Post-classical history



KING JOHN OF Portugal had been deeply pondering how to knight his three eldest sons in a manner befitting the heirs to an ambitious new dynasty.

Portugal was the westernmost of the five so-called Kingdoms of Spain, which had emerged in the wake of the Spanish Crusades. Three of the other four, Castile and León, Navarre, and Aragon, were Christian; only one, Granada, was Muslim. For more than a century bands of hardy, zealous warriors had battled to carve the new nation out of the old lands of al-Andalus, with a little help from Crusaders from northern Europe stopping off en route to the Holy Land, and its people were fiercely proud of their hard-won independence. The pope had recognized Portugal early on and had given it divine sanction to conquer land from the Moors, and its rulers continued to see themselves as closely allied to Rome. “God,” a royal chronicler proclaimed, “ordered and wished to constitute Portugal as a kingdom for a great mystery of his service and for the exaltation of the Holy Faith.”

Divinely ordained or not, at first the young country was Europe’s wild west. King Peter I, who variously went by the sobriquets the Just, the Cruel, the Vengeful, and the Until-the-End-of-the-World-in-Love, was so crazed when his father’s henchmen turned up at his trysting place and beheaded his beloved mistress, a beautiful Castilian girl named Inez de Castro, that the moment he assumed the throne in 1357 he tracked down the murderers and watched as their hearts were torn out, one from the front, the other from theback. A few years later he had Inez’s remains exhumed, draped in royal robes, crowned, and propped up beside him on a throne. He made his courtiers line up, and at his terrible cry of “The Queen of Portugal!” they filed past and kissed her bony hand. Peter’s heir, Ferdinand the Handsome, was scarcely an improvement. Having broken a promise to marry the heiress to the throne of Castile, Portugal’s larger neighbor and constant foe, he instead took as his wife the beautiful and very married Leonor Teles. Leonor began her spectacular career of crime by ensnaring her brother-in-law into murdering her sister by insinuating that she was unfaithful, only to crow as soon as the deed was done that she had made it all up. She then embarked on an adulterous affair of her own, and when Ferdinand’s bastard brother John caught her in the act, she concocted a letter that framed him for treason and had him arrested. When her husband refused to execute his half brother, Leonor forged the king’s signature on the warrant, and John only escaped because his jailers suspected foul play and refused to carry out the command.

On Ferdinand the Handsome’s death Leonor assumed the regency in the name of her eleven-year-old daughter, who was betrothed to the king of Castile. It was a toss-up whether the Portuguese hated their queen or the Castilians more; since both were anyway openly in league, they erupted in rebellion and turned to the only one of the royal brood who was not tainted with foreign ties. As an illegitimate son, John had only a whisker-thin claim to the crown, but with his powerful build and lantern jaw he looked every inch a king. He emerged from hiding, broke into the queen’s palace, and murdered her lover with his own hands. The people’s assembly offered him the throne, and after consulting a holy hermit—he was pious as well as patriotic—he accepted. Castile took his election as a declaration of war and invaded; that same summer of 1385 John’s army, though outnumbered seven to one, routed the attackers and secured Portugal’s survival as an independent nation.

A new dynasty needed a queen, and John looked to England. The English and Portuguese had been allies before Portugal was even a nation—many of the Crusaders who had piled into its wars were English—and they had recently signed a treaty of perpetual friendship and mutual defense. The bride John chose was Philippa, the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Gaunt was the uncle of the king of England and the richest and most unpopular man in the land, and growing up between the Lancasters’ string of fortresses with their battalions of retainers and men-at-arms, his daughter had had a political education second to none.

Philippa arrived in Portugal with due pomp, but the marriage did not get off to a promising start. John failed to turn up for his wedding night; instead a courtier climbed into Philippa’s bed to seal the deal, with the sword of chastity lying between them. The court was hostile; at twenty-seven, the new queen was extraordinarily old for a medieval bride. Philippa, though, was made of stern stuff, and she soon had the nobles speaking French and learning proper table manners. Whether out of love or awe, John was loath to do anything without consulting her, and the royal couple, so different in appearance—John bearded and burly, Philippa with pale skin, reddish gold hair, and “little blue Englishwoman’s eyes”—were hardly ever apart. As for her primary duty—perpetuating the line—the superannuated queen bore eight children in quick succession, of whom five boys and a girl survived infancy. She took the lead in their education, passing on to them the love of poetry she had learned at the knee of Geoffrey Chaucer—she had also studied science, philosophy, and theology—and the chivalric code she had lived all her life. The mother of the family of princes that would become known as the Illustrious Generation was one of the most remarkable women of the medieval world.

