The County of Portugal

The entity known today as Portugal began as a county [governed by a count] annexed to the Christian country of Asturias. As we know, in 800 CE, the Moors controlled most of Iberia as far north as the River Douro.

The Suebian Christians in Galicia and Asturias united forces and began to take that land back – a movement known as the Reconquista [re-conquer]. The valleys between the Minho and Douro rivers were known by the name of the principal port at the end of the mouth of the Douro River, Portus Cale or Portocale. Portus was the Latin word for entrance or opening, as in portal. Cale was the Celtic name for the town that evolved at that portal. Today the harbor is simply called Porto. It is Portugal’s second largest city.

In the 800s, the port was just a port. Typical of Medieval cities, the principal town, Braga, was situated more safely upriver in a peaceful valley of the nearby hills. That is where the Suebian Christians built their church. [Braga is still Portugal’s religious hub.] The country of Portugal will grow southward as the Christians re-conquer more lands.

The Old Sé [Cathedral] in Braga, today the Bishopric for both Portugal and Santiago de Compostela.(1)

Braga is still a beautiful, peaceful, and spiritual town.(2)

Here is a short summary of how the Lusitanian and Suebian community around Porto and Braga morphed from being an annex of Asturias in 868 to an independent kingdom in 1139. It will take two hundred more years for them to become the empire that first conquers the Atlantic.

The king of Asturias between 739 and 757 CE was named Alfonso I. Alfonso I also ruled the Christian countries of Galicia and León. The Roman Catholic church was represented in those countries by bishops. One bishop resided in Compostela in Galicia. Another resided in Braga in Portucale. Since the church in Braga was Iberia’s oldest Christian church, the Bishop of Braga claimed his church was the sé [the seat] of the Catholic Bishopric for all of Iberia.

Things changed in 830 CE when a tomb was uncovered at Compostela. [Remember how much early Christians loved old bones!] The Bishop of Compostela claimed that the tomb contained the remains of Jesus’ apostle St. James. The apostle James was, and is to this day, the patron saint of pilgrims(3) and of Spain. [The word for Saint James is Santiago in Spanish and São Tiago in Portuguese.] According to Christian tradition, after Jesus was crucified in 34ish CE, his apostle James traveled as far west as Iberia to preach the gospel, then he returned to Judea as a pilgrim. While in Judea, he was beheaded, which made him a Christian martyr.

The claim by the Bishop of Compostela that St. James’ tomb had been found ignited a rush of pilgrims throughout Europe who wanted to visit the saint’s remains and pay tribute. As we learned when Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena uncovered the True Cross, nails, lance, and sponge involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, such relics were good for tourism. The pilgrims who visited the churches and towns that housed the relics spent lots of money while they were there.

Sometimes the relics were buried under church altars. More often they were placed in elaborate gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted reliquaries such as the two we show you in the photos below.

(Left) a reliquary holding a piece of the True Cross housed in the Historical Museum in Coimbra, Portugal. (Right) St. Martinho de Dume’s reliquary housed in the Braga Sé (Cathedral) Historical Museum.(4)

A rivalry developed between the Christians in Galicia [future Castile and Spain] and the Christians in Braga [future Portugal] that still exists today. Historians think that the Bishop of Compostela fabricated the discovery of St. James’ remains to lure Christian pilgrims away from Braga.

Compostela, renamed Santiago de Compostela [Compostela of Saint James], became the most important pilgrimage site in all the Christian world. Legend said that God put the Milky Way in the sky for the one and only purpose of guiding the pilgrims from all points in Europe to Santiago de Compostela. Today, tourist maps refer to the still popular pilgrimage road as El Camino.(5)

A religious military order of knights [soldiers] formed to guard the roads and protect the pilgrims. The group was known as the Order of Santiago [Order of Saint James]. A red cross, the symbol of Christianity, decorated their shields. We will hear a lot about this order later.

