The last mystery of Madeira


O Rei Encoberto... Polonês

Encontro de S. Joaquim e Santa Ana junto da Porta Dourada

What is the connection between Sebastiao O Desejado (king of Portugal and Algraves, etc.), and Władysław Warneńczyk (king of Poland and Hungary, etc.)?

For one, there is a striking similarity of fate.

Born in 1424, Władysław, like Sebastiao, ascended his father's throne as a mere boy upon his father's death (1434). Like Sebastiao, he was handsome, intelligent and energetic. This was one reason why six years later he was elected king of Hungary as well, on the understanding that he would take up the cross against the Turks in defense of his new kingdom; which he did and, like Sebastiao, he led a crusade: in 1444, 25,000 Poles, Hungarians and Wallachians crossed into Bulgaria. Like Sebastiao's , the crusade of Władyslaw was also initially a success; the Turks were compelled to a ten year truce which obliged them to stay out of continental Europe. But then, almost immediately, the young king gave in to Pope's warmongering pressure, violated the truce and resumed the crusade. And then it all ended, like that of Sebastiao's, in utter and total defeat, at Varna, on November 10. The king was last seen leading a charge; his body was never found.

These similarities are obvious.

But then there is the similarity of their after-life: this young king's death, just like the other's, was widely disbelieved; and he became the Awaited One.

Władysław's brother and heir, Kazimierz, refused to believe in his brother's death and delayed his own coronation by three years, patiently awaiting his brother's return. Messengers were dispatched in search of the disappeared king in an attempt to establish what had happened to him. Some were shown a severed head which they said was not the king's. Back in Poland it was ordered that at Angelus church bells strike extra ten times as a symbol of the country's loyal longing for her king. (They continued to do so for as long as the country remained independent (1795); and in Sandomierz they still did so as recently as 1970's, which I heard with my own ears).

Then in the 2oth century the word spread from Portugal that Władysław had not died at Varna, but, having been saved by some Franciscans, was taken to Mount Sinai, where, having recovered from his wounds he became a knight of Santa Catarina; and thence he traveled to Portugal and -- Madeira, where he settled on land given him by the king of Portugal under the name of Henrique Alemao, or Henry the German. There he funded a church of St Magdalen, now destroyed; a painting from it, preserved in the local museum (above), is said to represent him as St Joachim.

The legend is old: in the 1970's a Polish historian has discovered a letter in the Teutonic archive dating to 1470's reporting that Władysław was alive and well on Madeira. (This would have been useful propaganda for the Teutonic order, involved as it was in a life-and-death struggle with Władysław's brother, Kazimierz: it could be used to undermine their enemy's legitimacy).

If you ask me, the story sounds fake. Henrique had most likely been an impostor; if you wonder why, well -- his imposition has earned him a nice property on Madeira from the benevolent king of Portugal. (It would not be the last time that Poles arrived in Portugal under false pretenses). It speaks volumes of Portuguese sense of nobility that they so readily accepted the impostor's excuse for not returning to Poland: having violated the Turkish truce and then lost the war (clearly, a divine punishment for breaking his royal word), he now felt he did not deserve to be king anymore.

A touching story, this: it would go well into a Fado song.

But one thing does appear certain: there indeed was in the late 1400's in Madeira a man claiming to be Władysław; and the story was indeed quite well known in Portugal.

So the real connection between Władysław and Sebastiao appears to be this: that when a century later Sebastiao disappeared on his crusade, a legend of his survival, occlusion, and possible future return was already waiting for him in Madeira.

There are many ways in which liars make history; this is just one more.


chris miller said...

Two beautifully told stories - but I don't think the word "intelligent" would apply to either one of those hapless royals.

They both seem to have lacked that sense of cynicism which the job requires.

Even dumber was the popular longing for their return.

Hadn't they caused enough damage already?

Did Portugal ever really recover from good King Sebastiao?

Anonymous said...

Well, old man, that only depends on what you think the right job for a king is!

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