Castle of Ourém

Castle of Ourém
Castle of Ourém

“In front lay the rich tilled plains of Ourém. In magnificent majesty rose a castle, like a sentinel, to defend the Christian land from the invading Moors. Battered by the centuries, it stood against the morning sky, gilded by the sun, leaving the horizon in a mysterious shadow.” – Rev. Galamba de Oliveira Casa Alta (High House) is a small manor house with a big history. ennobled over the centuries by Queens, Kings, and Saints.

Built in the 13th century on the massive outer wall of the Castle of Ourém, Queen Saint Elizabeth of Portugal founded a hermitage to pray for the royal family and the Kingdom of Portugal. Successive uses and expansions of Casa Alta, as the locals refer to it, saw it as a royal lodge, a finishing school, a tailor's house, the home of John Haffert, founder of the Blue Army, and “Carmelot Hall,” the seat of the Count Nuno Society. Casa Alta is now the guesthouse of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, where Fr. Guilbert Mariani in 2000 leased the premises from the present Minnesota owners, Solar Lusitania Partnership. Fr. Mariani renovated the property as a retreat house for his confreres, as well as for pilgrims to the Fatima Shrine, and anyone seeking the peace and beauty of the site. These pages recount its history and the larger history and lore of the Castle.

 

History and Lore of the Castle of Ourém

The Castle of Ourém, sometimes called the Fatima Castle, is located on top of an isolated mountain that rises out of a vineyard-filled valley in central Portugal. A prodigious mountain spring, together with the high ground, has provided a natural site for fortification since prehistoric times.

 

It is believed that the Phoenicians built a settlement on this site hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The area was later explored by the Greeks, and with the victory of the Roman Empire over Carthage in the Second Punic War in 201 B.C., the site was included in the Roman Province of Hispania Ulterior. During the Pax Romana, Hispania Ulterior was divided by Caesar Augustus into two provinces, Baetica and Lusitania. In Lusitania the soldiers of the emperor began to build a fortification on the mountain of Ourém. Roman stones from the remnants of that construction still form the foundation of the lowest portions of the castle walls. The Christianization of Lusitania began in the first century. By the third century the site of Ourem was under the ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of Evora. Roman rule continued until the fifth century, when in the year 410 a Germanic people, known as the Alans, migrated into the area. Only six years later the Alans were defeated by the Visigoths, incorporating it into the powerful Visigoth kingdom of Merida. After the conversion of the Visigoth king, Reccared, the Christian faith spread rapidly. The first Saint of the new religion associated with the area was a woman who died in the year 653. Little is known about her, but she comes down to us as Saint Iria, (or Saint Irene) one of the earliest Benedictine Saints. It is thought that this Saint gives her modified name to one of the two arched stone gates of the Castle, called the Santarém Gate, thus called because it looks to the south in the direction of the old gothic town of Santarém.

Castle Of Ourém
Castle Of Ourém

This gate attaches to the chapel of Casa Alta. Saint Iria may have given her name to the Cova da Iria, the site of the Fatima apparitions of 1917. In 711 AD, the Moors defeated the last Visigoth king, Roderick, and the territory became part of the Arab Emirate of Cordoba. Over the next three hundred years the Moors constructed the upper portion of the Castle in Ourém. This castle-fort was first known under the Moors as the Fort of Abdegas. During the early part of the 11th century, King Ferdinand the Great of Leon and Castile began the reconquest of his western territories. By mid-century the Moors were driven out of the upper part of what we know today as Portugal. Before his death in 1065, Ferdinand set about reorganizing this territory into Portucalia, named for the Roman city of Portus Cale, nowadays known as the  City of Oporto. Ferdinand handed over Portucalia to his illegitimate daughter, Teresa, who brought it as dowry into her marriage to the Henry, Count of Burgundy. Following Henry's death Teresa's rule of Portucalia was stained by political strife and personal immorality. Her son, Afonso Henriques, banished her in 1128 after reaching majority. Around 1136 Alfonso took the Castle of Abdegas, long considered unconquerable. Legend has it that Alfonso lured the Moors from the castle and sent special forces of knights disguised as olive trees up the opposite side. In gratitude to these Christian knights for another stunning defeat, it is said that Afonso entrusted the castle to its captain, Gonçalo Hermingues, who took as his wife Fatima, the beautiful daughter of the Moorish Chief of the Alcazar Fortress. Fatima converted to the Christian religion and was baptized with the name Oureana, thus giving both names to history: the nearby village of the “Seers of Fatima,” and the resulting shrine, as well as Ourém, an abridged form of Oureana. Tradition holds that Oureana served as Lady of the Castle only a year before she died. However during the one year she became so loved that castle's name was changed in her honor. It is said that Gonçalo retired in grief to the Cistercian Monastery at Alcobaça during the time of its construction. At the same time Alfonso, celebrating his greatest victory over the Moors in 1139, assumed the title King Afonso Henriques of Portugal, thus asserting autonomy from Spanish rule. He was recognized as king by Pope Alexander III in 1178.

