Bright with pennants and devices, the ships lifted over the horizon. They came onward in a half-moon shape, and their music sounded across the water, as gay and confident as the summer sky. Soon the leading vessels were nearing the mouth of the Tagus.
Another fleet waited to meet them. It bore the arms and emblem of the King of Portugal, and was commanded by Prince Peter, the King’s second son. The fleet that proudly advanced its sails toward the shining city of Lisbon was under the command of Peter’s younger brother, Henry, whose twenty-first birthday had been celebrated only a few months before. Thousands of people from Lisbon thronged the banks of the great river to watch the two fleets meet. They did not know on what venture the King and his sons were engaged. They only knew that the preparations for this day had occupied every shipbuilder, sailmaker, victualer, and chandler in Portugal for the past year and more. The lighter craft came first, wafting over the bar at the mouth of the river. They were small boats of fifty tons and less, spreading their new sails to the lazy onshore wind. Behind them sauntered the tubby shapes of the first-class ships, their square sails puffing and lifting as they met the swell at the river mouth. Behind these again came the lean greyhounds: the oared galleys, whose design had changed little since the Phoenicians and the Romans had made the Tagus their anchoring place.
The names of the ships had a poetry of their own. In the front echelon of light sailing boats were carracas and fustas, balenares, pinazas, and carabelas. Then there were the barcas, their broad-beamed hulls flickering with the arms of soldiers. The oared vessels, moving like insects over a pond, were galleys and galeotas, tardantes, and saetias. In these two types of ship the traditional Mediterranean was united with the new commercial world of the north; the first represented by the galley, and the latter by the high-pooped trading bark. But the gull-winged carabelas, which crossed the bar first, were the forerunners of a new type of ship, one that would dredge an undiscovered world and a thousand new coastlines out of the uncharted rollers of the Atlantic.
As the fleets of the two princes met, the music from their garlanded poops blended with the time-keeping gongs aboard the galleys, and the brassy note of trumpets from the barks. The onlookers cheered, as a hundred and one small rowing boats put off to accompany the fleet to its anchorage. Church bells sounded, dim in the blue distance, and the midsummer heat shook over the hills beyond the city. Catching the slants of wind that dropped down the river mouth, and with the thrust of the tide giving them way against the current of the river, the ships moved slowly upstream. They dropped anchor under the golden walls of Belém on the outskirts of Lisbon. The oars of the galleys were secured, the sails of the barks and pinnaces were furled, and the graceful lateen-rigged carabelas idled over their reflections in the quiet water.
It was July, 1415. The building of so many ships—over twenty oared galleys, twenty-six barks, and many dozen lighter craft—had occupied the whole seaboard of Portugal for over three years. The destination of the fleet had occupied the councils of Europe for almost as long.
“Is it peace or war?” had come their inquiries, and to most of them King John of Portugal had returned a fair answer. But, even now, no one except the King, his sons, and a few ministers of state, knew against whom they were preparing to sail.
The secret had been well kept. The people of Lisbon, who had worked for and contributed to this armada, were as curious as any. But while they cheered the brave ensigns and the panoply of the anchored squadrons, they had another, and even greater, preoccupation. The plague had broken out in the city, and in Porto too—whence Prince Henry’s ships had sailed—the pestilence was raging. “How reluctant,” says the chronicler, “were the souls of the brave men who were dying of the pest to leave their bodies! It was not only that natural regret which seizes upon every soul when it leaves the flesh, it was above all regret that they must leave the world without seeing the conclusion of this great enterprise.”
Members of the court were waiting to greet the two young princes as they disembarked.
This was a moment of triumph for Prince Henry, for to him had been entrusted the whole ordering and commissioning of the Porto fleet. Whereas his brother Peter had been under the eye of his father at Lisbon, he—the younger of the two—had been allowed to organize the major part of the expedition on his own. It was evidence enough of King John’s trust in his twenty-one-year-old son.
Thickset, of medium height, with broad shoulders and powerful arms (like a seaman or a shipwright more than a prince), Henry already had the air of an older and graver man. In contrast to his brother Peter’s mercurial curiosity, there was about him a withdrawn and thoughtful air. Something of his mother’s English ancestry was revealed in his eyes and in his manner: something of the phlegmatic nature that belongs to the country of gray skies and rain-swept sea. He was his father’s favorite son. His mother, for her part, may well have seen in him traces of her own father, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. For there was in Prince Henry an iron determination, evident even as a youth, and something of the same imaginative chivalry that had made John of Gaunt the protector of the reformer Wycliffe, and the patron of the poet Chaucer.
Of the three princes who had now reached manhood, Edward, the eldest, was quiet and sensitive; Peter was of an inquiring and volatile frame of mind; Henry alone had something about him that set him apart from other men. Born under the watery sign of Pisces, he would either succeed in a measure beyond most men’s dreams, or fail disastrously. Even his motto and device, which were portrayed on the livery of the serving men who surrounded him, revealed something of his character—Talent de bien faire, “talent” meaning not so much the power as the desire to do well. Talent de bien faire—it represented an aspiration and a dream, which would inspire him all his life. Even Peter’s device contained something of his nature—the one simple word Désir. It was a restless desire that would never leave him at peace. So the young princes stood there in the brazen sunlight of July, with their great enterprise ahead of them and with all their lives to make.
The messenger who spurred through the hot streets of Lisbon brought the first somber warning into their dreams. (“We must live as we must, and not as we would.”)
“Your mother, Queen Philippa, is ill.”
At that time, and in that month, there was no doubt that it was the plague.
