselves in fighting, in the defence of our own land and property, of which we are owners”
The following day, 6 of April 1384, D. Nuno parts with his people to Fronteira, at the time besieged by the Castilians from Crato. D. Nuno had an army of 1.500 men, small for the dimension of the task that awaited him.
The Unravelling of the Battle
Having arrived at the Atoleiros Estate, 2, 5 kilometres south of the Border, Nuno Álvares Pereira stopped the march and chose an appropriate location to accommodate his troops. He opted for a land with a slight slope, along and at the bottom of which there was a riverside, called Águas Belas (Beautiful Waters), a very well chosen site, although seemingly prone to attacks. It had a riverside that couldn’t be seen unless close by, and that was sufficiently wide and deep to form a ditch. On the other hand, having placed his men in a slightly more elevated location created an ideal angle of fire for his archers.
Nuno Álvares then placed his small army in place. Firstly, he ordered that the entire badly armed cavalry be dismounted which would not resist the shock of the Castilian squadrons. Then together with his army he organized the forefront, the two flanks, placing some of the cavalry behind the front. He then lined up the crossbow armed soldiers along the two flanks and behind the front as well, from where they could successfully fire at the Castilians when these approached.
The Castilian army was composed of approximately 1.000 horsemen and 4.000 men on foot. Once at the location, and having noticed how small the Portuguese army was and the inferiority of their artillery, the Castilian army chose to fight mounted on their horses rather than on foot, convinced that their victory was guaranteed. It was noon when the Castilian army began their cavalry attack.
As the Castilian army moved forward, they would be hit by darts and arrows struck by the inside lines of Portuguese army, launched over the Portuguese forefront. The Portuguese peasants also threw stones at the Castilian cavalry.
The other hand, the natural characteristics of the loamy terrain caused several horses to have buried their paws in the soil, keeping them from moving forward and the respective horsemen to fall. Nonetheless many Castilians reached the Portuguese army. The Portuguese army situated in the forefront (as was ordered by Nuno Álvares Pereira) had nailed their spears obliquely in the ground, each spear held by a man’s arm. This created a closed front, with dozens of spears pointed obliquely at the enemy. As a result, many horses and enemy horsemen were pierced by the tips of these weapons. While the peasants and Portuguese crossbow armed soldiers continued to throw their stones and arrows, wounding and killing the enemy.
Three more attacks followed, against the Portuguese forefront and flanks, that the Portuguese heroically and efficiently withstood. It is probable that in these battles there were also Castilian men on foot. They too felt the same difficulties as the cavalry in advancing on the land, in other words, suffering from the characteristics of the terrain and from being struck with rocks, darts and arrows by the Portuguese. Some certainly may have got close to the Portuguese forefront but were unable to surpass it.
This battle that lasted approximately an hour did not cause a great number of casualties, most of which occurred in the initial shock between the two fronts. On the Castilian side, approximately 600 horsemen and men on foot died, in other words, about 12% of its army. On the other hand, there were practically no deaths amongst the Portuguese.
The day following the Battle Nuno Álvares Pereira went to Assumar, barefoot and on foot to show gratitude for the outcome of the battle and to pray to Santa Maria of that Town.
Consequences of Atoleiros Battle
He victorious outcome of the Battle of the Atoleiros had an enormous psychological impact on the supporters of the Master of Avis and on Portugal in general, demonstrating that despite their military strength, the Castilian army was not invincible. This showed the Portuguese, that if properly organized and guided, the fight for independence of the Kingdom was at their reach.
The Battle of the Atoleiros proved to be an event of extreme importance in the crisis of 1383 to 1385, consecrating and defining the Portuguese Identity, as a Country, as the people and as a nation. The awareness of national independence was never lost again, it remains alive now and will certainly live on in the future.
The victory attained in the Battle of the Atoleiros was the start of an important process in the affirmation of the Portuguese nation, had it not occurred, then Aljubarrota and the Peace Treaty Agreement with Castile in 1411 would have not been possible.