Battle of the Three Kings, 1578 ⚔️ The Kings clash at Alcácer Quibir


Without too much scouting ahead, when the
Portuguese army crossed the river they were bewildered by the large numbers of tribal
cavalry and infantry that were assembling across the field. King Sebastian immediately decided that the
only tactical option for his much smaller force of 23,000 was to form into a vast square. In the center, the wagon train was formed
as a fort to protect the camp followers and provide a central anchor for the army. Portuguese regiments formed the flanks and
rear of the square, mixed with contingents of cavalry and professional troops to boost
their morale and keep the men in line. The front of the square was a formidable force,
formed by experienced German and Italian mercenaries and other volunteers armed with arquebuses,
who were trained to shoot and reload behind the protection of the wall of German pikemen. In addition, aiming to break up a potential
massive charge by the Moroccans, Sebastian placed a series of wooden forts made of wagons
which bristled with sharpshooters. Finally, an elite shock-regiment of heavy
cavalry was drawn up in the front. Although vastly outnumbered, Sebastian’s
army was better equipped and more technologically advanced. On the other side of the field, the 50,000-strong
Moroccan army formed in a crescent-shape. In the center, disciplined infantry and arquebusiers
were arrayed in two lines, each several ranks deep. To either side were Moroccan townsmen, as
well as renegades from Spain and Turkey. The third line was formed of Berber soldiers
and cavalrymen on the flanks. Realizing that the Crusaders were better equipped
and possessed technologically superior weaponry, Sultan Abd al-Malik rode out to galvanize
the men: “You must oppose the Crusaders with valour! For you fight for your families, your life,
and your honour! And should you die today, you will be led
into Paradise!” With their confidence raised, the troops cheered
al-Malik’s name as he re-joined the ranks. But… no one knew the Sultan’s secret…
which was, that he was dying… Suffering from either the plague or camp fever,
the progress of the disease was accelerated by horse riding for several hundred kilometres
in a forced march to reach the battlefield. Only the Sultan’s brother and his faithful
Jewish doctor knew the true personal cost that the Sultan would pay and, reaching the
limit of his skills, the doctor could only use his art to give the Sultan another day
or two of vigour, urging him to rest. But Abd al-Malik refused to retire to his
tent, insisting that there must not be even a hint of suspicion about his illness, in
order to preserve the morale of the troops. Knowing he had little time left, he embraced
his brother Ahmad, with whom he experienced decades of exile and spilled blood at Lepanto
and Tunis, and told him “to fight, conquer, or die!” There was no more time to waste. Artillery of the two armies sounded off in
full force, but needed to spend a couple of hours drawing closer to find the range. Then an hour before noon, the whole
Crusader army knelt together, as one, in one last prayer. When they rose, the Portuguese elite shock
cavalry leapt forth first on King Sebastian’s command, followed by the Castillian crack
infantry regiment. The King, though vastly outnumbered, decided
to utilize his superior troops and strike decisively in order to avoid being overwhelmed
by the enemy, knowing that his elite shock cavalry could singlehandedly break and rout
an enemy army many times their numbers. As the ground trembled under the hooves of the Crusader cavalry, Moroccan arquebusiers fired! Although their volleys were effective, the
long reload time allowed Sebastian’s crack troops to close the distance! As the Crusaders flung themselves into al-Malik’s
center the Moroccan division in the front was broken instantly. The second line could not hold the Crusader
charge and was pushed back, and as the Castilian infantry joined the fighting the Moroccan
center was thrown into confusion. al-Malik leapt forward with his bodyguards
to help prevent the line from faltering, signalling the third line to reinforce the center. As the unstoppable Crusader heavy cavalry
hacked through the enemy center, the Muslims held on by a thread and it seemed like their
cohesion would break at any moment. Leading from the front, al-Malik and his regiment
of experienced bodyguards, helped by the counter-attack of Berber infantry from the third line, finally
blunted the brave Crusader assault. And now, seeing that Sebastian’s best troops
were locked in ferocious fighting with his center, the Sultan gave the signal to his
brother! Waves of tribal horsemen emerged from behind
the small gentle hills and undulated land of the valley, led by Ahmad al-Mansur. The impetus of the seemingly stunned Crusader
cavalry had gone, as the gravity of the situation became clear with nearly 20,000 tribal horsemen
