The Punishment of Pride: Castilian Reactions to the Battle of Aljubarrota

Battle of AljubarrotaThe Punishment of Pride: Castilian Reactions to the Battle of Aljubarrota

Thomas M. Izbicki

Medieval Iberia: Essays on the History and Literature of Medieval Spain

On August 13, 1385, the fate of Portugal was decided at the battle of Aljubarrota. Until the forces of Joao of Avis triumphed on that field, it seemed likely that Portugal would be absorbed into the kingdom of Castile, much as the kingdom of Aragon would be absorbed in a Castilian dominated Spain under the descendants of Ferdinand and Isabella. On October 22, 1383, King Fernao, last legitimate descendant of Henry of Burgundy, the founder of Portugal, died in Lisbon at the age of thirty-eight. This impetuous monarch’s attempt to support the Lancastrian claim to the Castilian throne had ended in disaster. Part of the price of peace had been an agreement to wed Fernao’s daughter and heiress, Beatriz, to a son of Juan I, the second Trastamara king. Juan, upon becoming a widower, had violated this agreement, marrying Beatriz himself. With Fernao’s death, the governance of the realm fell to his widow, Leonor Teles, who herself was in the hands of a Galician exile, Juan Fernandez, whom Fernao had made count of Ourem.[1]

In December of 1383, King Juan attempted to claim his wife’s inheritance. This claim might have been accepted had Juan not signalled his intention of uniting Portugal to Castile by adding the arms of Portugal to his own. Most of the nobility, led by the regent and her lover, were willing to acquiesce even to this act; but the populace of Lisbon was outraged, rising against this threat to the kingdom’s autonomy. This revolt found its leader in Joao, master of the military order of Avis, a bastard son of Fernao’s father Pedro. In Lisbon, the Master of Avis went to court and murdered the count of Ourem. Leonor Teles fled the city in fright. One of her chief supporters, Langarote Pessanha, hereditary admiral of Portugal, was killed by a mob at Beja.[2]  King Juan raised an army and entered Portugal to enforce his wife’s claim to the throne. When he reached Santarem, Juan dispatched Leonor Teles to exile in Castile and then, supported by many Portuguese nobles, marched on Lisbon. Despite brilliant efforts by Nun’ Alvarez Pereira, known to history as the Holy Constable, Juan’s army was able to lay siege to the city. This siege was broken, not by Joao of Avis, but by pestilence, which left many of the Juan I’s chief officers dead.[3]


By March of 1385, the Master of Avis, who had functioned as guardian of the kingdom, was persuaded in the Cortes of Coimbra to lay claim to the throne. His legal adviser, Joao das Regras, a recent graduate of the University of Bologna, argued successfully before the assembled adherents of the anti-Castilian cause, that the rival claims of Dona Beatriz and of the children of Dom Pedro by the famous Ines de Castro should be set aside. Das Regras seems to have forged documents to prove these latter rivals never had been legitimized. On April 5, 1385, the Comes acclaimed the Master of Avis King Joao I of Portugal.[4]  (It is worth noting that the newly chosen king and his chief advisers, Pereira and Das Regras, were young men, who were confident they could defy Castile’s armed might.)

Juan I replied by assembling another army under the command of new captains, chosen to replace those slain by the plague. Portuguese legitimists, many of them nobly born, also flocked to the banner of King Juan. Castile was bound by ties of alliance with France, forged by Enrique of Trastamara in a struggle to the death with his half brother, Pedro the Cruel, over the royal succession. The French provided Juan with a contingent of soldiers, possibly out of worry that Joao of Avis might replicate Fernao’s Lancastrian alliance. In fact, the French threat drove Joao to seek an alliance with the other great contestant in the Hundred Years War, England. A small Anglo-Gascon contingent went to Lisbon to join the Avis host. Although outnumbered by the advancing Castilian army, Nun’ Alvdrez Pereira overcame more cautious counsel and advanced to meet the invaders. Taking account of the odds, the Constable sought to lure the invaders into attacking a prepared position. Turned out of it, he found another near Aljubarrota and prepared for battle.[5]  When he found the Portuguese army in position, their men at arms covered by archers and javelin throwers, Juan I hesitated to order an assault; but the French commanders and the younger Spanish captains, newly appointed and inexperienced in war, demanded action. Neither hot weather; which caused the foot soldiers to straggle, nor the sight of a prepared defensive position deterred them. They overcame the dampening advice of the French ambassador, Jean de Rye, who recounted the French disasters at Crecy and Poitiers, by uttering high words about courage. Shamed into action, Juan ordered an assault. The vanguard, composed of French troops, advanced, apparently on foot, against the center of the Portuguese position, where Joao I himself and his best knights awaited the attack. This assault failed, as arrows and javelins rained onto the attackers from three sides. About half of the vanguard fell, and many Frenchmen were captured.[6]

