The 'Illustrious Generation' ...is the proud name given by the Portuguese to the nine offspring of D João I and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster. The idea of a strong, talented family unit acting out their lives in the interests of their country is a story that has persisted in Portugal for hundreds of years.
It is a story of chivalry, brotherhood, and patriotism but it is only a story. Recent research reveals a much darker reality. The term Illustrious Generation is a direct translation of the Portuguese Ínclita Geração.
D João and Philippa´s dynastic success in producing six children who survived to adulthood gave stability to the newly founded dynasty of Avis. With no problems of succession to the throne, opportunities arose for the royal princes to build up the prestige of their country to keep it independent of Castile. In order of appearance D João and Philippa produced: D Duarte, D Pedro, D Henrique, D Isabel, D João and D Fernando. (Their first two children, D Branca and D Afonso and their seventh child, another D Branca, all died in childhood). Tradition has it that the children were named alternately with English and Portuguese names.
Setting the Scene
D João, Grand Master of the House of Avis, became king of Portugal in 1385 following a two year constitutional crisis. D João’s half brother Ferdinand I had died in 1383 leaving no legitimate male heir, but in that year his daughter Beatrice at the age of 10 had been married to D Juan I of Castile, an arrangement that put at risk Portugal’s independence. The Portuguese Cortes meeting in Coimbra proclaimed D João king of Portugal which, in effect, meant a declaration of war on Castile. On 14 August 1385 the army of D Juan of Castile was soundly defeated at the famous Battle of Aljubarrota where 30,000 Castilians were defeated by 6,000 Portuguese and their English allies in a classic medieval battle of mounted knights versus longbowmen. D João’s claim to the throne of Portugal was well and truly secured. This is one of the battles masterminded by another Portuguese hero, D João´s loyal ally, Nun´Álvares Pereira.
The English Influence
Philippa of Lancaster was the granddaughter of Edward III of England and daughter of John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster). The marriage between D João and Philippa of Lancaster was the keystone of the Anglo-Portuguese strategy which aimed to counter the France-Castile alliance. At the time of their marriage, John of Gaunt had aspirations to the throne of Castile and Iberian history would have been very different if John of Gaunt had become King of Spain! On marriage, Philippa adopted the Portuguese form of D Filipa and it was she who instilled in her sons the necessity of adopting the code of chivalry. She also insisted upon an improvement of manners at the Portuguese court, notorious at the time for its laxity in sexual matters. A recent historical novel by the Portuguese Isabel Stilwell is called D Filipa, A Rainha que mudou Portugal (The Queen who changed Portugal).
The Ceuta Expedition
Although long wars against Castile had left the Portuguese economy in ruins, the warlike Portuguese nobility had at least been occupied. After the death of D Beatrice in 1410, Castile dropped its claim to Portugal, and the warlike barons were again unemployed, a dangerous situation for any monarch. D Filipa saw the economic and pragmatic advantage of an expedition to Ceuta. Control of the trade between North Africa and the Muslim state of Granada would be lucrative and her sons and other nobles would have a chance of knightly glory. D Henrique duly distinguished himself in battle and on their return to Portugal, D João in the main church in Tavira created his third son Duque de Viseu and Senhor de Covilhã and his second son D Pedro was created Duque de Coimbra. D Henrique had by then become fixated with conquering North Africa.
D João I had associated his eldest son in the government of Portugal as from 1412 and when his father died in 1433, D Duarte together with D Pedro was in the process of revising Portugal’s code of laws. This revised code survived in use until 1834. D João had not been keen for further expeditions into North Africa but after his death the new king was persuaded by D Henrique and D Fernando to permit an attack on Tangier in 1437. The Portuguese were heavily outnumbered and D Henrique, to save his army, left his younger brother D Fernando as hostage. The capitulation terms that D Henrique negotiated involved the surrender of the fortress at Ceuta in return for the release of D Fernando. Ashamed, D Henrique hid in Ceuta for six months before he dared meet D Duarte. The strain of the decision to lose either his heritage or his brother almost certainly contributed to D Duarte´s early death in August 1438.
