The origin of the Monastery of Alcobaça, Portugal

The Order of Císter’s origin

To understand why the Monastery of Alcobaça was built on the place where we can find it, we have to go back to the beginning of the Order of Saint Benedict, which I will do in a too-brief way.

The Order of Saint Benedict was born in the year 529 AD, in the Abbey of Montecassino, in Italy.

As a motto, these monks who wore black were guided by “Ora et Labora” which means to pray and work.

It is the oldest Order of Catholic enclosed religious orders.

This Order, at the time it was created, gained many followers and supporters with respective donations.

His original ideals, which pointed to a life of simple existence based on his work’s fruits and spiritual modesty, have changed with time and many donations.

A few centuries later, Benedictine monks lived in abundance, wielding great power far beyond their geographical sphere rightful influence. 

In the 10th century, almost five centuries after the Order had started, Europe experienced chaotic times, with great promiscuity between ecclesiastical power and feudal power. 

This distance from the original order principles began to create protests within a group of monks, which some feudal lords shared.

In 910 AD, Guilherme The Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, donated some land to build a Benedictine monastery that would depend solely on Rome’s power. In this monastery, the dissident monks could create an order that would return to the Benedictines’ original purity.

Bernão, Abbot of Baume, came to direct this new Order known as Order of Cluny.

The Order of Cluny came to be one of the most powerful religious orders of the Middle Ages.

Counting on many donations guaranteed its independence, and the Order ended up having many other Benedictine monasteries under their direction.

But that independence and success resulted in a significant enrichment of the Order and an irremediable distance from their guiding principles.

It is for this fundamental reason that, in 1098, the Order of Císter was born.

A limited group of monks, headed by Roberto de Champagne, abbot of Molesme, founded the Order of Cistercian at Cîteaux Abbey, not far from Burgundy.

The Benedictine monks of this movement distinguish themselves from the rest of Benedictians by:

– wearing a white habit,

– returning to a way of life away from luxuries,

– and living off the fruits of their work in the field and prayer.

This movement quickly gained sponsors among many feudal lords, and, in the 12th century, it found a fertile ground to prosper in the embryonic Portuguese nation.

For Portugal, like other European kingdoms, Cistercians would be responsible for two significant contributions:

        • the introduction of the Gothic style, even though at that time it was still very incipient;
        • the introduction of new agronomic concepts, since their farms were perhaps the most critical sources of dissemination of agricultural practices and culture.

Order of Cistercians in Portugal

In 1139 D. Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, granted a license to build a Monastery of the Order of Cistercians in Portugal to João Círita, who would later be Master of that monastery, the Monastery of São João Baptista of Tarouca .

In the process of conquering Santarém, which ended in 1147, D. Afonso Henriques sent D. Pedro Afonso, to France to request Bernardo de Claraval to intervene in Rome in favor of Afonso Henriques to obtain the Portuguese crown.

Bernardo of Claraval, a Cistercian, was a very important figurehead at the time.

Studies are giving Bernardo de Claraval’s intervention in Rome as fundamental to Portugal’s independence. There are historical doubts whether D. Pedro Afonso would be half brother of D. Afonso Henriques or his bastard son.

In the course of the visit, as mentioned earlier to Claraval, it was decided to donate the lands to the Order of Císter, where nowadays the Monastery of Alcobaça is located.

The subsequent conquering of Santarém contributed to making it possible to build the Abbey in Alcobaça, a village located 60 km northwest of Santarém.

D. Afonso Henriques conquered Portugal from the Moors from north to south, for those who do not know.

Therefore, it is natural that, after conquering Santarém, D. Afonso Henriques continued to move further south to conquer more territories. Consequently, the monks’ intervention in the conquered lands of Alcobaça was essential.

Construction of the Alcobaça Monastery

The donation of land to the Order dates back to 1147, shortly after the conquest of Santarém.

In 1152 the construction of the provisional church began. In 1153, D. Afonso Henriques signed the Letter, formalizing land assignment to the Cistercian Order.

Only in 1178, the current building began to be built. The date of 1222 is accepted as the end of its construction.

Comparing the Alcobaça Monastery with the Claraval Abbey, we can see that the Portuguese monument is a daughter of the french one, so many are similarities between them.

I hope that this first text about the Monastery of Alcobaça has opened the “appetite” for a visit to this magnificent monument.

Carpe diem

David Monteiro