Monday, November 21, 2011

Monarch Profile: King Manuel I of Portugal

In the Kingdom of Portugal, an era associated with a “Golden Age” for the country, with the establishment of a vast, global trade empire, scientific discoveries and the flowering of Portuguese art is the reign of King Manuel I. He is known to history as “Manuel the Fortunate” because he reaped the benefits of decisions made by a number of his predecessors who laid the foundations for the great Portuguese civilization that solidified and flourished under his reign. It was under King Manuel I that Portugal, a small country with a relatively scant population on the very edge of Christendom, became one of the most prosperous, influential and leading European powers in the world. He was born on May 31, 1469 at Alcochete to the Infante Ferdinand Duke of Viseu and his wife the Infanta Beatrice of Portugal. By his mother he was the great-grandson of King John I of Portugal and by his father he was the grandson of King Edward and the nephew of King Afonso V. His predecessor was his first cousin and brother-in-law King John II who had promoted numerous voyages of discovery as well as breaking the nobility and concentrating authority in the hands of the King.

This was a time when conspiracy, exile and assassination were not uncommon in the halls of power in Portugal due to the in-fighting between the Crown and the nobility as well as within the Royal Family itself so Manuel grew up well aware that power brought with it many dangers as well as opportunities. He had plenty of reason to worry when he was summoned by King John II, fearing perhaps that he would be killed as his older brother had been. Happily, however, Manuel was spared such a fate and was instead named heir to the throne. John’s own son had died earlier and his only other heir was illegitimate and thus unable to succeed so the duty to carry on the dynasty fell to Manuel and it was then that he first became known as “Manuel the Fortunate” (or lucky). On October 25, 1495 he succeeded his brother-in-law and became the 14th King of Portugal and the Algarves. He carried on the commitment to exploration and commerce initiated by his predecessors and presided over the establishment of the first truly global empire. This effort brought immense benefits to Portugal very quickly.

In 1498 the intrepid Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India, the first European to reach the subcontinent by ship and who later became the first Viceroy of Portuguese India. The rich lands of eternal Asia were opened to European markets because of this, via Portugal, and in quick order King Manuel I became one of the wealthiest monarchs in Christendom. More advances followed quickly. In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered the immense South American nation of Brazil, setting into motion the establishment of what would be the largest colony of Portugal and, in time, the most populous Portuguese-speaking nation in the world. However, based on treaties signed with Spain and the Holy See, the focus on Portuguese exploration and investment was concentrated more on Africa and Asia and in 1505 King Manuel I appointed Francisco de Almeida the first Viceroy of India and from 1503 to 1515 the Portuguese Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque made advances in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean that led to the establishment of Portuguese monopolies on maritime trade in those lucrative sea lanes which ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity in the Kingdom of Portugal.
King Manuel I was the envy of many of the crowned heads of Europe because of all of this, but he did not forget his Christian duty either. In 1514 he sent a large and lavish embassy to Rome where his representatives presented the tribute of India to Pope Leo X. They also carried a message from King Manuel I urging the Pontiff to enact reforms in the Church (the hope of many to head-off the outbreak of the Protestant movement) and to organize a league of Christian forces to renew the crusade against the Turks. This did not happen but the Pope greatly honored King Manuel I, granting him a number of special rights over the Church in his domain and recognized him as patron and protector of the Church in what is now Ethiopia which, for the time being at least, was united to Roman Christendom. King Manuel I was able to take a global view of the problems in Europe because of the discoveries of his explorers. He had bypassed the Turkish-held Middle East to reach Persia, India and the Far East. The King also used much of his new merchant wealth to encourage the spread of Christianity by sponsoring missionary work in his new colonies, the fruits of which are still felt to this day. For his devotion to the Church, the Pope sent him the Golden Rose -twice (one from Julius II and one from Leo X), the first monarch in history to be so honored.

The wealth King Manuel accumulated attracted the best and brightest of the era to Portugal which became known as the preeminent nation in almost every field of endeavor. Great scientists, mathematicians, architects, artists and the most bold adventurers all flocked to Portugal as center of learning and progress. New discoveries came in constantly. Economic and diplomatic relations were established with the great dynasties of Asia, the Persian Empire and the Chinese Empire and King Manuel I sponsored architectural wonders, erecting new buildings and majestic monuments to befit an imperial capital. Some of the greatest of these, however, were not symbols of pride but of devotion; monasteries, convents and houses of worship. Portugal under Manuel I was a very Catholic absolute monarchy where the parliament in Lisbon was called only three times, yet, the Portuguese people had never known such success, prosperity and academic freedom. King Manuel reformed the judicial system and the system of taxation, making each more fair.

Only one group did not fare well during the reign of Manuel I and that was the Jewish minority. The King had tried numerous times through marriage to gain for himself a dominant position in Spain. It was a condition of his first marriage to the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile that he expel the Jews and Muslim Moors from the Kingdom of Portugal. Past Portuguese monarchs had tolerated and protected the Jews, advancing many of them to high office and often relying on them. Some warned the King against the expulsion of the Jews but more supported their eviction. Their money-lending (a practice banned or at least frowned-upon in most Christian nations at the time) stirred up jealousy and hatred against them. So, King Manuel I ordered the Jews to either convert or leave the country. Many falsely converted in order to stay and this would prove a source of problems and endless controversy for the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the future. However, the King was not a hateful man and when mob violence resulted in the murder of a number of Jews he had the perpetrators put to death for the crime.

King Manuel did marry Isabella (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella) but she died in childbirth in 1498 and their only child, Miguel, who was heir to both Portugal and Spain died a few years later. In 1501 Manuel married Maria of Aragon by whom he had 10 children including the future King John III of Portugal, the Cardinal-King Henry and consorts for the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Savoy. Maria died in 1517 and the following year Manuel married, for the last time, to Eleanor of Austria, daughter of the King and Queen of Castile and sister to the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. They had one son, Carlos, before King Manuel I died on December 13, 1521, of plague, in Lisbon at the age of 52. He was succeeded by his son, King John III, who tried to continue his policies. The Golden Age of Portugal went on for a time but a variety of problems began to cause the wave of success to recede somewhat. All subsequent historians would always look back to the reign of King Manuel I as the zenith of Portuguese glory and greatness around the world.


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  2. I will sooner or later. King Philip II is one of my favorites and those are both the easiest and the hardest to write about.


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