A Story From: Spain
Read Time: 20 mins.
For Ages: 11 to 14yrs.
This is the true story of one of the earliest uprisings in the European feudal system – the 1476 Spanish peasants’ rebellion at the village of Fuente Ovejuna.
If we’re to be married, let’s not waste a second,” urged Laurencia to her handsome betrothed, Frondosa.
“Sooner is better,” said Frondosa, stroking her hair. “But why the rush?”
“You know as well as I do the Commander has his eye on me,” said Laurencia. “His servants already tried to tempt me with a blouse, a necklace, and fine shoes. As if I could be bought! He’s already done enough damage to the women of Fuente Ovejuna before. He takes whatever woman he wants. When he’s done with her, he throws her back to us like a chewed bone. And we all do nothing!”
“No one will take you away from me,” said Frondosa, gripping her arm.
“If only it were true!” cried Laurencia. “Tell that to poor Jacinta, or to Maria, or to Inez!”
“Or Anton’s wife,” Frondosa added, grimly.
Laurencia sighed. “None of us in Fuente Ovejuna is safe.”
That day, Frondosa asked Laurencia’s father, Esteban, the mayor of Fuente Ovejuna, for permission to marry his daughter that very week. And so the wedding was quickly planned. Musicians hurriedly composed songs and the village square was decorated with garlands of roses. On the wedding day, when the two lovers were about to exchange vows, in marched the Commander with his servants.
The Commander was returning triumphant from battle – not in service to King Ferdinard and Queen Isabella of Spain, to whom he had pledged loyalty, but instead to their enemy, King Alfonso of Portugal. The sly Commander knew that if the Portuguese king were successful in deposing Ferdinand and Isabella from the Spanish throne, he would award to the Commander the entire land of Castile to rule. This prize seemed closer than ever since the Commander’s forces had just captured an important border town for the Portuguese king. And the Commander knew how he wanted to celebrate his victory.
The Commander looked around at the stunned wedding guests and said in a smooth, steely voice, “Don’t let me interrupt the ceremony. No one need be alarmed – unless they have done me harm, or plan to.”
Mayor Esteban frantically motioned to his daughter Laurencia and Frondosa for them to escape, then he turned to the Commander and said in a silken voice, “Whatever you say, my lord. Won’t you sit down? Did your soldiers defeat the enemy? How can we honor your victory?”
“Stupid old fool!” snapped the Commander. “You know very well why I’m here.” Facing Laurencia, he said with a twisted smile, “Minx, come here.”
“Sir!” said the mayor. “Today is my daughter’s wedding day.”
“What insolence!” yelled the Commander. “How dare you – or anyone else in this miserable village – have the nerve to act as if you were my equal!” To his servants, the Commander directed, “This wretch will be Mayor no more. Take away his staff of office!”
“You can have it!” said Esteban, thrusting out his staff.
A servant snatched the mayor’s staff and handed it to the Commander. Furious, the Commander broke the staff in two over the mayor’s head. “And I shall do with it as I wish!”
Esteban then spoke in a much smaller voice. “You are my master.”
“Father!” cried Laurencia, as the Commander’s servants separated her from Frondosa and dragged them both away.
That night Estaban hastily met the other men of Fuente Ovejuna at the village square. “My daughter Laurencia is in such danger I shall surely go mad!” he moaned. “And Frondosa is locked in the tower.”
“Not so loud,” urged his brother. “We must keep this meeting secret.”
“But we must do something!” The father paced back and forth. “There isn’t a single person among us who hasn’t been insulted by that savage lord.”
“We should seek redress to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella,” suggested one villager. “We can march to their castle with a petition of all our names.”
“We haven’t time!” cried Esteban. “And why do you suppose the king and queen would grant it? They’re more likely to refuse – and wipe out our whole village for being disloyal.”
“We must abandon the village,” said one farmer. “We’ll carry our grain into the mountains and live in caves.”
“It’s too late for that!” cried another. “The staff of office was broken on the Mayor’s head, his daughter abducted. Could we be treated worse if we were slaves?”
“Something must be done!” cried Esteban. “What are we afraid of?”
Suddenly Laurencia staggered in, her face cut and bruised and her hair dishevelled.
“Oh my daughter!” Esteban rushed toward her. “How did you manage to escape?”
