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Prince Henry The Navigator

August 8th, 2015 by

This is the story of how Prince Henry of Portugal became the instigator of serious sea exploration in the west. It’s a story of how one family’s tragedy turned into history’s good fortune.

Portugal’s independence from Castile was won largely through the efforts of Prince Henry’s father, King João I. The King had the support of the knights of the local, minor nobility and of the artisans and merchants of the region. Between the knight’s fighting prowess and the merchants’ money, they prevailed against mighty Castile.

The King awarded the Knights with land grants and positions of status and financial ease, a medieval system that was passed on for generations, even into Britain. In fact, these medieval ideals were the roots of the chivalry made famous by the Knights of the Round Table in England.

The King’s three oldest, youthful and energetic sons, wished to prove their manliness in real combat rather than jousts and competitions. They convinced their father to let them capture a Moroccan fortress by the name of Ceuta on the north coast of Africa. Not only did they justify this with religious righteousness (driving the Moors out of the region), but the fortress was a destination point for gold-carrying caravans from West Africa.

Prince Henry proved himself such a worthy commander at this successful and highly profitable endeavor, that he was knighted and made Governor of the southern coast of Portugal and Ceuta.

Defending the fortress from repeated counterattacks proved to be costly and wearying, though, and the West African traffic (and gold) shifted to Tangier and other coastal cities. Finally, Henry decided to attack Tangier.

It was a catastrophe. Not only did he lose the battle, but his little brother was captured by the Moors, and Henry could not raise the ransom fast enough to save him. What a terrible day it must have been when the family learned that the beloved, younger prince died in captivity.

Afterwards, Prince Henry’s favor, and his will to participate in court, declined. One of his older brothers’ son became King, and Henry retreated into the seclusion and asceticism of a monk on his estate in the coastal city of Sagres.

There, he used his time and mind to study navigation and send out fleets to claim lands for Portugal along the west coast of Africa. On their way back from these expeditions, his ships had to sail a long way out into the deep waters west of Portugal to have the wind. With the knowledge gained from these far offshore travels, Henry developed a school of navigation, designed new equipment for navigation and the next generation of sailing ship, the caravel.


These short articles are from the reading of Magellan by Tim Joyner. The book, Magellan is the main resource being used for the route and timing of The Magellan Project.

The Magellan Project is a seafaring, documentary adventure that will retrace the 3-year route of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world – in time for the 500-year anniversary. It’s an ambitious project, and we need your help. See how you can JOIN THE ADVENTURE.