Miguel de Cervantes

Military Leader, Writer (c.September 1547 – April 1616)

cervantes sepiaIt is assumed that Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, a Castilian city about 35 kilometres (22 miles) northeast from Madrid, probably on 29 September (the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel) 1547. The probable date of his birth was determined from records in the church register, given the tradition of naming a child after the feast day of his birth. He was baptized in Alcalá de Henares on 9 October 1547 at the parish church of Santa María la Mayor.

Home Life: The fourth of seven children, Miguel de Cervantes struggled financially for almost his entire life. 

His father, Rodrigo, deaf from birth, was a barber-surgeon of Galician extraction from Córdoba, who set bones, performed bloodlettings, and attended to "lesser medical needs"; at that time, it was common for barbers to do surgery as well. His paternal grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, was an influential lawyer who held several administrative positions. His uncle was mayor of Cabra for many years. His mother, Leonor de Cortinas, was a native of Arganda del Rey and the third daughter of a nobleman, who lost his fortune and had to sell his daughter into matrimony in 1543. This led to a very awkward marriage and several affairs by Rodrigo and the family moved around often in Cervantes youth as his father searched for better prospects..

Whatever his family's financial conditions, Cervantes was an avid reader as a child - a skill he was reportedly taught by a relative. But whether he had much in the way of formal education has been a subject of debate among scholars. Based on analyses of Cervantes's later work, some believe that he may have been taught at the The Imperial School, a Jesuit educational establishment for boys in Madrid, however, others dispute this claim arguing that he studied at the University of Salamanca, although there is no solid evidence for supposing that he did so. There has also been speculation that Cervantes studied with the Jesuits in Córdoba or Seville.

Poet and Soldier: Like many young Spanish men who wanted to further their careers, Cervantes left for Italy. In Rome, he focused his attention on Renaissance art, architecture, and poetry - knowledge of Italian literature is discernible in his work. Cervantes's first known published writing dates to 1569, when he contributed some poetry to a memorial collection after the death of Elizabeth of Valois, the wife of Spain's King Philip II. But by the following year, Cervantes had put his pen aside and, instead, picked up a weapon, joining a Spanish military unit in Italy.

By 1570, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in a regiment of the Spanish Navy Marines, Infantería de Marina, stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service. In September 1571, Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, that defeated the Ottoman fleet on October 7 in the Battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras. Though taken down with fever, Cervantes refused to stay below and asked to be allowed to take part in the battle, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than keep under cover. He fought on board a vessel and received three gunshot wounds – two in the chest and one which rendered his left arm useless. Despite his disability, however, Cervantes continued to serve as a soldier for several more years.

On 6 or 7 September 1575, Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo set sail on the galley Sol from Naples to Barcelona, with letters of commendation to the king from the Duke of Sessa. On the morning of 26 September, as the Sol approached the Catalan coast, it was attacked by Ottoman pirates and he was taken to Algiers and was kept there in captivity between the years of 1575 and 1580. After five years as a slave in Algiers, and four unsuccessful escape attempts, he was ransomed by his parents and the Trinitarians and returned to his family in Madrid.

Literary Works: In 1585, Cervantes published his first novel, La Galatea, but the pastoral romance failed to make much of a splash. Around the same time, Cervantes tried to make it the then-lucrative world of theater. (Plays were an important form of entertainment in Spain during the era, and a successful playwright could earn a good living.) Unfortunately, Cervantes achieved neither fortune nor fame with his plays, and only two have survived.

In the late 1580s, Cervantes began working for the Spanish Armada as a commissary. It was a thankless job, which involved collecting grain supplies from rural communities. When many did not want to provide the required goods, Cervantes was charged with mismanagement and ended up in prison. However, it was during this trying time that he began to write some of literature's greatest masterpieces.

In 1605, Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote, a novel that tells the story of an elderly man who becomes so enamored by the old stories of brave knights that he seeks out his own adventures. The title character soon gets lost in his own fantasy world, believing he is one of these knights, and convinces a poor peasant, Sancho Panza, to serve as his squire. In one scene, the deluded Don Quixote even fights a windmill, mistaking it for a giant. Quixote finally regains his senses before the novel ends.

Don Quixote became the world's first best seller and was eventually translated into more than 60 different languages. Cervantes published the second part of the story in 1615.

Personal Life: Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584, and the couple remained married until Cervantes's death. Though they never had any children, Cervantes had an affair with actress Ana Franca de Rojas, with whom he had a daughter, Isabel de Saavedra in 1584.

Despite its undisputed place in the literary canon, Don Quixote did not make Cervantes wealthy at the time, as authors did not receive royalties for their works. However, he continued to write, setting to work on The Labors of Persiles and Segismunda, though he would not complete it before his death.

On his death: Cervantes died in Madrid on 22 April 1616 and was buried the next day, 23 April in an unmarked grave in the neighbouring Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, in central Madrid in accordance with his will. His bones went missing in 1673 when building work was done at the convent, and were known to have been taken to a different convent and returned later. A project promoted and led by Fernando de Prado began in 2014 to rediscover his remains.

In January 2015, it was reported that researchers searching for Cervantes' remains had found part of a casket bearing his initials, MC, at the convent. Francisco Etxeberria, the forensic anthropologist leading the search, said: "Remains of caskets were found, wood, rocks, some bone fragments, and indeed one of the fragments of a board of one of the caskets had the letters 'M.C.' formed in tacks." The first significant search for Cervantes' remains had been launched in May 2014 and had involved the use of infrared cameras, 3D scanners and ground-penetrating radar. The team had identified 33 alcoves where bones could be stored.

On 17 March 2015, it was reported that Cervantes' remains had indeed been discovered, along with those of his wife and others, at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians. Through documentary research, archaeologists stated that they had identified the remains as those of Cervantes. Clues from Cervantes' life, such as the loss of the use of his left hand at age 24 and the fact that he had taken at least one bullet to the chest, were hoped to help in the identification. Historian Fernando de Prado had spent more than four years trying to find funding before Madrid City Council had agreed to pay. DNA testing would now be carried out in an attempt to confirm the findings.

The cause of his death, according to Antonio López Alonso, a modern physician who has examined the surviving documentation, was type-2 diabetes, a result of a cirrhosis of the liver. This is the best explanation for the intense thirst he complained of. The cirrhosis was not caused by alcoholism; Cervantes was too productive, especially in his final years, to have been an alcoholic. For many years 23 April 1616 was shown as the date of his death in some references, and is still the date on which his death is widely commemorated (along with that of William Shakespeare, although the date for Cervantes was according to the Gregorian calendar while the date for Shakespeare was according to the Julian calendar and therefore 10 days later in real time).

On 11 June 2015, Cervantes was given a formal burial at a Madrid convent, containing a monument holding bone fragments that were believed to have been the author's. The city mayor Ana Botella and military attended the event.

Since his passing, Cervantes has been credited with writing the first modern novel. His work has inspired countless other authors throughout the centuries - including Gustave Flaubert, Henry Fielding and Fyodor Dostoyevsky - and the story of Don Quixote has been retold in many ways, including in the popular musical The Man of La Mancha and in an artwork by Pablo Picasso.