Henry’s Navigation Center

When Prince Henry of Portugal became the Master of the Order of Christ, he set up headquarters in their fortress at the Convent of Christ in Tomar. Soon he found it too far inland for his navigation scheme. Wanting better access to the sea, he built a villa for himself by another sacred place, Cape St. Vincent, the southwestern point of the Sagres peninsula.

Photo of the Algarve Coast by Alchemist, 2012.(1)

The name Sagres [pronounced in Portuguese Sagresh] came from the Latin word sacram, meaning sacred. The cape had been important to mariners since the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans sailed in and out of the Mediterranean. It was the last sheltered port before they faced the wild winds of the Atlantic. Perhaps the mysterious blow holes that constantly shot water into the air evoked a spiritual feeling.

Blow holes on the Sagres peninsula.(2)

The Sagres peninsula had become more sacred in the late eighth century [700s] after some mortal remains [bones] washed up on the beach. Because of the ravens that to this day hover around the place, the remains were identified as those of the martyr St. Vincent of Zaragoza [Saragossa in English]. Zaragoza was the capital of Aragon in the 1100s, and still an important city in the 1400s. St. Vincent died a martyr in another Aragonian town, Valencia, when the Romans were persecuting the Christians during the 400s.

The legend of St. Vincent passed down through the ages in a series of lyric poems written by a Christian poet named Prudentius (348 to 413 CE) who lived during those times. As we often point out in this book, early Christians loved saints and their sacred bones. By the time the bones were discovered at Sagres, a Christian cult had grown around the saint. His bones would become as important to Portugal as the bones of St. James were to Castile.

The Legend of St. Vincent

A statue of St. Vincent in the chapel at the Sagres fortress.(3)

Vincent was born in Zaragoza in the late part of the third century [300s]. Charismatic and persuasive, he became a powerful leader in the Christian movement. His ability to convert people to Christianity threatened the Roman leaders, so they arrested him as well as “his bishop,” an old religious cleric named Valerius in charge of the Zaragoza church.

The soldiers hauled Vincent and Valerius to the headquarters of the Roman Governor of Valencia, Dacian. Dacian threw the two Christians in prison where they were given no food and bound in chains. When Vincent and Valerius were sufficiently hungry and tired, Dacian tried to bargain with them. He promised to release the Christians if they would give up their faith and “send scripture to the fire” – in other words, burn their religious books.

Vincent was the more eloquent of the two men. He calmly and confidently informed Dacian that he and Valerius were prepared to suffer anything for their faith and would pay no heed to Dacian’s threats. Vincent’s outspoken confidence angered Dacian even more. He ordered his men to torture Vincent until the Zaragozian conformed to the Roman paganism.

The soldiers first stretched Vincent on a rack, a torture device that pulled a man’s arms one way and his feet and legs the opposite way. Then they tore his flesh with iron hooks and rubbed salt in the wounds. They also burned him with red-hot gridirons, like brands used today to mark cattle. When none of those methods worked, the Roman soldiers threw the crippled Vincent back in prison, and made him lay on a bed of sharp broken shards [pieces] of pottery. Vincent’s body was destroyed. Starvation finally killed him. But through none of the ordeal did he cry for help or appear to be in pain. In fact, he kept such a peaceful, tranquil countenance, that his jailor, a pagan Roman, confessed all his sins to Valerius and converted to Christianity.

Vincent’s body was left in the open courtyard for many days. According to the legend, ravens hovered over him to ward off the vultures that wanted to devour his dead flesh. Eventually, Valerius and the Christian followers were able wrap Vincent’s remains in linen according to Christian tradition and place them in a sack. They threw the sack in the sea. Governor Dacian exhiled old Valerius from Aragon so he did not have to deal with any more repercussions from the Christians.

When Christian Visigoths found a sack of bones on the shores of Sagres harbour surrounded by ravens, they were sure they had found the remains of St. Vincent. They built a grave marker over the remains, which flocks of ravens continued to guard. In the 700s, the Moors captured the cape from the Visigoths, but did not disturb the marker. Muhammad Al-Idrisi, on his map of 1154, named the place Church of the Raven [Kanīsah al-Ghurāb]. In 1173, after King Afonso I [Afonso Henriques] captured Lisbon from the Moors, he ordered St. Vincent’s remains exhumed [dug up] and transported to Lisbon, where he had a new monument built for them. The legend claims that the Raven’s escorted the ship holding the relics to Lisbon. Cast iron street lamps throughout the city today illustrate the legend.

One of the street lights in Lisbon.(4)

St. Vincent is still the patron saint of Portugal’s capital city. The image of the ravens is part of its coat of arms.

