King Juan I of Castile was advancing on Lisbon in an attempt to secure the Portuguese throne on behalf of his wife, Beatriz.
João, the Master of Aviz, who had been acclaimed 'Defender of the Kingdom' by the population of Lisbon, was leading his army south to intercept the Castilians. He encountered the vanguard of Juan's army at Canoeira and defeated the invaders. The date was 14 August, 1385, and the battle was named after the village where the baggage train was seized, 'The Battle of Aljubarrota'.
Victory was celebrated on the festival of Saint Bernard at the great abbey of Alcobaça, just five kilometres south-west. João vowed that he would erect his own great abbey in thanks for his important success.
To fulfil his vow Dom João, now King, chose to situate his monastery at Canoeira and the donative documents were given to the Dominicans. Dedicated to Santa Maria da Victória, Saint Mary of the Victory, construction began in 1388.
The records of the works are such that the names of all the principle architects are known. The last architect, Mattheus Fernandez, died in 1515 and is buried in the church by the west door of the nave. When he died, work stopped, as there were no architects available to carry on. There was some consolidation, but what little construction as could be done was under the supervision of master masons.
The original church was finished by 1416. It is cruciform with a very short choir, no aisles, and two chapels at the eastern end of each transept. The lack of side chapels and side altars is put down to the influence of Philippa of Lancaster, who was consulted on the plans.
The height of the vaulting is around 30 metres and in the nave, the pier arches are around 20 metres.
In the north transept the northernmost chapel is dedicated to Santa Barbara, Saint Barbara. It contains the tomb of the Duke de Aveiro. This was defaced at the end of the 18th Century to remove the name of the family, as they had plotted to assassinate King José I (1750 - 1777).
The second chapel in this transept is dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Rosaria, Our Lady of the Rosary, and used to contain the tomb of King Afonso V's wife, Queen Isabel. That tomb was destroyed by the Napoleonic troops during their attempted destruction of this site in the 19th Century.
In the southern transept stands a chapel dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Pranto, Our Lady of Lamentation. This contained the tomb of King João II, but the original tomb was destroyed, the bones removed and scattered by the French army during the Peninsula Wars. After the desecration, the bones were gathered together and reburied in a similar position.
The other chapel is dedicated to São Miguel, Saint Michael, and contains the tombs of the De Sousas family.
The choir itself consists of a pentagonal apse with two bays. It was here that King Duarte I, the son of the founder, and his Queen, Leonor, were initially laid to rest in their high tomb. This tomb has since been moved to the Unfinished Chapel. Again this monument suffered from the grievous attentions of the French expeditionary force in the early 19th Century.
The Founder's Chapel
Both King João I and Queen Philippa were initially interred in the choir, but this was a temporary arrangement. On the completion of the Founder's Chapel, some years after his death in 1433, the royal couple were translated, in a great ceremony, to their high tomb.
The chapel, entered to the south of the nave, is 22 metres square with an octagonal lantern resting on eight piers. The central boss is decorated with angels carrying the arms of Portugal. The high tomb of João and Philippa stands underneath in the centre, their effigies hand in hand and the queen carrying a book to signify her learning. The inscription is dated in Gregorian calendar years1 and not in years of the Julian calendar, which had been the custom. This was one of the first Portuguese inscriptions to conform to the new dating system.
On the south side of this chapel lie four tombs of their sons.
- Dom Fernando 'the Martyr', who although dying in captivity in Morocco in 1443, was not finally ransomed, exhumed and returned to lie here until 1472.
- Dom João, Master of the Order of Santiago, who died in 1442.
- Dom Henrique 'the Navigator', Duke of Viseu, who died in Lagos in 1460. This is the only one of these tombs to bear an effigy.
- Dom Pedro, Duke of Coimbra, Regent for his nephew Afonso V until Afonso's majority, when he was expelled from court by a faction of nobles who wished to have control of the teenage king. Dom Pedro died when he attempted to march on the capital to regain his rights in 1449.
On the north side stand their chapels, dedicated to their patron saints.
- Dom Fernando's to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
- Dom João's to Saint James.
- Dom Henrique's to Saint John the Baptist.
- Dom Perdo's to Saint Michael.
On the west side are four niches originally built to contain similar tombs of other members and descendants of the family of Aviz, but they were never occupied.
There are fine examples of stained glass in this chapel as well.
The Chapter House
The cloisters are entered through the sacristy at the end of the north transept and the first building encountered off these is the Chapter House. Nearly 20 metres square the roof is unsupported by any pillar or pier. Master Afonso Domingues, the architect, responsible for both the design and construction, was mocked, as it was considered that the whole thing would collapse at the slightest provocation. The design has been vindicated, for not only has it stood for some six centuries, but it has withstood several earthquakes, including the Great Earthquake of 1755, that damaged some of the rest of the buildings.