At this point, Juan I arrived with three contingents of Castilian and Portuguese horsemen, leaving his infantry and crossbow men behind. Apparently unaware of the vanguard’s fate, he ordered another attack. This assault lost much of its impetus because of broken ground on either flank and was funneled toward the Portuguese center, again under converging fire. Hard pressed, the Portuguese killed their prisoners and returned all fighters to the line; and once more they slaughtered their foes. King Juan, despairing of victory, fled the field, taking refuge in Santarem before boarding a ship for Seville. Dozens of leaders from the Castilian host were slain, including several officers of the royal household and the leaders of the French contingent, among them Jean de Rye. Perhaps more important for political purposes was the slaughter inflicted on the Portuguese legitimists, whose allegiance to Dona Beatriz made them the chief threat to the new king of Portugal. In contrast, only one leader of the Avis host, Martin Vaz de Mello, perished. (The casualty lists recited by the chroniclers suggest that their audience had an appetite for recitations of the names of illustrious casualties. Perhaps the readers savored the titles and offices of the slain or the computation of the ransoms lost to death).[7]

The victory at Aljubarrota was memorialized by Joao by foundation of the abbey of Batalha. The new king won recognition from the English, particularly from John of Gaunt, who had wed the eldest daughter of Pedro the Cruel. Having tried once to gain the throne of Castile through a Portuguese alliance, the duke of Lancaster attempted the same enterprise again, this time in alliance with King Joao. The undertaking failed, but the duke married off one daughter to the king of Portugal and another to Juan I’s heir. Having muddied the waters this way, Duke John sailed home in galleys borrowed from the Portuguese. The war dragged on in a desultory manner, interrupted by truces, into the next century. Neither Juan I or his son, Joao’s brother in law, Enrique II, was able to mount an effective threat to the Avis regime; but the Castilians did not recognize the Avis succession until 1431, less than two years before Joao’s death. Dona Beatriz would die without inheriting the Portuguese throne; and Portugal would keep its sense of independent identity, through the years of Hapsburg domination, down to the present day.[8]

Portuguese historiography of this triumph, understandably, is marked by a combination of pride and traditional piety. The earliest Portuguese account is supposed to be that of Lorenco Fogaca, one of Joao I’s ambassadors to England. Froissart records it as having been given to John of Gaunt during negotiations for an Anglo-Portuguese alliance. This diplomat, we are told, attributed the victory to God and good fortune.[9] The Cronica do condestavel records an expression of trust in God made by Nun’ Alvdrez during negotiations before the battle, as well as the king’s prayers of thanksgiving offered afterwards.[10]  The great Portuguese historian Fernao Lopes later would illustrate the general trust of the Portuguese in divine aid for their just cause by retelling the tale of the Constable’s expression of that trust in his interview with his own brother, Juan I’s messenger, before the battle. Lopes recites this story at length, having each brother accuse the other of favoring heresy, since Joao had abandoned the Avignon obedience in the Great Western Schism for the Roman after taking charge of the kingdom. Lopes’s account of the battle of A1jubarrota ends with a list of the Portuguese warriors knighted afterwards for their services to the king and with an acknowledgement of divine favor, noting no conflict between the causal roles of valor and providence.[11]

Some, but not all, Castilian accounts of the debacle at Aljubarrota have an equally religious tone. King Juan’s dispatch to the concejo of Murcia, dated August 29, 1385 from Seville, blames his defeat, in large part, on the terrain; but twice he blames it on divine punishment of the king and his subjects for their sins.[12]  This seems to have been no mere rhetorical flourish. King Juan had entered the city of Seville three days before clad in black. The whole kingdom was put into mourning garb, and theCortes which met at Valladolid that December was treated to a royal confession of sins. Measures were taken to gain back divine favor through prayer, fasting and austerity. The king and the Cortes also decided to establish an advisory council representing the estates of the realm. Although this mood of self condemnation would not last, some Castilian historians would echo King Juan’s sentiments.[13]

