Foundation of the Ermelo Monastery

The foundation of the Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery is a mystery that History has yet to unravel. However, according to tradition, it was Theresa (mother of the King D. Afonso Henriques) who founded this monastery. The first historical reference to this monument dates from 1220, in the Inquiries of King Afonso II. It is stated in these Inquiries that Queen Theresa donated her land of S. Martinho de Britelo, in Ponte da Barca, to the Ermelo Monastery. There are, however, those who go further back in time to report the foundation of the Ermelo Monastery. According to some historiographical currents, the Benedictines were the ones to lift the monastery in the twelfth century, in the parish of S. Pedro dos Arcos, current parish of S. Pedro do Vale, placing it later in Ermelo.

Adoption of the Cistercian Rule

During the thirteenth century, the monastic community of Ermelo adopted the Cistercian Observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. Born in France in the end of the eleventh century, this new Order arrived in Portugal during the twelfth century. Known as the White Monks, since they wore white robes, they enjoyed the protection of King Afonso Henriques, as well as of the aristocracy of the County of Portugal. In Portugal, their peak took place between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, with the Abbey of Alcobaça being one of the largest and most important of this Order.

Fourteenth century crisis affects the Ermelo Monastery

The fourteenth century is known in history for the crisis that has plagued Europe. Fatal years for agriculture caused famine. Wars, including the Hundred Years War, brought destruction. Diseases, such as the Black Death, brought an increase in the death count and a strong decline in demographics. Portugal, as might be expected, was not oblivious to all of this, and the succession crisis between 1383 and 1385, after the death of King Ferdinand, aggravated the situation. From this crisis comes out victorious the Master of Avis, King John I, to whom the abbot Friar João Martins asks for the annexation of the Britelo and Soajo churches to the Ermelo Monastery, something which is granted in 1388.

Extinction attempt of the Monastery

In November 1441, the legal proceeding to extinct and reduce the Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery to a parish church is signed. However, this decision must have been kept for a short time, since a few years later it was possible to find documents with references to the Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery, including one of particular interest, dating from 1497, in which King Manuel I confirms all the honours, favours and privileges granted by his predecessors.

The General Abbot of the Cistercian Order visits the Ermelo Monastery in 1533

On January 20th, 1533, the General Abbot of the Cistercian Order, the Archbishop Edmundo de Saulieu, visited the Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery. Accompanied by his secretary, Friar Cláudio de Bronseval, he ascertained and witnessed the monastery degradation state. The Archbishop Edmundo de Saulieu, who was on a visit to the Iberian Peninsula at the time, ordered the extinction of the Ermelo Monastery. Later, in 1581, the commendatory abbot of Ermelo quits the monastery in favour of Alcobaça. The goods of the monastery community are then attached to the University College of Saint Bernard of Coimbra. However, it is known to exist a confirmation letter by Francisco Barreto Meneses, abbot of the monastery, dating from 1632, which suggests that the extinction didn’t take place.

New signs of ruin in the eighteenth century

From the eighteenth century we have even more news that presented the state of disrepair of the Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery. In 1754, the visitor Marcelino Pereira Cleto complains of the poor condition of the whole building. As such, he orders the restoration of the whole building and that one of the apse chapels would be harnessed to the sacristy. This is also when the Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery church was reduced from three naves to a single nave, and the south wing was demolished (in 1760). Still, in the eighteenth century, the rectory, the sacristy, and the bell tower were built.

Classification of National Monument

The Santa Maria de Ermelo Monastery was classified as a National Monument on September 29th, 1977. Almost ten years later, in 1985, the church undergoes a set of construction works, which were carried out by the General Directorate of National Buildings and Monuments. During this intervention, the roof was repaired, the fencing of the inner and outer walls was removed, three exterior doors were rebuilt, the choir was demolished, and the nave's ceiling paintings were scraped, excluding five medallions with figurative elements. Later, in 1996, the assistants of the Centre of São Martinho de Tibães revealed the existing frescos on the background wall of the apse, on the columns, and on the window aperture.

  • 12th Century

    The date of the monastery's foundation is uncertain. There are theories which suggest that the foundation was carried out by the Benedictines in the twelfth century, in S. Pedro dos Arcos, now known as S. Pedro do Vale.

  • 13th Century

    Adoption of the Cistercian Observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, which promotes the asceticism (renunciation of pleasure), the liturgical rigor and work as fundamental values.

  • 1220

    First historical reference to the monastery in the inquiries of King Afonso II.

  • 1221

    King Afonso II wills 100 maravedí in order to celebrate his birthday.

  • 1279

    King Afonso III wills between 50 and 500 pounds in order to celebrate his birthday.

  • 1283

    King Denis introduces Pedro Martins Real as abbot of Santa Maria de Ermelo.

  • 1361

    King Peter I approves the appointment of Friar Estevão Lourenço as prior and abbot.

  • 1388

    King John I authorizes the annexation of the Britelo and Soajo churches to repair the income crisis.

