If only those stones could speak
In England, when you wander around historic sites such as stately homes or ruined castles, do you ever think to yourself, “If only those stones could speak”?
Well, here in Tenerife there are a few stones that, although they don’t actually speak, do have a story to tell.
There are five ancient inscribed and sculpted stones in Santa Cruz, three in the Military Museum of Almeyda and two in the Castillo de San Cristobal below the Plaza de Espana, that take us back about five hundred and forty years to the construction of San Cristobal fort, which was demolished between 1928 and 1930.
Of the three plaques in the Almeyda, the first is a 17th century relief sculpture of San Cristobal (Saint Christopher in English), the patron saint of travellers, which was originally situated above the main entrance to the fort. He is shown standing in his traditional position, on a rock, holding a staff and carrying the boy Jesus across a river, with Jesus sitting naked on his right shoulder. Perhaps Saint Christopher was chosen because he answered the prayer of early Spanish sailors for a safe voyage from the mainland to the Canary Islands.
San Cristobal (St. Christopher, the Syrian saint), carrying Jesus across the river
Second, there is the old heraldic shield of Tenerife. This coat of arms was granted in Madrid on the 23rd March 1510, only fifteen or so years after the conquest of the island, which was the last of Canaries to fall to the Spaniards. The grant was made to Pedro de Vergara, Messenger of the Royal Court, by King Ferdinand the Catholic in the name of his daughter Joanna the Mad. Ferdinand had named Joanna Queen of Castile after the death of her mother, his wife Queen Isabella of Castile in 1504, and on her behalf, because she was mad, he had conveniently appointed himself regent, so ruling both kingdoms.
Pedro de Vergara was one of the conquistadors of Tenerife who had been given land and water rights among his rewards. He was also granted the positions of mayor, alderman, and constable in the name of the king, as well as many other titles until his death in Las Palmas in 1535.
The old coat of arms of Tenerife.
Getting back to the shield, in the lower part there is a wavy sea, from which rises a high mountain representing Teide, complete with fire issuing from the cone. Looking over it all is San Miguel (Saint Michael) with a banner in his right hand and a shield on his left arm. The national emblems of the northern Spanish dual kingdom of Leon-Castile are represented by the castle of Castile to the right of the saint and the lion of Leon to his left.
The coat of arms was originally located over the door of the ‘Ancient Fort’, the first fort of Santa Cruz which was constructed for the Cabildo of Tenerife in the early 1500’s. It was later moved to the new Castillo of San Cristobal that was built in 1557 at the instigation of Don Juan Alvarez de Fonseca.
Then, thirdly, there is the coat of arms of Don Juan Alvarez de Fonseca, again from the 16th century. It too was located over the main entrance door to the Castillo San Cristobal.
His shield is divided into four quarters with representations of five stars, a torch, two dogs (the canines of the Canary Islands), and the cross of Santiago (Saint James). In the lowest part is a two-headed eagle, and in the uppermost is a plumed helmet facing to the viewer’s left.
The coat of arms of Juan Alvarez de Fonseca, the first governor of Tenerife
The arrangement of heraldic shields over the door of the Castillo de San Miguel in Garachico gives an impression of what the shields of San Cristobal could have looked like.
The question now of course is, “Who was Juan Alvarez de Fonseca?” He was born in Granada, and was appointed the first governor and captain general of Tenerife and La Palma, where he served two terms, the first from 1573 to 1577, and the second from 1579 to 1582. Alvarez was responsible for a tremendous amount of work in refurbishing and improving the fortifications of Tenerife, which was judged to be necessary for defence against attacks by pirates. Our own English hero Francis Drake was making a nuisance of himself on the Spanish Main at that time; he was the bogey-man that Spanish parents used to frighten their children with if they did not behave.
Alvarez was renowned not only for his military works, he is credited with the construction of a water supply to Santa Cruz and renovations to the ‘Tower of the Count’ in San Sebastian on La Gomera, of which there is a replica in Punta de Hidalgo. He died in 1585, not long after his return to mainland Spain.
While he was in Tenerife Alvarez was an important man and, in keeping with similar people in public positions, he made sure that everyone knew it. The two inscriptions on display in what remains of the Castillo de San Cristobal are commemorative tablets dedicated as much to Alvarez as to the fort. The fourth stone plaque reads:
“This work was made by the command of the illustrious nobleman Juan Alvarez de Fonseca, being the governor.”
And the fifth of our stones again was situated over the door in the main courtyard of the Castillo de San Cristobal, along with Alvarez’ coat of arms. It reads:
“This work was made by the command of his majesty [King Philip II of Spain] to the illustrious Senor Juan Alvarez de Fonseca, being the governor of these islands at the expense of the island in the year 1576.”
So Alvarez commissioned the work and the Tinerfenos had to pay for it, but after all it was their island that the fort was defending.
This article does not tell not a big story, but these small pieces of first-hand evidence, together with a little bit of research, are all part of the historical jigsaw – a short 540-year old tale in stone about one of the oldest buildings on Tenerife and two of the men who made it.