After much thought, John settled on celebrating his sons’ entry into the knighthood with a full year of feasts, complete with tourneys and jousts, dances and games, and lavish gifts for Europe’s invited bluebloods.

The prospect of such a pampered entrée into the order of chivalry left a bad taste in the young princes’ mouths. Playing games, they murmured to one another, was not worthy of their proud lineage. That summer of 1412, at their palace high in the cool hills outside Lisbon, Prince Edward, Prince Peter, and Prince Henry sat down and debated. Edward, the oldest, was twenty; Henry had just turned eighteen. They had decided to go to their father and ask him to come up with something more fitting—something that would involve “great exploits, courage, deadly perils, and the spilling of enemy blood”—when one of the king’s ministers walked in. He was taken into their confidence, and he outlined a plan.

His servant had just come back from Ceuta, where he had been sent to extort a ransom for a band of Muslim prisoners who had been seized on the open sea. Portugal’s nobles and even churchmen, like their peers elsewhere in Europe, were not above running a profitable sideline in piracy, and nor were their foes. Muslim corsairs had terrorized Europe for hundreds of years; their notoriety was so great that the Mediterranean shore of Africa would long be known, after its Berber pirates, as the Barbary Coast.

Seven centuries after an Islamic army first climbed the southern Pillar of Hercules and gazed covetously on Europe, Ceuta was still a name freighted with symbolism. Its recapture for Christendom would be an exquisite piece of revenge. Besides, the minister pointed out, it was fabulously rich. He had already suggested the idea himself, he added, though the king had treated it as a great joke.

By now Ceuta had grown into a major commercial port. Its famous granaries were piled high with wheat grown along Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Camel caravans from the Sahara Desert terminated at its land gate, disgorging ivory, ebony, slaves, and gold. Jewish, Italian, and Spanish merchants regularly sailed there to trade; their factories, the buildings where they lived, stored their goods, and conducted business, lined the shore. Occasionally the religious temperature could rise and make life uncomfortable for foreigners, but Ceuta was hardly a hotbed of radicals. The Marinids, the dynasty that had ousted the Almohads from Morocco, had declared jihads against the Spanish and had occupied several coastal cities, including Gibraltar itself. But ever since 1358, when a sultan had been strangled to death by his own vizier, Morocco had been mired in a state of hopeless anarchy.

Niceties aside—as they usually were when glory and booty were in the offing—it was enough for the princes that Ceuta was an infidel city. The three went straight to their father, and once more the king fell about laughing. A few days later they tried again, this time armed with a list of justifications. An attack on Ceuta, they pointed out, would allow them to win their spurs in a real battle. It would also let the nation’s nobles practice their knightly skills, which were in danger of becoming rusty since the expulsion of the Moors and peace with Castile had left them in the unwholesome position of having no alien enemies to fight. War, as the oldest brother put it, was an “excellent exercise of arms to be practiced, for lack of which many peoples and kingdoms have been lost, and to draw our subjects away from an idle life lacking in virtue.” Besides, with a mainly rural population of around a million, Portugal was too small and too poor to keep a knightly class in the grand style, and a new Crusade meant new opportunities for plunder. Just as important to men raised on a diet of God-fearing chivalry, it would prove to the world that Portugal was at least as full-throated in its hatred of the Infidel as was any Christian nation.

