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Founder of the Portuguese Nation: 1109-1185

Translated by John D. Godinho

She knows her history quite well, indeed.  But her tropical irreverence takes her by the arm and she begins to remove the dust we allowed to accumulate on Portugal's first prominent figures.  The dusting is done and here comes the Founder.  Let's seize the moment and strike up a conversation...                                                                                       

Fernando Correia da Silva

D. Afonso Henriques - statue by Soares dos Reis (1887) (The sculptor's biography is also on this site).



1109:  Probable year of Afonso Henriques's birth, in Coimbra, the son of Henry of Burgundy and Teresa, bastard daughter of Alfonso VI of Castile and León.  Alfonso VI dies that same year.  The struggle for power begins between Urraca, the legitimate heiress, and Teresa and several other pretenders to the throne.  The dispute lasts for years. - 1122:  Afonso Henriques anticipates Napoleon Bonaparte's gesture by several centuries: he ignores the presence of the cardinal who presides the knighting ceremony at the Cathedral of Zamora and proclaims himself a knight. - 1128: Afonso Henriques battles Teresa, his mother, and her ally, the Galician count Fernão Peres de Trava.  The two sides engage in battle in the fields of São Mamede, near Guimarães Castle.  The Galician army is defeated.  This victory forces Teresa to give up the idea of annexing the Portuguese region to the Kingdom of Galicia. - 1129:  On April 6, Afonso Henriques dictates a document in which he proclaims himself as King of  the Portuguese territories. - 1135:  Urraca's son, Alfonso VII, is crowned "Emperor of All Spain" at the Cathedral of León.  Afonso Henriques refuses to pay homage to his cousin. - 1137:  The Tui Peace Treaty.  After fighting Alfonso VII in the region of the High Minho, Afonso Henriques promises to Alfonso "his allegiance, freedom from harm and assistance against all enemies." - 1139:  Battle of Ourique.  Afonso Henriques defeats five Moorish kings. - 1140:  Afonso Henriques begins to use the title of King. - 1143: Probable date of the Treaty of Zamora, in which he makes peace with his cousin Alfonso VII. This is the first step toward Portuguese independence.  Afonso Henriques writes to Pope Innocent II and declares himself, and his successors, as liegeman of the Holy See.  This means that Afonso Henriques owes allegiance to no one but the Pope.  Thus, no other power is greater than his over the territories he governs. - 1147:  Afonso Henriques expels the Moors from Lisbon and a number of other Portuguese cities. - 1169: Afonso Henriques is taken prisoner by Fernando II, King of León. - 1179:  The Catholic Church formally recognizes Afonso Henriques as king. - 1180:  The conflicts with Fernando II, of León, over territories along the border and as well as on the Andalucian coast, come to an end. - 1185:  Afonso Henriques dies in the city of his birth.  His legacy, in addition to his great wealth, is the Condado Portucalense, the first European territory to establish a national identity.


"...I'm no longer interested in the type of lyricism that does not liberate."

                                                                (Manuel Bandeira, Poética)

Main Tower, Guimarães Castle


No one is more deserving of the title of Founding Father than Afonso Henriques, son of Teresa, bastard daughter of King Alfonso VI, of Castile and León, and Count Henry of Burgundy.  Very few people know, but it's thanks to the political shrewdness of Afonso Henriques that Portugal is the first European country to establish itself as an independent state.  Even before the year 1200, Portugal is already Portugal.  And that included the right to its own language - the Galician-Portuguese.

Genius, statesman, political fox,  victor, implacable, extremely clever:  Afonso is able to create an amazing story.  Everything that can be manipulated in his favor, will be so, without any scruples. He begins his sequence of victories by founding a kingdom. To do so, he banishes his mommy to outer space, without as much as a farewell glance.  At the time, though, nobody is thinking of Portugal as a possible consequence of an Oedipus Complex not well worked out. (Freud would only be around many centuries later).

Afonso's grandfather stands out as one of the most powerful men of his time.  He is a personal friend of Saint Hugo - who doesn't know yet that he'll become a saint and builds the Abbey of Cluny, which, at the time, is the biggest house of worship in all Christendom. Afonso VI  dips into his pockets, or into the public coffers, for the funds needed to finance Hugo's dream.  The king is well connected in the royal circles of the Christian world; he has influence, he's flexible.  Between one donation and another, he manages to have his bastard daughter married off to one of the Counts of Burgundy - a family of the upper-crust that will not easily mingle with people born on the wrong side of the tracks.

