“Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years” – Will Durant

Prince Henry the Navigator: “I seem to have misplaced a few bishops”

In 711 A.D. the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa and called the territory Al-Andalus, which at its peak included most of modern-day Spain, Portugal, and Septimania, waging centuries of war with the rest of Europe until the 1492 fall of Granada that ended what historians call the Reconquista, but by 1249, Portugal had already established itself as an independent kingdom.  By the 15th Century, Portugal initiated the Age of Exploration, and her navigators developed a well-deserved reputation as the finest sailors money could buy.  Prince Henry “The Navigator” (1394-1460 A.D.), the third child of Portugal’s King John I took the leading role in the establishment of a far-flung Portuguese overseas empire and coordinated the systematic exploration of West Africa and the Atlantic.   As early as 1424, Portuguese explorers reported to Prince Henry that they had discovered a strange island west of the Portuguese mainland which was designated as Antillia, but more commonly known as “the Isle of the Seven Bishops” or “the Isle of Seven Cities”.  15th Century maps routinely included it, but by the 16th Century it had simply vanished into the mists of history.  Now, this wasn’t just some phantom landmass spotted on the horizon and dutifully recorded.  It had a good back story provided by sailors who claimed to have actually landed and interacted with the locals, who turned out to be Portuguese-speaking Catholics.

At the time when the Portuguese were becoming pre-eminent in naval enterprise, some mariners presented themselves one day before the celebrated Prince Henry, and informed him that they had just returned from a voyage, in the course of which they had visited a hitherto unknown, but most interesting, island. Its inhabitants, they averred, spoke the Portuguese language, and were faithful Catholics. As a proof of this, they affirmed that the natives, immediately after the landing of the crews, had insisted upon taking them to church, requiring them to take their part in the service, in order to assure themselves that their visitors were orthodox Christians. Satisfied at length upon this point, they asked with interest, whether the Moors were still masters of Spain and Portugal. When this question excited some surprise, they explained their reason for asking it. They said that, after the defeat of King Roderick on the banks of the Guadalete, when the inhabitants were flying in all directions to escape the cruelties of their barbarous conquerors, seven of the Spanish bishops took shipping in company with a great number of their people, and sailing away from their native shores, trusted to Providence to guide them to some suitable place of abode. After a long and hazardous voyage, they reached an unknown island in the middle of the Ocean, where they landed. Having burnt their ships to prevent the possibility of desertion by their followers, the seven bishops divided the island between them, and built seven cities, all of which in the fifteenth century were great and flourishing (Adams, 1883, p133-134).

The explanation for the curious character of the residents was supported by extant legends of a mass migration of bishops during the 8th Century Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.  A 1492 globe made by cartographer Martinho da Boémia for Portugal’s King John II includes the Isle of the Seven Cities and a more detailed explanation that reads, “In the year 734 of Christ, when the whole of Spain had been won by the heathen (Moors) of Africa, the above island Antilia, called Septe citade (Seven cities), was inhabited by an archbishop from the Porto in Portugal, with six other bishops, and other Christians, men and women, who had fled thither from Spain, by ship, together with their cattle, belongings, and goods. In 1414 a ship from Spain got nighest it without being endangered” (Babcock, 1922, p71).  It didn’t seem so implausible to anyone that seven bishops from Visigothic Spain might have fled the descending Moorish conquerors in the 8th Century.  Spanish historian Pedro de Medina (1548), referencing 14th Century maps gives the island’s dimensions as 87 leagues in length and 28 in width.  Further references are made by Christopher Columbus’ son Ferdinand in 1539, and Portuguese historian António Galvão (1563).  One might ask how a flourishing island civilization may have maintained such a confirmed, but elusive presence in the Atlantic, but as it turns out, purported visitors suggested that the Isle of Seven Cities was being deliberately hidden.