John himself had been worrying that his battle-hardened knights would turn on one another if they had no other outlet for their energies. Even so, he cautiously sent for his confessors, scholars, and counselors. He wished to know, he told them, if this conquest of Ceuta would be a service rendered to God. Since the heyday of the Crusades, doubts had crept into the minds of Christian theologians and lawyers as to the pope’s right, as the self-proclaimed sovereign of the world, to wield authority over non-Christians and approve wars of conquest against them. It was equally unclear whether Christian kings could legitimately wage war against infidels who posed them no direct threat; scripture, the antiwar camp pointed out, suggested they should be converted by evangelization, not arms. The papacy, which was still extricating itself from the fourteenth-century schisms, naturally took a different view. It was always keen to support rulers who were willing to put the papal prerogative into action, and several times it had granted bulls of Crusade to the Portuguese that licensed them to open a new front against Islam anytime they wished.

After pondering for some days, the royal advisers took the papal line that Christian princes had an unqualified license—an obligation, even—to attack any infidel or pagan simply because he was an infidel or pagan. The legal scruples dealt with, the princes persuaded their father out of his long list of practical objections—not least the crippling cost of the scheme—and the planning began.

The war council quickly realized that their best chance of success was to retain the element of surprise. Yet nobody in Portugal knew the first thing about Ceuta’s defenses, anchorages, or sailing conditions. King John hatched a plot. The widowed queen of Sicily, which was then ruled by the crown of Aragon, had been angling to marry Prince Edward, the heir to the Portuguese throne. An embassy was prepared, but instead of Edward the ambassadors—a prior and a captain, both of whom had a well-earned reputation for cunning—were instructed to offer the hand of Prince Peter, the second-born royal son and the heir to nothing.

Two galleys were tricked out with banners, canopies, and awnings in the royal colors, with the sailors wearing matching livery. They headed into the Strait of Gibraltar, and dropped anchor near Ceuta. The prior made a show of relaxing on deck and committed the scene to memory, while the captain took a rowboat and, under cover of night, made a loop of the city. Their mission accomplished, they sailed on to Sicily, where the queen was predictably underwhelmed, and returned to Lisbon. When they were summoned to the palace, the prior asked for two sacks of sand, a roll of ribbon, a half bushel of beans, and a basin. He shut himself up in a chamber and built a giant sand castle that reproduced in miniature the hills, valleys, buildings, and fortifications of Ceuta.

Even in sand, it was a disconcerting sight. Monte Hacho was ringed with a web of perimeter walls, cross walls, and towers that rose from the beaches to the fort on the summit. More walls enclosed the main town, which occupied the peninsula that curled between the hill and the mainland. A moat stretched across the neck of the peninsula, separating the town from the suburbs on the shore, where a castle guarded the approach by land. Ships could anchor on both sides of the peninsula, but the winds often blew up and changed direction without warning, and the Portuguese would need to be ready to switch berths and tactics at a moment’s notice. It was a daunting prospect for a small country that had never waged war by sea.

There was one more obstacle to overcome—the queen. Philippa was so well loved by her people, John solemnly explained to his sons, that nothing could be done without her consent. The princes were well aware of their mother’s resolute nature, and they tried a little subterfuge of their own. They unfolded their plan to her and innocently asked her to approach the king on their behalf.

“Sire,” Philippa addressed her husband: “I am going to make a request which is not such as a mother commonly makes in respect of her children, for in general the mother asks the father that he will keep their sons from following any dangerous courses, fearing always the harm that will come to them.

“As for me,” she continued, “I ask you to keep them from sports and pastimes and to expose them to perils and fatigues.” The princes, she explained, had come to see her that day. They had told her that the king was reluctant to take up their plan, and they had asked her to intercede.

“For myself, Sire,” Philippa pressed, “considering the line from which they are descended, a line of very great and excellent emperors and kings and other princes, whose name and renown are broadcast all over the world, I would not by any means that they should lack opportunities of accomplishing, by their fatigues, their valor and their skill, the like high feats as were accomplished by their ancestors. I have therefore accepted the mission with which they have charged me, and their request gives me great joy.”

John made a show of giving in, and the preparations went ahead. Only his immediate circle was in on the plan, and all manner of rumors started to fly: an assault on Aragonese Ibiza or Sicily, Muslim Granada, or even Castilian Seville. Eventually the full council was assembled, presented with a fait accompli, and sworn to secrecy. John’s old comrades in arms had grown long in the tooth, but men as old as ninety reportedly leapt at the chance of one last fling on the battlefield. “On with you, greybeards!” one elderly councilor cried, and everyone burst out laughing. Gratifying though the prospect of the old soldiers squeezing themselves into their suits of armor undoubtedly was, as a precaution John quietly spread the word around Europe’s knightly circles that a noble chivalric adventure was in the offing.

