Martim de Freitas requests the opening of the sarcophagus of D. Sancho II at Toledo

The unfortunate D. Sancho II and the Conquest of the Algarve

Few people now remember D. Sancho II (1209-1223-1248), the fourth king of the new kingdom of Portugal. Great-grandson of the founder of the Burgundian dynasty, D. Afonso Henriques, D. Sancho II suffered immense misfortune and disloyalty in his brief reign.

In the face of powerful opposition by the papacy, by the bishops and by the minor nobility, D. Sancho ensured the conquest of much of the Alentejo and of parts of the Algarve from their Moorish occupiers. He also made sure of a foothold on the eastern side of the Guadiana River by the capture of Ayamonte. This possession was a valuable bargaining counter in future negotiations by his successor D. Afonso III with the king of Castile.

His namesake and grandfather, D. Sancho I, was a big man in many respects. He had taken advantage of passing Dutch, English and German crusaders to attack Silves in 1189. They were on their way to the Holy Land, and stopped in Portugal to aid the Christian king to defeat the Moors of the Algarve.

The town and castle were taken after a summer siege, and the rowdy crusaders were bought off with the loot from the captured town.

There is an enormous bronze statue at the entrance of Silves Castle to portray the successful D. Sancho I. Unfortunately, Portugal was not able to hold this remote conquest and, just less than two years later, it fell again to a Moorish attack.

His eldest son D. Afonso II (1186 – 1211 – 1223) was not a healthy man, and was nicknamed the Fat (O Gordo). He was disadvantaged by the excessive bequests made by D. Sancho I, and was always struggling to repossess the royal patrimony alienated by his prodigal father. He struggled to establish royal control over his kingdom and church property and, in the process, offended the Archbishop of Braga who excommunicated him. The Pope then did likewise, and ordered him to dismiss his advisers, “deceivers, frogs lurking in the royal penetralia”. D. Afonso died of leprosy before he could agree with the Pope and, in return for permission for him to be buried, the church reversed all of his gains, and took over again the bequests of D. Sancho I.

D. Sancho II came to the throne at the age of 13, and was still not 40 years old when he died. Under the shadow of his father’s excommunication, and with the bishops in the ascendant, and at a very young age, D. Sancho had an unlucky start to his reign. He was advised that the way to keep on the right side of the Pope was to continue the war against the Moorish kingdoms in the south, as the Pope considered this war to be the equivalent of a crusade to the Holy Land.

The Moorish Almohads had been defeated at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and, in 1217, Alcácer do Sal had been recaptured from them by the Portuguese. Leonese forces captured Mérida in 1230, and Córdoba in 1236. To the west of the Guadiana, Portuguese forces occupied Elvas in 1230, Serpa (1232), Mértola (1238) and Cacela and Tavira (1239).

It is important to recognise that the medieval kings did not enjoy the services of a standing army. In both Castile and Portugal, much of the aggressive impetus originated in the activities of the Military Orders of knights. The Portuguese king rewarded the Order of Santiago in particular, and Alcácer do Sal became the Order’s headquarters in Portugal, and this particular Order was instrumental in the conquest of both the Alentejo and the Algarve, as well as parts of Andalusia.

It appears that in spite of the military successes in the Alentejo, D. Sancho was unable to establish his personal command, and refusal to accept royal authority was widespread, even among the king’s own family.

The bishops of Porto and Lisbon brought bitter complaints against the crown for encroachment in the property of their dioceses and, by 1241, the prelates of Braga, Lisbon and Porto were all in Rome, giving to the Pope poisonous accounts of their king.

The recently elected Pope Innocent IV, anxious to impose his authority, ordered D. Sancho to abandon his new wife, D. Mécia Lopes de Haro, and accused him of committing every kind of crime.

Pope Innocent ordered the Portuguese people to deliver the kingdom to a more worthy ruler. He named the favoured successor, the legitimate heir and virtuous, religious and prudent D. Afonso, Count of Boulogne, the king’s younger brother. The Pope instructed that D. Afonso was to be received everywhere and to receive all tributes and revenues.

D. Afonso promised to restore the good old customs of Portugal, and to set aside the bad innovations of his brother and father. What he really meant was that he would obey the Pope and protect the church in Portugal.

Fernando III, king of Castile, remarked that the Pope had arrogated to himself the supremacy over the kingdom of Portugal. It must have come as a shock to D. Sancho when the Order of Santiago, which had done much of the work of reconquest during his reign, chose to side with the usurper rather than with the king who had so generously rewarded them.

