This adventure is still unforgettable for Madrid, and not just Madrid — all of Spain can’t forget it. Imagine!
The director of the city library, a tall, well-groomed man with a broad Roman face and a monocle in his eye, stands in front of a chair where I’m invited to sit. He looks at me with a mix of interest, suspicion, and a touch of confusion.
“Oh yes,” he says, “yes, señor, something like this did indeed happen… Imagine! Astonishing, unbelievable, like everything in our Castile…”
He adjusts his monocle, raises his eyebrow, and looks at me bewilderedly. “Imagine…”
He looks so stunned that I can’t help but laugh. He tries to laugh as well.
“So, you can’t deny,” I joke, “that we have some claims on Madrid.”
His face turns serious. He removes his monocle and looks at me anxiously.
“I don’t know,” he says, no longer joking, “I don’t know… In any case, your business should be more concerned with the city hall…”
Half an hour later, we are good friends. We chat about his poems and our history, which is new to him. Now convinced that I haven’t come to claim the inheritance of Levon V, he is fully at ease. He lays all the necessary books before me, orders a pen and ink to be brought, offers a Havana cigar, and arranges a meeting with the municipal office over the phone.
“However, you must agree,” he says with a smile, “that the pure Castilian generosity of our king went too far. What would you say if someone were to just give away three, I repeat, three major cities of your country with all the rights, even if it’s to a very deserving, very unfortunate, and very Christian, but still an entirely foreign king, and with all the rights!”
“This speaks of the breadth and greatness of the Castilian soul…”
He lights a cigar for me and, raising his head high, heads to his office.
And it’s the same everywhere. In government institutions, in the library of the Academy, in the editorial office of the daily newspaper, in private conversations… Eyes wide open with astonishment, bewildered facial expressions, furrowed brows.
By 1383, Sierra Nevada was a vast desert surrounding the ruined fortress of Madrid. Winters brought blizzards and snowstorms, while summers were marked by sun and dust.
This insignificant town in the very heart of Castile, perched on a modest hill, had accumulated rows of houses with flat roofs and narrow windows, separated by winding streets. The design aimed to keep out sand and heat, and to allow residents to hop from one roof to another in case of enemy invasion.
When the bells of the church located at the town’s highest point rang, and when nobles dressed in silk garments and armed with long sabers galloped up the hill on loudly neighing horses, the houses in the town would tremble, and the streets would echo as if reverberating through a deep canyon.
But towns in those times were less about habitation and more about signifying the hereditary rights of the nobility. Near the bright golden royal banner on Alcazar’s tower, there was a wavering row of flags belonging to various nobles—colors of blood, green pastures, tarnished silver, and blue sky.
In courtyards, iron chests, crumbling cellars, and caves dug under the foundations, documents adorned with heavy seals were stored. These documents featured the elaborate signatures of the king and numerous witnesses. They listed many names and place titles, and the complex language of notarial jurisprudence mixed with biblical style, oaths with curses, and apocalyptic verses with lands measured in miles.
The entire Sierra was encapsulated in parchment.
The lands wrested from the Arabs were eyed with envy. The struggle for them was long and ruthless. Every piece of land had some bloody monument. To the howling of Sierra’s snowstorms were added the voices of thousands of victims. The mournful groans sounded under the hooves of horses. And the war continued.
Juan the First, “the hidalgo of hidalgos, knight of knights, courageous warrior, humble and true Christian, majestic monarch, and proud Castilian,” ascended the throne at the age of twenty-one and immediately gained universal affection as a wise and far-sighted king.
In a country mired in chaos, he began to establish order. He issued numerous new laws, mandated that the population divided by social class wear different clothing, granted towns and villages special, almost autonomous rights, pardoned all criminals, banned begging, and mandated that jobs be found for the poor. He curbed judicial corruption and made the people respect the new legal code.
Juan the First was a powerful monarch.
His well-organized army cleared Spain of internal enemies and moved into the boundaries of Portugal to conquer the country.
During the endless wars between France and England, his Spanish armada sided with France.
In 1383, his fleet boldly sailed to the shores of England, entered the Thames, and there, in the heart of London, sank British ships.
As a devout Catholic, he did not forget the Jews either. He issued special laws according to which Jews were stripped of their own legal system and subjected to general law.
To protect the cross from the ghetto. To save Spain’s soul.
For Spain is the heart of Christ. And the bells of the cathedral in Toledo rang so loudly that they could be heard in Rome. And all over the world. The bells of Toledo and the victorious cries of Castilian warriors.
