Order of Avis

The Order of Avis rose to ultimate authority in Portugal, setting its head on the throne in 1385 as Juan I, and ruling Portugal until 1580 as the Aviz dynasty.

By the time the Third Crusade had begun in 1188, however, several military orders had already been founded to support the Iberian Reconquista (the irredentist war against the Moors of southern Iberia that had been in progress since shortly after the original conquest in 711-718 and had been declared to be a crusade by Pope Eugenius III in 1147). The Order of Calatrava was founded by the Cistercian Abbot of Fitero in 1158, just to the south of the Castilian frontier, and quickly acquired lands and houses in southern Castile and Aragon. A second order was founded ca. 1166 at Evora in Portugal under the name the Order of St. Benedict of Evora, but it was soon affiliated with Calatrava, became its Portuguese branch, and after moving its seat to Avis called itself the Order of Avis. The Order of St. Julian of Pereiro was similarly founded as an independent order in Leon by 1176, but it affiliated with Calatrava, became its Leonese branch, and took new names from its successive seats at Trujillo (in 1188) and Alcantara (in 1218). All three of these orders remained affiliated with the Cistercian Order and were treated as direct or indirect dependencies of the Cistercian Abbey of Morimond.

Territories of the Orders of Knighthood in the Iberian kingdoms at the end of the 15th century.

The two principal international military orders were the Templars and the Hospitallers, and they arrived in Portugal in 1128 and 1130 respectively. Their members were recruited mainly from younger or bastard sons of the European nobility. They were disciplined, well-organised and committed for the long term. Particularly from the time of the Almohads they played a major role in the Portuguese Reconquest and ultimately in the resettlement process. They took responsibility for many frontier castles. In the 1150s the Templars were charged with defending Lisbon and Santarém and in 1160 commenced building their great castle at Tomar. The Hospitallers established their principal castle at Belver on the Tagus near Abrantes. During the second half of the twelfth century Portuguese chapters of the Spanish Orders of Santiago and Alcántara were also formed. The rule of Calatrava, which had strong Cistercian associations, was adopted by a brotherhood originally assigned by Afonso Henriques to defend Évora, which later became the exclusively Portuguese Order of Avis. All these military orders played major roles in resisting the Almohads and then renewing the Christian advance. By the reign of Afonso II (1211-23), whose physical disabilities prevented him from personally participating in military activity, their leaders had effectively taken over direction of the Reconquest. The campaigns in the Algarve during the time of Sancho II (1223-45) and the final triumph under Afonso III were particularly the work of the knights of Santiago and Avis.

The Order of Avis, originally known as the Order of Évora. The first definite information about the order dates from 1176; it did not adopt the name of Avis until 1215.

The claims of medieval chroniclers that date the foundation of the order to the mid-twelfth century are unfounded. The conclusions of Rui Pinto de Azevedo are now held to be the most authoritative: he demonstrated that the origins of the order should be situated in Évora, and should be placed between March 1175 and April 1176 [Azevedo, “As origens da ordem de Évora ou de Avis”]. At this time King Afonso I Henriques of Portugal, thanks to a truce with the Almohads, was attempting to elaborate a defensive strategy that would ensure the advanced positions of his kingdom against alAndalus in the Alto Alentejo region (mod. central Portugal). In 1211 the brethren of Évora were given the fortress of Avis, from which they took their new name a few years later. It is unclear why the brethren left their original Benedictine obedience in 1187 and sought association with the Castilian Order of Calatrava, which followed the Cistercian rule. This new dependence was evident in the prerogatives given to the master of Calatrava: he had rights of visitation over the Order of Avis and was also allowed to govern the institution whenever a vacancy in its mastership occurred, which he did until the mid-fourteenth century.

The Order of Avis was composed of knight brethren and clerics. They wore a scapular, which from 1404 bore a green cross on the left side. Under the aegis of its master, the institution gradually gained strength during the first part of the thirteenth century. Supported by the Portuguese monarchy, the brethren were active in the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors, acquiring lands in the process. By the late thirteenth century these properties were organized in a network of no fewer than twenty-five commanderies: the richest of these were concentrated on the left bank of the river Tagus (Port. Tejo) near Avis, and also further south in the newly conquered areas, where the brethren had settled in Évora, Alandroal, Juromenha, Noudar, and Albufeira.

