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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 4 April 2016

"Prince Henry the Navigator" by John Ure

This is the biography of the Portuguese Prince who sponsored the genesis of the Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic islands and the African coast. It is fascinating.

I read some parts out to my family who thought I was reading fiction of the Game of Thrones variety.

Portugal in 1394, when Prince Henry was born, had recently liberated itself from Moorish rule after the Moslem takeover of the Iberian peninsula; Castille the neighbouring Spanish kingdom was still fighting Granada to regain Andalusia. The Knights Templars had been very helpful in Portugal's wars so, as a result, when they were disbanded by the French King and his tame Pope, the Portuguese protected them, turning them into the Order of Christ. At the same time, Portugal was dominated by three other religious orders including the Order of Aviz. The country was underpopulated because of the wars and recent plagues, including the Black Death, its agriculture was rudimentary, Lisbon had only 40,000 people and the second city, Oporto, only 8,000, there was insufficient gold and the silver coinage was debased.

Henry was the third eldest son of the Master of Aviz, the illegitimate son of Pedro, Infante (Prince) of Portugal. After Pedro's first wife died, Pedro married her lady in waiting but his father disapproved of the match so had the new bride (or possibly bride to be) murdered. When Pedro succeeded to the throne shortly afterwards he had her body exhumed and made the courtiers "kiss her lifeless hand".

Pedro was succeeded by his eldest son, Fernando, who was engaged to Leonora of Aragon although the Pope wanted him to marry Leonora of Castille while he himself was in love with the wife, also called Leonora,  of one of his nobles. He ditched the first two, alienating two nearby countries and exiled the husband of Leonora III. She was a power-hungry bitch who persuaded the King's half-brother Dom Joao, that his wife (her sister) had been unfaithful to him. He killed her and had to flee to Castille. His brother followed him.

Now she tried to kill Joao, the Master of Aviz, Prince Henry's dad. She had him arrrested for treason, forged evidence, and finally forged her husband the King's signature on a forged death warrant. But the jailers smelt a rat and he got out of prison. After King Fernando died, Joao then murdered Leonora's lover (while she was in the next room), raised the town in rebellion against her, started a civil war (allied to John of Gaunt) and finally became King. Given that he was master of a religious order and therefore sworn to celibacy (despite his mistress) he then got the Pope to give him dispensation so that he could marry Phillippa, John of Gaunt's daughter, and breed five boys: Duarte (who also married a Leonora!), Pedro, Henry (our hero), Joao and Fernando and a girl Isabel.

That's the back story in Chapter One. By this time I was breathless and begging for more. 11 pages of thrilling incident which beat almost any other thriller I have ever read. And macabre!

Once the civil war had been settled and stability (and King Joao) reigned, the princes and princess grew up in a court dedicated to chivalry. So when the time came for the boys to become knights and King Joao proposed a massive 'winning your spurs' tournament, they asked to go on crusade. Since Granada was the preserve of the Castillians, the Portuguese sailed to the Moroccan coast to capture Ceuta, a sort of Gibraltar on the African pillar of Hercules. Henry then went back to settle on Sagres, as far south west as Europe gets, from where he sent out ships.

First his captains discovered Porto Santo and Madeira, then the Azores; these were colonized. Then they started inching down the coast of Africa. Because the square sailed ships found it difficult to tack against the prevailing winds on the return journey, Henry designed caravels with triangular sails which could sail 12 degrees closer to the wind. At first they were too afraid to venture south of Cape Bojador, just south of the already discovered (and Spanish) Canary Islands but once this psychological barrier had been overcome they made rapid progress, reaching Cape Verde and the Cape Verde islands by the time of Henry's death.

In the meantime, Henry went on crusade again to capture Tangiers. This was a failure. Surrounded by Moorish armies, the Portuguese had to negotiate terms of surrender. Henry left his younger brother Prince Fernando as a hostage and promised to redeem him by surrendering Ceuta but the promised safe-conduct went wrong, the terms of the treaty were flouted and Fernando died in Tangiers in miserable captivity.

The colonies in Madeira and the Azores were making profits but Henry needed lots more money for his African explorations so he started capturing slaves; the book says that he presided "over what was the first slave market in Europe" (though presumably that doesn't count what happened in Roman times and before). But there were precedents: Moslems captured Christians for slavery (and there were presumably Moslem slave markets in Portugal before the reconquista) and the reconquista had led to Christians holding Moslem slaves.

Once King Joao died his eldest son, Duarte became King. After he died his widow (Leonora!!!) fought a bitter power struggle against the second eldest brother Pedro which led to Pedro rebelling and being killed in battle against his nephew's forces. Prince Henry played a rather equivocal role in all of this.

The nephew, King Afonso, invaded Castile later on and went to France to try and persuade the French to join in. When they refused he had a strop, abdicated his throne, and became an itinerant friar in France. He was swift;ly rounded up and returned to Portugal where he reassumed the throne. It wass his son Joao II who was on the throne when Bias rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

Very Game of Thrones!

This is an absolutely fascinating history of a man (who seems to have died a virgin, very religious) and his times. Wonderful fun. Very readable. Why on earth is it out of print?

April 2016; 192 pages

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