Mini Episode, Battle of Three Kings – Transcript

This is the transcript of episode 2.5 of my podcast series on, and leading up to, Thomas Dallam, the Elizabethan organ builder who sailed to Constantinople with a gift for the Sultan. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.

Welcome to the first Human Circus Mini-episode. The idea here is to cover events, themes, ideas, or people that don’t quite fit into the main series for one reason or another, and to do it in shorter, more focused episodes than I do with the full lengths, so that’ll probably usually look like 15-20 minutes, but we’ll see how it goes here. If you have any comment, questions, or suggestions you would like to send my way, you can do so at, or on twitter @circus_human. The website is Finally, if you are enjoying the show, if it brings you at least as much joy as a single mediocre coffee in a month, then you can let me know, and help keep the podcast sustainable, by donating to my coffee page at, and you can find that link on the website. Now, let’s get to late 16th century Portugal.

Girolamo Conestaggio once wrote of King Sebastian of Portugal, that he, “young and unskilled, guided by some sinister star, or by that divine permission which would punish this people, went into Africa, to a dangerous (although glorious) enterprise, leaving the realm emptied of money, naked of nobility, without heirs, and in the hands of ill-affected governors.”

Sebastian was bound for the Battle of the Three Kings. We talked briefly about the outcome last episode, how Elizabeth took a certain amount of blame for it, how it would result in al-Mansur on the Moroccan throne and Philip of Spain on the Portuguese one, but I want to take the opportunity here to cover the event in more detail. We’re joining the story as King Sebastian prepared to invade Morocco.

In 1578, Sebastian made ready for the glorious task ahead. Already, he had been building an army for the purpose. He had been appealing to his uncle, Philip of Spain, for his support. He had been sending 4 colonels about his own domains to raise an army. He had sent a Nuno Alvarez to the Low Countries to acquire the services of 4,000 German Landsknechts, and a substantial order of armaments and supplies: 25,000 quintals of gunpowder, 12 cannon, 2,000 cannon balls, 3,000 muskets, 4,000 arquebuses, 12,000 quick matches, 6,000 barrels of flour, 3,000 quintals of cheese, 4,500 quintals of salted meat. Of course, activities such as this, particularly the raising and arming of a mercenary army in the Low Countries, were sure to draw attention, and Elizabeth, when she received reports of a Portuguese representative making purchases in Antwerp, was highly suspicious that the gathering army would in fact be intended for England.

Sebastian’s representative in the Low Countries should have had plenty of options available. He arrived at a time of comparative peace, the kind of time when men of war might be sitting idly about looking for things to do, and when their leaders, and the local populace, would be extremely happy to see them off and doing those things elsewhere. But that buying and recruitment expedition wasn’t going incredibly well. A Duke of Holstein offered 12k omen, but Sebastian would be unable to pay the 6 months advance he demanded, even for the desired 4,000. Getting supplies was going better, but it required borrowing against future shipments of pepper, which was fine in itself; however, Sebastian then tried to use those same future pepper shipments to secure a loan in Florence, where he hoped to find the men the Low Countries had not yet provided him. The Florentine Grand Duke, with contacts in the Low Countries who informed him that these particular pepper shipments were getting a little over-promised, demanded pepper in advance if any men or money should be forthcoming, and so Sebastian received neither.

Meanwhile, all these delays were sabotaging his arrangements with Philip. The agreement had been for the attack to be carried out in 1577, and for Sebastian to have 10,000 men who would be joined by Philip’s 5,000 veteran Tercios and 50 galleys. And Philip had been pretty hesitant about that. He didn’t think much of the Portuguese as fighters, and was rather worried about throwing his own well-trained men into any kind of dubious venture commanded by the unproven Sebastian. The delays could easily have given Philip the excuse to withdraw support, but as it happened there were other, quite real, reasons to withdraw: reports from the Basque regions indicated troops would soon be needed closer to home, and on top of that, there had been a fresh outbreak in the ever-troubled Low Countries. Philip was out, and he really wanted Sebastian to be too. Or rather, he maybe wanted Sebastian to be out too. He was deeply concerned that Sebastian’s failure, the result he rather expected at this point, would precipitate an attack coming back the other way and splashing into his domains, but, on the other hand, he is going to be able to take Portugal for himself after all of this, and that wasn’t a completely unpredictable outcome.

