The Seven Princes of Lara

In the process of writing a brief literary history of the reconquista (the reconquering of Spain from the Moors), I found myself debating whether the tragic story of the seven princes of Lara should be included or not. On the one hand, it seemed difficult to leave out such a popular ballad from the era of the reconquista altogether; on the other hand, the brief literary history is already long enough without adding in something that, strictly speaking, is not so much a story of the reconquista but a story of a family feud. Upon reflection I decided that the famous story of the seven princes of Lara deserved a post of its own. To keep you busy while I finish the brief literary history. 🙂

The Seven Princes of Lara

Let’s face it: in the Spain of the reconquista, you didn’t necessarily have to go forth into battle to get killed. Sometimes it was sufficient merely to attend your uncle’s wedding, as happened with the seven princes of Lara…

Enjoy the following gruesome tale of completely senseless pride, treachery, murder – and vengeance! 🙂

Act I: A Wild Cucumber Soaked in Blood

The circumstances of this famous family feud in Spanish history were narrated succinctly by the Jesuit scholar, Juan de Mariana, in his General History of Spain in 1592:

It was in the following year (nine hundred and eighty-six), that the seven most noble brothers, commonly called the INFANTS¹ OF LARA, were slain by the treachery of Ruy Velasquez, who was their uncle…

Now it happened that Ruy Velasquez, Lord of Villaren, celebrated his nuptials in Burgos with Donna Lambra, a lady of very high birth… The feast was splendid, and great was the concourse of principal gentry ; and among others were present the Count Garci Fernandez, and those seven brothers, with Gonzalo Gustio, their father.

From some trivial occasion, there arose a quarrel between Gonzalez, the youngest of the seven brothers, on the one hand, and a relation of Donna Lambra, by name Alvar Sanchez, on the other, without, however, any very serious consequences at the time. But Donna Lambra conceived herself to have been insulted by the quarrel, and in order to revenge herself, when the seven brothers were come as far as Barvadiello, riding in her train, the more to do her honour, she ordered one of her slaves to throw at Gonzalez a wild cucumber soaked in blood, a heavy insult and outrage, according to the then existing customs and opinions in Spain. The slave, having done as he was bid, fled for protection to his lady, Donna Lambra; but that availed him nothing, for they slew him within the very folds of her garment.

Ruy Velasquez, who did not witness these things with his own eyes, no sooner returned, than, filled with wrath on account of this slaughter, and of the insult to his bride, he began to devise how he might avenge himself of the seven brothers.

Act II: The Captivity of Gonzalo Gustio

First of all, Ruy Velasquez decided to get rid of the Gonzalo Gustio, the father of the seven princes. And just like Hamlet’s stepfather, he chose to employ somebody else to do the dirty deed for him:

With semblances of peace and friendship, he concealed his mortal hatred ; and, after a time, Gonzalo Gustio, the father, was sent by him, suspecting nothing, to Cordova. The pretence was to bring certain monies which had been promised to Ruy Velasquez by the barbarian king, but the true purpose, that he might be put to death at a distance from his own country ; for Ruy Velasquez asked the Moor to do this in letters written in the Arabic tongue, of which Gonzalo was made the bearer. The Moor, however, whether moved to have compassion on the grey hairs of so principal a gentleman, or desirous of at least making a shew of humanity, did not slay Gonzalo, but contented himself with imprisoning him. Nor was his durance of the strictest, for a certain sister of the Moorish King found ingress, and held communication with him there ; and from that conversation, it is said, sprung Mudarra Gonzalez, author and founder of that most noble Spanish lineage of the Manriques. But the fierce spirit of Ruy Velasquez was not satisfied with the tribulations of Gonzalo Gustio; he carried his rage still farther.

Act III: The Seven Heads

Having got rid of the father (or at least so he thought), good Uncle Ruy turned his attention to the seven brothers:

Pretending to make an incursion into the Moorish country, he led into an ambuscade the seven brothers, who had as yet conceived no thought of his treacherous intentions. It is true that Nuno Sallido, their grandfather, had cautioned them with many warn-ings, for he indeed suspected the deceit ; but it was in vain, for so God willed or permitted. They had some two hundred horsemen with them, of their vassals, but these were nothing against the great host of Moors that set upon them from the ambuscade; and although when they found how it was, they acquitted themselves like good gentlemen, and slew many, they could accomplish nothing except making the victory dear to their enemies. They were resolved to avoid the shame of captivity, and were all slain, together with their grandfather Sallido. Their heads were sent to Cordova, an agreeable present to that king, but a sight of misery to their aged father, who, being brought into the place where they were, recognised them in spite of the dust and blood with which they were disfigured. It is true, nevertheless, that he derived some benefit therefrom ; for the king, out of the compassion which he felt, set him at liberty to depart to his own country.

And this now brings us to the poetry. 🙂 The emotional story of Gonzalo Gustio, invited to dine in the palace with his captor Almanzor, and then presented with the severed heads of his sons, is the subject of a ballad appropriately titled Seven Heads. 

In the presence of Almanzor, Gonzalo Gustio identifies the severed heads of his sons. Engraving by Antonio Tempesta, 1612 [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Gonzalo Gustio said:

In courteous guise, Almanzor², your messenger was sent,
And courteous was the answer with which from me he went ;
For why? I thought the word he brought of a knight and of a king, –
But false Moor henceforth never me to his feast shall bring in.

Ye bade me to your banquet, and I at your bidding came.
And accursed be the villany, and eternal be the shame
For ye have brought an old man forth, that he your sport initrht be:
Thank God I cheat you of your joy Thank God, no tear you see.

My gallant boys,” quoth Lara, ” it is a heavy sight,
These dogs have brought your father to look upon this night ;
Seven gentler boys, nor braver, were never nursed in Spain,
And blood of Moors, God rest your souls, ye shed on her like rain.

For all that he said he would not give the Moors the pleasure of seeing him with tears in his eyes, the poor old man then fell down weeping, until…

With that it chanced a Moor drew near, to lead him from the place,
Old Lara stooped him down once more, and kiss’d Gonzalez’ face ;
But ere the man observed him, or could his gesture bar,
Sudden he from his side had grasped that Moslem’s scymitar.

Oh ! swiftly from its scabbard the crooked blade he drew,
And, like some frantic creature, among them all he flew
Where, where is false Almanzor? back bastards of Mahoun !
And here, and there, in his despair, the old man hewed them down.

A hundred hands, a hundred brands, are ready in the hall,
But ere they mastered Lara, thirteen of them did fall ;
He has sent, I ween, a good thirteen of dogs that spurned his God,
To keep his children company, beneath the Moorish sod.

As you see, political correctness was not yet in vogue at the time this ballad was penned!

Act IV: The Vengeance of Mudarra

The story of the seven princes of Lara isn’t complete without another ballad, which tells the story of the vengeance taken on Uncle Ruy.

As written in Mariana’s History above, the captivity of Gonzalo Gustio was not all that onerous in itself: I particularly like the delicate way the good Jesuit padre worded how a certain Moorish princess ‘held communication’ with Gonzalo, that this ‘conversation’ resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son, Mudarra. A very eloquent man, this Gonzalo of ours. 🙂

Mudarra, the son born to Gonzalo (out of wedlock) by the sister of the Moor, when he had attained to the age of fourteen years, was prevailed on by his mother to go in search of his father ; and he it was that avenged the death of his seven brothers, by slaying with his own hand Ruy Velasquez, the author of that calamity. Donna Lambra likewise, who had been the original cause of all those evils, was stoned to death by him and burnt.

(Juan de Mariana: The General History of Spain)

Here you have the poetic version:

To the chase goes Rodrigo, with hound and with hawk ;
But what game he desires is revealed in his talk,
“O, in vain have I slaughtered the Infants of Lara :
There’s an heir in his halls, there’s the bastard Mudarra.
There’s the son of the renegade spawn of Mahoun
If I meet with Mudarra, my spear brings him down.”

While Rodrigo rides on in the heat of his wrath,
A stripling, armed cap-a-pee, crosses his path
” Good morrow, young esquire.” ” Good morrow, old knight.
“Will you ride with our party, and share our delight?”
” Speak your name, courteous stranger,” the stripling replied ;
” Speak your name and your lineage, ere with you I ride.”

” My name is Rodrigo,” thus answered the knight ;
” Of the line of old Lara, though barred from my right,
For the kinsman of Salas proclaims for the heir
Of our ancestor’s castles and forestries fair,
A bastard, a renegade’s offspring Mudarra,
Whom I’ll send, if I can, to the Infants of Lara.”-

” I behold thee, disgrace to thy lineage ! with joy
I behold thee, thou murderer ! ” answered the boy.
” The bastard you curse, you behold him in me ;
But his brothers’ avenger that bastard shall be ;
Draw ! for I am the renegade’s offspring, Mudarra ;
We shall see who inherits the life-blood of Lara ! ”

” I am armed for the forest-chase not for the fight
Let me go for my shield and my sword,” cries the knight
” Now the mercy you dealt to my brothers of old,
Be the hope of that mercy the comfort you hold ;
Die, foeman to Sancha die, traitor to- Lara !”
As he spake, there was blood on the spear of Mudarra.

(The Vengeance of Mudarra)

By killing Ruy Velasquez and revenging his half-brothers, young Mudarra earned the undying gratitude of his step-mother Doña Sancha, the mother of the seven princes. She adopted him and in due course Mudarra inherited the Lara possessions.

¹ For reasons best known to himself, Robert Southey, the translator of the text, chose to translate the Spanish word infante (prince) as infant. Although the origin of the word is indeed the Latin infans, rest assured that the story is about seven lusty young men and not seven babes in arms. (As will become apparent from the events in due course.)
² Almanzor (Abu Amir Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Abi Amir, al-Ḥajib al-Mansur - you can see while we simply call him Almanzor instead! - c. 932-1002) was the vizier and de facto ruler of the Emirate of Cordoba in the time of the Caliph Hisham II. He engaged in constant warfare against Christian kingdoms and was never defeated.

Links:Legends & Romance of Spain by Lewis SpenceSpanish Ballads, transl. by J. G. Lockhart
⇒ Tierra de Lara (The Land of Lara) - a blog post (in Spanish) about the story of the seven princes of Lara and Mudarra's vengeance accompanied by gorgeous photos of the landscape and towns where it all took place. Do visit!

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