Portugal's Fighting Saint | Sandra Miesel | Web Exclusive for Catholic World Report
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.
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