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1383-1385 Crisis

The 1383-1385 crisis is a period of civil war and anarchy in the Portuguese history, also known as the Interregnum, since there were no crowned king. It started with the death of king Fernando of Portugal without male heirs and finished with the accession to the throne of king Joćo I in 1385, following the battle of Aljubarrota.

Table of contents
1 Prelude
2 1383-1384
3 1385
4 Chronology
5 References


In 1383, king Fernando of Portugal was dying. From his marriage with Leonor Telles de Menezes, a Castilian lady, only a girl, princess Beatrice of Portugal, survived. Her marriage was the political issue of the day, since it would determine the future of the kingdom.

Several political factions lobbied for possible husbands, which include English and French princes. Finally the king settled for his wife's first choice: king John I of Castile. The marriage was celebrated in May 1383 but was not a widely accepted solution. This dynastic union meant that Portugal would loose independence to Castile and there were plenty of personalities fiercely against this possibility. But they were not united under a common pretender to the crown. Candidates, both half, illegitimate brothers of Fernando were:

In October 22, king Fernando dies. According to the marriage contract, dowager queen Leonor assumes regency in the name of her daughter Beatrice and son-in-law, John I of Castile. Since diplomatic opposition was no longer possible, the party for independence took more drastic measures, starting the 1383-1385 crisis.


The first act of hostilities was taken by the faction of the Master of Aviz in December 1383. John, the count of Andeiro and lover of the dowager queen is murdered by a group of conspirers, led by Joćo of Aviz. Following this act of war, Joćo is now the leader of the opposition. With the help of Nuno Alvares Pereira, a talented general, he takes the cities of Lisbon, Beja, Portalegre, Estremoz and Évora. As a response, king John I of Castile enters in Portugal and occupies the city of Santarém. In his effort to normalize the situation and secure his wife's crown, he forces queen Leonor to abdicate from the regency and takes control of the country.

The armed resistance and the Castilian army meet in April 6 1384, in the battle of Atoleiros. General Alvares Pereira wins the battle for the Aviz party, but victory is not decisive. John I then retreats to Lisbon in May and besieges the capital, with an auxiliary fleet blocking the city's port in the river Tagus. This was a severe drawback to the independence cause. Without the capital, with her riches and commerce, little could be done to free the country from the Castilian king. On his side, John I of Castile needed Lisbon, not only for financial reasons, but also for political ones. Neither he or Beatrice had been crowned and without a coronation in the capital, he was only a designated king.

Meanwhile, Joćo of Aviz had surrendered the military command of the resistance to Alvares Pereira. The general continued to attack cities loyal to the Castilians and to harass the invading army. The Master of Aviz was now focused in diplomatic offensives. Now, international politics play an important role in this internal Portuguese affair. In 1384, the Hundred Years' War was at its peak, opposing English and French forces in a struggle for the crown of France. The conflict's influence surpassed the French borders, and influenced, for instance, the papal disputes of Avignon. Castile was a traditional ally of France, so looking for assistance in England was the natural option for Joćo of Aviz. In May, already with Lisbon besieged, an embassy was sent to the court of Richard II of England to make a case for independence. In 1384 the king was seventeen years old, but the power lay on John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, his uncle and regent. Despite being at first reluctant to concede men, John of Gaunt finally agreed to levy troops to reinforce the Portuguese army. These proved to be decisive.

Lisbon was struggling with famine and fear to sustain the Castilian siege. Blocked by land and by the river, the city had no hope to be relieved by the Aviz army, too small to risk an intervention and occupied in subduing other cities. An attempt was made by a Portuguese fleet to relieve the siege by the Castilian boats. In July 18, a group of boats led by captain Rui Pereira managed to break the blockade and deliver precious supplies of food to Lisbon. The cost was high, since all the boats were lost and Rui Pereira himself died in the naval combat. Despite this minor success, the siege held on and the city of Almada, in the south bank of the Tagus, surrendered to Castile. But the siege was hard not only to the inhabitants of Lisbon. The army of Castile was also dealing with a shortage of food supplies, due to the harassment of Nuno Alvares Pereira, and the plague. It was the outbreak of an epidemic in his ranks that forced John I to retreat to Castile in September 3. Weeks later, the Castilian fleet also abandoned the Tagus and Lisbon could breath relief.


In the late 1384, early months of 1385, Nuno Alvares Pereira managed to subdue the majority of the Portuguese cities in favour of the Castilian cause. Answering the call for help, English troops landed in Portugal in the Easter. They were not a big contingent, around 600 men, but they were mainly veterans of the Hundred Years' War battles, enlightened in the successful English military tactics. Among them, a division of longbowmen which already demonstrated their value against cavalry charges (see battle of Crecy, for instance).

With everything apparently on his side, Joćo of Aviz organized a meeting of the Cortes, the Portuguese assembly of the kingdom, in Coimbra. There, on April 6, he is acclaimed the tenth king of Portugal: a clear act of war against the Castilian pretensions. Now Joćo I of Portugal, he nominates Alvares Pereira protector of the kingdom and goes to subdue the resistance still surviving in the North.

In Castile, John I was not pleased. His first move is to send an punitive expedition, but they are heavily defeated in the battle of Trancoso in May. Realizing that to solve the problem definitively he had to use force, an enormous Castilian army led by the king himself, invades Portugal in the second week of June through the central north. With them travelled a contingent of allied French heavy cavalry. The power of numbers was on their side, with about 30,000 men to fight the 6,000 rebellious Portuguese. They immediately head to the region of Lisbon and Santarem, the country's major cities.

Meanwhile, the armies of Joćo I and Alvares Pereira meet in the city of Tomar. After some debate, a decision is made: the Castilians can not be allowed to siege Lisbon once again, since the city would fall with no doubt. They decide to intercept the enemy in the vicinity of Leiria, near the village of Aljubarrota. On August 15, the Castilian army, very slow due to its huge numbers, finally meets the Portuguese troops, reinforced with the English detachment. The result is the battle of Aljubarrota (follow link for the full account), fought in the style of the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. These tactics allowed a reduced infantry army to defeat cavalrymen with the use of longbowmen in the flanks and defensive structures (like caltrops) in the front. The Castilian army was not only defeated but decimated. Their losses were so great that prevented John I of Castile to attempt another invasion in the following years.

With this victory, Joćo I of Aviz was recognized as the undisputed king of Portugal, putting an end to the interregnum and anarchy of the 1383-1385 crisis. Recognition from Castile would arrive only in 1411, with the signature of the Treaty of Ayton-Segovia. The English-Portuguese alliance would be renewed in 1386 with the Treaty of Windsor and the marriage of Joćo I with Philippa of Lancaster (daughter of John of Gaunt). The treaty, still valid in present time, established a pact of mutual support between the countries. Portugal used it again against its neighbours in 1640, to expel the Spanish kings from the country.



Aljubarrota - a Batalha Real, by Joćo Gouveia Monteiro (in portuguese)
História de Portugal, by A.H. de Oliveira Marques (in portuguese)