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The Baker Who Pretended to be King of Portugal

In 1594, a baker selling his products at a convent in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Spain, began chatting up a novice nun who happened to be the niece of the dead king of Portugal. He was part of a hair-brained scheme to get the girl to renounce her final vows, marry him and convince the world that he was King Sebastian of Portugal, who had died on an African battlefield 16 years before.

The attempt cost him his life, and it left a host of intriguing mysteries behind.
Historian Ruth MacKay outlined this tale for the weekly colloquium at the Newberry Library in Chicago on 24 October, 2012.
MacKay, a Stanford University researcher who has done fellowships at the Newberry, said the story raises a number of interesting themes for historians:
o How can historians get at the infrastructure of thought (the ways in which people understood their world)?
o How did people in the 1590s identify each other?
o How did they recognize social situations?
o How did they acquire news?
o What was plausible to them?
o What were the links between literature (both secular and religious) and the narratives of daily life?
o Is there any relevance for us today of the notion of willing disbelief, the ability or eagerness to believe in a fantasy?

 The story of the imposter began with the sad reign of Sebastian and the even sadder fate that came to Portugal after his death. It was bound up in attempts by the Portuguese to keep their country from being absorbed by Spain, which it was for about fifty years after Sebastian's death.

Sebastian dreamed of a great crusade against Morocco, where Portugal had lost several important way stations important to the sea route to India that its navigators had opened a century before. Sebastian backed an ousted Moroccan leader against his relative, and led 17,000 men into Africa in 1578.

At the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, the "Battle of the Three Kings," Sebastian and his ally were crushed by a 60,000-man army, and Sebastian was killed, at the age of 24 and childless.
"Sebastian had been killed and his body lay out in the sun for a long time," MacKay related. "It wasn't easy to identify." That brought a series of legends about how he might have survived the battle and returned to Portugal in disguise.
Hence the appearance of Gabriel de Espinosa in Madrigal de las Altas Torres in 1594. "That almost certainly was not his true name," MacKay said. "He said as much when he was arrested, and that he had assumed the name when he came to the community."
The attempt seemed unlikely to succeed from the start. There was Espinosa's common-law wife and daughter who explain away, and the fact that he was way too old. "He was a good 15 years older than Sebastian would have been," MacKay said. "He dyed his hair."
"He was a man of medium stature, with hair between red and grey, and with a cloud (probably a cataract) in one eye," she related. "He spoke excellent French and German, but perhaps couldn't speak Portuguese very well."
For a historian, the story raises a number of questions about how news was spread and how identity was determined in the 1590s.
"News was shared at inns and the travelers went off with it the next morning, the share it again the following night," MacKay said. "These places had the most up-to-date news of the world and monasteries and convents also had the latest intelligence of the time, for the same reason."
There were a number of hints that Espinosa was both more and less than he pretended to be.
"He had skills other than a baker," MacKay said. "He was an excellent horseman who was witnessed breaking a very troublesome horse and caused people to say they had never seen a better rider. He had skills of a nobleman."
Also, a chronicle says he wasn't a very good baker," she added. "He never revealed his true name."
The scheme was probably hatched by Fray Miguel de los Santos, who had been Sebastian's confessor but had been banished from Portugal because he had supported Antonio, the Prior of Crato, who had assumed the Portuguese throne in 1580 but been chased out of the country by the Spanish army after "ruling" for only 20 days. Like Espinosa, Fray Miguel was interrogated and executed by Spanish authorities for the plot.
"He was a dupe," MacKay concludes of Espinosa. "He was put up to it. I don't think he thought very much ahead."
"I don't think he was poor or desperate. He was a craftsman and earned a living," she added. "The organizer was a brilliant theologian but there are elements of this that don't make any sense, and Espinoza did not tell, even under torture."
Perhaps the idea was to have Espinoza hold the throne until another pretender was able to raise an army and invade, she suggested. "Probably he inched himself bit by bit into more trouble than he could handle," she explained.
"There were many returned kings stories of the time," MacKay stressed. The Goth ruler Rodrigo, the last Christian king before the invasion of Islam, died in 711 and was a legendary figure in myths of his return. "There was no one in Spain, rich or poor, who had not heard these stories," MacKay stressed. "The stories built nationhood and identity."