During the generations which had intervened since the settlement of the bishops, many Portuguese navigators had at one time or another, reached the island; but they were unable to return to Portugal, having been detained by the descendants of the bishops; who, understanding that Spain was still ruled by the infidel, were afraid that their place of retreat might be discovered, and invaded by the enemy. The mariners affirmed, that while part of the crew were in church, the others gathered some sand on the sea shore, and found, to their astonishment, that one-third of it was gold dust. The islanders were anxious that the ships should remain until the return of the governor, who chanced to be absent. But the captain, who had heard of the detention of his predecessors, and was probably afraid that the same policy would be pursued towards himself, returned to his ship, and weighed anchor. Prince Henry on hearing the story of the mariners, expressed it is said, great displeasure at their having quitted the island without having obtained fuller information, and sent orders requiring them to return and ascertain everything of importance concerning it. It is probable that the mariners had privately learnt something of his intentions; for they took their departure on a sudden, and before his message reached them. Nor were they ever heard of again (Adams, 1883, p134-135).

A 1487 record in the Archives of the Torre de Piombo, contains a contract between one Fernando de Ulmo, cavalier of the royal household, and captain of the Isle of Terceira and the Portuguese crown to finance an expedition consisting of two caravels to search for the Isle of the Seven Cities.  The fate of the expedition was never recorded, but we hear no more of Fernando de Ulmo.  Subsequent discovery of the Americas appear to have been the death blow for the Isle of the Seven Cities, and by the 16th Century, cartographers had scrupulously removed it from most maps.  It seems that folks came to general agreement that there was not actually a 300 mile long rectangular island just off mainland Portugal with a flourishing civilization founded by seven Portuguese bishops, as the maps of the 15th Century had indicated.  Although, some odd etymological and folkloric clues as to the nature of this phantom island have emerged.  The term Antillia was originally thought to derive from the Portuguese Ante-Ilha (“Opposite Island”).  The relative similarity to “Atlantis” was of course an obvious correspondence that scholars jumped on, bolstering the notion that it was simply a fabulous tale derived from Plato.  The first mention of the island was in 1367 by cartographers Francesco and Domenico Pizigano, who called it “Antullia”, leading some modern scholars to conclude that the name may not actually have been Portuguese, rather a contraction of “Anti-Tullia” (that is, “Anti-Thule”, the common legendary name for Iceland).  This mythical island would later lend its name to the very real Antilles in the Carribean, but its designation as “opposite Thule” is highly suggestive that we might be talking about Ireland (or islands off the coast of Ireland).  Of course, the etymology is highly speculative, but there is an odd correspondence to be found in the legends of Ireland’s western Aran Islands and the story of Saint Brecan.

Brecan (around 480 A.D.) was grandchild of Dalcassian King Carthan Fionn, and his father Eochu Balldearg was son of the king.  Brecan was said to have emerged as a brave soldier who conquered the pagans of the Aran Isles, shortly thereafter dedicating himself to becoming a Christian missionary.  Brecan is credited with establishing the Seven Churches of Inishmore (the largest Aran Island), later becoming their patron saint.  Highly inconclusive for sure, but consider that Brecan’s grandfather, as King of Munster, would have traced his lineage to the Tuatha Dé Danann, who according to the traditional Irish histories recorded in the Book of Invasions, were colonists who arrived in Ireland, promptly burnt their boats and displaced previous colonists called the Fir Bolg.  The genealogy of the Fir Bolg is not entirely clear, but they are highly associated with proto-Celtic tribes in northern Gaul, although with close connections (noted by Romans, Caesar in particular) as having Germanic origins, which gives us at least a vague connection to the 5-8th Century Visigothic Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula that was displaced by the Moors, precipitating the legendary migration of the Seven Bishops to Antillia.

We’ve lost a lot of islands over the years.  Heck we’ve lost whole historically attested cities, countries, peoples, and legendary figures over the millennia.  When we poke around in our written records, we often find odd snippets and hints that our understanding of our own past is at best fragmentary, and that oral traditions passed down across the generations may just preserve understandings that have been subsumed in later dynastic justifications, literary license, and self-serving recreations of origin myths.  This may be, as Thomas Jefferson said, that we prefer dreams of the future to the history of the past, but history and the past are not synonymous, as the past is what happened whereas history is only what was written down by the last man standing.  As an African proverb wisely observes, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters”.

Adams, H. C. 1817-1899. Travellers’ Tales: a Book of Marvels. London, New York: G. Routledge, 1883.
Babcock, William H. 1849-1922. Legendary Islands of the Atlantic: a Study In Medieval Geography. New York: American Geographical Society, 1922.