Dom João I Tomb
Photo|Alexandra Pelúcia

Anthroponyms seta JOÃO I, Dom, (1357/r.1385-1433)

10th King of Portugal

Dom João I was born in Lisbon on 11 April, 1357, being the illegitimate issue of Dom Pedro´s liaison with Teresa Lourenço. The last son of Dom Pedro, he was born one month prior to his father´s ascending the Portuguese throne. The little that is known about the first years of his life is based on the information contained in the Crónica de Dom Pedro and the Crónica de Dom Fernando, which were both authored by Fernão Lopes.

While he was still a child he was granted the position of Master of the Order of Avis, participating in the life of the court of his half-brother, King Dom Fernando. After the King´s death in 1383, the Master of Avis emerged as a central personage in the dynastic crisis of 1383-85. Acclaimed as Defender and Sovereign of the Kingdom by the people of Lisbon, in the years that followed, Dom João faced the antagonism of the supporters of Dona Beatriz, daughter of Dom Fernando, and her husband, King Juan I of Castille. The subsequent Castillian invasion was deterred by the losses suffered during the Battle of Atoleiros and the Siege of Lisbon during 1384. The following year was marked by two key events in the life of Dom João. First, the Cortes, which were assembled in Coimbra, led to his ascending the throne on 6 April, 1385. The Master of Avis was thus acclaimed King of Portugal, inaugurating a new dynasty. On 14 August, 1385 at the Battle of Aljubarrota, the new king achieved his greatest military victory by defeating the Castillian armies commanded by Juan I himself.

Despite this victory, the first decades of Dom João I´s reign were marked by the prolongation of the conflict with Castille, a situation that would continue until the signing of the peace Treaty of Ayllón on 31 October, 1411. For Dom João, however, the newly achieved peace implied that novel opportunities and challenges had to be faced. If on the one hand the Kingdom had been freed from endemic war against its Castillian neighbors, on the other it faced new problems. The first of these was the social stagnation faced by the nobility, who had long depended on the war against Castille for honors and profit, which was not possible in a situation of long-term peace. To ease the unrest of a social group of such significance, the king had to find a response, especially in the context of a new dynasty that needed to assert itself politically and consolidate its legitimacy.

In light of the circumstances, the possibility of fighting the infidels in Granada or Morocco, a project that dated at least as far back as the reign of Dom Afonso IV, became a possible solution. In this context, Dom João I leaned towards an expedition to the Kingdom of Granada; however, Castillian opposition to this potential venture led to the selection of the Moroccan city of Ceuta as a military objective ? a desirable target due both to its wealth and strategic location. The following years were occupied with debating and planning a military expedition against Ceuta, an objective that was wrapped in secrecy, being known to only a few of the king´s closest advisors: his sons. Early in the summer of 1415, the expedition was ready but its departure was delayed because Queen Dona Filipa died of the plague that ravaged Lisbon. Setting sail from Lisbon on July 25th, under the command of Dom João I himself, who was accompanied by the Crown Heir, Dom Duarte, as well as by the Infantes, Princes Dom Pedro and Dom Henrique, the fleet reached Ceuta on August 21st, launching an attack immediately and subjugating the city after a few hours of combat.

The taking of Ceuta represented the culmination of Dom João I´s personal project, which counted on the Infantes´ enthusiastic endorsement, as they sought to consecrate their dynasty and enhance Portugal´s standing within Christendom through victory over the traditional Muslim enemy. It was also his will that prevailed in the debates that followed the conquest of Ceuta and led to the decision to occupy it permanently. For this purpose, a sizeable garrison was left in place which was captained by the Count of Viana, Dom Pedro de Meneses. Thus, Dom João I added to the titles of King of Portugal and the Algarves that of ?Lord of Ceuta.?

Returning to the Kingdom, after a one week stay in his newly conquered city, Dom João I would never step on African soil again; however, the defense of Ceuta and pursuing the war against the infidels would be ongoing concerns for the remainder of his lengthy reign. Immediately after his return to Portugal, the King proposed to establish cooperation with Castillians and Aragonians for an eventual conquest of Granada. In light of the lack of interest of his neighbors, he re-directed his political efforts at Morocco.

