A Portuguese Medieval Royal Wedding – 1428

Church of the Monastery of Santa Clara in Coimbra
The ruins of the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha. Coimbra, Portugal (Wikimedia Commons, image by Alvesgaspar)

In reading Peter Russell’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, known as ‘the Navigator’, he includes as an appendix the only strictly private letter written by Henry that has been found.  He says the best text for the letter is in “Monumenta Henricina, III, no. 125 from BNParis, Fonds Portugais, no. 20, fol. 97” and it is a fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century copy.  Prince Henry wrote this letter on September 22, 1428 to his father King John I of Portugal.  He is reporting on the marriage of his elder brother Prince Duarte to Eleanor of Aragon.

Prince Henry was a member of the family known as the ‘Illustrious Generation’.  These were the children of King John I of Portugal and his English wife, Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.  John and Philippa were married in Porto in February of 1387.  After suffering a miscarriage in July of that year, Philippa gave birth to a succession of children.  Branca, born in 1388, and Afonso, born in 1390, both died in infancy.  Then came the future Duarte I in 1391.  Duarte is rendered from Eduarte in archaic Portuguese, a form of the name Edward.  He was probably named after Philippa’s grandfather, King Edward III of England.

Pedro, Duke of Coimbra was born in 1392 and Henrique or Henry, who wrote this letter, was born in 1394.  Henry would be given the title of Duke of Viseu by his father.  A daughter Isabel was born in 1397 and she would marry Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.  A son John was born in 1400 and another son Fernando was born in 1402.  King John had three recognized illegitimate children with his mistress Inês Peres, the eldest of which was named Afonso.  He was given the title Count of Barcelos and was later named the Duke of Braganza.

Duarte King of Portugal
Image of Dom Duarte, King of Portugal (1391-1438) – From the Genealogia de D. Manuel Pereira, 3.º conde da Feira (1534)


Duarte was to marry the twenty-two-year-old Eleanor of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand I of Aragon and Eleanor of Albuquerque.  Prince Henry gives us an all-inclusive report on the proceedings beginning a few days before the ceremony itself.

“Most high and most honoured and much esteemed Lord

I your son and servant the Infante D. Henrique, Duke of Viseu and Lord of Covilhã, very humbly send to kiss your hands and to commend myself to your favour and blessing.

Most high and most honoured and much esteemed Lord.  May it please you to learn that the things which have happened since I [last] wrote to you are these which follow.  My lord the Infante [D. Duarte] duly arrived here as I wrote to Your Grace, and he lodged in the other chamber which is at the end of the palace where are the rooms where My Lady the Infanta [of Aragon] is lodged.  Every day he used to go to see her two or three times in her room to enjoy himself in her company.  Nevertheless, as far as I have been able to learn, during all that time he never once kissed her.

[Also] during that time he sometimes went hunting and so amused himself as he pleased, but he refused to go far into the lands reserved for the chase.  One day he ordered me to go there and I took with me some guards and I killed a boar near the city.  The next day I ordered the beaters to cordon off two of them for the archbishop of Lisbon.  He asked the Infante’s permission to take them and went to where they were.  My lads who I had ordered to go with him mortally wounded one as it was coming out of its lair.  However, when it was about to drop, it ran at a peasant living in that place and slashed him four times because it mistook him [for one of the attackers].  When it could not move any further and fell to the ground, those of my lads who were present finished it off.  The other boar fled.

When my lord the Infante comes across any dancing or singing or anything else which can provide pleasure, he gladly joins in.  Thanks be to God, he is very happy and in good health.  He praises greatly the singing of the Infanta and her playing the clavichord and her way of dancing which, they say, is the way she always dances.  He ordered Dona Guiomar to arrange for two bulls to be run in honour of the Infanta and we [Duarte and Henry] both together fought them, one in the palace stables and the other where the jousting was to take place, in front of [the monastery of] Santa Clara.  Two of my lads waited to finish off the palace one because it was small.  They killed it very skillfully.