A less emotional account of the misfortunes of the Castilian army was composed by the chancellor of Castile, Pedro Lopez de Ayala. In his account of the events before the battle, Lopez de Ayala records expressions of trust in God equal to those uttered by the Portuguese Constable as words of the Castilian chiefs in parley or in advice to the king.[14]  To Lopez de Ayala we owe our best account of the debates preceding the battle, when accusations of cowardice were used to shame the king into setting aside the sage counsel of Jean de Rye and attack a prepared position.[15]  Lopez de Ayala criticized the Castilian army’s lack of discipline, which he thought the study of ancient warfare indicated as necessary for the conduct of a campaign. Lopez de Ayala would devote a period of time to making these lessons from antiquity available by translating Livy into Spanish.[16]

The soul searching of King Juan, not the classicizing of Lopez de Ayala, would be mirrored in Castilian historiography during the fifteenth century. Rodrigo Sdnchez de Ardvalo, jurist, diplomat, papal apologist, moralist and man of letters, wrote a history of Spain, which is couched in the didactic terms common to Renaissance historiography.[17] Arevalo treated the Castilian defeat at Aljubarrota as God’s punishment of the Castilian army for its sins. The specific sin punished is pride. Arevalo dwells at length on the arrogant refusal of the army’s leaders to listen to Jean de Rye, mentioned without his name, and other wise counselors. Their elated spirits caused them, the army’s leaders, to rush to destruction.[18]  The largest part of Arevalo’s chapter on the battle is devoted to a long excursus comparing the Castilian captains with such biblical figures as Nicanor [2 Mac. 8:10], who sold Jewish prisoners before he had captured them.[19]  One can see that Arevalo’s account of Aljubarrota is useless as narrative history. The events preceding the battle are recounted in a misleading way, placing the selection of Dom Joao as king before the siege of Lisbon.[20]  On the other hand, we can see in this moral lesson the attempt of a nations chroniclers to find reasons for a humiliating debacle.

A more useful account of the events leading to this defeat was given by Alphonso de Cartagena in his Lectura arboris genealogiae regum Hispaniae.[21]  There Jean de Rye figures by name, and the young Castilians are blamed for not heeding his sage counsel.[22] Only in Alphonso’s summary of the entire reign of Juan I does there appear a generalized and moralized explanation of the defeat at Aljubarrota. The author blames this debacle on the king’s animosity toward the Portuguese, which caused him to attack them at the end of a tiring day of marching in hot weather.[23]

Pride, however, was blamed more often than was anger for the defeat at Aljubarrota. Discussing the young knights who advised King Juan to attack the Portuguese positions immediately, Fernan Perez de Guzman described them as acting from pride. In the sixteenth century, the Jesuit historian Juan de Mariana would take the same approach to the old tale, saying that the actions of the Castilians, among them their failure to wait for a contingent of Navarese, earned them punishment for their sins and for their nations pride.[24]  Mariana repeated at length the speech of Jean de Rye, before commenting that some proud men would not accept delay, thus precipitating the disastrous assault on the Portuguese lines.[25]  Although he recorded the death of Jean de Rye in battle, Mariana took pleasure in recording the present dignity and material prosperity of the French ambassador’s numerous descendants.[26]

The Spanish have borne from the Middle Ages to the present a reputation for pride. The papal chancery during the period of the struggle over the Portuguese succession regarded pomp, display of pride, as the characteristic vice of the Spanish.[27] The depth of Spanish pride is demonstrated by the poem of the Bachiller Palma glorifying the victory of Ferdinand and Isabella over the Portuguese at Toro in 1479. The Bachiller describes this triumph as the providential reversal of the Portuguese defeat of Juan I, the great grandfather of Isabella, at Aljubarrota. The same author describes that old defeat, in terms reminiscent of Lopez de Ayala’s history, as the work of young men inexperienced in war.[28]

