Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba: the Great Captain

The grandeur, fidelity, and military genius of this Spanish Catholic consecrated him as Great before God and men.

Newsdesk (July 19, 2021, 18:25, Gaudium Press) Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba was born in 1453 in Montilla, the second son of a noble family of the kingdom of Castile.

Living in the Iberian Peninsula in this turbulent 15th century required constant vigilance and preparation in the field of arms. Raids, assaults, and battles between armies could happen at any time; and for the most diverse reasons. In those times, being born a Spaniard meant being born a warrior; therefore, young Gonzalo soon decided to wield the sword against the enemies of his homeland and religion.

He demonstrated uncommon skills and boldness. Since the beginning of his service, he was a great help to Queen Isabella, the Catholic. He won her sympathy and deference in the matter of the dynastic succession of Castile. Also, in the famous war with the Kingdom of Granada, he succeeded in getting the King to surrender to its sovereigns, the Catholic Kings.

“His gallantry, the majesty of his manners, the liveliness, and readiness of his ingenuity, aided by his easy, lively, and eloquent speech, comforted the spirits of everyone. He had a robust strength and was skilled in all military exercises. Therefore, he always won the applause and the cheers of those who looked upon him.” [1]

An endless number of battlefields were then the witness to the genius, courage, and skilfulness of the Great Captain, who would reach the pinnacle of his fame and glory in his combats in Italy.

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The birth of the tercios

Since Gonzalo was Queen Isabella´s most trusted man and the most skilled in warfare, he was the most suitable man for a difficult task. That was to expel the numerous French army that crossed the Alps with their monarch Charles VIII leading it to conquer the kingdom of Naples, then belonging to the Spanish Empire.

Captain Gonzalo had an army almost five times smaller than the more than 20,000 French infantrymen and 5,000 knights.[2] The only way out for this tiny army was the bravery and unlimited courage of its commander, victorious a thousand times over.

He conceived a completely groundbreaking plan: transfer the assault from cavalry to infantry, which gave rise to the military units that would later be called tercios. The Spanish army was composed essentially of infantry, it was then divided into three parts -three tercios-, which were distinguished respectively by the use of spikes[3], arquebuses, and swords; weapons that, used consecutively, achieved significant casualties in the adversary.[4]

Using this new tactic, Gonzalo Fernándezs de Córdoba was able to defeat the French troops. And they respected and admired him in such a way that even among them, his great military genius became known.

The Great Captain Accounts

However, the whole world did not welcome such fame and popularity. Even among those who enjoyed Gonzalo’s victories, some were reluctant. King Ferdinand the Catholic shared this opinion, and since the death of Queen Isabella, he no longer looked favorably upon the Great Captain.

According to accounts, envious men instigated the King, so he was constantly looking for some pretext to free himself from the one who overshadowed his personality. One day, he demanded that Gonzalo justify the large sums of money that had gone into the Italian campaign because, according to some, there had been some embezzlement.

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The Great Captain remained calm, and the next day, opening his notebook, he gave an account of the company expenses: 200,736 ducats and 9 reales on friars, nuns, and the poor, so that they pray to God for the prosperity of the King´s armies; 700,494 ducats on spies; on pickaxes, shovels and paddles: 100,000,000 ducats; on perfumed gloves to preserve the troops from the stench of dead enemies: 40,000 ducats. And finally, 300,000,000, the price of my patience lost in listening to people who ask for accountability from one who has given them a kingdom.” [5]

The King was silent and dared not address the matter further. The Great Captain was a loyal servant of his lord and continued to be so even after being the target of distrust and ingratitude, for the Catholic ideal that moved him was superior to any human quarrel.

The greatness of this noble soul, highlighted by the fidelity he kept during the misunderstanding, is an inspiring example of courage and enthusiasm. Such skills, combined with a well balanced sense of duty, have given history an exemplary testimony of life: “I would rather meet death by taking three steps forward than to live for centuries by taking a single step backward.” [6]

By José Manuel Gómez Carayol

Compiled by Ena Alfaro

[1] MONTOLIU, Manuel de. Vida de grandes hombres: Vida de Gonzalo de Córdoba. 6. ed. Barcelona: Seix y Barral, 1952, p. 12.

[2] Cf. Idem, p. 21-26.

[3] A kind of slender spear that can reach up to 5 meters in height.

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[4] Cf. MARTÍN GÓMEZ, Antonio Luis. El Gran Capitán: The campaigns of the Duke of Terranova and Santángelo. Madrid: Almena, 2000, p. 14.

[5] Cf. MONTOLIU, op. cit.

[6] Idem, 1952, p. 82.

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