Saint Nuno de Santa Maria lived a truly heroic life. Power and wealth can turn a good and faithful man into a depraved creature who forsakes the Lord and all His righteousness. But, some had the strength, the will, and the faith to abandon it all for the Kingdom of God. That man is St. Nuno de Santa Maria, also known as Nuno Alvares Pereira, the Saint Constable of Portugal.
By Denise Emille C. Duque
Nuno was born on June 24, 1360, a time where the hammer of Reconquista was still at full swing. He was the illegitimate son of Brother Alvaro Goncalves, a Hospitaller Knight of St. John and prior of Cato, and Donna Iria Goncalves do Carvalhal. By his first year, he was made legitimate by royal decree. Because of that, he received the knightly education every noble offspring had at that time.
He grew up as a brilliant, strong, and pious man. By the age of 13, he became the page of the reigning queen, Queen Leonor, and showed great potential. His deep spirituality, the profound love of the Holy Eucharist, and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary shaped his character and military prowess.
At the age of 16, he married a young widow named Donna Leonor de Alvim. Their marriage bore them two sons—who died early—and a fair daughter named Beatriz, she will have a profound impact on his immortal legacy.
Nuno the Brave Warrior and Cunning Commander
He received his baptism by fire in 1373 at the age of 13 when he fought against invading Castilian forces. Nuno was a valiant page. But he was also cocky and rash in making decisions. Despite these flaws, his seniors noted his talent in leadership.
Ten years later, King Fernando I of Portugal died and left no male heir to inherit his throne. So, his throne was inherited by his daughter Beatriz who was married to the Castilian King Juan I, who had ambitions to unite Castile and Portugal under his crown.
The nobles did not like their independence revoked. To solve this, they supported the claim of Joao, Master of Aviz, the illegitimate son of King Peter I of Portugal. King Juan I sent an invasion force to Portugal in 1384 in “support” of his wife’s claim.
The Castilians invaded with 5,000 men into the heartland of Portugal only to be met by 1,400 Portuguese men led by none other than Nuno Alvares Pereira in the fields of Atoleiros.
Let’s talk about the army composition of both sides so we can have a better grasp of the battle. The Portuguese force is composed of 1,000 footmen, 300 cavalrymen, and 100 crossbowmen. On the other hand, the larger Castilians had 3,000 footmen and 2000 cavalrymen. During this time, the cavalry was the key to win most battles because their shock and awe effect can shatter enemy lines. Now let’s move on to the conflict.
Before their battle, the Castilians sent an emissary to Nuno and asked him to retire, but he refused. The Castilians advanced to the Portuguese position. Nuno, being the brilliant commander, formed an infantry square with crossbowmen inside to counter the repeated charges of the Castilian Cavalry. Outnumbered three to one, the Portuguese stood firm against the rush of Castilians. Not long after, the enemy suffered heavy losses since they couldn’t break the giant wall of spears while simultaneously being shot with bolts and arrows. The battle ended with a decisive Portuguese victory, and they never suffered a single casualty.
Joao was impressed with the brilliant commander and named him as the Protector and Constable, the supreme commander of all Portuguese forces. The Master of Aviz also appointed Nuno Alvares Pereira as the Count of Ourem, one of the three countdoms of Portugal. Nuno became the second most powerful man in Portugal at the young age of 24, but he never let that get to his head.
The Portuguese were not out of the woods yet because one month after the Battle of Atoleiros, King Juan led another army into Portugal. This time he went straight to the capital city of Lisbon and besieged it. King Juan knew that this city was vital to the rebel cause because of its economic significance. Losing it will cripple, if not destroy, the efforts of Joao, Nuno, and the loyal Portuguese Nobility.
It also did not help that some Portuguese Nobles sided with King Juan. Their actions did not only reduce Joao I’s source of recruits, but this also increased their enemies.
King Juan led a larger force than the one in Atoleiros, so Nuno knew it best not to face the Castilian King in direct battle. The Portuguese Constable, who was simultaneously facing disloyal Portuguese forces, used guerilla tactics by attacking and raiding the supply lines and separated parties of the Castilians. This effort of Nuno caused the Castilians to lack supplies for their siege. An important thing to note about Nuno is that he showed mercy to the hungry citizens of opposing Portuguese cities by feeding them at his own expense.
Despite Nuno’s guerilla success, Lisbon remained on the brink of collapse. The city was running low in supply, and the Bubonic Plague ravaged the citizens. Fortunately for Lisbon, some ships managed to resupply the city and the Plague also spread in the Castilian camp. Soon, the death toll on the Castilians was so much that King Juan lifted the siege and retreated to Castille. Finally, the Portuguese had breathing room to settle internal affairs.
Don Nuno Alvares Pereira, the Hero of Aljubarrota
In 1385, the Portuguese Nobility recognized the kingship of Joao as Joao I of the House of Aviz. King Juan was infuriated, so he decided to finish this once and for all. The two opposing kingdoms looked to other Kingdoms for help. King Juan allied himself with France and Aragon. And since the Hundred Years War still swept Western Europe at this point, King Joao I clung to England for support.
The Portuguese managed to raise an army of 6,600 men. They had 4,000 footmen, 1,700 cavalrymen, 800 crossbowmen, and 200 of the legendary English Longbowmen.
King Juan, on the other hand, managed to rally an overwhelming 31,000 men. He had 15,000 footmen, 6,000 Castilian cavalrymen, 8,000 crossbowmen, 15 mortars, and 2,000 French Heavy Knights.
