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Henry the Navigator

Prince Henry the Navigator (Dom Henrique) was the son of King João of Portugal, born in 1394. He is most famous for the voyages of discovery that he organised and financed, which eventually led to the rounding of Africa and the establishment of sea routes to the Indies. Henry was also a very devout man, and was Governor of the Order of Christ from 1420 until his death in 1460.

This page gives an introduction to his life and times, concentrating on the discoveries and his activities with the Order of Christ.


Portrait of Prince Henry, with the young Afonso V.From the Polytriptych of St. Vincent in the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon

The Man and the Legend

Prince Henry has become a legendary figure, and it is somewhat difficult to disentangle the historical facts from the heroic legends which surround him. Popular ideas about Henry are that he was a very learned and scientific man, skilled in the arts of navigation, and that he formed a school of navigation at Sagres and invented the caravel. However, these ideas are comparatively recent ones, and have no foundation in the historical records of the time. FPE Chapter 7
The early chroniclers of Henry's time, such as Azurara, need to be taken with a pinch of salt, since they were writing their chronicles with an aim of showing Henry in a good light as a devout and great prince (Azurara was a comendador of the Order of Christ, and was likely to be particularly biased). FPEp.48
In the following text I have not excised all that cannot be reliably proved, but I have attempted to indicate where the legends lie, and to include some of the less palatable facts about Henry's life.


Prince Henry (properly the Infante Dom Henrique) was born in 1394, the third son of King João of Portugal. His mother, the Queen, was Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt. King João I

At the age of twenty, Henry persuaded his father to mount an expedition against the Muslim port of Ceuta. The chronicler Zurara wrote that Henry's object was to extend the Holy Faith of Jesus Christ and bring it to all souls who wish to find salvation. To this end he sought for a Christian Kingdom that for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ would help in that war (the implication being that he was seeking Prester John, the legendery Christian Priest-King of Africa). MoW p.184

The Enterprise of Ceuta

To celebrate his formal treaty of friendship with Castile in 1411, King João planned a tournament, to last a year, with knights invited from all over Europe. The jousts would give his three eldest sons who had just reached manhood the opportunity to earn their knighthoods by acts of chivalry. But the three princes, reinforced by the King's treasurer, dissuaded João, and urged him instead to launch a Crusade against Ceuta PQI p.32
At the age of nineteen, Henry was sent to the North to recruit, equip and train forces for the expedition, including the task of building an additional fleet of ships in Oporto. Henry seems to have communicated his enthusiasm to the people of Oporto: the shipbuilders and other craftsmen worked day and night, and the citizens gave up eating meat so that it could be preserved for the expedition. A monk at the São Domingos monastery had a vision of the Virgin Mary handing a sword to King João. A ninety-year-old knight rode to Henry's headquarters to offer his services to the cause. URE p.42
After two years preparation, the Crusade was launched in an aura of miracles and omens. There was an eclipse of the sun, and the plague was raging in Lisbon. Queen Philipa fell ill after a long religious fast. From her deathbed she gave the King and her three eldest sons fragments of the true cross, and a sword to each son. URE p.45
PQI p.39

In August 1415, the Portuguese fleet attacked and swiftly took the port. During his time in Ceuta he saw evidence of the trading riches of the interior - spices, oriental rugs, gold, silver etc., merchandise which was delivered by caravans from the Sahara and the Indies. Henry learnt about the African caravan trade, which of course had ceased when the Portuguese took Ceuta. He learnt about the interior lands, and the 'silent trade' which was used by people who did not speak each other's language.
URE p.55