But Alfonso VI prepares an attractive package as a wedding present: Henry takes Teresa and, to boot, he gets the Portuguese Province, west of Castile, that for sometime now has been entertaining thoughts of independence.  So, Alfonso VI, well aware of the antics practiced by the Portuguese, decides to kill two birds with one stone.  In 1092, he joins the two distinct territories in that region - north and south of the Rio Douro - and decrees that the new province belongs to Teresa, and to her husband, of course.  Urraca, his legitimate daughter, will sit on the throne of León and Castile, as dictated by the rules of morals and good manners.

Alfonso VI is more than a good and dedicated daddy, so he later tries to increase his power and dominion over additional territories. But his plans backfire. As soon as the king of León and Castile sticks his nose in the Portuguese Province, the local nobility starts a strong separatist movement.

Poor Henry of Burgundy ends up as a loser in this entire affair.  Other than fathering the genius of Afonso Henriques, he gets very little out of the marriage.  He wanders about the province trying to help his son, but the boy is a rebel and dispenses with his advice.  The Count, a sophisticated Frenchman, feels hurt and annoyed.  He's frightened by the idea of going down in history as a mere reproducer. But it's all Alfonso VI's fault.  When he creates this soap opera, he commits one his few political mistakes:  he does not take into account the local pride of the Portuguese Province or the possibility that someone might  play dirty pool.


"...a superior power rises..."

                        (Camões, The Lusiads)

Afonso Henriques proclaims himself a knight...




One must take precautions when he is the grandfather of a statesman. Afonso Henriques is only 20 years old when Alfonso VI dies.  If families tear each other to pieces over grandma's silverware, one can imagine what they might do when the item in dispute is the power of a crown.  Everyone is in a fighting mood.  Urraca argues with the Bishop of Compostela, quarrels with the King of Aragon, spews insults at the Count of Galicia, and causes a general uproar.  As for Teresa, she suffers from growing ambitions, a syndrome that usually attacks less favored heirs, and sets out to make disastrous alliances.  Like father, like daughter.

Suddenly, Teresa takes a fatal step.  While planning to annex the Portuguese Province to Galicia, she makes an alliance with the Galicians who are traditional rivals of the Portuguese barons.

She doesn't understand her son, a child who, at 13, already shows signs of genius, in the good as well as in the bad sense of the word.  At that tender age, he simply ignores the cardinal who conducts the ceremony at which he is to knighted, and proclaims himself a knight.  He refuses divine intervention.  Just like Napoleon, a few centuries later.  Pity that he doesn't speak French, the language of sophisticated folk, so that his gesture would not be left out of the history books.

It is said that the grandfather is quite proud of the brat's petulance, although there's no documentary evidence to prove it.  It's a shame that so much talent simply evaporates in Portugal, says Alfonso VI.  Just idle gossip, of course.  Portugal and Spain have nurtured ill feelings for each other for centuries; it's common knowledge and everybody likes to add fuel to the flame.

Anyway,  with such a son to deal with, Teresa goes and allies herself with the Galicians and then shows up escorted by another count telling a lame story about his "political support."  The stage is set.  Afonso Henriques, now 21, surrounds the Castle of Guimarães and starts a barroom brawl: those outside, can't come in and those inside, can't leave - not even mamma, supposedly the ruler of the province.

It should be said, though, that the boy, just like his grandfather, doesn't fool around.  He senses that he doesn't have much of a chance in the line of succession to the throne of León and Castile, so he must create his own space.  He wants power, his place is in the Portuguese Province.

Everything indicates that Afonso capitalizes on the grievances of the Portuguese nobility.  Their indignation increases when Teresa brings the Galicians on-stage.  Clever as he is, Afonso Henriques is aware that the Portuguese cities share cultural and ideological bonds, in addition to their desire of being free from Castile. It seems to him that it won't be difficult to turn them into a cohesive political force.  Teresa has simply given him a excuse to upset the applecart.


"I have but two hands, and the feelings of the whole world..."

                                                        (Carlos Drummond de Andrade,  Feelings of the World)

Count Henry of Burgundy, (Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela)


Described like that, it seems an easy task to accomplish.  But it's not, otherwise it could have been done by just anybody.  Afonso Henriques has great sensibility.  He acts at the proper time, with the right people and in the right manner. He doesn't miss a trick.  He behaves like a perfect political animal from the beginning to the end of his story.  He makes History; he holds the world in his hands.  Those around him are fools incapable of sensing the Prince's shrewdness while he prepares the final blow.

