Impact of Rivalries on Late Medieval Iberian Exploration

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A common theme in ancient history, and in the present day, is expansion. Each state wants to be bigger and better than its neighbors, and late medieval Iberia was no exception. During the time period of medieval Iberia, the states of Portugal, Aragon, and Castile all wanted the title of being the most powerful state in the world. However, the only way they could attain this goal was by conquering other states and expanding their territories. This desire for power and clout resulted in a massive rivalry between the three Iberian states and started a competition to see who could control the most countries/states first.

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While the craving for influence was a large motivating factor for expansion, it was not the only factor. Relationships, religion, slavery, and trade also influenced exploration between the Iberian states.

One of the most important parts of the Iberian Rivalry was the dynamic between the three states. The three states were located where modern day Spain and Portugal are, so they were close in proximity.[footnoteRef:0] This not only made it easy to attack and compete with one another, but also to form allies. The marriage of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon made Castile and Aragon the strongest duo in all of Medieval Iberia. The alliance between Aragon and Castile naturally created a major divide between the two states and Portugal. Portugal, being weak in comparison to Aragon and Castile, decided to establish itself as a serious threat in Iberia by exploring the Western portion of Africa.Castile and Aragon did not like this, so after multiple turbulent fights the three states decided that Portugal’s domain would be West Africa and Castile and Aragon’s domain would be the Canary Islands. Queen Isabella of Castile even announced publicly that her people must not, “dare to go or send, or from this time forwards shall go or send, any person or persons with your ships to the said parts of Africa and Guinea, without the license and special command”. The state’s still believed there was territory to be conquered, so they began traveling farther east.

During the time of the Iberian Rivalry, religion played a large role in success or failure of a country. It could unify and expand a county, or tear it apart. Castile, Aragon, and Portugal were all devout christian states who strived to please God. In Christianity, one of the many ways Christians honor God is by spreading His gospel and converting people to Christianity. The Iberian states believed they could honor God by traveling to non-Christian countries and converting them to Christianity. While it was thought this common goal would unite the Iberian states, it actually fueled their rivalry. The Iberian states used Evangelism both as a way to honor God and to conquer non-Christian countries. They would travel to countries where Judaism or Islam was the main religion, and force the country’s citizens to become slaves under the justification that “it was what God wanted”. Slavery signified the conquering of a country, so the Iberian states competed against one another under the guise of “Evangelism” to see who could overthrow India and Africa first.

Another way religion impacted the Iberian rivalry was by narrowing the scope of countries that Aragon, Castile, and Portugal could fight for. Since a motivating factor for the Iberian states to explore was to convert non-Christian countries, like India and Africa, to Christianity, they missed out on the chance to conquer other Christian lands. This narrowed the number of countries Aragon, Castile, and Portugal could fight for, and intensified the rivalry between them.

Aside from religious purposes, slavery also played a large role in the growth of Iberia. During the Iberian rivalry, all three states wanted to expand their territories, but they could not do so without a large labor force. Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator knew he did not have enough manpower in his state for expansion, so he taught a group of men how to sail and sent them to Africa to capture slaves. Prince Henry targeted Africa for two reasons: proximity and racism. Geographically, Portugal is nearby Africa so it was not a treacherous journey for Prince Henry’s men. In regards to race, Prince Henry and his men believed that the darker pigmentation of the people living in Africa signified a lower caste, so they thought it was socially acceptable to take them as slaves. Aragon and Castile were not far behind Portugal in sailing to different countries to find slaves. Some of the places Castile and Aragon explored were India and South America. Castile and Aragon traveled to India and South America in search of slaves instead of Africa because they wanted to respect Portugal’s territories. They did not want to blatantly upset Portugal by traveling to its land and taking its people hostage. However, once Castile and Aragon reached India, they upset Portugal in a different way.

One of the final ways the Iberian rivalry impacted exploration during the medieval times was by creating a competition amongst the Iberian states to see who could reach India first. The Iberian states knew that India had a profitable spice trade, but due to the difficult journey from India to the Iberia they were unable to access the spices at an affordable cost. The Iberian states figured that if they could conquer India, they would have control over one of the most successful trades in the world. This desire sparked a race between the Iberian states to see who would be the first to discover a route to India by traveling around Africa. However, this race was met with many challenges. The first challenge was that each state could not travel around Africa without passing through another state’s territory. As mentioned previously, Castile and Aragon had possession over the Canary Islands, and Portugal had possession over West Africa. Neither empire could attempt the journey without passing through or traveling nearby the other’s domain. This was problematic because all of the Iberian states were possessive over their territories and did not want opposing states to come near their land on the way to India. The other problem was that Castile, Aragon, and Portugal had to assemble teams to complete the journey. Portugal met this demand by commissioning Christopher Columbus to lead the journey, but he sailed West instead of East and landed where the United States is today. Columbus’s discovery of America opened a new trading opportunity that was previously unknown to Iberia. Castile and Aragon also commissioned a team to complete the journey to India, but their team lost to Portugal in 1498.

The desire for power and clout resulted in a massive rivalry between the three Iberian states and started a competition to see who could control the most countries/states first. While the craving for influence was a large motivating factor for expansion, it was not the only factor. Relationships, religion, slavery, and trade also influenced exploration between the Iberian states. While the Iberian Rivalry is typically seen in a negative light, it is important to recognize the benefits of the rivalry. The Iberian rivalry forced the states to constantly develop and adapt in order to stay ahead of their competitors. The rivalry also helped shape modern day cultures, relations, and countries. If it were not for the Iberian rivalry, we would not see the rich diversity present in today’s world.


  1. Berdichevsky, Norman, “The Age-Old Iberian Rivalry and the Jews,” Jerusalem Center for
  2. Public Affairs. 2004, (accessed March 26, 2019).
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Impact of Rivalries on Late Medieval Iberian Exploration. (2020, Aug 20). Retrieved from