Early Modern History, England, Portugal, Propaganda, Spain, Theatre

Portuguese and Spanish history on the early modern English stage: ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ (Part 1)

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines… O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows.

Hamlet’s advice to the players. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (3.2.1-3, 7-10)

If you’ve heard of the play The Battle of Alcazar at all, you may have heard of it referenced as the butt of one of Shakespeare’s jokes in Hamlet – as one of those plays full of noise and dumb show, worthy of ridicule. Ben Jonson famously enjoyed a good scoff at such work too (see The Poetaster, 3.4.346-8). Even Ancient Pistol was a critic (2 Henry 4, 2.4.176).

George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar may not have outshone its contemporaries for its poetic brilliance but it remains an important play, not least for its masterly use of visual effects (many of which would later become synonymous with Elizabethan theatrics: burning limbs, decapitated corpses, disembowellings, all flooding the stage with limbs, heads, gore, and blood). Peele transformed the use of a ‘dumb show’ by incorporating actors from the main plot alongside their presentation in the Prologue. The play also reveals something of the extent to which English audiences were aware of – and interested in – recent events in Portuguese and Spanish history, and the complex series of events initiated by a single day of battle in North Africa during 1578.

A certain level of snobbishness may surround the play for its theatrics and the quality of its verse, and knowledge of the events it portrays may have diminished in England over time, but for Tudor and Stuart audiences, a play detailing the events that led to the death of King Sebastian, and the annexing of Portugal to its all-powerful neighbour, was both timely and popular. As I hope to show in this and the following series of blog entries, Portugal was often a lens through which the English could contemplate their own relationship with Spain.

The early performance history of The Battle of Alcazar is sketchy but the play is likely to have been written in or around 1588/9. It was performed, most probably, by both Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men in the 1590s; Henslowe’s Diary may suggest it was performed on 20 February 1592, with a further 13 more performances, the last of which was on 20 January 1593. (On the debate surrounding the name of the play listed by Henslowe, see The Stukeley Plays, ed. Charles Edelman [Manchester University Press, 2005], p.23.) A version of the play was printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in 1605 (STC 23405). A playhouse ‘Plot’ also survives (British Library, MS. Add. 10,449, fol. 3. See Edelman, The Stukeley Plays, pp.21-2).

Historical background:  ‘The Battle of the Three Kings’

The Battle of Alcazarquivir was fought in northern Morocco, near Ksar-el-Kebir and Larache, on 4 August 1578, and was the result of a power struggle. The Moroccan Sultan, Abu Abdallah Mohammed II, had been deposed and replaced by Abd Al-Malik I (his uncle) in 1576. The new Sultan’s nephew had fled to Portugal, where he enlisted the help of King Sebastian.

The young Portuguese king listened to his petition favourably, seeing this as a crusading opportunity, something he had longed for in earnest for some time. It was also an opportunity to expand his dominions and trade relations in North Africa. Yet this proposed alliance needed help, if they were to succeed in any battle for supremacy. Over Christmas 1577, Sebastian met with his uncle, Philip II, at Guadalupe, to petition him for aid. Philip wanted no part and urged his nephew not to rush into something so rash while still so young (and without having yet fathered any heir to his throne). Philip did offer some assistance with manpower, transportation and supplies (even if some, questioning Philip’s intentions, have seen these as little more than a token gesture, thereby securing Sebastian’s fate). (See Eric Griffin, ‘”SPAIN IS PORTUGAL / AND PORTUGAL IS SPAIN”: Transnational Attraction in The Stukeley Plays and “The Spanish Tragedy”‘ in Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 10:1 [2010], p.98.)

So the young king embarked on his mission to aid the deposed sultan, setting sail from Lisbon in the summer of 1578 with an army of around 17,000 men (which included many of Portugal’s nobility), via Cadiz, then on to Morocco. Sebastian met with Abu Abdallah Mohammed II and his c.6000 Moorish solders at Arzila, and the vastly outnumbered men (Abd Al Malik had more than 60,000 in his army), marched on to their fate.