Such extensive land-ownership alarmed the Portuguese monarchy, which felt threatened by the potential power of the order. In the reign of King Dinis (1279-1325), royal policy toward Avis changed radically: the king put an end to donations and began supporting urban oligarchies and Muslim minorities in jurisdictional disputes, even in the town of Avis itself, thus deliberately harming the order’s interests. The masters of Avis were increasingly selected from among the king’s followers, or even his relatives. This can be seen in the case of the Infante Joao (Port. Joao), a natural son of King Peter I who was made the master of the order in 1364 at the age of seven, twenty years before ascending the throne of Portugal.

Joao became king after a two-year civil war, an event that could only reinforce royal interference in the order. After defeating his Castilian rival in 1385 in the battle of Aljubarrota, Joao I tried to maintain control by appointing a faithful follower, Fernao Rodrigues de Sequeira, as master of Avis. When the latter died in 1433, John decided that a master of royal blood would be best able to control the order, and appointed his own son, the Infante Fernao (Ferdinand). This master had to relinquish his position just before his death (1443) after being captured in Tangier. His successor was Pedro, his own nephew and son of Infante Pedro, the regent of the kingdom. Despite a period of exile, Pedro succeeded in keeping his office until his death in 1466. The mastership was then given to the Infante Joao, the elder son of King Afonso V; he remained master after ascending the throne in 1481. Nine years later Joao II gave the mastership to his heir, the Infante Afonso, and then to the Infante Jorge, his own natural son. The latter paved the way for the eventual absorption of the order by the Portuguese Crown, which occurred in 1550.


When the focus of action shifted south in the final century of the Reconquest both traditional seigneurs and concelhos were overtaken as instruments of settlement by large religious corporations. This process gained momentum with the arrival in Portugal from France of the white monks or Cistercians, the era’s most dynamic monastic order. Afonso Henriques granted the Cistercians a swathe of undeveloped territory in Estremadura, where in 1157 they founded Portugal’s greatest abbey at Alcobaça. In Alentejo the crown reserved for itself the towns and their immediate environs, but granted out most other lands to the nobility, monasteries, churches and, above all, the military orders. In 1169 the Templars, who had earlier been given extensive lands in the Zêzere valley, were promised a third of all the territory they could conquer in Alentejo. By the mid-thirteenth century the Templars and Hospitallers between them controlled large parts of Beira Baixa, Ribatejo and northern Alto Alentejo. Much of southern Alto Alentejo belonged to the Order of Avis. Further southwest, especially in Baixo Alentejo, were huge holdings granted to the Order of Santiago, balanced to the southeast by smaller territories possessed by the Templars and Hospitallers. All this meant that collectively the military orders were easily the greatest territorial beneficiaries of the Portuguese Reconquest.

Bibliography Ayala Martinez, Carlos de, Las ordenes militares hispanicas en la Edad Media (siglos XII-XV) (Madrid: Pons, 2003). Azevedo, Rui Pinto de, “As origens da ordem de Évora ou de Avis,” Historia 1 (1932), 233-241. Cunha, Maria Cristina Almeida, A ordem militar de Avis (das origens a 1329) (Oporto: Universidade do Porto, 1989). Fonseca, Luis Adao da, “Ordens militares,” in Dicionario de Historia Religiosa de Portugal, ed. Carlos Moreira Azevedo (Lisboa: Circulo de Leitores, 2001), vol. J-P, pp. 334-345. Pimenta, Maria Cristina Gomes, “A ordem militar de Avis durante o mestrado de D. Fernao Rodrigues de Sequeira,” Militarium Ordinum Analecta 1 (1997), 127-242. —, As ordens de Avis e de Santiago na Baixa Idade Média: O governo de D. Jorge (Palmela: Gabinete de Estudos sobre Ordem de Santiago, 2002).

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