The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1988, Volume 34, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

By Thomas Case
Professor of Spanish San Diego State University

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400 years ago, San Diego de Alcalá was canonized, exactly 125 years after his death in 1463. The events which led to his canonization are a fascinating piece of history and are tied to the fate of Spanish Empire, the changes in the Vatican, and Spain’s troubles with England, which was to embark on an empire of its own. At this distance in time, we seem to have forgotten that the canonization of San Diego de Alcalá was one of the most important events of its time. San Diego became the subject of many outstanding works of art, such as the beautiful statue carved by Alonso Cano and Pedro de Mena, and the paintings executed in the seventeenth century by Murillo, Ribera, and Zurbarán. Lope de Vega wrote a three-act play on his life and miracles. More important for us, however, was the christening of the flagship, the San Diego. In 1602, this vessel, commanded by Sebastián Vizcaíno, sailed into a port previously named San Miguel by Juan Cabrillo in 1542. The crew landed on November 12 and Mass was celebrated. Vizcaíno renamed the bay and its area San Diego de Alcala in honor of his patron and for the day he had made his landing. A century and a half later, another Franciscan like San Diego, Fray Junipero Serra, founded the first of a chain of missions in Alta California on this same location. While the name for our city may seem fortuitous due to the liturgical calendar, the events which led to San Diego’s occupancy of that day were of monumental importance to the Western world. In this article, I wish to review the process which gave the Church calendar the feast of San Diego and our city its proud name.

San Diego was born in the small village of San Nicolás del Puerto, about fifty miles northeast of the city of Seville.1 After living in a hermitage, he joined the Franciscan Order at the Convent of Arrizafa, in Cordoba, as an Observant lay brother. He spent some time at the Convent of San Francisco in Seville and in 1441 he was sent as a missionary to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, where he gained renown for his piety and diligence. In 1449, we find him again in Seville, from where he was sent to Rome as one of the many pilgrims celebrating the Jubilee Year and the canonization of San Bernardino de Siena. Back in Spain, he lived successively in convents in Pastrana and La Salceda, in Castile, and in 1456 he joined the Franciscan community at the new convent of Santa María de Jesús in Alcalá de Henares. He died there, and his remains were venerated in a special chapel built in the convent by King Henry IV of Castile. His death in Alcala was most auspicious, for Cardinal Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros later founded the famous university there and Fray Diego became the patron for its students of Renaissance humanistic studies, although Fray Diego himself had never learned to read or write.

While the early life of San Diego is somewhat a mystery, later years are better known because of his association with dignitaries of his time. This is true especially after his trip to Rome. There he is remembered for his care of the sick at the convent of Ara Coeli.2 In Castile, the Archbishop of Toledo, Alonso Carrillo de Acuña, revered his holiness, perhaps to provide a balance to his worldly life.3 King Henry IV adorned his table with grapes from Fray Diego’s garden. The various early biographies repeat many of the same stories told about his piety, charity, and reported miracles. Much of this material obviously had originated from legendary tales which circulated orally in the area of Alcalá de Henares, Seville, and Fuerteventura. For a century, Fray Diego was considered a saint by popular acclamation, but not recognized by the Vatican. We know that his chapel in Alcalá became some sort of shrine for the disabled, lame, and critically ill. A few years after the death of the saint, a Fray Alonso de Santa María wrote down all the miracles known at the time,4 but no petition apparently was made to Rome for an investigation into possible canonization.

In 1562, the Prince of Asturias, don Carlos, son of king Philip II and his first wife, Maria of Portugal, was sent to Alcalá de Henares to study Latin and to practice the noble arts of fencing and horsemanship. Seventeen years old at the time, he was accompanied by two other young nobles who were to make their mark in Spanish history, his uncle, Juan de Austria, and his cousin, Alejandro Farnese de Parma.5 Carlos was an infirm and moody lad who neglected his studies and preferred to spend a good part of his day in bed. At night he delighted in amorous escapades ‘and managed to secure keys for the rooms of the Archbishop’s Palace, where they were staying. One night he fell down a damaged staircase and landed on his head. He remained unconscious for several days. The best doctors were called in from far and wide; a trepanation was attempted to relieve the pressure on the brain.6 It seemed hopeless. Finally, after many hours of prayer, a procession was organized and hundreds of penitents, led by the king’s lieutenant, the Duke of Alba, went to the convent chapel. The locks on Fray Diego’s coffin were broken off and his body ceremoniously transferred to don Carlos’s room as a last resort. The following day, the prince awoke and told of a dream in which he had seen the Franciscan friar holding a cane cross in his hand. Soon after, he was up and around, the beneficiary, many thought, of a miracle to favor Spain and to protect its royal line. In the next few months, the Provincial minister of the Observants in Castile, the Rector of the University, the head abbot of the Iglesia Magistral of Alcalá, and the Archbishop of Toledo, titular head of the Church in Spain, all petitioned the Vatican to open investigations on the possible sainthood for the humble saint of Alcalá. On February 28, 1563, Philip II himself and don Carlos had the Spanish ambassador to the Vatican, don Luis de Requesens, present their personal plea to Pope Pius IV.

