Templar Chronicles II – Alcobaça 1

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Two weeks ago I took the family for a drive. We went north from Lisbon, along the western Portuguese highway, past Óbidos (I will post about this medieval village, its beautiful castle and its connections with King Dinis and the Templars in a dedicated chronicle). A few miles north lay the small town of Alcobaça that has been the quiet witness of many important events in the Portuguese history.

Alcobaça (alco-bass-ah) has been a settlement since Roman times. Two small rivers cross the city, Alcoa and Baça, which are said to have been the source of the name for the place. However this is not clear. The main focus of interest nowadays is the Cistercian Convent, built in a confluence of vast lands donated by King Afonso Henriques (first King of Portugal) to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux after the conquest of Santarém.

The present day frontal of the monument is a late XVIII century addition, but both the rose window and the arches of the portal remain the medieval ones. It’s still a very well preserved jewel of Cistercian Gothic art, with its very pure lines and beauty. It was one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Portugal and its medieval structure follows closely the one of the original monastery of Clairvaux.

The foundation of the monastery was part of the strategy by Afonso Henriques to consolidate his authority in the new kingdom and promote the colonisation of areas recently taken from Moorish hands during the Reconquista. In fact Alcobaça is well protected by the ream of Templar castles and Commanderies, with Leiria in the north, Tomar and Almourol in the west and Santarém and Alenquer in the south. One has to wonder if this well matched integration between defence by Templars and land owned by Saint Bernard’s monks isn’t a well crafted one, or just historical coincidence!


The connection between Bernard and the Templars is well known. The protection the Templars granted to King Afonso Henriques, which was returned as ownership of conquered land and castles, is also well known. What is not usually cited is the connection between Bernard and King Afonso Henriques.

In 1147 the Reconquista was well under way in the realms of Portugal. The court had its seat in Coimbra (about halfway between the north and south). From there, frequent military expeditions were sent to Moorish settlements and fortifications. The Templars were one of the King’s most important forces. Just three years before, in 1144, Pope Celestine II had granted them the right to collect their own funds, so this alliance with Henriques was strategically important. While fighting the Moors in Palestine was a primary mission for the Templars, although a very dangerous one carried on a politically complex environment, with many other European Lords and hordes fighting to advance their personal agendas of power an domination, conquering land in the West was significantly less dangerous and once the Order had land granted it was easier to keep it and administrate it, collecting rent and developing agriculture and commerce. One of the reasons for this is the way Henriques conducted his conquests. A fearsome soldier, with a fantastic reputation preceding him, in fact he tried to pact with the conquered population instead of going for the simple annihilation (as it was the case in Palestine and elsewhere). More often than not, this granted him the respect of submitted leaders, who became rapidly used to a relatively normal life under his ruling. We can still visit the Mouraria neighbourhood in Lisbon (literally translated as “Moorish quarter”), a testimony of how the integration was linear as it could be in medieval times. That might be the reason why Portugal finished its Reconquista and has relatively the same borders since 1249 while it took the Spanish kingdoms almost 250 years more, until 1492 to conquer their side of the peninsula.



So, in 1147 conquering Santarém, on the margins of Tagus river, was a very important achievement that would advance Henriques plans a lot. Just before the battle was fought, D. Pedro, half-brother to Henriques, who had visited Bernard in Clairvaux, told him about how Bernard could help them attract people to populate the conquered lands, developing agriculture and establishing medical care, which in turn would help in the advancement of the Reconquista. Since Henriques forces were fewer than the ones defending Santarém legend says he made a pledge to donate all the lands from the fortress westward to the sea, to the Cistercians and the Castle to the Templars if he won the battle.

The Christian troops came close to the castle in the night. It was well defended as expected. They attacked in the dark, mercilessly led by the King. As morning rose a new standard was flying over Santarém. King Afonso Henriques did has he had promised. The castle and all churches were given to the Templars. They governed Santarém for over a decade until they decided to trade it in favour of the newly conquered Tomar in 1160, although keeping a Commandery in Santarém. This kind of trade was made in other places in Iberia. Many times the Templars were given military strategic fortifications and land, only to give them back to the King years later when other, smilingly less important locations – certainly military less important – had been conquered and found favour with Templar leaders. It must have seemed odd to trade Santarém for Tomar. Santarém overlooks and guards the all important Tagus river, the single most important waterway in medieval Portugal. It guards (collecting tolls) the major roads from Lisbon to Coimbra and from the Alentejo to the north. Very, odd. A very coveted prize, given away for Tomar, in the margins of a very unimportant river, an affluent of the Tagus…


King Afonso Henriques also did as promised and a vast set of lands between Santarém and the sea were given to the Cistercians. Now, Bernard was also a very odd character! He could have chosen a number of strategic locations for his soon to be built monastery (indeed one of the largest of the Order). Several harboured ports are within their properties, providing good communication with the rest Christianity, for instance. However, his emissaries were instructed to pick a particular place, well inland, that Bernard described from a dream he had. He had never been to Portugal, or indeed Alcobaça, but he knew exactly where he wanted it. This has sparked people’s imagination and several legends grew in the middle ages about how the location was determined by divine intervention. We can still see in the Room of Kings several tiled representations of these legends in which we see Bernard in France with his monks predicting the King’s victory, alongside others where Afonso Henriques watches the monks draw the lines on the floor that will be used to erect the church, while, on the side, angles do the same, as if saying the place had been chosen by divine intervention and that Bernard’s monks were simply being guided by a superior force. Very original. I have never seen a similar type of iconography anywhere in the world. And for those who say ley lines were used to determine the location of certain special monuments, well Alcobaça seems to have been one such case. Indeed a river passes right under the monastery.