On the king’s instructions a survey was made of the number and condition of the nation’s ships. The reports were not encouraging, and orders went out to fell a sizable portion of the royal forests and hire every available carpenter, caulker, and cooper. Portugal’s shipwrights were a privileged class; the nation’s ports had become a vital way station between the Mediterranean and northern Europe, and many Italian merchants and sailors had settled there, bringing with them their expertise in nautical design and navigation. Yet it had nothing remotely like Venice’s Arsenale, a state production line that cranked out huge galleys at a rate that astonished visitors. It quickly became clear that the only way to assemble a great fleet on short notice was to hire one, and John sent envoys to Spain, England, and Germany to charter as many tall ships as they could muster. To pay for them he commanded Portugal’s salt producers to sell him their stocks at below-market rates, then sold them on at a large profit, and to defray more of the expenses he ordered anyone who held stockpiles of copper and silver to hand them over. The mint glowed and rang day and night, while the currency was stealthily devalued. To many of the nation’s merchants, the enterprise seemed like a ruinous piece of chivalric nonsense.

Since a large war fleet could hardly be made ready out of sight, the king’s men came up with another diversion. On the slender pretext that some Portuguese merchants had had their goods pilfered in Holland, an ambassador was dispatched to declare war on the Dutch. As soon as he arrived he arranged a clandestine meeting with the ruling count and took him into his confidence. The count was flattered to be let in on the secret, and he agreed to behave as if the threat were real. When the prearranged scene was acted out at court he played his part so convincingly that his counselors had to restrain him, and Holland made a show of preparing for battle.

Back in Portugal, Henry, the youngest and most zealous of the three princely plotters, was dispatched north to the ancient city of Porto to assemble one half of the fleet. His brother Peter was given the same task in Lisbon. The king busied himself with supervising the arms and artillery and left his oldest son, Edward, in charge of running the country, a responsibility that cost the delicate twenty-two-year-old prince months of sleepless nights and nearly brought on a nervous breakdown.

Across the land weapons were cleaned, tailors and weavers ran up racks of liveries, carpenters hammered away at ammunition chests, and ropemakers spun and twisted hemp. Sea biscuit, the hard, dry staple food of sailors, was baked in vast batches. Bullocks and cows were slaughtered in droves and their meat was flayed, salted, and packed in barrels. Along the docks gutted, salted fish lay drying in the sun like drifts of silver petals. The country buzzed with new opinions about the true purpose of the mysterious mission: a joint attack with England on France; a Crusade to the Holy Land to recover the Holy Sepulcher; even the unlikely war with Holland.

Portugal’s neighbors were more worried than intrigued. Ferdinand of Aragon had been informed first that Portugal was going to attack his island of Ibiza, then his kingdom of Sicily, and finally Castile itself, where he was locked in an uncomfortable co-regency with Philippa’s sister, Catherine. Ferdinand dispatched a secret agent to Lisbon, wishing to know which, if any, of his possessions Portugal intended to assault. The Muslim rulers of Granada also decided to find out what was going on. Either out of a zealous refusal to kowtow to the Moors or a sense that this particular diversion had no downside, John utterly confused the envoys by first telling them he had no intention of attacking Granada and then refusing to give them any guarantees. Nonplussed by his prevaricating, they instead set off to see Philippa. The chief wife of the emir of Granada, they told the queen, begged her to intervene with her husband, since she knew well that the prayers of women had much power over their menfolk. As a thank-you, she would send Philippa the costliest outfits for her daughter’s wedding.

