Nobility and Military Orders. Social and Power Relations. (Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries)
António Maria Falcão Pestana de Vasconcelos1
The aim of this article is to present the main conclusions from my doctoral dissertation entitled Nobreza e Ordens Militares. Relações Sociais e de Poder. (Sécs. XIV a XVI) (Nobility and Military Orders. Social and Power Relations. (Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries), defended at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto in January 2009.
In my Ph.D. dissertation, in seeking to lay special stress on the study of the human universe of which these institutions were comprised, I undertook a survey of all the individuals mentioned as belonging to the Military Orders. For this purpose, not only did I make use of the specific documentary sources available for each of the militias—the Orders of the Hospital, Avis, Santiago and Christ—but also various works published on this theme, and the other type of sources, particularly the writings of the chroniclers,3 and the peerage and “genealogical” books.4 This made it possible for me to compile a prosopographic record of 427 individuals, identified as knights and commanders of the Military Orders present in Portugal during the period from the rise to power of the dynasty of Avis to the end of the reign of Dom Manuel.
Next, I identified the genealogy of this human universe, which led me to select and study 33 lineages5—those that, because of the number of their members present in these institutions, gave me greater guarantees of being able to obtain an overall picture of the important role that the monastic-military institutions played in the strategy devised by these lineages. It should also be noted that all the lineages selected belonged to the nobility.
The dissertation begins with a synthesis of the evolution of the various Military Orders (Avis, Christ, Santiago and Hospital) from the reign of Dom Dinis to the reign of Dom Manuel, focusing in particular on the relationship between these institutions and the established power.
The reign of Dom Dinis is therefore the starting point for our approach to this question, since it was during this period that the Military Orders underwent the first changes that were to leave their mark on the following centuries. If, until that time, the Military Orders had generally been seen as institutions of an essentially religious/military nature, from the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century onwards, because of the lands donated to them, they began to be seen as great territorial powers, endowed with extensive estates that it was in their interest to control and render profitable.
- The appointment of the Master of the Order—the first appointment was made in 1311, with the nomination of Dom Garcia Peres do Casal,6 the second in 1316, with the election of Dom Gil Martins;7 and the last with the nomination of Dom Vasco Afonso as the replacement for the same Dom Gil Martins, whom the king appointed as the master of the newly created militia of Our Lord Jesus Christ;
- The pursuit of a policy which, in the short term, freed the Order of Avis from its links to the Order of Calatrava, thus avoiding the need for the representatives of the Castilian militia to confirm the master appointed in Portugal.8
Another of Dom Dinis’ concerns was to place the Order of Santiago amongst the group of the Crown’s interests within the framework of international policy—separating the Order in Portugal from its headquarters at Uclés, and consequently from its subordination to the master or general of that Order based in Castile10—thus succeeding in bringing an end to the rather equivocal situation that had existed until then regarding the obedience and loyalty of the holders of countless lands and castles on the border between the two countries in the event of any conflict between them.
Besides his interference in the affairs of the Orders of Avis and Santiago, Dom Dinis also made his presence felt, more forcefully, in the process leading to the extinction of the Order of the Temple and the consequent creation of Order of Our Lord Jesus Christ.11 The Crown’s intervention in this institution was not only limited to this foundational act, but it was also to be noted in the appointment of its masters, beginning with the appointment of Dom Gil Martins, until that time the Master of the Order of Avis, and later, on his death, with the appointment of Dom João Lourenço, contrary to the rules that provided for the free election of the master by the community.
Dom Dinis also intervened in the internal life of the Order of the Hospital, seeking to check some of the seigniorial impulses of some of its knights.12 He interfered in matters of a legal and/or administrative nature,13 encouraging the signing of various trade and exchange agreements, always with the aim of establishing his influence and power over the reorganization of his realm.14
As far as international policy was concerned, the suppression of the Order of the Temple led Dom Dinis to hand the property of the Knights Templar to the newly created militia of Our Lord Jesus Christ,15 thus preventing this estate from being annexed by an international Order—the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
The reigns of Dom Afonso IV, Dom Pedro I and Dom Fernando were characterized by a continuity in the Crown’s relationship with these institutions, even though there were clearly certain differences in the way these kings attempted to influence the life of these organizations.