Governor of the Order of Christ

In 1420 the master of the Order of Christ, Dom Lopo Dias de Sousa, died. On 25 May 1420, the Pope issued a bull "In Apostolice dignitatis specula", in response to a petition from King João, naming Prince Henry the administrator of the Order of Christ.
Previously, in 1418, again at João's request, the Pope had named the king's 18 year old son Prince João, as administrator of the Order of Santiago. Before long the two princes were being described as regedor and governor of their respective orders.
The Order under Henry
EPS p.64
As the years went on, Henry became more and more ascetic in his personal life. According to Azurara, though he had drunk a little wine as a youth, he gave it up completely by the time he was a man grown. The legend is that he had no interest in personal comforts or possessions. Though it would have been easy to get the Pope's release (as his father, the Master of Avis had) from his vow of celibacy, he was determined never to marry. He scrupulously observed the fasts of the church, and often wore a horsehair shirt under his clothes. TPS p.89
Some of this is the legend rather than reality. Although Henry's religious devotion seems to be accepted, there is evidence that he was also quite interested in possessions, and particularly in maintaining a good show. He was the third richest magnate in the kingdom in terms of holdings, and he worked hard to maintain this position. For example, he obtained in 1433 the monopoly in tuna fishing in the Algarve, and also held the monopoly for soap production in Portugal. IE
After the enterprise of Ceuta, Henry organised a crusade against Gibraltar, but this was forbidden by King João. He then left the court and went to Sagres, Portugal's Lands End. This place, a promontory on the edge of the open ocean, had an otherworldly reputation, and had been called the Sacred Promontory by Marinus and Ptolomy (from which the name Sagres derives). There is a history page for Sagres.

Here, the legend goes, Prince Henry made his base for sea exploration, making it a centre for cartography, navigation and shipbuilding. The Catalan Jew from Majorca, Jehuda Cresques, son of the cartographer Abraham Cresques, was brought to Sagres to supervise the collation of geographic facts brought back by Henry's explorers, who were encouraged and later required to keep detailed logs of their voyages. Muslims and Arabs, Italians from Genoa and Venice, Germans and Scandinavians came to Sagres. This community developed navigational instruments and such as the quadrant, and new mathematical tables to aid in determining latitude. The local port of Lagos saw the development of a new type of ship, the caravel.

Again, much of this is legend. The early chroniclers make no mention of a school at Sagres, and in fact the first mention was made in an English work in the seventeenth century. Henry's association with learned men is also difficult to verify, although Jehuda Cresques is at least mentioned in one of the early chronicles. Finally, the development of the caravel is also difficult to ascribe exclusively to Henry and his people. FPE Chapter 7
It is possible that at this time voyages were made to North America, since a Portuguese map dated 1424 seems to include some features of the Americas. Portuguese Discoveries in North America
There is a useful website relating to the discoveries: an interesting English-language site on the Ships of the Discoveries maintained by the Portuguese Sailing Federation (Associação Nacional de Cruzeiros). 

Discovery of Atlantic Islands

Henry's first success was the discovery of the small island of Porto Santo. Two of his young men, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, put into its harbour in 1420 or thereabouts. They were able to calculate its position exactly, and so offered to return with colonists. They were joined in this by Bartolemeu Perestrello, into whose family Columbus was later to marry.

Soon after, they went on to discover Madeira (although it has been conjectured that it was originally discovered in the reign of Afonso IV). Porto Santo was granted to Perestrello, with Madeira divided between Zarco and Vaz.

In 1424 Fernão de Castro attempted to seize Grand Canary, risking the displeasure of the King of Castile, who had already colonised Lançarote and Forteventura. Eventually, in 1436, the pope issued a bull warning the Portuguese not to risk war with Castile over the islands.

PQI p.59..

MoW p.183,184
The nine islands of the Azores were accurately charted by Gonçalo Velho between 1427 and 1432. For the time being Prince Henry did not attempt to colonise them. According to FPE Fray Gonçalo Velho was a member of the household of Prince Henry and a comendador of the Order of Christ, who won his knighthood at the capture of Ceuta. He had allegedly sailed to a Terra Alta, somewhere short of Cape Bojador, in 1426. It is said that Gonçalo was involved in the discovery of the Azores, although the credit for the original discovery remains in dispute. According to TPC, Gonçalo was sent out to the Azores in 1431 and 1432 to set up the first settlement, after Diogo de Silves discovered them in 1427. PQI p.61
Seward implies that the colonisation of the islands was by members of the Order of Christ. The Order under Henry