Sebastian was not, in any case, going to be dissuaded. He’d had his heart set on the thing for some time now, and he’d recently received Abdallah Muhammed’s plea for help and the accompanying promise that a surge of support for the recently deposed Sultan would surely make matters quite easy for Sebastian. As we know from history, we should never believe ex-rulers who tell us that their people are just eagerly waiting to rise up and put them back on the throne, but Sebastian didn’t know.

In the Low Countries, his representative struggled to find men in a now-unfavourable climate of turmoil. Sebastian had wanted 4,000 Landsknechts, the renowned German mercenary pikemen. What he got instead was 3,000 soldiers, shopped to him as Landsknechts but apparently a ragged collection of “Holsteiners, Hollanders, and Walloons,” of notably poor discipline and since described as “incurably predatory.” He was, in other words, getting just the kind of men who would not be missed where they had been; these were not the pick of the litter, though they would serve him well.

On the home front, the colonels had dredged up and conscripted roughly 5,000 of what were later claimed to be those too poor and broken to bribe them. These conscripts provoked much amusement in visitors to Lisbon who witnessed their training, or at least to the Spanish ambassador, who wrote that they had but one instructor and he was sufficiently ill-versed to leave the men worse than when they started. Another observer wrote that, “It was strange to see the Portuguese furnish themselves for war; for being an exercise that requireth order and measure, all things were there disordered and confused: The faults which were committed in taking musters, giving of pay, superfluity in many things, and defect in other, were infinite.”

But at least the mercenaries were finally arriving. There’d been another little hiccup before departure when Nuno Alvarez was arrested under suspicion of planning to invade England with the men, but, finally, they were in Lisbon, and this was starting to look like a real army.

Also arriving, was help unlooked for in the form of some 600 men from the Papal States, led by the noted English conman and ruffian Thomas Stukeley – who really deserves his own story. Stukeley had actually been heading for Ireland to take part in fighting there on the part of Pope Gregory XIII, but he was convinced by Sebastian to instead join the expedition to Morocco.

And so the force was gathered: there were around 10,000 Portuguese made up of the conscripts, 2,000 cavalry, and 2,500 adventurers paying their own way; there were the 3,000 Calvinist mercenaries from the Low Countries, Stukely’s Papal States troops, and 2000 Castilians – Philip having eventually thrown in some support, while still urging Sebastian to at least stay at home himself even if he insisted on sending the expedition. It was quite a mix, and it was going to need to be enough to take on Al-Malik and potentially the Ottoman supporters that Philip had feared would be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese nobility made ready for a great party rather than for a difficult North African Campaign. One representative of a wealthy banking family in the city remarked his amusement at the number of coaches it seemed the nobles were planning on riding into battle. Another spectator noted that “they were charged with sugar and conserves rather than water and biscuit; The vessels of silver, and the tents lined with silk and satin were without number, every gentleman went furnished like a king, and the poor soldiers died for hunger.” And there is more of this, but it all paints a picture of incompetence and of a terrible lack of awareness of what to expect. And there was no reason for this. Morocco was not an unknown land, and even with Abdallah Muhammed’s excessively optimistic assurances that the people would rise up and support him, Sebastian’s appalling unpreparedness was basically inexcusable.     

By early summer, Sebastian’s army, such as it was, was ready. Summer isn’t really the best time of year for an army to invade Morocco, but all the pieces were in place, and Sebastian would not be put off from beginning immediately. After the summer, would have come the fall with its dangerous coastal storms, and weather aside, his mercenaries were proving troublesome, dangerous even, to keep around, particularly with the Catholic troops from the Papal States and the Protestants from the low countries in such close proximity to one another. Putting the expedition off until the next spring would be unbearable; the army would fall apart, unpaid mercenaries looking for other opportunities or possibly turning to local warfare and pillage, and conscripts and Castilians leaving for their respective homes. On June 26th, hundreds of ships ranging from war-galleys to smaller barques departed from Lisbon.

The ships carried not only fighting men and those required to support them but also a vast traveling court to provide comfort for the King, the nobility, and even their families, children included. There were pages, musicians, slaves, servants, and entertainers of all kinds. There were multiple bishops and, I have read in one source, a company of 1000 priests. There were pavilions and vestments, food and drink, and silver and gold plates, all bundled up with the hundreds of wagons needed to move them. And this was quite aside from the logistics of transporting cavalry, cannon and shot, as well as food for the army itself.

