Infante Ferdinand was the youngest of the family known in Portuguese history as the “illustrious generation”. Ferdinand and his brothers and sister were raised by their parents to be educated and to lead in various ways, all for the glory of Portugal. But Ferdinand was doomed to have a very sad story.
Ferdinand was born on September 29, 1402 at Santarém, Portugal. He was the sixth and youngest son of King Joao I and Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt. The chronicler Fonseca Benevides states that soon after Philippa became pregnant with Ferdinand, she became very ill. She struggled but did deliver a boy after a difficult childbirth. Perhaps because of this, Ferdinand was sickly and weak as a child.
All of the children of Joao and Philippa were encouraged in physical and mental exercise. They were taught several languages and mathematics and allowed to experiment in the sciences. The boys were instructed in military and warfare tactics and affairs of state and participated in governing councils. Ferdinand’s sister Isabel looked after him and his other young brother John.
When Ferdinand was twelve King Joao and his older brothers made preparations to go to war against the Moors. The plan was to attack the fortress of Ceuta in the Straits of Gibraltar. Unfortunately, as the plans were being made, Philippa of Lancaster became ill with the plague and lay dying at the monastery of Odivelas. Ferdinand was sent away to protect him from the plague so he was not at his mother’s bedside when she died on July 19, 1415. Despite their sorrow, the king and elder princes went on to attack and conquer Ceuta at great cost.
By the time Ferdinand was fourteen, he became very serious about religious matters and began dutifully practicing prayers and religious ceremonies. The fame of his charity began to spread abroad. In 1429, he was made Lord of Salvaterra de Magos and Atougouia. In 1433, after his father’s death and the death of administrator Joao Rodrigues de Sequeira, Ferdinand was made the master and administrator of the House of Aviz. Pope Eugene IV offered Ferdinand a cardinal’s hat but he refused. He had no intention of leading a clerical life. He was dissatisfied with what he considered his meager holdings and requested permission from this brother King Edward to go abroad to seek his fortune in foreign service.
At the time, Ferdinand and Edward’s brother, Prince Henry the Navigator was having many successes in navigation and discovery. There was talk of attacking Tangier, the most important Moorish citadel on the Moroccan side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The king was reluctant to attack and others warned against it, including their brother Pedro. But Edward’s queen added her plea for the attack. Finally the king gave in and the expedition set sail in August of 1437 including Ferdinand. The attack began but Tangier was firmly fortified and the defense was well organized. The Portuguese were soundly defeated. They were starved into submission. Henry negotiated a treaty returning Ceuta to the Moors in return for letting his troops return to their ships unharmed. The Moors required a hostage and Ferdinand volunteered along with a few of his faithful men, including Joao Alvares. Alvares would act as Ferdinand’s personal secretary and write his biography about his imprisonment.
Ferdinand was under house arrest at Asilah at first and treated as a prince in captivity. Henry went to Ceuta first then to Portugal. Negotiations began at once for Ferdinand’s release but they were to drag on for years. Henry, driven by remorse for his urging of the expedition and the plight of his brother, pleaded with the king to agree to the treaty’s terms. Edward, Henry and John pleaded with the Cortes to ratify the treaty and release their brother. But the Cortes was dominated by burghers who were not willing to give up Ceuta. Ceuta had been captured with glory by the Portuguese and could serve as a point of departure for further conquests. The Cortes, at a meeting in 1438, decided not to surrender Ceuta. The failure to release Ferdinand weighed heavily on the mind of the king and may have hastened his death on December 9, 1438.
The Moors began to believe the Portuguese were not acting in good faith. When this finally became clear, Ferdinand’s treatment became increasingly harsh. He was moved to Fez under the King’s vizier, Lazurac. Lazurac was a cruel man and put Ferdinand in a dark dungeon. The use of leg irons began. He was subjected to prolonged torture, malnutrition and degradation. He was made to work as a slave in the royal gardens and stables.
Various attempts were made to free Ferdinand, all to no avail. The more attempts made to rescue him, the worse his punishment became. Many urged him to flee but he refused to leave his companions. During the last 15 months in prison, he was alone in a dark dungeon with a block of wood for a pillow and only the stone floor for a bed. He was never in good health and in these conditions, he deteriorated rapidly. In May of 1443, he was stricken with a fatal disease and finally died on June 5.
Ferdinand’s corpse was embalmed and his heart, organs and intestines were removed. His fellow prisoners managed to obtain them and hide them. His naked and disemboweled corpse was hung upside down from the ramparts of Fez for public display. His body was then placed in a wooden coffin, sealed and again hung from the walls for a long time.
Of the other hostages with Ferdinand, four of them died, one became a Moor and the rest were set at liberty after Lazurac’s death. One of these was Alvares the biographer. He carried Ferdinand’s heart back to Portugal in 1451. In 1473, Ferdinand’s body was returned to Portugal and buried in the family vault at the monastery of Batalha.
The legend says Ferdinand urged Portugal to hold on to Ceuta no matter what his treatment was in prison. But there are letters from Ferdinand and Alvares says in Ferdinand’s biography that he did want to be freed. He did not want to be a martyr and expected the treaty to be honored.
Further reading: “Philippa: Dona Filipa of Portugal” by T.W.E. Roche, “Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471” by Aline S. Taylor, “Blessed Ferdinand” in the Catholic Encyclopedia Online, “Tratado da vida e dos feitos do muito virtuoso Senhor Infante D. Fernando” first published in 1527 in Lisbon by Frei Joao Alvares (c. 1460)