What was to follow presented a golden opportunity to both the Vatican and King Philip II. There were bad feelings between the two countries all through the sixteenth century. The Papacy, then a powerful state, was anxious to unify Italy and wrest control from the Spanish Empire, which then occupied Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples, and Milan. Philip’s father, Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, had allowed his troops to sack the Vatican in 1527. In another sense, Spain practically stood alone during the revolt of Martin Luther, and with the strength of its religious orders (the Jesuits, a native Spanish order, was gaining in numbers and influence) and its overseas dominions, was eager to champion Catholic causes, even over the head of the pope. With the pretext of his son’s cure, Philip II could approach the Holy See on what appeared to be strictly a religious matter. And he was prepared to pay the costs of investigation. Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), who bitterly resented Spaniards, was now dead, and his successor, Pius IV, was amenable. The Church was in the process of concluding its important council at Trent and Fray Diego’s simple sort of piety corresponded to the new guidelines for unquestioning faith in the sacraments, the role of the clergy, and asceticism.7 Philip II, now married to the daughter of the king of France, Elizabeth Valois, foresaw also problems with England, now that his former sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth I, persisted in aiding Spain’s enemies in the Low Countries and in persecuting Catholics in her own realm. An ally in the Papacy would be advantageous.

Pope Pius IV appointed Cardinals Morono, Alexandrini, Saraceno, and Araceli e Vitello to make a preliminary inquest into Diego’s candidacy. The four cardinals, unable to travel to Spain, delegated the task to the Bishop of Segovia, don Diego de Covarrubias, the Bishop of Sigüenza, don Pedro de la Gasca, and the Bishop of Cuenca, don Bernardo de Fresnada. The three bishops met in Alcalá de Henares early in 1565, where they conducted their investigation and interviewed witnesses. In twelve days they concluded their inquest and forwarded the findings to Rome.

Pope Pius IV died at the end of 1565, and Cardinal Alexandrini, a member of the original commission, succeeded him as Pius V. In 1566, the former cardinal’s place on the commission was given to Cardinal Juan Bautista de St. Clement. The commission then returned the Spanish bishops’ report requesting further information. On May 1, 1572, Pope Pius V died, and Gregory XIII was elected. In October of the previous year, Spain, in alliance with the Papal States and Venice, had dealt a stunning blow to Turkish power in the Mediterranean at Lepanto. Apparently Spanish favor and the memory of Lepanto died with Pius V. Under Gregory XIII, concerned with other issues, the Papacy dragged its feet on the question of Diego’s canonization. Besides, don Carlos, the beneficiary of the miracle, had died in 1568,8 and all the members of the canonization commission were also deceased.

Sixtus V succeeded Gregory XIII in 1585. Aged sixty-four at the time of his election, the former Cardinal Felice Peretti Montalto was not expected to do much.9 He proved to be a surprising man of action, and in a very short time, effectively reformed the administration of Rome, embellished the city, created hospitals and refuges for the poor, built up the defenses, cleaned up public morality, and finally ordered the dome of St. Peter’s, designed many years before by Michelangelo, completed. He is also credited for having erected in St. Peter’s Square the ancient obelisk, which had been lying beside the Vatican since Roman times. Uncommonly practical and visionary for a pope of his times, he sought reconciliation with England in both religious and political areas, and he deeply distrusted Spain and Philip II, whom he feared intended to have him poisoned. Sixtus was, on the other hand, a Franciscan like Fray Diego and of a similar simple piety. In those stormy times, he clearly saw the benefits of taking advantage of his figure to improve communication between the Vatican and the king of Spain. It would be Sixtus V who would revive the canonization process and accelerate the final date in a minumum of time.

