While many people have heard of the great appearances of Our Lady at Fatima in Portugal, few are acquainted with the life of Saint Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Catholic hero who secured Portuguese independence and edified the nation with his outstanding bravery and steadfast devotion to the Virgin Mary.
In the mid-fourteenth century, when the kingdoms of Castile and Portugal were locked in a protracted war, Saint Nuno unified the Portuguese nation with his military leadership. The two traits that marked his life are not frequently found together: filial devotion to the Blessed Mother and outstanding military prowess. As a model for Catholic men today, the life of Saint Nuno not only deserves to be more widely known, but also promoted and imitated.
His Early Life
By the time Nuno was born in 1360, the unifying bonds of medieval Christian Civilization were beginning to unravel. The idealism and spirit of self-sacrifice that prompted the building of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and spurred the glorious saga of the crusades was starting to fade.
Although the high standard of Christian morality and charity was waning, many virtues still permeated society. Authentic Christian chivalry still exerted great cultural influence. Therefore, despite being born out of wedlock, Nuno was instilled at a young age with true Christian principles by his mother.
Fighting with Honor at Court
Nuno was no stranger to conflict. Even before his birth, Portugal was on the verge of vanishing as an independent country because of Castile’s hegemony in the region.
Although the Portuguese maintained vestiges of independence, these were mostly nominal. They still had a king, Ferdinand I, and his wicked wife, Queen Leonor. Ferdinand made efforts to gain independence, but nothing worked out as he had hoped, because, alas, his wife was a traitor.
When Nuno arrived at the royal court at the age of thirteen, his older brother Diego took him on a scouting mission. The brothers went off to assess the strength and location of the Castilian army. The mission went wrong. Finding themselves trapped, they decided to make a run for it and Nuno showed outstanding maturity and bravery in the escape. Returning to the royal castle, Nuno displayed such noble manliness in recounting the deed that the queen made him a knight despite his young age.
Eventually, King Ferdinand was forced to broker a pro-Castilian peace deal. The pact included the marriage between the brother of the King of Castile and the sister of King Ferdinand, uniting the two countries by family ties.
Meanwhile, as Nuno grew older his ardent devotion to the Mother of God continued to flourish. He cultivated a special love for the Brown Scapular and the Rosary. With the assistance of these sacramentals, combined with devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Nuno was able to resist many temptations.
Assaulted by impure customs at court, this courageous soldier demonstrated a high degree of moral courage. Not only did he resist and vanquish the temptation of impurity but he also made a private vow of virginity.
However, Nuno’s life took an unexpected turn when his father arranged a marriage for him. At first, Nuno resisted the idea, but finally acquiesced. Nuno's bride was an excellent woman and after their marriage, they settled down to a tranquil family life. But Nuno never lost his desire to become a heroic knight in the service of his great Queen and Lady, Mary.
Dark Time for Portugal
Hope seemed lost when King Ferdinand, who was dying of consumption, was forced to realize the treachery of his wife.
Queen Leonor made a pact with the English to defeat their common enemy and gain their assistance in freeing Portugal. The pact was a trick though. Rather than having any interest in securing the independence of Portugal, Leonor planned to take the Portuguese crown for herself and the villainous Count Andeiro, who she planned to marry after the death of the king. Ferdinand was so enraged by this that he decided to destroy his own country to prevent Leonor from having it, although she would ironically go on to support the Castilian cause.
Thus he gave the King of Castile his daughter to marry. Since she was the rightful heir to the throne, the King of Castile was more than willing to marry the girl who would effectively annex Portugal to Castile. Nuno was obliged to attend the wedding. But he could no longer contain his righteous indignation witnessing at celebration that spelled doom for his country. What could he do?
While the formal wedding banquet was in full swing, Nuno approached the table where the King of Castile, Queen Leonor, and Count Andeiro were seated, and he flipped it over. This single act of courage and defiance in the face treachery spread like wildfire, sparking hope in so many Portuguese patriots who, until then, were leaderless.
