Some 868 years ago today, on 24 October 1147, the city of Lisbon fell to a combined force of besiegers from England, Scotland, Germany, Holland and France. Thanks to a surviving report written by an eyewitness Anglo-Norman cleric, we have an excellent grasp of developments leading up to the siege, the weeks of the siege itself, and its immediate aftermath. From the point of view of a historian, that makes it an absorbing event to study. But it’s also an episode that raises troubling questions about coming to terms with a challenging past, in particular the way that violence has long been intertwined with European history.

At the time of the siege, Lisbon was under the control of a Muslim emir: it was part of Al-Andalus, the Islamic polity created in the eighth century by the invasion and defeat of the Visigothic kingdom. Its capture in 1147 was far from bloodless, as our chronicler, the author of the Conquest of Lisbon, recounts with relish, at least where enemy losses are concerned.[1] Heads are chopped off, ambushes bloodily sprung, and civilians killed (though most of the latter were in the end spared their life, if not their property, in contrast to the massacres commonly reported elsewhere).

Today, this kind of violence is increasingly segregated from general European history and treated separately as part of ‘The Crusades’, an active field of research for which there are specialised courses, journals, conferences, and of course shelves of books in libraries and any local bookshops that happen to survive.[2] In just this vein, the conquest of Lisbon is traditionally considered as part of the Second Crusade, indeed its ‘only success’, after the dismal failure (from a Latin Christian point of view, anyway) of expeditions in the Middle East.

Yet we need to be careful: any notion that there was an entirely distinct compartment of life in the Middle Ages labelled ‘crusading’ is misleading. Holy war or armed pilgrimage were thoroughly interwoven into medieval society, not separated from it. And despite common assumptions to the contrary, there is no convincing evidence that the participants in the siege were following any specific papal orders, or that the attack on Lisbon was pre-planned as part of the ‘Second Crusade‘. It was merely the latest in a series of ad hoc ventures launched by northern sailors (or pirates, depending on your point of view) passing through to the eastern Mediterranean, more or less under their own collective steam.

Viewed from 2015, what makes the violence carried out at Lisbon particularly troubling is precisely its importance in, and for, European history in general terms, beyond the study of ‘The Crusades’. That’s partly because the conquest of the city was a vital moment in the history of a major European state. In 1147, the kingdom of Portugal was just a few years old and was greatly strengthened by the victory at Lisbon. Understandably, the city’s capture resonates to this day in Portuguese culture, for instance in a celebrated (and highly recommended) novel, the History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago, or in modern paintings like this blog’s header image.

More than that, though, the conquest itself was in a sense an example of collective European action, centuries before the European Union was dreamed up. To be sure, the besiegers did not think of it in those terms; they probably did not think of themselves as ‘Europeans’ at all (though the concept of Europe was not quite so unknown in the Middle Ages as is sometimes breezily asserted).[3] Yet the fact remains that the siege was undertaken by a multi-national group of people, or in the words of our eyewitness chronicler, ‘people of so many different tongues’.

What’s more, the besiegers were for the most part not knights, barons and kings, but townsmen from the growing urban communities around the North Sea. These ordinary men came together voluntarily and organised themselves in line with ideas of popular consensus, complete with elected officials. This was not modern democracy, but an arrangement closer to the parliamentary assemblies of medieval Europe – and the popular councils that increasingly ran its towns – than to its royal courts. That was something that the Portuguese king himself found out when negotiating terms with the assisting force:

And when the king inquired who our chiefs were or whose counsels were pre-eminent among us or if we had commissioned anyone to answer for our whole army, he was briefly informed that such and such were our chief men and that their acts and counsels carried especial weight, but that we had not yet decided on anyone on whom authority should be conferred to make answer for all.

In a sense, then, the Conquest of Lisbon was an early and quite remarkable episode of popular and effective international ‘European’ collaboration, undertaken not by heads of state but by ordinary people, giving an institutional form to the trust created through long-term friendly interaction, facilitated by geographic proximity, mutual interests and a broadly shared culture. The kingdom that they helped would go on to play a vital role in European affairs; conversely, so important to Portugal’s future was the siege that we could even say the kingdom was in part created by ‘European’ collaboration.

