Set on hill amid the rolling green plains of the Lower Alentejo, the sleepy, ancient town of Castro Verde is to many hallowed ground – for they say it was here that Portugal became a nation. For it was here that Portugal’s first king emerged. At the battle of Ourique.
Portugal was just a County of León in 1139. Its young prince, D. Afonso Henriques, was pushing Moorish forces south with his small but talented army. In the summer of 1139, legend has it, he met the forces of five Moorish caliphs at Ourique. But, then why Castro Verde? The Battle of Ourique took place in Castro Verde… not Ourique.
Ourique referred to a large expanse south of Beja, far south of the County of Portugal, which stopped at the Mondego River. Today, the town of Ourique is not far from Castro Verde. Some historians dispute the location, but legend has it that D. Afonso took his outnumbered forces to the fields of São Pedro das Cabeças, in Castro Verde.
The night before the battle, D. Afonso Henriques was visited by an old man, who said he brought the word of God: “Do not be afraid. God wants to show you His Love for you and for the Portuguese,” the man told him. He advised the prince to leave the camp alone when he heard the bell of early morning. D. Afonso Henriques left the camp before dawn, and saw a light then heard the voice of God: “Afonso, I came to meet you to give your heart joy and strength. Trust me! You will win this battle so that the kingdom of Portugal will born. I will always be close to the Portuguese. Now go back to your men. A new path will open up, and your nation will grow beyond the sea...”
Then D. Afonso Henriques led his troops for two days in battle – and the water of the Cobres River turned red. The young prince won a remarkable victory, and dealt a crushing blow to the Moors deep in their own territory. His men proclaimed him the King of Portugal, something the Pope would confirm in 1143 at the Treaty of Zamora. Portugal’s coat-of-arms shows five blue shields, symbolizing the five kings defeated by the Portuguese at Ourique.
Portugal was born.
Castro Verde would become decisively Portugal a century later when king D. Sancho II, in the sprit of his great-great grandfather, took the entire area and pushed Moorish forces to the sea.
A simple 15th century São Pedro das Cabeças chapel on the field of the battle remains today as a reminder of what happened here almost 900 years ago.
In 1573 the Basílica Real de Castro Verde, or Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, was ordered built by king D. Sebastião to commemorate the victory – on the site of an older church also marking the victory. Later, the church was expanded on the order of king João V.
Today, Castro Verde is well worth a visit. (And YES, Lisbon’s hot Campo de Ourique neighborhood is named for the battle).There are several monuments to the battle. You can walk the battlefield, and see the legendary place that Portugal began, still a rolling plain dotted by cork trees. And, at the Basilica’s single nave is covered in tiles impressively telling the tale the Battle of Ourique in detail.