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Useful Notes / Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba

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"The Great Captain dismounted and, after embracing a roundshield, would become one of the first to enter. The French lords and soldiers that defended there, seeing the vision of the General coming at the head unafraid of weapons or any kind of death he might find, would say later that the Spaniards who captured Rubo didn't look to them like men, but like devils."
Antonio Rodríguez Villa, Chronicles of the Great Captain

Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba y Enríquez de Aguilar, Duke of Santángelo, Terranova, Andría, Montalto and Sessa (September 1, 1453 - December 2, 1515), best known by the Red Baron of El Gran Capitán ("The Great Captain"), was a Spanish general and statesman of the 15th century, recorded in military history as one of the most influential generals ever. Aside of his multiple battlefield accomplishments, which granted him the entire list of duchies you can read above despite his prosaic beginnings, he revolutioned warfare by perfecting the Germanic style known as "pike and shot" and the concept of combined arms, involving the coordination of logistics, fortifications, naval support, siege tactics, unconventional warfare, spywork and several kinds of troops, to the point he could be said to have pioneered modern warfare itself. Under his reforms, which eventually concluded in the famed tercio, the army of the nascent Spanish Empire would become an unsolvable Puzzle Boss for their many enemies for almost two centuries.

Far from being just a reformator, the Great Captain carved a quite adventurous career on the battlefields. A perennial underdog, he nailed many of his exploits in numeric inferiority, often because he had proven so capable to overcome all odds that his superiors didn't see necessary to provide him with large forces from the get go. His fighting style closely resembled our modern SOF: he favored troop mobility, small armies and a sharp sense of the chance, picking his battles and resorting to guerrilla and defensive warfare whenever he would not have the upper hand, and his bag of tricks included niceties ahead of their time like camouflage, amphibian tactics and engineering solutions. He was also a charismatic man with an amusing knack to improvise Badass Boasts; in an occasion in which he fell from his horse, he managed to fire up the moral by proclaiming that "if the Earth hugs us, it is on our side", and in another occasion, when the entire Spanish gunpowder reservoir exploded, he presented it as "their lights of victory", ultimately making it true.

Born a second son, meaning his family's lordship would be inherited by his brother while leaving him little, the young Gonzalo was put in the service of Prince Alfonso of Asturias. Although he quickly proved to be a natural with the weapons and the pen at once, his prince's premature death seemed to cut short his ascent, giving the teenager a Heroic BSoD enough for him to try to become a Hieronymite monk before being talked out of it by the order. However, after rejoining the court of Alfonso's successor Isabella I, Gonzalo received his great chance to prove his mettle in the War of the Castilian Succession, where Isabella and Ferdinand II faced the pretender Joanna la Beltraneja and King Afonso V of Portugal. Unlike other cavalry officers, who usually wore undistinguished fatigues in order not to become enemy targets, Fernández chose to wear a strategically gawdy red attire so his superiors noticed his feats more easily, a dangerous gambit that worked wonderfully. In no time, Fernández was well settled in a Castile ruled by the soon-to-be-known as The Catholic Monarchs, serving as his brother's champion and becoming the next rising star of the court.

Probably around this time, he became friends with another young war hero of the period, Hernán Pérez del Pulgar, known as el de las hazañas ("the One of the Feats"), who may have rivaled Gonzalo in his future military relevance had he not retired early to become a scholar. The two were similar yet contrasting characters, as while Fernández was shaping into a field general, Pérez became instead a spy and infiltrator, making a routine of jumping enemy walls to wreak havoc and exert psychological warfare in his own way. He would outlive Gonzalo, after which King Charles V had him write down Fernández's official biography thanks to his knowledge and insight of his life.

Fernández and Pérez participated next in the long conquest of the last Muslim state of Granada, during which he acted as the Christian spearhead with his daring attacks and usage of innovative siege machines. Fernández helped finish the capture of Granada himself in 1492, serving as an intermediary with Sultan Muhammad XII thanks to his diplomatic abilities and fluency in Arabian, and actually came to befriend the deposed Sultan and assist him in his bitter exile. The conquest was an enormously enriching experience in all possible senses for the Castilians, and by this point, the man who almost had become a monk was now a full fledged lord, as well as a knight of the Order of Santiago and a silk tycoon of the conquered lands. The Catholic Monarchs needed actives like him for their aggressive foreign policy, which counted interests in the Indies, the Canarian Islands and their dynastically related kingdom of Naples, and thus it didn't take long for Castile to throw Fernández into the Italian Wars, where he would earn his nickname and also put an end to medieval warfare as they knew it.