Yet the fact that this extraordinary and influential collaboration took place in such a terrible context – essentially an act of unprovoked aggression, notwithstanding the crusaders’ lipservice to the Islamic conquest of Spain some three centuries previously – should perhaps give us pause for thought, especially at a time when the European Union, and what Europe means, is once again under scrutiny. How best to deal with the violence inherent in European history is a challenge that isn’t restricted to the recent past, and a problem which hasn’t gone away.

Charles West is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. You can read his study of the siege of Lisbon, ‘All in the Same Boat? East Anglia, the North Sea World and the 1147 Expedition to Lisbon’ in David Bates and Robert Liddiard (eds.), East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages (2013), or a pre-publication version online at You can find Charles on twitter @Pseudo_Isidore.

Cover image: Painting of the siege by the prominent Portuguese painter, Alfredo Gameiro (1917) [Wikicommons].

[1] Conveniently available in English facing-page translation, together with a useful preface by Jonathan Phillips, in David, ed. and tr., The Conquest of Lisbon (2001). All quotations are drawn from this translation.

[2] Particularly recommended is Christopher Tyerman’s new How to Plan a Crusade (2015), with some luminous pages on the Lisbon siege.

[3] The most thorough guide is now Klaus Oschema, Bilder von Europa im Mittelalter (2013). For Anglophone readers, the best remains Timothy Reuter, ‘Medieval ideas of Europe’, History Workshop Journal 33 (1992).

Tags : CrusadesEuropean Unionhistory of European collaborationhistory of portugalhistory of violenceholy warLisbonMiddle AgesNorth SeaSeige of Lisbonsiege of Lisbon
Charles West

The author Charles West


  1. Your name is “Charles West”–indicating that you are a European Christian.

    Yet you portray the reconquest of Lisbon from Mohammedans–enemies over Europe for nearly 1500 years–as something to be ashamed of.


    It is troubling to me that you are a Professor. I do not suggest that you be stripped of your rank or censored, but our great universities should be teaching young men to be PROUD of our glorious history.

    Do you think Mohammedan lecturers teach their charges to be ashamed of the great Islamic conquests in the days of yore?

  2. Thanks, Thorfinnsson. I think we’re not going to agree, but here goes anyway:
    1. I didn’t talk about shame or pride, and I don’t teach my students to feel either in relation to the history I teach them about. I don’t think either emotion’s useful for thinking about the past.
    2. Muslims weren’t enemies of Europe for 1500 years. There were certainly religious tensions at times (on one instance of which this post focuses on), but there was an awful lot of coexistence too at other times and places – as you’d expect. Actually, it can be argued that the rise of Islam was responsible for creating Europe in the first place, by breaking the unity of the Mediterranean world (the so-called Pirenne thesis).

    LIke I said, I don’t think we’re going to agree. But thanks for taking the time to read the blog: I appreciate it.

  3. Professor West,

    I appreciate your polite response, and indeed it is likely that we will have to agree to disagree.

    1. You did not use those terms specifically, but language such as “unprovoked aggression” and “troubling” indicates that you find the Reconquista odious.

    While it is true we must study the past objectively if we are to learn from it (I believe that is what you are getting at), it is also true that we are part of a continuous thread of history which continues to this day. We see ourselves in our ancestors, and where they acted bravely and nobly this should be celebrated in order to encourage similar virtue today.

    2. I can’t agree–at all. Islam is a warrior faith, perhaps because its founding people–nomadic Arabs–were largely herders. Herders are notoriously selected for aggression due to all their property being mobile.

    It was not long after the advent of Islam that Islam came into conflict with the Byzantine Empire, a conflict it would ultimately win after nearly a millennium of struggle. Islam succeeding in bring North Africa and the Near East under its control, and very nearly Europe. Only after Europeans developed decisive technological and institutional superiority did the threat recede–only to ruin owing to our own fecklessness.

    While the Pirenne Thesis has merit, as historically there was a greater division between Southern and Northern Europe than the opposite shores of the Mediterranean, the Roman Empire was expanding what we now think of Europe northwards. It was this feeling that in part led Emperor Valens and his courtiers to invite the Goths into the Empire in 376. Had Islam not arisen it’s possible that what we now think of Europe would encompass North Africa and the Levant. Of course, we would not identify as Europeans.

    Either way cheers on an informative and enjoyable blog. For the record I discovered this from the Twitter feed of the user “Pseudoerasmus”.

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