The fleet’s departure was not without incident. An accidental cannon shot from the shore killed a sailor on the royal galley, which would not seem like a good omen, and the king’s ship later became entangled with another vessel and broke its rudder. Still, they managed to reach land at Asilah, on the Atlantic coast, not their intended final destination, but they could have sailed along from there to Larache. However, there was confusion in bringing water aboard the ships and the men, once disembarked, were not at all cooperative in getting back aboard. So instead, Sebastian faced a march overland, and this was no dainty jaunt in the spring meadows. This was a grueling hike under the Moroccan, mid-summer sun, with a well-prepared enemy at the end of it.

And al-Malik knew very well that they were coming. The preparations had been quite public; there was no hiding the build-up to this kind of expedition, and the destination, though there were conflicting rumours that it was really England, was widely known. Beyond that, al-Malik had informants in the Iberian ports and at least one spy, a Portuguese merchant, on the ships. By the time Sebastian had landed, al-Malik had already gathered his men and, delayed only by illness, quite a bad case of dysentery apparently, had moved to meet him. The sultan made an effort to avoid war, even at this late date, writing to Sebastian and offering quite generous terms. But Sebastian was committed. He had come too far, and had spent too much, not to follow through. He dispatched a small force to raise rebellion ahead of him and settled into Asilah behind earthwork positions, while al-Malik moved north, gathering men, cavalry, and artillery as he went, but also getting sicker, his doctor warning that it could even prove fatal.

If al-Malik had a weakness, beyond his health, it was that he himself had seized the throne by force and was now moving to face an invasion supported by the man he’d unseated. Too little time had passed since he’d taken power for him to be certain of the loyalty of his troops. Those he trusted least, he actually sent ahead to harass Sebastian’s army, thinking that any who were going to betray him would certainly take such an easy chance to desert, but few did. Sebastian, on the other hand, seems to have reacted rather badly to these incursions, at one point setting out with 600 horse to engage a party of 2,000, and when the enemy drew back from battle, he, for reasons unknown, is said to have actually pursued with only one man following him, almost throwing the whole venture away before it could properly begin.

Al-Malik made no further efforts to engage. His men were encamped inland near El-Ksar el-Kebir, and they had no pressing reason to advance. Why not force Sebastian’s army to make that journey, to wear themselves down and to move from the coast and away from that easy avenue of supplies. Aside from directing troops to deal with those Sebastian had sent to incite rebellion, he waited, and he sickened. And Sebastian, ignoring the entreaties of those around him to move by sea or at least move along the coast so that they might be supported by the fleet, began the hard march inland, hopelessly encumbered by all the unnecessary extravagances, and people, from children to clergy to court entertainers, that he’d brought with him. They were difficult circumstances for any army, but Sebastian’s, substantially untrained, apparently managed only 3 miles on that first day. He was surely warned by the many experienced leaders he had with him, that disaster awaited if they continued as they were, but he ignored them. The next day, they continued, observed from hilltops by scouting horsemen.

Now, as the Portuguese and their allies advanced over the coming days, their conditions worsened. Many of the Portuguese were sick or were already without rations, and the strain of traveling in body armour under the Moroccan sun would be beginning to tell.

On August 3rd they spent the day passing through a narrow ford, and their goal, the ford at the river Lixus was close, but al-Malik was in the way, waiting, an open plain before him on which his cavalry could freely ride. His concerns were more with his own army than with Sebastian’s. It was believed that he had been poisoned by Turks, and he had reason to fear that were he to die before he could bring Sebastian to battle, then his army would fall apart. Numbers are, as ever, difficult to establish, but that army may have numbered 50k, a standing army of mounted lancers, mounted arquebusiers, and some arquebusiers on foot, along with more than 30 cannons, augmented by levees including Andalusian arquebusiers, of families driven from Iberia, and mounted tribesmen drawn to the promise of pillage, of which Sebastian had guaranteed there would be quite a bit to go round. These tribesmen were among those al-Malik particularly distrusted, along with the men he still feared would go over to the side of their former Sultan. In the lead-up to the battle, he took the intriguing step of shuffling his commanders about, placing them with men not directly loyal to them, or familiar even. It was not the best policy for the efficient execution of a battle, but then he feared battle much less than he feared betrayal.

On August 3rd, the two sides camped near each other, and the next morning Sebastian considered his best course of action. Some, with the now obviously unappealing odds before them may have urged retreat, but the army would have been slaughtered as it attempted to re-ford the river that had taken them a day to cross under ideal conditions. And Sebastian had not come so far to flee from battle. Abdallah Muhammad suggested that they should at least wait until the day cooled, to let the Europeans’ disadvantage be less and so they might be able to slip away in the dark if defeated. But this too was rejected. More to Sebastian’s liking was the thought that they ought to attack early, to not let their larger foe settle too comfortably into its desired positions.