Nuno and Joao were unfazed by the sheer size of the invading force and used their cunning to play by his army’s strength and his country’s geography. Nuno knew that the knightly charge could obliterate his men on flat ground, so he positioned his men atop the north side of a hill near Aljubarrota. Infantry and dismounted cavalry occupied the center. Archers, longbowmen, and crossbowmen occupied either flank. Then reinforcements arrived led by King Joao I and his men occupied the rear. Steep slopes protected their sides from possible attacks. Also, he ordered his men to dig ditches, place caltrops, and plant spikes to disrupt the cavalry charge of the Castilians and the French.
At midday, they spotted the Castilian columns with banners held high. The Castilians noticed that their enemy was in a fortified position. King Juan ordered his troops to march around the hill to avoid the obstacles and attack from the other side. The Portuguese was quick to notice and rushed to face the other side and dig another set of ditches, place caltrops, and plant spikes. They managed to finish the trench work just in time as the massive Castilian force was about to finish forming their battle lines.
The French Knights began the battle by charging up the uneven slope laden by obstacles. It was a wrong maneuver. Their line breaking charge was slowed and weakened by the ditches and obstacles. Because of this, the footmen managed to hold their line well while the ranged units in either flank caused devastating damage to the horsemen. King Juan ordered his whole army to charge as a way to fix his mistake. Seeing this, King Joao I withdrew his ranged units and ordered the rear to join their brothers on the battle.
It was a slugfest. Both sides suffered significant casualties where men and horses alike fell one by one. The Castilians couldn’t fight to their full potential because of the obstacles. On the other hand, the Portuguese held their line like an unbreakable glacier and dealt heavy blows. Then the royal banner of King Juan fell to the ground. The demoralized Castilian rear troops thought that their King was dead and started to flee. Soon, others fled as well until it became a full retreat, not knowing that King Juan was still alive. Upon seeing their fleeing enemies, the Portuguese rushed down like an avalanche and killed every enemy they could get their hands on unto the next day, killing up to 9,000-10,000 men. It was a decisive victory for Portugal.
Nuno Alvares Pereira credited the victory to the Blessed Virgin, whose name, Maria, is carved into his sword. He fasted every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in dedication to the Holy Queen. His chosen banner bore the image of the Cross, the Blessed Virgin, and Saints James and George. Nuno also built churches and monasteries at his own expense. The most well-known of them is the Carmelite Church in Lisbon and the church of Our Lady of Victory in Batalha.
As a reward and a move to isolate his internal enemies, King Joao I appointed Nuno as the Count of Arraiolos and Barcelos. Now, Nuno ruled the three countdoms of Portugal during that time, the army was loyal to him, and he was powerful enough to seize the throne from King Joao. Despite this, Nuno remained loyal to the King.
Their conflict with King Juan continued until 1390 when King Juan died. The war was a Portuguese victory, and they successfully retained their independence. Nuno gave the bulk of his wealth to his war veterans when peace officially settled.
Road to Sainthood
In 1307 a tragedy struck Nuno’s life. Donna Leonor de Alvim, his wife, passed away. The constable was heartbroken. He mourned and wept for the loss of his wife. Now the only family he had left was his daughter Beatriz.
With his power and wealth, he could have seduced himself into any depravity to console himself from the loss, but he clung to his faith. Nuno gave up his power and became a Carmelite Friar at Carmo Convent, a convent he founded in Lisbon. There he took a new name, Friar Nuno de Santa Maria. As a friar, he was a fervent prayer, humble penitent, and displayed filial devotion to the Mother of God. His actions inspired his fellow friars, nuns, and priests. They saw him as a saintly figure.
His last years were painful. Debilitating Arthritis slowly chipped away his remaining life. He was in constant and great pain, but he continued to be a holy man. King Joao I visited him at his last year and wept at the sight of the frail man who was his dearest friend. The King embraced him tightly as he remembered all the things they had been through, how he owed his throne to him, and how it was Nuno who saved the independence of their kingdom. Then Friar Nuno passed away on November 1, 1431, and his fellow religious wept for him and called him Saint Nuno de Santa Maria.
Friar Nuno was beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1918, almost five centuries after his death because of diplomatic issues. Then Pope Pius XII made a decree to canonize Nuno in 1940. Finally, Nuno was confirmed a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on April 26, 2009, and was named Saint Nuno de Santa Maria.
His daughter Beatriz married Alfonso, Duke of Braganza. Through her, St. Nuno became an ancestor of the House of Braganza. The Royal House of Portugal in 1640-1910, the Kingdom of Brazil in 1815-1822, and the Empire of Brazil in 1822-1889.
The Blessed Nuno Society—a mission society and prayer apostolate—was named after him. It is officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a diocesan Private Association of the Christian Faithful and affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.
Truly, truly Nuno Alvares Pereira was indeed a saintly figure. From being the pious young boy to becoming a hero and to a friar, he showed piety and virtue all the way. He is indeed a man among men, a stalwart example of what a Catholic Man should be. To all men who read this: BE LIKE NUNO.
C. Duque is a practicing Catholic from the Philippines and an AB English graduate from Bicol University in Legaspi, Albay. He is currently a Copywriter for Uni-bros Trading Inc. and a Freelance Blog Writer. Also, he is passionate about learning about Catholic, Ancient, Medieval, and Military History.