Prince Henry the Navigator: A Lifeby Peter Russell
Henry the Navigator, fifteenth-century Portuguese prince and explorer, is a legendary, almost mythical figure in late medieval history. Considered along with Columbus to be one of the progenitors of modernity, Prince Henry challenged the scientific assumptions of his age and was responsible for liberating Europeans from geographical restraints that had bound them since the Roman Empire's collapse. In this enthralling account of Henry's lifethe first biography of "The Navigator" in more than a centuryPeter Russell reaps the harvest of a lifelong study of Prince Henry. Making full use of documentary evidence only recently available, Russell reevaluates Henry and his role in Portuguese and European history.
Examining the full range of Prince Henry's activities, Russell discusses the explorer's image as an imperialist and as a maritime, mathematical, and navigational pioneer. He considers Henry's voyages of discovery in the African Atlantic, their economic and cultural consequences, and the difficult questions they generated regarding international law and papal jurisdiction. Russell demonstrates the degree to which Henry was motivated by the predictions of his astrologeran aspect of his career little known until nowand explains how this innovator, though firmly rooted in medieval ways of thinking and behaving, set in motion a current of change that altered European history.
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Matters of Nativity
In the science of astrology, a worthy branch of learning, the astrologers of old declare that, when a man is born, they take the [heavenly] sign that is dominant at the moment of his birth to lay down the path his life will take.
Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor
Prince Henry, the third surviving son of John I and Philippa of Lancaster, was born in the northern Portuguese city of Oporto on Ash Wednesday, 4 March 1394. If that traditional day of mourning and penitence was thought to be an unpropitious one for a prince's birth, no one was ever tactless enough to say so, at least in writing. Zurara's report that the boy emerged from his mother's womb embracing a simulacrum of the Holy Cross, a piece of information that the chronicler seems to attribute to Henry himself, was seen as proof positive that the young prince's dedication to religion and to crusading against the infidel was prenatally arranged.
As mentioned in the Introduction, Samuel Purchas, writing in 1625, patriotically attributed special significance to the fact that Henry was half-English by blood. This suggestion that the Prince's English genes both contributed to his achievements as a sponsor of oceanic expansion and made him a kind of honorary English discoverer can hardly be sustained, at least in the sense that Purchas meant. Though Henry's consciousness of his Plantagenet descent may very well have provided a spur which would drive him to seek to emulate the chivalric fame of his English ancestors and cousins on the battlefield, aconcern to seek out new horizons was hardly a characteristic of the House of Plantagenet. A more certain contributory cause of the Prince's future relentless pursuit of personal fame was his status as a third son; from an early age he seems to have made it plain to those around him that he was unlikely to turn out to be a man content to settle for the subordinate role that this accident of birth seemed to have assigned to him.
Documents in the municipal archives of Oporto record that, though it was the start of Lent, all the city's bells were pealed to celebrate the birth. A few days later Henry was baptized. The bishop of Viseu, an inland city with which he was later to have close connections, acted as godfather. In the naming of their children Philippa and her husband seem to have agreed that traditional Portuguese baptismal names should alternate with ones used by her own family. The first-born daughter of the royal couple was thus called Blanca, presumably after Philippa's mother, the Duchess Blanche of Lancaster. If their first-born son (died in infancy) was called Afonso in deference to Portuguese tradition, the second was given the wholly English baptismal name of Edward (Port. `Duarte') doubtless in memory of both Edward III and the Black Prince. Prince Henry was perhaps named after his famous crusading maternal grandfather, Duke Henry of Lancaster (d. 1361), who had taken part in the epic siege of Moorish-held Algeciras in the time of Alfonso XI of Castile. Awareness that he bore Duke Henry's name may well have been among the various influences that confirmed the Prince's sense that he was born to be a crusader against Islam. This commitment seems, however, on a worldly level, to have been made for him by his mother before he was capable of self-awareness. Apart from the unusual symbol that he brought with him into the world when he was born, we also have the Prince's own word for it that his parents then chose as his patron saint the French crusader king, St Louis (d. 1270).
