Monday, November 21, 2011
Monarch Profile: King Manuel I of Portugal
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.
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.