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The 1571 Meetings of Miguel Cervantes and Don Juan of Austria: Louis de Wohl’s 1956 Historical Novel, The Last Crusader
Dr. Robert Hickson 15 March 2020 Saint Clement Maria Hofbauer (1820)
Saint Longinus (1st century A.D)
“[Admiral of the Papal fleet] Marc Antonio Colonna, Duke of Pagliana, was a handsome man of no more than thirty-five….The sight from the [conquered] Sultana’s poop deck was never to be forgotten. Colonna had a few light guns trained on the [Turkish] galleys and brigantines still hovering near, and the two nearest surrendered without a shot, the first Turkish warships ever to do so. The flag from holy Mecca in the hands of the Christians and Ali Pasha’s head on a Spanish pike seemed to be more than they could bear.
Colonna started firing at the others [of the Turkish navy]. His ship, too, showed a good deal of damage.
Juan [overall Christian commander Don Juan of Austria himself] thought of the young man [also 24 years of age] on board there [with Colonna], what was his name? Cervas or Cervantes. Good luck, señor poet, he thought.” (Louis de Wohl, The Last Crusader (1956, 2010), pages 431 and 473)—my emphasis added
“Hope only becomes virtue as theological hope, however, meaning a hope moving toward salvation, which does not exist in the natural world.
Even so, Christian hope does not fail to keep our historical created world in sight as well. One can read this, too, from the character of the Christian martyr. The Christian martyr is something truly incomparable. It is not enough to look at him as a man who dies for his conviction – as if the truth of this conviction did not matter. The distinction and the uniqueness of the Christian witness lies in the fact that in spite of the terror befalling him, from his mouth ‘no word against God’s creation is heard’ (E. Peterson).
In the martyr’s hope three elements are joined together. The one thing truly hoped for is eternal life and not happiness found in the world. This is the first element. The second is the active ‘yes’ to the created world in all its realms. The third element is the acceptance of a catastrophic end to the world of history.
The connection of these three elements is, logically, filled with dynamic tension; it is not easy to hold these tensions together and endure them.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 26—my emphasis added. This excerpt is from an essay that was originally published in 1963 in Tradition als Herausforderung [Tradition as Challenge] (Munich 1963).
Earlier this year, after I had discussed and slowly read aloud to my wife and two young children around our glowing kitchen hearth Cervantes’ Don Quixote in it entirety, they unexpectedly requested that I then also read to them The Last Crusader: A Novel about Don Juan of Austria by Louis de Wohl.1 Approximately fifty pages before the end of that almost 500-page book, we had a good surprise. It is this nuanced and touching surprise that I wish now to share with the reader, for it shows us how the future author of Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) met, warmed, and even charmed the heart of Don Juan of Austria himself in 1571—just before and then again the day after the 7 October naval battle of Lepanto in which the courageous Miguel Cervantes was gravely wounded in action.
Cervantes is shown to have been a volunteer soldier under the immediate command of Admiral Colonna, “the papal admiral” (442).
We shall introduce the meetings of Cervantes and Don Juan by first discussing the then-recent 5 August 1571 surrender of Famagusta on the strategic island of Cyprus and the cruel aftermath of that defeat, especially the deliberate and protracted Turkish tortures of Marc Antonio Bragadino, the military governor of Famagusta.
As Captain Barola now reports the grim early August 1571 situation to Don Juan and Admiral Veniero (the close friend of Bragadino), we shudderingly hear (but only in part):
“As soon as the town surrendered Mustapha [the conquering Ottoman Turk General] broke his word. All Christian captives were chained to the galleys—those over age were killed. Bragadino was tortured for twelve days…”
“Santa Madonna,” Veniero said. He was as white as the chalked wall of the desecrated church….
“Mustapha told him [Bragadino] that the cathedral would be transformed into a mosque. He told him how he was going to die. He would have him flayed alive. Then he screamed at him: ‘Where is your Christ? Why doesn’t he free you, if he’s so powerful?’ They began to flay him then and there, and they started at his feet. He began to pray the Miserere [Psalm 51—a lamentation and prayer for mercy]. That was his whole answer….”
“He died a martyr,” Juan said. He crossed himself, and the others followed his example. “I command that this story be told to every man in the fleet. I take it that you are certain about your facts, Captain Barola?”
