Miguel de Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547, probably on September 29, on ‘día de san Miguel’ (Saint Michael’s Day), as the customs of naming children after the saint of the day they were born on and being baptised early on shows us. The baptismal from the Alcalá de Henares City Council confirms that the baptism was held in the now defunct Santa María la Mayor Church in Alcalá de Henares on October 9 of the same year.
Little is known about his childhood and adolescence. We know that he was the great grandson of the draper from Cordoba, Ruy Días de Cervantes, grandson of the lawyer Juan de Cervantes, and son of Rodrigo de Cervantes. His father, a zurujano sangrador, a profession that was somewhere between barber and doctor, married Leonor de Cortinas, who lived in the town of Arganda del Rey and with whom he had seven children: Andrés (who died a few days after being born), Andrea (1544-1609), Luisa (1546-162?), Miguel (1547-1616), Rodrigo (1550-1600), Magdalena (1553-1611) and Juan (1555-?).
Miguel de Cervantes was born in the family home, which belonged to his grandfather Juan, located in Calle Imagen, in Alcalá de Henares, which is where the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes is currently located.
Miguel de Cervantes’ father decided to go to Valladolid in 1551. He set up his business in the Sancti Spiritu neighbourhood, although we are not sure whether his wife and children, his mother (Leonor de Torreblanca) and his sister (María de Cervantes) also made the move with him. At that time Valladolid was the new Spanish capital thanks to Philip II, and the zurujano tried to get a foot in the door and find a wealthier clientele than in Alcalá de Henares. He would also go on to other cities after Valladolid, such as Cordoba and Seville. It is possible that Rodrigo was running from debts that he had accumulated over the years and, above all, from his past in prison.
It’s not until 1567 that we know something more about our writer. A young Miguel began to study under the Humanist and professor Juan López de Hoyos at the Estudio de la Villa in Madrid. It was this very professor who chose one of Cervantes’ sonnets dedicated to Queen Elizabeth of Valois, the wife of Philip II, for a commemorative book called La Muerte De La Reina Doña Isabel De Valois (The Death of Queen Elizabeth of Valois). This is the first known piece of writing we have by Cervantes.
The next piece of information that we have about Cervantes is not so favourable. Thanks to a royal decree dated September 1569 we know that a young student named Miguel de Cervantes was being looked for after wounding one Antonio Sigura in a duel. Cervantes, facing this search order, fled the country and sought his fortune in Rome, where he worked as a manservant to Cardenal Acquaviva.
Well-known by all is Cervantes’ participation in the Battle of Lepanto. In 1571, together with his brother Rodrigo, he boarded the galley Marquesa belonging to don Diego de Urbina’s military company to fight with the Christian troops of the Holy League, which would fight against the Ottoman Turks. It is well known that Miguel was seriously wounded: he was shot twice in the chest by a harquebus and once in the arm. From then on he was known as the ‘One-armed man from Lepanto’.
The painting “Cervantes en Lepanto” by Ferrer Dalmau, represents the young soldier in the heat of battle just at the moment of being wounded for the first time – it would be two more – by a Turkish bullet.
Once the war was over and the brothers had become ‘excellent soldiers’, they both returned to Spain. Miguel brought two letters of recommendation with him signed by don Juan of Austria and the Duke of Sessa that, apparently, guaranteed him a promising future in the Indies or in the court. However, on the return journey to Spain they were captured by Berber corsairs on the Catalan coast and were taken to a prison in Algiers. Rodrigo was rescued in 1577 but Miguel had to suffer incarceration until September 19 1580. Thanks to the ransom paid by the Trinitarians Fray Juan Gil and Fray Antón de la Bella, Cervantes was able to leave Algiers and return to Spain after five years in captivity and four escape attempts.
These events marked his character but also the lives of his family who had had to deal with the costs of keeping a house and the debts incurred from the rescue attempts of both sons. Cervantes, crippled from war and with his two letters of recommendation, tried to gain a posting in the Americas but all doors were closed to him. He needed to make a good marriage and find a profession that would hep him get out of the situation he was in.
Little information about his love life has been preserved. At 37 years of age he met the great love of his life, Ana Franca de Rojas, with whom his only daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, was conceived. However, surprisingly, despite the love they professed for each other, Miguel de Cervantes ended up marrying Catalina de Palacios Salazar, who was from Esquivias.
During these adventurous years the writer wrote several plays. Of these, Los tratos de Argel (The Treatment of Algiers) and La Numancia (Numantia) have been conserved. There is evidence that he was very interested in the theatre genre and that some of his plays were taken to the stage in the courtyard theatres of Madrid. In addition to his theatrical works, Miguel de Cervantes also wrote novels. In 1585, the year his father passed away, his first great novel, La Galatea, was available in Calle Libreros in Alcalá de Henares.
Shortly after their wedding, the couple separated geographically. Catalina decided to stay in Toledo while Cervantes accepted a job as provisions officer, which obliged him to travel around Andalusia. Working to collect and seize grain for the king, he had to face new scandals and problems with the law.
After the time spent in Andalusia, Miguel de Cervantes settled in other cities, such as Toledo and Valladolid, where he composed and wrote sonnets, comedies, and such forth. Success came in 1605 with the publication of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha. By that time he was living in Valladolid but he would soon make a definitive move to Madrid (1606).
In Madrid he decided to settle near Huertas, which is known today as the ‘Neighbourhood of Letters’. His neighbours were writers as well known as Lope de Vega (both lived in Calle Francos, now Calle Cervantes), Francisco de Quevado and Luis Góngora. Despite the apparent literary prosperity of those years, in which he published Exemplary Tales in 1613, Journey to Parnassus(1614) and the second part of Don Quixote (1616), Cervantes never ceased to have problems with his neighbours and the law.
Regarding his family, we know that his sisters became nuns (Luisa came to be the prior of the Convent of the Imagen in Alcalá on three occasions). His wife Catalina entered the Third Order of Saint Francis, joining his sisters Magdalena and Andrea. Miguel de Cervantes also felt this religious devotion and decided to enter the Congregation of Slaves of the Blessed Sacrament and, later, to wear the habit and declare his vows to the same order as where his sister and wife had been.
Now ill, Cervantes finished Persiles, his last work, which was published posthumously in 1617. In the book it says: “Yesterday I was given last rites and today I write this; time is short, anxiety grows, hope dwindles and, with all this, I live due to the will I have to live.”
On 22 April 1616 Miguel de Cervantes died. He was buried the next day following the Rule of the Third Order of Saint Francis. He was buried at the Convent of the Trinitarias, which was near his house in Madrid but, unfortunately, today we do not know the whereabouts of his remains, which were dispersed at the end of the 17th century when the convent was rebuilt.