The cross and the sword.
Juan the First himself, in a long red cloak, surrounded by surly knights and high clergy, entered the church, and as trumpets sounded and bells rang, he knelt before the altar with hundreds of candles, the flames of which sparkled and flickered in the gems of his crown, and engaged in heartfelt prayer.
In 1383, the king was struck by a great tragedy.
He had just signed a peace treaty with Portugal when news arrived from Madrid that Queen Donna Leonora, young and beautiful, had given birth to a female child and, despite prayers offered day and night in the temples, despite a special blessing from the cardinal, and despite medicines made from snake skin and crow’s beak, had died after a horrific hemorrhage, having taken communion.
Juan the First was devastated.
Was this a premonition or a punishment? Was Providence punishing him like this? Had he been negligent in fulfilling his duties, had he neglected the interests of the Church, was he not devout and pious, had he not dedicated his reign to the protection of the Holy Church?
His heart mourned, and his mind was tormented.
The bells of cities and villages tolled in mourning. Churches were filled with cries, and monasteries observed fasting. Shutting himself away with his old confessor, the king sorrowfully repented for his sins and, holding back his sobs, vowed to immortalize the memory of his beloved Leonora with good Christian deeds, humility, and generous alms.
Outside, his horse and retinue awaited him. Juan was heading to Madrid to solemnly transfer Leonora’s body to Toledo and bury her in a chapel where the ashes of Don Anarigo II rested.
When the king stepped out of the palace, everyone saw a clear and kind light on his face. Despite the heat, the procession moved all day without stopping. Finally, towards the evening, tired and hungry, they decided to spend the night in Medina del Campo.
Juan retreated to a room to pray. “Thy will be done, O Almighty,” and he lay down on the bed.
At dawn, as they prepared to continue their journey, the king was suddenly informed that two envoys who had arrived from Babylon wished to see him.
Before the king stood a knight and a monk.
“Great king, we are servants of Christ, arrived from the land of Babylon on behalf of the suffering Armenian king in captivity…”
Juan could not believe his eyes. So heaven had heard his vows; so the Almighty already demanded tribute? And the voice came from such a great distance!
Would you like anything else?
First to speak, pressing his waxen-pale hands to his chest and bending his knees, was a monk from the Uniate order with sunken cheeks. His large eyes were full of suffering, his voice trembling with emotion. In his vulgar Latin, translated by a Dominican monk, waves of grief clashed and relentless winds howled. From the vast fields of the Eastern world arose a great cry.
Savage tribes had invaded, destroying cities, burning villages, turning states to ashes. “Solitudinem faciunt, o rex” [They make a desolation, O king (Latin)]. Defenders of the Cross, princes, and nobles were slaughtered; the people groaned in captivity among the infidels; women and young maidens…
The monk’s speech was interrupted by sobs: “Help, help, pro Deo et Ecclesia!” [For the sake of God and the Church (Latin)].
Then, bending his knee and placing his left hand on his sword, spoke a tall, red-bearded knight in a black cloak with a red cross on his chest. His deep, low voice sounded loud and expressive. When he was emotional, the black curls resting on his shoulders would tremble, and his eyes would ignite. He informed the king about the circumstances under which the Armenian Cilician kingdom on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea had disappeared.
He spoke of how the Armenian king, who had the noble blood of the Lusignans flowing through his veins, after unequal battles “in the name of the holy Orthodox Christian Church,” had fallen into the hands of the Soldan [Sultan (Old Castilian)] and was undergoing indescribable suffering.
In vain had he awaited intervention from Christian states, with whose knights the Armenians had jointly fought in the heroic Crusades for the liberation of Christ’s Tomb, and in vain had they appealed to rulers of other countries for assistance to the unfortunate king, who dreamed of reclaiming his lands and waging a new fight in the name of the Holy Trinity.
And so, having heard of the brave, noble, and mighty King of Castile, whose Christian piety is known to the entire world, the Armenian king had entrusted them to plead and beseech him for aid, to liberate him from the hands of the infidels and to save Christian honor.
With his last words, the knight became extremely emotional, paused for a moment, raised his hands high, and dramatically exclaimed in French: “Pour Dieu vous prie, o roi de Castille, de liberer de la douleur dolente et dure, par Sainte Marie, le roi captif de l’Armenie!” [In the name of God, we beseech you, O King of Castile, by Saint Mary, to free the captive King of Armenia from his painful and harsh suffering (French)].
