The Castle viewed from São Sebastião

Castro Marim: The Original Home of the Knights of the Order of Christ

José Saramago, in his usual disparaging way, wrote a measly four lines about Castro Marim. He stopped here only to look at the beautiful archangel Gabriel in the town church, and walked up to the castle, attracted by the unusual red colour of its stone. Then, after looking round the original Arab fortress, he returned to the highway, and headed for Vila Real de Santo António.

Most guidebooks find room for only one paragraph about Castro Marim. One describes its landscape perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, a sheltered beach dotted with boats. Another describes the village dominated by a huge castle; a third describes it as a pretty place with fine views of the impressive new bridge to Spain. A fourth refers to the small museum which provides the historical background to Castro Marim. Luckily, with civic pride the Câmara Municipal has published an excellent booklet about the town’s rich history: Castro Marim: Baluarte Defensivo do Algarve (Defensive Bastion of the Algarve).

Castles and Knights

The medieval castle was located on the hill which originally formed a peninsula into the river. The castle is built over Bronze and Iron Age archaeological sites occupied in turn by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Vandals and Moors, each of whom used the height of the hill to control river traffic on the Guadiana. Castro Marim was the Atlantic terminus of the Guadiana river traffic, and during the Portuguese attempt to conquer Morocco, it was an important ‘entrepôt’ for supplies to the army. The river today is further from the castle because the marshy ground between has been created by the gradual silting of this bank of the river.

The square internal structure of the castle was founded in 1274 on the orders of D Afonso III (1248-1279), and the walls surrounding the inner castle were erected by D Dinis (1279-1325) soon after his accession. It is not an Arab structure, and Saramago was wrong. Each of these first two Christian monarchs of the Algarve granted extensive rights to the town in the attempt to attract Portuguese settlers. After the suppression of the Order of the Knights Templar, D Dinis cited the strength of this particular castle and its suitability as headquarters for the new Order of Christ, and its headquarters remained at Castro Marim from 1319-1356, at which point it was transferred to Tomar. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) is known to have stayed at this castle while he was Administrator of the Order of Christ. The castle was restored under D Manuel I (1495-1521) as a base for the Portuguese navy.

The seventeenth century Forte de São Sebastião, constructed on the site of a hermitage of that name, was begun in April 1641 on the orders of the new king D João IV, soon after his successful coup against the Spanish monarchy. The ensuing War of Restoration lasted from 1641 until 1668 and although the Algarve was never attacked during this time, the town defences of Castro Marim clearly required renovation. Two curtain walls enclosed the town between the new fort and the medieval castle, which was thus incorporated in the defensive system. Built also by D João IV, the Revelim de Santo António today supports the eponymous church, and was built as an artillery platform to control the river approaches to Castro Marim.


From the time of the Phoenicians, Castro Marim has been famous for its production of salt. The climate of the Algarve is ideal for the evaporation needed in this process, and the marshy area between the town and the Guadiana provides the ideal location for the salt pans. D Dinis allowed to the townspeople of Castro Marim the right of salt making in return for a salt tax of 25%, while salt production in other Algarvian locations belonged exclusively to the crown. The salt was used to preserve the plentiful Algarvian fish, much of which was sold in Andalusia, where it commanded a better price. The seventeenth century saw the decline of the salt industry in the face of Spanish competition, and only in the past 30 years has it revived.

Castro Marim and Spain

In 1267, D Afonso III of Portugal and D Alfonso X of Castile signed the Treaty of Badajoz and at last the Algarve became definitely Portuguese, and the Guadiana became the border. Castro Marim became a main port of the Algarve for the export to Andalusia of cheese, bacon, cereals, olive oil, wood, ropes, gold, silver, arms, horses, cattle, wine, fruit, dried fruit, and of course salt, as well as occasionally Brazilian tobacco and slaves. Imports from Ayamonte were cereals, vegetables, cloth and ceramics from Seville.

There were of course expensive customs dues, and locals were forced to smuggle as a means of survival. D Afonso V in 1450 took the first measures against smuggling, and in 1547, D João III appointed the first frontier guard. The fight against contraband was often hindered by the fact that some municipal and customs officials connived in the practice.

Always under threat of invasion, all Portuguese border towns offered convicted criminals another chance. They could serve their sentences in what were effectively outdoor prisons called coutos. D João I created the first couto in 1421 for Castro Marim, so that the town could be better populated and the internal exiles were assigned to the most arduous of tasks in the salt pans. In 1578, Castro Marim had between 875 and 1125 male heads of households (up to 4,000 inhabitants), most of them condemned criminals and internal exiles. In the rest of Portugal, this type of exile was abolished in 1690, but in Castro Marim, it persisted until 1850. It has been estimated that, between 1421 and 1850, as many as 3,000 convicts spent their internal exile in Castro Marim.

Castro Marim vs Vila Real de Santo António

The Great Earthquake of 1755 destroyed the church and the castles, and the newly built neighbouring town of Vila Real de Santo António rose in comparative importance. In 1836, the government decided to reduce the number of Algarvian counties from 17 to 13, abolishing those of Alvor, Sagres, Aljezur and Castro Marim. The people and Câmara of Castro Marim protested loudly and persistently. The authorities in Vila Real disparaged the miserable town of Castro Marim, but the government backed down, and Castro Marim was reborn on 1 July, 1837. The government twice tried again to abolish the county of Castro Marim, first in 1867, which was resisted with violence, and again in 1898. And it is still here.
Peter and I did not notice the beautiful archangel Gabriel in the town church.

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

The Castle viewed from São Sebastião
Main Entrance to the original Castle
Commemoration of the Order of Christ