King Dinis and Queen Saint Elizabeth
King Dinis and Queen Saint Elizabeth

In 1158 the Castle of Ourém was given to his daughter, Princess Teresa. The princess honored her mother, the former Princess of Savoy, by employing the Eagle of Savoy as the castle's symbol. The eagle symbol is linked to all the kingdoms of medieval Europe, and it remains to this day in the national symbols of Spain, Poland, Austria, and Hungary. It was the symbol of the Castle of Ourém, however, before most of these nations had a king. In 1180 Princess Teresa granted a charter to the residents of the castle-city of Ourém, giving them municipal rights including a clause that said that the name of Ourém could never be changed. Teresa improved and enlarged the castle, surrendering title to her brother Sancho upon her marriage to the Count of Flanders. Four years later Sancho succeeded to the throne of Portugal along, and with him the castle. His grandson, Sancho II, was an adolescent when he became king and was excommunicated by the pope and deposed in 1249 by his brother, Afonso III, who kidnapped and imprisoned his sister-in-law, Queen Dona Mercia Lopes de Haro in the tower of the castle known today as the Tower of Dona Mercia.

 

By 1250 the Portuguese Reconquest finished with the capture the Algarve region in the south, at which time the borders of Portugal took their final form; they have not changed since, something that cannot be said of any other European nation. King Dinis I, heir to Afonso III, ascended the throne 30 years later, whereupon another Saint enters into Portugal's history: his wife, Queen Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. Her husband gave her title to the Castle of Ourem . It was she who built Casa Alta in its rudimentary form as a house of prayer. Her life was marked by deep piety and charity, especially to the poor. She is pictured with an apron falling open in a cascade of roses. Legend has it that the king accused her of sneaking foodstuffs from the royal pantry to give to the poor. He demanded in front of the entire court that she open her apron to reveal what she was concealing. When she complied, roses, not bread, fell. True or not, the fact is that she did succeed in converting the king who had led a notoriously licentious life. She worked tirelessly, consumed in constant efforts to reconcile warring factions of her family. She took the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis when her husband died, and her incorrupt body can be viewed every four years on her feast day in the chapel of her Order's convent, located in the old university town of Coimbra.

 

Castle of Ourém
Castle of Ourém

In 1325, the throne was passed to King Afonso IV, who is remembered today for his part in Portugal 's most famous love story. The story goes that King Afonso's son and heir, Pedro, was betrothed to a Spanish princess, but fell in love with her lady-in-waiting, Ines de Castro. Three of the king's knights discovered the liaison and persuaded the king to have her murdered in 1355. Pedro never recovered from the shock. He waited patiently until his father's death in 1357, and after ascending the throne, sought revenge. The perpetrators were put to death by having their hearts torn out. He then assembled the court to another grizzly ceremony. He announced that he had been married to Ines secretly and ordered her to be exhumed. She was re-dressed in royal robes and placed beside him on her own royal throne as queen,   whereupon the entire court was forced to pay homage by kneeling to kiss her decomposed hand. On Pedro's orders two elaborately carved sarcophagi were created for them both in the main transept of the monastery at Alcobaça. It is said that the sarcophagi were placed foot-to-foot so that the famous lovers' first gaze would be on upon each other when they rose on the Last Day. 

The history of the Castle of Ourem is not replete without an Evil Queen. Dark days in general were abroad in Europe in the 1380's. The Black Death stalked the land. Terror and instability marked the reigns of many of the royal houses. The seventh Lady of the Castle, Queen Leonora, persuaded her husband King Ferdinand, Pedro's heir, to grant her French lover, Andeiro, the title of Count of Ourem along with the castle in 1381. (In Portugal, the title, “Count,” or Conde, is equivalent to an English Earl). The seductive queen, who fancied herself as a sort of Cleopatra, openly indulged her adultery and wicked schemes. With questionable assent, the dying king agreed to the betrothal of his 16 year-old daughter to the King of Castile. Leonora pounced on this opportunity to consolidate power by naming herself Regent at the traitorous cost of Portuguese sovereignty. An aghast court and clergy looked on as Queen Leonora lived openly with her lover, flaunting new powers and privileges. The nobility determined that only a revolution could save Portugal, and toward that end, Andeiro was murdered, and the King's illegitimate younger brother, John, Master of Avis, deposed the widowed Queen. This brought an end to Portugal's first dynasty, the House of Burgundy, and it ushered in the second, the House of Avis. Every castle also deserves a good ghost story, and there is plenty of local folklore that relates sightings of the ghostly figure of the murdered Andeiro, Count of Ourem, his spectral figure haunting the castle halls in search for the wicked Queen.

