King of Portugal (1438-1481), known as “the African” (Port. Afonso o Africano) from his campaigns against Muslim North Africa.
The son of King Duarte of Portugal and Leonor of Aragon, Afonso was only six years old when his father died. The king’s minority caused a conflict over the regency, which was controlled by a faction headed by his uncle, Prince Peter (1439), until the latter was finally overthrown and killed at the battle of Alfarrobeira (1449) at the hands of an army led by the king. The victory of the young monarch was contemporary with an attempt to relaunch the holy war against the Muslims of North Africa by promoting the writing of a chronicle describing the conquest of Ceuta (1449): this was the Crônica da Tomada de Ceuta por El Rei D. Joāo I by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, which highlighted the crusading credentials of the Portuguese Crown by underlining the continuity of the campaigns in Africa with the peninsular Reconquest, and by stressing the presence of soldiers of several nations among the fighters. The same purpose also led the king to renew the memory of Prince Ferdinand, who had been martyred in Africa after the disaster of Tangier (1437), as well as the deeds of Prince Henry the Navigator in the conquest of the African coast.
The king’s enthusiasm for holy war meant that he was receptive to proposals for a crusade against the Turks, advocated by his kinsmen Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor. By the end of 1455 the king declared his adherence to the project, taking his crusade vow on 25 July 1456, the feast day of St. James, the holy warrior and protector of the Iberian Peninsula. However, the failure of this initiative brought the king back to African projects, which culminated in the conquest of Alcacer-Ceguer (1458) and the campaigns against Tangier (1463-1464). In order to defend the Portuguese possessions in Africa, the king sought to gain the interest of the nobility and endorsed the writing of chronicles by Gomes Eanes de Zurara on the deeds of Pedro de Meneses and Duarte de Meneses, who held the cities of Ceuta and Alcacer-Ceguer in the name of the king. At the same time, he tried to make use of the men and resources of the military orders, by placing the administration of the Order of Christ under his own command and by obtaining two papal bulls (1456 and 1462), which obliged the military orders to build convents in Africa and to spend at least a third of their income there. The reactions of the Orders of Christ and Santiago were unfavorable to the king, since they obtained from Pope Paul II the revocation of the previous decisions (1464), while reminding the king that the military orders were founded to defend Portugal and not to fight in Morocco.
In spite of these adversities, the king continued his African campaigns with the conquest of Arzila and Tangier (1471), and developed a new interest in the western parts of Morocco, looting Casablanca (1468-1469) and taking control of Larache. It was only then that he finally abandoned his African plans. Responsibility for overseas policies was handed over to his heir, Prince John, while Afonso became involved in Castile’s political crisis by making a claim to the throne of that kingdom (1474-1476). Unable to secure his rights, he traveled to France looking for an alliance with King Louis XI. While there he developed a desire to travel incognito on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which he never accomplished.