Portugal’s Independence

A statue of Afonso Henriques in front of his birthplace, Guimarães Castle. Alfonso Henriques was Portugal’s first king.

During the years between the First Crusade and the Second Crusade, Portugal, the principal player during the Age of Discovery, took the first steps toward becoming an independent country.

When King Alfonso VI of Castile, Leon, and Galicia chose his heir, he overlooked his legitimate daughter Urraca. Instead, he chose his illegitimate son Sancho, But in 1108, while the Christians were fighting the Almoravid Muslim forces under Tamim ibn-Yusuf to obtain control of Lisbon in the Battle of Uclés, Sancho was slain. Many Christians died in that battle. The Muslims won.

Alfonso VI died the next year, in 1109, and Urraca succeeded him. That same year, her half-sister Teresa, Countess of Portugal, who had come of age and married Henry, Count of Portugal [formerly Henry of Burgundy] gave birth to a son Afonso Henriques, named after the grandfather who had just died. Afonso Henriques will become Portugal’s first king.

[As noted before, the Portuguese spell the name Afonso with no “l”. The Castilians and other Spanish spell the name Alfonso. The English equivalent is Alfred, which came from the Old English word for a wise old elf, Ælfrēd. Very likely it is an ancient Celtic name.]

Three years after the birth of Afonso Henriques, Count Henry, died. He was only forty-six. Teresa will live twenty more years. She ruled as the Countess of Portugal from the castle in Guimarães and addressed herself as Regina Tarasia [Queen Teresa]. But Portugal and Coimbra to the south were still liege states [dependent states] of Galicia in Queen Urraca’s domain. Teresa tried to win Portugal’s independence from her sister, but was unsuccessful.

Queen Urraca died in 1126 and her son, Alfonso VII, became King of Castile, León, and Galicia. He demanded that his half-aunt Teresa become his vassal, but she refused. Teresa was also having disagreements with her son [Alfonso VII’s first cousin], Afonso Henriques. Even though they both wanted Portugal’s independence, mother and son feuded about who would rule the state. In 1128, they fought opposite each other at the Battle of São Mamede. The Lusitanians of Portucale and the old Suebian church stood behind Afonso Henriques and claimed victory.

Today, the Portuguese call the town of Guimarães “the cradle of Portugal” for several reasons.

  1. Henry and Teresa, as Count and Countess of Portugal, settled the seat of government there.
  2. The first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, was born there.
  3. The first battle for Portugal’s independence, the Batalha of São Mamede [Battle of St. Mammes] was fought and won there.

The baptismal font in the chapel at Guimarães Castle where Alfonso Henriques was baptized in 1109.(2)

Looking out over today’s Guimarães from the castle.(3)

The old town square in Guimarães in 2015.(4)

The street in Guimarães leading from the castle to the old town square.(5)

The tombs of Afonso Henriques’ parents: Henry, the Count of Portugal [left] and Teresa, the Countess of Portugal [right], in the Braga Sé [Cathedral].(6)

Afonso Henriques officially became Count of Portugal when his mother, Teresa, died in 1130. He was twenty-one. At first he ruled from Guimarães, where he had been born and raised, “aqui nasceu Portugal” [where Portugal was born]. His forces also controlled the Mondego River Valley and by 1134 he had set up headquarters in the former Muslim capital of Coimbra.

Northern Portugal. (7)

Coimbra was separated from the Castilian frontier by Portugal’s highest mountains, the Serra da Estrela [Mountains to the Stars]. The highest is 6,600 feet. We showed this photo of today’s Coimbra in the earlier article about the County of Portugal. Coimbra will serve as Portugal’s first capital and the home of one of Europe’s earliest universities – founded in 1290.

View of Coimbra looking west from the hill on the opposite side of the Mondego River. The tower left of center is the university. (8)

For the first twenty-five years of Afonso Henriques’ life, he was the heir apparent to all the Iberian kingdoms. If his first cousin King Alfonso VII (1105-1157) – who was four years older –died before having any sons, Afonso Henriques would become king of the whole caboodle: Galicia, León, Castile, and Portugal. Even though Count Afonso was not happy that the County of Portugal, along with Galicia, were lieges [subservient states] of León and Castile, there was not much point in doing anything about it.