It seems very likely, however, that Henry grew up believing that, thanks to the science of astrology, his destiny had been fixed for him at the moment of his birth. The chronicler Zurara, who was himself particularly interested in the influence of the stars on human affairs, supplies a detailed description of the horoscope or nativity (Port. nacimento) that, according to the custom of the times, was cast by a court astrologer on Henry's birth in order to discover what the stars foretold about his destiny. This document, the chronicler claims, revealed that the main planetary influences on the child's life would be those of Mars and Saturn. Their exact position in the zodiac at the time of birth showed Henry, according to Zurara's interpretation, to be predestined to devote himself both to making `great and noble conquests and to the uncovering of secrets previously hidden from men'. This latter power, the chronicler relates, was explained by the particular location of Saturn in his horoscope.
Zurara sets out and interprets the contents of Henry's horoscope in chapter seven of his Chronicle of Guinea. He first lists there five reasons which it was generally said in the Prince's time accounted for Henry's interest in oceanic discovery. These all involve the sort of everyday explanations any medieval or later writer might put forward as a reason for setting up voyages of exploration: e.g. curiosity about the African Atlantic coast beyond the traditional limits of navigation; concern to discover whether people might be found there with whom it would be possible and permissible to trade; a wish to learn the real strength of Islam in those remote regions and to learn of any Christian princes there who might be willing to ally themselves with Prince Henry in his unending crusade against the Moors. Referring to these last two points, the chronicler emphasizes Henry's abiding desire to spread the faith by converting to Christianity the lost souls of those who might be found to inhabit regions of Africa then unknown to Europeans.
This statement of Henry's motives as a patron of oceanic discovery was probably copied by Zurara from Afonso Cerveira's lost account of the voyages of exploration up to 1448. The chronicler, however, then goes on, before describing the Henrican horoscope and its predictions in astrological detail, to observe that the contents of the horoscope provide an explanation of Henry's career that completely outweighs in importance the five others he has just mentioned.
Zurara's description of the horoscope takes a form that makes it plain that he probably had before him the original document cast in March 1394 or at least a copy of it. According to this information, Mars was in the eleventh House, the `House of Secrets and Ambitions', at the time of the Prince's birth. Zurara's description of the horoscope is credible and may be interpreted in this way. Horoscopes could however be used to `predict the past' so that the possibility that the interpretation Zurara gives was made in the light of Henry's later career cannot be totally excluded. However, it seems unlikely that the chronicler would have referred to the horoscope unless he was sure that Afonso V would not take exception to his comments. Henry's own approval of Zurara's observations cannot be taken for granted since it is not possible to determine whether or not the passage concerned was already in the version of the chronicle written before his death.
Henry's biographers have usually chosen to ignore the existence of the horoscope and the significance attributed to it by Zurara. If they mention the matter at all, it tends to be in order to ascribe its presence in the Chronicle of Guinea to the private superstitions of Zurara himself. An anachronistic desire to protect Henry from any suggestion that he can have had any time for astrology appears to be at work here. Such a notion is, of course, wholly untenable given the status of astrology and astrological prediction in his time. Indeed, it may well be that it was through an interest in what astrological prediction had to say about his future and that of other members of his family that Henry first began to take a serious interest in the stars. There was nothing in the least unusual about a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century prince or nobleman taking an active interest in astrology. Everywhere in Europe then (as well as long afterwards) astrological prediction was widely accepted as a proper science. The reason for its importance is given by Juan Ruiz, the fourteenth-century Spanish popular writer quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of this chapter. Similar opinions are found over and over again in medieval writings. Sometimes they were accompanied by the orthodox caveat that free will aided by divine grace could enable a Christian to escape his stellar destiny if he wished. Often they were not.
A work studied as a textbook in every European court and noble household in Henry's day, was Aegidius of Colonna's famous treatise on the education of princes, De regimine principum. One can therefore virtually take it for granted that the youthful Henry's preceptors had recourse to it. Aegidius's work specifically draws attention to the need for young princes and noblemen to study astrology. As a Castilian version of this work made in the middle of the fourteenth century has it when referring to the education of princes,
It is desirable for them to study astrology, which is the science of the heavenly bodies, showing the movements and the distances of the stars and of the influences which they have on earthly bodies. This science is of much value as far as the works of men are concerned since it discloses the kind of power the heavens have over them and over all corruptible things.