“Quite certain, Your Excellency, I am sorry to say.”
As soon as Juan was back on board [of his flagship] again, he made sure that his last order was obeyed. Within a few hours every man in the fleet knew about the fate of Famagusta [the consequence of its surrender on 5 August 1571] and of Marc Antonio Bragadino….
Juan conferred with Colonna. Veniero had excused himself and the commander in chief respected his grief.” (441-442—my emphasis added)
Shortly after this extended and provocative presentation, Admiral Colonna said to Don Juan, his 24-year-old superior, as follows:
“You seem to be very sure that we shall get hold of the Turk, Your Excellency.”
“I am very sure. Wherever they are, I am going to look for them until I find them.”
Colonna led his commander in chief through the ship. Juan found the discipline on board faultless, equal, if not superior to that of the Spanish ships. He particularly liked the admiral’s bodyguard, twenty-five men of the Pope’s [Pius V’s] own Swiss Guards under their young commander, a giant of a man, Hans Noelle by name.
“The sword of Peter,” Juan said, smiling. “Mind you Messer Noelle, this time it will have to cut off more than just an ear.”
Noelle grinned cheerfully and said something in a Italian so grimly Swiss that Colonna had to translate it to Juan. ‘He says he wants a Turkish flag to send home to Switzerland….’
“Well, I hope he’ll get his flag. Who is that man there?” (443—my emphasis added)
Now we shall come to encounter and more fully to appreciate the future author of Don Quixote:
A tall, thin soldier was standing in the gangway and somebody was trying to drag him away by his coat. He resisted stoutly and at the same time saluted; his eyes fixed on the two great commanders [both Juan of Austria and Admiral Colonna]. (443—my emphasis added)
There appears now to have occurred an unexpected commotion and Admiral Colonna promptly responds in the presence of his own superior:
“What’s going on here?” Colonna barked.
The [unnamed] man behind the [dragged and resisting] soldier emerged, saluting sheepishly. “Physician’s mate, sir. This young gentleman is ill with fever, and ought to be in bed, sir.”
“It isn’t much of a fever, Your Grace,” the soldier said eagerly. “And I just heard what happened at Famagusta. I beg Your Grace’s pardon for intruding like this—I would like to ask a favor of Your Grace.”
“What’s your name?” Colonna asked, frowning.
“Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, at Your Grace’s service.
“A Spaniard,” Juan said. “Where from?”
“I was born in Alcalá, Your Excellency.”
“I know it well. Where in Alcalá?”
“Our house was just next to the kitchen garden of the Capuchin monastery, Your Excellency. I was christened in Santa Maria Mayor. We went to Sevilla and then to Madrid.”
“You are a volunteer, I take it?” (444—my emphasis added)
Miguel Cervantes’ immediate reply to Don Juan’s previous question robustly articulates a wise and memorable vision and motivation, especially for a man of just twenty-four years of age:
“Yes [I am a volunteer], Your Excellency. That is to say, I am the kind of madman [like a certain Don Quixote?] who still believes that nobility of heart, courage, and poetry are the three things that matter most, next to the grace of God.”
“You are a poet, then?” Juan said with that grave charm that won the heart of every man. (444—my emphasis added)
Don Juan’s question and manner drew forth a larger presentation of the Spaniard’s life and abiding ethos:
“Yes [I am a poet], Your Excellency. I went to Rome in the [clerical diplomatic] retinue of the Most Reverent Guilio Acquaviva de Aragon. But what is life at the most magnificent court when the bugle calls for battle against the infidel? Poetry can remain poetry only so long as it is paired with courage and nobility of heart.”
“I wish all Spaniards thought as you do,” said Juan.
Miguel de Cervantes smiled deprecatingly. “There is need for the other type as well,” he said. “Has it ever occurred to Your Excellency that there are two types of Spaniards and two only?”
[At this subordinate’s perk and spunkiness] Colonna cleared his throat [once again!] impatiently, but Juan was not to be deflected. “Two types only? What are they señor poet?” (444-445—my emphasis added)
Will our poet also still now make room for a Sancho Panza? Let us now consider the implicit possibility of such a pair and companionship!