Lisbon’s Coat of Arms, illustration by Sérgio Horta.(5)

Cape St. Vincent was known by Portuguese mariners as “O fin do mundo” [the end of the earth], even though technically, Cabo do Roca [Cape of the Rock] is the westernmost point in Europe. Cabo do Roca is, as you can see on the map above, just northwest of Lisbon.

Prince Henry built his Vila do Infante [Estate of the Prince] on a promontory of bare rock that thrusts into the ocean at the northern edge of the sheltered Sagres port.(6) From this location, boats could access both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The villa, more of a fortress, consisted of a few stone buildings surrounded by defensive walls. When the Englishman Francis Drake raided the port a century later, an illustrator on board drew sketches of the fort, which are the only images we have of it today.

Most of the fortress was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake that desimated much of Portugal. The military built a new fortress in the 1800s leaving only hints of Henry’s original fort: small portions of the wall and the cistern [tank for holding water].

The corner section [left] holds the cistern. The opening is shown in the photo below. The right photo shows a lone remaining portion of the wall.(7)

A giant Rose of the Winds [Venta da Rosa in Portuguese] or compass rose made of stone and packed earth, takes up most of the central court-yard. It was buried by the earthquake and only uncovered in the last century. Historians have yet to confirm it was created during Henry’s time and how it was employed.

The Venta da Rosa in the courtyard of the Sagres Fortress.(8)

The view of the Sagres Fortress from the terrace of the Pousada do Infante. Ships probably did not stop at this beach but rather at the sheltered port located to the right.(9)

Vessels sailing out of the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar on their way to England and other ports along the English Channel often waited in Sagres’ deep, sheltered cove waiting to catch the Portuguese Trade Winds. Sometimes ships had to wait for months. Fogs were rare. Nights were clear. It was an excellent place to view the stars.

Henry made the Vila a welcoming place, a “hearth” for the Order of Christ, a “hospitality for all the good and highborn of the realm, and still more for strangers.” His staff served every traveler a good meal. Ship captains could replenish their ships with wood and water, and while they waited for the winds to change, they shared the latest news and gossip about navigating the world.

Henry gathered people from all nations to help him understand the greater limits of the ecumene and their navigation technology. One of his contemporaries wrote, “in his presence [were] men of various nations so different from our own.” The research center, backed by the Order of Christ, became famous throughout Europe. Henry invited the finest minds of navigation, the cleverest ship carpenters, the most accomplished navigators, the most knowledgeable cartographers, and the most experienced sea captains. This wise counsel helped Henry overcome the technological obstacles that prevented his captains from traversing the southern seas. With each exploration, Henry’s cartographers drafted better and more detailed charts and tables.

Henry’s position became official on October 30, 1422, when his father, King João, gave him the right to “grant lands not found to be under cultivation.” Later patents, such as those granted to explorers John Cabot and Humphrey Gilbert, were worded slightly differently. They were allowed to claim lands “not yet claimed by other Christian Princes.” The system of monarchs granting patents, which would continue during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James of England worked like this:

King João, as monarch of Portugal, claimed ownership of the lands his explorers discovered, or captured from pagans and other infidels. Obviously, he could not take care of all that land himself. He needed Portuguese people to live on the land to retain his claim on them. Henry acted as his father’s agent. After Henry’s explorer found a new place, Henry appointed someone, usually the explorer himself, to act as custodian of the land and work it. It was the same process the Order of Christ followed when its knights captured territory from the Muslims. The conqueror became the guardian in the form of a capitaño, governor, or comendo.

A Land Grant for Half the World

To insure his hard work, Henry obtained a bull from Pope Martin V. [Pope Martin had just moved the papacy back to Rome.] The bull gave Henry the right to govern any new discoveries made by his explorers in his name. The most important part of this patent, historically, was that the reaches of Henry’s patent [permission] extended along the west coast of Africa “as far as his explorers could sail – even to the Indies.”

Those last three words, “to the Indies,” had unknown potential. No one knew how far away the Indies were, or whether they were more quickly reached by sailing east or west. Pope Martin did not know that he had granted Henry an entire hemisphere. Potentially, Henry’s explorers could sail all the way to the Indias by sailing west and claim everything in between. Or they could sail under Africa and east to the Indies and claim everything in between.

During Henry’s lifetime, he will take advantage of only part of his patent. He will claim all the Atlantic islands except the Canaries, which Castile will possess. This patent is the one valuable asset Henry’s nephew, Fernando, will inherit. And the patent will ultimately allow Vasco da Gama to claim India for Portugal in 1498.