Infante D Pedro, Duque de Coimbra
The Cortes nominated D Pedro as Regent - a popular move with the middle classes but not with the aristocracy who preferred the more malleable Leonor, D Duarte’s Spanish widow. D Pedro had travelled widely around Europe and was known as o Infante das Sete Partidas (Prince of the Seven Journeys). During his travels he was created Knight of the Garter by Henry VI of England and Lord of Treviso by Sigismund of Hungary and in Rome he communicated with the Pope in Latin. D Pedro is considered by many Portuguese as the most distinguished of the ´Illustrious Generation´ because of his scholarship (he wrote a number of books and translated works by Cicero and Seneca), his statesmanship and his travels. Intrigues at court continued and D Pedro’s half brother D Afonso (Conde de Barcelos, later Duque de Bragança) managed to gain the ear of the new king, D Afonso V (who ascended the throne at the age of five). All D Pedro´s work was undone and D Pedro was declared an outlaw. D Pedro’s forces were crushed at the battle of Alfarrobeira in 1449 and D Pedro was killed – or possibly assassinated.
Infante D Henrique - The Seafarer?
D Henrique was named ‘The Seafarer’ in 1842 thanks to a German historian. In fact, D Henrique made only four sea journeys and then only as far as Morocco. It was D Henrique’s ambition to be well known after his death and he paid his chroniclers (Gomes Eanes de Zurara and Cadamosto) to paint a flattering picture of him. He wanted to be remembered as the Founder of Theological School at Lisbon University, the promoter of Moroccan conquest, patron and director of discoveries, monopolist of the Africa trade including slave trading and promoter of settlement in the Atlantic islands. It is interesting to note that Camões, Portugal´s most famous poet who in the Lusíadas described the great age of the discoveries, had nothing whatever to say about D Henrique! And there is evidence that it was D João I and D Pedro who were more interested in southward exploration, and that D Henrique’s interests were more concerned with conquests in North Africa, in securing the Canaries for Portugal and in securing profit by the trade in gold and slaves.
Lifelong Obsessions - Crusading in Morocco
After his early success at Ceuta, D Henrique was eager to continue his crusades in North Africa, even after the disaster at Tangier in 1437. D Afonso V was anxious to answer the Pope’s summons to avenge the taking of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks, but D Henrique persuaded his nephew, the king, to look closer to home for revenge. Consequently, the Portuguese with an immense invasion force took the small north Moroccan town of Alcácer Seguer between Ceuta and Tangier. D Afonso V was still dissatisfied because he wished to avenge the death in 1443 of Infante D Fernando (O Infante Santo); he was right to be dissatisfied, because Alcácer Seguer was ultimately small and irrelevant.
Lifelong Obsessions - The Canary Islands
All his life D Henrique had an obsession with conquering the Canary Islands for Portugal. His efforts included conquest, purchase or holding the islands as a fief of Spain. None was successful and in 1479, nineteen years after Henrique’s death, Portugal agreed with Castile at the Treaty of Alcáçovas that Portugal had no claim whatever on any of the islands. In his efforts over the 30 years between 1420 and 1450 to conquer the islands, Henrique had achieved precisely nothing except an immense waste of resources, and the continuing distrust of the Castilians.
Lifelong Obsessions - The Slave Trade
The beginning of Portuguese participation in the seaborne slave trade dates from the 1440s and in the 16 years to the death of D Henrique in 1460, slave imports to Portugal were between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals. Many contemporaries disapproved of slaving but D Henrique insisted that he was saving souls for God as well as making a profit. The Portuguese also managed to divert most of the West African gold trade away from the caravan route and on to their coastal shipping and in 1457 Lisbon began to strike gold coinage directly as a result of the seaborne gold imports from West Africa.
D Henrique - The Navigator?