“I do not know,” Philippa haughtily replied, “what may be the manners of your kings with their wives. Among Christians it is not the custom for a queen or princess to meddle with the affairs of her husband.” The first wife, she added at the end of a long diatribe, could do what she pleased with her gifts. The ambassadors finally tried to extract the assurances they were after from Edward, with the promise of more lavish bribes. “Those of my country who are in high places,” the heir to the throne tartly replied, “have not the habit of selling their goodwill for a sum of money, for if they did so they would deserve to be called merchants and not lords or princes.” If they offered him the whole realm of Granada, he added for good measure, he would not accept it—though, he added, their king really had nothing to fear.

IN EARLY JULY, young Henry’s newly completed fleet raised anchor and sailed south along Portugal’s wild Atlantic coast. After two hundred miles it rounded a rocky cape and filed through a narrow channel into the broad estuary of the Tagus River. In front was a calm expanse of water that had served as a spectacular deep-water harbor for two millennia, and on the north bank, behind the new shipyards and warehouses that were spreading along the waterfront, the Portuguese capital tumbled down a bowl of low hills. Across them a necklace of fortified ridges climbed up to the defensive crown of the citadel and its fortress, the former Alcáçova of the Muslims, which had been reborn as the Castle of St. George.

As the news spread, crowds poured down from the city to watch the seaborne pageant. Twenty-six goods vessels and numerous pinnaces led the way, followed by six twin-masted ships and finally, to the peal of trumpets, seven triple-masted war galleys. The prince’s flagship was last of all. Every vessel flew a standard emblazoned with the eight-pointed cross of the Crusader, while smaller flags bore Henry’s golden colors and insignia. Canopies embroidered with his new motto—“Power to Do Well”—shaded the decks of the seven galleys, and every sailor sported a silk outfit in his bold livery, a garland of holm oak overlaid with silver on a background of white, black, and blue. The prince and his captains wore simple woolen garments; Henry was pious, but he was also already a master of public relations.

Peter sailed up with eight royal galleys and dozens of smaller craft, these carrying the king’s more discreet insignia. Fishing boats and river craft of every shape and size had been pressed into service to carry the troops, their horses, and the supplies for both men and beasts. With England about to march toward France and Agincourt, only a few foreign knights had shown up, mostly the usual suspects who would go anywhere for a good fight. Even so, the assembled army numbered more than 19,000: 5,400 knights, 1,900 mounted bowmen, 3,000 unmounted bowmen, and 9,000 footmen. It was a vast force for a tiny country that had struggled to maintain a standing army of 3,000 men-at-arms.

To more trumpet fanfares the combined fleet anchored a few miles from the Atlantic coast. For Henry it was a moment to savor, but all thoughts of celebration soon left his mind. One of the foreign ships had brought the plague to Portugal, and his squire hurried to tell him that his mother was dying. John had had his wife moved to a hilltop convent north of Lisbon, and Henry galloped there to join his family.

Before she fell ill Philippa had had three fine swords forged, their scabbards and guards gilded and studded with gems and pearls. She had intended to see her three sons knighted with them at their moment of departure. Now she knew she would not witness the proud scene, and she summoned her children to her side. Her desperate condition, it was said, could not stop her from presenting the swords from her sickbed, along with lucid instructions on how each of her grief-stricken sons should comport himself after her death.

On July 18, 1415, at the age of fifty-five, Philippa passed away. In another ominous omen, her death coincided with a lengthy eclipse of the sun. John’s rattled counselors advised him to put off the departure for a month, until the funeral ceremonies could be observed and the plague had subsided. Instead the queen was buried with almost indecent haste at dead of night—because, it was explained, of the summer heat—and a brief funeral was held the next day, a huge crowd howling outside the church. Philippa’s memorial would be the Crusade she had so robustly encouraged; there would be another time for mourning.

Henry, taking the lead as usual, invited his brothers to dine aboard his flagship. He hoisted the flags, raised the canopies, and ordered the trumpeters to climb the masts and strike up a merry tune. It was a Sunday, and the other captains were nonplussed. They rowed over, heard their departure was imminent, and rushed back to throw off their mourning clothes.

Five days later, on Friday, July 25—St. James’s Day—the fleet weighed anchor and edged away from a subdued Lisbon. As crowds gathered on the hills and watched the sails recede toward the horizon, questions were being asked. How could the king have permitted such rejoicing while his wife’s body was barely cold? Was it the influence of young Henry, whom the king had always held to be more of a man than his brothers? Hunting wild boar in the royal forests was one thing, but slaying armed warriors was quite another. Did the young princes think the looming battle would be yet another joust in which no one dared unhorse them? Perhaps, after all, it would come to a bad end.

