Today in European history: the Battle of Alcácer Quibir (1578)

A fairly insignificant battle for control of Morocco has a major impact on Portuguese history.

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The 1578 Battle of Alcácer Quibir is an interesting case of unintended consequences. The product of a Portuguese attempt to exploit a succession crisis in Morocco, its outcome actually helped create a succession crisis in Portugal. The situation in Morocco was a pretty straightforward usurpation. The Bani Zaydan, also known as the Saadis, were the dynasty that ruled either part or all of Morocco for about 100 years, gaining control over southern Morocco in the first half of the 16th century and then extending its dominion over all of Morocco through the first half of the 17th century. Under Muhammad al-Shaykh (d. 1557) they were able to eliminate both the Ottoman-backed Wattasid Dynasty of northern Morocco and the Portuguese colonial presence in coastal cities/fortresses like Agadir, Asilah, and the place where this battle was fought, al-Qasr al-Kabir (or Alcácer Quibir for the Portuguese).

After Muhammad al-Shaykh came his son, Abdallah al-Ghalib (d. 1574), who consolidated his father’s gains and defended them against the Ottomans in particular. When he died, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Abu Abdallah Mohammed II (d. 1578, which is a spoiler), and here’s where the Saadis ran into some trouble. Abdallah al-Ghalib’s brother, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik I (d. 1578, also a spoiler, sort of), immediately headed off to Constantinople (and yes, the Ottomans still called it Constantinople) to ask for help knocking his nephew off the throne. The Ottomans obliged, and sent Abu Marwan back to North Africa to raise an army with Ottoman help, with which he then invaded Morocco and captured Fez in 1576. Abu Abdallah, now a former sultan but still very much alive, decided to head off in search of his own powerful patron, and who better to help him than the kingdom still stinging from losing most of Moroccan holdings just a couple of decades earlier?

The very young (24) Sebastian I of Portugal (d. 1578, again a spoiler) received Abu Abdallah and decided to help him. Portugal’s Moroccan problem was looking more serious now that Abu Marwan had become an Ottoman client, which meant a potential Ottoman threat against the parts of the Moroccan coast that Portugal still held. The arrival of Abu Abdallah seemed like a perfect opportunity to not only regain Portugal’s lost territory, but to put a Portuguese client on the Moroccan throne to boot. So Sebastian put together an army (around 18,000 men) and a fleet large enough to carry it, and sailed it to Arzila, one of the few Moroccan ports still in Portuguese hands. There he met Abu Abdallah, who had another ~6000 men with him, and the combined army marched off to meet Abu Marwan’s forces (a much larger army, probably at least 3 times what Sebastian had) near Alcácer Quibir.

The Battle of Alcácer Quibir is sometimes called the “Battle of the Three Kings” because, well, it involved three kings. Clever, I know. Yes, two of those kings were claiming the same kingdom, but why let that minor detail ruin a perfectly good nickname? The important thing to note is not that there were three kings present at the start of the battle, but that none of them survived it.

Although we’re well into the era of gunpowder weapons and tactics by now, the battle seems to have gone according to a very old script: the army with a large cavalry, Abu Marwan’s, surrounded and thoroughly decimated the army without cavalry. Abu Abdallah drowned crossing a river while trying to flee. The gravely ill Abu Marwan also died, albeit not in battle—though to be sure, the exertion of preparing his army and marching into battle couldn’t have helped. His brother, Ahmad al-Mansur (d. 1603), succeeded him and Saadi Morocco was peaceful again. Ahmad actually had quite a successful career as sultan, conquering (albeit briefly) the once-powerful Songhai Empire in Mali among other achievements.

The real fallout of Alcácer Quibir landed, as I say, on Portugal. Sebastian was probably killed in the battle, though in point of fact his body was never definitively recovered and legends persisted in Portugal that he would RETURN ONE DAY IN THE HOUR OF HIS PEOPLE’S GREATEST—well, you know how that kind of thing goes. Unsurprisingly, plenty of con men over the ensuing decades did try to claim that they were the returned Sebastian. But in reality, he either died in battle or availed himself of the opportunity to escape his humiliation by slinking off into the desert and disappearing into obscurity. Either way, he wasn’t ruling Portugal anymore. And, because he had no heir apparent, neither was anybody else. His uncle, Henry, who also had no heir and was in fact a Catholic Cardinal before this all happened, took the throne, but only lasted until 1580 before he expired. His ~2 years in power were spent desperately trying to pay off the debt incurred by Sebastian for his little gap year adventure in Morocco.

When Henry died, Portugal was invaded by Philip II of Spain (d. 1598), who was Sebastian’s uncle, and “Philip II of Spain” also became “Philip I of Portugal.” Thus was born the Iberian Union, which lasted until 1640 and met its end amid the 1640-1668 Portuguese Restoration War. There’s a strong possibility that neither of those things would have happened had it not been for the otherwise fairly unremarkable Battle of Alcácer Quibir and the death of King Sebastian.