Nuno Álvares Pereira was born on 26 June 1360 in Cernache de Bonjardim, Sertã, and died on 1 April 1431 at the convent of Carmo, Lisbon. He was a noble Portuguese knight of the 14th century, who played a fundamental role in the 1383-85 crisis, when Portugal fought against Castile for its independence. He was also the 2nd Count of Arraiolos, the 7th Count of Barcelos, the 3rd Count of Ourém, and he also attained the rank of Constable in the Portuguese army, a position equivalent to what today would be the Minister of Defence. He was also canonised in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.
So who was Nuno Álvares Pereira, and why did he acquire his saintly reputation which would lead to his beatification and subsequent canonisation?
He was the son of Dom Álvaro Gonçalves Pereira, prior of the Order of Malta that was headquartered in the monastery of Flor da Rosa, in Crato, his mother being the noble-born Dona Íria Gonçalves do Carvalhal. While he was growing up, he learnt the military arts and particularly enjoyed reading chivalrous stories in which ‘purity was the virtue that made the heros of the Round Table invincible”, and where it was possible for “one’s soul and body to remain immaculate”. He dreamed of becoming a Grail Knight. telling his mother that he would find the Grail and place it on the altar of the Lusitanian homelenad. His mother called him “my little Galahad”, after the hero who, according to the Round Table legend, succeeded in finding the Chalice.
At the age of 13, Pereira entered the court of Ferdinand I and was made a knight with armour loaned by Dom João, Master of the Order of Avis. On 15 August, 1376, at the age of 16, he married Dona Leonor Alvim at Vila Nova da Rainha in Azambuja. They had a daughter, Beatriz, but Dona Leonor died soon after giving birth (1388). Years later, on 1 November, 1401, Beatriz married Dom Afonso, the bastard son of Dom João I and the 1st Duke of Bragança, at Paço de Frielas in Loures.
In 1383, when King Dom Fernando died with Princess Dona Beatriz (wife of King Dom João I of Castile) as his only heir, Dom Nuno Álvares was one of the first to support Dom João, Master of the Order of Avis, in his claim for the crown. Although he was the illegitimate son of Dom Pedro I of Portugal, crowning Dom João was preferable to losing the country’s independence to the Castilians. After Dom Nuno Álvares’ first military victory against the Castilians at the battle of Atoleiros in April 1384, Dom João of Avis named him Constable of Portugal and Count of Ourém.
On 6 April, 1385, the master of the Order of Avis was proclaimed King of Portugal at Coimbra. It did not take long for the Castilians to retaliate, as their powerful army soon invaded the country. On 14 August of the same year, the Portuguese forces confronted the Castilians at Aljubarrota, but despite their large disadvantage in terms of numbers (1-10), the Portuguese won a stunning victory in less than an hour, thanks to the military genius of the Constable, who thus became, from then on, the patron saint of the Portuguese army.
The Battle of Aljubarrota definitively marked the end of the country’s political instability and reinforced its independence. On 25 July 1415, Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira set off with a fleet on expedition to Ceuta, in North Africa. It was his last battle. He later distributed his welath to his family and the Camerlite Order and became a mendicant monk at the Convent of the Carmelites in Lisbon. He had already earned his reputation as a saint, yet he kept his warrior soul.
It is said that, when Ceuta ran the risk of being retaken by the Moors, the old, stooped warrier wanted to go to the rescue. When others tried to dissuade him, he grabbed a lance and threw it from the convent’s balcony. The lance crossed into the valley below and pierced a door on the other side of Rossio. Dom Nuno declared, “if it were necessary, I could throw it all the way to Africa!” This is the source of the Portuguese expression “to throw a lance to Africa”. meaning to overcome a great difficulty.
On 30 March 1431, a Good Friday, the “Holy Brother” as he was called, fell gravely ill. He died at noon on 1 April, Easter Sunday, at the age of 70.
The Portuguese people mourned their Holy Warrior. When they still visit the Holy Constable, as he is known today, visitors take a handful of soil from his tomb. The Carmelite Chronicle says that this miraculous soil, mised with water and swallowed, has produced 12 resurrections, healed 24 paralysed people, 21 blind people. 21 deaf and dumb people, 18 people suffering from internal diseases, 16 people suffering from fatal diseases, 10 people with fever and bleeding, and led to 6 apparitions of the Grand Knight in holy grace.
The miracles attributed to Nuno Álvares led Pope Benedict XV to beatify him on 23 January 1918, attributing the feast day of 6 November to him. At 9.33am, on 26 April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonised him as Saint Nuno of Santa Maria.
(Adapted from Secret Lisbon by Vitor Manuel Adrião, published by JonGlez)