The Alferes and his Harness – The Armour of Duarte de Almeida (P. 1)

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

(This article was originally written for the page  Repensando a Idade Média, which I invite you to have a look at here)

Today I would like to mark another anniversary of the Battle of Toro with a question: What is the only extant 15th century Portuguese harness – or rather, half a harness – doing in the Cathedral of Toledo, in Spain? Not an unreasonable question, to be sure. And it is also not unreasonable to ask who Duarte de Almeida, the mythical Decepado and alferes of King Afonso V of Portugal, actually was. But to try and answer both questions is much like walking a tightrope between fact and legend.

THE MYTH

A rather strange nickname, Decepado [1], not without its share of casual cruelty. Though few have heard about the man, however, some may have heard a nebulous story of a flag-bearer who, in some medieval battle against Castile, defended his banner with grace, bravery, but without his hands – which had been cut off by the enemy.

The 1st of March, 1476. Toro, province of Zamora, Castile. The day dawns grey and sad, with the taste of rain in the air. Either side of the battlefield, two armies line up: the Castilian army, led by Fernando II, El Católico, and the Portuguese army, led by King Afonso V. The casus belli, as it so often is in conflicts between royalty, is a succession dispute, in this case the succession to the throne of Castile. The royal banner flutters at the centre of the Portuguese line. Its guardian, the alferes Duarte de Almeida, steels himself for the incoming onslaught. He knows that to lose the royal flag is a sign of dishonour, a sign of impending defeat.

Battle Toro.jpg
The Battle of Toro, by José Daniel Cabrera Peña (all rights belong to the artist).

The Castilian harquebuses fire an initial salvo. In the midst of the smoke, the Portuguese line wavers, staggers. A moment only, but a moment the Castilian army is quick to seize: the soldiers charge forward, with a roar of fury and naked steel flashing in their hands. The Portuguese line cannot hold; it breaks and falters like a wave in the sand. The fight around the royal banner is vicious. Duarte de Almeida, suddenly abandoned by his comrades in arms in the thick of it, defends the banner with unwavering bravery. His right hand is struck. Duarte reels from the blow, but holds onto the banner with his left hand. It too is soon injured. Overwhelmed, the alferes tries to resist, but ends up losing the King’s banner. The Castilians seize the flag and Duarte falls, enveloped by the enemy. Has he died of his injuries? Has he been captured by the foe? A tale never loses in the telling, they say, and here Duarte’s story branches out into multiple endings.

THE MAN

There’s a man behind the legend, of course. And it is curious how little we know about him, this purported Portuguese hero, to the point where we don’t even know who his parents were, or when he was born exactly. Many sources have claimed that he was the son of one Pedro Lourenço de Almeida, a hypothesis which the illustrious Portuguese historian Anselmo Braamcamp Freire has long since demolished. Braamcamp Freire has posited that he was instead the son of a certain João Fernandes de Almeida [2], but certainties are hard to come by.

The same uncertainty hangs over his birth, but we can make some assumptions based on loose data collected by Braamcamp Freire: the first time that Duarte appears in historical record is in 1461, as a knight of the royal household, and we know that he received boons for services rendered as as an alferes-menor [3] in Morocco in 1464, during King Afonso V’s ill-fated expedition to Tangier [4]. He would have still been alive in 1502, according Braamcamp Freira [5], but in 1509 he was already listed as deceased [6]. Virtus in medium est. If Duarte was invested as a knight immediately before 1461, he would have been at least 15 or 16 years old by that date, which means he would’ve been born in 1445. At the time of his death, after 1502, he would have been close to sixty years old. I would therefore suggest 1420-1445 as the probable timespan for the alfere’s birth, with a little bit of leeway [7].

And other than these dates, unfortunately, we are left without much to say about Duarte de Almeida – not by choice, but by historical omission. We don’t know what he looked like, what he sounded like, what he loved or what he hated. Braamcamp Freire thoroughly examined the few details we do have – his marriage and the probably identity of his wife, for example, or a possible house of his that once stood in Santarém. Details of his military career aren’t plentiful, either: except for a brief mention of the Chronicle of Duarte de Meneses, and an allusion to his participation in the conquest of Arzila [8], we know nothing more about Duarte’s military performance before Toro. In this life full of mysteries, what we know with some certainty is the feat that lies at the heart of his tale. We are left with the vague contours of his story, and that’s about it.

Duarte 02.png
Coat of arms of the Almeida family, from the Livro do Armeiro-Mor (1509).

The gallant act of the ‘alferes menor’ [9] was recorded by both Portuguese and Castilian sources, so we have no reason to doubt its authenticity.  There are still doubts about the extent of his injuries, however. Had his hands been lopped off, as the tale goes, and Duarte been forced to defend the banner with his bare teeth [10]? Neither Portuguese nor Castilian sources seem to agree on this point, although they do not dispute the existence of injuries – as we would expect after a battle. A dying Duarte de Almeida was taken prisoner and taken to Zamora to recuperate [11]. And here comes the last of the myths: what happened to the brave ensign after his recovery? Multiple chroniclers claimed he lived the remainder of his days in poverty [12], which Braamcamp Freire’s research has shown to be untrue [13]. What we do know is that, after Toro, Duarte de Almeida is relegated to a historical footnote, the ancestor of a branch of the noble family of the Almeidas that, little by little, would eventually wither away.

 

CONTINUES IN PART II – THE HARNESS AND ITS MYSTERIES

 

[1] “Decepado”, in Portuguese, literally means “mutilated” or “maimed”.

