Every guidebook to Portugal says that the great abbey at Batalha is not to be missed, an architectural masterpiece that commemorates a military victory in 1385. That is not 100 % true. Yes, the great abbey began as the fulfillment of a vow on the eve of battle, but it ended up being something totally different than was intended.
First off, no one celebrates wars, as death and suffering offer little in the way of hope and faith confirming imagery. Batalha is a monument to courage, and what came after the Battle Aljubarrota, as much as it is a monument to the passion for independence that has always defined the people of Portugal. When King D. Fernando died without heir, the majority of the nobility in Portugal was keen to unite the crown with that of Castile. The merchants and commoners recruited D. João, head of the Order of Aviz to lead an improbable fight of continued independence.
Aljubarrota was a heroic last stand, and an attempt to turn back a far superior Spanish force. Under D. João, and his army commander, the recently sainted D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, the Spanish forces were routed, and the Aviz dynasty soon set Portugal in a direction that changed the course of world history. Within a generation, Portuguese ships sailed the Atlantic and within a century Portuguese commander Vasco da Gama sailed to India.
Today the fact that Portugal is a nation at all is celebrated in the stone of the great abbey of Batalha. The great abbey became a monument to what the nation could be, to the vision of its people and kings and to the potential of its future. Still unfinished to this day, the soaring gothic church remains elegant to visitors.
The real monument is the Chapter House, a vast unsupported dome of 19 square meters that rivals the Roman Pantheon or the Duomo at Florence. It is an unparalleled engineering feat by Master Architect Afonso Domingues. Novelist Alexandre Herculano wrote that the old master spent three nights under the newly completed Chapter House, and not only did it hold, it survives today, 600 years later.
Today the dome is home to the tomb of the unknown Portuguese soldier, marked with a village of honor guards, and a cross for the battlefields of World War I where more than 30,000 Portuguese soldiers perished.