Perhaps surprisingly given how poorly things had been managed thus far, Sebastian’s deployment made sense for an army facing overwhelming numbers of cavalry. Maybe, at this late date, he was heeding the counsel of those around him. His army formed up in a hollow square with the pick of the Portuguese nobility to the front, flanked by the Castilians, the men from the Papal States, and the Low Country mercenaries; on the sides were the weakest troops, the conscripts, but they formed up behind lines of wagons manned by arquebusiers, which it was hoped would blunt the inevitable cavalry charges; at the rear were Portuguese adventurers among others presumably hoped to be less likely to break than the conscripts. In the centre were the supplies, the wagons, the animals, and the vast body of doubtless terrified non-combatants. On the wings were the cavalry, hopelessly outnumbered by their counterparts in al-Malik’s horse-dominated force. Front and center were the cannon.

All of this seems well thought out, but there were factors other than their opponents’ numbers set against them. The sun, quite aside from cooking them in their armour, was glaring blindingly into the eyes of the front facing side, and they had nowhere to go. An uncrossable river was to their right, and at their rear the slow, difficult, ford that could only be crossed at low tide. Retreat would not be a feasible option.

Facing them was al-Malik’s half-moon, infantry in the center and some cavalry advanced to the sides so that as they move forwards they would naturally wrap round and envelope their enemy. The great bulk of his men, all cavalry, amassed behind the infantry, ready to sweep round to either flank as desired. Between them and the infantry, the sultan himself sat strapped to his horse, dying, either from illness or poison, but having addressed his army and determined to see the battle through. The cannon were set out front, as was the case across the field.

There, Sebastian was giving his own speech. He rode in highly decorative armour with the sword of Alfonso Henriques, brought from Coimbra. Slightly spoiling the effect was his needing to have cooling water poured beneath his armour. If you think of touching the hood of a car on an August day, you get some sense of what these guys were wearing next to their skin. After Sebastian’s speech, there was time for a blessing led by the Bishop of Coimbra, and then, around noon, things began in earnest.

Almost before they began, al-Malik’s cavalry seems to have moved quickly about to surround Sebastian’s army which really had no way to stop them at that point. On both sides, artillery was fired, but they were slow to reload, and as was customary, the infantry centers advanced past them. There, the Andalusian arquebusiers were initially successful but shortly found themselves driven back by the opposing pikemen. More infantry, and then cavalry, engaged with the Portuguese vanguard, pushing it in turn back past its own line of cannon. At the Portuguese rear, wave after of wave of cavalry charges were having their effect, forcing back that edge of the square, and on the sides they were also making it through the lines of wagons and into the conscripts. The conscripts began to break, some surrendering, some fleeing in panic back into the great mass of the unarmed, increasingly packed together as the square shrank in around them. Still, the vanguard held.

On the Portuguese right-wing the Duke d’Aveiro and his men, along with Abdallah Mohammed and his, made a cavalry charge of their own, rushing forward to relieve the vanguard, which Aviero saw could not hold indefinitely. They were perhaps too successful for their own good, driving off a large body of al-Malik’s horse, but then, fatally, giving chase, the Duke allowing his men to fall into pursuit. He thought to swing back around but instead, his men were caught out of formation. Those who were not surrounded sought to flee back to the square but were driven against and into the vanguard, only adding to its difficulties. And Sebastian was in that vanguard now, despite having begun the battle with the cavalry on the left wing. He’d had a horse killed beneath him and was wounded, but he’d remounted and fought on. That cavalry left wing meanwhile had an experience mirroring that of the right: initial success followed by succumbing to a counter attack and then being driven back into the sturdy but suffering vanguard.

By this point, one of the 3 kings was dead, but few knew of it. When D’Aveiro had made his charge, al-Malik had seen his own men fleeing the field and made to rally them by putting himself in harm’s way. Those around him sought to hold him back, to seize his reins or his horse, but he fought them off. However, the effort was too much for his weakened body. He collapsed in his saddle and only briefly came to before dying. Either under his previously given orders, or just out of good sense for the possible consequences, those around him kept quiet as they moved him into a litter where his doctor pretended to converse with him.

On the Portuguese side, the square must have become something tighter and much more desperate by this point, its sides caving in while the van and rear moved back towards each other, the noncombatants at the center now I’m sure in full death-is-near panic as the wounded staggered back amongst them and as fleeing fighters crashed into their midst, trying to tear their way through to safety, somewhere.

