A military religious order, originally founded in the kingdom of Leôn in the later twelfth century. Alcantara undoubtedly remains the least well-known of all the military orders of the Iberian Peninsula. There are relatively few scholarly studies on the order, a fact traditionally attributed to the scarcity of original sources as a result of the disappearance of its major archives during Spain’s struggle for independence in the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, recent efforts to assemble the documentary sources about the order have given rise to new historiographical interpretations; these have above all illuminated the origins of the institution, which had previously been both obscure and controversial.
It can now be stated that the Order of Alcantara originated as a confraternity of knights who had settled in the convent of San Julian del Pereiro, located near the banks of the river Coa, in the region of Beira Alta (in mod. Portugal). The first mention of the community dates from January 1176, when King Ferdinand II of Leôn made a grant of the lands of Raigadas and confirmed the possession of El Pereiro to San Julian and its prior Gômez, who is described in the document as the founder of the house. In all likelihood the confraternity had been founded a little earlier (ten years before at most), but definitely not in 1156, as long claimed by Portuguese scholars who based their conclusions on a forgery that was published in the early seventeenth century by the Cistercian chronicler Bernardo de Brito.
The community gained papal approval from Alexander III in December 1176. However, it was slow to develop into a military order in the strict meaning of the term; it was only in 1183 that a bull of Pope Lucius III revealed a more complex and clearly militarized organization for the first time. After adopting the Cistercian rule, the new Leonese institution initially agreed to subordinate itself to the powerful Castilian Order of Calatrava (by 1187). However, this relationship soon gave rise to tensions, which were linked to the political rivalry between the kingdoms of Castile andLeôn. These were settled in 1218, thanks to an agreement that committed the brethren of San Julian to obey Calatrava, whose master was allowed regular rights of visitation. In exchange, they received the right to take part in the election of the master of Calatrava and also were given the possessions of the Castilian order in the kingdom of Leôn. These included the fortress of Alcantara on the river Tagus, from which they took their name in 1218.
From this time the Order of Alcantara, consisting of knight brethren and clerics under the authority of a master elected by the former group, had a growing significance in the reconquest of Iberia from the Muslims, particularly after the union of the Crowns of Castile and Leôn in 1230. After the seizures of Alange and Mérida by King Alfonso IX of Leôn (1230), the order was constantly involved in fighting in the region of Extremadura. It remained closely associated with the campaigns of King Ferdinand III, who granted it various donations, not only in Extremadura, where most of its patrimony was situated, but also in Andalusia and even in the region of Murcia. In the course of its involvement in the reconquest, the order developed a policy of repopulation on the lands it was given, especially in Extremadura. This policy enabled it to grant numerous privileges (Sp. fueros) to its village communities, which came to be loosely organized in a system of commanderies.
The growing income of Alcantara meant that from the mid-thirteenth century it aroused the envy of competing seigneurial institutions, such as the dioceses of Coria and Badajoz or the Order of the Temple, with which tensions even degenerated into armed confrontation during the trials of the Templars (1307-1312). The monarchy of Castile attempted to manipulate and control Alcantara, as it also did in the cases of the other Iberian orders, encouraging the brethren to fight against Portugal or potential internal opponents. Alfonso XI was the first king to appoint one of his own officials to the head of the institution. Gonzalo Martinez de Oviedo, who had held the office of great dispenser for six years, was appointed master in 1337, but was executed the next year by order of the king. Yet the apparent failure of this policy was only superficial; the political stance of Alfonso XI was emulated by his successors, such as his son Peter I, who appointed trustworthy men like Gutier Gômez de Toledo in 1361, or Martin Lôpez de Côrdoba three years later.
The Trastamara dynasty, who seized the Castilian throne in 1369, exploited the difficulties of the papacy during the Great Schism (1378-1417) to obtain from Pope Clement VII the right to nominate the masters of the Iberian military orders. In 1408 Fernando de Antequera, then acting as regent of Castile in the name of his nephew John II, even managed to have his twelve-year-old son Sancho elected as master of Alcantara. Such interference was not necessarily negative; indeed, Sancho became famous, thanks to an ambitious reform project that was inaugurated at the general chapter of Ayllôn in 1411. However, this attempt to restore (at least partially) the original religious observance remained as fruitless as previous attempts during the fourteenth century. In fact, from the second quarter of the fifteenth century, the order was repeatedly involved in internal struggles that largely reflected contemporary conflicts between monarchy and higher nobility concerning the control of the apparatus of government.
The masters and brethren of Alcantara were much involved in these wars. Several dignitaries even fought for the highest office of the order, as did Juan and Gutierre de Sotomayor in the reign of John II, or Alonso de Monroy and Juan de Zûniga in the 1470s. The latter prevailed in 1479, thanks to the support of the “Catholic Monarchs,” Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who were determined not to let the nobility control such an important source of income and power. In 1491, they obtained a bull from Pope Innocent VIII giving them the right to govern the Order of Alcantara whenever there was a vacancy in the mastership. From then on, they maintained pressure on Zûniga who, in June 1494, agreed to renounce his office in exchange for the lifetime enjoyment of the richest lands of the order. When Zûniga died in 1504, the Catholic Monarchs, who had meanwhile been recognized as governors of the order until their deaths, took possession of all of the resources of the institution.
Like its other Iberian counterparts, the Order of Alcantara was thus fundamentally altered. Even before 1523, when Pope Hadrian VI permanently united the estates of the military orders to the Spanish Crown, these institutions had lost most of their independence and become little more than closed noble corporations. Shattered by the French invasion in the early nineteenth century and then further weakened by the abolition of the laws on mortmain property in 1834 by the government of Juan Alvarez Mendizabal (1790-1853), the Order of Alcantara was abolished in 1874 by the First Spanish Republic, along with the other Spanish orders. Reestablished after the restoration of the Spanish monarchy, it was suppressed again in 1931. It now survives as a noble society with a purely honorific character.