D. Nuno Alvares Pereira
D. Nuno Alvares Pereira

He is said to vanish at the appearance of another spectral figure, that of the Blessed Nuno Alvares Pereira … and for good reason; Nuno secured for the crown the Castle of Ourém from forces sympathetic to the Evil Queen. For his successful efforts he was granted title of Count of Ourém, the castle, its county lands, as well all other titles belonging to the French lover, including the vast lands of Vila Viçosa, Borba, Estremoz, and Evoramonte. This great coup did not erase the damage that Leonora had done to Portugal's sovereignty; she had paved the way for the king of Castile to invade Portugal. King John I enlisted the help of Count Nuno Alvares Pereira to repel their advances. In a stunning victory over the Castilians who outnumbered the Portuguese five to one in the Battle of Aljubarrota on August 13, 1385. This secured the independence of Portuga,l and made Nuno a national hero. A great royal monastery was erected in thanksgiving, and it is aptly called, Battle Abbey, or more simply, Batalha (short for the Battle of Saint Mary of the Victory). Today there is a larger-than-life equestrian statue of Count Nuno in the plaza outside the Abbey, commemorating the event.

More honors, lands, and titles were heaped up this capable knight, including that of Chief Constable of the Realm. His daughter married King John's son, Dom Afonso, and it is through his line that the Royal House of Braganza would arise as the third reigning dynasty, two and a half centuries later. Although Count Nuno became the head of the most influential family in Portugal, his natural piety and simplicity of soul inspired him to devote his final years as a Carmelite Lay Brother in Lisbon. In 1423 the wealthiest man in Portugal took his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and he spent the rest of his life distributing food and holy scapulars to the poor from the monastery gate. Pope Benedict XI beatified him in 1918. Nuno's grandson, Afonso, the fourth Count of Ourém and the first born of the House of Braganza, took a great interest in the castle and is responsible for the way we see the castle today. He remodeled the two great projecting towers with an unusual brick tracery design that was continued on the massive solar that served as the family palace during the years of Portugal's great explorations and discoveries. He also constructed the town's fountain and Collegiate Church, which we can also see today, plus a number of other monuments and edifices that did not survive the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. (Casa Alta survived without damage because it was built on the massive foundations of the castle's curtain wall. The houses of some 8500 other residents that were built on unsupported earth terraces above and below Casa Alta were completely destroyed.) Besides the castle itself, one of the most interesting architectural contributions that has survived intact from Afonso's time comprises the apse and crypt of the original Gothic Collegiate Church.

Sarcophagus of Count Dom Afonso
Sarcophagus of Count Dom Afonso

The crypt was in fact a replica of the Synagogue of Tomar (at that time a thriving medieval city not far from Ourem). The rest of the church was rebuilt in the late 18 th century. The six-columned crypt contains the ornate limestone  sarcophagus of Count Dom Afonso, beautifully carved and surmounted with his reclining effigy. Inscribed on the tomb are these words, translated as: “Here lies His Highness Dom Afonso, Marquis of Valença and Count of Ourém, first born of Dom Alfonso, Duke of Bragança and grandson of King John of Glorious Memory, and grandson of the Virtuous Nuno, Constable of Portugal. He died while his father was alive and before he could become king. He founded this church, where he chose to be buried, and his fame continues to this day. Died August 29, 1460.” Within the next twelve years the Portuguese had reached the mouth of the Congo and then rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498 Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India, and two years later Cabral reached Brazil. Soon, Magellan's ships had circumnavigated the entire world. Spain was intent on its own discoveries, and a legal division of these vast lands had to be made in the New World to maintain peace.

With the disappearance of Dom Sebastian during battle in Morocco, the Cardinal Archbishop of Lisbon became King Henry II. His death in 1580 extinguished the reign of the House of Avis. Philip II of Spain, a grandson of Manuel I of Portugal, took advantage of this situation and expelled a Portuguese claimant to the throne, Dom Antonio. King Philip then moved to occupy Portugal with the consequence that viceroys of Hapsburg Spain governed Portugal for the next 60 years.

