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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 ot 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.

He 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 Islans 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, despite teasing an alliance between Spain and France against the Muslim Ottoman Empire, the next King of France, Louis XII, tried again to conquer Naples, meaning Fernández was again sent in to show him the exit under the pretext of some operations against the Turks in Greece (those were real, though, and included the capture of the Ottoman stronghold of Cephalonia). 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, the young Count of Guise, in the first historical battle largely won by the force of small 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 French to surrender.

The conflict earned the Great Captain the job 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 have 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, Isabella, his most ardent supporter in the court, although this was never proven and has been considered improbable. 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.

After the death of Isabella, Ferdinand heard rumors that the Great Captain had embezzled a lot of gold and might be planning to revolt against him, so either innocent or guilty, Fernández was recalled to Spain and Kicked Upstairs. Legend has that the Captain gave Ferdinand an epic verbal lashing for his ungratitude, the famous Cuentas del Gran Capitán, where he snarkily reminded Ferdinand that he would have no kingdom of Naples if not by Fernández's action. In any case, left without nothing to do other than manage his lands, Gonzalo became essentially 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 essentially replaced him in the court with the rising Fadrique Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and grandfather of the more famous Fernando Álvarez de Toledo. The disgruntled Great Captain declined more offers to lead armies, only helping with the logistics of the first conquest of Oran, although he finally accepted to ready an army to avenge the Spanish defeat in Ravenna before the whole project was abandoned.

Fernández finally died of malaria at age 62, a year before the Spanish throne and armies were inherited by Charles V, providentially another member of the Great Captain fanclub. He 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, his immediate spiritual successor being Fernando de Ávalos, Marquis of Pescara, none of them would 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 died without sons, so there were no more of those. As an extra family member, the Fernández would 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

  • 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 has Fernández as its protagonist.

Live-Action TV

  • A simplified and aged-up version of him is played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta in Isabel, where he had Ship Tease with the queen herself.
  • He also appears in Borgia, where he's played by Scott Cleverdon.