The people of Guimarães, led by the nobles and the bourgeoisie, welcome him as the liberator, receiving him with open arms.  There is a letter documenting this public support.  Teresa is still trying to fight him.  In 1128, their armies meet in the fields of São Mamede, near Guimarães Castle.  This is the Prince's first victory.  He is surprised at the ease with which he defeates the Galician forces and expels the queen and her companion, the count. There is a document in which he declares:  "I, Prince Afonso, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, free of all oppression,...in peaceful control of Coimbra and all other cities of Portugal..."


"If governing were an easy task, enlightened spirits would not be necessary."

                                               (Bertold Brecht, The Difficulty of Governing)

The Prince pays for the construction of the Cathedral of Braga.




Right there, the Portuguese Province begins to slip into his pocket.  From then on, it's up to him to keep things under control and fight whoever attempts to thwart his dream. So he fights and wins. When he can't get his way by force, he gets it through the use of gold coins - ah, corruption has been plaguing us for such a long time.

His principal enemies are the Moors who occupy the greater part of Portuguese territory.  But his cousin Alfonso VII and Fernando II, both of Castile, also get clubbed over the head a few times.  The latter will imprison Afonso Henriques in Badajoz and will be astonished by the wealth of the Portuguese king.  Afonso Henriques pays almost two and a half tons of gold as ransom for his release.  And he does so with no great effort and under the delirious applause of his countrymen who don't want to lose him for anything in the world. 

But the Prince has to sweat bullets to gain such prestige. His life is spent fighting and making political deals.  The first one is with the Catholic Church, the keystone for any power scheme during the Early Middle Ages.  He who doesn't obtain the Church's blessings better move on.  Immediately after his victory at São Mamede, Afonso Henriques establishes his relations with the Church:  he accepts all conditions.  He knows the grounds he treads;  the clergymen are much too strong to be opposed.

In exchange for his complete and unconditional support, the Archbishop of Braga receives certain privileges:  the right to coin money and the absolute control of the city of Braga. As if this weren't enough, the Prince pays for the construction of the Cathedral of Braga,  stuffs the pious church coffers with money, acknowledges the Church's divine authority as being superior to his own, and lends his prestige to Church events.  Surprise, surprise:  the archbishops of Braga keep their word and stick by Afonso Henriques during the nearly sixty years of his reign. It's a perfect relationship; if marriages were as successful, family lawyers would die of hunger.

The lower clergy cooperates in the best way possible.  In a number of documents, the monks at the Santa Cruz Monastery, in Coimbra, lavishly praise Afonso Henriques: "he is prudent, wise, intelligent, handsome, a giant, a roaring lion." They're like a master of ceremonies introducing the guest of honor. And after the Battle of Ourique,  in which he thrases the Moors, the brothers become delirious.  In their opinion, the Prince is "the elected of God to prove that Portugal and its people are independent."

But before the Battle of Ourique, a watershed in the life of Afonso Henriques and in Lusitanian history, the Prince must skirt a number of other problems.  In dealing with the first of these, he shows the Castilian clan that things are about to undergo some changes.


"The promised period had come to an end, And the Castilian king was now exacting That the Prince confined at his command, Pay the homage that he was expecting..."

                                             (Camões, The Lusiads, 3rd Canto)


 Queen Urraca, of León and Castile (Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela)


In 1135, once the conflicts over the succession of Alfonso VI are settled, Urraca's son becomes king as Alfonso VIII. The crowning ceremony at the Cathedral of León was marked by great exaltation, with the new king exhibiting excessive luxury.  Afonso Henriques is the only member of the family not present.  His intentions seem clear:  to show, once and for all, that the Portuguese Province does not pay homage to the king of León and Castile and that Afonso Henriques considers himself as much a king as his recently crowned cousin.

Alfonso VII retaliates and they exchange insults. Finally, in 1137, they sign the Treaty of Tui, in which Afonso Henriques promises Alfonso VII "his allegiance, freedom from harm and assistance against all enemies."  There are no documents that clearly describe this period, but probably our Prince forced to agree. It just isn't in keeping with his personality to sign humiliating documents.  Luckily, he doesn't abide by his promises - or he wouldn't be Afonso Henriques.  Then, in 1143, Pope Innocent II has to send a cardinal to bring peace between the two cousins.  Before that, however, the Battle of Ourique takes place.  Some people swear it's a miracle because of the Prince's religious visions. Logic leads us to think it was one of his tricks.  Let's face it, Jesus Christ doesn't wander about in the countryside looking for casual chats with princes.


"...Five illuminated blue shields, representing the five defeated kings..."