Astrological prediction was certainly used routinely at the Portuguese court as in other European courts. The chief astrologer there at the time of Henry's father's declining years was a Jewish doctor, Mestre Abraham Guedelha and the seriousness with which the astrologer's role was taken is illustrated by the fact that, after John I's death in 1433, Mestre Guedelha begged Duarte I, the new king, to delay the appointed time for his proclamation as king for a few hours until the heavenly bodies were in a less unfavourable position. Duarte, according to his chronicler, decided to ignore this advice, not because he doubted the influence of the planets on man's fate but because, since the day concerned was the Feast of the Assumption, he was bound, as a pious man, to suppose that God would, on such a day, take care to see that divine grace intervened to save him from any malign stellar destiny that might threaten him at the appointed time. The disasters that marked Duarte's short reign, however, may well have served to reinforce the Portuguese court's respect for astrological prediction.
In the light of all this, the importance Zurara attributes to Henry's `nativity' as a major influence on his career has to be taken very seriously. As already noted, the chronicler himself was something of an amateur expert on astrology and traces of personal correspondence between him and Afonso V about astrological matters survive. Since Afonso was the king who had commissioned him to write an account of the Prince's life and deeds it is even possible that this correspondence arose out of Zurara's assertion in the Chronicle of Guinea that Henry's horoscope was the most important influence on his career.
There is, of course, no direct evidence that the young Prince himself, when he reached an age when he could understand such things, did attribute to his horoscope the same importance that Zurara does. All one can say is that he lived in an environment where belief in the predictions read from horoscopes belonged to the category of received ideas and no contemporary source suggests that, unusually, Henry did not share those beliefs. No doubt, as a pious son of the Church, he claimed to go along with the orthodox Christian doctrine that, thanks to the exercise of free will aided by divine grace, the faithful could always overcome whatever destiny the stars predicted for them. Contemporary evidence suggests, however, that, as far as most medieval Christians were concerned, this reassuring doctrine failed to carry the day against a belief in astrological prediction without strings that dated from the earliest days of civil societies. Zurara does not even mention Christian teaching on the matter when discussing Henry's horoscope and its predictions.
There are other reasons for taking Zurara's claim seriously. Students of Henry's life in modern times have often been frustrated by the way in which the Prince insisted on partitioning his life between crusading and planning crusades against Islam in Morocco on the one hand and, on the other, in sponsoring oceanic exploration. Anxious to present this latter activity as the one which gave unique significance to his life, historians sometimes find it inconvenient to have to admit that he was always willing to set exploration aside when opportunities occurred for him to go crusading in the traditional sense. It is at least arguable that this apparently inconsistent behaviour owed something to the fact that, like other figures in history, Henry tried dutifully to live up to the particular twin destinies he believed had been predicted for him. One wonders, too, if it was not perhaps his trust in astrological prediction which gave him that obsessive certainty that success would be his, both as crusader and as sponsor of discovery, which is an abiding feature of his personality. Of course those who practised astrology accepted that no astrological predictions could successfully foretell the course of an individual's life unless the stars had seen to it that he or she was born with the mental and physical attributes necessary for them to measure up to their predicted destiny. Astrologers took it as axiomatic that the forces which determined human destiny made sure that this would always be the case. This was certainly true in the case of Henry. In the pages which follow it would be inappropriate to keep on returning to Zurara to remind readers of the predictions of the Prince's horoscope and their probable influence on his self-awareness and his career, but these should nevertheless always be thought of as an ever-present part of his mental furniture.
The Portuguese world into which the Prince was born in 1394 exhibited no features that could have caused anyone to suppose that, forty years on, Portugal would become Europe's first maritime empire. In Henry's boyhood this kingdom of some million inhabitants was still trying to recover from the economic and social devastation which two decades of armed resistance to Castilian expansionist ambitions and the collapse of a dynasty had brought upon it. Though John I had, in 1385, effectively won the war to secure Portuguese independence, Castile and Portugal were still technically at war with each other during Henry's boyhood and the absence of further hostilities would remain dependent on a series of uneasy armed truces until a shaky peace was concluded in 1411. The Portuguese currency had been ruined by massive and seemingly unstoppable inflation caused by the war. Large sections of the community were impoverished, especially landowners, lay and ecclesiastical, who depended on rents and other fixed dues. But if obvious economic and financial considerations suggested that the kingdom urgently needed a long period of peaceful recuperation, such a prospect was not welcome to the upstart nobility created by John I, all ranks of which had grown accustomed to regarding war as the means by which they expected to secure honour and an honourable livelihood and who therefore saw more war as a way out of the kingdom's problems.
