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Space and Time



Born out of the faith of King João I, the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, commonly known as the Monastery of Batalha, gave life to its surroundings and shaped their development over more than six centuries. At its heart once stood the Quinta do Pinhal estate, purchased by the King from Egas Coelho and his mother, Maria Fernandes de Meira, not long after the triumph of Aljubarrota (1385), for the purpose of building the monastery. As the original conventual setting, he gave permission to the Dominican community to use the church that would come to be known as Santa Maria-a-Velha and its annexes, granting them ownership of the monastery in 1388. These buildings may have been adapted from others that once existed on the site.


A particular characteristic of the Dominican monastery of Batalha was its capacity to  constitute its oun territory, whether through donation, purchase and the exchange of property, special dispensation having been granted to this mendicant community by Pope Boniface IX in 1391.


The agreement that the Avis dynasty made with the Monastery of Batalha took on a new dimension from the moment in which King João I decided to build his own pantheon there, followed by his successor, King Duarte. To this end, the Portuguese kings up to King João III, excepting King João II, will continue to support the expansion of Batalha. However, one thing is sure, both King Manuel I and King João III showed concern about finishing hydraulic system as well as the pantheon of King Duarte, and the closing of vaults with stained glass windows or elaborate arrangements of flags. During the reign of King Afonso V, the monastic space was expanded for the first time, with the construction of a cloister on two floors: the ground floor most likely already functioning as a storage space for provisions; the above floor being where the friars resided, as well as housing the library, the notary, the apothecary and infirmary.


During the 15th century, other land was added to the initial properties of the Quinta do Pinhal estate, either by way of charity donation or straightforward purchase. In the 16th century, the decision to combine the existing territories continues, this time through trading properties.


From 1551 onwards, the Monastery of Batalha suffers a profound change due to the general reform of the Catholic Church and the establishment of the theological studies within the monastery itself, resulting in the addition to the Gothic buildings of two new cloisters with their respective dependencies. The Preacher Friars were now subject to strict isolation, taking solace from the contemplation of nature and the open air. At the same time, the Studium of Batalha were promoted to the category of generale, in other words, a university. The 156h century cloisters and their annexes would come to be demolished during the restoration work of the monument in the 19th century.


In 1514, the Quinta do Pinhal estate borders with the surrounding properties were strictly defined, which prepared the ground for the so-called conventual wall, during the 1540s. And so the rural land was integrated with the monastery harmonising the relation between the natural surroundings and the man-made, a landscape which has survived unaltered for almost four and a half centuries.


The monastery shaped the development of the town of Batalha, which began to grow around where once had stood the church of Santa Maria-a-Velha. This had been the oldest square in the town, profoundly reconfigured after the 16th century expansion of the monastery on an unprecedented scale, when it put up a long windowed façade with its prominent doorway. Through there passed some of the oldest thoroughfares of the area: the Rua Velha to the Convent and the Rua de Nossa Senhora do Caminho, which still exists today. They both converged on exiting Batalha in the direction of Golpilheira and Leiria. At the roadside, a chapel of prayer dedicated to Our Lady of the Way, incorporated within the conventual wall, offered protection for the traveller. A bridge  then crossed the river and the road continued. The wall followed it for some metres before veering north, marking the borders of adjacent land.


The history of the Dominican convent of Batalha, from the middle of the 16th century to 1834, date of its closing, is far less well known than those periods of Gothic construction. Nonetheless, besides what has already been mentioned here, some dramatic moments in the life of the monastic community are known to us: the earthquake in 1755, the Third French Invasion (1810) and the extinction of the convent in 1834.


The long twilight of this period fascinated some foreigners who, by chance or curiosity, visited Batalha. They were received by the Preacher Friars as warmly as possible in spite of their humbling circumstances. All stressed the difficulties, the effort, the dignity and strength of their character in difficult but devoted times for the monastic communities. Most of these visitors were subjects of the British Crown, well connected to Portuguese royalty or, at the very least they came well-recommended by the community of English traders that had settled here. Their connections meant a visit to the Monastery was more than likely. They found in Portugal a world long-eradicated from their homeland by industrial, agricultural and scientific progress. This world was under threat by the liberal revolutions cascading through Europe and North America. The first of them was the French Revolution in 1789, the year in which Murphy came to Batalha.


The eyewitness accounts, particularly those left to us by James Murphy and William Beckford, seem one of those charmed moments in history where extreme circumstances result in a paeon to paradise so often lost.


The Dominican lands stretched far beyond the monastic wall. Aside from the rented properties, neighbouring Quinta da Várzea estate notably was ran by the community and served as a place for the friars to unwind in isolation, at least from the 17th century onwards.


After the extinction of the monastery, in 1834, the monastic buildings and the wall came to differing fates: the State took over the buildings but the estate was sold privately to José Maria Crespo, once separated from the monastery with the enclosure reconfigured accordingly. In this final phase of its existence, the old monastic estate would come to be known as the Quinta da Cerca or Estate of the Enclosure. The monastery would have to wait till 1840 before receiving the attention of the Government which, on the insistence of King Consort Fernando II, would grant it an annual budget for restoration.


As the Monastery of Batalha was restored, a new period in the life of the old monastic buildings would come to pass, up to the present. They would henceforth be seen exclusively as a memorial and monument, essentially with no religious purpose, and now the responsibility of the State. For the most part, the signs of monastic life were erased, especially those of the reforms of the 16th century represented by the two mannerist cloisters and their adjoining spaces. This happened as a result of general anticlerical feeling and an 19th century taste for medieval styles, in detriment to architecture from other periods. The use of the church and the sacristy by the parish of Batalha for religious purposes will keep a soft flame of religious life up to the present day.


Batalha’s use as a memorial, given new impetus in part by King Carlos I’s interest in restoring the tombs of King Afonso V, King João II and Prince Afonso, would be intensified when it was chosen to be, from 1921, the site for homage to all Portuguese servicemen who lost their life in World War I – the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


During the dictatorship of the Estado Novo, or New State, the Monastery of Batalha would be more clearly recognised as a patriotic symbol, after a long gestation period going back to the restoration of the architecture, the nationalistic writings of Alexandre Herculano and, of course, its selection as the setting for the tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the First Republic. It was also during this period, particularly during the 1940s, that the surrounding area was also given extensive care and attention, clearing large areas of land around the buildings. This project would only be implemented with the construction in 1964 of a link to the national highway, now known as the IC2, which resulted in the demolition of a large part of the ancient town of Batalha, as well as significant alterations in its topography on the eastern side.


Left in José Maria Crespo’s will to his daughter Júlia Charters Crespo, the Quinta da Cerca estate would be donated by her to the Diocese of Leiria, who explored it until the 1970s. Most of it was subsequently sold into private hands and then split between private and public owners, namely in order to carry out the construction of the last section as predicted in the urban preplan of architect Inácio Peres Fernandes, from 1959 – the so-called Cell C.