Nuno formed an alliance with the King’s younger brother, John I of Portugal, whom the people of Portugal proclaimed their true king. Thus, around these two great men, Portugal united in an epic fight for independence.
Commander of Armies
Shortly after the new king’s installation, Nuno was put in charge of the Portuguese army. Nuno fought many battles throughout his military career, winning stunning victories.
His mere presence was enough to compel any enemy army – no matter how great its strength – to think twice before attacking. One tremendous battle demonstrates the caliber of Saint Nuno: the battle of Valverde, perhaps the most decisive battle in the war between Castile and Portugal.
From the onset, Nuno's army was at a tremendous disadvantage. His 6,000 men faced a much larger army of 31,000. The Castilians, led by nobles and grand masters, marshalled their troops from a hilltop position.
Meanwhile, Nuno's men had to cross a river to reach the enemy, and as soon as they reached the shore they were greeted by a fury of swords and arrows. As the fighting intensified, Nuno was pierced through the foot by an arrow. Then he vanished from sight.
The hard-pressed Portuguese began to lose confidence and break formation. Several officers started a desperate search for Nuno. Finally, they found him behind some rocks deep in prayer.
His officers informed him that they were on the verge of defeat. Nuno, maintaining absolute confidence in the Mother of God, ignored the men and kept praying. When his men were about to give up, Nuno suddenly leapt to his feet, jumped on his horse and led a charge toward the enemy’s hilltop position. He exhorted his men to follow, thus resulting in a stampede of steel.
The Portuguese knights reached the top of the hill and dispatched the Castilian commanders. Filled with new courage, the Portuguese soldiers routed the Castilians. This, combined with the Battle of Aljubarrota, guaranteed the independence of Portugal.
From a Great Leader to a Combative Carmelite
Because of Nuno’s significant contributions to the kingdom, King John I of Portugal put him in the highest position in the kingdom. Nuno was given such extensive lands that his power was almost equal to the king's.
Just when Nuno had everything the world could offer, he chose to give it all up. He decided to become a Carmelite “donato” or servant. He gave away all his land and money, using a generous portion to build shrines of thanksgiving to Our Lady for victories achieved on the battlefield.
Portugal, however, was still young and fragile. Nuno knew that he might be needed on the field of battle again in the future. On one occasion, the ambassador of Castile came to visit him at the monastery to see if Nuno was still willing to fight. When he inquired, Nuno opened his Carmelite habit to reveal the gleaming suit of plate armor he always wore beneath it.
On another occasion, Islamic forces attacked the city of Ceuta. The son of the king came to Nuno and asked him to help them protect the city.
This loyal soldier’s response was emphatic:
“Without laying aside my Carmelite habit, but with my Rosary in one hand and my sword in the other, I will come to defend the cause of God as did Elias. Surely there could be no death more glorious, nor a burial more coveted by me, than in this war for the defense of the Faith against the Crescent and for the honor of Portugal.”
When the Muslim forces heard that Nuno and the Portuguese fleet were preparing for battle, they surrendered immediately.
Death of a Devotee of Our Lady
On his deathbed, Nuno asked for the Passion of Christ according to Saint John to be read aloud. At the words, "Behold thy Mother," Nuno passed into eternity. This faithful knight died with the full blessing of the Church and Her sacraments.
After his death, many people started praying to him. A cause for his canonization started, but was unsuccessful, because of the political situation of the time. He was beatified in 1918 and finally canonized on April 26, 2009, five hundred and seventy-eight years after his death.
Nuno Alvares Pereira – army general, Carmelite servant, 7th Count of Barcelos, 3rd Count of Ourém and 2nd Count of Arraiolos – is an excellent example for Catholics today who, as part of the Church Militant, are called to oppose a sinful culture with moral courage and fidelity.
When Our Lady of Fatima appeared in 1917, she requested devotion to the Brown Scapular and the Rosary. We should imitate Saint Nuno in his militant devotion to these powerful spiritual weapons and likewise engage in the spiritual battle of our time for the greater glory of God and Our Lady.
Saint Nuno Alvares Pereira, pray for us!