Afonso IV’s relationship with the Order of Avis was marked by his constant attempts to control the abuses perpetrated by the members of this militia in their dealings with other powers, particularly the concelhos,16 whereas, in the case of Dom Pedro I, his relationship with this institution was marked by the granting of certain letters of privilege, both to the institution and its members, but above all by the appointment of his son Dom João as its master.17 In his turn, Dom Fernando, his actions dictated by the international conjuncture—wars with Castile—and the behavior of the queen Dona Leonor, who sought to control the master of this militia, actually ended up imprisoning the latter in Évora castle.18
In the case of the Order of Santiago, we should note the importance that both Dom Afonso IV and Dom Fernando attached to the process of succession that was followed in appointing the master of this militia. The former clearly demonstrated the great care and attention that he dedicated to this process when, after the death of Dom Pedro Escacho, he requested information about the way that the election of the new master should take place;19 the latter—Dom Fernando—hidebound by the crisis that marked his reign, chose to entrust the mastership of this militia to someone who merited his complete confidence—Dom Fernão Afonso de Albuquerque. As far as Dom Pedro I is concerned, his behavior towards this militia, just like all the others, was marked by the granting of privileges both to this Order and to its members. At the same time, the absence of any conflict between these two institutions makes it possible for us to consider that his behavior towards this Military Order was altogether quite pacific.20
Throughout this period, the Crown’s position in relation to the Order of Christ was marked, at certain moments, by some divergences between the various monarchs and masters, episodes that always culminated in the resignation of the latter. This was what happened when Dom Afonso IV ascended the throne, with the consequent resignation of Dom João Lourenço, and later, when Dom Pedro I ascended the throne and the master of the Order at that time, Dom Rodrigo Eanes, resigned his position. Such situations clearly highlight the power and influence that the Crown had over this institution, immediately dismissing those who did not give it their support and placing people that it could trust in charge of the Order.
In view of what has just been said, it is therefore not surprising to find that, throughout the period in question, all the monarchs paid special attention to the process of succession in regard to the mastership of this militia. This is clearly proved by Dom Afonso IV’s appointments of Dom Martim Gonçalves Leitão, his brother Estêvão Gonçalves Leitão and Rodrigo Eanes; by Dom Pedro I’s appointment of Dom Nuno Rodrigues Freire de Andrade; and Dom Fernando’s appointment of Dom Lopo Dias de Sousa, the queen’s nephew.21
The Crown’s placing of trusted people in charge of this Military Order was a guarantee that they could depend on this institution whenever they needed to. This seems to have been the case with the presence of this Military Order fighting on the side of Dom Afonso IV at the Battle of Salado; the presence of this militia in the aid that Dom Pedro I decided to offer Castile in the war against Aragon; in the support that the Order gave Dom Fernando throughout the successive campaigns against Castile; and, given the Great Schism in the Catholic Church, in the choice to render obedience to Avignon or Rome depending on the position of the monarch.
As far as the Order of the Hospital is concerned—since this was an international order whose leadership was located outside Portugal—the Crown’s dealings with this institution amounted more to a demonstration of the exercise of power and the requirement that the Order fulfill its duties. It is in this context that we should understand Dom Afonso IV’s actions in raising obstacles to the free circulation both of goods and people from the Order, as well as obliging it to provide evidence of the jurisdictional rights that it claimed to be entitled to.22 For Dom Pedro I, the exercise of his power and authority was to be displayed in another way, namely through the exercise of his royal prerogative—granting privileges both to the Order and its members.
The policy followed by Dom Fernando differed from that of his predecessors. As a result of the schism existing in the Christian world, the king did not shrink from calling into question the nomination made by the Grand Master of the Order of the Hospital of Dom Álvaro Gonçalves Camelo for the position of Prior of Crato. By momentarily choosing to pay obedience to Pope Clement VII, Dom Fernando managed to achieve his wishes, namely the appointment of Pedro Álvares Pereira to the position of Prior of the Portuguese Knights Hospitaller. Once again, this clearly demonstrated the Crown’s concern with placing trustworthy people at the head of these institutions.23 It was not by chance that the king sought the opinion of the Prior of Crato about matters of government and later appointed him governor of the city of Lisbon.
