Visit: 6th December 2016
The Monastery of Batalha in central Portugal was the second of three we visited in a two-day period. Unlike the Convent of Christ in Tomar, it was never used as a castle so has no fortifications, sitting instead in the middle of a large town square.
Batalha means ‘battle’ in Portuguese. The whole monastery in fact was built to commemorate the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota in which the nascent Kingdom of Portugal defeated the numerically superior Crown of Castile. It is therefore of great significance to the Portuguese people as a symbol of their independence as a nation.
Led by their king John (or João) the First, 7,000 Portuguese troops outmanoeuvred John (or Juan) the First of Castile’s 30,000 man army. To mark his victory, João ordered the building of a grand Gothic cathedral and monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary – to whom he had prayed on the eve of battle. João’s wife, Philippa of Lancaster, was buried here (she was the daughter of English nobleman John of Gaunt* – whose heirs male included kings Henry IV, V and VI).
The site is still of major importance to the country’s armed forces, where a constant guard is kept over an eternal flame in memory of the war dead.
When the Manueline style emerged in the 16th century the monastery was extensively redecorated in it. I think of that style as being like textile patterns made with stone.
After 150 years of building works the nation eventually ran out of money – or patience – and one of the major chapels was never completed. Known today as the Unfinished Chapel, it lacks a roof, leaving the ornate World Heritage architecture of its interior a home for pigeons. You can see in the pictures above and below that the intricately-decorated columns simply stop abruptly.
We drove on from Batalha to our destination for the night in the nearby city of Alcobaça. This being in the dead of the off-season, we turned out to be the only guests in the hotel (apart from a solitary Italian businessman).
* Everybody was called John back then.