Battle of Alcácer Quibir

Battle of Alcácer Quibir

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Alcácer Quibir

date=August 4, 1578
place=Ksar-el-Kebir, Morocco
result=Decisive Moroccan victory
combatant2=Kingdom of Morocco
commander1=Sebastian I of PortugalKIA
Abu Abdallah Mohammed IIKIA
commander2=Abd Al-MalikKIA
strength1=23,000 Portuguese3,000-6,000 Moorish allies

40 cannons
strength2=40,00034 cannons
casualties1=9,000 dead
16,000 captured

The Battle of Alcácer Quibir (variant spellings are legion: Alcácer-Quivir, Al Quasr al-kibr, Alcazarquivir, Alcassar and so on, meaning "grand palace" in Arabic) (Arabic:معركة القصر الكبير) or (Arabic:معركة وادي المخازن), also known as Battle of Three Kings (Arabic:معركة الملوك الثلاث), was a major battle fought in northern Morocco, near the town of Ksar-el-Kebir between Tangier and Fez, on 4 August 1578. The combatants were the army of Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi, of the Saadi dynasty, with his ally the King Sebastian of Portugal, and a large Moroccan army nominally under the new Sultan of Morocco (and uncle of Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi) Abd Al-Malik of the Saadi dynasty. The militantly Christian king had planned a crusade after Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi asked king Sebastian to help him recover his throne, which his uncle Abd Al-Malik had taken from him. In the event his defeat led to the disappearance of Portugal as an independent nation for 60 years.


D. Sebastião, known in Portugal as "the Desired", was the son of the Infante Dom John (son of John III of Portugal) and Joanna, daughter of the Emperor Charles V. His father died before he was born, and he became king at the age of three after the death of his grandfather in 1557. He was educated almost entirely by Jesuits, by his guardian and tutor Aleixo de Meneses and by Catherine of Austria, sister of Charles V and wife of King John III. Some, judging him after his defeat, alleged that under these influences his youthful idealism soon mutated into religious fanaticism, although he never joined the Holy League. The Cortes asked him several times to go there and stop the turmoil of the advancing Turkish military presence, because the Ottomans would be a threat to the security of the Portuguese coasts and to the commerce with Guinea, Brazil and the Atlantic Islands. But it was only when Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi went to Portugal and asked for Sebastian's help in recovering his throne from his uncle that Sebastian decided to mount a military effort.

D. Sebastião felt driven to revive lost glories by intervening in North Africa, influenced by the events such as the defense of Mazagan in 1562 from a Moorish siege. Accordingly, in 1568, the kingdom began to prepare for intervention in Morocco. This policy was not only supported by the mercantile bourgeoisie as it would benefit commerce in this area (primarily, gold, cattle, wheat and sugar), but also by the nobility.

Up to that time Portuguese military action in Africa had been confined to small expeditions and raids; Portugal had built its vast maritime empire from Brazil to the East Indies by a combination of trade, sea exploration and technological superiority, with Christian conversion of subject peoples being one, but by no means the only, end in view. Sebastian proposed to change this strategy entirely.

In 1574 Sebastian led a successful raid on Tangier, which encouraged him to grander designs against the new Saadian ruler of Morocco. He gave his support to Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi, who was engaged in a civil war to recover the throne of Morocco from his uncle, the Emir Abd Al-Malik, who was allied with the increasingly powerful Ottomans. Despite the admonitions of his mother and his uncle Philip II of Spain (who had became very cautious after the Battle of Djerba), Sebastian was determined to wage a military campaign.

Sebastian used much of Portugal's imperial wealth to equip a large fleet and gather an army including mercenaries from Spain, England and Germany, as well as 2,000 Italians initially recruited to aid an invasion of Ireland under the leadership of the English adventurer, Thomas Stukley. It is said that the expeditionary force numbered 500 ships, and the army in total numbered about 23,000 men, including the flower of the Portuguese nobility.

The campaign

After haranguing his troops from the windows of the church of Santa Maria in Lagos, Sebastian departed that port in his armada on 24 June 1578. He landed at Arzila, in Portuguese Morocco, where Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi joined him with an additional 6,000 Moorish troops, and marched into the interior. The Emir, who was gravely ill, had meanwhile collected a large army, rallying his countrymen to Jihad against the Portuguese invaders. The two armies approached each other near Ksar-el-Kebir, camping on opposite sides of a river.