The doubters’ fears soon seemed to be confirmed, because the great mission quickly turned into a desperate fiasco.

Two days out of port, King John ordered the fleet to anchor and finally let the troops in on their destination. The king’s confessor preached a stirring sermon and read out a new papal bull that reiterated Portugal’s right to crusade against the Infidel and granted absolution to all who died in battle. Many among the ranks were so confused that they thought it was another trick.

The army had barely been exhorted to glorious savagery when the winds dropped. For a week the fleet bobbed around off Portugal’s southern coast. Finally, on August 10, it headed into the Strait of Gibraltar, to the consternation of the Muslims who still controlled Ceuta’s opposite pillar. Boats set out toward the king’s ship bearing all manner of costly gifts. He accepted them, and flatly refused to promise peace.

The vast armada had equally astonished the Castilians who lived on the islet of Tarifa, just along the coast. According to one report they went to bed believing the ships were phantoms, woke up to a misty morning in which nothing could be seen at sea, and were only shaken out of their reveries when the sun suddenly illuminated the fleet as it drifted before their walls. When the Portuguese anchored outside the nearby Castilian port of Algeciras, the governor appeared on the shore with a sizable herd of cows and sheep and sent his son to offer them to the Portuguese king. John professed himself well pleased, but explained that his ships were well provisioned. Feeling the need to make a display of his own, the governor’s son leapt on a horse and galloped along the beach stabbing the animals to death. John politely praised the effort and thanked him for his deed.

After that dramatic interlude, the king gathered his council and resolved to attack Ceuta the following Monday. They set sail just as a dense fog bank rolled in from the Atlantic. Worse was to come. Strong currents and high winds had always made the strait notoriously difficult to navigate, but the Portuguese sailors’ dearth of experience made it all but impossible. The troopships commanded by Peter were swept off toward Malaga, the main port of Muslim Granada, while the royal galleys were blown straight to Ceuta, only to be forced by a sudden change of wind to weigh anchor and beat their way around to the opposite side of the peninsula. The city’s banners streamed from the hilltop citadel, their two keys symbolizing Ceuta’s control of the entrance to the Mediterranean and the exit to the Ocean Sea. Cannonballs hurtled from the walls, but the ships managed to stay out of range.

When the rest of the armada failed to appear, the king sent Henry off on their trail. He found half his brother’s crews in the grip of the plague and the others groaning with seasickness. Between that, the fog, and the tricky currents, they appeared ready to give up. Henry gave out his father’s orders, and eventually the troopships made it to Ceuta.

Immediately a storm blew up and drove the entire fleet back to Spain. The king and his commanders took to their boats, waded up a Castilian beach, and held a council of war on the sand. Many of John’s advisers argued that he should heed the warning signs and head for home; others suggested launching a face-saving raid on nearby Gibraltar. He would rather choose certain death, the king stoutly replied, than abandon his Christian duty. In reality he had no choice: he had made such a big noise that to pull out at the last minute would have made him the laughingstock of Europe.

Finally the fleet made it back to the African coast.

From their observation posts, the bemused defenders had watched the first Portuguese ships approach and quickly vanish. The elderly governor had decided something at least was afoot, and as a precaution he had sent to the mainland for reinforcements. Plague and famine had been sweeping Morocco, and the city’s defenses were badly undermanned. Yet since the Christians seemed incapable of steering in the right direction and had apparently retreated across the strait, he had sent many of the new troops home. For the Portuguese, the bad weather turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

That night the people of Ceuta set lamps in every window to make believe that the city was defended by a great multitude. Out at sea, the light of more torches and lanterns spilled across the water as the army made ready for the assault. At sunrise the Portuguese sprang into action, sharpening their swords, riveting their heavy plate armor, taking practice swings with their axes, confessing their sins to the priests, and breaking open barrels to tuck into the choicest food. The day had arrived for Europe’s first colonial war since the time of the eastern Crusades.

