Henry the Navigator

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Prince Henry the Navigator.

Henry the Navigator (4 March 1394 – 13 November 1460) was a Portuguese prince, famous for the voyages of exploration he sponsored to the west coast of Africa.

Early life

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House in Porto traditionally identified as the birthplace of Henry

Henry was born on an Ash Wednesday in Porto, a coastal town located in the north of Portugal. He was the third surviving son of King John I, founder of the Avis dynasty, and of Queen Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and sister to Henry IV of England. His brothers were: Afonso (1390-1391), Duarte (1391-1438), Pedro (1392-1449), Isabel (1397-1463), João (1400-1465) and Fernando (1402-1443). He also had two half-brothers, Afonso, count of Barcelos and 1st Duke of Bragança (1380-1461) and Beatriz (1405-1439), wife of Thomas Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. Henry was baptised on the Sunday after his birth and had as godfather the bishop of Viseu, D. João Homem. As his patron saint his parents chose the French king, St Louis.

Little is known about Henry’s childhood. His mother was likely to have been involved in the education received by the princes at the court, as this was the custom at the time. Henry and his two elder brothers, Duarte and Pedro, had as preceptor a knight from the Order of Avis, who inculcated knightly values into the princes. In 1411 Henry was granted by his father with the lordship of Comarca da Beira, a region in north-central part of Portugal.


In July 1415 Henry joined his father and his two elder brothers in the expedition that captured the Muslim commercial port of Ceuta, in the North of Africa, opposite Gibraltar. According to the Chronicle of the Capture of Ceuta, written by Zurara, King John thought of celebrating a tournament in Lisbon where his sons would be knighted, but the princes disliked the idea, since they wished to win their spurs in a real battle; Zurara then states that the royal treasurer, João Afonso de Alenquer, suggested the taking of Ceuta and that the princes, led by Henry, managed to convince the king. Apart from these considerations of chivalry, the desire to take Ceuta was also motivated by strategic and economic concerns. Because of its location, Ceuta controlled the entrance to the Mediterranean; it was also one of the places where gold from the mines of Black Africa passed before reaching Christian Europe.

Preparations for the expedition probably began in 1411, after Portugal and Castile signed a peace treaty. It is known that Henry was given the mission to gather soldiers in the north of Portugal, who were taken in ships from Porto to Lisbon, where they joined the fleet.

Ceuta was taken on 24 August and when the looting of the city was over, Henry and his brothers were knighted by King John using the swords that Queen Philippa had given to her sons on her deathbed. The ceremony was performed inside the grand mosque of the city that was converted into a church. As his motto Henry chose “talant de bien faire” (a hunger to perform worthy deeds). One month later the King and his sons began their voyage back to Portugal. When the royal ship landed on the port of Tavira, in the south of Portugal, King John made Henry Duke of Viseu and Lord of Covilhã. This marked the first time that the title of duke was granted in Portugal.

(CC) Photo: Filipe Ribeiro
Ruins from the royal palace from the time of Henry at the Convent of Tomar

Henry would return to Ceuta in 1419, leading a force to lift the siege of the city imposed by Muslim forces intent on its recapture. However, when his men reached Ceuta the local Portuguese garrison had already defeated the Muslims. Henry then decided to use the soldiers and ships he had brought from Portugal to launch an attack on Gibraltar, then part of the Muslim kingdom of Granada. Although he was warned about the hazardous weather conditions at that time of the year in the Strait of Gibraltar and that the conquest of the kingdom of Granada was reserved to Castille, Henry decided to take Gibraltar. His plans were aborted by his father, who ordered the return of the forces to Portugal.

On 25 May 1420 Henry was appointed by the Pope Martin V as administrator general of the Order of Christ, following a request made by his father. Founded in Portugal in 1319, this military order inherited the properties that belonged to the Knights Templar. As administrator general, Henry was responsible for renovation works on its headquarters, the old Templar convent of the town of Tomar. In the 1440’s the prince revised the statutes of the order, freeing its members from the rule of chastity. He also worked to increase agricultural production on the lands belonging to the Order and to add more lands to its patrimony. Henry would use the wealth of the Order to finance the voyages that explored the Atlantic coast of Africa. The sails of the ships were even painted with the symbol of the Order, a square cross.


