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The Battle of the Three Kings - Barnaby Rogerson history lecture


On June 17th 1578 the young King Dom Sebastian of Portugal attended a service in the cathedral, where he was presented with a new standard embroidered with an imperial crown.  For it was assumed that the dignity of the Kingdom of Portugal would ascend ever higher and he would become the first Christian Emperor of Morocco.

The army of conquest that he had assembled consisted of 3,000 German mercenaries, 1,000 English and Italian soldiers of fortune under Sir Thomas Stukeley, 6,000 Portugese peasant-soldiers under their four colonels, 2,000 Castilian infantrymen loaned by King Philip II, 2,000 Portugese knights under the Duke D’Aveiro and 2,500 gentleman-volunteers from Portugal under Alvaro Pires de Tavora.  This army of 17,000 would be assisted, bedded and waited-upon by 9,000 camp followers, servants, priests, women, page-boys and slaves.  A thousand wagons had been prepared to transport the munitions and tents required for this mobile royal court, complete with its pavilions, chapels and royal choir. On the feast day of St John, the fleet sailed past the glittering new facades of the Church of Santa Maria and the Abbey of the Jeronimos which had been recently adorned with pale stone hewn from the Alcantara quarries.  They sailed for Asilah.

Outside the walls of the Portugese fortress of Asilah, the young king spotted a Moroccan detachment holding the hills.  He at once ordered that his household cavalry be disembarked and without waiting for the rest of the army led his 600 knights in a charge against the enemy.  They were watched by the astonished soldiers on the battlements of Asilah and the thousands still afloat on the armada, who knew that they followed in the wake of a fearless commander who would lead his men from the front.

The young king intended to disembark his army at Asilah and march inland to fight with the army of the Moroccan Sharif.  But it took some days for the vast seaside camp that stood outside the walls of Asilah to be assembled into marching order.  The Duke of Barcellos’s private encampment, with its 22 pavilions complete with a portable chapel with a gilt communion travelling service, was especially admired. But on Monday 29th July, this city of canvas and silken pennants was struck. The crusading army didn’t manage to move far that first day, just three miles in fact, but it was traditional practice to start a march with a mild first day.  The next day they made camp beside the neolithic stone circle of El-Menorah imbedded in the Arcadian landscape of the foothills of the Western Rif.  Here they were joined by a regiment of five hundred Castilians soldiers led by an experienced commander, Francisco de Aldana.  They had been despatched by King Philip as a further gesture of concern for his young cousin.  De Aldana brought with him two precious relics from the court of Spain for Dom Sebastian: the helmet and silk tabard that had been worn 43 years before by Charles V during his conquest of Tunis.  Adorned with these propitious trophies, the following day the crusaders made good progress, marching twelve miles.  The next day they reached the Oued Makhzen.  The bridge over the Makhzen river was held by two thousand Moroccan soldiers, so the crusader army marched three miles downstream and made use of a natural ford for a trouble-free crossing.  The ford of Mechara en Nedjima is a humble enough feature of this landscape but it marked an important frontier. It was the end of the brackish estuary waters, the geographical edge of the coastal plain where it gives way to the hills and plateaux of the interior.

Sultan Abdal Malik had been preparing to resist the invasion for the last eighteen months.  On the one hand he was the son of the great Sharifian commander of Morocco, Muhammad esh-Sheik, preparing to defend his homeland and his faith against an alien invader.  On the other, he was a refugee prince who had deposed his nephew just two years before.  He had been out of the country for half his life and was acutely aware of the divisions - tribal, regional and dynastic - that existed below the surface of his rule.

On 2nd July the Sultan, having heard that the crusader fleet had definitely left Lisbon, made a formal proclamation.  He summoned the tribes of to defend their nation, their families and their faith.  Abdal Malik was acclaimed as Emir by the people of Marrakech in the vast square before the ancient palace.  On the same morning the palace gates had opened to let fly a stream of trusted officers.  Escorted by soldiers bearing the holy banners of Islam they took the Sultan’s message by word and by letter to the people of the mountains, cities and plains.  The Sultan then started for the north, reaching Rabat on 14th July.  He oversaw the artillery train and trained corps of arquebusiers which lay at the core of the royal army.  As a good Muslim he made one last conscientious attempt to avoid conflict, sending a peace delegation to the Portugese at Asilah and instructing his ambassador to make ‘a bad peace rather than a just war.’

