The Rise of the Portuguese

By the end of the thirteenth century, the Portuguese controlled trade along the Atlantic coast of Africa and were leading the search to find a southeast passage to India. They were equally intent on converting all Earthlings to Christianity. In 1255, King Afonso III transferred the seat of royal power from the Lusitanian capital of Coimbra to Lisbon.

As had been done in Coimbra, the Portuguese built their capital over what was left of the Celtic, Roman, Swabian, Visigoth, and Moorish architecture of previous residents. The illustration below, on display today in São Jorge [St. George] castle, shows early Lisbon as seen from the Tejo [Tagus] River. São Jorge Castle crowns the top of the hill and the Sé [Lisbon Cathedral], where the tomb of King Afonso IV rests today, nestles in the valley below. King Afonso III is buried in Alcobaça Monastery, which we will show you in the upcoming article on the romance of Pedro and Inês.

The history of Portugal’s domination hinges on her monarchy. We will insert a family tree. But let us warn you that trying to figure out the interconnections between the families of Castile, Aragon, Portugal, and England will make you dizzy.

Portugal claims she was founded by three men. Throughout the country, these men are well represented by statues and street names. We have already talked about King Afonso I, aka Afonso Henriques, who established Portugal as a new kingdom in 1139 through a jousting match.

Afonso I’s great-great-grandson, King Dinis, is considered the second founder. King Dinis reigned from 1279 to 1325 and founded the Order of Christ.

Statues of King Dinis and his wife Queen Saint Isabel.(1)

The third founder is Dinis’ great-grandson, King João I. King João led Portugal’s final stance against the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. He was also the father of the Magnificent Princes. The Magnificent Princes, including Henry the Navigator, will play the largest role of all in os descobrimentos [the discoveries].

King Dinis (1261-1325) was born in Lisbon and succeeded his father, Afonso III, in 1279. He ruled for forty-six years. The royal court arranged his marriage to Isabel of Aragon in 1281 when he was twenty and she was ten. The wedding was not celebrated until 1288 when Dinis was twenty-six and she was seventeen.

Dinis became known as el Rei Lavrador [the Farmer King] because he was so successful at improving the farming in small, rocky Portugal. Portugal had a hard time feeding its population. He also improved the textile industry, which would have a huge impact on international trade. Isabel [Elizabeth in English] set such an example of Christian goodness – building hospitals and taking care of the poor – that she was considered a saint during her lifetime. Her most enduring accomplishment was the founding of the Convent of Clara-a-Velha [Convent of the Poor-Clare Nuns, the female branch of the Franciscans].

King Dinis and Queen Isabel’s daughter, Constanza, married King Ferdinand IV of Castile, so, for a short time, the Castilian king was their son-in-law. Constanza died young in 1313 leaving a two-year-old son who would one day rule Castile as Alfonso IX.

Besides improving commerce for the middle class and helping to establish Portugal’s identity as an independent country, King Dinis began building a shipping fleet that allowed Europe’s westernmost kingdom to take her place among its maritime powers. Dinis hired Genoese captains to command his ships, patrol the coasts for Muslim raiders, and trade with ports in Morocco. Not until four more generations – during the reign of Dinis’ great-grandson King João I, will Portuguese captains measure up to the Genoese and Venetian captains.

Most important to the Age of Discovery, King Dinis set up the Order of Christ, Portugal’s extension of the Knight’s Templar. Among its accomplishments, the Order of Christ:

The frosting on the cake was when one of its knights “accidentally” discovered Brazil.

Next article: The Knights Templar to the Order of Christ


  1. Statues of King Dinis and Queen, Saint Isabella in Coimbra, Portugal. Photo ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell.