I was hired in 2016 by an auction house that specializes in fine autographs and memorabilia to translate a document that they only knew was signed by King Ferdinand (Fernando in Spanish) and Queen Isabella (Isabel) of Spain. They hoped a translation would encourage bids. So I spent a few weeks untangling the courtly handwriting and produced a translation and a report to put the decree into context – I needed to understand its history to do my job anyway. Context is everything in translation.
It turned out to be a small matter nestled inside a crucial moment in Spain’s history.
The original document, with an asking price of $5,000, received five bids, and it was sold by Nate D. Sanders Auctions in January 2017 for $10,068.
It is a royal decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain on May 14, 1491, granting land to an impoverished former soldier. The document was to be sent to a royal official named Juan Alfonso Serrano. While this matter may seem inconsequential, it fits like a jigsaw puzzle piece into larger events in Spain’s history.
When Ferdinand and Isabella took the throne in 1474, they faced a war of succession against Portuguese King Alfonso V, which they won in 1479. Now firmly in command, their first major act was to renew the “crusade” to reconquer Spain from the Moors in 1482. This meant waging war against the Muslim kingdom of Granada, led by Sultan Mulay Hasan, later led by his son Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, known as “Boabdil” to the Christians. The sultan held land in what is now southernmost Spain. Over a decade, Ferdinand and Isabella took the land in that kingdom city by city using superbly organized military campaigns, revolutionary tactics, and ruthless political manipulation of Boabdil and his family.
By 1490, Boabdil held only the city of Granada itself. Ferdinand and Isabella built a fortified city next to it called Santa Fe and began a long siege that ended on January 2, 1492, when Boabdil surrendered. This ended an eight-century-long effort by Christian kings to consolidate control over the entire territory of the Iberian peninsula.
Meanwhile, the king and queen needed to impose their rule on their newly won lands. They distributed some of that land in varying quantities to the noblemen, military orders, ecclesiastical institutions, knights, and soldiers who had fought for them. Repartidores or “distributors” of land were appointed, and in Seville in 1491, that post was held by Juan Alfonso Serrano. This was contentious work, and land titles were often in dispute.
The king and queen also needed to impose Spanish law and adjudicate many long-standing and new disputes. From 1490 to 1496, Serrano also served the crown as a pesquisidor (investigative judge) based in Malaga. The post of pesquisidor was a new institution created by the king and queen to put in place a modern system of government in Spain. Instead of justice being carried out by noblemen in the lands they held title to, a national system of justice was being established.
Serrano was always referred to as bachiller (bachelor), which at the time meant “highly educated” or “expert.” In contemporary correspondence by both Christians and Muslims, he was also always deferred to with great respect, although that respect may have been in some part due to his service to the crown. The king and queen were absolute rulers and would exercise their power whenever and however they chose.
With that background, this document begins to fall into place. It is addressed to Juan Alfonso Serrano on behalf of Juan Garcia Guerrero. According to the decree, Guerrero was a squire in the royal guard whose father and grandfather had served the king and queen in the war against Portugal, where their horses and armor were stolen. These were costly possessions, and their loss must have left them destitute. Their friends had been awarded some holdings in Seville by the king and queen from lands confiscated by a Moor named Sufuz. These friends gave some land including a spring to the father and grandfather so they could support their family.
Guerrero came to the king and queen when they were in Barcelona saying that Juan Alfonso Serrano wanted to take the land from him, since he had no formal title to it. Guerrero asked the monarchs to grant him proof that the land was his, and they agreed and ordered a decree to be issued for that purpose. This particular document is a copy for Serrano ordering him to make an exception to his attempt at a more orderly distribution of land in Seville. The king and queen ordered the exemption out of consideration of the services Guerrero, his father, and his grandfather had done for the crown.