Then he rode inland, into the forest of Mamora, and made camp at Souk el-Khemis, a clearing where the nomadic tribes of the region customarily held their Thursday markets in neutral territory.  Here he waited for the tribes to respond to his summons. Any doubts he held about his right to lead the Moroccan nation to war were now silenced.  Day after day the tribes poured into the camp and their sheikhs dismounted to approach the royal tent.  The final accolade came when his younger brother Ahmad, who had been serving as governor of Fez, brought in the men of the northern hills.  Over five thousand infantrymen and twenty thousand cavalrymen had responded to their Sultan’s call to arms.  They watched in silence as the pasha dismounted and hurried forward to stoop and kiss his brother’s hand.  But Abdal Malik was wise enough to realise that not everyone in this army wished to fight against Muhammad el Mutawakhil, the previous Sultan, and might be caught up in an internal conflict of loyalties.  So he called for volunteers to ride north.  Three thousand men were assigned the task of attacking the Portugese camp outside Asilah.  This was an honourable enough task and removed those men of doubtful personal loyalty from the field of battle.  The tribal sheikhs were impressed by the delicacy and discretion with which Abdal Malik had resolved this issue. 

None knew, and none must be allowed to know, the sultans secret, which was that he was dying.  The epic three hundred and fifty mile ride from Marrakech to Souk el Khemis had excellerated the progress of the disease.  His faithful Jewish doctor had reached the end of his skills as a physician, and now repeatedly begged ‘his Sultan’ to rest.  Abdal Malik, for his part, knew that not so much as a flicker of his illness and his inner exhaustion must be revealed to the army.  Rather than rest he needed to be seen to be in absolute command, an ever-attentive father to his soldiers and a considerate uncle to the tribal sheikhs.  The doctor later remembered, ‘I was weeping and crying before him like a madman.’  The sultan asked for a week, his doctor could only promise to use his art to give him two more days of vigour.  The death of a sultan was always a traumatic event in Moroccan political life due to the personal nature of the bayaa, the loyalty oath, and the fierce competitive nature of the various mountain provinces.  If he died before battle was joined, with Muhammad el Mutawakhil’s candidacy backed by a crusader army, it would be a catastrophe.  At the very best his country would be plunged into civil war at the worst, the experience of Granada, would be meted out to Morocco and was not worth contemplating.  

King Sebastian’s crusader army had been shadowed by Moroccan scouts ever since it left the walls of Asilah.  On Sunday 3rd August, the commander of the scouts, Suleyman (a Moor from the city of Cordoba) begged leave to enter the Sultan’s tent.  He had personally observed the vanguard of the Portugese army crossing the ford of Mechara-en-Nedjima.  There was no need to say more, for both he and the Sultan knew that the open plain that stretched out immediately beyond the ford was a perfect site for a battle.  Here the Moroccan tribal cavalry had the space to freely manoeuvre free of the salt marshes and defiles of the coast.

Abdal Malik also knew he had little time left. He must strike now or never.  He summoned his younger brother and gave him command of the Moroccan cavalry, which was numbered not in thousands but in tens of thousands of horsemen.  The two brothers had experienced decades of exile together.  They had witnessed the victories at Tunis and La Goulette and the deaths of thousands at Lepanto.  They shared the same mother and the same distant memories of an exalted father. Now Abdal Malik held his brother’s hands in his. He looked him in the eye, and asked him ‘to fight, conquer or die.’  The sultan took direct command of the centre of the army composed of disciplined regiments of artillerymen and the arquebusiers.  There were also three other regiments, one recruited from Moorish refugees, one of Moroccan townsmen and one of renegades from both Spain and Turkey.  The semi-disciplined rearguard, a vast body of Berber soldiers and cavalrymen, was held in reserve.  All day long the final depositions were put into place.

The Portugese army, once they had crossed the ford, were confronted with the enemy for the first time.  Until that hour they were unaware of the likely scale of the Moroccan resistance. They now looked on in bewilderment as column after column of tribal cavalry manoeuvred to take up their appointed positions during the daylight hours. King Sebastian quickly decided that there was only one tactical formation appropriate for his much smaller force, already deep inside enemy territory and now outnumbered many, many times over.  He gave orders that his crusader army be marshalled into a vast square.  In the centre of the square the wagon-train was drawn-up to make a wooden village, several acres in extent, which would shelter the army of camp followers.  They would be protected on three sides by the four Portugese regiments, interspersed with detachments of cavalry and professional soldiers to give them direction and confidence.  The front of the square was composed of the experienced German and Italian mercenaries as well as the spirited gentleman volunteers of Portugal.  They were arranged five ranks deep and presented a formidable force, for the arqebusiers had been trained to reload behind the protection of the stolid ranks of German pikeman and to then advance forward of this line to fire.  To break up the expected force of the Moroccan cavalry attacks the King also established a series of wooden forts made of wagons.  These stood outside the great square and bristled with sharpshooters.

