The martial and pious death of Don John of Austria: “A man sent by God”

October 28, 2010

Alarm was ended on the fourth day, seeing that the fever and other ills left D. John. But the next day, which was a Saturday, he suddenly grew worse, and while the other invalids went on getting better and became convalescent, he showed other symptoms of a strange illness, palpitations which made him get up in bed, tremblings of the hands, arms, tongue and eyes, and red spots showed themselves, others livid and almost blue, with black, rough heads.

Then another suspicion spread through the camp, which historians of old have transmitted to us, and which the fresh facts and discoveries of modern ones make probable. They said that D. John had been poisoned during his recovery….

Don Juan of Austria

But be this as it may, it is certain that from the first moment of his relapse D. John understood that he was dying…. He therefore made ready to receive death with perfect, manly courage, with the dignity of a Prince and the humility of a Christian, and his first arrangement was that he should be conveyed to the fort which Gabrio Cervelloni was making a league away. He ordered himself to be carried on a stretcher by his servants, without order or arrangement, to prevent the soldiers having the grief of saying good-bye to him, and to cause no one alarm or trouble. There remained inside the surrounding wall of the fort the only part yet finished, a hut, or rather, a pigeon house, where D. Bernardino de Zúñiga, D. John’s Captain of Infantry, lodged, and there he ordered himself to be taken to disturb no one, “There was only,” says Vander Hammen, “a pigeon house to make him a chamber.” They cleared out the young pigeons, cleaned it, hung a few coverings on the ceilings and wall to exclude the light, and over them some pieces of cloth, which they sprinkled with perfumed waters, and made a wooden staircase for mounting to it. The father confessor Fr. Francisco de Orantes writes to Philip II: “He died in a hut, as poorly as a soldier, I assure Y.M. there was nothing but a cock-loft over a farm-yard, in order that in this he should imitate the poverty of Christ.”

Philip II, King of Spain

Painted by Sofonisba Anguissola who was one of the queen's (Isabel de Valois) ladies in waiting.

All this took place on Saturday, the 20th, and on Sunday, the 21st, very early in the morning, D. John ordered his confessor, Fray Francisco de Orantes, to be called, and with great humility and with much sorrow for his sins he made a general confession of his life, with the eagerness and fervor of one who is preparing to die; and although the doctors still held out hopes of saving his life, and tried to dissuade him, he asked for the Viaticum, and received it with great devotion and fervor, at a mass celebrated in his room by the Jesuit Juan Fernández. Then he sent for all his Field-Marshals to his miserable retreat, also the Councilors of State and other personages attached to the army, and before them solemnly resigned the command and gave the baton to Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, who was present, kneeling at the foot of the bed, and so overcome and afflicted because of his great love for D. John, that he buried his forehead in the bed-clothes, and the Count de Mansfeld had to lift him up and comfort him. It was an extraordinary thing, which moved and brought tears to the eyes of all those veterans, to see that thunderbolt of war, Alexander Farnese, daring and brave and of indomitable courage, afflicted and overcome like a weak woman on receiving the supreme command from the hands of his dying friend and kinsman.

Then he directed his confessor Fr. Francisco de Orantes to declare before them all what D. John had already told him privately. That he left no will, because he possessed nothing which was not his Lord and Master the King’s. That he commended his body and soul to the King; his soul in order that the King should order suffrages to be made for the great need there was; his body that it might be buried near that of his Lord and father the Emperor, by which he should consider his services were repaid. But if this were not so, then that they should give him burial in the monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat. Item, he begged the King to look after his mother and brother. Item, to look after his servants, pay them and reward them, because he died so poor that he could not do so. “As to my personal debts and bills,” he said at the end, “they are very few and are very clear.”

He said this with great firmness, taking leave of them all with his hand, and himself taking leave of the things of earth to think and speak of nothing beyond those of heaven.

He, however, retained Father Juan Fernández, and showing him a little manuscript book which he kept under his pillow, said these were the prayers which he recited every day, without ever missing one in his life, and as the dreadful pain in his head troubled his sight, so that he could not read, begged the father, for the love of God and for the love of him, to do him the favor of reciting them in his name. Much moved, the father promised, and, according to his own testimony, it took him a good hour to recite those prayers which the devout Prince said “every day of his life,” in the midst of the fatigues of war, the occupations of Governor, and, most difficult of all, in the midst of the dissipations of worldly pleasures. The little book was all in D. John’s writing. It began with the baby prayers he had learnt in his childhood from Doña Magdalena de Ulloa; then followed various pious exercises, and it ended with several prayers composed by D. John himself, according as he had been inspired in the course of his life, by his difficulties, his sorrows, hopes and joys, and his warm effusions of thanksgiving. In short, it was an index, showing his attitude towards God in all the events of his life, which the grateful heart of D. John daily remembered and which only the holy Father Juan Fernández had the happiness of knowing….

The illness gained ground rapidly; each day, even each hour, produced some new, strange and painful symptom. At times he was seized with fainting fits, in which he appeared to have drawn his last breath, at others with delirium of wild things and of war, in which he always imagined himself commanding in a battle, and from which he was only drawn by the names of Jesus and Mary, which Fathers Orantes and Fernández invoked in his hearing….

No one slept that night in fort or camp, and continually messengers went to and fro, bearers of sad news. At dawn Father Juan Fernández said mass at the bedside, thinking D. John unconscious, as his eyes were already closed; but being told by the confessor that the Host was being raised, he quickly took off his cap and did reverence. At nine o’clock he seemed somewhat to revive, and then he was taken with a fresh delirium, in which, with extraordinary strength, he began to get angry with the soldiers, commanding in a battle, giving orders to the battalions, calling the captains by name, sending horses flying, reproving them at times because they allowed themselves to be cut off by the enemy, calling others to victory with eyes, hands and voice, always clamoring for the Marqués de Santa Cruz, whom he called “D. Álvaro, my friend,” his guide, master, and his right hand.

“Jesus! Jesus! Mary!” implored the confessor. “Jesus! Jesus! Mary!” at last repeated D. John of Austria, and, repeating these holy names, became gradually calmer, until he sank into a profound lethargy, forerunner, doubtless, of death, with his eyes shut, his body inert, with the Crucifix of the Moors on his breast, where P. Juan Fernández had placed it, the only sign of life being his difficult, uneven breathing.

The Tomb of Don Juan of Austria in San Lorenzo de El Escorial

The inscription on the side of his tomb: "There was a man sent by God whose name was John."

They all knelt, believing that the supreme moment had come, and the two priests began to recite by turns the prayers for the dying. Suddenly, about eleven o’clock, D. John gave a great sigh, and they heard him distinctly articulate in a weak but clear, sweet, plaintive voice, like a child calling to its mother, “Aunt! Aunt! My lady Aunt!”

And this was all. For two hours the lethargy lasted, and at half-past one, without effort, trouble, or any violence, he gasped twice, and the soul of “That John sent by God” fled to His bosom to render account of the mission which had been confided to him.

Rev. Fr. Luis Coloma, The Story of Don John of Austria, trans. Lady Moreton, (New York: John Lane Company, 1912), pp. 422-428.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 20


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