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Portugal and Castille – a long fraternal fight

Portugal and Castille – a long fraternal fight. Or how the black plague saved the day.

Often times we, guides, are asked:

“When did Portugal get its independence from Spain?”; “How did the Portuguese language evolve from the Spanish?”.

Now, no resentment or offense is taken here… Don’t get us wrong, both Iberian nations have suffered and undertaken the same ordeals, one way or another. But it’s time to tell you the story about how Portugal managed to keep its independence throughout the years, since 1143.

First, a little context into the country whose nationals we call, fondly, “Nuestros Hermanos”.

About Spain:

Spain is a union of several separate kingdoms – Castille, Léon, Navarra, Aragón – centered on the former. Castille is the kingdom that, by war or marriage, succeeded in merging all these different nations to form what we know as modern Spain in the late 15th century. An interesting historical consequence is the name of language: Castillian is the language spoken throughout Spain and its former colonies, and not “Spanish”.

Given this state of affairs, what about Portugal? Why isn’t Portugal on that list? It wasn’t for any lack of trying of the Castilians, at least.

The Conflict:

This story starts with the death of king Dom Fernando I in 1383. The man whose name is associated with the defensive walls surrounding the city of Porto (the so-called “Muralha Fernandina”, the Fernandina Wall), started a succession crisis in Portugal when he left as an orphan only a daughter, Infanta Beatriz, married to Juan I of Castille.

After a fast-paced political and social fallout, two candidates emerge: Juan I of Castille and João, Grand Master of the military order of Aviz, bastard half-brother of Fernando I. The years of 1383 to 1385 were spent in anarchy and constant battles between the Portuguese and the Castilians, whose supporters were not divided by nationality (nationalism as an ideal wouldn’t become significant before the 18th century) but rather by social classes: if you were noble, a union of the two crowns would best serve your interests.

The Crisis of 1383-1385:

This struggle had its apex during the siege of Lisbon. Between May and September 1384 the city of Lisbon was surrounded by the Castillian troops led by the king himself, Juan I. With the fall of the city to the Castilians the rest of the country would certainly follow, and we would be discussing, by now, the history of how a unified Iberian kingdom came to be, instead of the survival of Portugal as an independent country.

Not even reinforcements sent from Porto were able to break this siege. Some historians believe that this was the event when the sailors took all of Porto’s meat provisions, to help the starving but enduring people of Lisbon, and left the ‘Portuenses’ with nothing except for the parts of the animals that until then were not used… the ‘tripas’, as guts are called in Portuguese. So, making the best out of a bad situation, once again faced with sacrifice, the people of Porto added beans to those meats and called this original dish ‘Tripas à Moda do Porto’, where the epithet ‘Tripeiros’ comes from.

After several skirmishes between the armies, the Castillian army was getting ready to make a full-scale invasion of the city of Lisbon. The summer of 1384 was particularly hot, and in September Juan I wanted to finally strike down on the capital. But something happened that can be called nothing short of a miracle: an epidemic of the black plague, amongst the Castillian soldiers and mainly the leading ranks, “decapitated” the army and drove them back to Castille.

João I – King of Portugal:

The following year Juan I made a second attempt but was stopped short at Aljubarrota, where a very well positioned force of 6,000 men drove off a Castillian army 31,000 men strong.

Eventually, João, the bastard, gets crowned Dom João I, master of Aviz and first of his dynasty, and unsurprisingly one of his first acts as ruling king is to sign and formalize, an alliance between Portugal and England called the Windsor Treaty. And what do you do to strengthen an alliance? You get married of course! That’s how Dom João I espoused Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, in 1387 in the city of Porto, as seen in the tile work below.

This is just the story behind one of the many “azulejo” panels in the São Bento train station in Porto. Come and discover the rest with City Lovers Tours.

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