On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.
The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.
Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.
Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.
“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”
Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.
When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.
From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:
It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’
According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’
Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,
I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.
This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.
Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.
Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.
* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.
** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.
† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.