Past Cape Bojador

Henry's main aim was to explore, and specifically to go south beyond Cape Bojador, just south of the Canaries, whose reefs and difficult currents had presented a psychological stopping point for previous expeditions. For generations, Spanish sea-lore had asserted that the coast of Africa was unnavigable past this point, and it took Henry 15 expeditions between 1424 and 1434 before one passed beyond the Cape. Gil Eannes finally rounded it in 1434. In 1435 Henry sent Eannes once again, this time with Afonso Gonçalves Baldaya, the royal cupbearer. They reached another fifty leagues down the coast. There they saw footprints of men and camels, but no people. In 1436, Baldaya went out again with orders to bring back an inhabitant. He reached the mouth of a large river, which he hoped would be the Senegal of the silent trade in gold. He named it Rio de Ouro, although it was only an inlet and not the Senegal river which lay 500 miles to the south.

PQI p.68
TPS p.108

Troubles at Home

King Duarte, João's successor and Henry's older brother, had petitioned Rome to have their youngest brother, Fernão, named master of Avis, which was granted in by Pope Eugenius IV, by the bull "Sincere devotionis" dated 9 September 1434.

EPS p.64

In 1437 Portugal sent an expedition against Tangier, led by Henry. The expedition failed, due largely to mistakes by Henry, and his youngest brother Fernão, the master of Avis, was captured. He was imprisoned in bad conditions, held hostage for the return of Ceuta to the Muslims. For eleven years the Portuguese debated whether or not to give up Ceuta, until in 1448 Dom Fernão died in captivity.

FPE p.72
When the fleet left Lisbon for Tangiers, they displayed, beside the red crosses of the Order of Christ, pennants with the letters IDA. This was Prince Henry's new motto. The initials stood for Infante Dom Anrique (Prince Henry) but they also spelled the word ida: departure. TPS p.111
Henry's brother Duarte died shortly after the Tangier expedition, leaving his six year old son Afonso as the King. There was a fight over the regency between Duarte's widow and Henry's brother D. Pedro which Pedro eventually won. After this disturbance, Henry returned to the Algarve and planned more voyages. There is little doubt that the success of the next few years owed much to Pedro's backing. D. Pedro had already given permission for Henry to colonise the Azores, and very soon these colonists, and those of Madeira were sending back substantial supplies of timber, sugar and wheat to Portugal. Duarte
Afonso V

PQI p.75..

Pedro now confirmed D. Duarte's grant of the 'royal fifth' from the profits of all voyages, and decreed that no expedition could sail beyond Cape Bojador without a license from Prince Henry. He also opened negotiations with the Pope which resulted in the Bulls of 1450 and 1453, conceding to Afonso V not only all territories already discovered, but all future conquests in the land of Guinea.

PQI p.75..


As yet, Henry had little to show for his investments. Year by year his expeditions down the coast of Africa added to his knowledge of the geography, but the costs had largely to be met out of his own pocket or from the revenues of the Order of Christ.

From 1441 onwards, however, he began to gain some reward for his perseverance. Nuno Tristão, who led one of the expeditions of 1441, was entrusted with a vessel of a new design - a caravel - in which he reached Capo Branco.

The distinction of bringing home the first captives from beyond Cape Bojador fell to Antão Gonçalves. One of these captives was a well travelled Tuareg called Adahu. He was able to tell Henry a lot about the African interior, but knew nothing of Prester John. After some months Gonçalves took the captives back to the Rio de Ouro and ransomed them for some negroes, a little gold dust and some ostrich eggs.

PQI p.76-91

In 1443 Prince Henry sent Nuno Tristão off again to explore the hinterland behind Cabo Branco. He discovered an uninhabited island called Arguim, which later became the focus of Portuguese trade on the Guinea coast.

At this time, Henry VI of England showed the interest of the Lancastrian court in Prince Henry's explorations by awarding him the Order of the Garter.

TPSp. 116

Some of those who had previously thought Henry's projects were a waste of time began to change their minds, and in 1444 the citizens of Lagos equipped and dispatched the first privately sponsored expedition, six ships under the command of the revenue officer of Lagos, Lançarote de Freitas. Prince Henry furnished each ship with a banner of the Order of Christ. This expedition captured more than 200 natives and brought them back to Lagos to sell as slaves. Henry was at the slave-market, and received his fifth share but at once offered it to the Church - his pleasure was in the thought that these poor souls could be saved from perdition. (His hopes were not in vain, the slaves became Christians and were generally well treated.) Lançarote was knighted by Henry at the request of his fellow captains.

