Battle of the Three Kings, 1578 ⚔️ Portugal launches a Crusade against Morocco


As the sun rose through the mountains of the
Rif and the Middle Atlas, Sultan Abd al-Malik led his army in prayer. Then, he mounted his horse, surrounded by
five sacred banners and regiments of bodyguards… Across the field arrayed the Crusader army
in a large square formation, their cannons in the front, commanded by the young King
Sebastian, with all the great lords of Portugal at his side, as the royal standards of his
global maritime empire flutter in the gentle breeze. Sebastian came here to become the first Christian
Emperor of Morocco… Morocco endured a prolonged crisis in the 15th and early 16th century. The Portuguese occupation of nearly all seaports
brought about numerous economic, political, and cultural issues. And the decline only worsened when the Wattasids
assumed power, as they did little to try and improve the situation, resulting in the breakdown
of trade, the impoverishment of towns, decline of the intellectual life and the stagnation
of population growth. Against this backdrop of Wattasid conciliatory
policy towards the Catholic Kingdoms to the north, the Saadi dynasty arose in southern
Morocco, determined to re-establish order and curb the expansionist ambitions of the
Iberian kingdoms. Namely, there were three distinct reasons
that motivated the Saadi sharifs to organize the tribes of southern Morocco. First, the encroachment of the Portuguese
further into interior lands of Morocco alarmed local leaders and caused them to seek redress
against the Europeans. Second, the centuries-old trade routes, which
had been an important part of the Trans-Saharan economy were now being challenged by European privateers, who were supported by their monarchs at home. They aggressively tried to monopolize trade
by establishing trading posts in strategic locations along the Atlantic coast, and this
substitution of desert overland routes for the faster sea voyages became a considerable
advantage for the Europeans, which crippled the local economies. Third, Saadi sharifs feared, what they called,
the “Turkish peril”. The Ottoman Empire was in its’ zenith, its’
power stretching across three continents and there were few, if any, countries strong enough
to stop their relentless expansion. And Constantinople had ambitions in Morocco,
having supported the Wattasids as their clients, which allowed them to remain in power for
decades. However, the Saadis were a formidable opponent. Their dynasty’s origins are attributed to
the family of al-Bayt, which were a group of relatives of Prophet Muhammad, and their
ancestors lived in Hejaz, from where they went to western Africa to spread their religion. It was this prophetic lineage that enabled
the Saadis to resist the Ottomans and a period of prosperity followed under the efficient
rule of Mohammed al-Sheikh, who expanded the realm and was particularly effective in driving
out the Portuguese from most of their strongholds, and also destroyed the Ottoman-backed Wattasids
in the north of the country, becoming the first Saadi Sultan to rule over Morocco. Al-Sheikh had three sons, Abdallah al-Ghalib,
Abd al-Malik and Ahmad al-Mansur. From a very young age all three of his sons
showed exceptional potential for statesmanship and military leadership. But Sultan al-Sheikh met an untimely death
when he was assassinated by the Ottomans in 1557, and his eldest son al-Ghalib took the
throne. He would go on to rule Morocco for 17 years,
further consolidating his father’s gains, successfully defending the realm against the
Portuguese, the Spanish, as well as the Ottomans. By now the people of Morocco regarded the
Saadis as heroes, but when al-Ghalib died in 1574 the dynasty faced its’ first crisis. Namely, when the late sultan took the throne
17 years ago, his younger brothers Abd al-Malik and Ahmed al-Mansur fled Morocco to escape
his purge of all dynastic rivals in the country. The then 15-year old prince al-Malik and the
8-year old al-Mansur were forced to seek refuge and settled in Ottoman-ruled Algeria, in Algiers on the coast, a bustling new city enriched by the plunder
from the corsair captains. From there, some years later, the two brothers
travelled the vast expanses of the mighty Ottoman Empire, gaining valuable experience,
as well education and training from their generous hosts. The two princes participated and distinguished
themselves in the disastrous battle of Lepanto in 1571, and volunteered to take part in the
recapture of Tunis in 1574. It was this fighting spirit that brought them
to the attention of Sultan Murat III, who sought to expand Ottoman influence into Morocco
and offered to provide the older brother Abd al-Malik with men, money and munitions, to
help him take the Saadi throne. In exchange, Abd al-Malik promised to pay
15 tons of gold as tribute and lease the port of Larache to the Ottoman fleet. Acquiring such a large and well-built port
on the Atlantic would allow the Ottoman Empire to out-flank Spain in future naval conflicts
and would give the Algerian corsairs an opportunity to intercept the silver bullion being shipped
from South America to Seville. However, it was agreed that these plans would
