A dramatic love story, Cistercians and Knights Templar and a large collection of books are part of the fascinating history of Alcobaca Monastery
At 12km inland, away from the always tormented Atlantic coast and 120km north of Lisbon, hidden in a valley between the lush surrounding hills, lies the city of Alcobaca. After the founding of the monastery in 1153, the city grew around it along the rivers Alco and Baca which are flowing calmly in the valley. The history of Alcobaca Monastery is not only connected with the development of Alcobaca city but also played an important role in the history of Portugal and is also connected with the history of Knights Templar and the Age of Discovery.
It was a sunny Sunday morning at the beginning of Spring when I arrived in Alcobaca. The city was still so quiet but getting ready for a fiesta. I knew I was supposed to visit a monastery, but I thought that is going to be something small and I will finish quickly and I will spend the rest of the time on the streets of Alcobaca enjoying some delicious Portuguese pastries. I could not be more wrong. The monstery appeared to be so big, dominating the entire square. The complex was impressive, although aside from the decorated entrance, for the rest of the construction were used simple lines.
Seen from outside you might not think that those walls are keepers of some fascinating stories, but while you visit the monastery, little by little, those stories are revealed to you.
Probably I should start with the first story.
The beginnings of Alcobaca Monastery were marked by the revelation of a monk, a promise of a king, the Portuguese fights to recover their territories from the Moors, the importance of the Cistercians monks in this process and the implication of Knights Templar in the battles.
In the 12th century Portugal, same as its neighbouring Spain, was in the middle of Reconquista. Moors were driven away from the Iberian Peninsula and Portuguese were regaining their territories. Patriotism was not enough to sustain the battles, so to be able to sustain the war the king at that time Alfonso Henriques, looked at Cistercian Monks and Knights Templar for help. The head of the Cistercians Monks at that time was Bernard of Clairvaux. The Last Crusade, for which he advocated intensely was a disappointment, so he turned his eyes towards Iberian Penisula. Cistercian order influenced the beginning of Knights Templars, their set of rules were traced by Bernard of Clairvaux and were influenced by Cistercian’s set of rules. In a way, you might say that Templars are an emanation of Cistercians. At that time, they were powerful and rich, therefore their help was most wanted. In 1147 at Santarem, the king Alfonso Henriques won the battle against the Moors. To commemorate the victory the king order the construction of the Alcobaca Monastery as a gift for the Bernard of Clairvaux. This move was strategic. Bernard was close to the pope and the king knew that he need the pope to recognize the independence of the newly formed Portugal. With Moors out the picture, his small kingdom will not stand a chance in front of expanding ambitions of neighbouring Spain. In a way, he was a visionary. Spain did want to attach Portugal to its kingdom, but about this later.
Alcobaca Monastery was the first Cistercian foundation in Portugal and also marked the arrival of Gothic Style in Portugal. Since its foundation, the monastery became an island of knowledge in the middle of a turbulent Middle Age. In 1269 at Alcobaca Monastery were taking place the first public lessons and this actions were having a major influence on the development of culture in Portugal. But the lessons were not enough to obtain this. Monks were creating illuminating manuscripts and by the 19th century, the monastery had one of the largest Portuguese medieval libraries. But here comes another story…
In the 14th century when the Knights Templar were killed and their properties confiscated around Europe, one of the places where they could find shelter was Portugal. After the battle of Santarem, the king granted the land and the castle in Tomar to the Knights Templars. Their presence and their fortune were important for Portugal because they still faced the dancer of Spanish Invasion. The decision of the king was to give them shelter and change the name of the order in Order of the Christ. All the Templars properties were given to the Order of the Christ and he obtained from the pope the recognizing of the order. But not all of those who came to Portugal join the order of the Christ some become Cistercians and other joined the Order of Aviz. Their presence influenced massively the 15th century age of discovery. Now, probably you wonder what is the connection between Alcobaca Monastery and the age of discovery. Well, Alcobaca as a centre of wisdom brought the knowledge that they need to adventure on the open waters beyond the known borders. The story is a bit more complex, but I do not want to bore you with too much information…
Although the stories within these walls are fascinating I should turn now towards the beauty of these walls. There is a reason for this. I am pointing out the beauty and the peacefulness and charm of the Cloister of Silence. The intricate carvings on the columns and the perfect image of the renaissance fountain the moment sun is entering through the windows and an aura of brightness is surrounding it. When I saw it, I was thinking about the Myth of the Holy Grail and about the Fountain of life.
Why? Well, this is taking me to the third story….the dramatic love story between King Pedro l and Ines Castro. While visiting the church you might notice in the transept two massive stone tombs beautifully carved. they belong to King Pedro and his love Ines, I do not think I should use the word mistress because he loved her very much.
For political reasons, Pedro was married to Constance of Castile. When she arrived in Portugal she brought also Ines de Castro as her lady-in-waiting. For Pedro and Ines it was love at first sight. Their affair started very soon and it was clear to everyone they were in love. The relation between Pedro and Ines become to be a reason for concern to the king. To spite his father, Perdo even gave her brothers important positions. Trying to kill their love, the king banishes Ines to a castle close to the Spanish border. They continue to write to each other and soon Constance dies after childbirth. After her death, Pedro releases Ines from the castle and they move to Coimbria. They live together and marry in secret in Braganca.
Till now sounds like a fairy tale. Well, it is not. This forbidden love does not take place under favourable auspices.
They had three children but the king was still insisting that Pedro should marry someone of royal blood. Pedro refused and news of a possible conspiracy meant to kill Ferdinand, Pedo`s son with Constance, by the Castro family was heard by the king. The affair was disliked by the nobles and the king. Fearing the Spanish influence on his court and the instability that this relation might bring, the king decided to execute Ines. He gave the order and three knights of the Order of the Christ killed her in the gardens of Quinta das Lagrimas when Pedro was away hunting. The pain of finding her dead was excruciating for Pedro. Blinded by rage he led an uprising against the king. They would have killed each other but the queen Beatriz intervened and she was able to keep them at peace for two years until the king died.
When Pedro became king, he brought to trial the knights that killed Ines. He was able to catch only two of them, the third one took refuge in France. He sentenced them to death and he ripped their hearts out with his own hands to pay for what they did to his beloved Ines. Also, he took the decaying body of Ines from the ground he dressed her in royal clothes and ask everyone to kiss her hand and recognize her as queen. After he buried her in the stone tomb he prepared for her in Alcobaca Monastery.
They were buried close to each other so they can be together in the afterlife. On the marble plate can be seen the inscription ``Ate o fim do mundo`` ( until the -end of the world/* )
Pedro and Ines`s story is very moving and I can say it is the Portuguese version of Romeo and Juliet. The story is intense, but when I saw the tombs suddenly the entire thing got a new dimension. It was real. It was about real people. I could feel their pain and the big void that arises when you lose someone dear.
A Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoes wrote a poem based on their tragedy called “ Os Lusiadas“ or Ballad of the light. also, an old Portugues saying “Agora é tarde, Inês é morta“ /It is too late, Ines is dead“ meaning “no use“ appeared after their tragedy.
Seen from outside, one would never think what stories those walls might keep within. This island of knowledge lost part of its treasure in 1810 when French soldiers stole part of the books from the library and in 1834 when a civil rebellion burnt part of the books. Now, the remaining books are resting in Lisbon keeping their wisdom on their pages, waiting to be read.
The books might be gone, but the beauty of the monastery was not diminished by the turbulent passing time. It is still there, standing, waiting for you to hear its story…