Henry the Navigator

Lynne Booker


Prince Henry the Navigator - the Making of a Legend. As he emerged from his mother´s womb Henry, ´clutching a simulacrum of the Holy Cross´, appeared to have his destiny as crusader and defender of the faith mapped out for him - he had been  ´chosen´ according to his horoscope to make ´great and noble conquests and to uncover secrets previously hidden from men´.


The Oldest Alliance

O Infante D Henrique (Henry) was born in 1394 to D João I, master of the house of Avis and his queen D Philippa of Lancaster, granddaughter of Edward III of England. Henry was their fifth child and fourth son and he was named after the crusading Duke Henry of Lancaster, his maternal great-grandfather, and his patron saint was Louis, the French crusader king.  Henry´s grandfather, D Fernando, had been at war with Castile for years and although D João I was illegitimate, he had managed to secure enough support to be elected King and soon afterwards he and his English allies had beaten the Castilians at the famous battle of Aljubarrota ( 14 August, 1385).  D João and the English Richard II signed ´a perpetual alliance´ which was sealed at Windsor in 1386.


talant de bien faire  (the desire to do well)

At the time of Henry´s birth, Portugal was still recovering from the Castilian invasions, but peace was not a welcome prospect for the nobility, who regarded war as the only means of achieving honour.  Henry was also strongly influenced by his mother´s tales of the military victories of his Plantagenet ancestors.  The jousting tournament to which all the best knights of Europe were invited was clearly not adequate to provide Henry and his brothers with opportunities for honour.  Henry must have been frustrated at being only the fourth son of D João and D Philppa, well away from succession to the throne, but he  made it clear from an early age that he was not happy with a subordinate role and he chose as his motto, talant de bien faire.


The military hero

The battlefield on which the royal princes won their spurs and where 21 year old Henry won himself a military reputation was at Ceuta, just a short distance away on the north coast of Africa.  By their conquest of Moslem Ceuta in 1415, the Portuguese hoped to benefit from  its position as a major trading port, and particularly from the trans-Sahara African gold trade.  Success at Ceuta helped fire Henry´s intellectual curiosity about exploration and his desire to live up to his crusading horoscope.  D João and his sons saw Africa as a territory teeming with natural resources, raw materials and potential Christian allies against the Moors.  On their return to Portugal at Tavira, D João knighted his sons and he singled out Henry by creating him Duke of Viseu.


The explorer 

Following the capture of Ceuta,  D João realised that it would be far easier to explore Africa by sea than by land:  he would try to encircle the Moors.   The Portuguese search for the gold of Africa was reinforced by the quest for the Christian potentate of Abyssinia, the mythical Prester John, who they hoped would become an ally in the crusade against the Moslem powers of Africa and the Near East.  Recognising Henry´s ambition, D João delegated to Henry the task of organising expeditions to find out what was beyond the mighty Cape Bojador in north west Africa.  In 1419 one of these expeditions was blown off course and rediscovered the islands of Porto Santo and Madeira, and the Azores were also charted around 1430.  It was not until 1434 that Gil Eanes succeeded in rounding Bojador and further expeditions reached Cape Blanco in 1441, the Cape Verde Islands in 1455 and Sierra Leone in 1460.  Henry had in the meantime become fixated by the Canary Islands, and after a number of foolhardy and costly attempts between the 1420s and the 1450s to wrest them from Castilian control, Henry had to admit defeat.  Without this distraction, how much more could he have achieved?


The brother

Meanwhile, back in Ceuta ... because Moslem camel caravans now traded anywhere but through Christian Ceuta, the Portuguese conquest had become an expensive and unpopular drain on resources. Henry urged his elder brother, D Duarte the new king, to mount a military campaign against Moslem Tangier which would also give Henry´s younger brother, D Fernando, his chance of glory.  Unlike D João´s surprise attack on Ceuta,  Henry´s assault on Tangier in 1437 was common knowledge, badly planned and a disaster and as their price for allowing the defeated Portuguese army to re-embark for Portugal, the Moslems demanded the return of Ceuta.  Henry arranged an exchange of hostages as guarantee and D Fernando was to be held by the Moslems until Ceuta was surrendered by the Portuguese.  D Duarte was devastated by this arrangement, by the defeat and by D Fernando´s captivity.  Since Ceuta was an outpost of Christianity against the infidel and could not be surrendered and Fernando was their brother, Henry had put D Duarte in an impossible situation.  Henry perversely insisted that Ceuta be held and D Fernando abandoned, and when D Fernando died in captivity in 1443, he suddenly became O Infante Santo, another Portuguese martyr.  Partly because of this horrible dilemma, D Duarte died heartbroken in 1438, and when D Pedro, the second brother, fell foul of factions at court, and was killed in 1449 at Alfarrobeira, Henry did little to defuse the situation.  Three of Henry´s brothers had by then died in tragic circumstances.


The navigator

It was not until the 19th Century that the sobriquet, ´The Navigator´was added to Henry´s name, (by a German historian) and we know that Henry ´s seafaring experience was limited to routine journeys along the Portuguese coast and to North Africa.  He is known in Portugal as O Infante de Sagres, since he built a mansion for himself at Sagres, O Cabo do Mundo as he called it, or we might say, World´s End. Henry clearly did no exploring or navigating himself, but he is reputed to have mastered a school of navigation at Sagres.  There is practically nothing left of the Henrician building, but what we know shows that it was too small for a school.  It is far more likely that Henry and his captains learned from mariners passing Lagos Bay and that this search for seafaring knowledge was thought of as a school.


The Charter of Portuguese Imperialism

Of the four great military orders, Avis, Santiago, St John and Christ, Henry controlled the Order of Christ, which provided much of the finance for exploration and whose red cross featured on the sails of the explorers´ships. The Bull of 1455, Romanus Pontifex, has been termed ´the charter of Portuguese Imperialism´ as it summarised Prince Henry´s discovery, conquest and colonisation, praised his enthusiastic Christianity and credited him with the intention of circumnavigating Africa.  The Bull goes on to praise him for the number of black slaves taken back to Portugal and converted to Christianity and asserted the right of Portugal to retain a monopoly of navigation, trade and fishing in those regions already conquered as well as of any future conquests.


´The True Foundation of the Greatness ...  of the whole Christian World´ 

It was in Henry´s own lifetime and at his own direction that his personality and achievements first began to part company with reality.  The contemporary chronicler, Zurara,  was employed by Henry to show him in the best possible light for posterity.  Later historians uncritically went along with this version of Henry´s personality and career and in the twentieth century,  Dr Salazar´s regime utilised him as a national symbol representing the heroic destiny and imperial achievements of the Portuguese people.  Henry has been described as the founder of European exploration, the founder of the seaborne slave trade, a great crusader, a pioneer of Atlantic island settlement, a navigational expert, in fact, ´the true foundation of the greatness..... of the whole Christian world´, wrote the English Samuel Purchas in 1625.  Whatever the truth behind these assertions, it is beyond question that he is now as famous as he originally intended.