The fleet’s flounderings had revealed how little King John knew about navigation, but he had a lifetime’s experience of fighting on land. His unintended sojourn outside Ceuta had given him ample time to form a plan. Its outline was simple. The objective was to take the fortress. Without it, the Portuguese would be exposed to attack, but with it, the town would be at their feet.

The king moved the main body of his war fleet in front of the city walls. It was a decoy: the attack would begin with an assault on Monte Hacho. A smaller group of ships sailed around the hill and anchored off the beach at its foot. Among them was Henry’s royal galley. Long before the armada had set out, he had begged his father to let him lead the first action, and the king had given in to him as usual.

As they sweated in the hot sun and their enemies taunted them by waving their weapons on the shore, several hotheaded knights took to the boats without waiting for the order to attack. To his intense annoyance Henry was left watching from his galley as they waded to land and the fighting began. He leapt into a boat, commanded the trumpets to sound, and threw himself into the melee.

The Portuguese quickly pushed the defenders back to the wall that encircled the base of the hill and swarmed after them through a gate. Amid the confusion Henry suddenly saw his brother Edward fighting ahead of him. When he caught up, the two reportedly found time to exchange niceties. He thanked God, Henry beamed through his disappointment, for giving him so good a companion. “And to you, Lord,” Edward replied, rubbing in his brother’s late arrival: “I thank you a thousand times for your goodwill in coming thus to our aid.”

One Muslim warrior, a head taller than anyone, was making mincemeat of the Christians; he was armed only with stones, but he threw them with the force of a catapult. A Portuguese chronicler noted, picturesquely, that he was naked and “black as a crow, and he had very long and white teeth, and his lips, which were fleshy, were turned back.” Altogether he made a terrifying figure, but he fell, pierced by a lance, and his cornered comrades backed through a second gate that led into the city itself.

Five hundred Portuguese shouldered after them into the narrow alleys. Soon they were hopelessly lost, and to get their bearings Henry and his brother climbed what looked like a little hill and turned out to be the city dung heap. As the defenders closed in on them, they stood on their mountain of ordure, fending off attacks and waiting to be rescued. No one came. A large group of Henry’s men had decided to cover themselves in glory by ignoring the open gates and attacking a firmly shut one. As they hacked away with their axes and tried to set fire to the planks, the defenders shied stones at their heads from the walls above and most were killed.

The two princes divided their troops into groups and finally fought their way off their dunghill. Edward headed for the steps that led up to the city walls, unbuckling and casting off his plate armor so he could climb faster in the mounting heat. Once again Henry was left behind, and he stripped down to his mail coat and ran after his brother.

King John was still on board his galley on the opposite side of the city, unaware that the battle was already joined, and impatiently waiting for some enemies to appear on the shore. Finally he sent Peter to the second fleet with the order to attack. When the prince returned and explained that there was no one left on the ships, the king sounded the signal for a full assault. John, it was diplomatically reported, “by no means betrayed his joy,” but his knights made their feelings even clearer. They rushed at the walls, jealous that their comrades had seized the day and panicked at the prospect that the best booty had already been scooped up. Once inside, they fanned out and set about looting with intent. There was plenty to detain them; Ceuta’s streets were lined with gorgeous mansions and palaces. “Our poor houses look like pigsties in comparison with these,” one witness frankly reported. More soldiers smashed through the low, narrow doorways of smaller houses and came face-to-face with dozens of frightened families. Some were armed; many simply threw themselves at their attackers. Others dashed to drop bundles of their belongings into wells or bury them in a corner, hoping to retrieve them when the city was retaken. Gradually the attackers overwhelmed them, and many were killed.

The king was in no fit state to halt the mayhem, even if he had wanted to. He had been wounded in the leg as soon as he had reached the shore, and he sat down outside the city gate. To preserve his dignity, it was later reported that he had decided to reserve his royal person for the attack on the fortress, rather than join in the fray when the town was as good as taken.