PQI p.76-91
TPSp. 116
From this time on the Order of Christ began to grow steadily richer as the African trade prospered. MoW p.185
Gold dust was first obtained by barter in 1442, and we don't know how much was obtained in Prince Henry's lifetime, but it must have been substantial, particularly in his last years: in 1452 the Lisbon mint resumed the issue of gold coinage with the striking of the Cruzado ('crusade'), a coin of almost pristine purity which underwent no debasement until 1536. PSE p.24

Before they left for the south, Prince Henry's captains were all instructed to establish friendly relations with the natives, but often they they disobeyed. Sooner or later the slave trade was bound to end in tragedy. Shortly after D. Lançarote had returned from his first voyage, Henry sent Gonçalo de Sintra to explore beyond Cape Verde. Instead Sintra went looking for slaves in the Argium archipelago and Sintra, together with several of his crew, were killed in a fight with the islanders.

PQI p.76-91

In the same year as these expeditions, Antão Gonçalves and two other servants of Prince Henry were finding the natives so suspicious that they could no longer do business with them, but before returning home from a largely fruitless expedition, they left a squire of the prince's named João Fernandes to spend a season amongst the natives. At the same time, an old Moor was taken to Sagres to tell his story.

Also in 1444, Nuno Tristão sailed his caravel far south of Cabo Branco to the land of the true Negroes, where the beaches were fringed with palms.

TPSp. 118

In 1445 four separate expeditions, a total of 26 ships, sailed from Portugal. These included a second group from Lagos under Lançarote. Dinis Fernandes is given the credit for first reaching Cape Verde and both he and D. Lançarote entered the estuary of the Senegal.

PQI p.76-91
TPS says that in 1445, Dinis Dias passed the mouth of the Senegal and reached Cabo Verde. In the same season Nuno Tristão found João Fernandes near the Rio do Ouro, where he had been living with the wandering tribesmen of the region. TPSp. 118
In 1446 Nuno Tristão and most of his crew were killed by poisoned arrows whilst exploring the Rio Nuno sixty leagues south of Cabo Verde. The remaining five crew members cut the anchors and limped back to Portugal. This loss brought particular grief to Henry, because the crew had all been brought up in his household, and Nuno Tristão was very close to the prince's heart for his courage and resourcefulness. Prince Henry gave pensions to the wives and children of the dead. TPSp. 120

In 1447 Henry sent an embassy to try and find the ruler of the Cape Verde people. He sent Fernão Afonso (a member of the Order of Christ) as ambassador, accompanied by the Danish knight Abelhart [also called Vallarte]. Abelhart was killed by the natives.

The Portuguese/Danish Connection
PQI p.76-91
FPE p.89

Around 1447 a great expedition was mounted from Lagos, including 23 caravels, 14 of them from Madeira under the two governers of the island, Zarco and Teixera. All the master mariners of Portugal were included in the expedition, which was to explore the Senegal and to show the might of Portuguese arms to the Moors. Zarco's son-in-law, Alvaro Fernandes, travelled furthest that summer.

TPSp. 118

In 1448, Álvaro Fernandes reached a point 110 leagues beyond Cape Verde, and this was the farthest south reached during Prince Henry's lifetime. At around this time, a fort was built on the island of Arguim. This gave a forward base for the explorers and traders, since they were encountering hostility from the natives on the coast.

PQI p.76-91
During the regency of D. Pedro, Prince Henry had begun to build a new headquarters on the promontory at Sagres. Both the purpose and site of his Vila there have been hotly debated. It seems likely that the Vila was built on the westerly cape at Sagres, known now as the Ponta de Sagres, within the walls of the old Moorish fort. A chapel attributed to Prince Henry still stands at this site.

Although, as he grew older, Henry spent more and more time at Sagres, he also spent a good deal of time at court in Setubal or Santarem, or wherever it happened to be, and at the headquarters of the Order of Christ in Tomar.