Throughout the period corresponding to the reigns of Dom João I, Dom Duarte and Dom Afonso V, the most notable feature of the relationship between the Crown and the Military Orders was the Crown’s concern with exercising control over these institutions.
This is how we can understand that the successive kings, or those who momentarily exercised power on their behalf, always paid particular attention to the nomination and appointment of the governors of the Orders of Avis, Santiago and Christ, and to the appointment of the Prior of Crato, in the case of the Order of the Hospital. At first, these positions were occupied by people who did not belong to the Royal Family—Dom Fernão Rodrigues de Sequeira in the Order of Avis; Dom Fernando Afonso de Albuquerque, and after his death Mem Rodrigues de Vasconcelos, in the Order of Santiago; Dom Lopo Dias de Sousa in the Order of Christ; and Dom Álvaro Gonçalves Camelo24, and on his death Dom Nuno Gonçalves de Góis, as the Prior of the Order of the Hospital. In the short term, however, this practice became unthinkable, in view of the increasingly centralized policy adopted by these sovereigns.
Thereafter, the government and administration of the Military Orders was handed as a matter of course to the Infantes, members of the Royal Family, and preferably the sons of kings. When this did not happen—as in the case of the Order of the Hospital—such appointments always took into account the proximity of the appointee to the monarch, and there were even ties of kinship between the two, as in the case of Dom Vasco de Ataíde, one of the godfathers of the future Dom João II.
Not only did the Crown strictly adhere to this policy of carefully choosing certain specific people to take charge of the governorship and administration of these militias, but it also sought to intervene in these institutions in order to clearly exert its authority and power. It is therefore not surprising to find that the successive monarchs marked their presence in these institutions through a policy of granting jurisdictional, fiscal, economic or judicial privileges to the Orders and their members, as well as letters of pardon and exemptions, while also providing them with services, donations, pensions, authorizations and appointments.
In the reigns of Dom João II and Dom Manuel, the relationship between the Crown and the Military Orders cannot be understood without taking into account the fact that, before ascending the throne, both monarchs were already Masters of Military Orders—Dom João, as the Infante and heir to the throne was already responsible for the administration of the Orders of Avis and Santiago, and Dom Manuel, simultaneously Duke of Viseu and Duke of Beja, was already the Governor of the Order of Christ. Another factor to be borne in mind is that they were both fully aware of the importance that these militias had within the fabric of society, and the support and loyalty that they could provide. This situation certainly contributed to the fact that, after being acclaimed king, they both refused to give up their governorships of their respective Orders.
It is therefore not surprising to find that, in combining their prerogatives as sovereigns with those that they enjoyed as governors of the aforementioned militias, both Dom João II and Dom Manuel paid particular attention to the rules governing each of those institutions. In this context, they both ordered the formation of Capítulos Gerais (General Chapters)—the Order of Avis in 1488, whose decisions were applied in Santiago in 1490; and the Order of Christ in 1503—with the aim of ensuring the approval of new rules to better prepare their militias for meeting the new challenges facing the Crown and consequently the Orders.25
Besides this stance that each of the monarchs took towards the Order for which they were responsible, we should also mention the fundamental points in the relationship that each of the sovereigns was to maintain with the other Military Orders.
Thus, as far as the reign of Dom João II and his relationship with the Order of Christ are concerned, attention is drawn to the death of the then governor of the Order, Dom Diogo, at the hands of the monarch and the subsequent appointment of his brother Dom Manuel as the governor of this same militia. In keeping with what had always been the Crown’s policy towards these institutions, the stance taken by Dom Manuel/the Order—following the death of his brother/the Governor—made a decisive contribution to the Crown’s granting a series of benefits, donations and privileges.26
For the Order of the Hospital, the Crown’s position was not substantially different from the one that it adopted towards the other institutions. Thus, in accordance with its policy of limiting the seigniorial power of the Order, the king was to intervene in this institution by reducing certain privileges, or by marking out strict limits for its area of influence. Such a situation did not invalidate the granting of privileges and donations both to the Order as an Institution and to its members. On the death of the Prior of Crato, Dom Vasco de Ataíde, the king’s godfather, the Crown would again intervene in the internal affairs of this militia, namely in the appointment of his successor. The choice fell upon Dom Diogo Fernandes de Almeida, the son of the first Count of Abrantes, originating from a family that had always demonstrated great proximity and loyalty to this king.27
Besides these moments referred to above, mention should also be made of the fact that the governorships of the Orders of Avis and Santiago were handed to the prince and heir to the throne Dom Afonso, and later, on his death, to Dom Jorge de Lencastre, the bastard son of Dom João II.