Henry’s explorations in the Atlantic were aimed at finding the source of the African gold, which were believed to be at the Insula Palola, an island supposed to exist in the interior of the African continent. It was thought that this island could be reached by a river that debouched in the Atlantic, the so-called ‘Western Nile’ or Río de Oro (‘River of Gold’).

Also in Henry’s mind was the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Prester John, a legendary Christian king who could help Europe in the crusade against Islam. According to the work of cartographers of the 14th and 15th century and to the Libro del conoscimiento, south of Cape Bojador there was a gulf named the Sinus Aethiopicus which led to the borders of the kingdom of Prester John in East Africa. Because of references made to ‘India’ and ‘Indians’ in Henry's documents, it has been argued that the prince was looking for a sea route to India, but these terms were used in his time to allude to India Tertia, the name given to the area located east of the Nile and south of Egypt, where the Prester John empire was supposed to exist.

The Atlantic Islands

In the context of military support to Ceuta two squires from Henry’s household, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, would reach the island of Porto Santo (located about 700 miles southwest of Portugal) in 1419. The following year, Zarco and the Italian Bartolomeu Perestrelo rediscovered the islands of Madeira. Although there were references to these islands in Italian maps from the middle of the 14th century, they remained unexplored and uninhabited until 1425, when the first Portuguese settlers arrived, in what became Portugal’s first overseas colony. In 1433 the islands of the archipelago were donated for life to Henry by the new king, his brother Duarte. The donation charter gave Henry large prerogatives, such as the right to receive all taxes that were due to the crown. The right to issue coin and the right to impose sentences that implied mutilation or death, were reserved for the king.

From the 1420’s onwards and almost until the end of his life Henry tried to conquer the Canary Islands, resorting to both military and political tactics. Like Madeira, these islands were known to Europeans, but they were already inhabited by native people (Guanches) and some of them by settlers from Castile. In 1424 Prince Henry sent a military expedition composed of 2500 infantrymen and 120 horsemen against the island of Grand Canary, commanded by the governor of his household, Fernando de Castro. The expedition, presented as having as its goal the conversion of the pagan population to Christianity, ended in a defeat as his soldiers were driven off by the native inhabitants whose culture was still on the Stone Age. After this humiliating episode, Henry attempted to make a deal with John II of Castile, asking the king to cede to him the right to conquer the pagan islands, but the king refused. Another squadron attacked the archipelago (probably Tenerife) in 1434, ending in new failure.

In September 1436 Pope Eugenius IV issued a bull that granted to Portugal permission to conquer the pagan-held islands of the Canaries, following a request made by King Duarte on Henry’s behalf. However, after protests from the Castilian ambassadors the bull was nullified and on April 1437 the pope even issued a new document that reserved for Castile the conquest of the islands. Nevertheless, in 1448 Henry managed to convince the governor of the island of Lanzarote, Maciot de Béthencourt, to sell him all the rights he had on the island, despite the fact that as vassal of the king of Castile Maciot couldn’t have acted this way. After Maciot left Lanzarote, a military force sent by Henry took possession of the island and Antão Gonçalves, a squire from Henry’s household, was nominated its governor, but after two years the settlers and natives drove him away. Other unsuccessful attempts to conquer the islands followed in the 1450’s.

The West coast of Africa

Henry’s goal to know the African coast south of Cape Bojador had first to defeat the medieval fears of sailing beyond that promontory. In his time it was considered impossible by mariners to sail south of the cape and safely return, because of reefs, currents and winds. In 1434, after fifteen attempts, Cape Bojador was finally rounded by Gil Eanes, Shield Bearer of Henry’s household. The following year Henry sent Eanes back to Africa, accompanied by Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia. The mission given to the squires, to sail as far as they could beyond Cape Bojador, was accomplished as their expedition arrived at Garnet Bay.