Just before dawn lit the hills, the cries of the muezzin filled the silence of the plain. Abdal Malik led his army, as their Imam, in prayer. The shared ritual of the pre-dawn prayer - standing to address God as a rational human, then bowing down as a servant and finally prostrated as a slave - helped bind the army into a single identity.  When the sun rose through the mountains of the Rif and the Middle Atlas and lit up the army it also revealed the differences between the rival tribes and cities of Morocco.  The sultan retired to his tent, and then reappeared as their general, ready to lead them in war.  Only his Jewish doctor and his young brother knew the true personal cost of this last effort. Abdal Malik looked every inch a Sultan, resplendent beneath his crimson umbrella, surrounded by five sacred banners and by the close-packed ranks of  two rival regiments of bodyguards.  Yet was also near the point of total collapse. His snow-white robes hung down around his horse in more than their usual magnificence that morning for they helped hide the fact that he had been strapped to his saddle.  There could be no delaying.  He must be seen to lead his army into battle that morning, 4th August 1578.

Before him lay the crusader army arranged in an enormous square, their cannons to the fore. The Bishops of Coimbra and Oporto, assisted by the Papal Nuncio and a court of priests were going about their solemn duties, blessing the troops and absolving them of their sins. They were preceeded by a phalanx of tall crucifixes proudly born aloft but now and then they dipped down, like a reed in the wind, so that an infantryman could embrace the feet of Christ. 

The young king who led them into battle that day was like a vision from the dream chronicles of Christendom.  A second young Alexander, he was escorted by all the great lords of Portugal, the royal standards fluttering in the morning breeze at the head of a mass of silken pennants decorated with the heraldry of a worldwide empire.  Like holy relics, King Sebastian wore the helmet of King Charles V and carried the sword of Prince Henry the Navigator into battle.  A close escort was formed from the mounted troopers of the Tangier garrison, the most battle-hardened and experienced of all the army.  He rode up and down the lines, greeting his officers by name and saluting his soldiers. 

The cannons of the two armies spoke throughout the morning but it was only in the last hour before noon that they drew close enough to find each other’s range.  Then, as if by pre-arrangement, the entire crusader army sank to its knees one last time in prayer.  When they rose they chanted the battlecry of ‘Aviz e Christo’.  Despite the defensive arrangement of the square, Sebastian knew that he must strike hard and decisively if he was not to be overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the enemy.  So instead of standing ready and waiting, the crack troops that held the front of the Portugese square advanced through their screen of cannons.  They then flung themselves on the centre of the Moroccan army, breaking the first Moroccan division, the Andalucians, who attempted to stand their ground.  This brave frontal assault was blunted by a counter-attack by the second Moroccan divison (largely composed of renegade Moors) who were in turn attacked by the crack Castilian regiments lent by King Philip.  As the disciplined infantry of the two armies locked themselves in ferocious conflict, vast fields of Moroccan horsemen began to move across the surrounding plain, ready to launch the first attacks on the flanks of the Portugese square. Like a river in spate, wave after wave of tribal cavalry descended from the hills, surrounding the whole Portugese position and cutting them off from the ford and the road to the coast in a floodtide of horsemen. 

As if in direct reply to this threat of annihilation, King Sebastian launched his own surprise cavalry attack.  His infantry regiments parted to allow the Duke of Aviero and the cavalry of his native ally, the deposed Sultan Moulay Muhammad, to strike at the very centre of the Moroccan army.  It was a near suicidal charge, but if they had managed to kill Abdal Malik in clear view of his own troops they would yet have changed the fate of that day.  Their ferocious impetus allowed them to cut through the lines of Moroccan infantry and hack their way to within a few yards of Abdal Malik’s pavilion.  For a few critical moments all hung in the balance. Two of the five royal standards of Morocco were felled by the assault but the bodyguards succeeded in holding the ground around the person of the Sharif. Then, just as suddenly as it had been launched, this audacious frontal attack was destroyed as vast numbers of Moroccan cavalry swarmed in to rescue their Sultan.  It may have been at this moment, that the Moroccan cavalry first became aware of supernatural support.  The patron saint of the fallen Muslim city of Ceuta, Sidi Bel Abbes, was seen mounted on a grey horse, moving from tribe to tribe, encouraging them in their patriotic fervour.  In the words of the Moroccan historian, al-Ifrani, ‘such things are not to be disbelieved, for it is known that the martyrs are ever living in God’s presence.’

The crusader assaults of the morning, first of infantry and then of cavalry, had been blunted and the latter overwhelmed. Yet on the ground lay proof of the ferocity of these assaults, for some two thousand Moroccan infantrymen, the disciplined cream of the army, lay dead on the field.  The Crusaders now withdrew to take up their positions in defence of the original square.  The field artillery of both sides had been silenced by the vicious fighting at the centre.  Spiked, carriage-less or disabled, their tactical role was over and the battle took on a new shape.  Throughout the long afternoon, wave after wave of Moroccan cavalry launched themselves against the crusader square.  They were relentless in their courage, for where pike-men held their ground with arquebusiers imbedded in the ranks, the defenders could cut lethal swathes through the ranks of the attackers. 