But Afonso Henriques’ chances to be heir vanished in 1134 when King Alfonso VII had a son, Sancho, followed by another son, Fernando, born in 1137.

King Alfonso needed the support of his cousin Count Afonso to fight against the Moors. The Portuguese Knights Templar, wearing their white tunics emblazoned with the red cross, were at the forefront of the Christian armies in both the Crusades and the Reconquista. In 1139, Afonso Henriques won an important victory against the fifth sultan of Almoravid Morocco, Ali ibn Yusuf (1106-1143) at the Battle of Ourique.

The trouble was that Afonso Henriques did not like fighting the Muslims for land only to hand it over to his cousin.

In 1143, Count Afonso Henriques gathered an army of mounted knights, marched from Coimbra, crossed the Limia River into what was then Galicia, camped in the Valley of the Vez River [aka Valdevez], and demanded independence for Portugal.

King Alfonso VII was not happy about that. He sent his own mounted knights from León to confront Afonso Henriques. But rather than battle, because neither cousin wanted to kill the other cousin, Alfonso and Afonso chose their best knights to participate in a jousting tournament. Afonso Henriques’ knights won.

The cousins signed an armistice known as the Treaty of Zamora that released Portugal and the southern part of Galicia from León and Castile’s liege. From then on, Portugal was its own country, though, as you shall see, there will be many attempts by the Castilian factions of the family to wrench it back. Pope Innocent II blessed Afonso I after the new king promised to pay four ounces of gold to the Holy See [ in Portuguese](9) every year.

As king, Afonso I strengthened Portugal’s independent position. Portugal was geographically separated from the western part of Iberia by tall mountains. The rivers did not connect from one country to another, and it was necessary to travel around the peninsula by sea. The Celtic/Suebian Lusitanians were culturally different from the Latin/Visigoth Aragonese and Castilians.

King Afonso I separated the church in Braga from its former association with the Castilian churches in Santiago de Compostela and Toledo. He kicked the Castilians out of Portuguese lands and welcomed in the English, Francs, and Normans [who also had Celtic roots].

In 1147, Afonso’s Portuguese forces stormed Lisbon and took it, finally, from the Moors. By 1150, the line between Christian and Muslim territories had been pushed south to about half-way down the peninsula, almost to Córdoba. King Afonso established a military stronghold for the Knights Templar on the border at Tomar to defend the Tagus River valley. The fortress was complete with a convent, castle, and vineyard.(10)

Convent de Cristo and fortress, the Templar’s headquarters. (11)

Tomar as seen from the Templar castle on the hill. This countryside was at one time all farmland and vineyards.(12)

Finally, in 1153, Alfonso Henriques set in motion the building of Portugal’s largest church at Alcobaça, which will not be completed until Manoel I is king in the 1500s.

Monastery at Alcobaça(13). Afonso Henriques is buried in Lisbon, but his successors Afonso II and Afonso III are buried here with their consorts Urraca of Castile and Beatrice of Castile. This is also the final resting place of Portugal's most famous lovers, Pedro and Inês [story coming up].


  1. Photo of the statue of Afonso Henriques in Guimarães ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved'
  2. Photo of baptismal font in the chapel of Guimarães Castle ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  3. Photo of the view of Guimarães ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  4. Photo of old town square in Guimarães ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  5. Photo of street in Guimarães ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  6. Photo of Henry and Teresa of Portugal ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  7. Portugal Topographic Map Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/
  8. Photo of Coimbra ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  9. The Holy See is the court of the Pope, who is an independent sovereign, usually headquartered at the Vatican in Rome. The Portuguese name for the Holy See is Santa Sé. is also their word for cathedral. In other words, Holy See simply means Holy Cathedral.
  10. The Knights Templar at the monastery on the Rio Tejo [Tagus River] improved the land so much that it still, today, produces the finest fruit in Portugal.
  11. Photo of Tomar ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  12. Photo of Convento de Cristo ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  13. Photo of Alcobaça Monastery ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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