The document itself was written with courtly handwriting, as befited a regal decree. The King and Queen signed it, with characteristic flourishes, Yo el Rey (I the King) and Yo la Reyna (I the Queen), which was standard form for royal signatures for quite some time in Spain. The document was also signed by the King’s secretary, Juan de la Parra, including the elaborate rubric that was his signature. It was also signed by three other nobles as witnesses using their own rubrics. These kinds of signatures were also a tradition in Spain among nobility during the Middle Ages.
This document is evidence of the concern the Ferdinand and Isabella had for their troops. It also shows the extent to which medieval monarchs were involved in decisions large and small, because they were the ultimate source of justice. They were absolute rulers, and their power infuses this document. The matter may seem small, but it serves as a candle to illuminate larger forces on the move in the sweep of history.
Within a year of the issuance of this document, Boabdil would capitulate. As Ferdinand and Isabel were accepting his surrender in Granada, a man was waiting for them in the city of Santa Fe. He had come with a matter for royal consideration, and his name was Christopher Columbus.
Translation (literal): + From the King and the Queen Bachelor Juan Alonso Serrano, Distributor of land in the city of Seville. By Juan García Guerrero, a squire in our guards, it was made known to us of the continued good services of his father and grandfather, under the command of the city, and that they were sent out to the war against Portugal, where were stolen their horses and armor, and they made use of the spring and some land. He says they took it out of necessity to sustain themselves acquiring the farm that we had ordered given to some of their friends and later, settling there with their family, they gave to them. Now he says you wish to take from his possession the farm he has there that we had granted from what had belonged to the Moor Sufuz, and you say he should not enjoy use of that property. He entreats and asks us because of our association with this to send you proof. For that end we order you to allow him to have and possess that farm in the manner he now has it and not to take it from him due to our volition in this matter, and so make an exception in consideration of the services he and his ascendants have done for us. Done in Barcelona the fourteenth of the month of May of One Thousand and Four Hundred and Ninety and One Years. I the King I the Queen By order of the King and Queen Juan de la Parra (signature) As ordered (three nobleman signatures as witnesses) Copy so that Juan Alonso Serrano, Distributor of land in Seville, does not take from Juan García Guerrero the possession of the farm that he was granted. Text of the document: + del Rey y de la Reyna Bachiller Juan Alonso Serrano Repartidor de la çiubdad de Sevylla. Por Juan García Guerrero sscudero de nu(est)ras guardas nos fue fecha relaçion q(ue) por cuanto continuando los bu(enos se)rvicios de su padre y abuelo bajo m(a)ndo del yrbe que ellos afuera con la guerra de portugal donde q(ienes) fue despojado de cavallo e armas e se avezm(a)do con la fuente e la tierra e diz(iendo) que por necesydad q(uales) tomaron para le sostener ven(cie)do la facienda que le fue dada a los amigos por m(a)nd(a) n(uest)ra e despues se havezindo ser pariente donyaronlos e ahora dizque vos le quierres quitar la fazienda que ally tiene seg(un) le hezimos ma(n)do que fue del moro sufuz diciendo que no ha de gozar de los vezinda(des) de las tierras suplicandonos y pidiendonos por y(esta)ndo acerca desto te mandasemos probar. Por ende vos mandamos que le dejeis tener y poseer la dycha fazienda sygun que la tiene e se la no quietes por cuanto n(uest)ra voluntad de la q(ual) asy se haga exemption acatando los sus vycios que nos ha f(ec)ho del y de sus ascendientes fecho en Barcelona cattorze del mes de mayo de mill e q(uatrocien)tos e noventa e vno años. Yo el Rey Yo la Reyna Por ma(n)dado del Rey y de la Reyna Juan de la Parra (firma) a mandada (tres firmas de nobles) C(opia) pa(ra) q(ue) Ju(a)n Al(ons)o Serrano Repartidor de Sevylla no ynquyete a Juan Gar(ci)a Guerro de la poss(eci)on de la faz(ien)da que se le fiz(ier)o(n) m(a)ndo.