Walk the Line

The troops besieging the city attempted to penetrate the bulwark.

The stone construction protruding from the city walls was accessible only through very large, double wooden doors, reinforced with broad iron strips and studding. But the gates were firmly locked and bolted, as was the small porta d’homem, the man door embedded in one of the huge slabs of oak.

Beyond those gates lay the city itself. Located a stone’s throw west of the Guadiana river, it was the key to the kingdom of Portugal. The Spanish commander knew his history. Any good military man does. The river, which formed the border between the two countries from that point south all the way to the ocean, had belonged to the Arabs. That’s where it got its name, Wadi Ana. Just as the great river that bathed his native Andalucia was called Wadi Al Kabir, the Great River.

The commander also knew his geography, as any commander must. There were two routes into Portugal. One through the plains of Castilla La Mancha, but the terrain changed at the Portuguese frontier, where the entrance was made through a narrow gorge, and led an army down through craggy mountains, at the mercy of guerilla strikes in every defile. He knew that the Lusitanian Viriato had decimated the Romans along these passes. The Spaniard had read Caesar’s remarks in the chronicles of the Roman wars.

Who are these people who cannot be ruled, and yet cannot rule themselves?

Por supuesto, he thought, los Portugueses are a strange bunch. They don’t seem particularly violent or warlike, yet they are a permanent thorn in our side. After all, Spain now has control over the Galician, the Catalan, yes, even the Basque. The Arabs are gone since the days of Columbus. In the natural order of things, Iberia should be one. It should be Spain.

The other road to the conquest of the kingdom of Portugal was the floodplain between the Tagus and Guadiana, an easy campaign for a Spanish expeditionary force, with its train of animals towing artillery and supplies. Except for the fact that practically every hillock on the way west to Lisbon had a castle, and a garrison to defend it. There were Borba, Vila Viçosa, Estremoz, Arraiolos, Évora, Palmela, Setúbal, Almada, and then the invading army still had to cross the enormous estuary of the Tagus. And yet here they were in front of the very first battlement, the city of Elvas. A long way indeed from the gates of Lisbon.

There were two city gates ahead, distant some fifty yards from one another, each one with huge double reinforced doors, the drawbridge over the moat. The Spanish general gave the order, and his troops split into two pelotones, each attempting to penetrate a set of gates on the bulwark, and lead a two-pronged attack into the city.

The Portuguese garrison commander watched the Castillian troops from the ramparts, turned to his aide and gave his orders in turn. His city had withstood many attacks, and it had not always been the Portuguese defending the town on the hill. That’s why he knew that the enemy had its work cut out. The Castillians were attempting to breach the outer wall, built by the Portuguese. If they got through that, and by then their blood would have fertilized the dry soil below him, they would still have to bridge the inner wall.

The Portuguese commander also knew history. That wall had been built by the Moors in the VIIIth century, but it hadn’t stopped the Portuguese king taking the city in 1226. Or the Moors taking it back the following year. Or Dom Sancho II finally recapturing it in 1230. The Moorish troops received their orders from Seville, one of the capitals of Al Andaluz.

The king’s father, also called Sancho, had fought his battles agains Abu Yusuf Al-Mansur,  ruler of the Almohadas. The empire of the Almohadas stretched from Tunisia to the Moroccan west coast. When Abu Yusuf, or Father Joseph, had died, he was succeeded by Muhammad Al-Nasir; by the time the city was under siege by Sancho junior, the Caliph of Seville was Abu Yusuf II, in power since 1213. 

And should his Spanish friends prove luckier than their Arab predecessors and breach the Moorish wall, well then they would come up against a third wall. That one had been built by the Romans, and would be the last stand, within the castle itself.

One of the Spanish detachments pierced the gates, and a great roar went up as the troops raced in, hungry for blood. The tunnels led them under the battlements and around a labyrinth that was lined with olive groves and orange trees. It was January, and the trees were laden with oranges. A large carob tree grew against the ramparts. Known as Saint John’s bread, the locust beans it produced were reputed to have saved the saint from starvation―although it wasn’t clear whether the saint’s diet was actually the insects that gave the seeds their name.

The Spaniards ran in, adrenalin surging at the imminent fight, interspersed with the rewards that lay ahead. Wine, debauchery, the pick of the virgins. The spoils of war.

The Portuguese commander watched the invaders streaming in through the Porta Falsa, the False Door, saw them reach the dead end after the final stretch. He watched them turn in confusion. Una trampa. A trap. It was then he lowerd his arm, giving the signal for the bombards, boiling oil, and musket balls to rain down. He watched coldly as the invaders’ bloodlust quickly turned into bloodlet. First the fear, then the pain. Then death.

Divide and conquer, he thought, as he turned his attention to the other party of invaders, pounding at the real gates…

And so it was for centuries, along the lines of Elvas. Dust, blood, and glory. Almost twenty years after the liberation of Portugal from fourscore years of Spanish occupation, on the fourteenth of January of 1659, a battle was fought outside the city, on hilly ground to the north. A monument was erected there to remember the day.

A little known monument to the battle of the Lines of Elvas, which pitted a large Spanish force against a smaller number of defenders, including the dragoon regiment from Estremoz.

The monument has an original inscription on three sides, and I love the way little letters are often hidden inside big ones, as if to keep them safe. This is what is written in stone.

No anno de 1659 reinando em Portugal Dom Affonco o Sexto em Terçafeira quatorze dia nrº do mesmo ano dõ Antº Luis de Menezes Marques de Marialva Capitão General desta provincia dAlemtejo intorduzio socorro na praca e cidade dElvas que estava citiada por Do Luis dHaro Capitao General dEstremadura Primeiro Mnstro del rei Phelipe o Quarto atacando rompendo desmantelando e ganhando a circumralacao inemigo artilheria bagages municoes e secretaria tomando muitos cabos e prezioneirros esta memoria se pos para que os mortaes deem gracas aos nossos exercitos e vitoria e roguem pelas almas dos que se acharam e deram as vidas em tao singular e profiada batalha que durou das nove horas da manhã ete se carar a noite.

In the year of 1659, reign of Afonso VI, on Tuesday fourteenth day of the same year, Don António Luis de Menezes, Marquis of Marialva, captain-general of this province of Alentejo, brought succor to the fort and city of Elvas, which was besieged by Don Luis de Haro, captain-general of Extremadura, prime minister of king Philip VI, attacking, breaching, dismantling, and defeating the enemy positions,  capturing artillery, baggage, munitions, and documents, and taking many soldiers prisoner. This memory was placed so that mortal men may give thanks to our armies for the victory and pray for the souls of those who found themselves in this place and gave their lives in such a singular and hard-fought battle, that lasted from nine in the morning until the darkness of night.

Such was the struggle to keep Portugal free. The battle of the Lines of Elvas, a full nineteen years after the restoration of independence (talk about sore losers) pitted 14,000 Spanish infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 17 pieces of artillery against a Portuguese force of 8,000 foot soldiers, 2,900 horsemen, and 7 bombards. The city had been under siege since October 1658. Only 5,000 Spanish infantry and 300 horsemen made it back across the river to Badajoz.

It took two more pitched battles, Ameixial in 1663 and Montes Claros in 1665, before peace was ratified in 1668.

I’m told we’re currently worried about some guys holding a referendum, and a few kids with Blackberries.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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