Pedro López de Ayala

The Spanish statesman, soldier, historian, and poet Pedro López de Ayala (1332-1407) was a towering figure in the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th century.

Pedro López de Ayala was born in Vitoria in the Basque country, and his long and fruitful life spans the reigns of six kings of Castile: Alfonso XI, Peter the Cruel, Henry II, John I, Henry III, and John II. He served all but the first and last of these kings, with ever-increasing importance and distinction. He was educated by his uncle, Cardinal Barroso, with whom he visited the papal court in Avignon. In 1353 he entered the royal household of Peter the Cruel. From then on his name is inextricably linked to the wars and civil strife that characterize the Castilian history of that period.

López de Ayala served King Peter well, until the rivalry between the King and his illegitimate brother Henry of Trastamara broke into civil war. López, seeing that "the affairs of the King were not going well" (as he recalled in his Crónica de Pedro I), defected to Prince Henry. As Henry's standard-bearer, he fought at the battle of Nájera (1367), where he was taken prisoner, in spite of his gallantry, by Edward the Black Prince, for England had intervened on the side of King Peter. Ransomed shortly after, López went back to serve Henry, who, having murdered his brother, crowned himself king of Castile in 1369. López now enjoyed the royal favor and accumulated riches and honors under Henry II and his son John I. He served them faithfully and well as a diplomat (missions to Aragon and France) and soldier. The Portuguese took him prisoner at the rout of Aljubarrota in 1385 and kept him chained in an iron cage. Back in Castile, he received new honors, and in 1398 Henry III made him grand chancellor of the realm. López died in Calahorra 9 years later.

This rich human experience was coupled with extensive readings which gave López a remarkable culture, even by the standards of early humanism. As a poet, he is the author of the Rimado de palacio, the last example of cuaderna via (the learned 14-syllable poetic form), whose 8, 200 verses, in different meters, touch upon a variety of serious subjects. He translated, or commissioned translations of, St. Gregory (Moralia), Giovanni Boccaccio (De casibus), I-VIII), Livy (I, II, IV), Boethius (De consolatione), and St. Isidore (De summo bono), as well as other works, which have been lost. But his main reputation is as a historian. He wrote the chronicles of the kings he served (Peter I, Henry II, and John I and began one on Henry III), and in them he inaugurated in Castile the genre of literary portraiture. His life and works were aptly summed up by the great Spanish critic Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo when he said, "He was our first modern man."

Further Reading on Pedro López de Ayala

P.E. Russell, The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the Time of Edward III and Richard II (1955), is an excellent historical account of López's times.