be put on hold for now as al-Malik did not want to antagonise Spain and also aimed to prevent Morocco from becoming and Ottoman protectorate. The Ottoman-backed invasion of Morocco in
1576 was a resounding success. With sultan al-Ghalib dying two years prior,
his son Abdallah Mohammed II suffered three successive defeats at the hands of al-Malik,
and with an already weak hold on power, he was forced to flee the country, deciding to
seek help in recovering his throne from none other than the Portuguese Empire, an old enemy
of the Saadi dynasty, as Abd al-Malik became the new sultan of Morocco. This was music to King Sebastian’s ears
who began preparations straight away. He now had a pretext to invade and conquer
Morocco, under the cover of helping his ally Abdallah Mohammed to regain his throne. But, more importantly, the invasion was an
opportunity to slow down the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Ottoman military machine towards
the Atlantic, which could threaten the security of the Portuguese coast, their strongholds
in Western Africa, as well as their invaluable trade from across the Atlantic. The 24-year-old Sebastian became king of Portugal
at the age of three. He was mostly looked after by his grandmother
and although she was a devout Roman Catholic, his uncle and other patriotic anti-Castillian
court members ensured that Sebastian would be raised a Jesuit. It’s said that he was a bright but impulsive
boy and, being very fond of military pursuits, he was trained by Portuguese knights in jousting,
riding and sword fighting, and from an early age it was perhaps the Jesuit order that instilled
in him a fanatical desire to conquer Morocco and win glory for Portugal. Indeed, even as a boy, Sebastian spoke of
leading a Crusader army that would destroy the Sultanate of Morocco and converting the
population of North Africa to Christianity, determined to succeed where his predecessors
had failed. This mindset had widespread support in Portugal,
because of the obvious benefits the Empire would have from the trade of gold, cattle,
wheat, sugar, and other produce, which offered opportunities to the mercantile bourgeoisie
and the nobility. And now, in June 1578, Sebastian attended
a service in Lisbon’s cathedral where he was presented with a battle standard embroidered
with an imperial crown, and soon after the Portuguese army of some 23,000 troops embarked
from the harbour, carried by a fleet of 500 ships. It included 2000 Portuguese knights, around
8000 mercenaries, mostly Germans, Castilians, English and Italians, as well as a Papal Infantry
contingent, with the core of the army consisting of Portuguese and Moorish troops. The flower of the Portuguese nobility accompanied
Sebastian with their retinues, with most powerful dukes and petty kings unanimously supporting
the King’s crusade. The army made landfall near the Portuguese
fortress of Asilah in the first days of July. As he disembarked, King Sebastian spotted
a Moroccan detachment in the nearby hills. On the spot he hastily assembled a contingent
of knights and charged to chase off the enemy, without waiting for the rest of his army. The garrison on the walls of Asilah watched
on in amazement and the thousands of troops on the beach, and on the ships, were encouraged
that they would be serving under a fearless young commander who would lead them from the
front. However, further progress into Moroccan territory
was halted, as the Crusaders would spend the entire month of July assembling their vast
camp into marching order, weighed down by the thousands of camp followers, servants,
priests, women, page-boys, and slaves, as well as the fully mobile royal court, portable
pavilions for the nobility, chapels and a royal choir, all fully provisioning the Portuguese
nobility with all of their daily comforts. Needless to say, some of the troops did not
enjoy languishing on the beach as they ate through their supplies, and became disenchanted
with the stalled crusade. But the march finally continued on July 29th. As the army moved south it quickly became
apparent that Sebastian had no intention of capturing the key port city of Larache in
order to secure the coast. Instead, he led his army inland to confront
what he considered to be the main heathen army, aiming to strike a decisive blow that would enable him to conquer the entire Sultanate of Morocco. Meanwhile, Sultan Abd al-Malik was on his
way from Marrakesh. He had been preparing to resist the invasion
for the past eighteen months, and once word reached him that the Crusader fleet left Lisbon
a month earlier, he summoned the tribes of Morocco to defend their nation, their families,
and their faith. Tens of thousands of warriors answered the
call of the son of the great Mohammed al-Sheikh, the first Saadi sultan of Morocco – but
most importantly, Sultan al-Malik’s younger brother Ahmad al-Mansur, who was serving as
governor of Fez, brought with him the men of the northern hills. An army of some 50,000 assembled just north-west
of the town of Alcacer Quibir to meet the invaders as they crossed the Makhazen river
on August 3rd. Tomorrow they would do battle…

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