The battle

On 4 August, the Portuguese and Moorish allied troops were drawn up in battle array, and Sebastian rode around encouraging the ranks. But the Moroccans advanced on a broad front, planning to encircle his army. The Sultan had 10,000 cavalry on the wings, and in the center he had placed Moors who had been driven out of Spain and thus bore a special grudge against Christians. Despite his illness, the Sultan left his litter and led his forces on horseback. The battle commenced as both sides exchanged several volleys of gunfire from musketry and artillery. Thomas Stukley, commanding the Portuguese center, was killed by a cannonball early in the battle. The superior Moorish cavalry advanced and began to encircle the enemy army. Both armies soon became fully engaged in melee. The flanks of the Portuguese army began to give way to the Moorish cavalry, and eventually the center became threatened as well. Seeing the flanks compromised, and having lost its commander early in battle, the Portuguese center lost heart and was overcome. The battle ended after nearly four hours of heavy fighting and resulted in the total defeat of the Portuguese and Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi's army with 9,000 dead, including the slaughter of almost the whole of the country’s nobility, and 16,000 taken prisoner; perhaps 100 survivors escaped to the coast. The body of King Sebastian, who led a charge into the midst of the enemy and was then cut off, was never found. The Sultan Abd Al-Malik also died during the battle, but from natural causes (the effort of riding was too much for him), and the news was concealed from his troops until total victory had been secured. Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi attempted to flee but was drowned in the river. For this reason, the battle was known in Morocco as the Battle of the Three Kings.

The consequences

Abd Al-Malik was succeeded as Sultan by his brother Ahmad al-Mansur, also known as Ahmed Addahbi, who conquered Timboktu and the Mali empire.

For Portugal, the battle was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the lack of a body, Sebastian was presumed dead, at the age of 24. In his piety, he had remained unmarried and had sired no heir. His aged, childless uncle Henry of Portugal, a Cardinal of the Roman church, succeeded to the throne as closest legitimate relative. His brief reign (1578–1580) was devoted to attempting to raise the crippling financial reparations demanded by Morocco. After his death, legitimate claimants to the throne of the House of Aviz, which had ruled Portugal for 200 years, were defeated by a Castilian military invasion. Philip II of Spain, a maternal grandson of Manuel I of Portugal, and nearest male claimant (being an uncle of Sebastian I), invaded with an army of 15 000 men, defeating the troops of Anthony, Prior of Crato at the Battle of Alcântara and was crowned Philip I of Portugal by the Cortes of Tomar in 1581. Later, at the beginning of his reign, Philip II ordered that the mutilated remains said to be Sebastian's (and so recognized after the battle by some of his close companions), and still in North Africa, be returned to Portugal, where they were buried at the Jerónimos Monastery, in Lisbon. Portugal and its Empire were not "de facto" incorporated into the Spanish Empire, and remained as a separate realm of the Habsburgs as a dual monarchy until 1640. Despite this disastrous defeat, a cult of 'Sebastianism', with the young monarch as Portugal's "Once and Future King" who would one day, like King Arthur, return to save his nation, has ebbed and flowed in Portuguese life ever since, and was particularly strong late in the 19th century as a Romantic revivalism, some saying that to be one of the causes of the decadence and lack of attitude in late Portuguese History. For 40 years after the battle, a series of impostors attempted to claim that they were Sebastian returned from the dead. Most of the realm's main clergy including Bishops and Archbishops and nobility including many Counts and Marquesses, as well as most of its army and capitals were lost, and only a few of the prisoners were later ransomed. The real story of one of the most unfortunate and latest ransomed captives, Dom João de Portugal of the Counts de Vimioso, inspired the play "Frei Luís de Sousa" by Almeida Garrett.

In Popular Culture

The battle was the subject of the George Peele English Renaissance play, "The Battle of Alcazar", and is also a central event to the anonymously written "The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley".


* Partly based on an entry on Sebastian in "The Popular Encyclopedia, or, Conversations Lexicon" (London: Blackie & Son, 1864)

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