Prince Henry the Navigator at Sagres

Prince Henry the Navigator, or to give him his correct title Infante Dom Henrique, was born in Porto on March 4th 1394, the third son of King João of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster (daughter of John of Gaunt).  I have always been fascinated by Henry’s role as sponsor and instigator of early Portuguese exploration so I was eager to explore the Sagres area of the Algarve which he made his home.

Cape St Vincente is a dramatic headland with vertical cliffs dropping to the Atlantic Ocean.  It was considered to be the most westerly point “of the whole inhabited world.”  Nearby menhirs date from neolithic times and a Roman pottery kiln has been found at Baleeira.  It is a barren windswept spot, apart from the imposing lighthouse and the swooping birds which include peregrine falcons, rock thrushes, storks and herons. 

Originally a Franciscan Monastery the Cape was named Cabo São Viçente after the body of the martyred St Vincent was brought ashore to be buried.  In 1587, while under Spanish rule, the area was plundered by Francis Drake and in 1797 Nelson defeated the Spanish Fleet in the second Battle of Cape St Vincent.  The lighthouse was built over the ruins of the Franciscan convent in 1846.

Three kilometres away is the Sagres peninsula where the Fortaleza de Sagres stands.  This natural promontory provided shelter for ships before they rounded Cape St Vincent.  At one time it was believed that Prince Henry established a school of navigation here to train sailors for their expeditions of discovery along the African coast, but this has largely been discredited by historians.

Certainly Henry established an estate, the Vila do Infante, in a village called Terçanabal and he employed skilled mapmakers as well as manufacturers of navigational instruments.  As Administrator General of the Order of Christ, a replacement for the crusading Templars in Portugal, he had access to considerable funds for the sponsorship of ships seeking new land, gold and slaves.

Islets of Martinhal at the entrance to Sagres harbour (modern day Baleeira)

After Henry’s older brother Pedro was killed in a skirmish with troops belonging to his young nephew King Alfonso V, the Infante decided to reside mainly in Sagres and it was here that he died in November 1460, leaving behind a legacy of adventuring sailors such as Bartolomeu Dias, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Vasco da Gama, who was the first European to reach India by sea.

Rosa dos Ventos (The compass rose)

Visiting the Fortress of Sagres today you enter through a tunnel where you are met with the sight of a vast stone compass rose (rosa dos ventos) 43 metres in diameter.  Most of the sixteenth century fortress was destroyed by a tidal wave resulting from the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 but one original turret remains.  The fortress provided defence against barbary pirates and other potential invaders along the coast.  It was restored in the mid 20th century. 

As the Portuguese found new places such as the island of Porto Santo, they left behind a series of padrões, stone crosses inscribed with the Portuguese coat of arms marking their claims.  There is a replica inside the fortress.  Also in the compound is the simple church of Nossa Senhora da Graça. Originally built in 1579, it is a plain white church with a stunning ornate altar and two small niched statues of St Vincent and St Francis which came from the monastery at Cape St Vincent.

Nossa Senhora da Graça

Beyond the fortress further batteries were built along the peninsula but now it is a nature lovers paradise with an abundance of wild flowers and birds.


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