Political Context Prior to the Battle of Aljubarrota
The death of D. Fernando I in 1383 and the Treaty of Salvaterra de Magos signed in April of that same year between the queen Leonor Teles, the Count João Andeiro and the King of Castile determined that the Crown of Portugal would belong to the descendents of the King of Castile, D. Juan I and the capital relocated to the Kingdom of Toledo. The Kingdom of Castile would inevitably dominate Portugal. The situation that is created causes discomfort and does not please the majority of the Portuguese population.
Looking back at the political crisis from 1383 to 1385, it is possible to ascertain that its roots were in the dissatisfaction felt by the population, due to the deterioration of the living conditions of the majority of the population, but also when faced with the possibility that the independence of the Kingdom of Portugal could be at stake.
This desire for change grew when Leonor Teles and her allies wanted a political solution for Portugal, which not only was legally questionable, as well as clearly dissatisfying to the majority of the Portuguese population.
In light of these circumstances, the population of Lisbon proclaims D. João, Master of Avis, half brother of D. Fernando, as “ruler, governor and defender of the kingdom”. The revolt of the Portuguese population is felt in several areas and cities of the Kingdom. In 1384, the King of Castile comes to Portugal, at the request of D. Leonor Teles. Between February and October the city of Lisbon is besieged, by land and sea, with the support of the Castilian fleet. This tactic does not work, not only due to the determination of the Portuguese forces, but also because Lisbon was properly walled and defended.
During a period in which combats with Castile had ceased, the Master’s party took on a different battle, a political one. Therefore, in March and April of 1385 the Courts of Coimbra were summoned to proclaim The Master of Avis, King of Portugal.
Therefore, on the 8 July, 1385 D. João I, once again invades Portugal, through Almeida, with a large army of 40.000 men, moving then to Trancoso, Celorico da Beira, Coimbra, Soure and Leiria. In the meantime, The Castilian army besieges Lisbon through sea, in April of that year. The Portuguese army, commanded by General Nuno Álvares Pereira gets into position for combat. At that point the Battle was inevitable.
The Unraveling of the Battle
In the early morning of August 14, the army of D. João I took its ground position, chosen the previous day by Nuno Álvares Pereira. By the end of the morning the Castilian army approached from a Roman road.
The shock with the Portuguese was avoided, once that implied having to go up a hill in very unfavourable conditions. They preferred to instead avoid the strong defensive position of the Portuguese through sea, and set ground in the wide area of Chão da Feira. The Portuguese army constituted of approximately 7.000 dismounted cavalry, then moved two kilometres south and inverted its battle position to face the enemy front.
Around six o’clock the Castilian assault the Portuguese position. Once the battle had begun five main phases of the battle can be described:
Moment I – Attack
The impetuous front of the King of Castile (mostly constituted by French allied troops, assured by Froissart) most likely begins a mounted attack which is repelled by the solid defence works prepared in advance by the D. João I´s troops, which came as a total surprise for their arrogant enemies. For the battle to proceed, the French were forced to dismount their Calvary (those who were still able to do so) at the enemy front and therefore in an absolute critical position.
Moment II – Combat on the Ground
Once D. Juan I is aware of the total disorder of his frontline, he decides to order the rest of his army, awaiting in Chão da Feira, majority of which were also mounted cavalry.
When approaching the Portuguese line, he realizes – contrary to what he had expected – that the battle was being fought on foot (due to the characteristics of the defensive entrenchment system conceived by the Portuguese army). Therefore, the Castilian cavalry is dismounted early and march the rest of the way on foot(a few hundred meters) until they reach their enemies. At the same time they cut their long spears to facilitate their movement in the face-to-face battle that awaited them.
Moment III – Arrows
In the meantime, D. Juan I´s arms men are struck by spheres and arrows from the English archers and the Portuguese “Flank of Sweethearts” respectively, which, together with the progressive narrowing of the battlefront (due to the ditches, pitches and caltrops) which hinder, disconcert and “deceive” (in the words of Fernão Lopes) the enemy and centre them in a disorganized fashion in the central part of the plateau; these were, by chance, the most decisive minutes of the day.
Moment IV – Castilian Flanks
As for the Castilian flanks, these remained mounted, which were destined – as was tradition at the time – to attack the Portuguese front which, due to the narrow characteristics of the plateau only allowed the right flank (led by the Master of Alcántara ) to do so, although at a tardy moment of the battle.
Moment V – Panic and Getaway
The Castilian army panics, when, within the Portuguese square the flag of the Castilian monarch is brought down. The Castilians then start to flee in a disorganized manner. This was followed by a short yet devastating Portuguese pursuit, interrupted by night fall. D. Juan of Castile flees, mounted on a horse along with some hundreds of Castilian Calvary . He travels close to fifty kilometres throughout that evening, reaching Santarém, exhausted and desperate. Until the following morning, thousands of Castilians are killed by population in the surrounding areas of the Battlefield and neighbouring towns.
The remaining of the franc-Castilian army leaves Portugal, through Santarém and later Badajóz and the other part, through Beira, from where they had entered.
At the battlefield, the Portuguese sustained looses of approximately 1.000, while the Castilian army, approximately 4.000 and 5.000 prisoners. Outside the Battlefield, in the days following the battle, the Portuguese population killed 5.000 men of arms fleeing from the Castilian army. Due to the political consequence of the Battle and to the numerous noblemen and men of arms lost, Castile mourned for a period of two years.
Consequences of the Battle
For Europe, the Battle of Aljubarrota proved to be one of the most important battles of the medieval ages.
For Portugal, this battle, which occurred in the plateau of São Jorge on the 14th of Augusto, 1385, was one of the most decisive events of its History.
Had this Battle been lost, the small portuguese kingdom would probably had been absorbed, forever, by its castilian neighbor.
The pride we feel to belong to a centennial country, Portugal, that is the most ancient and homogenous in Europe, would not exist today.
The Portuguese victory in Aljubarrota also allowed for preparation of a period that would prove to be the most brilliant of national history – the period of the maritime Discoveries – which would have simply not occurred any other way.
The Battle of Aljubarrota definitely afforded a consolidation of national identity that until then was merely in stages of formation, and allowed future Portuguese generations the possibility of asserting themselves as a free and independent nation.