D. João II - Royal murderer and tyrant, or perfect prince?

Lynne Booker


D. João II personally killed his brother-in-law and broke the power of the aristocracy and he also oversaw the greatest expansion of Portugal’s discoveries while living much of his life under the shadow of death threats. In Portuguese history, he is known as either o Príncipe Perfeito (the Perfect Prince) or o Tirano (The Tyrant), depending on your point of view.


A tangled web

Henry IV of Castile died in 1474 and in his will left his daughter and heiress, Joana, in marriage to her uncle, D Afonso V, King of Portugal. D Afonso duly married her and then invaded Castile to fight for her throne. He styled himself as King of Castile, León, Portugal, Toledo, Galicia, Seville, Cordoba, Jaén, the two Algarves, Gibraltar, Algeciras and Lord of Biscay and Molina! In his attempt to sieze the Castilian throne, D Afonso lost the Battle of Toro (he left the battlefield), but his son, O Infante D João, performed rather better and was credited with a victory because he had remained in possession of the battlefield. In an unprecedented move, D Afonso then went in person to France to solicit support from Louis XI and the Duke of Burgundy. D Afonso was thoroughly deceived by Louis, whom he nicknamed a aranha universal (the universal spider) and in his disillusionment with life he renounced the throne and entered a monastery. 


Trial run

The unsuspecting D João thus assumed the crown, and as D Afonso was soon persuaded to return, D João returned the crown to his father but continued to exercise royal authority. The dispirited D Afonso gave up his claim to the throne of Castile at the treaty of Alcáçovas in 1479. As a promise of good faith, the child heirs to the two kingdoms, Infante D Afonso of Portugal and the Infanta D Isabel of Castile were consigned together to the Portuguese fortress of Moura but under the guardianship of a Spaniard. This arrangement was known as the terçarias, and was designed to ensure a period of peace. At his death in 1481, the weak D Afonso left behind him a strong and powerful aristocracy which felt itself above and beyond the law. D João II also inherited a complex relationship with Castile, including the ‘hostages’ of the terçarias. How would he ensure the survival of the dynasty of Avis and of Portugal as an independent kingdom? How would he inject fresh momentum into Portugal’s voyages of discovery? Most important, could he ensure his own survival?


A marriage made in heaven or in hell

In 1471 D João had married his cousin D Leonor de Viseu. D Leonor was the first occupant of the throne of Portugal who had Bragança blood in her veins. Both D João’s line and D Leonor’s were sprung from illegitimate claimants to the Portuguese throne and both were direct descendants of D João I. D Leonor was personally rich, owning the cities of Faro and Silves, among others, and she founded the town of Caldas da Rainha in 1484 after discovering the curative properties of the waters there. D Leonor was the foundress of the institution of the Misericórdia in Portugal, whose objective was, and is, assistance to the poor and the old. The only surviving child of the royal marriage was O Infante D Afonso, born in 1475. D João also had an illegitimate son, D Jorge de Lencastre, who was born in 1481 to Tavira-born D Ana de Mendonça and D Leonor generously agreed to bring up the boy in her own household. There are streets in Tavira still named after D Ana.


For the law and for the people

Pela lei e pela grei (for the law and for the people) is the motto D João chose for himself and it is today also the motto of the National Republican Guard (GNR). D João believed his life’s work was to use the law to safeguard the interests of the people over those of the nobility. D João also chose a device that reflected how he saw his role as king. He chose the pelican - a medieval Christian symbol, particularly associated with Corpus Christi. It was believed that the pelican offered its own blood to its chicks in the same way that Christ offers His blood in the Eucharist. The pelican on its nest is a symbol of piety and the emblem of charity. And so D João created the image of his own sacred self sacrifice on behalf of his people. D João also decided to change the national flag and the design he created forms today the centre of the flag of the Republic of Portugal. 



When he came of age and ascended the throne in 1448, the young D Afonso V had been careless in distributing land and titles and two of the new nobility in particular, the Duke of Bragança and the Duke of Beja and Viseu, saw themselves as rich and as powerful as the king. D João II, on his accession to the throne, clearly saw that he had to take steps to preserve his autonomy, saying: “Eu sou o senhor dos senhores, não servo dos servos” (I am the Lord of Lords, not a servant amongst servants). On taking up the throne in August 1481, D João summoned the Cortes (court) to Évora (his favourite city) in November.


The new king had never been popular among the peers of the realm because he was independent-minded and would not be involved in any of their intrigues. Now even worse, he required them to take a new type of oath of loyalty and the new oath was to be taken on bended knee. He required that all grants of land and title made by his father be proved in writing and he did not promise to renew such grants. 


Royal Murderer?

The king’s cousin, the Duke of Bragança, held over 50 cities in Portugal and he was able to raise 13.000 men for armed service. Carelessly, he allowed an employee to search his muniment chest for the requested proofs of the grants and titles to his lands. The employee found confidential correspondence between the Duke and the Monarchs of Castile, which he secretly showed to the king. D João had the letters copied and replaced. By 1483 at the end of the terçarias, the Infante D Afonso had returned to Lisbon, and the king was ready to strike. He had the Duke of Bragança arrested on 28 May. The Duke knew what was coming, and he said that a man such as himself is not arrested solely to be released. He was convicted of treason and on June 29 was executed in Évora. One of his brothers, the Marquês de Montemór, was executed in effigy and another,the Conde de Faro, fled to Castile.


