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History of Portugal (1279-1415)

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Title: History of Portugal (1279-1415)  
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History of Portugal (1279-1415)

The history of the kingdom of Portugal in the period between the death of Afonso III in 1279 and the beginning of the Portuguese Empire in 1415 includes the succession crisis of 1383 and the subsequent transition from the Portuguese House of Burgundy to the House of Aviz.

Consolidation of the Monarchy in Portugal (1279–1415)

1279 Until the Early 14th Century

The chief problems now confronting the monarchy were no longer military, but social, economic and constitutional. The reign of Denis was not a period of uninterrupted peace. At the outset his legitimacy was disputed by his brother Afonso, and a brief civil war ensued. Hostilities between Portugal and the reunited kingdoms of León and Castile were terminated in 1297 by a treaty of alliance, in accordance with which Ferdinand IV of Castile married Constance, daughter of Dinis, while Afonso, son of Denis, married Beatrice of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand. A further outbreak of civil war, between the king and the heir-apparent, was averted in 1293 by the queen-consort Isabella of Portugal, who had married Denis in 1281, and was canonized for her many virtues in the 16th century. She rode between the hostile camps, and succeeded in arranging an honourable peace between her husband and her son.

These wars were too brief to interfere seriously with the social reconstruction to which the king devoted himself. At his accession the Portuguese people was not homogeneous; it was a long process in which its component peoples "Moors and Mozarabs of the south, Galicians of the north, Jews and foreign crusaders" would be fused into one nationality. King Denis ordered the construction of numerous castles, created new towns, and granted privileges due cities to several others. The process of settlement of the south and some parts of the interior by northern Portuguese, carried out by his predecessors, had a great development in his reign and the new lands were populated. There were also urgent economic problems to be solved. The Moors had made Alentejo the granary of Portugal, but war had undone their work, and large tracts of land were now barren and depopulated. Commerce and education had similarly been subordinated to the struggle for national existence. The machinery of administration was out of date and complicated by the authority of feudal and ecclesiastical courts. The supremacy of the Crown, though recognized, was still unstable. It was Denis who initiated the needful reforms. He earned his title of the rei lavrador or "farmer king" by introducing improved methods of cultivation and founding agricultural schools. He encouraged maritime trade by negotiating a commercial treaty with England (1294) and forming a royal navy (1317) under the command of a Genoese admiral named Emanuele Pessagno (Manuel Pessanha). In 1290 he founded the University of Coimbra, which began its existence in Lisbon and was transferred to Coimbra in 1308 and moved definitively in 1537. He was a poet and a patron of literature and music, proclaiming Portuguese to be the language of the state. His chief administrative reforms were designed to secure centralized government and to limit the jurisdiction of feudal courts. He encouraged and nationalized the military orders. In 1290 the Portuguese knights of the Order of Santiago were definitely separated from the parent Castilian order. The Knights Hospitaller in Portugal and the Order of Saint Benedict of Aviz had already been established, the traditional dates of their incorporation being 1113 and 1146. After the condemnation of the Templars by Pope Clement V (1312) an ecclesiastical commission investigated the charges against the Portuguese branch of the order, and found in its favor. As the Templars were rich, influential and loyal, Denis took advantage of the death of Clement V. to maintain the order under a new name; the Order of Christ, as it was henceforth called, received the benediction of the pope in 1319 and subsequently played an important part in the colonial expansion of Portugal.

Afonso IV adhered to the matrimonial policy initiated by Dinis. He arranged that his daughter Maria should wed Alfonso XI of Castile (1328), but the marriage precipitated the war it was intended to avert, and peace was only restored (1330) after Queen Isabella had again intervened. Peter, the heir, afterwards married Constance, daughter of the duke of Peñafiel (near Valladolid), and Afonso IV brought a strong Portuguese army to aid the Castilians against the Moors of Granada and their African allies. In the victory won by the Christians on the banks of the river Salado, near Tarifa, he earned his title of Afonso the Brave (1340). In 1347 he gave his daughter Eleanor in marriage to Peter IV of Aragon. The later years of his reign were darkened by the tragedy of Inês de Castro. He died in 1357, and the first act of his successor, Pedro I of Portugal, was to take vengeance on the murderers of Inês.

Mid-14th century to the Interregnum

Pedro's particular fancy was the administration of justice, which he frequently did in person and with considerable cruelty. Throughout his reign he strengthened the central government at the expense of the aristocracy and the Church, by a stern enforcement of law and order. In 1361, at the Cortes of Elvas, it was enacted that the privileges of the clergy should only be deemed valid insofar as they did not conflict with the royal prerogative. Pedro maintained friendly relations with England, where in 1352 Edward III issued a proclamation in favor of Portuguese traders, and in 1353 the Portuguese envoy Afonso Martins Alho signed a covenant with the merchants of London, guaranteeing mutual good faith in all commercial dealings.

The foreign policy of Denis, Afonso IV and Pedro I had been, as in rule, successful in its main object, the preservation of peace with the Christian kingdoms of Iberia; in consequence, the Portuguese had advanced in prosperity and culture. They had supported the monarchy because it was a national institution, hostile to the tyranny of nobles and clergy. During the reign of Ferdinand (1367–1383) and under the regency of Leonora the ruling dynasty ceased to represent the national will; the Portuguese people therefore made an end of the dynasty and chose its own ruler. The complex events which brought about this crisis may be briefly summarized.

