He was rock star famous and Warren Buffet rich during his lifetime, but, unless you are a native Portuguese, you probably never heard of him. His life was a series of improbable events that significantly changed the history of Western civilization. Born out of wedlock, he became the father of royal dynasties, yet he died penniless. With only 6,500 volunteers, he challenged an army of 30,000 professional soldiers, led by the King of Castile himself. It was the decisive battle for Portugal’s right to self-determination and independence. Few, if any of his contemporaries expected him to survive. Not only did he survive, he defeated the entire Castilian army in just one afternoon. His name was Nuno Alvares Pereira, and had he not won that battle, it is likely that you or I would not even exist
Born in 1360, Nuno Pereira was the natural son of the Prior of Crato, who was himself the son of the Archbishop of Braga, both of whom appear to have had some difficulty keeping their solemn vows of chastity. Given the circumstances of his birth, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become the ancestor of many European royal families. Yet, both King Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic of Spain, the monarchs who sponsored the voyages of Christopher Columbus, were direct descendants of Nuno. So was Emperor Charles V, who ruled over more territory than any other European monarch, including most of the Americas. Catherine of Braganća, Queen Consort of England, for whom the Borough of Queens in New York was named, Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I, and the Royal Houses of Braganća who ruled over Portugal and Brazil, were all directly descended from this man. By somehow surviving the Battle of Aljubarrota on August 14, 1385, Nuno not only preserved the independence of his native Portugal, but was lived to start a family and have a daughter who would marry into royal family of Portugal. Her decedents would rule much of Europe for centuries.
Nuno lived at a time when both his nation and his church were in total upheaval. His elderly king was planning to offer his only legitimate heir, Princess Beatrice, into the royal family of Castile. His Queen was having a rather public and scandalous affair with an agent of Castile who hoped to serve as regent. Three different men claimed to be Pope. Following the wrong one could have serious consequences. A mob had tossed the bishop of Lisbon to his death from the tower of the Cathedral. Confusion and revolution reigned.
During this period, the Arthurian tales had begun to reach Portugal from the shores of England and, as a young boy, Nuno told his parents that he wanted to become a great knight, a knight like Sir Galahad. At age 13, after taking it upon himself to spy on Castilian military scouts and reporting his findings to his king, Nuno’s wish was granted and he was invested as a knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, known today as the Knights of Malta. So small was the boy at the time, that he had to borrow amour from the king’s teenaged natural son for the ceremony.
It is said that Nuno may be the only knight in history to have lived up to the ideals of the legendary Galahad. His reputation for chivalry soon spread beyond the borders of his native land. In time of war, he fed the hungry populations of his Castilian opposition at his own expense. He customarily refused to share in the spoils of war. Once, he was so hungry that he traded his horse for a loaf of bread, then decided to give all of that loaf to a group of starving English knights who had allied themselves with Portugal. It is recorded that Nuno even allowed squires from the enemy forces to meet with him in peace, just because they wanted to see the “Great Nuno” about whom they had heard so many stories.
In appreciation for Nuno’s unexpected victory over the Castilian army, Portugal’s new King John bestowed Nuno with a great number of titles and, to the consternation of various nobles, granted him land amounting to almost a third of the nation. Nuno, a deeply religious man, attributed his victory to the protection of the Virgin Mary. Historians would note that masterful military strategy, a travel weary Castilian opposition suffering from dysentery, and a few hundred expert archers provided to Nuno by the king of England also played a significant role in achieving his “miraculous” victory. Nuno believed in the power of prayer, but his was never a jingoistic, arrogant conviction that God was exclusively on his side. Nuno fought side by side with English troops. He died the same year as Joan of Arc, who fought against the English. His writings suggest that he would have had no problem accepting a God who favored justice over nationalities.
Having suffered greatly from thirst during the heat of the battle, Nuno erected a small chapel to be built and ordered that a pitcher water be kept there for thirsty travelers. That chapel and the offer of free water remain to this day. Nearby, there remains a small monument that he erected in memory two of his own brothers who, seeing that Nuno was vastly outnumbered, died opposing him in battle with never fulfilled hopes of obtaining some land or title from the Castilian king.
As peace returned to Portugal, Nuno joined his close friend, Prince Henry the Navigator, in promoting mathematics, rudimentary science, and geographical understanding. In doing this, he helped shelter many Jews and Moslems who were in danger of expulsion from Portugal. He joined the Queen in a campaign to restore morality and marital fidelity to the royal court. Finally, after the death of his wife, when his daughter reached the age of majority, he renounced all of his titles, built a monastery for the Carmelite religious order in Lisbon, and then entered that order as a lowly brother spending his remaining years under a vow of poverty as the monastery gate keeper. During his lifetime, Nuno acquired incredible wealth, but by the time he died, he had given all of it to religious and charitable projects, one third of his fortune went to support children orphaned during Portugal’s wars to maintain independence. Though he was known for his courage and brilliant military strategy, he grew to hate war and is remembered in Portugal as The Peacemaker. On April 1, 1431, at the monastery in Lisbon that he built and joined, Nuno died while his brother monks read the passion of Christ to him from the Scriptures. Almost six centuries later, in 2009, Nuno was declared a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
Based on the reports of his humility written by his contemporaries, I suspect Nuno would not like care for the many statues and monuments bearing his image that can now be seen throughout his native Portugal. His model of charity for the weak and marginalized has inspired the formation religious confraternities named for him in both Europe and North America and an orphanage chapel bearing his name now exits in Mexico. In life, Nuno preferred obscurity to fame. He believed that any good he may have accomplished was the work of his God. His worldview seems to have been less “God is on our side” and more “we can do nothing at all without him”. It was a remarkable outlook for a man of his era and perhaps one that would be helpful in our own age. I suspect no small number of Kurds, Palestinians, Tibetans and Basques would admire his firm belief in justice of national self-determination. I believe that our world would benefit greatly from his example of humility and less boasting that God is on our side. I believe that we will never be able to fully grasp the significance of the ripples that just one human life can spread through time.
St. Nuno was an extraordinary individual whose contribution to both secular and religious history, while not altogether forgotten, has been largely ignored. We cannot imagine what course history would have taken had he died in battle, but he remains to me both an inspiration and a striking example of courage, humility, and the unfathomable value of every human life.
T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a haunting 19th century New Orleans legend.http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710