When Dom Manuel ascended the throne, the relationship with the other Military Orders was immediately and forcibly imposed with the handing of the governorship of the Orders of Avis and Santiago to Dom Jorge. The references to the king in the various rulings made by Dom Jorge, and his presence on the estates belonging to the Order of Santiago, are a clear example of the king’s determination to impose the Crown’s control over these institutions.28 This situation would only be attenuated to some extent when the king implemented some of the clauses from the will of Dom João II relating to this son of his, instituting a house for him and also preparing his marriage.
In the case of the Order of the Hospital, Dom Manuel was also to place this institution within his sphere of influence by granting and confirming a wide variety of privileges. The Crown’s presence was also felt, as usual, when it came to deciding upon the succession of the Prior of Crato, Dom Diogo Fernandes de Almeida, who had died in the meantime. Dom Manuel was therefore to request the Pope to nominate as the prior of the Portuguese Hospitallers Dom João de Meneses, the count of Tarouca, who until then had been the commander of Sesimbra, of the Order of Santiago.29
In studying the theme of the Military Orders, I have sought to point out the main differences in the rules governing these institutions—stressing the rules of conduct that were to be obeyed by all those wishing to enter these institutions as friar-knights. I have also sought to stress the reforms that over time were to lighten the modus vivendi of these knights, both at a temporal and a spiritual level. This process was designed to make them better prepared for the Crown’s great aim of expansion into North Africa and the Orient, while, at the same time, making the orders more attractive to the sector of society that it was most important to captivate; namely the nobility.
The second part of this dissertation deals in particular with the subject of the nobility. I therefore begin by analyzing the behavior of this sector of society towards the monarchy, from the reign of Dom João I to that of Dom Manuel, giving special emphasis to the strategies adopted by noblemen.
Following on from what was said above, it is important to stress the idea that, throughout the period under consideration (from Dom João I to Dom Manuel), the nobility always displayed a great capacity for adapting to the political, economic and social conjuncture of each moment.
Many of the positions adopted by the nobility were therefore the fruit either of interests existing among the different sectors of this class or of the increasing rivalry between different lineages seeking to gain ever greater influence and status, or of the constant search for prominence on the part of certain branches in relation to others, even within the same lineage. However, the prominence and influence of the nobility in medieval society had always called for the adoption of a strategy, be it one of support, rejection or even submissiveness at certain moments in the life of the nation, always trusting that the choice that was made would result in their ending up on the winning side. So, it is therefore not surprising to find that, throughout the period under analysis, and particularly at the most troubled times in the nation’s history (the election of the Master of Avis, and the Battle of Aljubarrota;33 the regency of the Infante Dom Pedro, and the Battle of Alfarrobeira;34 participation in the conspiracies against Dom João II;35 support for the succession of Dom Manuel in detriment to Dom Jorge),36 the nobility, as a whole, never adopted a uniform strategy and behavior towards the different factions in confrontation with one another. In fact, the adoption of a certain strategy on the part of one particular branch, lineage or sector of the nobility, resulting in the victory of a certain faction, was in itself only an added advantage for the nobles with a view to their seeing their efforts rewarded, either through the granting of benefices, property or even noble titles, by the power that came to be instituted.
The nobility’s constant search for ever more and better benefits soon led them to devise strategies for situating themselves close to the court and the monarch, frequently with the aim of joining the restricted circle of royal counselors, gaining influence in the administration and government of the realm, and occupying the main positions in the more important institutions, such as the monastic and military Orders.