Leaving aside national sensitivities, how much attention should we give the tearful confessions of King Juan, the moralizing of Arevalo and Mariana’s implied counter lesson about the present prosperity of Jean de Rye’s progeny as causal explanations of a battle lost?  Certainly, punishment of sin was a commonplace of medieval rhetoric, whether in a description of a failed crusade or in attempts to turn aside the Black Death; so was divine favor shown a victor, whether in a war or a judicial duel. The Portuguese accounts cited above, while relating the pious expressions uttered by King Joao or by the Holy Constable, give full accounts of the deeds of these heroes, who saved the kingdom from absorption into Castile. Medieval chronicles placed expressions of trust in God on the lips of many actors in the historical drama. Pride, moreover, aside from mention of the pomp of the Spanish, commonly was regarded as the greatest of all the seven deadly sins, one meriting a fall, as it had entrapped Adam and Eve into the Fall.[29]

Allow me to offer a modest defense of these moralists. If pride was the most deadly of the deadly sins, it also had a social stereotype, the knight. Time and again, the armored horseman, in armor updated to current standards, appears as a common emblem of this evil trait.[30]  In an age plagued by knightly violence, including duels fought over points of honor, it is small wonder that preachers and artists attacked the turbulent aristocracy for its overweening sense of personal and class status. Pride went hand in hand with prowess, pricking the nobility onward both to exertion and to confrontation with one another, as well as to exploitation of lesser mortals to enable them to keep up the state they regarded as their due.[31] This observation can be linked, in turn, to Lopez de Ayala’s more worldly‑wise view of the causes of Castile’s military misfortunes, his denunciation of the lack of discipline in the royal host. It was the same pride which entrapped nobles into duels which led them to spurn sound advice and to shame the king of Castile into a suicidal assault. It was pride which sent the young captains to their deaths. One of these young knights surrounding Juan I, swept from his horse to an early death, could serve as a model for superbia, sinful pride. Perhaps the last word on this topic belongs to Charles Oman:

Arrogance and stupidity combined to give a certain definite
color to the proceedings of the average feudal host. The century
and the land differ, but the incidents of battle are the same: El
Mansura (A.D. 1249) is like Aljubarrota (A.D. 1385); Nicopolis
(A.D. 1396) is like Courtrai (A.D. 1302).

This paragraph goes on to describe the heat of the charge and its too frequently disastrous results.[32]  No wonder Lopez de Ayala took time out from his duties as chancellor to translate Livy as an example of sound military discipline. Pride led to a fall, in the most literal sense, with the armed rider falling from his horse, pierced by an English arrow or a Portuguese javelin. Nor, as accounts of battles from Aljubarrota to Waterloo reveal, did the aristocracy learn much about disciplined service on horseback, as long as cavalry remained a standard part of an army and the headlong charge a usual tactic.


End Notes

1. Harold V. Livermore, A New History of Portugal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 98‑99.

2. Thomas M. Izbicki, “A Bolognese Consilium on Portuguese Politics,” Dirino a potere nella storia europea: Atti in onore di Bruno Paradisi, Societa italiana di storia del dititto. 4th Congresso internazionale, Naples Italy, 2 vols. (Florence: L.S. Olschki, 1982), 1:313-19.

3. Livermore, 100-2; P. B. Russell, The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the time of Edward III and Richard II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), 357-90.

4. A. L. de Cavalho Homem, “O doutor Joao das Regras no desembargo a no conselho R6gios (1384-1404): Breves notas,” Estudios de historia de Portugal (Lisbon: Academia Portuguesa de Hist6ria, 1982) 1:243-55; Russell, 373-76.

5. Philippe Contamine, La guerre au Moyen Age (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980), 235-36.

6. Russell, 378-98; Charles W. C. Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, AD 378-1485, 2 vols. (London: Methuen, 1924), 2:190-95.

7. Russell, 396; Contamine, 474-75.

8. Russell, 400-548.

9. Jean Froissart, The Chronicles of England, France and Spain, ed H. P. Dunster (New York: Modern Library, 1961), 327-41.

10. Cronica do condestavel de Portugal d. Nuno Alvdres Pereira Fontes Narrativas de Historia Portuguesa, 4, ed. A. Machado de Faria (Lisbon: Academia Portuguesa de Hist6ria, 1972), 140, 144.

