The Battle of the Three Kings II


King Sebastian of Portugal.


Ahmad al-Mansur survived the battle to succeed his brother and become the new Sultan of Morocco.


In the thick of the melee at Battle of Alcácer Quibir or Oued El Makhazeen (Moroccan)

On 17 June 1578 the young King Sebastian attended a service in Lisbon’s cathedral, where he was presented with a new standard embroidered with an imperial crown. 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 consisted of three thousand German mercenaries, one thousand English and Italian soldiers of fortune under Sir Thomas Stukeley, six thousand Portuguese peasant-soldiers under their four colonels, two thousand Castilian infantrymen loaned by King Philip II, two thousand Portuguese knights under the Duke D’Aveiro and two and a half thousand gentleman volunteers from Portugal under Alvaro Pires de Tavora. This army of nearly seventeen thousand would be assisted, bedded and waited upon by nine thousand 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. The young Sebastian looked old in the experience of war when he stood beside his cousin, the Duke of Barcellos, a ten-year-old riding to war and representing the shadow royal dynasty of Braganza.

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 proceeded slowly down the coast of the Algarve, and then stopped at Cadiz, Tangier and Asilah to pick up more volunteers and fresh casks of water.

Outside the walls of the Portuguese fortress of Asilah, the 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 he led his six hundred 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 young commander who would lead his men from the front. Any remaining idea that Sebastian would be content just to seize control of Larache was firmly banished. He 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 private encampment of the Duke of Barcellos, with its twenty-two pavilions complete with a portable chapel with a gilt communion travelling service, was especially admired. But on Monday 29 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 to start a march with a mild first day. The next day they made camp beside the neolithic stone circle of El-Menorah, embedded in the Arcadian landscape of the foothills of the Western Rif. Here they were joined by a regiment of five hundred Castilian soldiers led by an experienced commander, Francisco de Aldana. They had been dispatched by Philip II as a further gesture of concern for his young cousin. De Aldana brought with him two precious relics from the court of Spain for King Sebastian: the helmet and silk tabard that had been worn forty-three 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 stream, a tributary of the River Loukkos. The bridge over the Makhzen 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. Would the Portuguese army continue to march inland towards the walled capital cities of the interior, or would they wheel around to secure the coast? The port of Larache, the presumed goal of the campaign, was two days’ march from the ford. Its fortress was isolated between the Portuguese invasion fleet, which lay at anchor off the Atlantic coast, and the Crusader army.

Sultan Abdul Malik had been preparing to resist the invasion for the past 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. Not the least of his concerns was that the old Wattasid and Idrisid northern half of the country leaned towards his deposed nephew and a Portuguese alliance.

On 2 July the Sultan, having heard that the Crusader fleet had definitely left Lisbon, made a formal proclamation. He summoned the tribes of Morocco to defend their nation, their families and their faith. Abdul Malik was acclaimed as Emir by the people of Marrakesh 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 14 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 Portuguese at Asilah and instructing his ambassador to make ‘a bad peace rather than a just war’. King Sebastian was not interested in anything other than a battle which would give him glory and renew the crusading zeal of the Portuguese.

Then Abdul Malik rode inland, into the forest of Marmora, 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 Abdul Malik was wise enough to realise that not everyone in this army wished to fight against Muhammad al-Mutawakkil, 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 Portuguese 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 Abdul Malik had resolved this issue.

None knew, and none must be allowed to know, the Sultan’s secret, which was that he was dying. The epic, 350-mile ride from Marrakesh to Souk el-Khemis had accelerated 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. Abdul 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, but 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 owing to the personal nature of the bayaa, the loyalty oath, and the fiercely competitive nature of the various mountain provinces. If he died before battle was joined, with Muhammad al-Mutawakkil’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 worst, the experience of Granada would be meted out to Morocco, and this was not to be contemplated.

King Sebastian’s Crusader army had been shadowed by Moroccan scouts ever since it left the walls of Asilah. On Sunday 3 August the commander of the scouts, Suleyman (a Moor from Cordoba), begged leave to enter the Sultan’s tent. He had personally observed the vanguard of the Portuguese 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 manoeuvre freely, unencumbered by the salt marshes and defiles of the coast.

Abdul 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 Goletta and the deaths of thousands at Lepanto. They shared the same mother and the same distant memories of an exalted father. Now Abdul 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 artillery-men 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 rear-guard, a vast body of Berber soldiers and cavalrymen, was held in reserve. All day long the final depositions were put into place.

The Portuguese army, once it had crossed the ford, was confronted with the enemy for the first time. Until that hour its soldiers 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 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 Portuguese 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 arquebusiers had been trained to reload behind the protection of the stolid ranks of German pikemen and then to advance forward of this line to fire. To break up the expected force of the Moroccan cavalry attacks Sebastian 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. Abdul Malik, as its Imam, led his army 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 prostrating oneself 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. Abdul 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 he was near the point of total collapse. His snow-white robes hung down around his horse in more than their usual magnificence, 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, 4 August 1578.

Before him lay the Crusader army arranged in an enormous square, their cannon 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 preceded by a phalanx of tall crucifixes proudly born aloft, but now and then these dipped down, like reeds in the wind, so that an infantryman could embrace the feet of Christ.


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