The Italian conflict exploded in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France invaded Naples, which happened to be ruled by a cousin to Ferdinand II, so the latter sent Fernández to contribute to the anti-French Multinational Team known as the League of Venice. The arrival of the league was enough to make Charles run for the French hills, but his mighty army was still there to be dealt with, and the uncoordinated Spaniards and Italians were initially trounced in their direct attempt to advance through Seminara. This blunder, which Gonzalo had strongly advised against before being overruled by the king, would be the first, only and last lost battle of his career. In a reminiscence of Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator in the Punic Wars, Fernández turned southern Italy into a guerrilla minefield, and by his patience and tenacity, they captured city after city, concluding in the capture of the enemy base in Atella in 1596. The League finally kicked the French army out of Italy the following year, but Gonzalo didn't leave the country without also defeating a French corsair and tearing Pope Alexander VI a new one for being a douchebag. For his leadership and strategy, he was acclaimed as El Gran Capitán by the Spaniards and Il Gran Capitano by the Italians, The Great Captain for the modern world.

In 1501, King Ferdinand secretly signed an alliance with the next King of France, Louis XII, to conquer together the kingdom of Naples. Fernández, fresh from some operations against the Muslim Ottoman Empire in Greece, deployed in Italy again to do his part, which he did with his usual grace, capturing Taranto by the method of dragging his caravels by land to bypass the city bay's sea defenses. Anyway, it took little time for Spain and France to come to blows for the conquered kingdom, meaning Fernández was again ordered to show the French the exit from Naples. The Spaniards, who now had the legendary soldiers Diego García de Paredes, Pedro Navarro and Antonio de Leyva among them, were badly outnumbered, but Fernández invested the time in defending fortified positions and wearing his enemies down with guerrilla, and after receiving reinforcements, he attracted the French to a battle in the heights of Cerignola in 1503. Unveiling the reforms he had implemented in the Spanish army, now composed by coronelías and armed with Iberian arquebuses and German mercenary pikes, Fernández utterly crushed the French and killed their commander, Louis d'Armagnac, Duke of Nemours, in the first historical battle largely won by the force of firearms. Action moved to the Garigliano river, where the war seemed to go stale, but at the end, by way of a pontoon-based envelopment, complemented by a force camouflaged in white to march unnoticed in the snow, Fernández scored another devastating victory and ultimately forced the demoralized French to surrender.

The conflict earned the Great Captain the job of Viceroy of Naples, a tenure that lasted three years and also left some colourful episodes. Alexander VI was not the only Borgia he even treated, as Fernández was also the higher-up who decided to arrest Cesare Borgia and send him to Spain, where Cesare would feature his famous escape. Aside from the battlefields, though, it seems Fernández also had some protagonism on the beds, as he was reportedly one of the many lovers of Sancha of Aragon, the aristocrat that made a Henpecked Husband out of Gioffre Borgia. There were also rumors that Fernández was a secret lover of the Catholic Monarch herself, Queen Isabella, his most ardent supporter in the court, although this was never proven and is considered improbable nowadays. Speaking of love affairs, around this time Amerigo Vespucci married María Cerezo, an enigmatic businesswoman who was claimed to be an illegitimate daughter of the Great Captain.

Fernández would find out that ruling Italy was easier said than done due to the strong factionalism and politicking. His closest local lieutenants, Prospero Colonna and Bartolomeo d'Alviano (the one from Assassin's Creed), belonged to rival families and warred against each other, and eventually their relationships with the Great Captain turned into enmity when his necessity to balance their interests satisfied none of them. However, it was after the death of Isabella that Gonzalo became exposed to slander by Colonna and other conspirators, and he suddenly became the public enemy of King Ferdinand, who envied the Great Captain's success and feared he could become his bane should Fernández ever turn on the increasingly unpopular king (and it didn't help that Gonzalo's nephew Pedro had recently caused agitation against Ferdinand). Ferdinand accused him of mismanaging the land and spending too much money, to which Fernández replied by producing a ridiculously detailed list of justified expenses, and legend has that he also gave Ferdinand an epic verbal lashing for his general ungratitude, the famous Cuentas del Gran Capitán, where he snarkily reminded Ferdinand that he would have no Kingdom of Naples if it wasn't by Fernández's action. In any case, as soon as he could, the king recalled him back home with the excuse of having him Kicked Upstairs, making promises he never fulfilled.

