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The Battle of Alcácer Quibir (also known as "Battle of Three Kings" (معركة الملوك الثلاثة) or "Battle of Oued al-Makhazin" (معركة وادي المخازن) in Morocco) was fought in northern Morocco, near the town of Ksar-el-Kebir (variant spellings: Ksar El Kebir, Alcácer-Quivir, Alcazarquivir, Alcassar, etc.) and Larache, on 4 August 1578. The combatants were the army of the deposed Moroccan Sultan Abu Abdallah Mohammed II, with his ally, the King of Portugal Sebastian I, against a large Moroccan army nominally under the new Sultan of Morocco (and uncle of Abu Abdallah Mohammed II) Abd Al-Malik I.
The Christian king, Sebastian I, had planned a crusade after Abu Abdallah asked him to help recover his throne. Abu Abdallah's uncle, Abd Al-Malik, had taken it from him with Ottoman support. The defeat of Portugal and attendant death of the childless Sebastian led to the end of the Aviz dynasty, and the integration of the country in the Iberian Union for 60 years under the Philippine Dynasty in a dynastic union with Spain.
Sebastian, who would later be known in Portugal as the Desired, was the son of the Infante Dom John (son of John III of Portugal) and Joanna, daughter of the Emperor Charles V. His father died before he was born, and he became king at the age of three after the death of his grandfather in 1557. He was educated almost entirely by Jesuits, by his guardian and tutor Aleixo de Meneses and by Catherine of Austria, sister of Charles V and wife of King John III. Some, judging him after his defeat, alleged that under these influences his youthful idealism soon mutated into religious fanaticism, although he never joined the Holy League.
The Portuguese Cortes asked Sebastian several times to go to Morocco and stop the turmoil of the advancing Turkish military presence, because the Ottomans would be a threat to the security of the Portuguese coasts and to the commerce with Guinea, Brazil and the Atlantic Islands. But it was only when Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi went to Portugal and asked for Sebastian's help in recovering his throne from his uncle that Sebastian decided to mount a military effort. Sebastian felt driven to revive lost glories by intervening in North Africa, influenced by the events such as the defense of Mazagan in 1562 from a Moroccan siege. Accordingly, in 1568, the kingdom began to prepare for intervention in Morocco.
This policy was not only supported by the mercantile bourgeoisie as it would benefit commerce in this area (primarily, gold, cattle, wheat and sugar), but also by the nobility. Up to that time Portuguese military action in Africa had been confined to small expeditions and raids; Portugal had built its vast maritime empire from Brazil to the East Indies by a combination of trade, sea exploration and technological superiority, with Christian conversion of subject peoples being one, but by no means the only, end in view. Sebastian proposed to change this strategy entirely.
In 1574 Sebastian visited some of the Portuguese bases in North Africa and led a successful raid on Muslim territory beyond the then Portuguese city of Tangier, engaging in several skirmishes and in a confrontation of greater magnitude on 21 October. Although in numerical inferiority but with a heavy contingent of cavalry, he was successful, which encouraged him to grander designs against the new Saadian ruler of Morocco. He gave his support to Abu Abdallah Mohammed II Saadi, who was engaged in a civil war to recover the throne of Morocco from his uncle, the Emir Abd Al-Malik - who was aided by the Ottomans. Despite the admonitions of his mother and his uncle Philip II of Spain (who had become very cautious after the Battle of Djerba), Sebastian was determined to wage a military campaign, and he used much of Portugal's imperial wealth to equip a large fleet and gather an army which included soldiers of several nationalities: 2,000 volunteers from Spain (Castile), 3,000 mercenaries from Flanders and Germany, and 600 Italians initially recruited to aid in an invasion of Ireland under the leadership of the English adventurer, Thomas Stukley. It is said that the expeditionary force numbered 500 ships, and the army in total numbered about 18,000 men, including the flower of the Portuguese nobility.
After haranguing his troops from the windows of the Church of Santa Maria in Lagos, Sebastian departed that port in his armada on 24 June 1578.
He landed at Arzila, in Portuguese Morocco, where Abu Abdallah joined him with an additional 6,000 Moorish allied troops, and marched into the interior.
The Emir, who was gravely ill, had meanwhile collected a large army, rallying his countrymen to jihad against the Portuguese invaders. The two armies approached each other near Ksar-el-Kebir, camping on opposite sides of a Loukkos river.
On 4 August 1578, the Portuguese and Moorish allied troops were drawn up in battle array, and Sebastian rode around encouraging the ranks. But the Moroccans advanced on a broad front, planning to encircle his army.
The Sultan had 10,000 cavalry on the wings, and in the center had placed Moors who had been driven out of Spain and thus bore a special grudge against Christians. Despite his illness, the Sultan left his litter and led his forces on horseback.
The battle started as both sides exchanged several volleys of gunfire from musketry and artillery. Stukley, commanding the Portuguese center, was killed by a cannonball early in the battle. The Moroccan cavalry advanced and began to encircle the Portuguese army. Both armies soon became fully engaged in a melee.
The flanks of the Portuguese army began to give way to the Moorish cavalry, and eventually the center became threatened as well. Seeing the flanks compromised, and having lost its commander early in battle, the Portuguese center lost heart and was overcome.
The battle ended after nearly four hours of heavy fighting and resulted in the total defeat of the Portuguese and Abu Abdallah's army with 8,000 dead, including the slaughter of almost the whole of the country's nobility. 15,000 were taken prisoner, and around 100 survivors escaped to the coast. The body of King Sebastian, who led a charge into the midst of the enemy and was then cut off, was never found.
The Sultan Abd Al-Malik died during the battle from natural causes (the effort of riding was too much for him), but the news was concealed from his troops until total victory had been secured. Abu Abdallah attempted to flee but was drowned in the river. Because of the deaths during the fighting of Sebastian, Abu Abdallah and Abd Al-Malik, the battle became known in Morocco as the Battle of the Three Kings.
For Portugal, the battle was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the lack of a body, Sebastian was presumed dead, at the age of 24. In his piety, he had remained unmarried and had sired no heir. His aged, childless uncle Henry of Portugal, a Cardinal of the Roman church, succeeded to the throne as closest legitimate relative. His brief reign (1578–1580) was devoted to attempting to raise the crippling financial reparations demanded by the disastrous Morocco venture. After his death, legitimate claimants to the throne of the House of Aviz, which had ruled Portugal for 200 years, were defeated by a Castilian military invasion. Philip II of Spain, a maternal grandson of Manuel I of Portugal, and nearest male claimant (being an uncle of Sebastian I), invaded with an army of 40,000 men, defeating the troops of Anthony, Prior of Crato at the Battle of Alcântara and was crowned Philip I of Portugal by the Cortes of Tomar in 1581.
Later, at the beginning of his reign, Philip II ordered that the mutilated remains said to be Sebastian's (and so recognized after the battle by some of his close companions), and still in North Africa, be returned to Portugal, where they were buried at the Jerónimos Monastery, in Lisbon. Portugal and its Empire were not de jure incorporated into the Spanish Empire, and remained as a separate realm of the Spanish Habsburgs until 1640 when it broke away through the Portuguese Restoration War.
Partly in reaction to the national trauma of this disastrous defeat, a cult of 'Sebastianism' which portrayed the lost monarch in terms similar to King Arthur arose. The legend of Portugal's "Once and Future King" who would some day return to save his nation has ebbed and flowed in Portuguese life ever since.