Henry the Navigator

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Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,651 words

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About this Person
Born: 1394 in Porto, Portugal
Died: 1460 in Sagres, Portugal
Nationality: Portuguese
Occupation: Navigator
Other Names: Prince Henry the Navigator; Henry the Navigator
Full Text: 

  • 1386 Treaty of Windsor allied Portugal and England
  • 1415 Portuguese conquest at Ceuta
  • 1432 Gonzalo Cabral discovered the Azores
  • 1434 John Diaz rounded Cape Bojador, Africa
  • 1441 Portuguese sailors captured African natives near Cape Blanc and resumed slave trade
  • 1445 Diniz Diaz discovered Cape Verde, Africa
  • 1455 Venetian explorer Cadamosto navigated Senegal River in Africa
  • 1460 Prince Henry died
  • 1470 Portuguese navigators discovered Gold Coast, West Africa

The Life and Times of Henry the Navigator (1394-1460)

At the time of Henry the Navigator's birth:

  • Richard II was king of England
  • William of Wykeham founded New College, Oxford
  • Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslas imprisoned by Jobst of Moravia for his part in the murder of St. John of Nepomuk
At the time of Henry the Navigator's death:
  • Henry VI was king of England
  • The first African slaves were brought to Europe by Portuguese sailors
  • Venice completed its Arsenal, the heart of its naval power
The times:
  • 1000-1450: Middle Ages
  • 1455-1485: Wars of the Roses: Civil war in England
Henry the Navigator's contemporaries:
  • Donatello (1386-1466) Italian sculptor
  • Fra Angelico (1387-1455) Italian painter
  • Henry V (1388-1422) King of England
  • Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) German printer and inventor
  • Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474) French musician
Selected world events:
  • 1399: Henry the Navigator's cousin Richard II was removed from the throne of England
  • 1409: Jan Hus was publicly excommunicated by the archbishop of Bohemia for his so-called heresies
  • 1415: English archery beat French knighthood at Agincourt
  • 1425: Henry the Navigator seized the Canary Islands from the kingdom of Castile
  • 1433: Chinese eunuch and sea captain Zheng He reached Zanzibar in Africa and Mecca in Arabia—the farthest extension of Chinese trade routes
  • 1444: Portuguese explorer Nino Tristram reached the Senegal River
  • 1453: Turkish sultan Mehmet takes Constantinople

Prince of late medieval Portugal and active crusader, who sponsored the colonization of islands in the African Atlantic and exploratory voyages along the West African coast which initiated the Portuguese colonial empire.

Contributed by Donna Beaudin, Ph.D. candidate in History, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Name variations: Prince Henry the Navigator; Don Henrique. Born on March 4, 1394, in Lisbon, Portugal; died at Sagres, Portugal, November 13, 1460; third surviving son of John of Aviz (John I of Portugal) and Philippa of Lancaster; never married; no children.

The voyages of exploration sponsored by Prince Henry of Portugal in the early to mid-15th century were medieval in inspiration yet laid the foundations of a Portuguese empire. Lust for spices, dreams of Christian conversions, and competent navigational technology were significant elements to exploration in an era beset by both political turmoil and economic depression. In this context, Prince Henry's interests and achievements were part of a general European and Christian expansion which dated from the 11th century.

Ferdinand I, the last Burgundian king of Portugal, died in 1383 without male heirs, precipitating a succession crisis and a civil war between Portuguese and Castilian interests. In 1384, recognition by the Portuguese córtes (parliament) of John of Aviz (a bastard of royal blood) as king meant the beginning of the Aviz (Avis) dynasty that would endure for nearly two centuries. Prince Henry, who was called "the Navigator" by English writers, was the third surviving son born to John of Aviz, now John I of Portugal, and Philippa of the English duchy of Lancaster on March 4, 1394, in Lisbon. The marital union of Henry's parents had been the physical embodiment of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance of 1386.

Little has been recorded of Prince Henry's childhood. It is known that his mother was a devout Christian with a strong sense of duty, who enforced high moral standards at a court that had previously been perceived as licentious and who raised her sons and daughters in accordance with these personal standards. As a youth, Henry received "bodily training" (which included the development of expertise with arms), as well as clerical education. The character formed by this education was thoughtful, calm, courteous and dignified, qualities that remained evident throughout his life.

Only two contemporary portraits survive, with some dispute as to whether they are actually of Henry. The contemporary chronicler Zurara gives a full description:

The noble Prince was of a good height and broad frame, big and strong of limb, the hair of his head somewhat erect, his colour naturally fair, but by constant toil and exposure it had become dark. His expression at first sight inspired fear in those who did not know him, and when wroth, though such times were rare, his countenance was harsh.

Zurara went on to praise Henry's courage, intelligence, and ambition, as well as his physical and spiritual purity, and concluded that the prince was "constant in adversity, humble in prosperity."

That Henry had three prominent concerns was clear by the time he reached early adulthood. These objectives were scientific, commercial-political, and religious in scope. It has even been suggested that Prince Henry was sponsoring expeditions as early as the age of 18, when he reputedly sent a ship down the west coast of Africa in 1412.