D Henrique’s other nickname ‘The Navigator’ was not coined until 1868. D Henrique sought permission to construct his villa at Sagres (he called it ´World’s End´) in 1441 and it was not completed until September 1460, only two months before his death. There is no contemporary evidence for a school of navigation at his villa at Sagres or for the prince as an adept mathematician or cartographer, astronomer or navigator. It is much more likely that the frequent and irregular meetings of sea captains at Lagos in D Henrique’s time were the ‘school’ of navigation. D Henrique’s chroniclers were successful in creating the spin that D Henrique wanted and until well into the 20th century no questions were ever raised about the accuracy of their histories; English historians were keen to continue the myth since D Henrique was half English. D Henrique became a cult figure of the Salazar regime, and even now some Portuguese find it difficult to reassess the Henrician history they learned at school. Before 1974, heterodox Portuguese historians encouraged Sir Peter Russell to write his definitive biography of D Henrique, Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’: A Life, to expose the myths built over the centuries. The name given to him by the Portuguese is far more accurate. They refer to him as O Infante de Sagres, the Prince of Sagres.
A Infanta D Isabel
The only surviving female of ´The Illustrious Generation´ married Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Isabel was his third wife and the only one to produce a legitimate heir. His soubriquet certainly did not refer to his private life because he had 18 children by at least 24 mistresses. The English knew Duke Philip as ´The Good´ because it was he who captured and offered for sale their enemy, Joan of Arc. D Isabel, like her brothers D Pedro and D Duarte, was intelligent and accomplished. She also represented her husband and later her son on diplomatic missions.
O Infante D João
He became Condestável of Portugal (Commander in Chief of the armed forces) and supported his elder brothers D Duarte and D Pedro in the matter of resisting the urge for conquests in North Africa. He tried in vain to save the life of D Fernando by urging his older bothers Duarte and Pedro to give up Ceuta for the life of D Fernando, the Prisoner of Fez.
Some of the members of ´The Illustrious Generation’ appeared to be more like characters out of Machiavelli rather than chivalrous knights. The Moroccans saw that Portugal had broken its word, and when the despairing D Fernando died in 1443, they treated his body with great disrespect.
O Infante Fernando, O Infante Santo
As the youngest son of D João and D Filipa, O Infante Fernando was keen to prove himself in battle and, against the advice of brothers D João and D Pedro, he was heartily in favour of the Tangier expedition of 1437. Following the defeat of the Portuguese, D Fernando volunteered to remain as hostage, believing that his family would not abandon him; no doubt D Henrique encouraged him in this belief. Whether to swap D Fernando for Ceuta was a question that divided the Cortes and when D Duarte died in 1438, the decision was shelved. D Fernando made successive appeals in writing for his release, but Regent D Pedro could never get any consensus to save his brother and D Fernando died in captivity in Fez in 1443. For this involuntary sacrifice, he was called ´O Infante Santo’ (Holy Prince). In 1443, D Afonso V was only eleven years old, and he directed his life’s work towards avenging the death of D Fernando. In this he was greatly encouraged by uncle D Henrique. D Afonso V invaded Morocco (which he called The Other Algarve) on three occasions in 1458, 1463 and 1471 and eventually arranged for the return of the remains of O Infante Santo to Portugal. They are now at rest in the Founder’s Chapel in Batalha.
The Illustrious Generation?
Of the six individuals, D Duarte, D Pedro and D Isabel, were highly cultured, popular and responsible for the good government and prosperity of their respective countries. Their father, D João, entrusted the boys with government and ambassadorship. D Henrique was of a different character, and D João pointed his third son in the direction of southward exploration and D Henrique´s credit for scientific and cartographical advances in exploration is open to question. His loyalty to brothers D Duarte, D Pedro and D Fernando was conspicuous by its absence and his waste of resources in pursuit of the Canaries was detrimental to his country’s other efforts. Isabel married at the very late age of 33. As Duchess of Burgundy she was able to bring cultured and intelligent support to her husband, as well as producing his heir. D João was level-headed and sensible, offering support to his level-headed brothers, Duarte and Pedro, and his early death in 1442 and loss of support was a disaster for D Pedro and the country. D Fernando supported D Henrique and believed in him and was tragically betrayed. It is an irony that he is called Infante Santo - martyrdom was certainly not his choice. Their illegitimate half-brother, D Afonso Duque de Bragança, was self-seeking and jealous and by manipulating the boy king D Afonso V by disloyalty to D Pedro he managed to become the most important man in the kingdom. It is supremely ironic, therefore, that history remembers the House of Bragança and the Infante de Sagres in front of those who made real and peaceful progress in the kingdom.