now surging forward. The elite Christian troops began fighting
their way back towards the main line, to escape al-Malik’s trap, realizing that their forward
push was now in vain. The Sultan ordered his infantry to envelop
the Crusader vanguard and with his personal regiment of bodyguards he disengaged from
the fighting to join his brother’s cavalry attack that was bearing down on the Portuguese
defensive square. Sebastian and his officers encouraged the
men, knowing that what was soon to come would be a fight to the death. Meanwhile in the Crusader vanguard, some of
the Castillian elite infantry was trampled as the heavy cavalry was trying to retreat,
and their situation was becoming increasingly desperate, with Moroccan troops now coming
from all sides. But Sebastian replied by launching a cavalry
attack of his own. As the Portuguese infantry parted to allow
the mounted knights to pass through, the King led his nobles and their retinues, as well
as the cavalry contingent of the deposed Sultan Abdallah Mohammed, directly towards al-Malik’s
banner, knowing that if he could strike the Sultan down the battle would be won! Sebastian smashed into al-Malik’s contingent! The ferocious charge allowed the King’s retinue
to cut their way through to within a few meters of the Sultan, who used the last ounce of
his strength to draw his sword and join the fighting. Blows were traded back and forth, and for
a few moments the fate of Morocco hung in the balance, as one by one the Islamic standards
fell around the Sultan. But the steadfast bodyguards held their ground
and managed to rally around their leader! Sebastian’s audacious attack was broken. Over the next several hours, regiments of
al-Malik’s dragoons came in wave after wave, firing their arquebuses at the Portuguese
square. They were trained to gallop towards the enemy
and just before hitting the pikes their horses would pirouette, enabling their riders to
shoot at point-blank range before riding back out of harm’s way to reload and renew the
attack. The Portuguese put up a valiant fight, as
the pikemen held their ground and arquebusiers shot deadly volleys at the incoming enemy,
cutting down nearly 7,000 Moroccan troops. But as the hours passed their numbers dwindled
and their ammunition dried up. Sebastian was seen fighting in person, and
despite being wounded he carried on inspiring his men to hold their ground. It is said that three horses were slain from
under him and that his bodyguards were reduced to but a few men. At some point in the battle, the King too
fell while fighting. By dusk, 8000 Christian troops lay dead on
the field, and 15,000 were captured, with less than a hundred managing to escape the
carnage, including the former Sultan Mohammed, who either died during the battle or drowned
in the river whilst trying to flee. With blood on his white garments, Adb al-Malik
stood victoriously, looking every bit the leader his people needed. Yet he was close to collapsing. His robes were hiding the fact that he was
strapped to his saddle, as he would otherwise not have been able to ride his horse in battle. With the disease that was about to kill him
it was miraculous that he found the strength to take active part in the fighting. Moments later, with the battle still ongoing,
Sultan Abd al-Malik closed his eyes, drew his last breath, before gently slumping forward
in his saddle… Three kings fell on that August 4th 1578. As the few survivors trickled in, the news of the defeat paralyzed the kingdom of Portugal and would have disastrous consequences. The country was deeply in debt and unable
to pay for crippling financial reparations demanded by the Morocco venture. Almost every noble family suffered a slain
family member, while some families were entirely extinguished as a result of the battle. To make matters worse, after King Sebastian’s
death the House of Aviz, which had ruled Portugal for 200 years, was overthrown by a Castilian
military invasion. The dethroned sultan Mohammed II was reportedly
thrown in the river from his horse while he was trying to flee the battle, although it
is possible that he was killed in the fighting. Meanwhile, Sultan Abd al-Malik was succeeded
by his brother Ahmad al-Mansour, who went on to rule Morocco for the next 25 years,
becoming the most famous of all Saadi rulers. Ahmad was a highly influential figure in both
Europe and Africa in the 16th century. The powerful army he had built up and Morocco’s
key strategic position made him an important power player during the late Renaissance period. He was described by his contemporaries as
a man of profound Islamic learning, a true love of books, calligraphy and mathematics,
and he was known as a connoisseur of mystical texts, as well an avid participant in scholarly
discussions. In many ways, his reign ushered a golden period
in the history of Morocco.

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