Given Portuguese proximity to the Muslim world, religious zeal was strong in Henry's family (his father was "an ardent Crusader . . . by inclination and profession"). As a governor of the Order of Christ, and by his own disposition, Henry was obliged to wage holy war against the non-Christian infidel. An expedition against Ceuta, a commercial center in Muslim-held North Africa opposite Gibraltar, had been contemplated as early as 1409-10. These plans were put into action in the summer of 1415, despite the death of Queen Philippa due to plague in Lisbon. On her deathbed, this pious woman had given a piece of the true cross to each of her three eldest sons. Prince Henry was deeply affected by his mother's death but kept on with the plans for the campaign against Ceuta. The Portuguese victory in August 1415 marked the beginning of the Christian counterattack against the spread and dominion of Islam. Fighting in such wars, in the service of both one's God and one's king, was how the respectable medieval knight filled his time. The campaign against Ceuta produced rewards for Henry. Not only did he increase his knowledge of the African coast, he received the honors of knighthood when his father named him Duke of Viseu and Lord of Covilham.

Prince Sends Velho to Canary Islands

The year after the Ceuta campaign, Prince Henry sent Gonzalo Velho to the Canary Islands to investigate, in a scientific fashion, the strong current which flowed between the islands. It is from this date that Henry's involvement in commercial and exploratory expeditions can more accurately be reckoned. He also kept vessels at sea to guard the Portuguese coast of North Africa against Moorish pirates. Over the next few years, to about 1420, Henry asserted his independence. Leaving the royal court in Lisbon, he moved to Lagos on the southern coast of Portugal where his father had made him governor. Henry also tried, unsuccessfully, to capture Gibraltar from the Moors.

In preparation for the pursuit of his objectives, Henry studied mathematics, cosmography, medicine, astrology, and nautical astronomy. Edgar Prestage concluded "there can be little doubt [that] in Henry's mind the advance of knowledge was primarily a means to an end" and that these ends were "utilitarian." Thus, Henry's lifelong interest in locating the African country of Guinea included five specific objectives: (1) to obtain scientific knowledge of lands beyond the Canary Islands and Cap Bojador; (2) to determine the extent of Muslim domination in Africa; (3) to trade with any Christian people living beyond Cape Bojador; (4) to enlist the aid of other Christian monarchs in fighting the Muslims; and (5) to spread Christianity. To this list, some have added a sixth, that Henry wished to fulfil the destiny of his natal horoscope. Apparently it foretold that the prince "would be engaged in important and propitious conquests in lands which were hidden from other men."

In a study of Portugal and the Quest for the Indies, Christopher Bell writes:

It is part of the legend of Henry the Navigator that he came to Sagres soon after the fall of Ceuta and spent there most of the rest of his life . . . that from Sagres he organized the voyages of discovery . . . and that he founded there a School of Navigation at which he gathered around his cartographers, astronomers, mathematicians, shipwrights and pilots from all over Europe.

While no substantial evidence exists concerning a school in Sagres, Henry did seek the advice of experts: "He possessed the curiosity of a man of science and sought opportunities to satisfy it." Further, he has traditionally been attributed with the establishment of a chair in mathematics at the University of Lisbon. Again, there is little evidence to support this, unlike his subsidy of a university chair in theology.

Henry sponsored an expedition in 1418-20 which effected the discovery of Porto Santo (his first success and Portugal's first "colony") and the rediscovery of the Madeira Islands. Colonization of the latter began in earnest by 1425. Activities such as fishing, dyeing, and sugar-making were particularly encouraged in the new colony. And, from 1418, ships annually left Sagres in search of the Guinea coast. Such endeavors characterized Portugal's "systematic exploration" of the Atlantic islands near the Iberian peninsula and western Africa. With the return of each expedition, Henry had maps brought up to date by incorporating all the new information. Despite great costs, failure, and hostile criticism, Henry persevered: by 1427, the Portuguese had opened trade relations for gold and slaves with Ethiopia. But apart from an attempt to seize Grand Canary Island for the establishment of a military fort, Henry's sailors and navigators made no appreciable progress in finding a navigable sea route to Guinea for nearly 15 years.

In 1434-35, Gil Eanes sailed along the African coast, past Cape Bojador, as far as the mouth of the Rio do Ouro. But the trips by Eanes mark the extent of Henry's sponsorship in navigation during this decade. In the face of criticism from nobles, merchants, and influential men both at court and in the army, his movement was at a nadir and, indeed, in danger of collapsing. Other matters commanded his attention. In September 1433, his father died. Upon accession to the Portuguese throne, his brother Edward I granted to Henry charters for Madeira and Porto Santo, as well as the Grand Mastership of the chivalric Order of Christ. Domestic troubles dominated Edward's brief reign. When Edward died in 1438, Henry's five-year-old nephew became king of Portugal, as Afonso V, and Henry helped to govern the country on his behalf during the early years of the Regency.