But in 1424, Henry’s explorers were still trying to figure out how to pass Cape Nun, a desolate spot on the edge of the Sahara Desert where no man wanted to go. The promontory was considered so difficult to pass around that it had been nicknamed Cabo Não, which meant Cape No. Sailors chanted, “If you round Cape No, you may return or no.” Today the point on the coast of Morocco is known by its Arabic name, Tamri.

During the same period, the French were attempting to colonize the Canary Islands beyond Cape Nun. That year Henry learned that the admiral in charge of the islands, Jean de Bethencourt, planned to sell France’s discovery rights to a Castilian family living in Portugal, the Nieblas.(10) Henry thought Portugal should buy the rights and add the Canaries to his quickly growing island collection.

Unlike the other Atlantic Islands, the largest Canary islands were inhabited before the Europeans arrived. The native Guanches fought against their invaders tooth and fingernail. They struck out with primitive clubs and stones from the caves where they lived. King João did not want to deal with the struggle, so he vetoed Henry’s plan.

Henry turned his sights in a different direction, the northwest. Catalonian maps such as Abraham Cresques’ promised that St. Brendan’s Island, the Antillas, and Isla Brazil were to be found there. Henry sent Gonçalo Velho Cabral (c1400 – c1460)(11), a commander in the Order of Christ, to the northwest Atlantic in search of them. Cabral found Santa Maria, the most eastern island of the Azores archipelago. The Portuguese transported cattle to the island, which would thrive there. Even today, Santa Maria Island claims more cows that people. Soon after, Cabral found two more of the nine Azores, São Miguel and Terceira. [The word Terceira means third.]

The Pizigano Portolan

We have already introduced to you the map drawn by Venetian cartographer Zuane Pizigano(12) in 1424. That was the same year Cabral found the Azores and Henry the Navigator tried to gather the Canaries into his fold if Atlantic Islands. There were many other ships exploring the Atlantic, however most of the information about their discoveries was kept secret from the other nations. Zuane Pizigano’s portolan gives us some insight into the Portuguese discoveries by that year. He placed many islands in the Atlantic. Some will turn out to be real and others will remain mythical.

Portolan by Zuane Pizigano, 1424.(13)

Castella refers to Castile. As we mentioned in the article on the Mythical Atlantic Islands, Pizigano’s Antillas included Antylia and Satanazes with their satellite islands Ymana and Saya. The tiny red half moon shape to the northeast represents Madeira, and below that are the Canary Islands.

At least one historian believes – believed, since he has now passed away – that this portolan proves that the Portuguese had already discovered Newfoundland and the Canadian islands. Manuel Luciano da Silva(14) concluded that the Antillas were today’s Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Or perhaps Pizigano was just reporting the mythical islands that previous cartographers reported. Other historians think Antylia and Satanazes were today’s Cuba and Haiti / Santo Dominica. Here is a contemporary map. Remembering that anything was possible because of the Volta do Mar, what do you think?


  1. Photo of the Algarve Coast from an airplane. Obtained from Wikimedia. Attributed to Alchemist-hp (talk) (www.pse-mendelejew.de) (Own work) [FAL]. Image url: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlgarve_coast.jpg
  2. Photos of blow hole ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  3. Photo of statue of St. Vincent ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell.All rights reserved.
  4. Photo of Lisbon street lamps ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  5. Sérgio Horta. Crest of Lisbon (Portugal). September 1, 2005. Caro Senhor:' “Gostaria de saber se os brasões.” Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LSB.png
  6. Many books say that Henry built his villa near the village of Terçanabal, however todays residents of Sagres have never heard of that village.
  7. Photos of Vilo do Infante fortress ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  8. Photos of Sagres Fortress ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  9. Photo of Sagres fortress taken from Pousada do Infante ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  10. The Nieblas had been living on the banks of the Guadiana River in Portugal since the Castilians ruled that part of the country.
  11. Gonçalo Velho Cabral was a second cousin of Pedro Álvares Cabral who discovered Brazil. Gonçalo Velho’s mother was the great-aunt of Pedro.
  12. Historians are not sure how or if Zuane was related to Domenico and Francesco Pizigano who drew the portolan of the Mediterranean almost sixty years earlier.
  13. Pizzigano, Zuane. “Portolan”, Venice, 1424 {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zuane_Pizzigan
  14. Web article “The Biggest Lie of the Cantino Map!”, by Manuel Luciano da Silva, Medical Doctor, August 25 2003. url: http://www.dightonrock.com/thebiggestlieofthecantinomap.htm

Next article: 1421-1423 The Chinese Treasure Fleets

Additional Photos of Sagres Fortress

Church which was rebuilt after the 1777 earthquake.

Coast as seen from the northern wall of the fortress.

Entrance to the 19th century fortress.

Crest over the entrance to the fortress with symbols of Henry’s exploration.

View of Sagres Port from the Pousada do Infante.