James of Portugal: Prisoner, Courtier, Bishop, Cardinal

What is it like to be a second son in a late medieval princely family? In this post, Christophe takes us through the example of James of Coimbra (1433 – 1459), who harnessed the political influence of his allies to aid his rapid rise to power.

(Much of this entry is based on Christophe’s study in ‘Évêques et cardinaux princiers et curiaux (XIVe-début XVIe siècle)’. Find out more about the book here)


A portrait of a stern elderly lady wearing a high double-pointed hood

Rogier van der Weyden’s workshop, Portrait of Isabella of Portugal, (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum)

Born in 1433, James of Coimbra was a son of Peter, regent of the kingdom of Portugal from 1442 to 1448, and was raised as a noble in a cultivated milieu. As such, he fought the battle of Alfarrobeira (20th May 1449) where his father died, and he was taken prisoner aged 15. He remained a captive until the end of the year, when his aunt, Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, managed to have him, his brother John, and his sister Béatrice freed and ultimately taken to the Low Countries.

The three of them benefited from the protection of Isabella and her husband, Duke Philip the Good. Béatrice was betrothed to and married an important Burgundian courtier, Adolf of Clèves, Lord of Ravenstein, (the duke’s nephew), whilst James’ brother John became a diplomat, a soldier and a counsellor for Philip of Burgundy.  He then left for Cyprus to marry the 12 year old Charlotte of Lusignan, heir to the island kingdom, where he died a year later, possibly poisoned on the orders of his new mother-in-law…


Pope Pius II in full regalia

Pius II (Pinturicchio, The Arrival at Ancona (detail), Siena, Duomo, Libreria Piccolomini, (cc) The Yorck Project)

After having spent a little more than a year at the Burgundian court, where he was highly regarded and well-treated, James was sent to Rome to pursue an ecclesiastical career. This complimented the choices made for his brother, who lived as a secular lord, and for his sister, who had made a prestigious marriage alliance.

As well as being financially supported by the personal income of the Duchess Isabella, James’ career was aided by the political influence of the ducal couple. His list of appointments is extensive – he was made protonotary apostolic by the pope in 1451, elected provost of the collegiate church Saint-Pierre of Lille (in Burgundian Flanders) and made bishop of Arras “by the command of the duke of Burgundy” in 1452, bishop of Paphos in 1457, and archbishop of Lisbon in 1459. Despite receiving revenues from all of his positions, he never went to Portugal, the Low Countries, or Cyprus!  He was still in his early twenties when Pope Calixtus III made him a cardinal in 1456, and he was ambitious enough to try to get himself chosen as pope at the next election of 1458, afterwards occasionally challenging  the authority of the successful Pius II…


Ornate chapel with intricately tiled floor and marble wall panels

Funeral chapel of James of Portugal (Francesco Gasparetti)

Instead of travelling, James stayed in Rome, where he acted almost as a permanent ambassador for the duke of Burgundy and proved to be especially interested in Portuguese matters. He died on the 27th August 1459 in Florence, aged just 25, before being able to join the pope preparing his crusade in Mantova.

In 1466, thanks once again to the support of Isabella of Burgundy, his funeral chapel was finally erected in San Miniato al Monte, in Florence. Lucca della Robbia produced the tin-glazed terracotta of the ceiling, Antonio Rossellino built the funeral monument, Bartolomeo Platina composed the epitaph and the Pollaiuolo Brothers and Alesso Baldovinetti were responsible for the paintings.


James had thus been a perfect example of what the Burgundian rulers wanted him to be: an ambassador in the very heart of the Christendom, able to support their policy and their claims. Unfortunately for them—and for him—he died too young to be able to fulfil all of their wishes…


Elaborate funeral monument of white marble, with angels and cherubs

Funeral Monument of James of Portugal (Christophe Masson)

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