She pulled back and stared at all the men with a crazed look. “I am no longer your daughter,” she said. “The Commander dragged me away and no one tried to rescue me. You all just stood there and stared as if the Commander were a man with more arms and legs than you have, or had more than human strength. He is only a man! – an ordinary, human, small man. Are you really my father? Are you my uncle? Doesn’t it humiliate you to see me like this? Why, you’re nothing but sheep! Give me weapons – I’ll avenge myself and all your wives while you stand by and do nothing but talk, talk, talk. It’s you who should do the spinning and cooking. We women will kill these tyrants, even if we have to stone them ourselves! Then we’ll dress you pansies and cowards, paint your faces and set you all to sew.” She drew in her breath. “The Commander ordered Frondosa to be hung without trial, and then he’ll do the same to all of you. How glad I’ll be to see the village cleared of its old women. Then perhaps the age of Amazons will return!”
“Daughter,” whispered Esteban, “we don’t deserve such vile speech. I’ll go alone, even if I have to face the whole world.”
“I’ll go with you!” said another.
Calling “Death to the Tyrant!” the men charged off. Quickly Laurencia gathered the womenfolk. “Every man and boy is looking for weapons to fight with. But why leave the work to them? Aren’t we women the one who have been outraged the most?”
“Of course!” they all agreed. “But what can we do?”
“We must attack his castle,” she said. “Whatever comes of it, so be it!”
As the men stormed the Commander’s castle, an army of women came close behind. In short order, the Commander and his servants were all killed.
“What do we do now?” whispered one.
“Surely we will die for what we have done!” said another with fear in his voice.
“Listen to me,” said Esteban, the father. “I speak in the interests of all the village. The king and queen will order an inquiry and we must consider what we are going to say.”
“What is your advice?” said Frondosa, who had been freed in the storming of the castle.
“If necessary, we must die saying ‘Fuente Ovejuna killed the Commander’ and name no single person. Do you all agree?”
“Yes,” said one and all.
As predicted, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sent a judge to enact justice for the unexpected killing of the Commander and his men. But when the villagers were interrogated, even whipped, they did not say who killed the Commander, saying only: “Fuente Ovejuna did it.”
The judge had no choice but to return to court with this report: “I came to Fuente Ovejuna, your Majesties, as you ordered, and set about my investigations. But I have not one word of proof. The whole village behaved in a most stubborn manner. Each and every one of them answered my questions as to who had killed the commander by saying, ‘ Fuente Ovejuna did it.’ I can assure you, my lord, that I exercised all the vigor the law allows me, but neither threats, pain nor promises had any success. The only judgement I can pronounce, therefore, is that you order the whole village to be executed – or that you forgive them. They are all here to be questioned if you wish.”
King Ferdinand nodded. “Let them come in.”
And so all the men and women of Fuente Ovejuna crowded into the royal court.
“Are these the murderers?” said Queen Isabella, scanning the cluster of farmers and peasants gathering nervously before her.
Laurencia’s father stepped forward. “Your Majesties, we are the people of Fuente Ovejuna who come to seek protection, and to serve you. We were bowed under by oppression, no longer regarded as human beings, treated as slaves who must suffer their bitter lot in silence. Now we appeal to you for mercy so that we may restore our dignity and honor. The Commander’s own tyranny was the cause of his death. He stole our lands and produce, he ravished our women, and he showed no mercy.”
“It’s true, Your Majesties,” said Frondosa. “You see this girl who has made me the most fortunate man in the world? On our wedding night he took her from me to his own house.”
Esteban bowed low. “Your Majesties, we appeal to you for clemency. You are our King and Queen. We already put your coat of arms on our town hall.”
“Well,” said the King. “We have no written evidence against you, for no one has confessed. Your crime was indeed grave, but perhaps your sufferings justified it.”
“I agree with you,” said the Queen. “Such enduring villagers will make fine soldiers for my armies to fight the Moors.” She opened her arms before the group. “We shall pardon you, and take the village under our direct protection. Be ready to be called upon to fight in service of the Spanish crown.”
And so the people of Fuente Ovejuna were forgiven by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Overjoyed, they returned to their village to resume their lives.
This retelling of Lope de Vega's play Fuente Ovejuna by Elaine L. Lindy, ©2007 is based upon a translation by Ruth Fainlight and Alan Sillitoe published by Dufour Editions, Inc. in 1969.
This story is based upon an actual historical incident that took place in the village of Fuente Ovejuna in Castile in 1476. While under the command of the Order of Calatrava, a commander, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, mistreated the villagers who later banded together and killed him. When a magistrate was sent by King Ferdinand II of Aragon arrived to investigate, even under the pain of torture, the villagers only responded by saying: "Fuente Ovejuna did it."
The play Fuente Ovejuna was written by Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. First published in Madrid in 1619 as part of Docena Parte de las Comedias de Lope de Vega (Volume 12 of the Collected plays of Lope de Vega), the play is believed to have been written between 1612 and 1614.
Lope de Vega was extremely prolific. He claimed to have written 1500 plays of which 450 survived (Shakespeare is credited with 38 plays).