The Queen’s brother, the Duke of Beja and Viseu, was personally warned that D João knew of his involvement in Bragança’s treason and the king told him of the consequences of any repeat. Later in 1485, D João heard that there was a plan to ambush him on his journey from Alcácer do Sal to Setúbal, but he changed his route and arrived safely. He summoned his brother-in-law Diogo, Duke of Beja and Viseu, and asked him what he would do if he knew that someone was going to kill him. The Duke fatefully replied, “I would kill him first, my lord.” D João thereupon stabbed him to death and a further 80 conspirators were tried and condemned to death. 


He summoned D Leonor’s remaining brother, D Manuel, and issued a warning to him and to his own Queen against any further plotting. D João’s health, never robust, worsened and rumours arose that the Queen and her family were poisoning the king - especially as he knew that his Queen had been implicated in the plots against him. 


A Spanish plot?

In 1491 as the King was swimming in the Tejo near Santarém, the Infante D Afonso, challenged to a race along the shore on horseback, fell from his horse and was killed. The Infante had been promised in marriage to D Isabel of Castile, the likely heiress to the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. There had been Spanish efforts to dissolve this promise as it looked likely that the Portuguese D Afonso would become king of a united Portugal and Castile. Rumours of a Spanish plot abounded. 


Left with only his bastard son, the king petitioned the Pope for recognition of D Jorge as the legitimate heir to the throne, whilst the Queen defended the rights of her brother, D Manuel, the new Duke of Beja and Viseu. D Leonor did not approve of the king’s attempt to legitimise D Jorge and she refused ever again to receive D Jorge into her presence. 

D João failed in his attempts to legitimise his bastard son’s claim and had to swallow his pride (and possibly his poison) when he named his brother-in-law, D Manuel, as his successor. 


D Manuel I must rank among the luckiest of men to inherit a throne since, not only was he not the son of a king, but he was also the youngest of nine children. 


Carving up the world

In the late 15th century, the struggles between Portugal and Castile had global repercussions. The Treaty of Alcáçovas in 1479 was historic because it was also the first of many European treaties which divided the world without consulting any of the people affected. The Iberian monarchs agreed that all new discoveries to the south of the Canary Islands would belong to Portugal and any new discoveries to the north of the line would belong to Castile. 

When Christopher Columbus returned from his historic voyage in 1492, it was clearly necessary to consider again the division of the world, since the Caribbean Islands were obviously to the south of the Alcáçovas line. Negotiations were begun again and at Tordesilhas in 1494, the Iberian crowns agreed, with papal benediction, to split the world between themselves. The new line was to run North - South 370 leagues to the west of the Cape Verde Islands and is at roughly 45º W. 

There is room for discussion about the insistence of D João that the line should be 370 leagues and not 100 leagues to the west of the islands. He must already have known - six years before the official discovery - that Brazil was there. 


Trade and explorations

Whilst still crown prince, D João had fought alongside his father in Africa and he was knighted on August 21  in 1471 after the taking of Arzila. He was just 16 years old. After coming to the throne he financed further expeditions to Morocco in 1485 (Azamor), 1487 (Anafé) and Graciosa (1489); while the Graciosa expedition was taking place, D João lived for some weeks at Tavira. D João commissioned the explorations further south in Africa, which reached present day Angola (22ºS) by 1486.

In August 1487, D João sent Bartolomeu Dias to find the route around the bottom of Africa. Setting sail for the south, he landed first at present day Walvis Bay (in Namibia). Finding southward progress against wind and current difficult, he then headed west, south, east and finally north to discover that the coastline was running in a northeasterly direction. It was roughly at East London in the Eastern Cape of present day South Africa. The members of his crew would not allow him to proceed further, but on this voyage Dias became the first European to reach the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic. Having discovered the southern route to India, he returned to Lisbon in December 1488 where he was debriefed by D João II and the king’s close personal friend, Christopher Columbus. 


Secret research

Between the dates of Dias rounding the Cape in 1488 and da Gama’s voyage in 1497 there was an unusual delay of nine years. The many possible reasons for this delay include the development of new settlements in Morocco, the repercussions of the Treaty of Tordesilhas, the death of Infante D Afonso, the illness of D João, the opposition in council to the grand enterprise of discovery and the difficulty of the small and weak Portuguese nation in trying to achieve conquest in the Indies. With the benefit of hindsight, the most likely reason is that the king of Portugal was at the time directing research in the South Atlantic Ocean concerning current and wind patterns off the South American continent. 


D João the Invincible

D João II was burdened with ill-health throughout his life and tried many spa waters in an attempt to improve his health. He was recommended to try the waters at Monchique which he did in 1495. Feeling no better, he continued south and reached Alvor in the Algarve where he died on October 25 that year at the age of 40. His body was later removed to the royal mausoleum at Batalha. 


D João may have left the scene prematurely, but he had firmly re-established royal authority; he had driven the explorations forward with vigour; he had appointed the man who would achieve immortal fame, Vasco da Gama, for his historic voyage; he and the Castilians had divided the world between Portugal and Spain (the outcome of this work of D João is still apparent today); and he had supervised the conduct of widespread climatological and seafaring research in the South Atlantic, which may have led to his pre-knowledge of the existence of Brazil. 


From the facts of the life of D João II, it is easy to see that if you were an aristocrat, you would consider this remarkable man to be a tyrant. On the other hand, if you were of the grex communis (literally the common herd) you would think of D João as the perfect prince. 


For us in posterity, we may say that if it had not been for the driving energy of this man, the route to India might never have been taken. It is not for nothing that Portuguese refer to D João II as the strongest and most invincible king that Portugal has ever had.