The significance of Ceuta was confirmed early in 1416, with the nomination of Prince Henry as superintendent and defender of the city. The continuation of the conquest of the Kingdom of Fez was planned and a new Bull of Crusade was granted in May 1418. These projects were deterred by a joint offensive against Ceuta by the kingdoms of Granada and Fez between 1418 and 1419, which forced Dom João I to dispatch a fleet to assist Ceuta´s resistance to the siege. The possibility of new expeditions in Morocco became even less likely due to the developments in the Kingdom of Castille, which, beginning in 1420, faced several internal conflicts that were aggravated by the involvement of the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre. The instability of the peninsula forced Dom João I to reinforce the Kingdom´s fronteers against potential invasions and to re-direct his efforts in order to assure Portugal´s neutrality within the framework of Iberian conflicts, thus limiting the possibility of new conquests in Morocco for more than a decade.

The difficulties that made it impossible to conduct new military campaigns in North Africa did not, however, impede the reign of Dom João I in the years following the conquest of Ceuta from witnessing the overseas expansion launching efforts into new directions. Taking up again Dom Afonso IV´s claim of sovereignty over the Atalantic Islands, namely over the Canary archipelago, there was an attempt at exploring and occupying the archipelagos near Portugal and of recognizing the Atlantic coast of Morocco. These new directions of expansion emerged predominantly from actions coordinated by the House of Prince Henry, falling within the purview of the Crown.

In this context, between 1418 and 1419, the Madeira and Porto Santo islands, long known to European navigators, were explored by the ships of João Gonçalo Zarco and Tristão Vaz de Teixeira. In the mid 1420s, there was progress towards successful occupation of these territories and its systematic settlement, under instructions from the King himself. Perhaps due to the navigation from Madeira to the Kingdom, a few years later the reconnaissance of a few of the Azorean islands was started. The exploratory trips of Diogo de Silves (1427) and Gonçalo Velho (1431 and 1432), in which noblemen from the House of Prince Henry were involved anew, were prominent.

The claims regarding sovereignty of the Canary Islands reemerged during these years also, as in 1424 a fleet financed by Prince Henry and commanded by Dom Fernando de Castro was sent to the archipelago, but it did not achieve tangible results. The Portuguese ships also sought to explore the African Coast, especially after the successful navigation beyond Cabo Bojador. It was not in 1419 but in 1434, after the Cape had been surpassed, that these expeditions became frutiful.

The course of these expansionist moves was plotted by various players, who essentially were set in motion by Prince Henry. However, even though his direct intervention was limited, Dom João I stayed abreast of and payed close attention to its unfolding, acting when necessary and retaining supreme control over all political decisions.

At the end of 1431, the threat of Iberian conflict that had led to the suspension of Crusade projects dissipated, as a Treaty of Perpetual Peace was signed between Portugal and Castille. Thus the conditions for a new expedition against the infidels had been established. This possibility was nevertheless hindered by the king´s advanced age ? he was over 70 years old ? and by the ever rising costs of maintaining Ceuta, which resulted in the people being ever less inclined towards undertaking new and expensive military campaigns. As the reign of Dom João I approached its end, the possibility of an extensive attack in North Africa was considered anew. The King intended to lead the expedition himself, but his death in Lisbon on 13 August, 1433 preceded it.

Consequently, the lengthy reign of Dom João I can be viewed as the period of launching of the Portuguese overseas expansion; the conquest of Ceuta in 1415 is considered its initial phase. This expansion was based not only on the recovery of ancestral ideals, such as the war against the infidels, but also on new directions, such as settling the Atlantic islands and exploring the African Coast. These directions, whose origins date to the years between 1415 and 1433, would mark the Portuguese overseas expansion movement in the long run.

COELHO, Maria Helena da Cruz, D. João I, Lisboa, Círculo de Leitores, 2005. COSTA, João Paulo, Henrique, o Infante, Lisboa, Esfera dos Livros, 2009. THOMAZ, Luís Filipe, ?A evolução da política expansionista portuguesa na primeira metade de Quatrocentos? in De Ceuta a Timor, Lisboa, Difel, 1994, pp. 43-147.

Author: José Ferreira
Translated by: Maria João Pimentel

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