The Alcobaça Monastery is one of the first foundations of the Cistercian Order in Portugal. It was founded in 1153 as a gift to Bernard of Clairvaux, shortly before his death, from the first Portuguese King, Afonso Henriques, to commemorate his victory over the Moors at Santarém in March 1147. The foundation of the monastery was part of the strategy by Afonso Henriques to consolidate his authority in the new kingdom and promote the colonisation of areas recently taken from Moorish hands during the Reconquista.
The building of the monastery began in 1178, some 25 years after the arrival of the Cistercian monks in the Alcobaça region. Initially, the monks lived in wooden houses, and only moved to the new stone monastery buildings in 1223. The church was completed in 1252. The finished church and monastery were the first truly Gothic buildings in Portugal, and the church was the largest in Portugal. The last touch in the mediaeval ensemble was given in the late 13th century, when King Dinis I ordered the construction of the Gothic cloister, the Cloister of Silence.
The monks dedicated their lives to religious meditation, creating illuminated manuscripts in a scriptorium. The monks from the monastery produced an early authoritative history on Portugal in a series of books. The library at Alcobaça was one of the largest Portuguese mediaeval libraries, but was pillaged by the invading French in 1810, and many items were stolen in an anti-clerical riot in 1834, when the religious orders in Portugal were dissolved. The remnants of the monastery library, including hundreds of mediaeval manuscripts, are kept today in the National Library in Lisbon.
During the Middle Ages, the monastery quickly became an important and powerful presence in Portugal. The monastery owned and developed extensive agriculture areas, and the abbot exerted influence over a large area. A public school was opened in 1269. The importance of the monastery can be measured by the fact that many royals were buried here in the 13th and 14th centuries. Kings Afonso II, Afonso III, and their Queens Urraca of Castile and Beatrice of Castile are buried here, as well as King Pedro I and his mistress, Inês de Castro, who was murdered on the orders of Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV. After being crowned King, Pedro commissioned two magnificent Gothic tombs for him and his mistress, both of which can still be seen inside the monastery church.
During the reign of Manuel I, a second floor was added to the cloister and a new sacristy was built, following the characteristic Portuguese late Gothic known as “Manueline”. The monastery was further enlarged in the 18th century, with the addition of a new cloister and towers to the church, although the mediaeval structure was mostly preserved. In the Baroque period, the monks were famous for their clay sculptures, many of them are still inside the monastery. Elaborate tiles and altarpieces completed the decoration of the church.
The great 1755 Lisbon Earthquake did not cause significant damage to the monastery, although part of the sacristy and some smaller buildings were destroyed. Greater damage was caused by invading French troops in the 1800s. In addition to looting the library, they robbed the tombs, and stole and burnt part of the inner decoration of the church. In 1834, with the dissolution of monastic life in Portugal, the last monks were ordered to leave the monastery.
Today, the Alcobaça Monastery is one of the main historic tourist destinations in Portugal.