The Age of Exploration is one of the defining aspects of the Renaissance and Early Modern Periods in Europe. The Age of Exploration refers to the period from roughly 1420 to 1600 when European explorers made voyages across the Atlantic and beyond. During this period, monarchs were keen to support exploration and funded some of the most significant voyages in history.

But why? Why did monarchs encourage exploration? What did they get out of it?

Let’s find out.

Why Did Monarchs Encourage Exploration During the Renaissance?

We will focus our discussion on the Age of Exploration which started during the Renaissance and understand the motivation of monarchs to fund and support these exploratory voyages.

Here are the main reasons why European monarchs encouraged exploration during the Renaissance:

  1. To discover new trade routes and markets
  2. To expand their empires
  3. To increase their political power at home
  4. To spread Christianity to distant lands
  5. To increase their wealth and influence over rivals

Let’s now look closely at each of these main reasons why monarchs encouraged exploration.

#1. To discover new trade routes and markets

Many monarchs and rulers, especially of maritime powers such as England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands as well as maritime city-states like Genoa and Venice understood that the fastest way to find new markets for their products was to explore the lands beyond the seas.

In times before the Renaissance, this wasn’t always possible. Even though the Crusades had opened up trade routes, these were to the near-Orient and the Levant because maritime technology was not advanced enough to sail further with confidence. Remember, that many of the Crusader armies went by land through the Byzantine Empire, but the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 closed this route for further exploration.

But with the invention of better ships, compasses, and navigational instruments this changed in the Renaissance period and distant lands suddenly became accessible.

With new trade routes and markets, monarchs wanted to increase the wealth of their nations not just by selling their products into these markets but also by finding valuable resources for use back home.

The discovery of these new trade routes would spawn a trade and commerce revolution and would bring immense wealth and influence to the European powers that engaged in it. It was thus natural for monarchs to be keenly interested in these voyages of discovery and to fund them as much as possible.

#2. To expand their empires

Trade, commerce and wealth were just one reason why monarchs encourage exploration. No European monarch was really satisfied with the land they had; they always wanted more. The continuous need for expansion led to virtually non-stop warfare throughout the Middle Ages.

Even the Crusades were only partly religious in nature; they were also wars of expansion and conquest, often under the guise of freeing the Holy Land. European monarchs or nobility established Crusader states like the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch the County of Tripoli and the County of Edessa.

The Age of Exploration was simply an extension of this tradition, only now it was by sea. European explorers like Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan were able to reach distant lands that before had been out of reach. By claiming these lands for the crown, monarchs could not only expand their empires but also gain great wealth by bringing valuable resources back to Europe.

So, the support of monarchs was one of the main reasons why the Age of Exploration began.

#3. To increase their political power at home

Wealth and success in distant lands often led to an immense increase of power at home. By conquering new lands and bringing valuable resources to their nations, monarchs could gain a great amount of influence over rival nobles and the political landscape of their home nations.

Also, the exploration and conquest of distant lands was a way to quell political dissent (if there was any) and to put the population behind the ruling monarch. Often, political rivals were required to join the voyages of discovery and conquest, thus removing them from domestic politics.

#4. To spread Christianity to distant lands

One impact of the Renaissance on the Catholic Church was the export of Christianity to distant lands. This was an important endeavor for many monarchs and rulers who sought to convert the natives of these new lands to Christianity. The most fervent of these were the Spanish monarchs Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Sometimes referred to as “The Catholic Monarchs”, they were responsible for the Spanish colonization of much of the Americas and brought Christianity to many people who had never been exposed to it before. So their encouragement of exploration was very much motivated by religious beliefs and their desire to spread Catholicism to these distant lands.

#5. To increase their wealth and influence over rivals

Finally, the exploration and conquests of distant lands were often a power play within the closed circles of European rulers. By discovering new lands and claiming them for the crown, monarchs could increase their own wealth and influence over their European rivals. This

was especially true with regard to the Spanish, French and English monarchs who were often competing for control of newly discovered lands.

The distant lands were often bargaining chips in the political game between European monarchs. For instance, the island of New Amsterdam was a Dutch settlement in North America and used it the defense of the fur trade of the Dutch West India Company. In 1664, the English took over New Amsterdam and in exchange gave up Surinam and the island of Run to the Dutch. Distant colonies exchanged hands as part of a larger power game. New Amsterdam was what we now call Manhattan!

To Conclude …

So, why did monarchs encourage exploration? Monarchs encouraged exploration for a variety of reasons, both religious and political.

Trade and commerce, the expansion of their empires, increased power at home, the spread of Christianity and the acquisition of wealth over rival monarchs were all motivations for why monarchs encouraged exploration during the Age of Exploration.