Other news, my lord, is that my brother the Infante D. Pedro reached Avelãs last Friday, and my lord the Infante and I with him went after dark to visit him in that place.  He, when he knew we were coming, came out the distance of a stone’s throw [from where he was living] mounted on a palfrey and with torches.  When he saw the Infante he dismounted and the Infante and I also did so.  Everyone seemed to me very happy from one end to the other of the place.  From there we went to his house to drink and take a light supper.  The Infante slept there that night and the next day I went to eat with him at Botão where my [half]-brother the count [Afonso, count of Barcelos] had arrived.  That day they [all] went to hear Mass at Santa Clara.  That night I want to sleep a league away and on Saturday I returned to hear Mass in this monastery where I am now lodged.

After we had eaten I went to receive him [D. Duarte].  With me were the archbishops of Lisbon and Braga and the bishop from here [Coimbra] and the marshal and other knights and plenty of noble people.  We journeyed for about a league to a spot where my brother [Pedro] and the count, [also] accompanied by many noble people, came to meet us.  When we drew near, my brother the Infante sent the archbishops of Lisbon and Braga to escort the countess Dona Costança.  With everyone now gathered together, the bishop of Santiago and the bishop from here were present to receive him.  At the entry to the city was waiting the bishop of Ceuta dressed in his pontifical robes.  [They all] then walked in procession to Santa Clara, a goodly sight.  When my brother caught up with the procession he dismounted and kissed the relics.  There were rugs and a damask cushion for him to kneel on.

From there he walked in procession on foot as far as Santa Cruz where he said a prayer.  Next he went to see the Infanta and to kiss her hand.  She received him very gladly.  Before we reached the palace my brother the Infante D. Fernando had joined us and we three, along with my brother the count, spoke with the aforesaid lady and then we went to the house where the Infante D. Pedro was lodged.  I had invited him for that day but he insisted that what he wanted was to return to his dwelling.  After we had left him there I sent the count my brother to his lodgings too, and took the Infante D. Fernando with me to speak to my lord the Infante [D. Duarte].  That day and the next day he was my guest for dinner.  After that, my brother looked after him.

On Monday we went dancing.  My brother [Duarte] and his retinue seem to me to be very elegantly dressed.  On Tuesday night it was decided to have the wedding on Wednesday.  What then took place, in accordance with your blessing which you had given the Infante my lord, is as follows:

First the preparations were like this.  Rugs had been placed on a large section of the walls and floor of the cloister of Santa Clara through which my lady Infanta would have to pass.  Inside the door of the church, which is located inside the nuns’ cloister, hung a rich cloth of crimson brocade which covered the place where the blessing would be given.  A range of hangings ran the whole length of the church and out into the street and also where there is a staircase leading to the choir, where the tomb of Queen Isabel is.  The whole route was similarly decorated with hangings and rugs and the walls of the choir were completely covered with tapestries, as was the church inside and outside, the ground being covered with rugs.  From the altar as far as the wall and laid on the rugs was a covering of ten cloths, each one a cloth wide and each of blue velvet-like satin. 

The altar frontal and canopy was made of rich crimson brocade.  The coverlet of the dais [on which the couple were to be married] and the canopy over it were also of very rich crimson brocade.  The cushion on which they would have to kneel was all of woven gold without other embellishment.  The altar was well equipped with silver [plate], some of it belonging to you and some from here.  The bishop performed the offices wearing the mitre and carrying the crozier given by you.  Thus, thanks be to God, everything was done in good order.

While the Infanta was waiting in the chapter house, my lord the Infante came from his lodging riding on a well-caparisoned palfrey and wearing a rich tunic with an emerald clasp.  My brothers the Infante D. Pedro and the Infante D. Fernando rode on one side of him and I and my brother the count were on the other side.  Also with us were many other knights, all finely dressed.  And so we arrived at the doors [of the church].  There the Infante dismounted and walked as far as the choir accompanied by the Infante D. Fernando and the count.  Meanwhile the Infante D. Pedro and I went to fetch the Infanta and led her from the place where the blessings had been given.  My lord the Infante then joined her.  Next the precentor of Évora [cathedral] sang briefly and after that we were [formally] received and the Office began.

The Infanta was very gorgeously dressed.  The torches were carried by D. Fernando and D. Sancho and D. Duarte and D. Fernando de Castro and other youthful great lords who were present.  Mass was said, not sung, but the deacon and sub-deacon were in their pontificals as for a sung one.  The offertory was of two hundred gold dobras.  When the Office ended the Infanta was so exhausted because of her cape, which was very heavy, and because of the heat caused by the number of good people who were there and the light from the torches that, when we went to conduct her away, she fainted.  We threw water on her and she came to.  At this point all the men left while the women stayed behind.  The count [of Barcelos] acted as groomsman and his countess as matron of honour.  Dona Guiomar carried the bride’s train.

