The ‘Passage of arms’ by Suero de Quiñones

In the evening of the first day of January 1434, in the main hall of the castle of La Mota – in Medina del Campo (Valladolid) – there was King Juan II of Castile, his wife Lady María, the Crown Prince Don Enrique, the master of the Order of Santiago, the Constable of Castile, and a number of barons, knights and clerics. Without prior notice came in the room the knight Suero de Quiñones, carrying an iron choker around his neck, accompanied by nine knights, all of them equipped with armour.

Rey Juan II

Don Suero formally requested the King’s permission to carry out a vow of love that he had made to his lady Leonor of Tovar. The vow was that every Thursday he would wear the iron choker to escape from his “prison”. He would get such a ”liberation” if he ended a life with an honourable passage of arms – a ritual of individual combat on horseback – and doing after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Puente de Hospital de Órbigo

To celebrate the aforementioned honourable passage of arms, Quiñones requested the King’s permission to be placed in one of the most travelled places in the kingdom – the bridge at the Hospital de Orbigo (Leon) on the Camino de Santiago – and block the passage to any knight who wanted to cross it. Since there were going to be many knights trying to cross it, nine other knights would join in defence with Quiñones to intervene any passing. Suero de Quiñones and his fellow knights sought to perform the test throughout the month, between 15 days before and 15 days after the day of 25 July (which is when the Santiago Apostle, or also known as Saint James Day festival is celebrated).

The ten “maintainers” of the honourable passage presented to the King a “chapter”- that is to say, some rules of conduct – in which they imposed an obligation to “break” a total of three-hundred spears – burst the spears in the fight – knock down the opponent off his mount or make him bleed – against all “adventurous knights” that showed up there. As it was a matter of a place and of a few busy dates, the King took some time to deliberate on the request with his advisors, and finally granted his authorisation. In the Court of Castile, as well as in the other medieval courts, there was a knight with the charge of “King of arms”, dedicated to record the facts of the knights to decide rewards and punishments, as well as to develop the heraldry and organise tournaments, and thus the King instructed his King of arms to take the chapters of the challenge that Suero had prepared to the courts of many magnates – including the King of Aragon – so that the news would spread and they would become known. The call was a great success, as the news spread not only through the Peninsula, but also a large part of Europe.

During the weeks prior to the event, carpenters hired by the father of Suero de Quiñones were devoted to cut wood and prepare planks for the construction of platforms for the public audience, and walkways where the fighting could take place. Twenty-two tents were also mounted to accommodate the knights, officers, clerks, blacksmiths, squires, tailors, armourers, and grooms… that would take part in it.

So that the adventurous knights that attended would not get lost, the employees of the Quiñones family placed a statute of a herald on the bridge of San Marcos in the city of Leon, indicating the direction towards the Bridge of Órbigo.

El Hospital de Órbigo, puente y río

A German knight and two Valencians showed up on 10 July 1434 to take part in the passage of arms. The three had to turn in their right spears, which were hung and displayed in a cloth until the end of the fight. A certain tension was present between the three knights as they all wanted to be the first to fight, and further, after having travelled from so far, none of them wanted to leave the fight against Suero, and the latter was not possible as according to the Chapter, there were ten knights who would maintain the passage.

Additionally, the eighth Chapter of the conduct of the passage of arms explicitly stated that the adventurous knights would not know against whom they fought, and would not question the name of their opponent until the end of the fight. The judges of the honourable passage were a few veteran knights responsible for determining the order of the fighting, for it was planned that they would discuss with the maintainers who would be fighting each time.

Unlike current sports events, the rules of the passage of arms were very strict and draconian criteria was applied. During the attack of his Lord, the pageboy of one of the maintainers shouted, excited: “To him, to him!” After becoming aware of this, the judges of the honourable passage ordered the officials of the King to capture the pageboy and cut his tongue. The knights participating reacted begging the judges to mitigate this punishment, since they understood that the pageboy had been carried away by the excitement of the show. At the persistence of the protagonists of the fight, the judges decided to replace the punishment with thirty “good hits” – a beating in the making – and a short prison stay (with which he would also miss the rest of the show). It is not difficult to imagine that the rest of the honourable passage was held in the most scrupulous silence.

The passage of the arms was carried out in accordance with a strict ceremonial. The communications were written, brought and carried solemnly by the King of arms and the heralds circulating between the knights and the judges, all this was certified by the notary of the kingdom, which was gathering the events. Every day the passage of the arms began with a solemn mass, and ended with a feast where the attendees were the men participating in the passage. Such a strict regulation did not prevent the rivalry from being at its maximum and the maintainers from trying to use the norms to avoid certain encounters with the most dangerous adventurous knights. Meanwhile, some knights who came from very far with the desire to increase their reputation thanks to this famous event used every means to try to ridicule Suero and his companions.

One day the judges spotted two ladies in the vicinity of the bridge, so they sent the King of arms and the herald to check if these ladies were noble, and if they were accompanied by some knight who defended them – as according to the rules of the Chapter of the passage of the arms, any lady who happened to pass at half a league from the place should deliver her right glove if a knight was not fighting for her –. When asked, the ladies said that they were indeed nobles, and were accompanied by a knight for pilgrimaging to Santiago de Compostela; but the knight accompanying them was not fit to fight. Aware of this unexpected situation, one of the adventurous knights who had been waiting for his turn offered to fight for these ladies; it was accepted by the judges, returning the King of arms the glove to each of the ladies.

The fighting of the honourable passage went on until 6 August, when Suero faced the Catalan knight Esberte de Claramente. In the ninth race, the spear of Suero hit his opponent in the left eye – who was thrown out of the helmet – falling from his horse rider. The unfortunate Esberte died, raising the problem of where he was to be buried; finally the body was buried in a non-consecrated chapel, as the Bishop of Astorga expressly prohibited that it be buried anywhere sacred, since the Church had forbidden these chivalrous shows. Three days later, the passage of arms ended without not having gone so far as to break three-hundred spears.

The notice had reached such proportions that there were numerous knights waiting to fight with Suero, the number increasing with those who arrived outside of the period marked in the Chapter of the chivalric encounters. Given that Suero and his companions had become real celebrities, the knights who could not fight refused to leave, but were not successful as the maintainers of the passage of arms used every policy to prevent further fighting, as evidently, the experience had left them unwilling to continue risking their lives with all those who wished to make a name at the expense of it.

Suero then made the pilgrimage to Compostela, returned released from his “prison” and married his lover. With her he had two children. The famous Suero de Quiñones died treacherously twenty-two years after, when he was killed by henchmen of Gutierre de Quijado – a knight with whom he had disputes.

Text by Ignacio Suarez-Zuloaga and illustrations by Ximena Maier

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