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Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba
Equestrian statue of Gonzalo de Córdoba by Mateo Inurria; erected in Córdoba in 1923.
Nickname El Gran Capitán ("The Great Captain")
Born (1453-09-01)September 1, 1453
Died December 2, 1515(1515-12-02) (aged 62)
Place of birth Montilla, Spain
Place of death Córdoba, Spain
Allegiance Pendón heráldico de los Reyes Catolicos de 1492-1504.svg Spain
Years of service 1482–1504
Rank General

Granada War 1st Italian War

  • Atella (1496)

3rd Turkish-Venetian War

2nd Italian War

Other work Viceroy of Naples (1504–1507)

Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, or simply Gonzalo de Córdoba, (1 September 1453 – 2 December 1515), (Italian: Gonsalvo or Consalvo Ernandes di Cordova), Duke of Terranova and Santangelo, Andria, Montalto and Sessa, was a Spanish general who fought in the Conquest of Granada and the Italian Wars. He reorganized the emerging Spanish army and its tactics, and came to be regarded as the "Father of Trench Warfare". He was also called The Great Captain (or El Gran Capitán in Spanish). Many influential men fought under him, including the father of Francisco Pizarro, and he was admired by the generation of conquistadors that followed.

Early life

He was born at Montilla, in what is now the province of Córdoba, the son of Pedro Fernández de Córdoba, Count of Aguilar, and his wife Elvira de Herrera.[1]

He and his older brother, Alonso, became orphans when they were young. As the younger brother, he could not expect much in the way of inherited wealth or titles, and of his two options – the church or the military – he chose the latter. He was first attached to the household of Alfonso, Prince of Asturias, the half brother of King Henry IV of Castile. After Alfonso's death in 1468, Córdoba devoted himself to Alfonso's sister, Isabella of Castile.

When King Henry IV died in 1474, Isabella proclaimed herself successor queen, disputing the right of Juana la Beltraneja, the king's 13-year-old daughter and her niece, to ascend the throne.

During the ensuing civil war between the followers of Isabella and Juana, there were also conflict with Portugal as King Afonso V of Portugal sided with his niece, Juana. Córdoba fought for Isabella under Alonso de Cárdenas, the grand master of the Order of Santiago. After the battle of Albuera, Cárdenas gave him special praise for his service.


Widowed at the age of 36, he married Luisa Manrique de Lara, one of the ladies in waiting to Queen Isabella I of Castile, on 14 February 1489. His only surviving daughter, Elvira Fernández de Córdoba y Manrique, would inherit all their titles upon his death in 1515. To keep her father's name, she married within the close family, someone from a long time antagonistic branch but bearing her own family name, "Fernández de Córdoba".


During the ten-year long conquest of Granada under the Catholic monarchs, he completed his apprenticeship under his brother Alonso, the grand master of Santiago, Alonso de Cárdenas, and the counts of Aguilar and of Tendilla, of whom he spoke always as his masters. It was a war of sieges and the defence of castles or towns, of skirmishes, and of ambushes in the defiles of the mountains. The skills of a military engineer and a guerilla fighter were equally employed. Córdoba's most distinguished feat was the defence of the advanced post of Íllora. Able to speak Berber Arabic, the language of the emirate, he was chosen as one of the officers to arrange the capitulation, and, with the peace of 1492, was rewarded with a grant of land in the town of Loja, near the city of Granada.

Italian Campaigns

Gonzalo de Córdoba was an important military commander during the Italian Wars. He held command in Italy twice and won the title of the Great Captain.

First Italian War

Italy political map around 1494 when king Frederick IV of Naples took power as the second inheriting son of Royal bastard king Ferdinand I of Naples.

The Italian Wars began when Charles VIII of France marched to Italy with 25,000 men to make good an Angevin dynastic claim to the Neapolitan throne. When, in 1495, the Catholic Monarchs decided to support King Ferrandino against Charles VIII of France, Gonzalo, then in his mid-forties, was chosen by the Queen's preferment[Clarification needed] to command the Spanish expedition of a little more than five thousand men.

Ordered to pit his light infantry and cavalry against the heavy French forces, his first major battle in Italy, at Seminara in 1495, ended in defeat at the hands of Bernard Stewart d'Aubigny. The following year, he captured the rebel county of Alvito for the King and avoiding a major pitched battle, used his highly mobile forces to drive the French back to Calabria.

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 under d'Aubigny consisted largely of Swiss mercenary pikemen, and of their own men-at-arms, the heavily armoured professional cavalry, the gendarmes. With his veterans of the Granadine war, foot soldiers armed with sword and buckler, or arquebuses and crossbows, and light cavalry, who possessed endurance unparalleled among the soldiers of the time, he could carry on a guerrilla-like warfare which wore down his opponents, who suffered far more than the Spaniards from the heat.

His experience at Seminara showed him that something more was wanted on the battlefield. The action was lost mainly because Ferdinand, disregarding the advice of Gonzalo, persisted in fighting a pitched battle with their more lightly equipped troops. In the open field, the loose formation and short swords of the Spanish infantry put them at a disadvantage against a charge of heavy cavalry and pikemen. Gonzalo therefore introduced a closer formation, and divided the Spanish infantry into the battle or main central body of pikemen, and the wings of shot, called a colunella – the original pike and shot formation.