The Infante returned to his abode in the same way as he had come from it.  When night had fallen we went to join the Infanta in the monastery where she had already eaten.  It was just as if she had married from the house of Queen Isabel, who also came from Aragon.  Every one of us thought that this matter had worked out so well because of the holiness of the said Queen Isabel from whose house [the monastery of Santa Clara] it had started.  Next the Infanta mounted a horse.  My brother D. Pedro and I went on foot as far as her lodging holding up the boards [honouring the bride and bridegroom].  The Infante D. Fernando and the count and all the other knights came too.  She was riding a white palfrey, its accoutrements all of gold, which Your Grace saw and which the Infante sent her.  She was escorted by some sixty torches carried by squires.  Behind her came the count and Dona Isabel de Taude and other ladies and maidens.

After we had seen her to her chamber we danced and sang a while in the palace and the Infante came there and sat in state with his standard beside him.  The chamber was adorned with hangings and he was served with wine and fruit by us.  The Infante D. Pedro carried the napkin, I the dish of sweetmeats, the Infante D. Fernando the fruit and the count the wine.  After the Infante had taken some wine we all took our leave of him and returned to our several lodgings and, just as I was finishing this letter, I have learnt that a short while since my lady the Infanta became in the full sense your daughter.  They, thanks be to God, are in good shape as are all of us who are here, your servants and myself.

Very noble and very honourable and very much esteemed lord.  May Almighty God keep you and your affairs in his holy care and at his service leading to the exaltation of your status and honour as your heart desires.

Written in Coimbra, twenty-two September 1428.”

Eleanor of Aragon Queen of Portugal
Eleanor of Aragon, Queen of Portugal – from The Portuguese Genealogy (Genealogia dos Reis de Portugal), 1530-1534


Prince Henry was a lover of the medieval art of the chase.  He gives us a description of the hunt, including himself, his lads and the archbishop of Lisbon.  This illustrates how dangerous it was even for the eyewitnesses of the hunt as a boar attacked a peasant.  Luckily, one of the boars got away.

Henry tells us of Duarte’s courting of Eleanor and about her lovely singing and playing.  There’s lots of dancing.  He gives us a wonderful description of the gathering of the nobles, knights, ladies and bishops.  It must have been a fine procession, everyone dressed richly and the horses gayly caparisoned.  He then describes the church itself.  We can almost see the hangings, rugs and tapestries of crimson brocade and blue-velvet like satin on the walls and floor of the church and beyond.  After the wedding ceremony, which was performed in good order, there was dancing and food.  The brothers of the groom served him wine and sweetmeats before the couple was bedded and the marriage consummated.

The Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha, where the wedding took place was originally founded in the thirteenth century as a house of the Order of Poor Clares and was dissolved in 1311.  In 1314, it was re-founded by Queen Elizabeth (Isabel) of Aragon, wife of King Dinis of Portugal.  This is the Isabel who is mentioned in this letter.  The queen was buried in the church of the monastery and was made a saint in 1626.  When Santa Clara-a-Velha was flooded in the seventeenth century, Elizabeth’s remained were moved to the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova which replaced the original monastery.

King John I died in 1433 and Duarte became king.  Duarte and Eleanor had nine children of which five survived.  Duarte died of the plague in 1438.  Eleanor was named regent for her son Afonso V in Duarte’s will and this was confirmed by the Portuguese Cortes.  However, Eleanor was in bad health and she was not popular because she was Aragonese.  The new king’s uncle Pedro, Duke of Coimbra was the preferred choice of regent by the people.  After months of infighting, the Cortes named Pedro as regent but Eleanor kept conspiring to regain her position.  Eventually, due to bad health, she was forced into exile in Castile.  She died in Toledo five years later after a long respiratory illness and was buried in the mausoleum of the Portuguese kings at Batalha Monastery.


Further reading: “Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’:  A Life” by Peter Russell, entry on Philippa of Lancaster, Queen of Portugal in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Anthony Goodman