The Castle of Ourém fell into disrepair. A revolution to restore the Portuguese monarchy was successfully led in 1640 by the Duke of Braganza, whose blood lines flowed back to King John I and Blessed Nuno. He was thereafter crowned king as John IV. The Braganza Dynasty (that would last into the 20th century) began an ambitious plan of renewing royal properties and building others. It was in the 1640's that the main part of Casa Alta was built as a royal lodge, while the palace in Castle of Ourém underwent extensive repair. Catherine of Braganza spent her final night at Casa Alta the day before she set off to England to become the Queen Consort to King Charles II. Porta de Santarém was opened for better access to both the palace and the royal lodge of Casa Alta. The old, fortified chapel attached to Casa Alta and astride this entrance, was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and was given a 18th century facelift. Since that time all religious processions in Ourém begin at the Casa Alta chapel. Through the centuries its tiled walls have witnessed thousands of baptisms, funerals and weddings. Even today, brides still ask to be married there. After the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the castle that had once been a refuge for people in danger, was abandoned in favor of the more stable ground at its feet, and the New Town of Ourem developed. At this time, the beautiful tiles salvaged from the original Collegiate Church, destroyed in the quake, were applied to the interior and exterior to admirable effect.

In 1807 Napoleon's forces swept through Portugal, forcing the royal family to flee to Brazil under the protection of the British fleet. The restored castle palace was sacked and pillaged, and the Collegiate Church was badly damaged. Casa Alta was untouched, probably deemed too insignificant to pillage. However, the combination of war and a monarchy preoccupied by daunting political issues in exile did not bode well for any of the castles of Portugal; they were not a priority, and none of them was maintained. When the monarch returned toward the middle of the 19th century Portugal was restless with strife and uncertainty, revolutionary sentiments, and succession problems. In the process Brazil was lost, and the country was divided by Masonic influences that reached even into the royal family. The old castles and palaces were further abandoned or forgotten, and new, wildly expensive sham castles, townhouses, hunting lodges and pleasure villas were being erected by the royal family for its exclusive use, with a corresponding strain on the country's treasury. Taken together with various other factors, it came as no surprise that the 13th head of the House of Braganza, King Carlos, was assassinated in 1908 with his heir, Prince Luis Felipe, in an open carriage in Lisbon. Manuel II. King Carlos's younger son, held on briefly but was unable to save the monarchy.

In 1910 he fled to Britain where he died in exile in 1932 After the fall of the monarchy, there were no more“Ladies of the Castle” to take an interest in them. The newly proclaimed republic was too unstable to do so, and soon Portugal was drawn into World War I. The Castle of Ourem continued to fall into the ruin it is today. It wasn't until the Salazar era that the subject of the Portugal 's architectural heritage was addressed, but Ourem was not included in the discussion. The old village surrounding it became little more than a ghost town, inhabited only by a small handful of impoverished residents. A German priest owned Casa Alta for a while. He donated it to a group of pious women from Lisbon who re-opened it as finishing school for girls. An extension was made, the outdoor staircase was enclosed, and a door, now blocked up, was opened for direct access into the chapel from Casa Alta. Next, the house was owned by the village tailor, and some of the old time residents still call it the “Tailor's House.” A Swiss man, the founder of a company producing adding machines and cash registers, purchased the house from the tailor's family, and he installed indoor sanitation. Water was supplied by rainwater collected in a tank on the roof. The upstairs was reconfigured, and several small rooms were added, including the kitchen in its present location.

In the early 1960's interest in rural properties was revived, and a succession of foreign people bought and began to refurbish some of the other houses still standing. Electricity and municipal water were introduced, and soon the Portuguese, themselves, with hereditary claims to the properties within the curtain walls of the castle, came back to take up residence. The Swiss man sold Casa Alta during this time to the American, John Haffert, who in turn sold it to the Minnesota-based Solar Lusitania Partnership.

 

The Castle of Ourém is also known as the "Castle of the Queen of the World" due to the fact that the light that transported Our Lady to her apparitions at Fatima in 1917 was seen to form directly above the castle mount. In 1967, Pope Paul VI reconfirmed this designation to Bishop John Venancio of Leiria when he flew over the castle on his way to Fatima for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Under the present management of Fr. Guilbert Mariani, also an American, the house was entirely renovated with a keen eye toward its historical origins. In the process Casa Alta has taken on new life with all new electricity, new plumbing, new roof, new floors, central heating and wall insulation, the addition of a library, five new fireplaces, five new bathrooms, and a completely renovated kitchen. Thus renewed, Casa Alta welcomes you. After eight centuries it has returned to its founding mission as a religious retreat, house of prayer, and guesthouse.