The King of Castile immediately ordered envoys to be sent to the Sultan of the infidels to save the Christian king. He had only a vague idea where this mighty barbarian sultan ruled and what this land called Armenia was like.
He only vaguely knew that in the East there exists a land called Babylon, which is mentioned in the Bible and is near Jerusalem, the tomb of Christ, and the land of the magi. But deep in his soul, Juan was convinced that the plea of the envoys was dictated by Divine Will.
The Almighty wants to test him. And who knows, perhaps it is Leonor’s soul that is calling out to him? Let God’s will be done; let this Christian act be committed in memory of Leonor, for the salvation of her soul.
“I will do everything to liberate my brother, the servant of Christ, the Armenian King Levon,” he declared.
“The envoys must take with them the richest gifts they can find,” said the knight. “Quickly select the finest gifts!” commanded the King of Castile.
From the royal treasury, rich fabrics, gold-embroidered velvet, the finest silks of Cordoba, exquisite weapons made of Toledo steel, and many golden and silver items were chosen.
“Algunos falcones gerifaltes, escarlatas, penasveros (white marten furs) and various gold and silver jewels, the best that could be had” [Various steel weapons, bright-red and white marten fur, gold and silver precious items, the best that was available (Spanish)].
“O sovereign king,” the monk intervened, “this barbaric despot of Babylon is arrogant and haughty; he demands that Christian kings approach him with the utmost humility, with the most submissive and lowly plea.” At these words, the eyes of the grandees surrounding Juan the First sparkled, and the tips of their swords trembled.
“Let Gonzalo Martinez, the court chronicler, write such a petition immediately,” announced the king amid general astonishment. Turning to his courtiers, he added: “This tearful request will teach the tyrant of the infidels a lesson in Christian humility and love, as well as express an unprecedented sense of Castilian ‘generosidad y caballerosidad’ [generosity and chivalry (Old Castilian)].
And while Juan was traveling to Madrid to fulfill his sorrowful mission, the envoys he had appointed, along with King Levon’s men, were making the final preparations for their long and perilous journey.
Here, this tale that’s half fable, half history, seen mainly through the eyes of Spanish chroniclers—where everything, they say, appears in exaggerated light—could easily be enriched with various descriptions. It wouldn’t be difficult, for example, to depict Juan’s delegation’s departure using the works of various authors—from Marco Polo to Ruy González de Clavijo—and their journey full of dangers, as attested by Clavijo himself. A delegation exposed to all the storms and winds on the way, facing the constant threat of pirate and bandit attacks, and experiencing a thousand different misfortunes.
One could also describe the countries they most likely passed through, the astonishing languages and dialects they heard, how they reached their destination, appeared in the Sultan’s palace (here, one could lay it on thick with an abundance of epithets expressing awe, tremor, and agitation), fell to their knees, touched their foreheads to the ground, persuaded him, and finally embraced the suffering Armenian king in his dungeon, tearfully telling him that he was free.
Oh, what stories could be told about those terrible times! About the hordes of Tamerlane that swept like a whirlwind from India to Syria, and the pyramids he erected from 70,000 skulls! About the pitiful state of Constantinople, ready to fall at the feet of the Turks. About the destruction of cities that had become “uninhabitable places,” about the slaughter among the population.
About the destruction of the eight-thousand-year-old irrigation system of the Mediterranean and the transformation of the lands into a desert. About the ruthless rule in Egypt by the Mamluks—a class that traced its lineage from captured Christian boys. About the cowardly and corrupt friendship of the Byzantines with the Turks and their readiness to sacrifice Christian lands in the name of that friendship.
About the foolish policies of ignorant, insignificant popes whose personal animosity towards Armenians and thirst for revenge, whose vanity and petty calculations can be considered one of the greatest crimes in the world.
Just think—in 1269, the mighty Kublai sent a delegation to Rome asking for a hundred trained clergy to spread Christianity among his people.
It was a unique and wondrous opportunity to tame and educate barbarian hordes! Kublai’s envoys waited for two years without any results. Clerical factions were fighting each other for the papal throne.
When Pope Innocent IV was finally elected, he deigned to send only two illiterate Dominican monks to the East. These monks were so uninspired by their mission that they didn’t even make it to their destination. Two ignorant Dominican monks to convert one of the world’s most powerful empires to Christianity!
The Catholic power, on which the unfortunate Lusignan had placed so much hope, was falling apart. Monstrous puppets who spoke in the name of Christ were pursuing only personal or group interests. A pathetic comedy was playing out on the grave of St. Peter.