At the vanguard, Al-Malik’s mounted arquebusiers were riding in waves, one rank firing and then peeling off, for the next to fire, and so on, and so on, a maneuver their fathers or grandfathers had used against the Wattasid sultan’s men in 1545. Against ranks of infantry with pike and dagger, it would have been highly effective.  

Throughout all of this, King Sebastian apparently prevailed. Three horses are said to have died beneath him; his standard-bearer was dead and standard lost; and his personal bodyguard down to less than 10 men. Still, he’s rushing from one trouble spot to another; he’s trying to rally the rear and then he’s back at the vanguard leading a counterattack. There seems to have been little left there at this point. The Castilians and Italians are said to have broken, leaving the Portuguese and Low Country mercenaries. Meanwhile, Aveiro still has a small body of horse he’s held together and leads it in again here and there, trying to make the strikes count. And at some point, Sebastian disappears. He was last seen with a few followers and a solitary defector and was presumably killed in the fighting, there being nothing to suggest he’d made any attempt to escape. So that’s two kings.

The third, Abdallah Mohammed, had been with the Portuguese cavalry on the right wing and then tried to make it to safety when parts of that cavalry broke and fled, but the river was high and uncrossable where he found it, and de fell from his horse and drowned in the river.

The end for D’Aviero’s men and the mercenaries seems to have been brought on by the tribesmen al-Malik trusted so little, the ones concerned only with loot. Apparently, they saw the battle coming to a close, and with it their chance to earn a share of the spoils; fresh, and unbloodied they surged forward against their exhausted enemy. Any remaining resistance was broken. D’Aviero died in the final moments of fighting, Stukely was dead, the Bishop of Coimbra, Abdallah Muhammed, and Sebastian, basically everyone I’ve mentioned by name.

The Portuguese, their allies, and those who’d been in the center of the square were either killed or captured. Few escaped the trap of the rivers. Apparently, only around 100 men successfully made it to the coast, which would be hard to believe, except there was that water in the way, and if you were on the run it was after a grueling August battle and pursued by horsemen, so maybe 100 is quite high really. Some 3 – 8 thousand on the Portuguese side had died in the battle, but many, many more were taken captive.   

The rush to seize the most valuable prisoners from within what had been the Portuguese square was violent and chaotic. There was fighting over particularly promising captives, whether they be children, women, or particularly well-dressed clergy or noblemen; baggage caught fire and powder kegs exploded, killing indiscriminately. Everywhere, the rich coaches and ridiculous excesses of the expedition were torn eagerly into.

And this might have been the largest consequence of the battle for the Moroccan side. They had lost a Sultan, into whose shoes his brother al-Mansur immediately stepped, and they had lost some 3,000 men in the fighting, but perhaps more than anything else, Sebastian’s invasion represented an enormous injection of money. There were the spoils of the battle, which were substantial, certainly, but the ransom business generated by the pick of Portugal’s surviving nobility would have been greater still.

For Portugal, of course, the battle was devastating. Their king was dead and much of the nobility either killed or necessitating expensive ransom payments, a further drain following the vast expense of the expedition. And of course, for the thousands who could not be ransomed at great cost, slavery was the result. By 1581, Philip was on the throne, beginning 60 years of Spanish Habsburg rule over Portugal.

A body, stripped of armour, was identified as being that of King Sebastian, but many did not accept that it was truly him. He had led thousands to their doom in a poorly conceived crusade, marked by disorganized preparations and, in marching inland, a dangerous departure from the original plan that he had discussed with Philip. He had left his people without a king. But he seems to have been remembered fondly, though there was plenty of blame laid spread around. As E.W. Bovill wrote, characterizing Portuguese attitudes towards the stunning defeat: “The Germans had lost the day by deserting their comrades; the pikemen had failed to stand up to the enemy’s ‘shot’; the colonels who had recruited the army had enrolled only starving wretches who could not afford to bribe them; the courtiers should have restrained the King; the admiral, had he wanted, could have helped the army and rescued more survivors, and so on.”  

In death, or in disappearance, Sebastian had attained a kind of purity, becoming a messianic figure, a national redeemer.

And I think that’s where we’ll end things. This has not ended up being quite as mini a mini-episode as I’d planned. It’s all an ongoing experiment, and I’ll try to keep things shorter next time. When you hear from me again we’ll be back to the main thread of Elizabethan trade and diplomacy leading up to Thomas Dallam. Next full-length episode: Anglo-Ottoman relations. Talk to you then.


Twitter: @circus_human

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