The French were expelled by 1498 without another battle and he returned home.

Second Italian War

When the Great Captain reappeared in Italy he had first to perform the congenial task of driving the Turks out of Kefalonia, together with such condottieri as Pedro Navarro, helping the Venetian navy to reconquer the Castle of Saint Georges, 25 December 1500, killing there over 300 people including the Albanian born leader of the garrison Gisdar, to aid in the campaign against Frederick IV of Naples.

Córdoba was again on Italian soil in 1501. Ferdinand II of Aragón had entered into his apparently iniquitous compact with Louis XII of France for the spoliation and division of the kingdom of Naples: The Secret Treaty of Granada. Córdoba was chosen to command the Spanish part of the coalition.

El Gran Capitán

After Ferrandino of Naples had abdicated, the French and Spaniards engaged in a guerilla war while they negotiated the partition of the kingdom. The Great Captain now found himself with a much outnumbered army besieged in Barletta by 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 were besieged in Barletta near the Ofanto on the shores of the Adriatic. Córdoba 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 and distracted his men with a tournament between Italian knights under Ettore Fieramosca and French prisoners.

When he was reinforced, and the French committed the mistake of spreading out their forces to forage for supplies, he took the offensive and pounced on his enemies' supply depot in the Cerignola. There he took up a strong defensive position (he was still outnumbered three to one), threw up hasty field works and strengthened them with wired entanglements. The French made a headlong front attack, were repulsed, assailed in the flank, and routed in only half an hour by the combination of firepower and defensive measures. Later operations on the Garigliano against Ludovico II of Saluzzo were very similar, and led to the total expulsion of the French from the Kingdom of Naples.

Later life

Statue of Gonzalo de Córdoba in Madrid (by Manuel Oms, 1883).

Córdoba was appointed Viceroy of Naples in 1504. Córdoba aroused the jealousy of Ferdinand II of Aragon and he incited condemnations for corruption with his profligate spending of the public treasury to reward his captains and soldiers. The death of Queen Isabel I of Castile in 1504 deprived him of a friend and protector. He was recalled in 1507. Ferdinand lauded him with titles and fine words, but left him unemployed till his death.


Córdoba was first among the founders of modern warfare. As a field commander, Córdoba, like Napoleon three centuries later, saw his goal in the destruction of the enemy army. He systematically organized the pursuit of defeated armies after a victory in order to destroy the retreating enemy. Córdoba helped found the first modern standing army and the nearly invincible Spanish infantry that dominated the battlefields of Europe for most of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The best generals of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Philip II of Spain were either the pupils of the Great Captain or were trained by them.

Córdoba's influence upon military tactics was profound. Wellington's Torres Vedras campaign has a distinct resemblance to Córdoba's campaign at Barletta and the Battle of Assaye is easily compared with that at Garigliano.

It is noted that Córdoba directed the first battle in history won by gunpowder small arms in the battle of Cerignola. Additionally at the end of the same battle of Cerignola occur for the first time a "call to prayer" (toque de oracion) adopted later for all western armies, when the Great Captain seeing the fields full of French bodies (Christian like the Spaniards) ordered to play three long tones and had his troops pray for all the fallen.

He left no sons, so he was succeeded in his dukedoms by his daughter, Elvira Fernández de Córdoba y Manrique.

His burial place, Monastery of San Jerónimo, Granada, was built in Renaissance style by his wife and daughter. It was desecrated by French Napoleonic troops under the command of Corsican General Sebastiani at the beginning of the 19th century. Stone from the tower was used to build the "Puente Verde" bridge over the river Genil. The monastery was fully restored at the end of the 19th century.


Gonzalo's renown was great and his extensive knowledge was passed on to the next generation through the men that served under him. A few men such as Amador de Lares, who was steward to the Great Captain, accompanied Hernán Cortés during his conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini said that it was given him by the customary arrogance of the Spaniards.

See also


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911) Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) Cambridge University Press 

Further reading

  • Rafael Arce Jiménez y Lourdes Belmonte Sánchez: El Gran Capitán: repertorio bibliográfico, Biblioteca Manuel Ruiz Luque, 2000, ISBN 84-89619-45-X
  • Purcell, Mary: The Great Captain: Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba London, 1962.
  • José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec: El Gran Capitán. Retrato de una época, 2002, ISBN 84-8307-460-5
  • Hugh Thomas, The Conquest of Mexico, 1993, ISBN 1-84413-743-0
Spanish nobility
New title
New creation by
Isabella I and Ferdinand V
Duke of Santángelo
10 March 1497 – 2 December 1515
Succeeded by
Elvira Fernández de Córdoba
y Manrique

as duchess
Duke of Terranova
1502 – 2 December 1515
New title
New creation by
Ferdinand II of Aragon
Duke of Andría
1507 – 2 December 1515
Duke of Montalto
1507 – 2 December 1515
Duke of Sessa
1507 – 2 December 1515

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