In 1261, the Greeks recaptured Constantinople from the Latin emperors. Michael VIII severed all ties with the popes forever. Rome, vindictive and narrow-minded, responded with plots, treacherous intrigues, and an unimaginable form of hatred for those Christians who did not blindly submit to its authority. But what authority?
Popes in Rome and antipopes in Avignon. One pope excommunicating another, who responded with a curse. Clashes, intrigues, malice. Nations were also divided in accordance with the animosity between the popes. On one side, an anti-French faction—England, Hungary, Poland, northern Europe, and on the other, France, its ally the king of Scotland, Christian countries of the Iberian Peninsula, and several German princes.
Little Armenia was teeming with ignorant and malicious Latin priests. Their true occupation was to set one part of the Armenian people against another. They aimed to divide, sow discord and disharmony.
Morally, this was a greater evil than the Turkish invasion.
Disguised as carriers of linguam armeniam elegantem [Aristocratic Armenian language (Latin)], slithered snakes and scorpions, cawing crows, which immediately dispersed when danger knocked on our door.
The Armenian people remained, and dark and relentless centuries followed.
About all of this, I say, one can talk at length, but where to find the words? Armenian historiography has raised a black flag that has absorbed all words, and no words remain… And if there are any, they must be different. And how difficult it is to find them, everyone knows.
Certainly, the fact remains that by 1383, the Armenian people had lost their language. “In some, the tongue dried up in their mouths; in others, the soul withered; in still others, lips parched with fear, blood flowed like a river,” wrote Abovyan.
Amidst all this horror, there remained our blessed Levon V. Lonely, miserable, pathetic. In some sense, he was like a Hamlet chasing the ghost of his father. I hasten to say that in all the chronicles, books, and manuscripts that have come into my hands, there’s not even a mention of the Armenian people, not a word about their sufferings, their lost freedom. There’s only mention of Levon, about the return of his ancestors’ throne, about the Sultan, and about the orthodox Catholic faith.
When I try to imagine that era, the primeval, crude, naive, and epic Spanish customs and characters spring to mind, somehow reminiscent of an Abyssinian film: some sort of Negus and various tribes. I don’t know why, but I am convinced it is dictated by some inner truth. A psychological analogy.
Arab cunning combined with the directness of religious sentiment. Boundless naivety and excessive vanity. A desire to appear as both Harun al-Rashid and Solomon at the same time.
And the anxious, envious glances of various tribes. Murmurs and whispers.
None of them believed that the “Sultan of Babylon” would free the Armenian king. Deep down, everyone was certain and calm. It seems that even Juan himself didn’t harbor great hopes. A year had passed since the envoys departed, and still no news.
And if the impossible happens, and the king gains freedom, there are no more doubts: God has allowed him to perform the most righteous deed—teach the unfaithful Sultan a lesson and show the entire Christian world the greatness and chivalry of the Spanish spirit.
Juan I was near the border with Portugal when he was informed that the delegation sent to the Sultan had returned along with the freed Armenian king.
A strong excitement arose among the courtiers.
Juan’s joy knew no bounds. He immediately ordered preparations for a grand reception in Badajoz for the unfortunate king. Grandees and servants, awe-stricken, eagerly awaited this incredible meeting, para quienes era por extremo sorprendente aquel espectacolo [for whom this spectacle was extremely surprising, astonishing (Sp.)]. Just think, a captive king freed from the land of Babylon! A biblical scene where the main character is the mighty monarch of Castile.
And here’s that melodramatic scene itself.
Juan I, in a majestic pose befitting an actor playing a Shakespearean king, sits on his throne, surrounded by grandees in luxurious attire and servants.
Levon V, who later engravings depict as resembling an overfed bishop—plump-cheeked, broad-shouldered, bearded, with an eastern turban on his head, even though under these conditions one would imagine him more likely thin and haggard, aristocratic and pale—barely catches sight of Juan, derribabare in tierra—throws himself to the ground, falls at the king’s feet, and, stretching his lips, strives to kiss his feet.
But, moved by this heart-wrenching scene, the magnanimous and kind Juan swiftly rises from the throne and lifts the pathetic Levon, thus showing, as Spanish historians say, that “just because he had freed him from evil hands doesn’t mean he wanted to see him pitiful and humiliated.”
Immediately, wanting to emphasize this point, he orders that the unfortunate king be given the finest gold-woven garments, silver-adorned weapons, jewels, and everything that would help him regain his lost Eastern opulence.
