Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Monarch Profile: King Joao II of Portugal

Amongst the illustrious list of Portuguese monarchs, one name that always stands out is that of King Joao II. He was a man often unpopular with the elites of his own country yet who was widely admired in his own time by monarchs across Christendom and history remembers him as one of the most successful kings Portugal has had. He was born on March 3, 1455 in Lisbon, the son of King Afonso V and Isabella of Coimbra. A vigorous and upstanding youth, early on he earned a reputation for courage and independence. With the long-standing counteroffensive against the forces of Islam still raging, Prince Joao fought alongside his father in the campaigns in North Africa. After the conquest of Arzila (in what is now Morocco) in 1471 the King made him a knight and in 1473 he was married to his first cousin Infanta Leonor of Viseu. His aversion to court politics and his reputation for going his own way without being influenced by others caused some resentment amongst the Portuguese nobility who feared that, when he came to the throne, their own power would be diminished. Sometimes being an honest man is enough to make enemies. Ironically enough, given how Portuguese history would later unfold, one of his opponents was the Duke of Braganza.

Afonso V had tried to make himself King of Castile and Leon but was unsuccessful, defeated by Fernando II of Aragon (one half of the famous Isabella and Ferdinand royal duo) and after being deceived by the King of France he was frustrated and depressed, abdicating his throne and retiring to a monastery in 1477. Joao II succeeded him but did not formally inherit the title of King of Portugal until the death of his father in 1481. As many of the nobles had feared, immediately after coming to power, King Joao II worked to strengthen the monarchy at the expense of the aristocracy which, to his mind, had grown too large and manipulative. Not surprisingly, many nobles began to plot against him. One of the leaders was the Duke of Braganza who tried to enlist the help of Queen Isabella I of Castile in overthrowing the Portuguese monarch. Unfortunately for the Duke, his letters were intercepted by agents of the King who then banned the House of Braganza, executed the Duke and confiscated his property. For her part, though she could be considered a natural enemy given the actions of his father, Queen Isabella the Catholic was rather impressed by the strength of King Joao II, referring to him as “El Hombre” (The Man). Even his adversaries admired his ability.

Nobles were henceforth forbidden to administer justice on their lands with the Crown becoming the sole source of law and order. The Duke of Viseu had the distinction of being stabbed by the King personally for leading an aristocratic conspiracy against him. The Bishop of Evora was among those executed and who had their property confiscated for plots against the King. All of this seems quite harsh to people today but it must be seen in the context of history. The liberalism of Afonso V, building on extensive concessions to the aristocracy in the past, had really made the country rather top heavy and unstable. Previously, the King was usually not the most powerful man in Portugal and the government of the country was little more than a battlefield for the intrigues of the elites, scheming and feuding with each other to increase their own wealth and authority. The confiscated property of these nobles put the monarchy on a solid financial footing and the King made sure that there was one authority, one administrator of justice and one unifying force in the country and that was the monarchy. Overall, the Kingdom of Portugal was considerably better off because of it and the result was increased peace, stability and prosperity.

Another important accomplishment King Joao II can be credited with is restoring the Portuguese emphasis on exploration which had been increasingly sidelined since the death of the famous Prince Henry the Navigator. Although his primary aim was Portuguese expansion down the coast of Africa, his support for exploration in general had immense long-term benefits for the country, particularly the discovery of a route to India and Portuguese entry into the lucrative spice trade. During his reign Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa in 1486 and in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India. Portuguese explorers also discovered the Congo River and made expeditions into Ethiopia (and India) in search of the lands of “Prester John”, a Christian king believed to rule over a marvelous country somewhere to the east, surrounded by Muslims or other non-Christian peoples. That turned out to be a tall tale but the exploration, new outposts established and new trading routes gained proved to be a great benefit to the Kingdom of Portugal and, by extension, to Europe as a whole.

