At the turn of the 15th century, baths and a new settlement were founded around a spring of high-quality thermal waters. This spring/settlement later became known as Caldas da Rainha (The Queens’s Spa). This small area was situated between the noble lands of Alcobaça and Óbidos. Its borders were set in 1511, when the status of autonomous municipal court was also granted.
Since the borders were merely administrative, men and goods crossed easily, making this territory a thriving one. A Large Thermal Hospital, constructed later on attracted people from all over Portugal.
The settlement was frequented by common people and Caldas Rainha´s spa was no exception. In his will in 1222, Don Zouco from Atouguia, who owned the village of Cornada (now called Tornada) bequeathed a maravedi to improve the spa baths, the same amount to a nearby inn and the Espírito Santo Friary. This important document, which was unearthed by Rui de Azevedo, enabled João Saavedra Machado to reconstruct the medieval layout of Caldas´ baths: the baths themselves, an inn for healing the sick; one or two chapels (dedicated to the Holy spirit or St. Sylvester) under the supervision of the Benedictine monks of Santa Maria do Rocamador.
The Santarém Leper´s Hospital Deed, dated the following year, provides evidence that in the 1220´s, the sick travelled from relatively far afield to the hot springs and would be given twelve days rations. Similar evidence can be found in a document from the first of the 14th century: in 1336/1337, Álvaro Pais, the bishop of Silves, wrote to King Afonso the 4th that he would travel from there to the spring waters in order to treat a skin disease.
By the second half of the 15th century, the baths were becoming extremely dilapidated, as the Order of Santa Maria de Rocamador declined, according to J.S. Machado. Concern over this matter is shown in Don Afonso’s charter of privileges dated 26 June 1474, in which the King granted special benefits to anyone who provided the sick who travelled to the springs with board and lodging.
Later on, in the latter half of the 15th century, it was Queen Leonor, wife of King João the second’s decision to found a hospital that gave the future settlement a new life.
The Queen’s founding did not take place over-night. The process included the following aspects:
Firstly, the Portuguese Crown’s concern at the way the sick were treated. It is said that the queen herself was successfully treated using Caldas water, probably in 1484. In fact, two of the theories put forward at the time as to why the Queen was taking an interest in Caldas’s baths. The legend says that, one day in 1484, the Queen Leonor found a group of peasants bathing in foul-smelling waters by the roadside. She stopped to inquire about this oddity and was told that the waters possessed curative powers. She decided to try them for herself. She was pleased to find that she was quickly relieved of some affliction she had been suffering. The queen ordered a thermal hospital built on that site so that others may enjoy the relief that she felt. The Queen quickly decided to equip the site with means for receiving and treating the sick, even there was no settlement.
Secondly, the springs flowed quickly, constantly and the water was close to body temperature. And lastly, the number of sick travelling there, mainly ordinary and poor people, grew after 1484, as a result of the works sponsored by the Queen.
Such circumstances meant that the Queen’s original idea, to create a hospice or medieval hospital, was changed to that of merging baths and a clinic, thermal therapy and medicine, in other words a modern hospital, the first modern hospital in Portugal.
The hospital was completed in 1508 (the adjoining church was completed in 1488), and named Hospital da Nossa Senhora do Pópulo (The Hospital of Our Lady of the People). It was the first institution of its kind and remains so to this day, being the oldest functional thermal hospital in the world.
Today we can visit the Thermal Hospital for treatments or for cultural purposes, as well as the Church “Nossa Senhora do Pópulo" and the Hospital Museum.