Let the world see the ‘generosidad y caballerosidad’ [generosity and chivalry (Spanish)] of the formidable King of Castile!
But, as if that were not enough—imagine, señor!—he, driven by some tumultuous, uncontrollable feeling, takes it to an extreme unheard of in all of medieval history: he gifts this foreigner, this stranger, the heart of Castile in the form of three cities—Madrid, Andujar, and Villareal.
Madrid! Let’s leave the others aside, but Madrid, this jewel in the crown of Castile!..
And here, the melodrama transitions into a real drama.
Juan’s decree lands like a heavy blow of the scepter on the heads of the Castilian nobility. At first, the impact was so stunning that no one dared to utter a word. How can one oppose the will of the monarch? What had happened was so unexpected, so novel and unprecedented that the nobles took time to realize the full implications of this donation.
A low murmur of discontent rises.
That the fate of the unfortunate king of a distant land could evoke compassion and a high sense of mercy in the souls of the faithful is quite understandable. That a king who had lost all his wealth should receive generous assistance is also understandable. That this king should be helped with money and arms so that he could reclaim his country and restore his traditional rights is also understandable. But—by a thousand saints!—to take and give him three of the most important cities belonging to the crown of Castile, and appoint him their lord to whom even the most noble and proudest nobles must submit—this is terrible, this is unforgivable!
Indignation, ferment, protest.
Secret meetings are convened in the palaces of the grandees. Bitter and sarcastic speeches are made. Factions emerge. Messengers are sent to all corners of Castile to inform all the vassals of the throne and all the noble families about what has happened. Everyone with a stake in this rises. The city council, whose rights have been trampled, the landowners and merchants who could lose their monopolistic rights, and the people, who must now be led by some newcomer, an Eastern barbarian.
This widespread concern primarily has a material underpinning. The aristocracy has sacred, legally established rights to the revenues from these cities. How will the new owner manage the property? After all, he is as poor as a church mouse, so naturally, to replenish his treasury, he will take whatever he can take. You don’t have to be a prophet to foresee this. An Eastern man, even if a Christian, is still a sultan, a despot at heart!
And what about us?..
And finally, the rights of the Cortes have been violated. Without the decision of the Cortes, the King of Castile has no right to take such a step. He simply doesn’t!
Upon learning of the brewing protest, Juan became very saddened. Then he became indignant. And he declared: if the nobility of Castile truly wants to serve him, they should submit to his will without complaint, for his will is unyielding.
On October 9, 1383, Juan issued a categorical order to the representatives of the city council and the state notary to prepare and sign, in Segovia, the appropriate decree, according to which Madrid and two other cities are to be given to the Armenian king.
The document 2-a-385-18 from the chancellery of the city of Madrid states:
“En la ciudad de Segovia, lunes diez y nuebe de Octubre… estando el muy alto e muy noble don Leon, rey de Armenia, en su palacio en el monasterio de San Francisco de la dicha cibdat, en persona antel dicho rey don Leon, et en presencia de mi Gonzale Martinez, escrivanto de oro senor el rey Johan de Castiella…”
“On October 9th, being in the city of Segovia along with the most honorable and noble Don Levon, King of Armenia, in the monastery of St. Francis of the aforementioned city, in the presence of the aforementioned King Don Levon, our Lord King Juan and me, the scribe Gonzale Martinez…”
Juan honestly fulfilled his promise.
The people of Madrid consented to be subjects of King Levon. The mayor of the city sought the approval of the city council, emphasizing that, to avoid any surprises and potential misunderstandings in the future, King Juan would leave certain lands and certain revenues to the city.
On October 12, 1383, King Levon arrived from Segovia to Madrid.
The new ruler was welcomed into the city with ceremonies. Along with expressions of loyalty, the mayor and the council submitted a petition signed by Don Diego Fernandez de Madrid, Alvaro Fernandez de Lago, Gonzalo Bermudez, and Juan Rodriguez, stating that, according to the wishes of the council, the privileges, rights, and freedoms of the city should be maintained, and that the city should continue to develop and prosper.
In response to this petition, Juan I fully agreed, considering the demands of the Council to be quite fair. Taking the opportunity, he publicly explained the reasons that led him to grant such rights to the dispossessed Armenian king. The main reason was that the unfortunate king had sacrificed everything, even his own kingdom, in the name of preserving the “Catholic holy faith” – habia perdido su regno en defendimento de la sanna fe catolica.
