In This Article Prince Henry the Navigator

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Historiographical Overviews
  • Collections of Documents
  • Classic Laudatory Works
  • Early Biographies and Other Studies, 1750–1900

Renaissance and Reformation Prince Henry the Navigator
Ivana Elbl
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0375


“Henry the Navigator” is a modern sobriquet for Henrique, Infante (prince, literally “Infant” or royal child) of Portugal (b. 1394–d. 1460), who played key roles both in the domestic history of late medieval Portugal and in the early oceanic explorations. The third surviving son of King Dom João I, the founder of the Avis dynasty, Henry was shaped by the internal problems faced by the new dynasty and by its struggle for recognition. Ambitious and steeped in the conventional values of his peers, Henry throughout his life pursued dreams of conquests in Muslim territories, particularly Morocco. However, it was his involvement in the exploration of the African Atlantic (which reached Sierra Leone by the time of his death), and in the colonization of Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands, that gained him what he desired the most: fame and a place in history. The explorations and settlement efforts were by-products of Prince Henry’s projects aimed at the Muslim Maghrib. The early expeditions were spin-offs of his corsair campaigns, either against Muslim shipping and settlements along the northwestern coast of Africa or intelligence-gathering and wealth-seeking forays, that he hoped would help enable his core objectives. Only toward the end of his life did Henry come to see the Atlantic explorations that he sponsored (but did not participate in) as a source of fame and prestige. To posterity, however, it was his oceanic ventures, which served as the foundation for the Portuguese seaborne empire and the trigger for European overseas expansion, that made him an important historical figure—one to be lionized, minimized, or vilified, depending on the viewpoint and ideology of respective writers. In consequence, most of the existing historiography has concentrated on Henry’s pursuits related to the Atlantic, from the perspective labeled in the past as “discoveries in geography,” or on the campaigns in Morocco. In comparison, the overall context of his life, the formative influences that shaped its course, and the very significant role he played on the domestic and European scenes have been relatively neglected, an example of the problems that for so long made biography and other forms of individual-based approaches to history a deprecated branch of historiography.

Bibliographies and Historiographical Overviews

The literature on Henry “the Navigator” is vast but somewhat repetitive. Relevant material appears both in works specifically focused on Henry and in more general histories of the early oceanic explorations and “discoveries in geography.” While they are numerous, many of the older works tend to be of uneven quality and often are difficult to access. They frequently take the form of very short books and articles published in little known scholarly journals, magazines, and even newspapers. The repetitiveness resulted from ideological agendas, the need to engage past historiographical assertions, and dependence on a limited set of narrative sources. The literature is also unevenly distributed in time. Literature before 1984 dominates the topic. The majority of it was generated around the key centenary celebrations (1860, 1894, 1960, 1994) or during periods of heightened political and ideological interest in Henry, for example during the Salazar/Caetano Estado Novo (“New Republic”). Bibliographies and historiographical reviews play a fundamental role in acknowledging the existing scholarship and in establishing the historiographical patterns. The key bibliographies are the Bibliografia Henricina (Comissão das Comemorações do V. Centenário da Morte do Infante D. Henrique 1960) and the Repertório bibliográfico da historiografia portuguesa, 1974–1994 (Instituto Camões, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra 1995). In terms of historiographical analyses, Russell (Russell 1960 and Russell 1984 [both cited under Biographical and Contextualizing Studies, 1960–1990]), Thomaz (Thomaz 1991), João 1994, Elbl 2001, and Oliveira e Costa 2011 offer comprehensive commentary on the literature pertaining directly to Henry. However, more general commentaries on the historiography of the early Portuguese overseas expansion or medieval Portugal, such as Pinheiro Marques 1991, Matos and Thomaz 1993, and Oliveira e Costa 2011, are very valuable both in offering specific comments on Henricine historiography and, even more so, in offering historiographical analysis of the more recent literature, in the context of Henry’s life and accomplishments.

  • Comissão das Comemorações do V. Centenário da Morte do Infante D. Henrique. Bibliografia Henriquina. 2 vols. Lisbon, Portugal: Comissão das Comemorações do V. Centenário da Morte do Infante D. Henrique, 1960.

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    The bibliography offers an extensive listing of both scholarly and journalistic works on Henry up to the fifth centenary of his death. Alphabetically organized, it includes works by both Portuguese and foreign authors. The latter are much less well covered than the former, and they were included largely to broaden the historical context.

  • Elbl, Ivana. “Henry ‘the Navigator’: The State of Research.” Journal of Medieval History 27.1 (2001): 79–90.

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    The article discusses the state of Henricine historiography and potential future research directions following the publication of Russell 2000 (cited under Major Biographies), deemed by many the definitive work on the subject.

  • Instituto Camões, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra. Repertório bibliográfico da historiografia portuguesa, 1974–1994. Coimbra, Portugal: Instituto Camões, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, 1995.

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    The repertory captures the dramatic developments in Portuguese historiography since the end of the Estado Novo. The authors are listed alphabetically and their works chronologically, allowing researchers to set in the context of their overall scholarship the works of authors who wrote on Prince Henry and his times.

  • João, Maria Isabel. O Infante D. Henrique na historiografia (Estudo inicial e selecção de documentos). Lisbon: Grupo de Trabalho do Ministério da Educação para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 1994.

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    The book presents a useful, concise analysis of the relevant historiography from the 15th to the 20th centuries, supported by excerpts from key works under discussion. The objective is to identify key authors and their most important views or contributions.

  • Marques, Alfredo Pinheiro. A historiografia dos descobrimentos e a expansão portuguesa. Coimbra, Portugal: Livr. Minerva, 1991.

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    A brief survey of the historiographical trends in the study of the Portuguese overseas explorations and expansion. A shorter version of this work appeared in 1990 (in French) and a more substantial one in 1988, titled Guia de história dos descobrimentos e expansão portuguesa: Estudos (Lisbon: Biblioteca Nacional).

  • Matos, Artur Teodoro de, and Luís Filipe F. R. Thomaz, eds. Vinte anos de historiografia ultramarina portuguesa: 1972–1992. Lisbon, Portugal: C.N.C.D.P., 1993.

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    While this collection is not specifically devoted to the early explorations, it is valuable in tracking the overall developments in Portuguese historiography of the overseas expansion in the period following the restoration of democracy in Portugal.

  • Oliveira e Costa, João Paulo. “The Beginnings of the Portuguese Overseas Expansion.” In The Historiography of Medieval Portugal, c. 1950–2010. Edited by José Mattoso, Maria de Lurdes Rosa, Bernardo Vasconcelos e Sousa, and Maria João Branco, 591–605. Lisbon, Portugal: Instituto de Estudos Medievais (IEM), 2011.

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    Although not focused specifically on Henry, Oliveira e Costa’s chapter is the most recent historiographical assessment of literature on early Portuguese overseas expansion.

  • Thomaz, Luís Felipe F. R. “O Infante Dom Henrique e a paternidade da Expansão: De Gomes Eanes de Azurara a Vitorino Nemésio.” In Vide e obra do Infante Dom Henrique. 5th ed. Edited by Vitorino Nemésio, xi–xxiii. Lisbon, Portugal: Imprensa Nacional, Casa da Moeda, 1991.

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    Thomaz traces and critically assesses the historiography, from the 15th century to the publication of Vitorino Nemésio, Vida e obra do Infante Dom Henrique (Nemésio 1959, cited under Biographical and Contextualizing Studies, 1960–1990), regarding the claim that Prince Henry was the initiator of the overseas expansion. See also the 6th ed. (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, Casa da Moeda, 1991).

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