In 1436, Baldaia, this time on his own, passed Garnet Bay, reaching a bay that was incorrectly interpreted to be a large river estuary. The place was named Río de Oro because it was believed to be mouth of the famous river. On this expedition, Baldaia would also reach Punta Galha (in Portuguese, Ponta da Galé, because of the resemblance of a rock to a galley).

During the next five years explorations were brought to a standstill due to military and political events. Henry had managed to convince King Duarte, to mount an attack on the Moroccan city of Tangier. Unlike the capture of Ceuta, the 1437 Tangier expedition, commanded by Henry, ended in a tremendous disaster. Under the terms of the capitulation signed by Henry with Salah ben Salah, Tangier’s governor, the prince agreed to surrender Ceuta to the Moroccans in exchange for the release of a part of the Portuguese army in Tangier; as a guarantee that this would be done, Henry gave as a hostage his brother Fernando, who had accompanied him.

To further complicate the situation, the death of King Duarte in 1438, leaving as heir his six-year-old son Afonso, created a political crisis. According to his will, Queen Leonor should act as regent during the minority of Afonso. However, for some in the Portuguese court it was unacceptable that the Aragonese queen, known for her Castillian sympathies, ruled while one of the legitimate sons of John could become regent. During the crisis, Henry acted as mediator between the factions. The crisis was solved in 1439 when the Cortes of Lisbon declared Henry’s brother, Pedro, as regent during Afonso’s minority. Although Pedro didn’t share Henry’s enthusiasm for Portugal’s wars in Morocco, the brothers managed to work together during the nine year regency.

The journeys to the African coast were resumed in 1441, when the Prince charged his chamberlain, Antão Gonçalves, with a commercial expedition to Río de Oro. Gonçalves returned to Portugal with a cargo of oil and pelts obtained from the seals that were abundant in the region, as well as captives, among them a local chief named Adahur. On the same year, Nuno Tristão sailed on another ship with orders to explore the coast beyond Punta Galha, the furthermost point reached by the Portuguese in 1436; he went as far as Cape Blanco (20º 46’ N).

Antão Gonçalves returned to Río de Oro in 1442 to ransom Adahur. The chief was exchanged by slaves, ostrich eggs and a little of gold dust, the first directly brought by Europeans from Africa. In 1443 Tristão penetrated the Arguin Bank and explored some of its islands, returning with a cargo of slaves.

After these successful expeditions, Henry obtained from the Pope Eugenius IV the bull Illius qui se pro divini, which granted the remission of sins to the knights and friars of the Order of Christ, as well as other Christians, who went on a crusade against the Muslims under the banners of the Order. In October 1443 Henry was granted by the regent D. Pedro the monopoly over all navigation south of Cape Bojador, which meant that only his vessels or the ones that had been authorized by him could sail south of the cape. The crown also surrendered to him the royal fifth from any goods imported from the regions south of Bojador.

By now those who in Portugal had previously criticized Henry for sponsoring voyages to Africa, regarding them as a waste of time and money, praised him as a “another Alexander the Great”. The commercial possibilities opened by the voyages began to attract Portuguese merchants, who would become a part of Henry’s enterprise. In 1444 Lançarote da Ilha, a royal tax-collector in Lagos, led a private expedition of six caravels to the islands of the Arguin Bank with the sole purpose of capturing slaves.

On his 1444-45 expedition Dinis Dias reached the mouth of the Sénégal River, the boundary that separated the Arab and Berber world from Black Africa, and Cape Verde (Green Cape, named after the vegetation found on the cape). The following year, the Prince sent a fleet of 26 ships on a military expedition against the island of Tider, on the Arguin Bank, which was on Muslim hands. The expedition fell short of its goals, but one of the vessels of the expedition, the one commanded by Álvaro Fernandes, decided to sail southward, reaching the Cape of Masts (it received this name because the palm trees on the shore didn’t have leaves).

