The royalty Magellan rubbed shoulders with consisted of two competing majesties; King Manual of Portugal and King Charles of Spain. The intricacies of these two sovereigns provide a fabric of intrigue and ambition outpacing the best of good fiction. The intense rivalry between Spain and Portugal at the time was not simply an international competition between the two world powers of the day, it was an inbred family feud.
Ferdinand Magellan was born in Portugal. Having served under Manual’s predecessor, John II, Magellan distinguished himself as a brave mariner and soldier in Portugal’s foray into Southeast Asia and Malacca Straits. This was during Portugal’s successful military thrust to consolidate and control the eastward route around Africa and India to the Spice Islands.
In October, 1495, John II died and Magellan’s relationship to the royal world of Portugal changed. As King John’s son had previously died, the heir to the throne became John’s cousin Manuel. John was also Manuel’s brother-in-law, being married to Manuel’s sister Leonor. Manuel’s older brother Diogo had been stabbed to death in 1484 by King John. Like many royal families of the time, history records the Portuguese royal family as surrounded by conspiracies, inbreeding, murder, and exiled nobility.
King Manuel was close to Magellan’s age and they served as pages to the royal court in their youth. They knew one another. Magellan had minor nobility heritage, Manuel’s bloodline took him into the inner sanctum.
Manuel disliked Magellan and treated him dismissively years later when Magellan asked for royal backing to lead an expedition sailing west to the Spice Islands. This royal refusal occurred after Magellan had returned from his years of military service in the Far East and northern Africa. Subsequently, Magellan asked King Manuel for royal permission to seek backing for his expedition elsewhere. Permission was given in the demeanor of a royal insult: Magellan was not allowed to kiss the king’s hand upon leaving his presence after the request was granted in an offhand manner.
Around this same time, in 1516, a 16-year-old Charles was proclaimed King of Spain.
Here the royal stories collide into the strange.
In 1516, King Manuel is 47 years old, King Charles is 16.
As royal marriages connected and consolidated dynasties, the female relatives of Charles were married into this tradition. Manuel married two of Charles’s aunts; Isabella and Maria. Manual and Isabella were married in 1497 and Isabella died in 1498 shortly after giving birth to their one and only child. Manuel and Maria were married in 1501. Maria died in 1517. Manuel and Maria had eight children. One of these children, John III, succeeded to the throne of Portugal upon Manuel’s death in 1519 (coincidentally the same year of Magellan’s death). John III would marry Charles’s sister Catherine.
Charles would marry the daughter of Manuel and his aunt Maria; Isabella.
But first, Manuel would marry King Charles’s 20 year old sister Eleanor in 1518. Manuel’s son John III had been engaged to Charles’s sister Eleanor but dad claimed the daughter-in-law to be as his own wife. Manuel and Eleanor had two children.
Charles ascended to the throne of Spain by virtue of what today would be called nepotism but then was considered a divine right. Charles was born and spent his childhood and adolescence in what is today’s Belgium. When Charles was proclaimed King of Spain he was not yet fluent in Spanish. Grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the backers of the Christopher Columbus expedition to sail west to the Spice Islands, Charles would, 25 years later, be the royal supporter and financier of Magellan’s exploration.
Charles actually shared the royal Spanish throne with his mother Joan. His parents, Joan and Philip the Handsome (a Hapsburg), were in married in 1496 and produced 6 children. Raised and tutored in the royal court, the multilingual Joan was considered one of the most educated women of her day. When Philip died suddenly in 1506, some suspected he was poisoned by his father-in-law Ferdinand. Joan’s emotional stability declined. Reports of her traveling the kingdom with her husband’s body are in the historical record. She became known as Joan the Mad.
Charles ruled as King of Spain and on behalf of his mother, Queen of Spain. Queen Joan would spend the rest of her life from February, 1509 until her death on Good Friday, April 12th, 1555 at the age of 75 confined to the Convent of Santa Clara in Valladolid, Castile, Spain.
