Building of a Nation: Political History of Portugal – Part 3

Some of you may wonder how exactly Portugal was able to form and maintain independence, on a little corner of western Europe, over 800 years. That is what you are going to discover during this series of articles about the political history of Portugal.

Born from the marriage between Afonso Henriques and Mafalda of Savoy, Sancho I was called to the frontline of political action in 1170, due to his father being mostly incapacitated after the debacle of Badajoz.

As such when Sancho ascended to the Portuguese Throne after his father’s death, in 1178, he already had significant government experience as well as military experience.

Sancho I


Sancho I depicted in the “Compendio de crónicas de reyes del Antiguo Testamento, gentiles, cónsules y emperadores romanos, reyes godos y de los reinos de Castilla, Aragón, Navarra y Portugal”

However, Sancho I soon encountered major difficulties as bad harvests, plagues, and social instability significantly affected the Portuguese Kingdom. At the same time, a new threat was rising. The Almoads, a new fanatic Islamic group from northern Africa, was invading Iberian lands in the same objective as the Almoravids before: conquer the Christian Lands and expand Islamic rule.


In green the Almoad Caliphate at its greatest extent circa 1200.

Source: Geacron: Interactive World History Atlas since 3000 BC

Sancho I, like his father before him, had a reign marked by several military campaigns. As such, in 1189, he conquered the cities of Silves and Alvor, albeit with the help of a passing band of crusaders. Nonetheless, the Almoads stood firm, and in 1190-1191 they conquered most of the Portuguese holdings south of the Tagus River.

Sancho I Silves

Statue of Sancho I in front of the Castle of Silves’ entrance.

By Lusitania in “Estátua de D. Sancho I frente à entrada do Castelo de Silves

Furthermore, the Portuguese King fought against the Leonese king, Afonso IX, as the latter had acquired considerable disrepute in the Papal Courts and the Pope bestowed a bull to Sancho I that gave him indulgences for combating the Leonese kingdom.

Sancho, I was successful in the first phase of the war, conquering Tui and Pontevedra. However, the war prolonged with the Leonese king making offensives that resulted in the death of several Portuguese nobles. Ultimately, the outcome of the war lies unknown; we only know that Tui and Pontevedra reverted to Leonese rule not very long after.

Essentially, Sancho’s reign was a difficult one. Wars, plagues, economic crisis, and political instability contributed to a severe crisis in the years between 1190 and 1210 C.E. As such, upon Sancho’s death in 1211 the kingdom was still embroiled in an unstable period, and even succession of the crown to Sancho I’s son, Afonso II, wasn’t guaranteed.

Nevertheless, Afonso II was crowned King, starting to rule at the age of 25 years old. We died, not long after, only with 37, as he was deeply affected by leprosy. This disease also was the source of his cognomen “The Fat.”

Afonso II

A portrait of Afonso II.

Disease, however, didn’t stop him from pursuing a innovate state centralization, that constituted one of the first feudal initiatives with the goal of centralizing the realm’s power in the crown.

Until then the King was only a “primus inter pares” or first among equals, meaning that the monarch was an equal between nobles, with some of them having much more power than the King himself.

Afonso II sought to change that, and in the same year of his ascension to power, he organized a meeting with the royal court, in Coimbra, to assert his power as ruler.

From this session, new laws came into being that sought to promote the king not only as a powerful military leader but also as a supreme holder of the judicial and legislative powers.

Afonso II seal

The seal of Afonso II of Portugal.

By Antonio Caetano de Sousa (1674-1759)

To further this centralization policy, Afonso II, took several administrative measures such as the famous “Confirmations” and the “General Inquiries.”

The first ones started being enforced from 1216 on and established that the nobles and clergy holders of propriety or privileges needed to have a confirmation of said propriety or rights by the King.

The “General Inquiries,” on the other hand, sought to make a field inquiry of the propriety and rights of the Crown, that would then be registered and used in any dispute that the King had with Nobles or Clergy.

This series of legislative and administrative measures did not have much approval within the directly affected by it, especially with influential bishops and with Afonso’s sisters Teresa, Sancha and Mafalda, who received generous donations from their father, Sancho I. As you can imagine this contributed to a growing distrust between the King and the powerful Nobles and Clergy.

Regarding military conquest, the kingdom expanded south of the Tagus line as the Almoad menace eventually diminished fruit of a combined offensive of the Christian realms. As such, the Portuguese conquered Alcácer do Sal in 1217, who eventually led to the growth of instability within the Almoad Kingdom, and eventually resulted in a new period of smaller taifa kingdoms from 1223 on.

Alcácer do sal d afonso II

Remainings of the Castle of Alcácer do Sal, nowadays a inn named “Pousada D.Afonso II”

By Francisco Santos in “Castelo e Pousada D. Afonso II, Alcácer do Sal

However, this military endeavor had the major contribution of the religious-military orders who were the principal force behind Portuguese expansion. The King, being afflicted with leprosy, couldn’t participate as thoroughly as his grandfather, and father did and did not have the same fame as a military leader as they did.

Nevertheless, Afonso II was an important ruler who played a vital role as a centralizing force within the realm. He was the first to try to establish the crown as an independent and primary power of the kingdom, serving as an inspiration to various rulers after him.

Eventually, leprosy got the best of him, and in 1223 Afonso II died and his son, Sancho II, inherited the politically unstable kingdom with only 13 years old. Certainly, Sancho II would have a challenging task ahead.


Buy books of Portuguese History here:
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Mattoso, J. (1997). História de Portugal – Antes de Portugal. Lisboa: Editorial Estampa. ISBN 972-33-1261-1

Rui Ramos, B. V. (2009). História de Portugal. Lisboa: A esfera dos livros. ISBN 978-989-626-366-9



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