Philip II again made petitions to the new pope in 1585 through his ambassador, the Count of Olivares. Sixtus V placed the examination of the materials into the hands of three auditors of the Rota Romana. After a year and a half, this committee ruled favorably on the progress of their research. On January 3, 1587, Sixtus V appointed a new commission of six cardinals, which made public its report on June 20, 1588. The oldest of the commission, Cardinal Marco Antonio Colonna, made an impassioned but reasoned speech to the Pontiff in favor of canonizing Fray Diego. On June 25, 1588, at a public hearing attended by all the high religious officials present in Rome, Pompeyo Arigonio, advocate of the king of Spain, delivered a beautiful prayer on Fray Diego, requesting his immediate canonization. On June 28, 1588, the religious present unanimously voted to add San Diego to the Church’s catalog of saints. Pope Sixtus V officially pronounced San Diego’s sainthood in ceremonies celebrated July 2, 1588. In his speech, Pope Sixtus declared that as true head of the Church and as successor of St. Peter he could not err in canonization and that St. Didacus (San Diego) was to be accepted as a saint on grounds of firmissima fide.10

The events which surround the canonization of San Diego on July 2, 1588, were crucial for the future of Western Europe and consequently for their empires around the world. Regiomontanus and other soothsayers had forecast a fateful year. Religious events in Germany, England and France had been especially instrumental in the reshaping of Europe ever since Martin Luther’s momentous revolt in Wittenberg seventy years before. In 1588 the Huguenots had been gaining in strength and Henry III of France was too weak to resist them. On the other hand, the pope mistrusted the ambitions of the Catholic leader, the Duke of Guise. Philip II’s army, commanded by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, was waging an up-hill struggle to preserve Catholic Spain’s domination in the Low Countries. Sixtus V earnestly wanted to bring England back to the Catholic fold. He secretly admired Elizabeth as a statesperson11 and abhorred the notion that Philip II might become the king of England. For his part, Philip, though he had to respect the pope as his religious superior, would have much preferred a less strong-willed pontiff. When Mary Stuart was beheaded in February of 1587, Sixtus lost faith in bringing England back to the Catholic fold by political means and was willing to throw in his lot with Philip on an invasion of the island through the action of a naval armada supported by Spanish troops stationed in the Low Countries. The pontiff pledged the sum of 1,000,000 scudi, half for preparations and half after a successful outcome. Alone, however, it is reported that Sixtus shed tears over the very idea of the enterprise against England.12

Until now, historians seem to have overlooked the idea that San Diego de Alcalá’s canonization was linked with the delicate relations between Sixtus V and Philip II of Spain. Sixtus V’s biographer, Pietro Galesino, states in his 1588 document on San Diego, however, that the pope’s relationship with Philip II and his troubles with England were definitely the motives for expediting the canonization and proclaiming it in 1588. He states: “Philip eagerly pursued a war with England and its perfidious and profligate queen, Elizabeth, a woman steeped in evil and tainted by every kind of wickedness and heresy and who through her tyrannical rule of England has for a very long time oppressed and crushed the Catholic Church and all good people. Aware, however, of the dangers, the king, guided by piety and his most just cause, has decided to initiate plans for war and to prepare and equip men and material for a large army, gathering together and training many troops and ships; thereupon, Pope Sixtus V, already drawn to this just war, hoping it could be quickly concluded, saw that it was principally in defense of heavenly interests. As Blessed Ambrose of Milan once said, when he was harassed by the impious Justina, it was like being beset in a sea of troubles. The pope deemed it a most fitting time (oportuno igitur tempore), and convinced of excellent and divine wisdom, recommended Blessed Didacus be placed among the number of saints in whose merits the king (Philip) has given so much trust.”13 Galesino makes it clear that Philip II was part of this decision, as was the enterprise against Elizabeth and England. Sixtus V, of course, saw in Fray Diego the qualities and had the supporting evidence of miracles necessary for canonization. But so had earlier popes, who had ordered the investigations into his possible canonization. Thus it was a matter of timing, on the one hand, and a matter of will and skillful diplomacy on the other. The ceremonies in Rome purposely coincided with the sailing of the 130-odd vessels from La Coruña up the English Channel.

As everyone knows, Philip’s armada was a naval disaster, but not exactly in the way most people think.14 Meanwhile, back in Rome the canonization ceremonies were carried out, attended by a great number of religious from all the orders, and by forty-three cardinals and forty bishops and archbishops. Pietro Galesino, also Pope Sixtus V’s biographer, has left us an interesting description of the proceedings with lists of those in attendance. He even includes the titles of the hymns sung — Ave Marts Stellae and Veni creator spiritus, emitte spiritum tuum. At the end all sang the Te Deum laudamus. A special prayer was issued for the new saint.15

The Spanish ambassador in Rome informed his king of the canonization as soon as news could be managed in those days before electricity. Philip II ordered banners to be flown in honor of San Diego on all public buildings in Spain, and celebrations, especially in Franciscan convents, were held all over the country. The pope sent to Philip II the gift of the walnut altar used in Rome for the official ceremonies. In April of 1589, elaborate festivities were held in Alcala de Henares, attended by King Philip II himself, accompanied by the future King Philip III and his half-sister, the Infanta Catalina, soon to be married to the Duke of Savoy, and Philip II’s sister, the Empress Maria. Several chroniclers, among them Melchor de Cetina and Gabriel de Mata, give us eyewitness accounts of the thousands of religious who marched in procession in this gala event and of the hundreds of glosses and poems honoring the new saint recited by students of the university. The body of San Diego was placed in a new coffin of hammered silver and gold along with documents concerning his canonization.

