The Tudor Society

Quixotic Musings: the Adventurous Life of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra by Heather R. Darsie

Don QuixoteMiguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, died on 22 or 23 April 1616 in Madrid. Born in about 1547 to a deaf surgeon, Cervantes spent his childhood in poverty. The profession of surgeon was not at all high-paying. Cervantes’ exact date of birth is unknown, but a baptismal certificate was discovered that lists his baptism date as 9 October. It is posited that Cervantes was born on 29 September, St. Michael’s day, hence his forename of “Miguel.” Cervantes and his family moved from place to place in pursuit of better employment for his father. It is unknown what, if any, formal education Cervantes had, but he did learn how to read and became an avid reader.

By 1570, Cervantes had gone to Naples with the Spanish military; he may have fled to Italy because of an incident that got him in trouble with the law. Cervantes’ first published works appeared after the death of Elizabeth of Valois, third wife of Philip II of Spain. Phillip wasted no time after his second wife Mary I of England, died in November 1558 and married the very young Elizabeth of Valois in June 1559. Philip was quite taken with his young wife, and devastated by her death. One such poem by Cervantes is, “Serenísima reina en quien se halla,” which is translated as, “Most serene queen, in whom is found,” where Cervantes goes on to extoll the virtues of Elizabeth.

Possibly tired of military life, Cervantes set sail for Spain with letters of commendation addressed to Philip II in September 1575. His ship was intercepted by Barbary pirates, and both Cervantes and his brother were taken to Algiers. At the time, Algiers was the centre of the Muslim world for the Christian slave trade. Because of the letters Cervantes carried, a high ransom was placed upon him. The letters may have protected Cervantes from death or mutilation, as well. Rodrigo achieved freedom in 1577, and Cervantes was rescued with aid from the Trinitarian friars three years later. The friars’ action saved Cervantes from going with his captors to Constantinople, where he may have ultimately been lost. Interestingly, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives was founded in France in 1198 with the explicit purpose of freeing Christian slaves from their Muslim captors in the Mediterranean region.

While captive in Algiers, at least two contemporary accounts tell of Cervantes’ leadership and courage amongst his fellow Christian captives. He made several failed attempts at escape, too. It is thought that Cervantes’ time as a captive led to his inspiration and provided subject matter for the Captive’s tale in Don Quixote, and other works.

Upon his return to Spain, Cervantes tried entering into life as a civil servant. He was mostly unsuccessful. Around 1581, he managed to have an illicit affair with a married woman, which resulted in the birth of his only child, Isabel de Saavedra. Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584. Catalina had a small property in La Mancha. After his marriage to Catalina, Cervantes began writing dramas and was contracted to write at least two plays, La Numancia (Numantia: A Tragedy) and El trato de Argel (The Traffic of Algiers). Self-reported to have written twenty to thirty plays during this period, Cervantes would fail to find a manager and ultimately give up in 1587.

Next, Cervantes took on a steady job collecting provisions for the Armada, which had him travelling all over the Andalusian countryside. Cervantes frequently found himself in trouble due to his inability to properly balance his accounting books. His consistent arguments with church authorities saw Cervantes’ repeated excommunications.

After the Armada’s defeat in 1588, Cervantes moved to Sevilla. Finding little success there, Cervantes returned to writing plays by 1592. Sadly, none of the six commissioned plays amounted to anything. By 1597, Cervantes was thrown in jail for failing to account properly for the Crown’s money. He may have conceived the idea for Don Quixote while imprisoned in the Crown Jail in Sevilla, as evidenced by part of his first prologue,
“And so, what was to be expected of a sterile and uncultivated wit such as that which I possess if not an offspring that was dried up, shriveled, and eccentric: a story filled with thoughts that never occurred to anyone else, of a sort that might be engendered in a prison where every annoyance has its home and every mournful sound its habitation?”
After his release from prison in 1598, there are few details about the direction of Cervantes’ life. He next appears definitively in Valladolid, where the Spanish court established itself for five years beginning in 1601.

By late summer 1604, Cervantes had sold the first part of his magnum opus, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha”) to a publisher; Don Quixote was subsequently published for the first time in January 1605. It was an immediate success. In 1615, Part II, Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (“Second Part of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha”) was published.

Cervantes continued to write up until his death in 1616 and possessed a clear head. The date of his death is disputed, though it is now believed to have been 22 April. His bones and that of his family were found in 2015 in Madrid's Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians.

For more information on the discovery of Cervantes’ bones, please follow this link:

Heather R. Darsie lives in the United States with her family and three parrots. She works in the legal field, with a focus on children. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in German Languages and Literature, then a Juris Doctorate in American jurisprudence, and studied abroad in Costa Rica and France. Heather has always loved history. She first became acquainted with Elizabeth I when she was in middle school and chose to write a book report about her. Since then, she has always held an interest in the Renaissance and its numerous enigmatic citizens, with particular focus on the history of England and Italy. She is currently working on a book on the heraldry of Tudor women and is also researching Anne of Cleves.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Image: Title page of Don Quixote, first edition (1605).

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