[2] A convincing and interesting theory, it must be said, but a theory nonetheless. See Braamcamp Freire, A. (1921). Brasões da Sala de Sintra, Volume I. Coimbra : Imprensa da Universidade, pp. 320-322.

[3] The Portuguese designation for a junior ensign.

[4] “The King climbed down that slope (…) and his banner-bearer was killed, and his banner would’ve been taken were it not for Ruy de Sousa (…) and also the alferes, a noble gentleman who lacked no courage for the task, whose name was Duarte de Almeida” [my translation] (“[C]omeçou elRey de decer pera fundo per aquella lomba, (…) seu estendarte foy abatydo e fora tomado senom fora a bondade de Ruy de Sousa (…) e desy o alferez que era homem fidalgo e nobre e nom lhe falleceo coraçom e força pera sosteer aquelle trabalho o qual auya nome Duarte dAlmeyda”), in Zurara, G. (2012). Crónica de D. Duarte de Meneses. Edições Vercial.

[5] Braamcamp Freire, A. (1921). Brasões da Sala de Sintra, Volume I. Coimbra : Imprensa da Universidade, p. 333.

[6] Idem, p. 335.

[7] Braamcamp Freire has unfortunately identified a string of other Duartes de Almeida, contemporaries of our alferes, which complicates things a bit – see Brasões da Sala de Sintra, Volume I, pp. 336-337. Much like Braamcamp Freire, I won’t delve into these other Duartes.

[8] The exact nature of Duarte de Almeida’s role in Arzila is also a mystery. Braamcamp Freire states, without divulging his sources: “Two days after the taking of Asilah (…) the African [King Afonso V] doesn’t fail to reward Duarte de Almeida’s services, no doubt invaluable for the emprise, though the royal flag had been carried by the  alferes mor, the Count of Valença ” [my translation] (“Dois dias depois da tomada de Arzila (…) não esquece ao africano a recompensa dos serviços de Duarte de Almeida, que decerto haviam de ter sido valiosos na emprêsa, apesar de nela a bandeira real ter sido levada pelo alferes mor conde de Valença” ), in Braamcamp Freire (1921), p. 324. If this is true, then the the standard-bearer on the Siege of Asilah tapestry would be Henrique de Meneses, 1st Count of Valença, and not Duarte de Almeida, as several Portuguese and foreign authors have stated up until now.

[9] Góis, D. (1724). Chronica do Principe D. Joam. Lisboa: Officina da Música, p. 300. The confusion regarding Duarte de Almeida’s exact function remains.

[10] “A strike cleaves his right hand; indifferent to pain, he holds with his left the banner that had been entrusted to his Honour and loyalty; his left hand, too, his cut off; Duarte de Almeida, desperate, takes the banner in his teeth, and torn, mutilated, eyes burning with rage, resists still, resists always” [my translation] (“Uma cutilada corta-lhe a mão direita; indiferente à dor, empunha com a esquerda o estandarte confiado à sua Honra e lealdade; decepam-lhe também a mão esquerda; Duarte de Almeida, desesperado, toma o estandarte nos dentes, e rasgado, despedaçado, os olhos em fogo, resiste ainda, resiste sempre”) in Pereira, J. and Rodrigues, G. (1904). Portugal – Dicionário Histórico, Corográfico, Heráldico, Biográfico, Bibliográfico, Numismático e Artístico – Volume III. Lisboa: João Romano Torres, p. 23.

[11] As I alluded to at the outset, there are some who believe, without any reason to do so, that the brave ensign died after the battle: “The most widely spread version states that he died in combat shortly after his arms or legs were cut off (which Fernando Fulgosio believes  to be true)” [my translation] (“La versión más extendida afirma que falleció en combate poco después de que le cercenaran los brazos o las piernas (algo que cree Fernando Fulgosio)”), em Villatoro, M. (2016, 2 de Março). El mítico portugués que defendió su estandarte a dentelladas cuando los españoles le cercenaron de raíz los brazos. ABC Historia. Available at https://www.abc.es/historia/abci-mitico-portugues-defendio-estandarte-dentelladas-cuando-espanoles-cercenaron-raiz-brazos-201603020152_noticia.html .

[12] An opinion shared Duarte Nunes de Leão (16th century) or António de Macedo (17th century), for example, and still shared today.

[13] Mainly because of a series of gifts and pensions bestowed on him and his descendants as rewards for his long years of service. They may not have been enough to afford a life of luxury, of course, but they would hardly have forced him to trade in his sword for a ploughshare, as some sources claim. See Braamcamp Freire, A. (1921), pp. 330-333.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Braamcamp Freire, A. (1921). Brasões da Sala de Sintra, Volume I. Coimbra : Imprensa da Universidade

Góis, D. (1724). Chronica do Principe D. Joam. Lisboa: Officina da Música

Pereira, J. and Rodrigues, G. (1904). Portugal – Dicionário Histórico, Corográfico, Heráldico, Biográfico, Bibliográfico, Numismático e Artístico – Volume III. Lisboa: João Romano Torres.

Villatoro, M. (2016, 2 de Março). El mítico portugués que defendió su estandarte a dentelladas cuando los españoles le cercenaron de raíz los brazos. ABC Historia. Available online at https://www.abc.es/historia/abci-mitico-portugues-defendio-estandarte-dentelladas-cuando-espanoles-cercenaron-raiz-brazos-201603020152_noticia.html .

Zurara, G. (2012). Crónica de D. Duarte de Meneses. Edições Vercial.

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