D. Afonso III arrived in Lisbon in early 1246, where he was supported by the Order of Santiago and Lisbon concelho. He claimed to be the “Procurator of the Kingdom”, and “Defender and Visitor of the Kingdom for the Supreme Pontiff”.

The northern part of Portugal stuck with D. Sancho, while the south declared for his brother, the usurper. The supporters of D. Afonso then kidnapped the queen who could now not bear a legitimate child, since she was kept apart from her husband. Thus, the king had no hope of a son and successor.

D. Sancho must have been heartily disgusted at the way he had been treated by his own brother. Like his father before him, he began to suffer from poor health and, recognising the inevitable, he withdrew to Toledo accompanied by his Chancellor and a few faithful adherents.

The unlucky D. Sancho II died in early 1248 and, at last, D. Afonso III became the unopposed king of Portugal.

The castle at Coimbra continued to hold out against D. Afonso, and the tale of its surrender has entered Portuguese legend. D. Sancho had appointed Martim de Freitas as governor of Coimbra, and Martim had promised to hold the castle for his lord. He refused to surrender to D. Afonso, maintaining his loyalty to D. Sancho.

After a siege of two years, the besiegers informed Martim that his lord had died at Toledo. Sensibly not believing what his enemies had told him, he demanded a safe-conduct to Toledo. There he requested that D. Sancho’s sarcophagus be opened, so that he could first ascertain that D. Sancho was dead, and second so that he could surrender the keys of Coimbra to his lord. Taking them back from the hands of his dead king, Martim returned to Coimbra and, with a clear conscience, offered the castle of Coimbra to his new lord and king D. Afonso III.

While D. Afonso III is remembered for his part in the conquest of the Algarve, few remember his less than glorious method of ascending the throne through disloyalty to his own brother. His acknowledgement of the Pope’s supremacy over Portugal would later have a determining effect on the history of Portugal.

He soon also discarded his lawful wife, the Countess of Boulogne, and their children so that, in 1253, he could marry Beatriz de Castela, the 12-year-old daughter of the king of Castile.

Even the Pope hesitated, and legitimised this second marriage only after the death of the Countess of Boulogne in 1258. D. Afonso’s son from the new marriage, D. Dinis, was born in 1261 and became one of the most esteemed and successful kings of Portugal.

The idea that the seven castles on the Portuguese flag have anything to do with the number of towns conquered in the Algarve is a fantasy invented in early modern times. Based on heraldic usage, there is a simple reason for the border of castles around the royal arms.

At his death, the arms (armas limpas) of any man were inherited by his eldest surviving son, as D. Sancho II had inherited the royal arms of his father, D. Afonso II. As D. Sancho II was deposed by his younger brother, and was still living at the time when D. Afonso III assumed the crown, D. Afonso had to devise a different set of arms to show his royal lineage. He certainly could not use the same arms as D. Sancho. Because of his relationship with the crown of Castile (his mother was Castilian), he chose a border of Castilian castles around his father’s arms to make the difference.

In this new design, there were originally as many as 16 castles on the monarch’s arms. D. Afonso III and his heirs continued to use the modified arms, which were modified again at the accession of D. João I in 1385, 140 years later.

The number of castles on the royal arms has changed over time, and appears to have been standardised at seven only after the accession of D. João III in 1521.

There was no contemporary link with the number of Algarvian castles captured by D. Afonso III, and this idea took hold only with the histories written by Duarte Nunes de Leão and Frei António Brandão in the early 17th century. As their histories mention as many as nine particular Algarvian fortresses, there is an immediate question of the reliability of their assertions. They do not convince.

And as tourists gaze at the tall statue of D Afonso III outside the main museum in Faro, they may be unaware that, successful as he was in completing the conquest of the Algarve, his success was based on some very unattractive personal characteristics. And the former royal arms in the centre of the present flag of Portugal remind us of the fate of the unlucky D. Sancho II.

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

D. Afonso III
Royal donations of land to the Military Orders
1 – Templars
2 – Hospitallers
3 – Avis
4 – Santiago
Martim de Freitas requests the opening of the sarcophagus of D. Sancho II at Toledo
Silves and its castle.
Photo: Inês Lopes/Open Media Group
Statue of D. Sancho I outside Silves Castle.
Photo: Luca83/Wikimedia
The Royal Arms of D. Afonso III, D. Dinis, D. Afonso IV,
D. Pedro I and D. Fernando I
The royal arms of D. Sancho I, D. Afonso II and D. Sancho II