After his baptism, almost total silence envelops the Prince's life for fourteen years. Medieval biographers did not, of course, know that the years of childhood are the formative ones and were inclined to pay scant attention to them. However, the fact that so dedicated a contemporary biographer as Zurara had evidently heard nothing worth the telling about Henry's boyhood perhaps entitles us to suppose that nothing of particular interest about him during these years was known to the chronicler. It is recorded that Henry and his two elder brothers, Duarte and Pedro, had, as preceptor (aio), a knight of the military Order of Aviz whose task was, no doubt, to see that they were brought up trained in the knightly virtues as befitted young princes. Prominent among these was the chase, the chief diversion of princes and nobles. Henry's enthusiasm for the hunt is plainly to be seen in his 1428 letter to his father.
No direct information is available about the education the princes received at court though it seems likely that, as was the custom, Queen Philippa herself would have had much to do with arranging and supervising this. No doubt Henry and his brothers were schooled along with the sons of nobles serving in the royal palaces. The education they received there was plainly of good quality. The literary writings of Henry's brothers, Duarte and Pedro, show, as does their work as translators and political moralists, that they were quite well grounded in humane letters, though Pedro once confessed that his ability to understand Cicero's Latin was not all it might be. These two princes were able, not only in their literary works but also in their written opinions about current political and military matters presented to the royal council, to define and set out in a well-organized way the arguments for and against a particular policy. The good reputation of the education provided at the Portuguese court in John I's time survived into the later fifteenth century when the Portuguese Cortes requested Afonso V to see to it that boys attached to the court were once again taught to read and write there as they had been in the time of John and his son, Duarte I.
The quality and scope of the intellectual interests Henry acquired as a result of his schooling present the first of the many enigmas which confront the student of his life. If, like some of his brothers, he tried his hand at creative or instructive literary authorship, nothing of it survives. Zurara, always anxious to draw attention to the Prince's achievements in any field, does not ever mention any activity of this kind. The claims made already in his lifetime that he was an acknowledged expert in the sciences of astronomy, navigation and the like lack the authority that the survival of some formal writing by him in these fields would supply. Nevertheless, even after allowing for the element of flatter and exaggeration that inevitably accompanied contemporary references by others to his expertise in these matters, it seems plain that his contemporaries were satisfied that Henry had more than a commonplace knowledge of them. Thus, in 1443, his brother, D. Pedro, then Regent of Portugal, made much of Henry's interest in marine cartography and, in particular, of his concern to see to the charting of the coast of western Africa south of the traditional limit of navigation there. The Franciscan, André do Prado, author of the imaginary theological dialogue called Horologium fidei (perhaps c. 1450) in which the Prince is a dummy interlocutor, spoke in his Proem to this work of Henry's studies of the stars and of his researches into matters concerning both the heavens and the earth. Though the Proem is, as was usual, an overtly panegyrical piece of writing, the fact that these observations, made during the Prince's lifetime, were in no way called for by the strictly theological nature of the treatise, seems to confirm that Henry's status as a student of astrology-cum-astronomy and as a cosmologist in his own right was generally recognized then and was considered in learned circles to be perhaps the most remarkable thing about him.
There is nothing debatable about the extent of Henry's dedication to biblical and theological studies or his special interest in matters liturgical. In official documents he was never at a loss to quote the Bible (not always relevantly) to back up a position he was defending. His very real devotion to theology is attested by his decision to found a chair of theology at Lisbon University. It is significant, too, that one of the very few non-liturgical books he is known to have had to hand when he died in 1460 was Peter Lombard's standard theological manual Libri sententiarum quatuor. His interest in liturgical matters, which would be fully displayed in his final testamentary instructions, may well have been one of the results of his mother's schooling. Portugal's English queen had turned out to be a determined liturgical reformer who introduced into Portugal the so-called `New Use of Sarum' an important modification of the Roman rite associated with Salisbury Cathedral to replace the traditional Roman liturgy employed there. She is reported to have forced the chapter of Lisbon cathedral to adopt the Sarum usage and to have taught celebrants how to use it. She also insisted on its use at court and by her sons in their private chapels, according to a near-contemporary.