The support given by the nobles to the policy for expansion into North Africa, which had begun in the reign of Dom João I with the conquest of Ceuta in 1415, and was successively encouraged by the monarchs who followed him, not only provided the various sectors of the nobility with the ideal conditions for exercising their main function—war—but also enabled some sectors, namely those situated in the middle nobility of the court and the middle and low regional nobility, to take up arms and see their deeds rewarded with noble titles and the appointment to important positions—as governors and captains of fortresses in Morocco—as well as seeing their personal prestige and that of their lineage increased, at the same time providing them with a new source of income and an increase in their wealth and property.37
It is also in this context that we can understand the strategy adopted by the nobility in its support for Dom Afonso V’s claim to the crown of Castile, actively participating in the different episodes of war occurring in the neighboring country, most notably the Battle of Toro.38
However, it was when Dom João II ascended the throne and implemented his centralizing policy that the high nobility suffered its greatest setbacks—and here I am referring in concrete terms to the suppression of the House of Bragança and the death of its duke,39 and the death of Dom Diogo, duke of Viseu. However, this centralizing policy, which greatly reduced the privileges enjoyed by the grandees of the realm, did not prevent the monarch from creating the necessary conditions for other sectors of the nobility to prosper. I am referring in concrete terms to the attention that the monarch began to pay to all maritime and trading activity along the coast of West Africa, in which many members of the regional middle and low nobility became involved.40It was precisely as a result of this participation that commercial activity and profit seeking began to be regarded by certain sectors of the nobility as another way of life, in contrast to their traditional view of enrichment through the granting of benefits, the conquest of honor and the recognition of armed services. In this context, the arrival of Vasco de Gama in India and the consequent opening of a new trade route with direct access to spices represented a clear turning point in the strategy adopted by some sectors of the nobility in terms of their involvement in commercial activity.
The ascension to the throne of Dom Manuel, the restoration of the House of Bragança, and the creation of the House of Coimbra, were events that led to the reorganization and the definition of the hierarchy of the nobility. Changes that made it possible for the different sectors, depending on the hierarchical level to which they belonged, to devise strategies that were more favorable for their own interests, enabling them to choose their preferred area of intervention—North Africa and/or the Orient—and the nature of their particular intervention—war and/or trade.
Following this study of the behavior of the nobility in the period between the rise to power of the Dynasty of Avis and the end of the reign of Dom Manuel, I shall now analyze the presence of this sector of society in the various Military Orders.
The genealogical reconstruction of the 33 noble families already referred to makes it possible not only to characterize them inside the social grouping to which they belonged (note that of the families in question, referred to 84% belonged to the group of the Court Nobility, and 16% to the group of the Regional Nobility, representing as a whole the main lineages of the Portuguese nobility of that time), but also to note the ever greater interest that these families showed in having representatives in these institutions. Having members of one’s family in the Military Orders was not only a matter of social prestige, but also brought economic and hereditary advantages.
If, until the beginning of the fourteenth century, the equal sharing of a family’s estate was the common practice—leading to its division among all the members of the family and consequently resulting in a greater fragmentation of the inheritance—the appearance of the morgadio system of entailment, with the consequent indivisibility of the estate and its transmission solely to the first-born son, led many of the second sons of the main noble families to opt for a career of armed service in one of the Military Orders, as a way of guaranteeing that they could maintain their status within the class to which they belonged.
It is therefore not surprising that, from the mid-fourteenth century onwards and throughout the fifteenth century, there was an ever greater number of aristocrats to be found joining the Military Orders.46
Thus, for the period between 1385 and 1450, we can note the presence of an already significant number of nobles in the various Military Orders, with 41% of them opting for the Order of Santiago, followed by roughly 28% joining the Order of Christ, 19% in the Order of Avis, and, finally, 11% in the Order of the Hospital.