Also, unlike his father, King Joao II tried to keep peace with the neighboring Spanish Kingdom of Castile. However, this was difficult as tensions were inevitable due to competition in the fields of exploration and colonial expansion. A crisis seemed in the making following the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Starting in 1485 the ambitious Italian explorer had tried to persuade King Joao II of Portugal to sponsor his voyage. However, the Portuguese experts (correctly as it turned out) believed that Columbus was completely wrong in his estimation that East Asia could be so close, just a short voyage westward across the Atlantic. After being turned down more than once, Columbus gave up on Portugal (which had found an eastern route to India by then) and made his famous agreement with King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. When he returned with news of a vast new landmass, Columbus was probably rather eager to rub it in the face of the King who had turned him down. King Joao II was also just as upset at the opportunity he had missed. He warned the Spanish King and Queen that, according to the treaty negotiated by he and his father ending the Castilian War of Succession, much of this new found territory should belong to Portugal rather than Spain and he would use force to seize it if he had to.

King Fernando & Queen Isabella
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had, of course just finished fighting the war that expelled the last of the Muslim invaders from Spain and they were not eager for another conflict. They also knew that King Joao II was a hard and determined man who was not to be taken on lightly. The future of their monarchies was also in question due to the succession resting on only one frail son. A negotiated settlement was obviously what was called for and so Pope Alexander VI stepped in to work out an agreement. The result was the Treaty of Tordesillas which divided the unclaimed lands of the world between Portugal and Spain with the Portuguese being given everything to the east of the line (Africa and Asia) and Spain being given everything to the west of the line (America). Because the coast of Brazil extended beyond the line, because of this agreement (which was modified) the Kingdom of Portugal received what would become the largest Portuguese colony of all and the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the colonial empire of Portugal. If King Joao II had not stood firm in pressing for the rights of his country, this might never have happened and the Brazil we know today might not exist at all.

One other area in which King Joao II greatly benefited his country was in putting it on a sound financial footing. This was no small task as he had inherited a country that was effectively broke. His response to this worked hand-in-hand with his breaking the power of the aristocracy. For one thing, confiscating the property of traitors brought income to the government but more importantly it meant that status was not the sole determining factor in achieving positions in government. The King assembled a special council to oversee the restoration of the economy and he selected its members from amongst the best and brightest in Portugal, choosing men whose talent could be seen by proven success. Their oversight, combined with the increasing income from the new trade routes and colonial outposts helped pay off the national debt and put Portugal back in the black. In time the Kingdom of Portugal would become one of the wealthiest countries in the world thanks to these changes.

A problem that King Joao II proved unable to surmount was that of the succession. King Joao II had only one son, Prince Afonso, to succeed him. However, the future seemed bright as the Spanish monarchs had only one son as well and he was not in good health. Prince Afonso was then married to Isabella of Aragon (eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella) and it seemed likely that the future King of Portugal would become King of Castile and Aragon as well. Unfortunately, in 1491, Prince Afonso died in a fall from his horse, leaving King Joao II without a male heir of his own. At the time, many suspected a Castilian plot behind this but it was never proven and most likely never will be. King Joao II tried to have a natural son of his legitimized to succeed him but it was to no avail. He died at the age of 40 on October 25, 1495 in Alvor. He was succeeded by his first cousin who became King Manuel I (a devoutly religious man who would reign over a period of great success and prestige for Portugal). Still, aside from unavoidable misfortune with the succession, King Joao II had been a great monarch in every way. He left the country stronger, more secure and more prosperous than he had found it and he earned a great reputation across Europe. He could, at times, seem harsh but he was successful and improved his country by his leadership.

(Additional Note: Part of the reason why King Joao II sometimes is portrayed as having a worse reputation than he should is no doubt colored by those who said he most embodied the leadership portrayed in “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli. Whether this is accurate or not can be endlessly debated, however what cannot be debated is that the principles of the ‘Renaissance man’ Machiavelli were far more than simply “the ends justify the means”. Most have no real knowledge of the work or of Machiavelli himself who was a republican)

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