After almost four hours of intense combat, the Portuguese and the army of Abu Abdallah were defeated. Around 8000 of their men were dead – among them much of Portugal’s nobility who had joined their beloved king on this crusade; thousands were taken prisoner. Only around 100 men survived and fled. Abd Al-Malik also died during the battle but the news was carefully concealed by his men, who rallied and secured victory in his name. Abu Abdallah drowned in the river as he attempted to escape capture. Sebastian was last seen riding towards the enemy, and the subsequent stories surrounding his death and the whereabouts of his body after the battle were numerous. With the loss of Sebastian, Abd Al-Malik and Abu Abdallah, the battle quickly became known as the ‘Battle of the Three Kings’.

Abd Al-Malik was succeeded by his brother, Ahmad al Mansur, Sebastian by his great-uncle Henry, brother of his grandfather, King John III, who did not live long.  Sebastian’s uncle, Philip II, united the Iberian crowns in 1580, a Union which lasted until 1640. Philip claimed that Sebastian’s remains were found and removed to Portugal, where they were later buried in Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon (only after the Union of Portugal and Spain). Many remained unconvinced that the heroic young king had died in battle, and giving rise to ‘Sebastianism’ (a topic for another blog entry).

Among those Europeans who joined Sebastian for the battle were not only Portuguese and Spanish troops but also Italians, Irish Catholics, German Lutherans, and Dutch Calvinists. (See A.R. Disney, A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: From Beginnings to 1807, 2 vols. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], II, p.18.) Among them, also, was Thomas Stukeley, an Englishman.

Third son of Sir Hugh Stukeley (1496-1559), Stukeley was a mercenary who had fought in both France and Ireland. Happy to sell his military talents to the highest bidder, he gave his allegiance to Philipp II of Spain late in around 1569, and thought nothing of trading secrets about the land of his birth. He was offered command of three galleys by Don John of Austria at the Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571). It is known that Francis Walsingham kept a close eye on him, Stukeley having alerted the Spanish Inquisition to the activities of an English spy, Oliver King. Stukeley became part of Spanish plans for the invasion of Ireland, and set sail with such a mission in 1578, only to reach Cadiz and be unable to proceed further, owing to the poor condition of his ships. It is at this point that he meets Sebastian, who offers Stukeley the opportunity to take up command in his army, as part of the expedition to Morocco. This is where Stukeley’s luck finally runs out: he is killed early on in the fighting, after taking a direct hit from a cannonball, which ripped of his legs.

In The Battle of Alcazar, Stukeley is portrayed as a renegade who spouts traitorous opinions, and whose arrogance and high opinion of himself exude on stage, as he struts about, speaking ill of his sovereign. Through him the audience confronts early modern ideas of nationalism and personal liberty. This is a world in which, Peele reminds us, disrespect for the land of one’s birth, and self-aggrandisement, can only lead to ruin. They witness what can happen to the traitor who – like Stukeley (in the play) – thinks that  ‘King of a molehill had I rather be / Than the richest subject of a monarchy’ (2.2.81-2).

The King of Portugal (a Catholic) respects the power and might of the Protestant sovereign. He also sees Stukeley’s ambitions in Ireland as futile, even though he cannot see the flaws in his own crusading scheme. When seeking his aid for his African mission, Sebastian plays to Stukeley’s inflated opinion of himself but he also warns him:

For Ireland, Stukeley? Thou mistak’st wondrous much,

With seven ships, two pinnaces, and six thousand men?

I tell thee, Stukeley, they are far too weak

To violate the Queen of Ireland’s right,

For Ireland’s queen commandeth England’s force.

Were every ship ten thousand on the seas,

Manned with the strength of all the eastern kings,

Conveying all the monarchs of the world

To invade the island where her highness reigns,

‘Twere all in vain, for heavens and destinies

Attend and wait upon her majesty.

Sacred, imperial and holy is her seat,

Shining with wisdom, love and mightiness.