Juan was compelled to make such a statement, as apparently, the movement against the Armenian king had taken on a dangerous character. The nobility of Castile, joined by a large part of the clergy, was using every method to discredit the foreigner. Is it really true that this king is a devout Catholic? Monks from the East claim that Armenians have always been enemies of the Papacy, schismatics, and persecutors of Catholic missionaries…
And even if we assume that he, the Armenian king, is a true Catholic, who can guarantee that after his death, some schismatic won’t seize his inheritance and force the people to follow his satanic faith?
Juan, who in his initial, now-lost grant letter giving Levon the cities did not impose any special conditions, was forced to change his decision. He announced that these rights are granted to the Armenian so that he may enjoy them for life, but after his death, the city of Madrid, along with its revenues and privileges, will revert to the control of the Castilian crown.
To dispel any doubts regarding the latter point, and to assure the Council, the knights, and the honorable people — Consejo, caballeros y hombres buenos — Juan solemnly gave his noble royal word. After the death of the Armenian, the city would pass to Juan’s first son, Infante Don Enrique, and his heirs, and under no circumstances would it belong to anyone else, be they native or foreigner. From now on, he, the King of Castile, orders the Council, the knights, and all the people never to accept or sign any document contrary to his promises.
And he ordered all of this to be recorded on paper, appending a lengthy preface affirming fidelity to the Catholic Church, mentioning the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and canonized saints. He allowed his eldest son and numerous witnesses to sign under it, confident that the document would appease both Council members and nobles (Chancellery paper 2-a-305-27).
However, as it turned out later, all of this did not help the matter.
That Juan took preventive steps for the future is one thing, but what about the present? Who will compensate the knights and the honest people? The money that the barbaric Armenian king is spending, the revenues he is receiving, are all at the expense of their pockets. Long-standing rights, supported by numerous pieces of evidence, are being violated. Religion is one thing, humanity another, but what about their money?
The malice and hatred towards the Armenian king were growing.
Secluded in his palace, surrounded by hostile courtiers who despised him, the last Armenian King and the first Armenian Refugee were going through dark, bitter days.
A stranger’s home, a stranger’s bread!
It was a prelude to a tragedy that would become a near-natural state for most Armenians for many centuries to come. The first “sale étranger” [dirty foreigner in French], the first moral lash of the whip, the first humiliation, a head bowed before dogs for the first time— all that the offended Armenian pride would have to suffer for long centuries!
Honestly speaking, I personally don’t have much sympathy for this pathetic Lusignan as a king. His fanatical Latinophilia and dedication to Catholicism plunged the Armenian people into misery.
In the last years of the Cilician kingdom, the Armenian nation was fragmented, corrupted, devoid of unity and spiritual harmony. Innumerable are the losses and the damage inflicted on our nation by ignorant, brutish, and parasitic foreign clergy, which continues to this day.
Terrible consequences also arose from the foolish faith that the Armenian people have since harbored in so-called “civilized Christian countries”—the eyes of naive lambs gazing into the void!
Did Levon V understand this in his new prison in Madrid?
One would think that after Juan’s explanations and concessions, the Castilian aristocrats would have calmed down. But no, the struggle against the foreign king continued even more fiercely than before. Our money! Our revenues!
Despite all of Levon’s efforts to please his subjects, to be a just ruler, a humble and zealous Catholic, compassionate to the poor, generous, kind, and wise, the ranks of the dissatisfied grew.
To discredit King Levon, thousands of different rumors began to circulate. All of it lies, as if he lost his kingdom defending true Christianity. Armenians have always been enemies of Catholicism and persecuted missionaries! Juan the First is simply too kind and naive.
He trusts this cunning Eastern man and doesn’t consider that if he dies tomorrow, this former tyrant may resort to all kinds of tricks and intrigues to seize our country. And finally, our money! Our income!
To show his selflessness, King Levon spent most of his revenue on renovating the city, strengthening crumbling fortresses and walls. He lived very modestly, spent little, gave away a lot.
“Granted,” muttered his enemies, “but what if all of this is a clever ruse and a cunning diplomatic game to win the trust of the people and our sympathies? What would you say if tomorrow, taking advantage of the rights given to him and the unprecedented generosity and magnanimity of the truly Castilian soul, he imposes new taxes on us, takes out new loans?”
Seizing the opportunity, he will amass enormous wealth and send it to his heirs or his people? He will fleece us like sheep. To get rid of his opponents, tomorrow he might replace all officials, appoint his own people, strip the members of the Council and the municipality of their rights. Remember, you’re dealing with an Eastern man! Don’t be naive, don’t be foolish!
