He who knows most, doubts most.  — Jerónimo de Carranza

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Fencing History and Tales

Introduction | Literary Allusions | Famous Duels and Duellists | Women and Combat

Famous Duels and Duellists

Hernan Cortes (1485-1547)

Translation by Mary Curtis with assistance from R. E. Curtis (August 15, 2003)

"The amazing event of the prophecy that a gypsy made in Seville to Hernan Cortes

One of the most distinguished families in the city of Medellin, in the lands of Extremadura, were those with the surname Cortes, being the head of this noble house Martin Cortes, a very respected elder in all the territory. Don Martin had a son that he sent to study in Salamanca for his doctorate in Law, so that he could serve the king in a government position. However, the young Cortes whose first name was Hernan, a hot-blooded young man, dreamed more of a sword and the command of a Regiment of Infantry like those fighting in Italy under the orders of the Great Captain than he dreamed of positions in the magistrate.

Having returned to Medellin during his Salamancan vacations Hernan Cortes, dressed in his scholar's robe and doublet, he crept up to the barred window of a certain young lady by the name of Elvira, who was also from a noble family, with whom he was in love, and his love was returned in kind.

However, Elvira's father, an Hidalgo [a nobleman] lacking funds because his affection for gambling had ruined him, intended to marry his daughter with a personage of immense fortune so that with his money the ruined noble could return to his former estate.

So during the absence of young Hernan Cortes, Elvira's father negotiated and came to an arrangement for her marriage with the commander of the Order of Santiago, the richest and most powerful man in all Extremadura.

That night while Hernan Cortes spoke with Elvira through the barred window, and she told him of her sad plight, and they both thought of how to prevent the marriage that was going to be forced upon her, Hernan told her, "Pretend that you're sick, or that you've lost your mind. The important thing is to gain time. Meanwhile I will abandon my studies, I will go to Italy as a soldier, and in a short time with my valor and with the prestige of my surname, I will be able to earn the rank of second lieutenant, which will open a path for me in the military. Then we will secretly marry and I will take you away from here…"

While they spoke of this, he heard footsteps and people talking at the street corner. Hernan Cortes moved away from the window to avoid compromising the reputation of Elvira and to better protect their secret. He tried to reach the opposite street corner and to disappear in the darkness, but he found there, apparently guarding it, a man of graceful and gallant gentility who said to him, "Stay there my lord scholar, for I must cut your ears off as a warning so that you do not return to serenade the window of my future wife."

And saying this, he drew his sword.

Hernan Cortes, who as a noble was also armed, drew his sword and they began to fight. However, the commander of Santiago fought less than honorably and when he saw that the young student handled himself well, and that he couldn't beat him, he gave a whistle, and from the other corner came two men against him who were those that he had heard before and who were like ambushers guarding the street.

Hernan Cortes, even though he was pressed by the three, fought so valiantly and with such skill that in a few minutes the commander fell to the ground pierced through the heart, and the other two lackeys ran away.

Hernan hastily returned to his house and there he told his father Don Martin what had transpired.

"What a sad fate, my son, because having killed the commander of Santiago you've made yourself the most powerful enemies: as much his family as the Knights of the Order of Santiago. Flee immediately for they will not tarry in coming to capture you."

"Where should I go father?" asked Hernan.

"You can't go to Italy since you would find there in the Spanish Army the main guard of the Order of Santiago. It would be better for you to go to Seville, and from there to embark for the Indies. They say that in these newly discovered lands there will be opportunity for the daring to achieve glory and wealth."

Hernan Cortes took a horse and quickly fled the town, even as they arrived at his house seeking to arrest him.

Hernan lodged, upon his arrival in a low-class inn that today is on the street Trajano, but was at that time called Pig's Street. Because it was next to the hospital of God's Love, the inn held relatives of sick people from the nearby villages, mule drivers that came with provisions for the hospital, worthless rabble who had scraped up four ochavos [a small coin worth very little], and some of the traveling doctors who were consulting for the rural people in the hospital infirmary. It was a good place to avoid being noticed, because he feared that in a few hours the deputies would arrive to put him in prison, for the death he had given in Medellin.

Having changed his scholar's clothing for those of a soldier's that he had bought from a merchant in the same inn, fixed his hair and half covered his face with the brim of a hat adorned with feathers, Hernan went to the port to look for accommodations on one of the ships preparing to sail for the Indies.

He was next to the Golden Tower, when a gypsy woman came up to him and asked for charity.

"Does my lord want me to tell your future?"

Hernan did not care for divinations, but to help the gypsy he gave her a silver real [a Spanish coin pronounced RE-al], a much greater coin than anyone had ever given her. Hernan thought that by helping the destitute woman, God would help him in his escape and would give him a safe journey and happy adventures as a soldier.

But the gypsy, when she received the silver coin, took the hand that had given it to her and said, "Let me look at this hand that by God and the salvation of my soul it seems to me that I see in it unusual and marvelous things."

And before he could stop her, she opened his hand and closely examined the lines one by one. Afterwards with a grave expression on her dark face, the gypsy said, "Lord, in spite of your simple soldier's outfit, I recognize that you are of high lineage, and that you are running from something. It is written in these lines that you will come out well from this peril, and although I don't pretend to understand their meaning, they say that you will fight with kings and emperors and that you will defeat them. And what's more: you will be the founder of new cities, and your fame will endure as long as this world."

Hernan, who thought only of Elvira, brusquely interrupted her, "All of this that you've told me is very good, but will I return wealthy? Will I succeed in my endeavor of love?"

The gypsy did not answer. With an expression yet more grave on her face, she extended her thin hand pointing in the direction of the hills where the houses of the nearby village of Castilleja de la Cuesta bleached in the sun.

We will see now, as Cortes recounted, what happened next. I have here the words that he spoke to his friends, "Suddenly in the direction that the gypsy's hand pointed, I saw a cloud rise, that as it situated itself over the village of Castilleja, darkened in color until it was black. The wind was sculpting its form until it amazingly took the outline of coffin. Yes, even though it seems impossible the cloud took the form of a coffin. And then occurred the most surprising thing: the sun that was already very low because it was the hour of sunset descended over that coffin, went behind it, and both sank to hide behind the roofs of Castilleja."

The gypsy prophecy and the amazing vision that Hernan had were fulfilled faithfully. Hernan Cortes conquered an empire, achieving eternal glory. But in exchange for it he lost his youth, his dreams, and his lovers and with the passage of time he came to die sad, betrayed, and alone in Castilleja de la Cuesta. Nobody was faithful to him to the end except his horse. It was a spirited horse that he had named "Cordobés" [which means 'from Córdoba'] with which he conquered Mexico. On his return to Spain, Cortes brought the noble animal and he took care of it on his estate in Castilleja until it died of old age. In the gardens of the ancient palace of Cortes, today a religious college, one can see among the grass of the path, a dark stone worn by the rains and carved with the name of the horse that Cortes had buried in that place. "

Translated excerpt from Tradiciones Y Leyendes Sevillanas {Traditions and Legends of Seville}, by José María de Mena (Plaza and Janes Editores, 1975)