(Camões, The Lusiads, 3rd Canto)

D. Afonso Henriques and the Battle of Ourique.






















Emperor Alfonso VII, of León and Castile (Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela)


Everything we know about Ourique is mere conjecture.  But the story is so importante that it has branded itself into the Portugese imagery and still remains in the country's coat of arms:  five shields, five symbols each containing five dots representing the five Moorish kings beheaded in that battle.  As a final result, Afonso Henriques becomes king, de facto and de jure.  Even today, Portuguese historians are still discussing this episode.

Alexandre Herculano, the novelist and historian, is reponsible for making the battle even more famous when he declares that "Ourique is nothing but a legend." God help us all, there's general commotion in Portugal.  He is accused of being a heretic - we should remember that the last Portuguese citizen so accused ended up at the stake only a century before, which is not a long time, historically speaking.  He's also described as anti-clerical, an atheist, an agnostic, a...Ah, well, forget it.  If he was called anything worse than that, there are no records to show it.

Contemporary historians, among them José Hermano Saraiva, tend to place Ourique in its proper perspective. It is known, for sure, that a battle takes place on July 25, 1139, in which Afonso Henriques comes out the winner, even though the Moorish forces are numerically superior.  It is also suspected that Alfonso VII, at that time engaged in the siege of Aurelia, a Moorish city of great strategic importance,  is instrumental in getting his cousin into trouble. When he finds out that the Prince is conducting a razzia - a type of military operation used by the Portuguese, whereby they infiltrate enemy territory, surprise the enemy, destroy them and run back to safety - Alfonso VII pulls the strings so that the Islamic army headed to rescue Aurelia is deployed to destroy Afonso Henriques.  It's possible, but Alfonso's participation in these events is just a theory.

Not even the battle's location is known for sure.  The city of Ourique is so far south of Lisbon, so far inside Moor territory, its seems impossible that the Prince would take such a risk.  Still, there are records of other daring razzias.  On the other hand, the Lower Alentejo region was known as Ourique at the beginning of the Middle Ages.  Legend and history do not unlock these mysteries.

The popular version of the Battle of Ourique tells of Afonso Henriques battling a strong Islamic army, killing the five Moorish kings and forcing the rest of the Moors to make a run for it.  All in one day.  This is due to a special favor of Jesus Christ, who, the night before, appears to the Prince and has a friendly chat with him.   Only Afonso Henriques sees Our Lord - who, incidentally, is surrounded by a host of angels - and only Afonso Henriques hears Him guaranty that the outcome of the battle will be a spectacular victory for the Portuguese. 

The morale of the soldiers reaches new heights when they hear about the friendly visit.  In addition to that, July 25 is dedicated to Santiago (Saint James, the Great), known as the moor-killer, the saint that never abandons Christians in danger.  Santiago is a specialist in cutting throats with enviable efficiency - apparently he was the first person on Earth to know the exactly location of the carotids; he doesn't miss one.  But today, it seems, he's gone into retirement. We can see that everything has come together for the Prince's success.  

The battle is won, the people is delirious, the Church is proud.  From now on, the Prince signs all documents as "King of the Portuguese." At this very moment, the Portuguese national edentity is established. After all, Ourique represents an important development that makes a difference:  where else would a king chat, live and in color, with the celestial host?

In 1143, Afonso Henriques has another stroke of genius when Cardinal Guido de Vico, the Pope's emissary, promotes a meeting between the Prince and Alfonso VII, at Zamora, to try to convince them that their quarrels only favor the infidels. The Prince writes to Pope Innocent II describing the miracle at Ourique and claiming for himself and his descendants the status of liegeman of the Holy See.  That is, he owes allegiance to Rome only.  Within Portuguese territory he, and only he, gives the orders and there will be no more talk about it.

It takes time for the Vatican to answer.  Thirty-six years, to be exact.  But even then, the result only comes after Afonso Henriques makes a hefty contribution of one thousand gold coins.  When the Church finally recognizes Afonso Henriques as king, in 1179,  such recognition has very little importance.  Portugal's sovereignty is an accomplished fact and the Prince is now a king of the first magnitude.

The meeting at Zamora between the two cousins and the Cardinal brings about immediate positive results for Afonso Henriques. Alfonso VII calls it quits when he sees that  Afonso Henriques will never pay him vassalage. Of his own volition, he begins treating him as an equal.

It's a mistake to believe that Afonso Henriques does nothing but promote political intrigues,  making and destroying alliances.  The man is more like a wild animal.  He fights alongside his soldiers, fighting as an equal, without any hierarchical privileges.  His troops do far more than respect him:  they revere him. They will obey any order he gives.


"...dry blood stains on the clothes, a stern expression in the eyes, on the clothes the crime is spelled out..."

