The monarchies of Spain and Portugal in the mid-late 1400s were characterized by competent rulers, keen to consolidate their influence and extirpate the rot of corruption. Isabella of Spain (NP) and her husband Ferdinand (N) rigourously pursued the sound tax base that stabilised their kingdom. The couple financed the explorations of Christopher Columbus, who apparently was paid only after his bold expedition succeeded. Such efforts were an investment; later, strongmen such as Hernan Cortes (NPA) delivered the gains, setting a bloody, harsh but ultimately effective model for future colonial efforts.
The technological advances in shipping were made possible by the enthusiasm of Portuguese royals such as Henry the Navigator (NP) and Joao II (NP). Though a small nation, Portugal proved its clout in exploration: Pedro Álvares Cabral (N), being the bold and proud swashbuckler who found Brazil and did battle in Africa. His pride however was excessive; a lesser noble who dared to argue with royal authority, Cabral spent his later years in quiet - perhaps forced - retirement.
Johannes Gutenberg (NP) completed his printing press in 1450. Within fifty years, the Bible and other texts had been widely distributed, with new translations appearing. The press was appropriated by the charismatic Martin Luther (N), whose 95 theses against the church ignited the Reformation: the power of print as a political weapon was clear. Suddenly, it was easier for people to receive and act upon information; under the helm of charismatic leaders, old power structures were forever altered. It isn't exaggeration to say that Gutenberg's invention - duplicated, advanced and refined by successive engineers - changed everything.
In England, the efficient, meticulous Henry VII (NP), left his son Henry VIII (N), a heavily bolstered treasury and a well-enforced kingdom. It was for both financial and personal gain that a church Reformation characterized the mature Henry's reign. Henry cast aside his stable union with a sensible woman - Catherine of Aragon (NP), daughter to Isabella of Spain - for the fiery, ambitious Anne Boleyn (N). Their only child, Elizabeth I, (N) later encouraged England toward worldly explorations of its own.