11. Fernio Lopes, Cronica de d. Joao I, 2 vols., Biblioteca Historica de Portugal e Brasil. Seria regia, ed. M. Lopes de Almeida and H. de Maglhaes Basto (Porto: Livraria Civilizaqio, 1945-49) 2:78-81, 83. Lopes used the Cronica do condestavel and Lopez de Ayala’s works, according to Aubrey Fitz Gerald Bell, Fernan Lopes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921), 23-26. For excerpts in translation, see Fernao Lopes, The English in Portugal: Extracts from the Chronicles of Dom Fernando and Dom Joao, Ferndo Lopez, trans. Derek W. Lomax and R. J. Oakley (Westminster: Aris & Phillips, 1989).

12. Russell, 568-69.

13. Luis Suirez Fernandez, Historia del reinado de Juan I de Castilla (Madrid: Universidad Autonoma, 1977), 1:227-40; Russell, 403‑5.

14. Pedro Lopez de Ayala, Cronicas de los reyes de Castilla, ed. E. de Llaguno Amirola, 2 vols. (Madrid: n.p., 1780), 2:221-29.

15. Ibid., 2:230-34. Lopez de Ayala himself escaped the slaughter at Aljubarrota only to become a prisoner when Santarrem capitulated to Dom Joao; see Luis Suarez Fernandez, El canciller Pedro Lopez de Ayala y su tiempo (1332-1407) (Vitoria: Diputacion Foral de Alava, Consejo de Cultura, 1962), chap. V: Aljubarrota; Benito Sanchez Alonso, Historia de la historiografia espanola: ensayo de un examen de conjunto 3 vols. (Madrid: CSIC, 1947), 1:296-300.

16. Russell, 398-99.

17. R. Trame, Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, 1404-1470 (Washington DC: Catholic University Press, 1958), 193-94; Sanchez Alonso, 1:321-23.

18. Rodrigo Sinchez de Ardvalo, Compendiosa historia Hispanica, Newberry Library, MS + 92, fol. 176r: Tandem pro parte profugati sunt non paucis. Merito quidem sum arrogantim penal solverunt licet enim a regio nuntio atque a prudentibus expertisque viris monerentur ne ea die proelium consererent. Illi tamen elati animo contempserunt dicenter ut alter Pharo, Nescio Dominum et Israhel dimittam.

19. Ibid., fol. 176v.

20. Cronica do condestavel de Portugal, 140, 144.

21. This work is not mentioned in Sanchez Alonso,1:317-21.

22. Alphonso de Cartagena, Lectura arboris genealogiae regum Hispaniae, Harvard University, MS. Typ. 162 H, fol. M (VI)vb, ….sed huic descreto conscilio non adquieverunt iuvenes Castellani.

23. Cartagena, Lectura arboris genealogiae regum Hispaniae, fol. N Ivb: quod ex animositate excessiva premature et non expectatis mulds militibus de exercitu suo qui in eius auxilium veniebant, afessis militibus suis qui pridie illa fenente estu Aleria oppido satis distante venerunt sic minus prudenter tentavit.

24. Juan de Mariana, Historia General de Espana, 2 vols. (Madrid: G. Alhambra, 1852), 2:14.

25. Ibid., 2:15.

26. Ibid., 2:16.

27. See, Appendix: < De viths gentium >  (Not included on the webpage)

28. Jocelyn N. Hillgarth, The Spanish Kingdoms, 1250-1516, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 2:364; Palma el Bachiller, Divina retribucion sobre la caida de Espana en tiempo del noble Rey Juan el Primero, ed. J. M. Escudero de la Pena (Madrid: M. Tello, 1879), 4-7.

29. Only avarice challenged pride for its place as the chief of the seven deadly sins, and only after the commercial revival of the twelfth century had produced a wealthy urban patriciate; see L. K. Little, “Pride Goes Before Avarice: Social Changes and the Vices in Latin Christendom,” AHR 76 (1971): 16-49.

30. Morton W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (Ann Arbor, MI: State College Press, 1952), 104-99; Adolf Edmund Max Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art, (1964; New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 76.

31. Little, 32-35.

32. Charles Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages A.D. 378-1515 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), 58-59.

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