One of my favorite historical novels is Anya Seton’s Katherine, the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt and eventually his third wife. John is the father of Henry Bolingbroke, who took over the throne from the ineffectual Richard II, as Shakespeare so beautifully demonstrated.
Another child of John of Gaunt, Phillipa, became in her own right one of the most influential monarchs in history when she married Joan III (John) of Portugal. Thought to be too old a bride at 27, Phillipa of Lancaster actually turned a political Anglo-Portuguese alliance into a love match. The king gave up his mistress and devoted himself to his family. Phillipa was well educated herself and ensured that her offspring were similarly schooled. Four sons had significant impact on the history of Portugal, but none more than Infante Henry.
Henry’s 14th-century childhood is illustrated in the lovely children’s book, The Miracle Dogs of Portugal, about the canines famous for their prowess in helping fishermen. They actually herd fish into nets! (The book also mentions that a Portuguese Water Dog lives at the White House, the photogenic “Bo.”)
The Infante Henry grew up believing in the importance of intellectual inquiry in all areas, but particularly in science and navigation.
Could it be possible to establish a trade route to the Orient? What lay beyond the western shores of Europe? Henry’s work led to the important voyages of Christopher Columbus, who was from Santos, the Portuguese island close by Madeira; Vasco da Gama, who established a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and Asia; Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition circumnavigated the globe. There is also Afonso de Albuquerque, whose name eventually “landed” in New Mexico. No wonder Henry’s 19th century biographers dubbed him “The Navigator.”
Lisbon’s Marine Museum documents this glorious history well. Henry’s statue graces the entry. It is backed by an important map of the world illustrating the Pope’s division of the world into two parts: Spain would have ownership of all lands west of a certain latitude in the Atlantic; Portugal was given lands east. Only Brazil extended into Portugal’s legitimate territory, explaining why it is the only South American country that speaks Portuguese. The Museum of Fine Arts includes works from the countries explored (and exploited). For instance, Japanese screens depict Portugese visitors in fancy European garb.
Road Works that illuminate this important history of Portugal include the comprehensive Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life by Peter Russell (2001), Portugal’s Golden Years: The Life and Times of Prince Henry “The Navigator” (2006) by Carlos B. Carreiro, and The Last Crusade (2011), Nigel Cliff’s award-winning account of da Gama’s discoveries.
The monument of discovery, a site close by the popular Tower of Bellem (Bethlehem), includes sculpted depictions of Portuguese explorers.
Only one woman is included in this group of men: Phillipa of Lancaster. She is deserving of a fine biography. It’s a book I’d certainly put on my Road Works list.