Once relieved of the duties of royal government when a Regency Council was established, Henry began to plan (1437) a campaign against Tangier—assisted by his brother Ferdinand who had refused an appointment to the rank of cardinal in the Church of Rome. The expedition was a disaster, the besiegers soon became the besieged, and Ferdinand was imprisoned and died in captivity after five years of suffering. Humiliated by the loss, Henry retired to Sagres in 1443. From there he sent out more expeditions, captains and ships under the Regency's influence to "encourage exploration and legitimate trade."

Still the problem of few real advances in exploration afflicted Henry's efforts, among which commerce was always a secondary concern. Not content with increasing knowledge about the African coast (a further 450 leagues beyond Cape Bojador had been navigated and carefully mapped), Henry also encouraged his seamen to explore the continent through the river systems. To this end, construction of a provisioning base on Arguin Island was undertaken in 1448. His honest and open nature made it easier for a scheming revenue officer to exploit Henry's patronage, and an expedition concerned only with profit was accidentally financed.

Exploration and colonization of the Azores continued apace with "the growing fame of the Prince's explorations." International recognition came, for example, from Edward IV of England, who made Henry a member of the Order of the Garter. This was considered "an unusual honour for the third son of a foreign royal house." But the tenor of Henry's activities gradually changed and trading and commercial interests came to occupy a more central position in expeditions of the late 1440s and the 1450s, predominantly under the captainship of Alvise de Cadamosto. As a struggle for Portuguese retention of the Canary Islands ensued, Henry's personal finances assumed an increasingly desperate nature. Sponsoring exploratory and trading expeditions was costly and the brunt, if not the whole, was borne by the prince.

Pope Recognizes Lands as Portugese Possessions

Now well into his 50s, Henry spent more and more of his time at the royal court. Lands discovered under his sponsorship were granted papal recognition as Portuguese possessions in 1454. From this date, all others would require the permission of the king of Portugal to visit, or make use of, west African lands. Henry always hoped for the conversion of the Africans whom his seamen encountered. Thus, it seemed logical to him to forbid raiding for slaves since this produced limited trade and often failed to produce converts to Christianity.

Under Henry's authority, Cadamosto reported progress in the Madeiras colonization by 1456. Traveling to the Rio Casa Mansa, then on to the Rio Gambia-Cantor, Cadamosto explored the area (including the Rio Senegal and Cape Verde) and returned in 1458 to refit for another voyage. He had gone no further than those who had explored before him, but his contribution was detailed knowledge in anthropology, botany, and mapmaking.

The last significant voyage sponsored by Prince Henry began in 1458, led by Diego Gomez. Although this effort increased Portuguese knowledge of the Cape Verde Islands, the voyages through the 1450s by Cadamosto have been considered as the most notable. The contributions to geography by the Portuguese were an achievement of not only Prince Henry, but also of his successors in exploration.

There has been some discussion of Henry's reclusive behavior during his final years. Sometime between 1454 and his death, he left Sagres to knight his brother Pedro's eldest son as a Constable of the Realm. And Henry's crusading zeal was inflamed by the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453. In keeping with his beliefs, Henry's last act of public service was to join his nephew, Afonso V, in campaign against Alcacer (situated between Ceuta and Tangier). Now 64, Prince Henry's involvement and enthusiasm were remarkable, and reminiscent of a much younger man's conduct. Though Henry received the surrender of the opponents' leaders, the conflict was an anticlimax and underscored the decline in European crusading spirit. Following the campaign, Henry returned to Portugal and resumed his sponsorship of exploratory voyages. Little is known of these last expeditions (the Portuguese had always perceived that success was dependent on secrecy).

Retiring to Sagres in 1460, Henry spent a few months putting his personal affairs in order. He granted the islands of Terceira and Graciosa to his nephew and heir-designate Fernando in August, and made his spiritual bequests to the Order of Christ concerning the Madeira Islands. In October, Henry made his will. "In full possession of his faculties almost to the end," he died peacefully in Sagres, Portugal, on November 13, 1460 (leaving a personal debt of 35,000 dobras, or about £130,000), and was buried in the same chapel as his parents. The influence of this "obscure Prince of the fifteenth century" was noted by C. Raymond Beazley in the late 19th century:

It is not in the actual things done by the Prince's efforts that we can measure his importance in history. It is because his work was infinitely suggestive, because he laid a right foundation for the onward movement of Europe and Christendom, because he was the leader of a true Renaissance and Reformation, that he is so much more than a figure in the story of Portugal.


  • Beazley, C. Raymond. Prince Henry the Navigator: The Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery. Burt Franklin, 1895 (reprinted 1968).
  • Bell, Christopher. Portugal and the Quest for the Indies. Barnes & Noble, 1974.
  • Prestage, Edgar. The Portuguese Pioneers. A&C Black, 1933 (reprinted 1966).
  • Prestage, Edgar. The Portuguese Pioneers. A&C Black, 1933 (reprinted 1966).
  • Russell, Peter Edward. Prince Henry the Navigator: The Rise and Fall of a Cultural Hero. Clarendon Press, 1984.


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2102100808