                                                    (Carlos Drummond de Andrade, The Assassins)

D. Afonso Henriques (12th  Century, Museum of Carmo, Lisbon).


Afonso Henriques expands his territories using the excuse that he is driving the Moors back to where they came from.  So he takes Lisbon, Santarem, Almada, Obidos, Palmela, Sesimbra.  Battle after battle, killing Moors as if killing rats, he continues building his kingdom.  In taking back the lands he adopts a policy of scorched earth:  kill anything that moves, burn the rest.  Almost a thousand years before the Americans were defeated by the guerrila tactics of the undernourished Vietcongs, Afonso Henriques is practicing guerrila warfare.  Having a small army under his command, he believes that the element of surprise gives him the upper hand.  Generals, in those days, were quick to ask for their smelling salts, as if, to die, they had to follow a script.

The Prince is always coming up with something new.  When he foresees a long battle, he contracts mercenaries.  These are usually crusaders on their way to the Holy Land who make a stop in Portugal to kill Moslems and collect the booty, as promised by the king.  The siege of Lisbon, in 1147, follows this scheme.  Afonso Henriques, between Portuguese citizens and crusaders hungry for easy money, manages to gather several hundred thousand men and 150 ships.

The conquest of Lisbon is a beautiful, but sad, episode in Portuguese history due to  Afonso Henriques's use of excessive violence.  Later, in 1170, he makes amends by issuing a Letter of Safe-conduct that prohibits Christians and Jews from molesting the Moors in the region of Lisbon.  Definitely, the King is fond of grand and unexpected gestures. 

Shrewd, as always, he usually carries out his plans under cover, a sample of what would later be the Portuguese-Brazilian way of being. He probably contracts the services of one Geraldo Sem Pavor, an outlaw who rambles freely about Castile.  So if the King is not allowed to invade someone else's lands,  an unofficial representative might.  There is no concrete evidence to that effect, but the men under Geraldo's command are all from the district of Coimbra.  It's difficult to imagine that such citizens would engage in military activities without the King's approval. 

The Prince who would be King, has become a myth.  It's impossible to ascertain what is the truth in the biography of Afonso Henriques.  He is way ahead of his time, revealing himself as a genius of extraordinary political insight and indisputable moral courage. There are only a few records about him written by the monks at Santa Cruz, the only people who know how to write - nobody else does, including Afonso Henriques.


“...shoes embroidered with gold, emeralds and rubies, amethysts for her fingers, dresses studded with diamonds, and women slaves to serve her...”

                          (Jorge Amado, Happy Little Girl)


According to certain accounts, and allowing for the customary flattery, he is pictured as being fair, generous and irreverent. He's a man of courage subject to occasional fits of anger, capable of being violent and then recognizing his faults. They praise his frugality at the table and highlight his tendency to be a conqueror. Not only of power and territories, but also of women's hearts, perhaps even more so.

He marries the unassuming Mafalda de Sabóia, who bears him seven children, among them his heir, Sancho.  But he also fathers four illegitimage offspring. A document dating from 1184, describes his as an unexpectedly affectionate father.  When one of his legitimate daughters marries de Count of Flanders, Afonso Henriques does not dilly-dally.  He wants the bride to be happy so he loads several ships with the best of everything.  The vessels leave the port of Lisbon stuffed with dresses embroidered with gold, precious jewels, silks, more gold, more jewels, everything that could bring happiness to a happy little girl, the daughter of a powerful father. 



                                                                          (Vinicius de Morais, Lived Life)

Coat of Arms of D. Afonso Henriques, as interpreted by an anonymous artist of the 18th century.


The Last Will and Testament of Afonso Henriques, the first king of the first european territory to be conscious of its own nationality, reveals that even in death he behaves like a statesman.  His immense fortune, obtained in over fifty years of wars and plunder, is woven together with the national treasury.  He determines that it be used for the good of the country.  He orders that hundreds of thousands of maravedis (the Gothic coin then in use) be dedicated to the defense effort.  He foresees that the Moors are preparing a counteroffensive. Other huge amounts go toward the building of hospitals and  the support of religious and military orders.  The poor will also get their share.  Churches and cathedrals are built.  Convents receive donations and become self-supporting for years.

To his successor, his son Sancho I, Afonso Henriques leaves only one  geopolitical recommendation:  the construction of a bridge between the North and the South of Portugal so as not to jeopardize the unification that took him a lifetime to accomplish and maintain. Unfortunately, there are no records that indicate whether or not Sancho followed his father's recommendation. 

Afonso Henriques, Founding Father of the Portuguese Nation, dies on December 6, 1185, in Coimbra, where he was born.  His burial place is in the Monastery of Santa Cruz.


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