“The first,” Cervantes said, “is slim and dreamy and full of enthusiasm for all things great, sacred, and brilliant. The lady he loves is invariably the most beautiful in the world, and if she is not a queen she should be. He thinks the world is the field God gave him in which to perform shining deeds in the service of a great cause and so he is a hero and a fool, a poet and a knight.”
“Like you,” Juan smiled. (445—my emphasis added)
After his “expression of politely hidden irony in his dark eyes,” Cervantes unfolds for Don Juan his own vivid and charming understanding of that second of two enduring types of Spaniard:
“The second type,” he said, “is intensely practical and knows the value of a maravedí, a real and a ducat, A woman to him is a very useful creature, and if she is pretty too, so much the better. He thinks the world is a field in which he must find a small place where he can live with a minimum of discomfort. You only have to look at a Spaniard and you will always know to which of the two types he belongs.”
Once more Colonna cleared his throat.
“Thank you, señor poet,” Juan said, “I will certainly think about your theory. But what about the favor you were going to ask?” (445—my emphasis added)
And here is the favor Miguel Cervantes requests from the commander and chief:
“It is, Your Excellency, that I may be freed from the well-meaning but clumsy services of the physician’s mate and permitted to command a dozen soldiers in battle—preferably at bows [at the prow, or forecastle].”
“He’ll be killed there, most likely,” Colonna said.
“But, if he isn’t, he will reach Parnassus,” Juan said, and Cervantes’ eyes lit up. “Let him have his twelve men, Your Grace [i.e., Colonna], as a favor to me.”
“Very well, Your Excellency. You’d better go back to bed, messer poet, and come out only when it’s time to fight.” (445—my emphasis added)
A short time later—now after the decisive and won naval battle—and when Juan was festively about to sail along and salute the line of his assembled victorious fleet, “Colonna accompanied the commander in chief to the gangway.” (494) But then something unexpected was again to transpire:
A tall thin soldier appeared on it [the gangway], his left armed bandaged and in a sling. Somebody, a physician’s mate, was trying to drag him away by the coat, but he resisted stoutly and at the same time saluted, his eyes fixed on Don Juan.
“Señor poet,” Juan exclaimed, smiling. “Leave him alone, you there! I am glad to see you still alive, although it looks as if you’ve been fighting as you said you would.”
“He did, Your Excellency,” Colonna affirmed. “And very bravely.”
“I lost the movement of my left hand for the glory of the right,” said Miguel de Cervantes. “And I want to thank you, Your Excellency. Yesterday [Sunday, 7 October 1571] was the most beautiful day of the century.”
So he knows, too, that there will not be another, Juan thought. “I thought of you once,” he said, “during the battle.”
Deeply moved, Cervantes said, “With or without a crown—you, sir, are a true king.”….
A true king, Cervantes thought. A magnificent young king. A crusader. Perhaps…the last crusader. (495—my emphasis added)
In the last few lines of his book (on page 485), Louis de Wohl considered the likelihood of a later tragedy, perhaps also to occur in Don Juan of Austria’s own young life, but also more broadly:
But those who were shouting “Hosanna” today might well be shouting “Crucify” tomorrow. Yesterday’s conquerer was today’s victim and tomorrow’s fool….Glorious fool! Glorious folly! Was there not someone who had spoken even of the Folly of the Cross. Saint Paul, of course. To whatever height a poet [has] soared, always a saint had been there before. (495—my emphasis added)
And the saints—especially the blood martyrs—knew the importance, and lived out the reality, of the virtue of hope, the hope of the Christian martyrs. A gift of grace, a theological virtue.
Miguel Cervantes knew well and later depicted the sorrows and tragedies of life, and he also cherished a virtuous hope: the hope of eternal life. May his companion, Don Juan of Austria, also have come to that sensitive awareness and virtuous conduct by the end of his short, but heroic life.
© 2020 Robert D. Hickson
1Louis de Wohl, The Last Crusader: A Novel about Don Juan of Austria (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010—first published in 1956). All further references to this 495-page book will be to the paginations of the 2010 edition; and they will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay. This essay will especially counterpoint the brief and graciously subtle relationship between Miguel Cervantes as a combatant volunteer soldier, and Don Juan of Austria as the Commanding General of the Fleet—both of whom are 24 years of age.