In 1455 the Venetian mariner Alvise Cadamosto, working under Henry’s patronage, sailed to an area located between the Sénégal River and Cape Verde, spending one month at the court of the African ruler Budomel. On his return voyage, he met Antoniotto Usodimare and the two tried to explore the Gambia River, but were forced to return to Portugal because of the hostility of the native people. On a second expedition, in 1456, Cadamosto sighted some of the islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, sailed up the Gambia River and went as far as the Bissago Islands. Possibly on the same year, Diogo Gomes travelled to the estuary of the Geba River, but the strong tidal currents of the area scared the sailors who demanded to return to Portugal. Despite these currents, the natives of the region travelled to the caravels in canoes and traded with the Portuguese cotton, ivory and malagueta pepper, both in grain and in the pod (this is the first recorded reference to malagueta obtained by the Portuguese in Guinea). On the return voyage, Gomes ascended the Gambia River all the way to Cantor.

Alcácer-Ceguer expedition

At the last years of his life, Henry turned his interests once again to war. The capture of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks frightened the Christian world, as its states in eastern Europe were now under threat from Islam. The need for a new crusade against Islam was proclaimed by Pope Calixtus III, who sent a personal letter to Henry in which he praised him for his past work in favour of religion and invited him to participate in the effort. Henry’s nephew, Afonso V, assured the Pope that Portugal would join the alliance of states that was being prepared and even elected himself as the commander-in-chief of the new crusade. However, after several Italian states and the kingdom of Aragon announced that they would not participate in the event, Afonso V had to content himself with transferring the war to Morocco. Henry and the king's counsellors agreed that the minor port of Alcácer-Ceguer (in Arabic, Ksar-es-Seghir, “small castle”), located between Tangier and Ceuta, should be attacked.

On 30 September 1458 a fleet of ninety-three ships left Setúbal for Alcácer-Ceguer. On 3 October it passed by Sagres, where Henry, now sixty-four years old, joined the expedition with his men. At Lagos other ships joined, so that the total number was said to be 220. Most of these ships reached Alcácer Quibir on 16 October and began the attack. After a siege of two days, the city fell. According to the chronicler Rui de Pina, Henry’s military tactics determined the victory. The terms of the capitulation were handled by Henry and the population of Alcácer-Ceguer left the town on the morning of 24 October.

Afonso V granted sole ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Alcácer-Ceguer to Henry's Order of Christ. Henry also took advantage of the euphoric atmosphere that the successful conquest of the town had created to secure royal pardons for members of his household who served in the campaign.


(CC) Photo: Georges Jansoone
Tomb of Henry the Navigator

Henry died at sixty-seven in the Vila do Infante, a town he founded in 1445. The cause of his death is unknown.

Henry’s body was moved to Lagos where it was temporarily buried in the church of Santa Maria. One year later his bones were transferred from Lagos to the Founder’s Chapel of the Santa Maria da Vitória monastery at Batalha, where he was buried in a late-Gothic tomb.

Henry never married and had no children. In 1436 he adopted as his son a nephew, D. Fernado (a son of King Duarte), who he named heir to all his possessions. However, on the will he wrote in 1460 Henry designated Afonso V as his new heir. Fernando was only to inherit from him the lordship of two islands of the Azores archipelago, Terceira and Graciosa. The will also made it clear that Afonso V could grant to Fernando the possessions he wished, except for the lordship of Madeira and the port of Lagos. It is not known why Henry acted this way; it has been suggested that Henry and his adoptive son grew apart as Fernando began to have doubts about the idea of crusading in Morocco that Henry stood for. Afonso V ignored Henry's wishes and at the end Fernando inherited as it had been planned in 1436.


  • Peter Russell, Prince Henry 'the Navigator': A Life. Yale University Press, 2000. 448 pp.

See also