PQI p.92-94
In 1446 Afonso V came of age, and soon was turned against his uncles Pedro and Henry by the Duke of Bragança and his allies. Henry spent time at court attempting to resolve the battles between Afonso and D. Pedro, but he did too little (some say because he was more concerned with retaining his grants and privileges than with defending Pedro) . D. Pedro was killed in 1449.

Records for the period 1449 to 1455 are scanty, but we know that Prince Henry spent most of his time at court.

Afonso V

PQI p.98-111
URE p. 143-155
In 1452 an Ethiopian ambassador arrived in Portugal. MoW p.185

In 1454 Pope Nicholas V recognised the claims of Afonso V to all newly discovered lands on or near the west coast of Africa and forbade all Christians to visit them without the permission of the King of Portugal. In 1456, Calixtus III confirmed this in the bull Inter Caetera, and granted to the Order of Christ spiritual jurisdiction over all the 'islands, towns, ports, countries and states, from the Capes of Bojador and Nao, throughout all Guinea, and beyond that southern region as far as the Indies.' The Grand Prior of the Order would be empowered to nominate incumbents to all benefices both of secular and of regular clergy, to impose censures and other ecclesiastical penalties, and to exercise the powers of an Ordinary within the limits of his jurisdiction. All these regions were declared nullius diocesis (belonging to no diocese).

PQI p.98-111

PSE p.23

By 1454 it was common for foreign merchants or ships to take part in the explorations, sharing the revenues with Prince Henry. These included the Venetian Cadamosto, and the Genoese Antoniotto Usodimare and Antonio da Noli (who claimed to be the discoverer of the Cape Verde Islands).

Cadamosto left a detailed narrative of his expeditions. In 1455 he explored the coast and found out a great deal about the inhabitants and their trade patterns. At the time of his expedition there was a good deal of trade taking place. In his second expedition, in 1456, Cadamosto headed straight for the Gambia river, accompanied by Usodimare and a third caravel provided by Prince Henry. He was dismissive of the trade possibilities.

Diogo Gomes made his first trading voyage in about 1457, heading up the Gambia river as far as the important market town of Cantor.

PQI p.98-111
The expeditions down the coast of Africa were interrupted by the Portuguese expedition to capture Alcácer-Sequer, a fortress lying between Ceuta and Tangiers, in the autumn of 1458. Afonso V had originally gathered his forces to take part in a crusade against the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but finding that no-one else was supporting the crusade, he decided to attack a more local target. Prince Henry, who played a major part in assembling the fleet of 200 ships, wanted to attack Tangiers in revenge for his brother Fernão's death in captivity, but his wishes were overruled. At Alcácer-Sequer, Henry was one of the first to disembark. The Moors were no match for the Portuguese, and Henry accepted their surrender. The fortress was left in the charge of D. Duarte de Meneses, the son of the hero of Ceuta. PQI p.112-114
After the taking of Alcácer-Sequer, Henry lost no time in resuming the expeditions to Guinea. He sent the Abbot of Soto da Casa to instruct a local Chief in the Christian faith. Diogo Gomes again sailed in 1459, joining two caravels off Cape Verde, one of which was commanded by the Genoese captain Antonio da Noli. On the return voyage, the Cape Verde Islands were visited, and the largest was named Santiago. PQI p.114
In 1459 a conference was held in Florence, attended by Florentine merchants, envoys of the King of Portugal and the famous geographer Toscanelli (who was said to have been the inspiration for Columbus). Supposedly, Fernão Martins brought back from this conference the map of Fra Mauro, previously commissioned in Venice by Afonso V. This map was a considerable advance, incorporating information from Marco Polo and Nicola da Conti's journeys in Asia. In also included more accurate information on the indian ocean and the east coast of Africa. PQI p.101
In 1460, the year of Henry's death, King Afonso V granted the Knights of Christ a 5% levy on all merchandise from the new African lands. MoW p.185
Prince Henry died at Sagres on 13th November 1460. His principal heir was D. Fernão, King Afonso's younger brother. Henry granted two of the Azores to D. Fernão, and handed over the spiritual jurisdiction of these islands to the Order of Christ. PQI p.115

LAST The Order of Christ after Prince Henry
LAST Discovery after Prince Henry