During the afternoon of 14th August 1385 the youth of the nascent nation of Portugal bravely faced a superior force of Castilian soldiers and French heavy cavalry which outnumbered them by a ratio of four to one. Few of the Portuguese had military experience and most possessed little by way of mail armour and weaponry but they were allied by two hundred expert longbowmen from the English shires and five hundred men-at-arms from Gascony armed with the latest crossbows.
The Portuguese were marshalled on a hill-top not far from Leiria by Constable Nuno Àlvares Pereira who, at the age of twenty-five, was three years younger than his liege King João (of Avis) I. He had proved to be a brilliant strategist having previously defeated the Castilians in several border skirmishes with few troops aided by local militia.
The Castilians, who had marched under a hot sun, avoided a frontal attack because of a steep slope and decided to attack what they thought was a weak rearguard posted on gentler terrain. In fact, this position had been cunningly prepared in advance with a crisscross system of concealed trenches built between two dry creeks and interspersed with three-pronged caltrops. Into this trap rode the French to be met by a hail of arrows and bolts from the archers and two flank divisions numbering four hundred agile young nobles and students (aptly nicknamed the “Namorados” and “Madressilvas”) who, being fleet of foot and equipped as hunters, were able to pull the knights from their mounts and put them to the sword. During this mêlée the bearer of the Royal Castilian standard was toppled resulting in the disarray and rout of the vanguard.
During the battle, the Portuguese suffered nearly one thousand casualties but the Castilian losses were estimated at four thousand. Worse for them, five thousand of the fleeing troops were wounded or killed by the local citizenry. Legend has it that seven of these fell afoul of the legendry Amazonian senhora Brites de Almeida who slaughtered them in her bakery using her bare six fingered hands and then stuffed them in her ovens to be baked with bread which was considered to be the best in Portugal!
Unusually for those times, King João granted clemency to the survivors and arranged for their deportation on condition that they were never to set foot again in his realm. But only two months later Nuno Álvares Pereira was forced to make a tactical strike against an even greater army and was victorious again at the battle Valverde de Mérida.
Aljubarrota is remembered in Europe as being but one of numerous bloody battles which were fought during the disastrous period known as “The Hundred Years War” but to the Portuguese nation this 638th anniversary is commemorated with great pride as being the true commencement of an independent and courageous culture.