Various papers survive in which Henry, as a member of the royal council, presents to the king and council in writing a defence of his position with regard to important matters of policy being debated there. These consultative statements do not do much to establish Henry's reputation as a person at ease with the task of setting up in writing properly argued defences of a political standpoint to which he had committed himself. Thus, when the advisability of an attack on Tangier was being discussed by the council in 1436, he submitted a formal written opinion (parecer) to the king ardently supporting the project. This document is notable for the lack of order in which its arguments are deployed, for its employment of traditional crusading rhetoric in place of reasoned exposition and its failure, in the end, to make any attempt to address seriously the pros and cons of the matter. The document gives the impression that it was written by an impatient crusading zealot who, since he had long made up his mind that an attack on Tangier was obviously the right course for a nation of Christian crusaders to undertake, was not going to waste his time affecting to examine objectively a project to which he was emotionally wholly committed. But, though documents like this one supply insights into the way Henry's mind worked when his obsession with the idea of himself as a crusader-in-chief was dominant, it would be improper to conclude from an emotionally-driven parecer of this kind that, in other contexts, he was not perfectly capable of both formulating and setting out in writing in reasoned form his ideas and plans. Thus the various instructions he gave in later life in his role as Protector of the University of Lisbon are straightforward, innovative, and obviously the result of careful thought about even minor details concerning the running of the university. More importantly, as we shall see, the evidence is strong that Henry's management of the discovery and exploitation of Guinea was, despite the crusading rhetoric that often accompanied it, both percipient and well planned. Though there was always a strong streak of religious zealotry in Henry's make-up, except where Portugal's crusading destiny in North Africa was concerned, it did not often blind him to realities, even unwelcome ones.
If we have few factual details about Henry's boyhood years, it is not too difficult to establish what were some of the influences at work upon him then. He plainly was brought up to venerate the achievements of his father as the hero of the wars against Castile and the man who had saved Portuguese independence. There are a number of pointers to suggest that he was, from an early date, John's favourite son. According to Fernão Lopes who uncharacteristically devotes a whole hyperbolic chapter to the matter, all the princes, as long as the king was alive, displayed an unfailing obedience to him and a determination never to do anything to displease him. The chronicler goes on to assert that, even when he called upon them to do something of which they themselves disapproved, they carried it out without showing a sign of their inner feelings. Lopes's account makes the sons of John I sound like nothing so much as early practitioners of the rule of unlimited obedience imposed on Jesuit novices by Ignatius Loyola in the next century. It is not clear, though, whether or not the chronicler's account of the group hypocrisy practised by Henry and his brothers in their relations with their father was really intended to be read as the praise it purports to be. Lopes, who was sometimes of an ironical turn of mind, perhaps chose this roundabout way of indicating his opinion that John's sons should have done more in the latter's later years to impede the ageing monarch's tolerance of misgovernment and his support for mistaken policies. Certainly, as far as the Prince was concerned, Lopes's picture of John I's children playing at happy families was far from reality.
It is safe to presume that the young Prince Henry, like his brothers, was much influenced in his formative years by his English mother and the tales she told them of the military victories and the famous deeds of chivalry performed by their Plantagenet ancestors. Philippa's special interest in liturgical practices was also transmitted in full measure to Henry and to his youngest brother, Fernando. Indeed, as will become clear in due course, her piety perhaps proved to be more influential in Henry's case than was altogether good for an ambitious and full-blooded young man. However there was more to Philippa than the Portuguese chroniclers' accounts of her would lead one to suppose. Fernão Lopes and Zurara depict Philippa, as the tradition of exemplary history required, as a model Christian queen and little else. In their writings she appears as an icon-like figure, wholly given up to exceptional and finally heroic piety, whose only desire was to see her husband and sons living religiously in perfect family harmony and winning fame fighting for Christianity against the infidel. Zurara even has her delivering long and impeccably polished last-minute instructions on how to achieve this while she was dying of plague. There are, indeed, good grounds for supposing the chronicler's depiction of Philippa's piety to be true as far as it goes. But a number of surviving letters to the English court which she wrote from Portugal show that she was more than a symbol of queenly piety. We thus find her actively intervening in English politics on behalf of followers of the dethroned Richard II when they appealed for her help after her brother, Henry IV, had usurped the English throne. Another letter shows her successfully using her influence with the new English king to get him to force a reluctant earl of Arundel to marry the Portuguese king's bastard daughter Beatriz. Other letters have a more personal tone, as when she declares that she understands the homesickness which had led her English secretary to wish to return home after years in Portugal or asks to be sent a sample of the latest English fashion in purses. One lesson Henry plainly did not learn from his mother was that piety required one to put aside active involvement in worldly affairs.