Ferdinand I, a weak but ambitious and unscrupulous king, claimed the thrones of León and Castile, left vacant by the death of King Peter of Castile (1369); he based his claim on the fact that his grandmother Beatrice (1367–1385) belonged to the legitimate line of Castile. When the majority of the Castilian nobles refused to accept a Portuguese sovereign, and welcomed the former king's illegitimate half-brother as Henry II of Castile, Ferdinand allied himself with the Moors and Aragonese; but in 1371 Pope Gregory XI intervened, and it was decided that Ferdinand should renounce his claim and marry Eleanor, the daughter of his successful rival.

Ferdinand, however, preferred his Portuguese mistress, Leonor Telles de Menezes, whom he eventually married. To avenge this slight, Henry of Castile invaded Portugal and besieged Lisbon. Ferdinand appealed to John of Gaunt, who also claimed the throne of Castile, on behalf of his wife, Infanta Constance of Castile, daughter of Peter of Castile. An alliance between Portugal and England was concluded; and although Ferdinand made peace with Castile in 1374, he renewed his claim in 1380, after the death of Henry of Castile, and sent João Fernandes Andeiro, count of Ourém, to secure English aid. In 1381 Richard II of England despatched a powerful force to Lisbon, and betrothed his cousin Prince Edward to Beatrice, only child of Ferdinand, who had been recognized as heiress to the throne by the Cortes of Leiria (1376). In 1383, Ferdinand made peace with John I of Castile at Salvaterra, deserting his English allies, who retaliated by ravaging part of his territory. By the Treaty of Salvaterra it was agreed that Beatrice should marry John I. Six months later Ferdinand died, and in accordance with the terms of the treaty Leonora became regent until the eldest son of John I and Beatrice should be of age.

Leonora had long carried on a relationship with the count of Ourém, who engaged in various intrigues with England and Castile, and who's influence was resented by the leaders of the aristocracy, while her tyrannical rule also aroused Rebellion of bitter opposition. The malcontents chose D. John, 1383. grand-master of the knights of Aviz and illegitimate son of Pedro the Severe, as their leader, organized a revolt in Lisbon, and assassinated the count of Ourém within the royal palace (December 6, 1383). Leonora fled to Santarém and summoned aid from Castile, while D. John was proclaimed defender of Portugal. In 1384 a Castilian army invested Lisbon, but encountered a heroic resistance, and after five months an outbreak of plague compelled them to raise the siege, John I of Castile, discovering or alleging that Leonora had plotted to poison him, imprisoned her in a convent at Tordesillas, where she died in 1386. Before this, Nuno Álvares Pereira, constable of Portugal, had gained his popular title of "The Holy Constable" by twice defeating the invaders, at the Battle of Atoleiros and at the Battle of Trancoso in the district of Guarda.

End of the Interregnum, 1385

On April 16, 1385, João das Regras showed at the Cortes assembled in Coimbra that they had the right to choose John of Aviz as their new king. John was then elected king of Portugal. No other event in the history of the Portuguese Cortes is more important than the Cortes of Coimbra, which definitely affirmed the national character of the monarchy. The choice of the grand-master of Aviz ratified the old alliance between the Crown and the military orders; his election by the whole Cortes not only ratified the alliance between the Crown and the commons, but also included the nobles and the Church. The nation was unanimous.

Ferdinand had been the last legitimate descendant of Count Henry of Burgundy. With John I began the rule of a new dynasty, the House of Aviz. The most urgent matter which confronted the king or the group of statesmen, led by João das Regras and the "Holy Constable" who inspired his policy was the menace of Castilian aggression. John of Castile marched into Portugal with a large army in August 1385. But on August 14, the much-outnumbered Portuguese, aided by 500 English archers, utterly defeated the Castilians and their French allies at Aljubarrota. By this victory the Portuguese showed themselves equal in military power to their strongest rivals in the Peninsula. In October the "Holy Constable" invaded Castile and won another victory at Valverde. Early the next year, John of Gaunt and 5,000 English reinforcements arrived to aid John I. Together they launched another counter-invasion of Castile, but the campaign proved abortive. By the treaty of Windsor (May 9, 1386), the alliance between Portugal and England was confirmed and extended. Against such a combination the Castilians were powerless; Denis, eldest son of Inês de Castro, claimed the Portuguese throne and invaded Portugal in 1398, but his troops were easily crushed. A treaty was arranged in 1387 and renewed at intervals until peace was concluded with the Treaty of Ayllón, 1411.

After the Crisis of 1380-1385

A depiction of the Battle of Aljubarrota.

The domestic and foreign policy pursued by John I until his death in 1433 may be briefly described. At home he endeavoured to reform administration, to encourage agriculture and commerce, and to secure the loyalty of the nobles by grants of land and privileges so extensive that, towards the end of his reign, many nobles who exercised their full feudal rights had become almost independent princes. Abroad, he aimed at peace with Castile and close friendship with England. In 1387 he had married Philipa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt; Richard II sent troops to aid in the expulsion of Denis; Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI of England successively ratified the treaty of Windsor; Henry IV made his ally a knight of the Garter in 1400.

The Cortes of Coimbra, the battle of Aljubarrota and the treaty of Windsor mark the three final stages in the consolidation of the monarchy. A period of expansion oversea began in the same reign, with the capture of Ceuta in Morocco. The three eldest sons of King John and Queen Philippa, Edward, Peter and Henry (afterwards celebrated as Henry the Navigator) desired to win knighthood by service against the Moors, the historic enemies of their country and creed. In 1415 a Portuguese fleet, commanded by the king and the three princes, set sail for Ceuta. The town was captured and garrisoned, and thus the first Portuguese outpost was established on the mainland of Africa.

See also


  • Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
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