Portugal’s fighting saint

By canonizing Nuno Alvares Pereira last month, Benedict XVI has given the Church a compelling new saint with a colorful history.

Nuno Alvares Pereira is not a household name in America. His canonization on April 26 is unlikely to change that. But in Portugal, Nuno is a beloved national hero whose feats of valor in the 14th century insured his country’s survival.

A bit of historical background helps for understanding Nuno’s significance. Portugal grew from territory granted by Alfonso VI of León-Castile–el Cid’s overlord–to his illegitimate daughter Teresa and her husband Henry of Burgundy. Their son Afonso I Henriques proclaimed Portugal an independent kingdom in 1139. Two centuries later, the Burgundian dynasty floundered on the romantic entanglements of a crown prince. The future Pedro I so openly preferred the charms of his mistress Inés de Castro, lady-in-waiting to his bride, that the king had Inés murdered. When Pedro ascended the throne in 1357, he had his mistress exhumed, forced her murderers to kiss her corpse’s hand, and then ordered their hearts torn out.

Pedro I’s legitimate son Fernando I died in 1383, leaving a daughter as his sole heir. Unfortunately, she was already married to King Juan I of Castile. The Portuguese people had no wish to be absorbed by their larger Spanish neighbor. So they persuaded one of Pedro’s bastard sons by yet another mistress to repel the coming Castilian invasion. This young man was João, Grand Master of the military Order of Aviz. In his new role as Defender of the Realm, João found a commander even younger than himself—Nuno Alvares Pereira.

Nuno, born in 1360, was one of 23 children sired by the Portuguese Prior of the Knights Hospitaller (now called the Knights of Malta). His paternal grandfather had been archbishop of Braga. The family claimed descent from Charlemagne.

Nuno first went to war at age 13, fighting in skirmishes along the Castilian border. Ten years later, his service during João’s first victory over the invaders earned Nuno the honor of being named Protector and Constable of Portugal as well as Count of Ourém. Nuno used guerilla tactics trying to dislodge the Castilian army besieging Lisbon in 1384 but plague finally drove them away. The following spring the Portuguese national assembly chose João as king.

The Castilians returned with French allies in the summer of 1385 but by then the Portuguese army had acquired 600 English archers. Dynastic conflict in Iberia had become a proxy campaign of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. The armies of Castile and Portugal met August 14 near the town of Aljubarrota: 30,000 invaders versus 6,000 defenders. Nuno’s brilliant tactics used trenches, obstacles, and bowmen to confine and annihilate the enemy, much as the English had done to the French at Crécy four decades earlier. The king of Castile ran for his life. Portugal was saved.

King João founded the monastery and accompanying town of Batalha (formally St. Mary of Victory in Battle) at the site of his triumph. Although never finished, the monastery is an architectural marvel. It is now a museum and a World Heritage site. An equestrian statue of Nuno stands in front of the former abbey church.

Nuno received two more titles of nobility from his grateful king and was made Major-Domo of Portugal. He and João remained close friends and battle comrades to the end of their lives. Nuno’s daughter Beatriz married the king’s illegitimate son Afonso, who was named the first Duke of Bragança.

King João of Aviz enjoyed a long reign (1385-1433) that opened the Golden Age of Portugal. He married Philippa of Lancaster, whose father had sent those invaluable English bowmen in his hour of need. (Portugal and England have been allies ever since.) Their third son, known in English as Henry the Navigator, encouraged and financed voyages of discovery that gave Portugal a global empire that lasted into the 20th century. Their fifth son, Blessed Fernando the Constant, was left a hostage in Muslim hands and died a slave in Morocco.

But Nuno’s House of Bragança outlasted João’s House of Aviz. Nuno’s descendants repeatedly intermarried with legitimate members of the royal family. Through these unions, his blood was carried to great swathes of European royalty—kings and queens, emperors and empresses of Portugal, Castile, Spain, England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Brazil, and Italy. Among Nuno’s most famous descendants are Isabella of Spain, Mary Tudor, Don Juan of Austria, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, and Blessed Karl von Habsburg, as well as the current kings of Spain and Belgium. Moreover, after the House of Aviz went extinct in 1578 and Spain annexed Portugal, the Duke of Bragança led a movement for Portuguese independence. He took the restored throne as João IV in 1640 and married his daughter Catalina to Charles II of England. The last king of Portugal abdicated in 1910 after his father and brother were assassinated by revolutionaries. Subsequent Bragança heirs have renounced their claims to the throne.

Nuno’s much-honored life entered a new phase after Leonor, his wife of more than 40 years, died. In 1423, he renounced his titles and entered the Carmelite convent at Lisbon that he had founded and endowed. Taking the name Brother Nuno of Santa Maria, he was famous for his humility, prayer, penance, and devotion to Our Lady. He established a lay confraternity to work among the poor that eventually became the Carmelite Third Order.

There is an apocryphal story that in Nuno’s last years, his old foe King Juan of Castile visited him. In the course of their conversation the king mentioned the possibility of another Castilian invasion. Brother Nuno raised his habit to reveal that he was wearing chain mail under it, silent witness to fight again in his country’s defense.

Nuno died on Easter Sunday, 1431. His tomb bore this inscription:

“Here lies that famous Nuno the Constable, founder of the House of Bragança, excellent general, blessed monk, who during his life on earth so ardently desired the Kingdom of Heaven that after his death, he merited the eternal company of the Saints. His worldly honors were countless, but he turned his back on them. He was a great Prince, but he made himself a humble monk. He founded, built, and endowed this church in which his body rests.”

Although Nuno’s tomb was destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the site was rediscovered a dozen years ago.

Pope Benedict XV beatified Nuno in 1918, assigning November 6 as his feast day. Pope Pius XII intended to canonize him but World War II and its aftermath made this unfeasible. Blessed Nuno’s cause was re-activated in 2003. After the cure of a Portuguese woman blinded in one eye by a splash of oil while frying fish was judged miraculous, Blessed Nuno was canonized in Rome on April 26 by Pope Benedict XVI. Portugal’s “Holy Constable” has earned his last and greatest public honor.

About Sandra Miesel 14 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson.