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Conquest of Ceuta

Conquest of Ceuta

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Is this the beginning or the middle of the story? Portugal’s 1415 Conquest of Ceuta is both the beginning of Portugal as a maritime empire and the reversal of hundreds of years of Muslim domination of the Iberian peninsula. Portuguese King Joao himself led the expedition that would go far behind the sacking of a trade city, leading into the age of exploration itself. How did Portugal find itself taking control of the very land from which it was once attacked?

Conquest of Ceuta: King Joao I

Born in 1357, Joao I, or John I, had been the illegitimate son of Portuguese King Peter I. Initially, there seemed no likelihood of John I inheriting the throne, so he took up as master of the Military Order of Aviz. When the line of succession reached his half-sister, Beatrice, that all changed.

The Military Order of Aviz was a Christian military organization similar to the Knights Templar.

Modern World History King John I of Portugal StudySmarter

Fig.1 - King John I of Portugal

Beatrice was married to King John I of Castile, meaning that Portugal would now be absorbed into Castile. Striving to remain independent, the nobility named John I of the Military Order of Aviz as their king. After repelling John I of Castile’s attempts to take Portugal, John I of Aviz (from here just referred to as “John I”), set his sights on expanding the Portuguese influence. His education and military background would serve to plant the seed for the Portuguese Empire to come.

Ascension of John I Timeline

  • 1357 John I was born
  • 1383 King Ferdinand I died, leaving Beatrice next in succession
  • 1385 John I declared king of Portugal

Causes of Conquest of Ceuta

Twice the future of Portugal began in Ceuta. Not only does the 1415 conquest of Ceuta lead to the future Portuguese Empire, but the entire chain of events leading to the existence of the Kingdom of Portugal can be traced back to Ceuta. It was in Ceuta in 711 that Muslim forces staged their attack on the Visigoth-held Iberian Peninsula.

By 1139, centuries of fighting had resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal as Christians fought to retake the Iberian peninsula. It was in 1249 that the Muslims were completely pushed out of the Portugal and back into Morocco. From Ceuta, pirates continued to harass Portuguese villages, raiding them and enslaving the inhabitants. For the Portuguese, Ceuta had long been the source of trouble.

Ceuta: A Mediterranean-Atlantic Trade Hub

Ceuta was not just a military staging area for assaulting the Iberian peninsula, but a major port city. Located on the Strait of Gibraltar, Ceuta could be reached by sea from the Mediterranean Ocean. In addition to gold and enslaved people from Africa, Ceuta was a source of spices from the east. Its wealth was immense when compared to the subsistence farming and fishing economy of Portugal. This made it a target.

The Kingdom of Castile

John I of Castile died in 1390 without an heir to claim the throne of Portugal. Thus ended that threat to John I of Portugal’s reign. Still, Castile was a rival. Controlling the Strait of Gibraltar would allow the Portuguese to flank Castile in any future conflicts.


The religious element of Portuguese military conflicts should never be overlooked. John I had previously headed the Military Order of Aviz, Christians and Muslims had fought for control of the region for hundreds of years. Also, many of the leading figures in future Portuguese military actions, including Henry the Navigator, would belong to another Knights Templar offshoot called the Military Order of Christ.

Since 1341, papal bulls had been issued authorizing Portuguese Crusades against Muslim territory in North Africa. Beset by plague and succession issues, they had not been followed up on. Now the religious warrior king John I sought to follow through. In 1418, John I would receive a papal bull to continue his conquest of Africa as an official Crusade.

An additional effect of the papal bull declaring the action to be a Crusade was that now any prisoners captured by the Portuguese could be enslaved and sold.

Papal bull: A public decree issued by the pope of the Roman Catholic Church

Summary of Reasons for the Conquest of Ceuta

  • History of the conflict between Muslim-controlled Ceuta and Portugal
  • Continued piracy and human enslavement of Portuguese by pirates from Ceuta
  • Access to African gold trade
  • Access to Mediterranean Sea trade
  • Flanking position on Castile
  • Religious motivations

Conquest of Ceuta, 1415

Despite 703 years of conflict, the August 21, 1415 conquest of Ceuta was over before it began. John I led the invasion himself, assisted by three of his sons, including Henry the Navigator. The 40,000 men carried aboard Portuguese ships arrived at a completely unprepared and poorly guarded Ceuta. As the sun rose on August 22, Ceuta was a Portuguese territory.

Although the battle was over relatively quickly, Henry the Navigator was wounded in the fighting.

Modern World History Henry the Navigator StudySmarter

Fig.3 - Henry the Navigator

First Conquest of Ceuta

As conquerors, the Portuguese quickly looted everything that the city had to offer. Internal conflict in Morocco had inhibited the ability to respond. It would not be until 1419 that a failed attempt would be made to take back the city. As John I departed, he left the city in the hands of his son, Duarte. Duarte would not turn the city into the investment that had been hoped for, but it was only the beginning.

Duarte would go on to become the next king of Portugal.

Significance of Portugal Conquest of Ceuta

The significance of the Conquest of Ceuta is that it was the first step in building the Portuguese Maritime Empire. Soon the Portuguese would realize that there was little value in holding just Ceuta alone. Merchants began avoiding the now occupied city and instead traded in Tangier, 70 miles to the west. Portugal was now left with an expensive troop garrison in a city that was quickly losing value. What were they to do?

From Ceuta, Portugal explored and expanded through Africa and around the coast. The initial architect of those explorations, Henry the Navigator, may have failed spectacularly at taking Tangier, but he did discover many other areas of Portuguese interest. Madeira, the Azores, and the west coast of Africa were all explored in his time. Portuguese colonies were established, and the Portuguese Empire was born.

Conquest of Ceuta - Key takeaways

  • For 700 years attacks on Portugal had been launched from Ceuta, Morocco
  • King John I took the crown of Portugal in 1385
  • In 1415 Jing John I led the Conquest of Ceuta
  • The battle was over quickly in favor of Portuguese forces
  • From Ceuta, Portuguese would begin its maritime empire

Frequently Asked Questions about Conquest of Ceuta

The conquest of Ceuta is significant because it marks the start of the Portuguese maritime empire.

The Ceuta conquest was in 1415 by Portugal.

Portugal colonized Ceuta in 1415.

The conquest of Ceuta gave Portugal the foothold in Africa that they needed to begin their maritime empire. 

Final Conquest of Ceuta Quiz

Conquest of Ceuta Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What country took Ceuta in the Conquest of Ceuta?

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The Conquest of Ceuta began what?

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The Portuguese maritime empire

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Who led the Conquest of Ceuta?

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John I 

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What had previous been launched from Ceuta?

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Muslim attacks on the Iberian Penninsula 

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John I of Portugual had to defeat the attempts of who to become King of Portugal?

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John of Castile 

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The Conquest of Ceuta was quick and decisive 

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What was Ceuta primarily known for globally?

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What important body of water was Ceuta located on?

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Strait of Gibraltar 

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What sea could be reached by water from Ceuta?

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By whose authority could Portugal consider their attacks on Africa to be a Crusade?

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The Pope 

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