With Edward and his troops busy fighting their way to the top of the city walls, Henry decided to regain the initiative by single-handedly storming the castle. As he made his way down the main street that led up to the citadel, he met several hundred Portuguese running away from an angry mob of Moroccans. Henry lowered his visor and thrust his arms through the straps of his buckler. He waited until his countrymen had passed him and flung himself at their pursuers. When the Portuguese recognized their prince they turned to follow him, and the Muslims fled down the street with the Christians in hot pursuit.

As the defenders reached the backs of the merchants’ factories along the shore, they turned around and attacked again. Again the Portuguese soldiers fell back. Henry ran at the enemy in a rage, and they retreated through the nearby gate that led to the citadel.

The gate was set in a thick crenellated wall; behind it was a tower pierced with arrow slits protecting a second gate, followed by a passage ending in a third and final gate that led inside the castle. As fire rained down from the battlements, Henry pushed through the first gate with just seventeen men—so it was reported—at his side. Many of the rest had disappeared to plunder or find water, and others had simply become exhausted. Several had been killed, including the governor of Henry’s household, who died while rescuing his rash young friend. Henry had tried to drag the wounded man away and had got into a gruesome tug-of-war over a corpse.

For two and a half hours, it was later said, the young prince battled his way forward in hand-to-hand combat. His seventeen companions were reduced to four, but somehow, perhaps because the defenders on the walls were wary of hitting their own people, they slipped inside the second gate. They stormed ahead, pushed through the third gate, and took the fortress. When King John finally arrived on the scene, he found it already abandoned. So claims the official account; far more likely is that the few remaining defenders saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to fight another day. Most of the civilians had already fled by the time the order was given for the garrison to withdraw; the rest, if they could, followed suit.

The next morning the city echoed with the cries of the wounded and the clanging of soldiers trying to unearth new treasure. In their frenzied search for gold, they managed to destroy tapestries, silks, oils, and spices of immense value. “This destruction caused much wailing among some of those of lowly origin,” a chronicler reported, dutifully if unconvincingly adding that “respectable and noble persons did not trouble themselves about such things.” Some Genoese traders who had been caught in the cross fire belatedly offered to help the conquerors, but the Portuguese, hopped up on victory, accused them of the invented crime of trading with the Infidel, and at least one was tortured to make him disclose the whereabouts of his valuables. Another band of soldiers broke into a huge underground cistern, and as they peered into the gloom, marveling at the walls covered with painted tiles and the vaults held up by three hundred columns, they made out huddles of Moroccans hiding in its depths. They destroyed the cistern with the townspeople inside.

That Sunday, King John ordered a mass to be held in the soaring space of Ceuta’s main mosque. First it had to be scoured clean. The Moors, the chronicles explain, were in the habit of laying down new prayer mats over old worn-out ones, and they had to be dug up with spades and carted out in baskets. After the ritual scrubbing, the king, princes, and nobles assembled while the priests exorcised the ghosts of Islam with salt and water. Then, to trumpet blasts and Te Deums, they dedicated the building to Christ.

After mass, the three princes strapped on their armor and hung their mother’s swords from their belts. They marched to the new church behind a file of trumpeters and drummers, knelt before their father, and were knighted. Soon afterward they sailed home to a victor’s welcome, leaving three thousand troops behind to defend the city from the Moroccans who were already sniping at them from beyond the walls.

The conquest of a famous fortress city in a single day astonished the whole of Europe, even if it was overshadowed a month later by the news that King Henry V of England, like the Portuguese princes a grandson of John of Gaunt, had embarked on his long-awaited invasion of France. The three young princes had announced their nation’s arrival as a crusading power in spectacular style, and at least one of the three had no intention of stopping there. The Portuguese had pursued their former masters across the same turbulent strait by which they had arrived, and stumblingly at first, then with gathering momentum, they would proceed to stalk Islam across the face of the earth.

It was only much later that the assault on Ceuta would be seen as a snapshot of Portugal’s entire overseas odyssey. It had been fathered by the bitter struggle between Christians and Muslims in Iberia. It had been hatched in the zeal of youth. It had been nurtured by the collective effort, willing or otherwise, of an entire people. It had nearly met with a painfully premature end. Thanks in part to stout courage and in part to sheer luck, it had made a deep impression on the world. And it had left a legacy that would burden the ambitious young nation for centuries to come.

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