The Queen had recently joined her husband at Odivelas. The royal family had left the hot stricken city for the cleaner air of their summer palace, some seven miles to the north, where the wind came off the Atlantic rinsed by thousands of miles of ocean. Queen Philippa was now in her fifty-seventh year, pious and devout, and with a deep practical strain. If her husband had passed on to his children the fire and sagacity that had made him ruler of Portugal, it was from Queen Philippa that they had inherited their chivalrous idealism. As the daughter of John of Gaunt, she was proud of the expedition upon which her husband and her three eldest sons would soon be engaged. As a woman she feared for them. But she had hidden her natural feelings and reproved her ladies in waiting, who had burst into tears on hearing that not only her sons but also her husband were going into battle.
She made only one request.
“My Lord,” she said to King John, “I ask you a favor before you leave. Knight your sons before me, with the swords that I shall give them. I know there are people who say that arms which are given by women weaken the hearts of noble knights. But as for me, I believe—in view of the blood from which I am descended—that this will never be the case.”
Now the moment that should have crowned the young princes’ lives—setting off to war in company with their father, and with the swords given them by their mother—was darkened. As they waited in the great palace, they heard from the physicians that there was no longer any hope of saving the Queen. Like the innumerable poor of Lisbon, she was doomed. But Philippa of Lancaster, knowing that she was dying, sent to the jewelers and demanded that the swords be completed quickly and delivered to her. Before she died, she was determined to make her sons the promised gift. The long blades of tempered steel, with their hilts of gold set with seed pearls, were brought to her chamber. She sent for her sons.
Prince Edward, who had looked after his mother with great tenderness during her illness, was the most moved. In him there was more of the Latin temperament, and he was unable to hide his emotions. It was to him, as her eldest son, that the Queen turned first.
“God has chosen you to be the heir to this kingdom,” she said. “I know your virtue and your kindness, so I give you this sword of justice. With it you will govern both great and small, when at your father’s death this land shall be yours. I commend the people of Portugal to you. I pray you to defend them with steadfastness of soul. Do not suffer any to do wrong, and see always that right and justice are served. And when I say justice, my son, I mean justice with mercy—for justice without mercy is no more than cruelty. Take this sword, then, with my blessing—”
Prince Edward kissed the Queen’s hand reverently.
“—and with the blessing of those from whom I am descended.”
Prince Peter then knelt to receive his sword and his mother’s injunction that whereas she had commended the people of Portugal to his brother, on him should rest the duty of protecting the women of the land. With solemn faces the two princes stood back, while she summoned the youngest. Courageous and proud in her last hours, the Queen smiled at Prince Henry.
“I give you this third sword,” she said. “It is strong as you are. To you I commend all the lords, knights, squires, and those of noble blood. It is true that all of them are servants of the King, nevertheless they will require that special protection which is now your charge. You will do this, I know, not only through the inclination of your heart, but because it is now your duty. I give you this sword with my blessing. I desire that with it you shall be knighted.”
Henry took the sword upon his knees and was silent for a moment. Then he raised his eyes to his mother.
“Lady, you may be sure that so long as my life endures I will cherish the memory of your commands.”
He kissed the sword and thanked her, saying that he would guard it always, for its value to him was beyond any price.
The Queen now summoned her husband. His grief was so great that, unable to bear the sight of her suffering, he had been roaming the woods around the palace. To King John the Queen gave her most sacred relic, a fragment of the True Gross. She asked him to divide it into four pieces, keeping one for himself and giving the others to her three eldest sons.
The King, whose bravery on the battlefield was famous throughout Europe, could not bear to face the advance of the one unconquerable enemy. He rushed from her chamber, mounted his horse, and rode blindly into the sheltering woods of Alhos Vedros. The three princes remained with her.
Queen Philippa’s courage did not desert her. Rallying herself against the exhaustion which came as a final symptom of the disease, she gave them her last commands.
“Remain always as you have been, my sons—loving and united.”
Some memory of her childhood, of the distant land of the gray goose feathers, came back to her. Perhaps she had heard many years ago from old men in her father’s house of the driving hail that had destroyed the flower of France on the battlefield of Crécy.
“In my country,” she said, “they tell a story about the arrow. Take one arrow by itself, and it is nothing—you can break it in your hands. But if you take many of them together, it is beyond your strength to break them.”
The darkness gathered in the room. The princes prayed in silence, as the Queen commended herself to God. The priests, the physicians, and the ladies in waiting moved quietly about their tasks. Above the tense quiet that surrounded the deathbed, the wind began to sound; low at first, and hot off the summer plains of Portugal. Soon the noise of it disturbed even the princes at their devotions. Queen Philippa also heard the great wind that began to drum against the walls of her room.
“What is that wind?”
“It is a wind from the north.”
The Queen was silent. Then “A wind from the north,” she said, “a good wind for your voyage. How strange that I, who looked forward to the day of your departure, thinking I would see you knighted—how strange that I shall never see this.”
“You will see us leave,” Edward protested. “You will recover, and you will see us leave.”
“I shall not see you from this world. But still, my death must not prevent your departure. You will sail by the feast of St. James.”
The princes looked at one another. The feast of St. James was only a week away. The Queen lifted her head. Her face was transfigured with joy.
“Praise be to you, Holy Virgin,” she said, “since it has pleased you to come from Heaven to visit me.”
The wind began to boom around the turrets and crenelated stones of the palace. The carpets rose and flickered over the stone floors. In the long corridors the tapestries billowed like sails.