Graph 1—Distribution of the human component in the different Military Orders—1385/1450
Various factors contributed to the preference shown by the nobility for the Order of Santiago, most notably:
It is in this context that we can understand the preference shown for this militia by a considerable number of noble families, during the period under study here.47
This interest displayed by the nobility in the Military Orders was to increase considerably in the period between 1450 and 1495, with a remarkable growth of 63% in the number of noble members compared with the previous period. Also to be noted is the fact that these men chose to enter another institution to the one that had previously been preferred by most of them. Thus, for the period under study, the order chosen by most nobles was that of the Order of Christ, with roughly 39% of all choices, followed by the Order of Santiago (26%), the Order of Avis (17%), and finally the Order of the Hospital (13%).
Graph 2—Distribution of the human component in the different Military Orders—1450/1495
As far as the Order of Santiago is concerned, it can be seen that there was an almost complete stagnation in the number of members of the nobility joining the institution—only one more member than in the previous period. So it can be said that, of the families mentioned in the previous period, almost all maintained their preference for the Order of Santiago.48
In the case of the Order of Christ, the high percentage of new members was due to a series of factors, most notably:
Taking into account the fact that one of the main objectives of the nobility was to gain access to new sources of income, increase their prestige and honor, it is not surprising that, throughout this period, those who entered the Order of Christ did so with the aim of finding new sources of wealth by owning and administering certain properties, namely feudal benefices. It should be stressed that these estates were located in areas where, until then, the nobility had not traditionally owned property, or, in other words, the whole of the region to the south of the River Douro and the valley of the River Tagus. In fact, it was precisely during the reign of Dom Afonso V that the first noble titles were granted that brought their holders possession of estates in this geographical area.56
In this way, we can understand that many of the second sons of the main lineages of the kingdom, who had entered the Military Orders, also came to enjoy ownership and power over the estates of the Order of Christ which were mainly located in that region.57
This reality, while demonstrating a growing “feudalization” on the part of the nobility over a territory that until then had been closed to them, did, however, amount more to a possession that was consented and controlled by the Crown rather than being one that was effectively controlled by the noble families themselves. It should be remembered that the administration and government of the Order of Christ was in the hands of the members of the Royal Household, subject to the will of its governor, who benefited those who merited his trust and confidence, but also the members of the militia belonging to noble families that it was in the Crown’s interest to “benefit” as part of its global strategy.
For the period between 1495 and 1521, the number of members of the nobility present in the Orders increased by 131% in relation to the previous period.Thus, in the case of the lineages covered by this study, it should be noted that their main preference was for the Order of Christ, which accounted for roughly 63% of choices, followed by the Order of Santiago with roughly 21%, the Order of Avis with roughly 12%, and finally the Order of the Hospital with only 2% of all choices.
Graph 3—Distribution of the human component in the different Military Orders—1495/1521
By not renouncing the government and administration of the Order of Christ and implementing the necessary internal reforms, Dom Manuel created the essential conditions for his being able to enjoy the full benefits of an estate and an income that had previously been closed to him, as the land and property had previously been the hereditary estate of the Church. After his reforms, he was able to use it for the benefit of whoever he wished to grant privileges to.58
From 1495 until the end of Dom Manuel’s reign, most of the noble families under study here chose to follow a strategy of channeling the greatest number of its individual members into the Order of Christ, so that this soon began to represent, if not all of the nobility’s preferences, at least its great majority.59
There were other lineages that sought to maintain their preferential links with what until then had been the Order of the Family, but given the nature of the conjuncture at that time, the important thing was for them to place their members in the Order of Christ.60
This growth in the Order of Christ highlights the importance and influence that this militia was beginning to gain in the kingdom, reaching its peak when it began to be governed and administered by the king himself.
Thus, during the period ranging from the ascension to the throne of Dom João I to the end of the reign of Dom Manuel, it can be seen that the number of individuals entering the Military Orders kept growing, reaching its peak in the reign of Dom Manuel.
Graph 4—Relationship between the number of years and the number of people entering the Military Orders
The growth in the number of individuals from the nobility to be found serving as members of the Military Orders provided the Crown, especially during the reign of Dom Manuel, with the possibility of controlling large sections of the nobility and ensuring their dependence upon its favors, by awarding privileges and granting the estates of these institutions, while simultaneously placing them at the service of the Crown.
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1Researcher at CEPESE - Center for Studies on the Population, Economy and Society, Portugal. Post-doctorate scholarship holder from the Foundation for Science and Technology. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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