The building began in 1153, just before Bernard died. Nothing is left from these early works. Only in 1178 new, more extensive building started, probably under the guidance of a French architect and French builders. The vertical emphasis observed in the church is a typical gothic feature. Columns and walls are devoid of decoration, as required in Cistercian churches, and the interior is very brightly illuminated by rows of windows on the walls and rose windows on the main façade and transept arms. The main chapel, like in Clairvaux, is surrounded by a gallery (ambulatory) and has a series of radiating chapels. The aisles are covered by simple Gothic vaulting.


Alcobaça is one of the many medieval constructions in Portugal where the characteristic marks of stonemasons can be seen everywhere. It’s clear that operative masons working on the site used the marks system. It’s likely that Masonic operative lodges were active during this period. The church was completed in 1252. The finished church and monastery were the first truly Gothic buildings in Portugal, and the church was the largest in the country.


The last touch in the medieval ensemble was given in the late 13th century, when King Dinis (the one that “turned” the Order of the Temple in Order of Christ – more on this later) commissioned the construction of the Gothic cloister, the Cloister of Silence. Its columns are decorated by capitals with animal and vegetal motifs. The builders were Portuguese architects Domingo Domingues and Master Diogo. The gothic Fountain Hall has an elegant early renaissance water basin inside, decorated with renaissance motifs including coats-of-arms and reliefs of gryphs.

The monks in Alcobaça dedicated their lives to religious meditation, creating illuminated manuscripts in a scriptorium. The monks from the monastery produced an early authoritative history on Portugal, still highly regarded and a good source of historical information about the Order of the Temple. The library at Alcobaça was one of the largest Portuguese medieval libraries.


We will leave for the next chronicle the description of one of the most interesting features of Alcobaça. In the transept of the church are located the tombs of King Pedro I and Ines de Castro. Their love story deserves a chronicle of its own.

It is set in the middle of a XIV century Portugal, afraid of losing its independence to the Spanish crown. The Order of Christ had been founded in 1319 by King Dinis (grandfather of Pedro I), to take charge of the Portuguese Templar sites and knights and it had taken Castro Marin as its seat (Tomar would have been too obvious?). Several Templars were incorporated in the Order of Aviz (founded by King Afonso Henriques), an Order that will have an important presence throughout the Portuguese history, in close relation with the Templars and Order of Christ (allies, in great contrast with local relationship with Saint John/Hospital…). Indeed, the first Master of the newly formed Order of Christ was the Master of the Order of Aviz. To complete the moves that would make the Pope accept that the Templars would not be bothered in Portugal after 1314, King Dinis made the Order of Christ adopt the Cistercian rule and placed them under the spiritual guidance of none other than the Abbot of Alcobaça. I think this wouldn’t pass a close audit if it were done today! But it was effective, and the Order of Christ was established and approved by Rome. The seat was taken back to Tomar exactly as the young Pedro became King D. Pedro I of Portugal, in 1157 playing the lead role on one of the strangest episodes in Portuguese (maybe even medieval European) history.

See you next time.


(Fotos by Luis de Matos)

Continues in Templar Chronicles III – Alcobaça 2

Good Link for 360º views of the Monastery

5 thoughts on “Templar Chronicles II – Alcobaça 1

    Fr.Leslie J. Payne said:
    April 30, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    If anyone wishes to know even more about ‘The Cistercians’ There is a book entitled ‘The Cistercians’ Monks and Monasteries of Europe. By Stephen Tobin. ISBN 1-871569-80-x Published by The Herbert Press Ltd. Distributed by A&C Black. Howard Road, Eaton Socon, Huntingdon, Cambs. PE19 3EZ Cost/Price £14.99
    On page 66. There is a picture of the nave of Alcobaca, Portugal based on Clairvaux.
    Plus another 5 or 6 pages which refer to Alcobaca, throughout.

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    Templarmak said:
    November 20, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    I am interested to know if you can shed any light on the naming of Fatima. So far the only information i have come across (legend) was that Fatima was a Moorish Muslim Princess who married The Count of Oureme in 1158. The Count is then alleged to have named the town after her. Since Oureme is quite close to Tomar and the Templars were already established by then, I was wondering if there is any Templar connection between them and the naming of the town of Fatima.



    Portugal said:
    March 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Lovely photographs. I enjoyed reading the history of Alcobaça.

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