Left without nothing to do other than manage his new lands in Loja, Gonzalo became an Idle Rich and spent his free time exchanging letters with other famous people who admired him for his feats (reportedly, he also entertained himself by hiring palace staff who had previously worked for Ferdinand and paying them higher wages as a way to taunt the king), while in turn, Ferdinand replaced him in the court with the rising Fadrique Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and grandfather of the future famous Fernando Álvarez de Toledo. The idea that the Great Captain would revolt against Ferdinand never left the king's mind, and it didn't help that Pope Julius II, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, King Louis XII of France and the Republic of Venice were all eagerly courting the Great Captain to gain his invaluable services and connections in Italy. In a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, unearthed letters prove that Fernández did, in fact, consider revolting and turning Naples into his own protectorate in the style of El Cid Campeador, but the military collapse of Venice, whom he expected to join forces with, made him quietly abandon these plans. It would have been certainly ironic that the most influential military man in the history of Spain ended up betraying his kingdom, but cynical-minded Spaniards might argue this is exactly how Spain tends to treat its greatest benefactors.

The disgruntled Great Captain failed at finding another chance to lead armies, only helping with the logistics of the first conquest of Oran by his understudy Pedro Navarro, and this only changed after his successor as Viceroy of Naples, the great bureaucrat but talentless general Ramón de Cardona, got his army destroyed by the French in Ravenna (actually a Phyrric loss, as Cardona's men still managed to snipe down the French general, the brilliant Gaston of Foix, which went to decide the entire campaign). The Captain actually came out of his reluctant retirement to avenge the fiasco, but the usual politics caused his return to the battlefields to be cancelled, and after this disappointment, he basically told everybody to screw themselves and retired from the public life for good. He died of malaria at age 62, still among accusations of betrayal, a year before Ferdinand died as well and the Spanish throne and armies were inherited by Charles V, providentially another member of the Great Captain fanclub. Fernández was buried with 700 flags as war trophies, although those would burn during The Napoleonic Wars, when his tomb was desecrated (the first of two times, the second ironically by Spaniards) and his remnants stolen.

Although the Spanish Empire would continue churning out some of the best generals of its time thanks to the blueprints he had laid, with his immediate spiritual successor being the short-lived Fernando de Ávalos, Marquis of Pescara, none of them would ever become lauded to the point of antonomasia as the Great Captain had been during his life. His lineage continued for awhile, as Fernández' grandson of the same name would later fight in the Battle of Lepanto, earning the title of grand admiral, while his grand-grandson, also of the same name, would have his own feats as a lieutenant of the notorious Ambrogio Spinola, being even nicknamed the Second Great Captain; this one died without sons, so there were no more of those guys. As an extra member of the household, the Fernández would also be the owners-turned-patrons of Juan Latino, a black freedman that eventually graduated from the University of Granada and became the first black college professor in history.

In fiction

  • The character Gonzalo Pedro de Guadarrama from Bud Spencer's The Soldier of Fortune is an obvious parody of Fernández, whom he replaces as the Spanish general in charge.


  • Lope de Vega wrote a comedy about him, Las cuentas del Gran Capitán.
  • In Don Quixote, Fernández is mentioned by the Curate as one of the great knights of Spain.
  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo namedrops Fernández in The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, writing that by the end of his conquests, Cortés had basically became the counterpart of the Great Captain in the Indies.
  • Juan Granados' 2006 novel El Gran Capitán adapts the second half of his life.
  • José Calvo Poyato's 2015 novel of the same name also adapts Fernández' last days.

Live-Action TV


  • There is a popular Spanish brand of cheese named Gran Capitán, which commonly uses tercio imagery in its advertisement (although more often related to The Eighty Years' War, obviously inspired by Alatriste, than Fernández's own time).