There are various signs, too, of the effectiveness of the queen in making her sons proud of their Plantagenet ancestry. Thus, when the time came for them to be knighted, they all adopted Anglo-Norman mottoes as if to proclaim to the world that, where chivalry was concerned, they intended particularly to invite comparison with their English relatives. Henry chose the motto talant de bien fere which, in the English court language of those times, meant `a hunger to perform worthy deeds'. There is other evidence that the queen filled the minds of her sons with a sense of respect and admiration for the chivalrous deeds of their English royal relatives. The future king, Duarte I, when he turned his hand to writing moral literature, made a special point (in his Leal Conselheiro) of reminding his readers of the great victory of his cousin, Henry V, at Agincourt and of the chivalric bravery of the English king on that occasion. In 1437, when Duarte instructed Prince Henry how to carry out his duties as commander-in-chief of the Portuguese army sent to capture Tangier, he would direct his brother to enforce the discipline, drill, self-restraint and strict compliance with orders that, he said, had been responsible for winning famous victories for the English, who had demonstrated to the world that prudence was not incompatible with chivalry. Along with this respect for the chivalric preoccupations of the English court, Philippa, according to Zurara, was also responsible for communicating to her sons some rather heady notions about the blueness of their blood, at least on her side of the family. The chronicler thus makes the young princes, among them Henry, begin their announcement to her in 1415 of their intention to take part in the attack on Ceuta using the following words:
Lady: you well know the nobility of blood by virtue of which we, by God's grace, enjoy the great position in which we have been placed. It is on that account that our quality continually presses us to equal in excellency those princes from whose lineage it has pleased God to bring us into the world.
It is, of course, decidedly unlikely the actual words used by the Infantes to their mother on this occasion, if it ever happened at all, were anything like these, but they evidently represented the kind of language which Zurara thought Henry and his elder brother, Pedro whose memories of the occasion he consulted in the 1440s would be content to have attributed to them. This desire of John's sons to stress their blue-bloodedness on the English side was perhaps motivated by an uncomfortable awareness that their father, great though his reputation was as a warrior, was of tainted descent. What a problem bastardy always was in a court which exalted the values of chivalry is made clear by Zurara who, when discussing the very impressive career of John's illegitimate son, Afonso, count of Barcelos and founder of the great ducal house of Braganza, thought it necessary to say of him that `though he lacked nobility of ancestry on his mother's side, God made him so virtuous and endowed him with so great a heart that, in all things pertaining to honour, he was able to hide the low blood he inherited from his mother'.
The readiness with which Philippa's sons and the Portuguese nobility in general asserted their apparently very sincere devotion to such notions of ancestry and chivalry at a time when these were tending to become mere rhetorical gestures in the rest of Europe is, at first sight, unexpected. In the war of independence against Castile in the 1380s, the old Portuguese landed aristocracy had mostly sided with the Castilian invaders. In consequence it had seemed to have been been destroyed as a consequence of the Castilian defeat at Aljubarrota, though before too long it would contrive to recover much of its former power and possessions. The victor of Aljubarrota, John I, had tried to create a new aristocracy by lavish grants to his supporters of lands often confiscated from the dead or the exiled magnates and lesser nobles who had sided with the invaders. These nouveaux nobles, by a familiar social process, rapidly developed pretentions and aspirations far more exalted even than those of their rather provincial predecessors. These, indeed, earned them a satirical comment from Fernão Lopes, who, forgetful of his own humble circumstances, snobbishly wrote of the new nobility
... another and new world then arose and a new generation of men; for the sons of people of such low degree that it would not be fitting to name them were, at that time, made knights for their good services to the king, and for their courage. They then adopted new names and new lineages. Others, however, declared themselves to be descended from ancient noble houses of which no living memory had survived.
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