  • 1441

    The monastery is extinguished and reduced to a parish church.

  • 1497

    King Manuel I confirms all the honours, favours and privileges to the monastery.

  • 16th century

    Annexation of S. Pedro do Vale church.

  • 1502

    The limits of the couto of the Ermelo Monastery are registered (Terras do Soajo, Mezio, lands of Cabana Maior, S. Jorge and Vilarinho de Garção), and there is a mention to the fact that much of the land was barren.

  • 1533

    The General Abbot of the Cistercian Order, Archbishop Edmundo de Saulieu, witnesses the state of disrepair and orders the monastery to be extinct.

  • 1546

    In the evaluation requested by the Archbishop Manuel de Sousa, it was found that Santa Maria de Ermelo yielded only 22 thousand Portuguese reis.

  • 1560

    Cardinal Henrique suppresses the monastery, and the church becomes a parish church.

  • 1581

    The commendatory abbot of Ermelo, João de Mendonça, quits the monastery in favour of Alcobaça. The goods of the monastery community are then attached to the University College of Saint Bernard of Coimbra.

  • 1760

    Completion of the church reduction works.

  • 1977

    The monastery is classified as a National Monument through the Decree No. 129/77, DR, 1st Series, No. 226, September 29th.

  • 1996

    The frescos of the background wall of the apse are found.


It is said that King Ordoño II, governor of Asturias and of all the territories conquered in the south to the Islam warriors, had a daughter named Urraca that was merciful, protector of the churches and convents, and devoutly dedicated to the spreading of the Christian faith. One day, Urraca decided to found a monastery for monks in a fertile place, surrounded by water, where one could meditate, with vineyards and wheat fields capable of providing bread and wine for the Eucharistic Mystery. With the consent of her father, the princess went out accompanied by her maids and a few soldiers, and came to Serra da Peneda, where she found that there was silence for prayer, and a wide view over a peaceful landscape. Then, she began to climb the mountain, stopping at a few places for rest; nowadays, there's a place called "Bouça das Donas", where she would have stopped to rest and contemplate everything around her. Near the village of Soajo, she found the proper place for building a monastery. Thus, she hired masons to open the foundations. Feeling happy, princess Urraca returned to his father's court to tell him of the news. Feeling curious, Ordoño II asked her what one could see from such a high place. The princess replied, one could see, on the south, the towers of the Cathedral of Braga and the houses of the city; on the north, the cathedrals of Tuy and Orense; on the west, the beaches; and, on the east, countless fields and hills. The king heard all of this, and after due consideration, he told Urraca that, although he would have liked to fulfil her wish to serve God, he could not simply spend half of his kingdom in that monastery, considering it to be a very big investment. So, Ordoño II ordered the Princess to find another site, less extensive, for the building of the monastery. Saddened by this decision, Urraca ordered that the monastery was built, not on the top of the hill, but in the depths of the valley, along the river, amid the mists, engrossed in the solitude of the desert. And, as such, she named it Ermelo Monastery.

Adapted from the text present in the book "Lendas do Vale do Lima" by António Manuel Couto Viana, in an edition by Valima - Associação de Municípios do Vale do Lima, 2002, pp. 77-79


Located in the locality of the same name, the Ermelo Monastery stands on the right bank of the Lima River, nowadays a few meters away from the water line. This happened due to the construction of the Alto Lindoso dam, which, in turn, originated a large reservoir. In the southeast quadrant of the city of Arcos de Valdevez, the Ermelo Monastery seems to nest at the base of the hillside of Outeiro Maior, (on the slope of Monte Gião that faces the Lima River). The monastery is protected from the north and from the south, respectively, by the great reliefs of the Serra do Soajo, Serra da Peneda, and Serra Amarela, leaning against the Peneda-Gerês National Park. This territory, with predominantly granitic soils, part of the Old Massif or Hesperian Massif (generally assuming its geomorphological and lithological characteristics), presents some specifics conferred by the valley of the Lima River, especially in what concerns the weather. There is a microclimate that allows the production of the Ermelo Orange (introduced by the Cistercian monks), a fruit with a thin peel, a sweet taste, juicy, and with few seeds. The scenery nearby the Ermelo Monastery is predominately dominated by orange groves, a landscape that changes as we approach the river, and where the riparian vegetation is predominate. If, on the other hand, we climb the slope by the opposite side, the bushes impose themselves, right after we pass the pasture areas. In the whole area of Alto Minho, and particularly within the Peneda-Gerês National Park - as a consequence of diversity and contrasts of the region, which creates terrestrial and aquatic habitats of great variety and quality - a high biodiversity occurs. The richness of several animal species is very relevant in vertebrates and invertebrates. In the surrounding area of the Ermelo Monastery, it is not uncommon to observe many wildlife specimens such as wild boars, wolves, foxes, badgers, otters, birds of prey and other species of birds such as kingfishers, among others.