Meanwhile, the Moors still occupied the land south of the Rio Douro. In around 867, King Alfonso III, [soon to be called Alfonso the Great] dispatched a brave warlord and crusader from Galicia named Vimara Peres (c820-873 CE) to march inland from Braga. Peres’ task was to capture the eastern part of the Douro river valley, which he did. King Alfonso then annexed the newly claimed lands to Asturias.

The king made Portucale an official county by anointing Vimara Peres as the first count. Peres established his headquarters in a village near the battlefield where his greatest victory took place,. The village was renamed after him, Vimaranes. Today the town [and site of the battle] is called Guimarães. Vimara Peres served as the Count of Portugal from 868 to his death in 873.

This statue of the Conquistador Vimara Peres now stands guard by the Sé [cathedral] in Porto. Peres looks out from the top of the hill over Portugal’s second largest city.

Statue of Crusader Vimara Peres, the First Count of Portugal. Porto, Portugal.(6)

Alfonso III reigned the combined countries of Galicia, León, and Asturias from 848 to his death in 910. When he died, he divided the kingdoms among his sons. As the Reconquista campaign continued, Asturias morphed into the two countries of León and Castile.

Meanwhile, the Vikings threatened to invade Iberia. By that time the County of Portucale was governed by a woman, Countess Mumadona Dias. Countess Mumadona’s husband had died. When she learned about the Norsemen who had already established themselves in France, she had a fortress built in Guimarães where she could defend herself. She lived there from 950 to her death in 968. This castle will be the birthplace of Portugal’s first king.

Guimarães Castle.(7)

Further expansion for Portucale did not occur until 1063 under the King of León and Castile Ferdinand I. [Ferdinand will also earn the suffix the Great.] That year, Ferdinand marched south toward the Mondego River to continue the Christians’ Reconquista campaign. After capturing the rich farmland of Viseu, he took siege of the Muslim capital of Coimbra [pronounced Queembra.] It took six months for the Muslims to capitulate. Ferdinand raised his standard over the castle on top of the hill in 1064.

View of Coimbra looking west from the hill on the opposite side of the Mondego River. The tower on the hill just right of center marks todays University of Coimbra and the Portuguese courts known as the Cortes, which were built over the former Moorish castle.(8)

Since Celtic times, Coimbra had been a strategic fortress on the Rio Mondego. A Celtic tribe built a town called Aeminium there. The Romans built a large complex at nearby Conímbriga, a connection point between Olissipo [Lisbon] and Portus Cale [Porto]. We showed you photos of the Conímbriga ruins in our article about the Roman Empire. In the seventh century, the people of Aeminium overcame the people of Conímbriga. During Suebian and Visigoth times, Aeminium was the way-station between Olissipo and Braga as well as a gateway to the mountain passes that lead to eastern Iberia. The Moors’ chose the location as their capital on the western frontier. They built their city, which they named Coimbra, over the ancient ruins of Aeminium. Today Coimbra is Portugal’s third largest city.

In 1065, the year before the Normans in France invaded England, Ferdinand’s army marched east from Coimbra to Valencia in today’s Aragon. Ferdinand’s brother Ramiro I was the king of Aragon. But once there, Ferdinand became very ill and had to return home. Ferdinand died that year in León. In his will, he divided his kingdom among his three sons.

The oldest brother, Sancho, inherited the Kingdom of Castile. The middle brother, Alfonso VI inherited Asturias. The youngest brother Garcia, inherited León. Their sisters Urraca and Elmira received the counties of Zamora and Toro respectively. In 1077, after years of internecine(9) warfare during which Alfonso VI assassinated Sancho and imprisoned Garcia for life, Alfonso emerged as King of Castile and Galicia as well as León. Not only did he earn the nicknames The Brave and The Valiant, but he begat the mother of Portugal’s future king.

In 1069, Alfonso VI married the first of his five successive wives, Agnes of Aquitaine (1052-1078), the daughter of the King of Aquitaine, William III. Agnes’ family was heavily involved with the Benedictine Cluny church. You can see from the map above that Aquitaine was the nearest country north of Iberia and west of Burgundy, where Cluny was located. Agnes died in 1078 at age twenty-six without giving Alfonso an heir. However, she left another legacy behind her in Iberia, the Cluniacs.