(Sebastian’s advice to Stukeley, 2.4.98-110)

Sebastian’s powers of persuasion ultimately lead to Stukeley’s change of heart – and his downfall.

If honour be the mark whereat thou aim’st,

Then follow me in holy Christian wars,

And leave to seek thy country’s overthrow.

(Sebastian’s advice to Stukeley, 2.4.142-3)

As Eric Griffin has noted (‘”SPAIN IS PORTUGAL”‘, p.104), Peele agreed with John Foxe: just because you claim your act a crusade, it does not make it holy, nor does it guarantee success. By Elizabeth’s reign, the crusades were seen as problematic, hence Foxe affirmed, in his Acts and Monuments: ‘He that bringeth S. George or S. Denise, as patrons to the field to fight agaynst the Turke, leaveth Christ (no doubt) at home.’ (John Foxe, Acts and Monuments [London, 1570] STC 11223, p.872.) Stukeley, we note, swears his allegiance to St. George the moment he decides he is bound for Morocco (2.4.166). The man who puts his faith in saints and rejects his homeland is unlikely to fair well on the Elizabethan stage.

Staging the Battle

If The Battle of Alcazar was written in or around 1588/9, then it was written in a key moment for Anglo-Iberian relations. The Spanish Armada failed in 1588. In 1589, Francis Drake, John Norreys and Don António tried to provoke an uprising against King Philip, to remove him from the Portuguese throne. The action ended badly for both Portugal and England, resulting in huge financial losses for the English, and sounding the death-knell for António’s claim to the Portuguese throne.

The Union may have come into being but England’s allegiance remained with the Portuguese. (This, of course, also assisted them in ensuring continued trade with Morocco and the Ottoman ports.) As Jesús M. Garcia and Cinta Zunino Garrido have noted, ‘the conflict intensified the harsh hostility between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, on the one hand, and, on the other, it strengthened both the Anglo-Muslim and the Anglo-Portuguese alliances’. (Jesús M. Garcia and Cinta Zunino Garrido, ‘”As we are Englishmen, so are we Men:” Patterns of Otherness in George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar’ in Jesús López-Peláez [ed.], Strangers in Early Modern English Texts [Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011], p.75.)

A detail from the only known representation of  the Battle of Alcazar, which accompanies Miguel Leitão de Andrade's eyewitness account in his Miscelânea (1629). It depicts the outnumbered Portuguese army, surrounded by Islamic forces.
A detail from the only known representation of  the Battle of Alcazar, which accompanies Miguel Leitão de Andrade’s eyewitness account in his Miscelânea (1629). It depicts the outnumbered Portuguese, surrounded by Islamic forces.

the conflict intensified the harsh hostility between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, on the one hand, and, on the other, it strengthened both the Anglo-Muslim and the Anglo-Portuguese alliances… 

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore these Anglo-Muslim and Anglo-Portuguese alliances further. Part 3 will consider the reasons why English audiences became so fascinated by the fate of the Portuguese king (and with the demise of Stukeley).

END OF PART 1

Further reading / viewing

Charles Edelman (ed.), The Stukeley Plays: ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ by George Peele and ‘The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Jesús M. Garcia and Cinta Zunino Garrido, ‘”As we are Englishmen, so are we Men:” Patterns of Otherness in George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar’ in Jesús López-Peláez (ed.), Strangers in Early Modern English Texts (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011), pp.75-108

Eric Griffin, ‘”SPAIN IS PORTUGAL / AND PORTUGAL IS SPAIN”: Transnational Attraction in The Stukeley Plays and “The Spanish Tragedy”‘ in Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 10:1 [2010], pp.96-116

Hammood Khalid Obaid, Topicality and Representation: Islam and Muslims in Two Renaissance Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chapter 1

David Trim, ‘Early-Modern Colonial Warfare and the Campaign of Alcazarquivir, 1578’ in Small Wars and Insurgencies 8:1 (1997), pp.1-34

Full text: http://elizabethandrama.tripod.com/battle_of_alcazar.htm http://purl.pt/14193

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