In February and March of 1518, the just-turned-18 King Charles was giving royal audience to Magellan and considering his proposal to lead an expedition west and then south around the new world and then west again to the Spice Islands.
Dividing up the world
The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the world between the empires of Portugal and Spain. All lands east of the agreed upon meridian drawn from pole to pole through the Atlantic Ocean 270 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands were to be under Portuguese control. All lands west of the meridian (the New World minus Brazil) were to be under Spanish control. The anti-meridian line and where it divided the back side of the world from north to south, east and west, wasn’t considered at the time. Now occurred the question on whose side of the anti-meridian did the Spice Islands lie?
A fundamental difference between the Portuguese and Spanish maritime explorations and endeavors at this time was the Spanish penchant for quasi-public obsessive record keeping and chart making, compared to the secretive Portuguese archives.
The Portuguese may well have explored the southern coast and tip of the New World and kept their findings secret. Magellan had access to the archives of Portugal before leaving in 1517 for Spain. Historians have connected Magellan with a ‘John of Lisboa’ who may have related information about a strait Magellan always insisted he knew of.
When Magellan took his Portuguese maritime knowledge, military, and naval experience to Spain along with his proposal to lead a west sailing expedition to claim the Spice Islands, the advisers around the young King Charles took notice. What took Columbus 8 years to accomplish in getting royal backing for an expedition took Magellan and his team a couple of months.
Royal support was given and preparation for the Armada de Moluccas began.
Upon learning of Charles’s support for Magellan’s plan, King Manuel dispatched agents and spies to Seville to report on and attempt sabotage of the expedition’s preparations.
Entreaties to Magellan to return to Portugal by King Manuel’s ambassador to the Spanish court were rebuffed.
Magellan was branded a traitor. His family and property in Portugal harassed. Vasco de Gama called for his head.
When the armada did eventually get under way, Manuel dispatched two fleets of armed vessels to intercept the armada; one of the fleets sailed west and the other east. Neither was successful in stopping the armada’s ultimate goal of reaching the Spice Islands.
Intrigue on the Spanish side wasn’t much better. As a citizen of Portugal, Magellan was distrusted by suspicious Spanish nobles, nobles
barely trusting of their new, young, foreign-born King.
A powerful player in the inner circle of power surrounding the young king was Juan Rodriguez Fonseca, Bishop of Burgos and Archbishop of Rosana in Italy. Fonseca was a powerful administrator and served as vice-president of the Supreme Council of the Indies. Fonseca supported the mission and involved himself in details of its approval, preparation, and launch.
Fonseca had Juan de Cartagena appointed as Inspector General of the armada, second in command to Magellan. Cartagena was a trusted confident of Fonseca, a proud Spanish noble with zero maritime and military experience. Cartagena would attempt several mutinies in the expedition’s first year. Magellan eventually marooned Cartagena with a chaplain (a fellow conspirator) in the port of San Julian upon the armada’s departure sailing south to discover the passage to the ocean on the other side of the New World.
King Charles all the while went onto carve his name in the walls of history on other fronts; named Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, his reign coincided with Martin Luther’s charges against the Catholic Church, the Reformation and the spread of Protestantism. Although started by his grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles reign was also contemporary with and supportive of the continued Spanish Inquisition. Charles reigned over Cortez’s defeat of the Aztecs and Pizarro’s defeat of the Incas, filling the royal coffers with silver and gold mined by enslaved Native Americans. His imperial troops sacked Rome in 1527, holding Pope Clement VII virtual hostage, preventing the annulment of Henry VIII of England’s marriage to Charles’s aunt Catherine. So he could take another wife, Henry VIII “broke with Rome.” The English Reformation and Anglican Church of England were the result.
As the Middle Ages faded and the Renaissance blossomed in the late 15th and early 16th century, the inspired art of human genius, empire building world exploration, endless intrigue, brutality, and religious upheaval coexisted in the swirl of milestone events throughout the period.
The royal world of Magellan was both witness to, and player in this dynamic era of change.