Previously the tombs of King Afonso V and the Infante Afonso, son of João II, stood here, but now Portugal's unknown warrior of World War I rests here with the perpetual flame and honour guard.
The Royal Cloister is about 55 metres square with seven tracery-decorated windows on each side. No two of these windows are the same and show the naturalistic carving of that period of Portuguese architecture known as manuelin, after King Manuel I (1495 - 1521). One may be a riot of foliage and the next a banded or concentric trellis around an armorial bearing of Portugal.
At the north-west corner a multifoliated screen encloses a square for a fountain. The whole cloister is so rich in carvings that it resembles the finest piece of lacework in stone.
To the west lies the refrectory, now containing the museum to the Unknown Soldier, and to the north the adega, winery.
In the north-east corner is a circular headed doorway leading to the lecture room or scriptorium.
Behind this, to the north, is the Cloister of King Afonso V, more modest and less decorated than the splendour of the Royal Cloister.
There were yet further cloisters, those of King João III, but these were destroyed by the French soldiers in the 19th Century, who set fire to them.
The Unfinished Chapel
King Manuel I came to the throne when Vasco da Gama was extending the Portuguese discoveries to India and the east. Nuno Cabral was doing the same in Brazil and South America. Wealth was pouring into the country, enabling the king to indulge in his passion for building. Portugal was at peace and on friendly terms with Spain and England. It was possible that the chapel was started with the idea in mind to emulate King Henry VII of England's new chapel at Westminster. Both are in the same position, at the eastern end, as an extension to a conventual church to form a chapel for royal burials.
The chapel is octagonal, each side with three apses. Each apse was thought to have been intended for a particular Portuguese monarch or member of the royal family. The western arch is a glory of carved foliage, intertwined knots and delicate flowers.
On the death of the architect Mattheus Fernandez, his son took over. It seems that Mattheus had left no working drawings and Mattheus Fernandez II started on his own design of two heavy Grecian style arches with a balustrade beneath. King Manuel, paying a visit to see how the building was progressing, took one look at this monstrousity and immediately sacked the man.
At this time Manuel I was more concerned with the construction of his own foundation, the Monastery of the Jeronimos, at Belem, Lisbon and could spare no architect from that project to carry on at Batalha. Although the high tomb of King Duarte I and Queen Leonor has been moved here, the chapel remains unfinished and open to the skies.
Restoration started in the mid-19th Century, to repair the ravages of the French. It continues today and a school for stone masons has been set up there.
Lower than the main road that passes the site, first glimpses are not that impressive, although pierced buttresses, battlements and pinnacles soar to the sky when the abbey is approached at street level. Gargoyles frown down on the large cobbled square that lies to the south and the west.
The western façade once boasted a glorious octagonal panelled spire over the Founder's Chapel, but this was toppled in the Great Earthquake and never rebuilt.
The west door is impressive with six apostles on either side and 78 canopied images of saints in the arch. The tympaneum represents the Christ with the four evangelists and above, the coronation of Saint Mary takes place in the canopy.
In the forecourt stands the statue of King João I's faithful constable and friend, Nuno Alvares Pereira, on horseback.
The humble village that once was called Canoeira, is now known worldwide as Batalha, Battle, for the Royal Dominican Convent of Batalha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Touring the Monastery
It is a place of worship and therefore free for anyone to enter. Please observe a respectful dress code.
There are usually very good illustrated brochures on the monument available in Portuguese, English, German and French and other literature, postcards and souvenirs on sale in the shop.
Guided day tours, private and coach, are run by tour companies from different centres - Lisbon, the Algarve, Coimbra, Oporto. Usually these day-trips include visits to Obidos (a medieval town), the Monastery of Alcobaça, Nazaré (a small fishing village), and Fatima (a pilgrimage site) as well, as they are all close by. The tours can be found and booked through any local official tourist information centre, hotel or online. The price will vary, depending on the distance covered and whether meals are included.
A good hour should be allowed for looking round this complex. There are many photographic opportunities for you to record your memories of this beautiful building.
- Murrays Handbook to Portugal. 1875 3rd Edition. Rev JM Neale
- Breve História de Portugal. José Hermano Saraivo 1979
- Plan and photographs
- The Portuguese Monuments site. On this site a search has to be made for 'Portugal, Leiria, Batalha' and returns the Mosteiro de Batalha with official description and history of the abbey in Portuguese, but has some good enlargable photographs