And again, a delegation was sent to King Levon with the demand to sign a new document, to give new oaths and publicly declare that he will never impose new taxes, create new sources of income, make new loans, or touch any officials or members of the Council, or palace servants, or members of the municipality, or any other servants, and will not appoint his own people. He generally promises to maintain the current status and make no new orders.
Furthermore, King Levon had to swear in writing that he has no right to apply any punishment to the officers of the palace and the city, the princes, court ladies, servants, and maids, even if they rise against him.
To exempt in advance from any punishment those who would disobey him—absolvendo de todo pena a los que le desobedeciesen…
In a word, a lord without power.
And Don Levon, by the grace of God King of Armenia and Lord of Madrid, Villarreal, and Andujar, in a long and detailed document numbered 2-305-60, promises and swears that he will fulfill all requirements, will not levy any taxes, will not do this, will not do that.
And he signs: “Rey Lyon Quinto, regnante” — “King Levon the Fifth, reigning…”
The word “reigning” sounds like a terrible mockery. Reigning over whom, reigning over what? There, in Cilicia, are ruins and ashes, and here… One doesn’t have to be a great psychologist to imagine the unbearable atmosphere that had formed around Lusignan: the disdain meant to humiliate him, hostility hidden behind insincere phrases, pitying glances, mockery, and given the coarse manners of the era, even vulgar words, deeds, and the bitter foreign bread served on a silver platter…
If not for the persuasion of Juan the First, the unfortunate king would have probably fled, leaving everything behind. But Juan did everything within his power to help him. Moreover, where could he run to?
In the West, the situation was, as always, complicated: the two major countries that could have come to the aid of the Armenian king were locked in endless strife. Furthermore, there was nothing left to plunder in Armenia; the Turks had taken and consumed everything.
The papal authority was even more pitiful than ever. Christ and His teachings were up for sale and had once again become a tool for petty local politics.
Where to go?
The refugee king bowed his head and acquiesced. “Be patient,” Juan told him, “be patient, and we’ll see what happens.”
On October 9, 1390, Juan the First, along with Archbishop of Toledo Don Pedro Tenorio, accompanied by a group of Castilian nobles, rode from Alcalá to the port of Burgos.
Under them were Arabian steeds. Hot, swift, and restless animals, about which long-serving knights in Africa told captivating tales. They are said to be able to gallop like arrows, like fire and flame, and sometimes riders feel as if they have grown wings on their backs.
“In the sand, in the desert, maybe, but not here, not on this rocky ground,” Juan remarked.
“Depends on the rider, Your Majesty,” exclaimed one of the knights, and pulling the reins tight, they instantly broke into a gallop and flew forward.
Soon they disappeared in clouds of dust.
“Wonderful!” said Juan, turning to the Archbishop of Toledo. “But why do these gentlemen think that one can only become a good rider by serving in Africa? Look!…” And, urging his horse in front of everyone, he bent low, loosened the reins, and galloped away.
“Almighty God,” whispered the archbishop, “Almighty God…”
Half an hour later, the king lay lifeless on the ground, his head smashed against a rock. Mourning visibly descended on Madrid.
This widely accepted explanation for the death of King Juan seems murky to me, and, let’s not mince words, rather suspicious.
Firstly, contemporaries claim that the Archbishop of Toledo was present, adding that he was a long-time and loyal friend of Juan’s father. Therefore, they imply, there’s no reason to doubt his testimony.
Why shouldn’t we doubt?
Secondly, the king was accompanied by aristocrats who had served many years in Africa. I was about to say — adventurers. Those familiar with the mores of adventurers of the time, hooligans and con men for whom gain is paramount and crime a common means to achieve it, can imagine the character and moral makeup of these men, especially those who had served many years in Africa engaged in ordinary banditry. But let’s leave aside the suspicious presence of these gentlemen specifically from Africa.
The fact is, the riders had moved a significant distance away, and Juan, eager to catch up with them, left the archbishop, his father’s friend, that is, an elderly man, alone. He quickly urged his horse forward and vanished. What happened there, far away, where Juan probably caught up with the riders, the archbishop could not have seen.
Therefore, his testimony, if it existed, holds no value. The man lay on the ground with a broken head, lifeless, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to convince the old man that the king simply fell off his horse and was killed. Let’s also ignore the fact that the clergy’s manners were no less bandit-like, and at that time, obtaining an archbishop’s silence in committing a crime was the easiest thing to do.