The next year, 1079, Alfonso VI wanted to marry Constance of Burgundy (1046-1093) whose nephew was the Abbot of the Abbey at Cluny. At first the Pope in Rome would not approve the marriage. Alfonso’s first wife Agnes, was the daughter of Constance’s step-mother, Hildegarde of Burgundy. Constance was six years older than her predecessor and she had been married before, for twelve years. But she and Agnes’ were not first cousins and eventually the marriage went through [family chart below]. This is only the beginning of the many connections Portugal will have with the Duchy of Burgundy.

The Duchy of Burgundy was different from the County of Burgundy(10). The Duchy of Burgundy was a cadet branch of France. A cadet branch is a noble house descended from another noble house. The Duchy of Burgundy descended from the French monarchy. It had been a dependent state of France since 534 CE.

Constance’s grandfather, King Robert II of France, ruled the duchy. When he died in 1031, he passed the rule to his second son Robert while his oldest son Henry took over as the King of France. Robert I, the new Duke of Burgundy, was Constance’s father. By the time of Constance’s marriage to Alfonso VI, Robert had died, his grandson Hugh had forfeited the dukedom to become the Abbot of Cluny, and Robert’s grandson son Odo I [Constance’s nephew] had become the residing Duke of Burgundy.(11)

This is confusing, we know. The importance to our story is the tightly knit relationship between the Duchy of Burgundy, Portugal, and the Cluniacs.

Like her nephew the Abbot of Cluny, Constance followed the strict religious procedures of the order. She replaced the Visigoth rites used previously in the Braga Church with the Roman Catholic rites. The Cluniacs will be the powerful religious force behind the push against the Muslims in Iberia and in the Far East. The Cluniac movement founded in Iberia by Constance and Agnes will eventually influence Queen Isabella of Castile and the Inquisition.


  1. Photo of Braga’s Sé ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  2. Photo of esplanade in Braga ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  3. Images of James in art often show him with a scallop shell, which became a symbol of the Holy Land where they abounded on the beaches. When Pilgrims visited the Holy Land, they brought back a scallop shell to wear in their hat to prove to their friends and family in Europe that they had made the pious, long and dangerous journey.
  4. St. Martinho de Dome’s reliquary;, 16th to 17th century; silver, brass and gems. Housed in Braga Sé Historical Museum. Photo ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  5. I met a woman on the plane on my way to Portugal in 2015 who said that walking the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela was the most emotionally moving experience she had ever had.—MAM
  6. Photo of statue of Vimara Peres in Porto ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  7. Photo of Guimarães Fortress ©Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  8. Photo of Coimbra ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  9. Internecine means that family members fight against each other.
  10. Burundians were an early Germanic tribe like the Suebians and the Francs, who moved into the eastern part of today’s France. The Kingdom of Burgundy lasted roughly from 411 to 534 CE, when the Francs overpowered them. After the fall of the Carolinian empire in 933, the westernmost part of the kingdom became the Duchy of Burgundy, a fiefdom of France, and the easternmost part became the Kingdom of Arles (Arelat) and then the County of Burgundy, a county of the Holy Roman Empire. Due to its popular trade routes and abundant salt mines, the County of Burgundy was able to keep its independence, whereas the Duchy of Burgundy stayed a dependent of France. Robert II of France held the title as the First Duke of Burgundy in 1004.
  11. Constance’s oldest brother, Henry, had been the heir to the dukedom, but he died before their father Robert of Burgundy died. So Henry’s oldest son, Hugh I, became Duke. However, Hugh did not want to be duke and abdicated in preference for being a monk. He rose in rank to become the Abbot of the Benedictine Abby of Cluny that we mentioned. That is when Hugh’s brother Odo I took over as the Duke of Burgundy.

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