Cordoba, Gonzalo Fernandez De
CORDOBA, GONZALO FERNANDEZ DE (1453-1515), Spanish general and statesman, usually spoken of by the Italianized form of his Christian name as Gonsalvo de Córdoba, or as "the Great Captain," was the second son of Don Pedro Fernandez de Córdoba, count of Aguilar, and of his wife Elvira de Herrera, who belonged to the family of Enriquez, the hereditary admirals of Castile, a branch of the royal house. Gonzalo was born at Montilla near the city of Córdova (Cordoba) on the 16th of March 1453. The father died when he and his elder brother, Don Alonso, were mere boys. The counts of Aguilar carried on an hereditary feud with the rival house of Cabra, and the children were carried by their vassals into the faction fights of the two families. As a younger son Gonzalo had his fortune to make, but he was generously aided by the affection of his elder brother, who was very wealthy. War and service in the king's court offered the one acceptable career outside the church to a gentleman of his birth.
He was first attached to the household of Don Alphonso, the king's brother, and upon his death devoted himself to Isabella, afterwards the queen. During the civil war, and the conflict with Portugal which disturbed the first years of her reign, he fought under the grand master of Santiago, Alonso de Cardenas. After the battle of Albuera, the grand master gave him especial praise, saying that he could always see Gonzalo to the front because he was conspicuous by the splendour of his armour. Indeed the future Great Captain, who, as a general, was above all things astute and patient, could, and habitually did, display the most reckless personal daring, going into a fight as if he loved it, and having a shrewd sense that a reputation for intrepidity, a free-handed profusion, and the personal magnificence which strikes the eye, would secure him the devotion of his soldiers. During the ten years' war for the conquest of Granada he completed his apprenticeship under his brother, the count of Aguilar, the grand master of Santiago, and the count of Tendilla, of whom he always spoke as his masters. It was a war of surprises and defences of castles or towns, of skirmishes, and of ambuscades in the defiles of the mountains. The military engineer and the "guerrillero" were about equally employed. Gonzalo's most distinguished single feat was the defence of the advanced post of Illora, but he commanded the queen's escort when she wished to take a closer view of Granada, and he beat back a sortie of the Moors under her eyes. When Granada surrendered, he was one of the officers chosen to arrange the capitulation, and on the peace he was rewarded by a grant of land.
So far he was only known as an able subordinate, but his capacity could not be hidden from such an excellent judge of character as Isabella, to whom as a woman he appealed by a chivalrous union of devotion and respect. When, therefore, the Catholic sovereigns decided to support the Aragonese house of Naples against Charles VIII. of France, Gonzalo was chosen by the influence of the queen, and in preference to older men, to command the Spanish expedition. It was in Italy that he won the title of the Great Captain; Guicciardini says that it was given him by the customary arrogance of the Spaniards, but it was certainly accepted as just by all the soldiers of the time of whatever nationality. A detailed account of his campaigns cannot be given here. He held the command in Italy twice. In 1495 he was sent with a small force of little more than five thousand men to aid Ferdinand of Naples to recover his kingdom, and he returned home after achieving success, in 1498. After a brief interval of service against the conquered Moors who had risen in revolt, he returned to Italy in 1501. Ferdinand of Spain had entered into his iniquitous compact with Louis XII. of France for the spoliation and division of the kingdom of Naples. The Great Captain was chosen to command the Spanish part of this robber coalition. As general and as viceroy of Naples he remained in Italy till 1507. During his first command he was mostly employed in Calabria in mountain warfare which bore much resemblance to his former experience in Granada. There was, however, a material difference in the enemy. The French forces, commanded by the Scotsman Stuart d'Aubigny, consisted largely of Swiss pikemen, and of their own men-at-arms. With his veterans of the Granadine war, foot soldiers armed with sword and buckler, or arquebuses and crossbows, and light cavalry, trained to unsleeping vigilance, capable of long marches, and of an endurance unparalleled among the soldiers of the time, he could carry on a guerrillero warfare which wore down his opponents, who suffered far more than the Spaniards from the heat. But he saw clearly that this was not enough. His experience in Seminara showed him that something more was wanted on the battlefield. The action was lost mainly because King Ferdinand, disregarding the advice of Gonzalo, persisted in fighting a pitched battle with inferior numbers, some of whom were untrustworthy Neapolitans. The Spanish foot behaved excellently, but the result showed that in the open field their loose formation and their swords put them at a disadvantage as against a charge of heavy cavalry or pikemen. Gonzalo therefore introduced a much more strict formation, and adopted the pike as the weapon of a part of his foot. The division of the Spanish infantry into the "battle" or main central body of pikemen, and the wings (alas) of "shot" to be employed in outflanking the enemy, was primarily due to the Great Captain.
The French were expelled by 1498 without another battle. When the Great Captain reappeared in Italy he had first to perform the congenial task of driving the Turk from Cephalonia, then to aid in robbing the king of Naples, Frederick, brother of his old ally Ferdinand. When the king of Naples had been despoiled, the French and Spaniards quarrelled over the booty. The Great Captain now found himself with a much outnumbered army in the presence of the French. The war was divided into two phases very similar to one another. During the end of 1502 and the early part of 1503 the Spaniards stood at bay in the entrenched camp at Barletta near the Ofanto on the shores of the Adriatic. He resolutely refused to be tempted into battle either by the taunts of the French or the discontent of his own soldiers. Meanwhile he employed the Aragonese partisans in the country, and flying expeditions of his own men, to harass the enemy's communications. When he was reinforced, and the French committed the mistake of scattering their forces too much to secure supplies, he took the offensive, pounced on the enemy's depot of provisions at Cerignola, took a strong position, threw up hasty field works, and strengthened them with a species of wire entanglements. The French made a headlong front attack, were repulsed, assailed in flank, and routed. The later operations on the Garigliano were very similar, and led to the total expulsion of the French from Naples. Gonzalo remained as governor of Naples till 1507. But he had become too great not to arouse the jealousy of such a typical king of the Renaissance as Ferdinand the Catholic. The death of the queen in 1504 had deprived him of a friend, and it must be allowed that he was profuse in rewarding his captains and his soldiers out of the public treasury. Ferdinand loaded him with titles and fine words, but recalled him so soon as he could, and left him unemployed till his death on the 2nd of December 1515.
The Great Captain is sometimes spoken of as the first of modern generals. The expression is uncritical, for modern generalship arose from many sides, but he was emphatically a general. There is much in his methods which bears a curious likeness to those of the duke of Wellington; Barletta, for instance, has a distinct resemblance to the Torres Vedras campaign, and the battle on the Garigliano to Assaye. As an organizer he founded the Spanish infantry of the 16th and 17th centuries, and he gave the best proof of his influence by forming a school of officers. The best generals of Charles V. were either the pupils of the Great Captain or were trained by them.
There is no life of Gonzalo de Córdoba written by a scholar who was also a good judge of war. The dull Cronica del Gran Capitan gives the bare events of his campaigns rather wearisomely but fully. Paulus Govius, Vitae illustrium virorum, translated by Domenichi (Florence, 1550), is elegant and very readable. Don José Quintana includes him in his Españoles celebres (Rivadeneyra Biblioteca de autores españoles, vol. xix., Madrid, 1846-1880); and Prescott collected the authorities, and made good use of them in his Ferdinand and Isabella. See also P. du Poncet, Histoire de Gonsalve de Cordoue (Paris, 1714). The Gonsalve de Cordoue, ou Grenade reconquise of Florian (Paris, 1791) is a romance.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)