But the strangest thing is that Spanish chroniclers don’t dwell long on this death. They mention the incident briefly and move on. No details. They don’t discuss, as is their custom, the mourning that enveloped the country, the funeral arrangements for the king, and so on. A curious reader, able to read between the lines and sense the author’s true mood, gets the impression that people weren’t too sorrowful; on the contrary, there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief—finally rid of him.
However, the chronicles go into detail about the events that occurred after the king’s death.
Firstly, these events were extremely important because, due to the minority of the infant heir, power effectively shifted to the nobility and clergy of Castile. Therefore, both the nobility and clergy, who were discontent with Juan’s actions, had an interest in his disappearance.
And although I don’t have definitive evidence, considering all this, it doesn’t seem unlikely to me that Juan fell victim to a crime. He was killed to get rid of Levon.
And they got rid of him.
It’s not hard to imagine Levon’s situation after Juan’s death.
Madrid’s joy knew no bounds. The city council, without losing a minute, convened the clergy, nobility, and wealthy people—prelados, magnates y ricos hombres—and declared Don Enrique as the sole legitimate heir to the throne. Flags with the name of the new king were raised in the squares of the future capital to show that he, and no one else, was the city’s true ruler.
Lavish celebrations took place.
Citizens, caballeros, and hidalgos enthusiastically organized festivities, coordinated demonstrations, and joined in processions that moved from street to street.
It’s quite likely that, passing by the palace (historians naturally keep quiet about this), participants of the procession might have heckled the Armenian king, urging him to leave the city. Who knows what kinds of unsavory scenes could have unfolded there…
One of the first steps taken by the regents of Enrique III was to annul all the privileges granted by the former king. The clergy and nobility turned against Levon, and it even became dangerous for him to remain in the country.
Levon V could no longer stay in Madrid. He couldn’t even stay in Spain.
So he left.
Most of the materials we have about Levon V were collected and written primarily by Armenian Catholics, both clerical and secular figures. For understandable reasons, they tried to instill the idea that during our national calamities, if not all of humanity that practiced Catholicism, at least the clergy stood with us. As a weighty example, they cited the episode with our last king, Levon: look at the greatness of Catholicism!—it granted three cities to our last king, did this, did that… And we, naively, I would say foolishly, feel flattered and are ready to forget the mortal offenses and harm that Catholicism and closely related Europe have inflicted upon us.
Our absurd illusions, our vain, empty hopes in Europe have cost us dearly. The source of these illusions was the legend of Levon—an ugly and humiliating episode for our sense of self-worth, presented to us in a pretty candy wrapper.
Let it not seem strange that, even recently, in the same Cilicia, a Cilicia awash in our blood, French soldiers, allied with the Turks, were shooting at our volunteers. And let it not seem strange that even today, our beastly tormentors are everywhere received with honors, while attempts are continually made to degrade us.
This is also not new; it dates back to those very days.
As it turns out, the regents and educators of Enrique III, mostly clerics, instilled in him a hatred for Eastern Christians in general, and Armenians in particular, so he would never repeat the Christian act of his father. I won’t even mention the Jews, whom he ruthlessly exterminated.
Eastern Christians and Armenians should be hated. They are schismatics, do not accept Papal authority, act against the interests of the Latins, and in their time, persecuted preachers from Rome.
Barbarians like the Seljuks and Mongols were much more preferable. And this hatred was so strong that when the news came that someone named Tamerlane was putting hundreds of thousands of Christians to the sword, destroying cities, burning villages, leveling churches, and advancing triumphantly, like a devastating whirlwind, King Enrique III, the right hand of Rome, defender of Catholicism and the darling of the Papal throne, sent a large, formal, and lavish delegation in 1402 to congratulate Tamerlane on his victories. Para felicitarle por sus triumfos…
Moved by Tamerlane’s gratitude, conveyed through the same delegates, King Enrique was sent rich gifts looted from Armenian homes, including two beautiful young women taken captive.
Enrique felt so flattered that on May 22, 1403, from Puerto de Santa Maria, new envoys of his set sail to provide Tamerlane with even greater evidence of the Spanish king’s deepest friendship and affection. “To the Great Warrior, whose brave deeds have eclipsed the glory of all commanders who came before him.” Para darle mayores muestras de amistad…
Excerpt from the book “Spain” by Kostan Zarian (translated from Armenian by Irina Karumyan). aniv.fund
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan