Christopher Columbus Leaves Portugal

While Christopher and Bartolomé Columbus were trying to convince King Joao II to sponsor a western trip across the Ocean Sea, the king was distracted by problems on the home front. Discontent brewed once again between the House of Avis, the House of Bragança [pronounced and often spelled Braganza] and the House of Viseu. This quarrel involved Christopher Columbus’ wife’s family, the Perestrellos, and might explain why Doña Felipe Perestrello Colón had stayed on Pôrto Santo Island with her sons.

We are familiar with the House of Avis founded by João Iof Avis, followed by Duarte, Afonso V, and now under the leadership of João II.

The House of Viseu came into being when King João I dubbed his son Henry the Navigator as the Duke of Viseu after Henry helped conquer Ceuta. [You will recall that the king used the sword his wife, Philippa of Lancaster, had had forged for the anticipated occasion.] The title passed to Henry’s adopted heir Fernando, then to Fernando’s son João, who died a couple years later, and then to the next son Diogo, who was the Duke of Viseu at the time the action in this article begins. Diogo also inherited the Mastership of the Order of Christ, as we mentioned earlier. King João was still Master of the less powerful Order of São Tiago.

The House of Bragança was started in 1442 when King João II’s father, Afonso V, dubbed his half-uncle Afonso, Count of Barcelos [Henry the Navigator’s half-brother] and made him the First Duke of Bragança. By this time, Afonso’s grandson, Fernando II, held the title. Fernando was considered the most powerful noble in Portugal.

Fernando was married to Diogo’s youngest sister, Isabella of Viseu. King João was married to Diogo’s other sister, Leanor of Viseu. As you probably just figured out, King João II of Avis, Diogo of Viseu, and Ferdinando II, Duke of Bragança, were brothers-in-laws, as well as half-cousins.

From the beginning, the House of Bragança had sided with the Portuguese lords and aristocracy who sided with the Castilians. Over time, the House of Viseu sided with the House of Bragança. That left King João II and his House of Avis alone on the side of the Lusitanians and the middle class merchants. [This is all over simplified, but still confusing.] It was this power struggle that had been re-ignited.

Family trees for the House of Avis, House of Bragança, and House of Viseu.

Columbus’ Connection

Christopher Columbus’ wife’s niece, Isabel de Noronha, married into Portugal’s House of Bragança when she married João of Bragança, the younger brother of Fernando II, Duke of Bragança. [João of Bragança was another brother-in-law to the king].

Isabel de Noronha was the daughter of Felipa Perestrello Columbus’s half-sister, Branca Perestrello, the daughter of their father’s first wife, Branca Dias [we have yet to find out if she was related to Bartolomeu Dias]. Isabel de Noronha’s father was Pedro de Noronha, the Archbishop of Lisbon, also an important man and cousin of the royal family(1). Felipa Columbus had resided for a while at the Noronha home when she first went to live in Lisbon with her mother, before she met and married Christopher Columbus.

Felipa Perestrello Columbus’ Family Tree.

This is where the action begins. In 1483, João intercepted letters between Queen Isabella of Castile and the Duke of Bragança that revealed they were planning to assassinate King João and take the throne. João ordered Fernando executed. He ordered the entire Bragança family banished from Portugal to Castile – including Christopher Columbus’s in-law, Isabel, and her husband João of Bragança. The couple barely escaped to Castile before the Portuguese court condemned João of Bragança for treason and symbolically executed a statue of him in Abrantes on September 12, 1483(2).

In 1484, Diogo of Viseu made a second attempt to assassinate King João II. King João took care of Diogo by summoning him to the castle and personally stabbing him to death. That left the youngest Viseu brother, fifteen-year-old Manoel, to take over as the Duke of Viseu and Master of the Order of Christ. The only thing that kept King João II from murdering Manoel, was that King João thought Manoel was a fool. [Manoel will end up succeeding João as King of Portugal, and profit more than any of the monarchs from the Guinea trade.]

To protect himself from future attacks, King João instituted Portugal’s first Royal Guard.

All this murder and banishment was probably the reason that by the end of 1485, Christopher Columbus, his five-year old son Diogo, and Bartolomeu Perestrello’s library left Lisbon for Seville in Castile.

Bartolomé Columbus, who was not related to the Braganças, stayed in Portugal to help finish a map King João’s cartography workshop was creating. The map was based on a World Map by Master Nicholas Germanus [mentioned earlier]. The Portuguese map no longer exists. However, records of it state that it was drawn on sheets of parchment that, when sewn together, formed a map 71 inches by 42.3 inches. It would become the basis for future Portuguese world maps as new discoveries were added. It is believed Bartolomé made a small copy of Nicholas’ map for himself, as well as of other maps he would need later when he joined his brother in Seville.

Christopher and Diogo arrived in Seville in a state of “poverty.” Even so, they were aided by people in high places, probably through Christopher’s wife’s family connections. Father and son first went to stay with Dona Felipa’s sister, Violante, and her husband Miguel Moliarte. Soon after, they became guests of Luis de la Cerda, Duke of Medinaceli. During their stay there, Christopher considered seeking the patronage of Charles VIII, the King of France [king from 1483 to 1498] for his expedition. But his host, the Duke of Medinaceli, talked him out of it.

The Duke of Medinaceli later wrote in a letter to the Grand Cardinal of Spain that he would have financed Columbus’ expedition himself – evidently Columbus asked for the use of four of the Duke’s caravels – but he [the Duke] thought the undertaking was more worthy of “the Queen” [Isabella of Castile]. The Duke also wrote to Isabella about Columbus’ plan, hoping he would be “favored with a small part in the affair.”

Records are not clear if Queen Isabella actually received Columbus at that time. But a different letter states that she “gave him to the charge of Alonso de Quintanilla, the majesties’ treasurer.” Quintanilla was a “notable man who was eager for the aggrandizement and service of his sovereigns” and who “better received” Columbus and “was more interested in [his quest] than any man in all Spain.” Concerned with Columbus’ apparent “poverty,” Quintanilla ordered “that what he needed to eat should be given to him.”

Columbus also received the aid of King Ferdinando’s chamberlain, Juan Cabrero. Cabrero’s nephew, Martin Cabrero, wrote, “…[Juan] was the principal cause of the undertaking of the affair of the Indies and of their acquisition, and if it were not for him, the Indies would not have been discovered, at least for the benefit of Castile.”

Juan Pérez, formerly Queen Isabella’s accountant and confessor, also helped Columbus obtain an audience with her, and would aid Columbus with his negotiations.(3)

Some records say Christopher Columbus made his first appeal to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on January 20, 1486, and that they first said no. Other records indicate he did not present himself until later, when he was with the Spanish court in Malaga in 1487. By that time, Bartolomeu Dias was on his way to Africa to break a new record. The news of that successful expedition would reach Columbus in Seville.

Meanwhile, there were explorers launching expeditions from the Azores in search of islands in the North Atlantic.


  1. Pedro de Noronha was also related to Queen Isabella and King João as the grandson of King Fernando I of Portugal, and of King Henry II of Castile through an illegitimate line.
  2. João of Brança died in Seville on 30 April 1484 and was buried with his wife, Isabel Perestrello Noronha, in the Santa Paula Monastery.
  3. Hunter, Douglas. The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost history of Discovery, Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1001, p34.

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