For the moment, the canonization was the most important event in Spain and helped smooth over the disastrous outcome of the armada and the failed enterprise against England. One sure result was the naming of new churches and communities after San Diego. Most certainly, the name of the city of San Diego, and its county, owes much to the power struggles of Europe in 1588. Had Pope Sixtus V lost interest in becoming an ally of Philip II, our city would now be known as San Miguel, or perhaps even by some other name.



1. Besides the various Lives of the Saints, the best short version of the life of San Diego de Alcala appears in Pedro de Rivadeneyra’s Flos sanctorum (1599-1603), reprinted into the nineteenth century. After 1588, several book-length biographies were published. See Thomas E. Case, “San Diego and His Biographers,” The Journal of San Diego History, XXIX, No. 4 (Fall, 1983), 235-46.

2. See M. Matrod, “Les fêtes de la canonisation de Saint Bernardin de Sienne à Rome en 1450,” Etudes Franciscaines, XXX (1913), 168. Today there is a chapel in Ara Coeli dedicated to San Diego with lateral altars painted in frescoes by Vaspasiano Strada (1582-1622) and lunettes painted in frescoes by Avanzino Mucci (1551-1629).

3. See Francisco Esteve Barba, Alfonso Carrillo de Acuña. autor de la unidad de España (Barcelona: Ed. Amaltea, 1943). A contemporary of Carrillo, Fernando de Pulgar, in his Claros varones de Castilla, attributes to this primate more political and military prowess than religious piety.

4. Melchor de Cetina, Discursos sobre la vida y milagros del glorioso padre San Diego de Alcalá, describes in detail the 130 miracles documented in the canonization inquest.

5. Juan de Austria, half-brother to Philip II, was to distinguish himself as a general against the Morisco uprising in 1570 and against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. He died on campaign against Flemish rebels in 1578. Alexander Farnese, the future Duke of Parma, succeeded him as Governor General and military commander in the Netherlands. Besides having their own biographers, these two illustrious Spaniards are well sketched by Edward Grierson in The Fatal Inheritance. An Historical Account of Philip II and the Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands (New York: Doubleday, 1969).

6. For medical details, see William H. Prescott, History of the Reign of Philip the Second, 2 vols (Boston: Phillip, Sampson & Co., 1855), II, 517-20, and William T. Walsh, Philip II (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937), pp. 324-36.

7. See Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 (New York: Hanover, 1961), pp. 301-32.

8. Philip II’s detractors have believed he was responsible for the death of don Carlos. The German poet, Schiller, dramatized this suspicion in his play, Don Carlos. Few historians today, however, believe there is any serious proof to this hypothesis.

9. See Friedrich Gontard, The Chair of St. Peter. A History of the Papacy, trans. A. J. and E. F. Peiler (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1964), pp. 437-49. The life and reign of Pope Sixtus V is covered in detail by Freiherr von Pastor, The History of the Popes, trans. Ralph Francis Kerr (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Truber, 1932), vols. XXI-XXII.

10. See Eric Walram Kemp, Canonization and Authority in the Western Church (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), pp. 167-168.

11. Cf. “Pope Sixtus V, when news of Mary’s execution reached Rome, remarked ‘What a valiant woman. She braves the two greatest kings by land and sea. . . . It’s a pity that Elizabeth and I cannot marry: our children would have ruled the world.’ ” Neville Williams, Elizabeth the First, Queen of England (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), p. 287.

12. Pastor, XXII, 57. Also see XXI, 271; XXII, 33-49.

13. Cf. Pietro Galesino, Sancti Didaci complutensis vita (Vatican, 1588), p. 69. Sixtus reigned only five years, 1585-90, but accomplished much. He personally believed one of his great achievements was the canonization of St. Didacus. After his death, his nephew, Alessandro Peretti, set up a monument in his honor in the chapel of the Presepio of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where the remains of Sixtus V now lie. On the left side, there is a relief depicting the canonization of his brother Franciscan, St. Didacus.

14. See Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1959).

15. Based on Corinthians I, 1:27: “Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui infirma mundi eligis, ut fortia quaeque confundas; concede propitius humilitati nostra, ut pijs beati Didaci confessoris tui precibus, ad perennum in coelis gloriam sublimari mereamus. Per Dominum nostrum, etc.” In English: “Almighty and Everlasting God, You choose the weak in order to confound the strong, grant favorably to our lowliness that through the pious merits of Blessed Didacus, Your confessor, we may deserve to be elevated to eternal glory in Heaven, through Our Lord, etc.”