Denis of Portugal was born on October 9, 1261, to King Afonso III and Queen Beatrice of Castile. Before the prince’s birth, Afonso seized the throne from his elder brother, Sancho II, in 1248. An unpopular ruler, Sancho’s throne was declared forfeit by Pope Innocent IV, allowing Afonso to take control. The birth of Denis secured the usurper king’s throne since he only had illegitimate sons before. As the prince grew, Denis received a fine education consisting of Castilian and French influences. Recognizing his son’s intelligence, the king ensured that Denis became well-versed in government affairs before he began his reign.
King of Portugal
Upon Afonso III’s death in 1279, the newly crowned Denis of Portugal focused on strengthening his kingdom. Denis would accomplish this grand goal by improving Portugal’s economy and decreasing the power of the church and nobility. The king supported Portuguese merchants and utilized his kingdom’s agricultural resources to strengthen the economy. Denis ordered the development of many forests to increase wood output, resulting in a vast amount of trees being planted. Although this was done to generate shipbuilding material, Denis became known as “the Farmer King” for his efforts.
Regarding foreign policy, Denis of Portugal successfully negotiated a definitive border with Castile, settling a decades-long dispute. Although seeking to limit the church’s influence in Portugal, Denis sought to maintain a cordial relationship with the papacy. During his father’s reign, Afonso III had a strained relationship with the pope. Afonso often clashed with the church over the issue of authority. By the end of his reign, the king had been excommunicated. Despite this action, Denis continued to diminish the church’s power by re-taking their Portuguese lands.
An energetic man, Denis traveled extensively throughout his kingdom. The king actively dispensed justice, oversaw the building of new towns, and encouraged agriculture throughout his reign. During his journeys, Denis made a point to stamp out the nobility’s corruption and enforce his authority over them. Although still a developing kingdom by the end of his reign, the king’s efforts were not in vain. Denis set in motion the development of a centralized government where royal authority reigned supreme.
During Denis’ reign, Lisbon became known as a center of culture and learning. An active intellectual, the king enjoyed poetry and literature, becoming well-versed in both. Denis went on to produce multiple poems and several books during his lifetime. The king translated other books as well, including those of his grandfather, Alfonso X. Denis also patronized other intellectuals, culminating in the founding of Portugal’s first university in 1290. With his support, the arts and sciences flourished in Portugal.
Although Denis of Portugal proved to be a capable ruler, he experienced less success with his family. By his marriage to Elizabeth of Aragon, Denis had a single legitimate son, Prince Afonso. However, the king had several illegitimate sons before the prince’s birth in 1291. Born in 1289, Afonso Sanches was Denis’ favorite son, a fact that the king didn’t bother to hide from the prince. Desiring his father’s approval, a jealous Afonso grew to despise both his elder half-brother and the king.
By 1320, Denis’ relationship with Afonso had become very strained. The breaking point came when the prince demanded that his father give him political power. When Denis refused to do so, Afonso launched a short-lived revolt. Although reconciled by 1322, Denis faced another revolt from his son soon after. Unable to make peace before his death on January 7, 1325, the fighting only ended upon Afonso IV’s accession.
Denis of Portugal was a capable administrator who succeeded in strengthening his kingdom. During his reign, the king encouraged economic growth, promoted agriculture, decreased the church’s power, and transformed Lisbon into a cultural center. Through his efforts, Denis accomplished his original goal. However, the king failed with his family. Denis’ later reign was marked by internal conflict with his son. By refusing to respect his son’s position as heir, the king nearly brought his kingdom into a costly civil war.
Disney, A. R. (2009). A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: From Beginnings to 1807 (Vol. 1). New York City, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Dinis. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dinis