But it was the attacks of the Sharifian regiment of dragoons, the mounted arquebusiers, which proved decisively effective that day.  They were recruited from members of the Jazuli brotherhood and the Haha tribes that had formed the original core of the Sharifian army.  They had been trained to discharge their weapons in the face of the enemy at the culmination of a gallop, and their horses were trained to pirouette-around just a few paces away from the leathal spikes of the Christian pike-men allowing their riders to fire at point blank range at the enemy and then double back out of danger, to reload in safety and prepare for the next attack.  At first King Sebastian took his place in the front rank of the frontline at the centre of the square.  Then he could be seen moving from regiment to regiment to inspire his men to hold their line.  Three horses died beneath him that afternoon and his once magnificent bodyguard was cut down to a bare seven men. 

It was the inexperienced Portugese peasant recruits who held the rear of the square who broke first, their spirit collapsed after the death of their valiant commander, Francisco de Tavara.  But Sebastian was quick to react.  He gathered together the last remnants of the crusader cavalry and led three separate counter-attacks against the Moroccans in an attempt to give his men the opportunity to reform their line.  But it was not just at the rear that the square was crumbling. The ceaseless attrition of the mounted dragoon attacks had also broken a way through even the front line.  Moroccan cavalry now poured into the centre of the square. Once they were attacked from both the front and the rear, it was over for the Portugese regiments.  They retreated from their positions and fell back to take shelter among the wagon-train.  Effective resistance then crystallised around the stolid German pikemen, the soldiers of Castile and the Portugese noblemen who alone held their positions.  The last hours of the battle were long and drawn out, for the Moroccan army had started pillaging the wagon-train, and the victorious soldiers were now more interested in taking captives, who could be ransomed, than in adding another corpse to the carnage of the day.  In the last hour of dusk the surviving knots of crusader resistance were subdued by the Moroccan cavalry.  The Germans held their position to the end, disdaining all offers of surrender.  As the sun set they were overwhelmed in one last massive cavalry charge and as the darkness thickened not a single Crusader soldier was left standing.  Of the 26,000 strong army that had stood to arms that morning, less than a hundred would reach the safety of the coast.  The rest were either dead, dying or captive.  It was the most decisive battle of an age that was otherwise dominated by the gradual attrition of siege and counter-siege.  It was the very last battle of the Last Crusade.  Although it was the end of an era, it was also very much of the past: a day when monarchs led their men to war, when three kings would be counted among the tens of thousands of dead.  It was a day of exhilarating bravery, where both armies displayed the most utmost courage and resource.  The battle had been won by the glory of the cavalry charge, and the role of artillery, the murky pre-industrial queen of battles, so decisive elsewhere, was curiously absent.

The Moroccans proved themselves impressively generous and honourable.  Empowered by the awesome scale of their victory, and the fortune to be made from ransoming captives, they behaved with chivalric restraint.  In a bloody age so often marred by the horrendous cruelties unleashed by the sack of cities and the public torture of dissidents, it should be remembered that at the end of Last Crusade no massacre of captives was ordered.  Nor were the bodies of the dead defiled.  No enemy soldiers were crucified or impaled, no heads dispatched in leather bags or jewelled caskets to horrify a foreign court.  Instead, in the morning light, two Portugese royal servants were instructed by the new Moroccan Sultan to search through the bodies of the dead and identify their king.  His body had been stripped of its valuable armour but was otherwise undefiled. His corpse was washed and bathed in myrrh and sent back in honour to his cousin, Philip II accompanied by the Spanish ambassador and captive ten-year-old son of the Duke of Braganza released without ransom,  This gesture so impressed Sebastian’s cousin, King Philip II of Spain, that he sent the Moroccan court a gift by return: an emerald the size of the dead king’s heart and his body weight in sapphires, carried in solemn procession by forty Spanish lords. 

During the daring crusader cavalry attack that had been launched right at the centre of the Moroccan army, Abdal Malik had used the last ounce of his strength to move forward and fight beside his bodyguard.  Shortly after the crusaders had been repulsed, he was seized by such a paroxysm of pain that he fainted.  He recovered consciousness but briefly.  Half an hour later he was taken from the world by an even more violent attack.  His Jewish doctor continued to pretend to nurse him throughout the rest of the day, long enough for the Moroccan cavalry to begin their destruction of the crusader square.  His young brother, as commander of the cavalry that day, was directly responsible for the scale of the Moroccan victory and was able to ascend the throne in triumph.  The thirty-year-old Sultan took the title of ‘al-Mansur bi Allah’ – ‘Victorious by the Will of God’.  There were no other claimants to the throne, for the ex-Sultan Muhammad el Mutawwakil, had also been found amongst the dead.  So this is why the day in which Morocco was saved, and the Empire of Portugal was eclipsed is known as the Battle of the Three Kings. 

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