Maria Pita: The Woman Who Saved a Galician Town from the British
At the end of 16th century the fleet of Queen Elizabeth wanted to take control of the waterways from England to Portugal. The group of galleons headed by Sir Francis Drake were the dread of the ports of western Spain. On May 4th 1589, English forces seemed to take control of the lower city La Coruña in Spanish Galicia, and the citizens needed hope. They found it not in soldiers, but in a woman whose brave actions saved the city.
The Heroic Act
At the beginning of May 1589 the British attacked one of the oldest cities in Spain – La Coruña. On the battle of the 4th, Pita left home, as one of very few women, to protect the city with her husband. Regrettably, her husband was shot by a crossbow and died immediately.
At that moment she could have gone back home, but sources say that Pita was driven by pain and joined men who were fighting the invaders. She killed an English solider when he tried to reach the highest part of the wall. Then Maria stood on the top of the city walls and shouted Quen teña honra, que me siga ("Whoever has honor, follow me!").
Illustration of Maria Pita battling the British soldiers. (CC BY NC SA 3.0)
Thanks to her inspirational action, the people who were fighting to save La Coruña found new strength and defended the city with greater power than expected. The heroic deed of Maria Pita was rewarded by King Phillip II, who granted her a military officer’s pension. For her actions she eventually became recognized as one of the most honorable women of Spain.
A Forgotten Heroine
For about 200 years after her death, nobody wrote her biography - Maria Pita seemed to be forgotten by her country and even by her city. Unfortunately, during these years much of the information about this incredibly brave woman was lost.
The first book about her life and bravery appeared at the end of 19th century. This text explained that Maria Pita was born in Cambre, a town near La Coruña, in 1565. Her real name was Mayor Fernández de Cámara y Pita but for unknown reasons she's known as Maria. There are a few theories connected with her name; but the most probable explanation is that she’s remembered by her sister’s name.
Maria married four times and had four children. The husband whose death inspired her to take the legendary gesture was her second one. The number of marriages and lack of historical resources about her have also caused many problems for modern researchers attempting to complete her biography.
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Where is Maria Pita’s Grave?
Maria Pita died in 1643 in the same small town where she was born. After many years of living in glory in La Coruña, she got older and decided to go back to her family home. She left La Coruña and passed away peacefully in Cambre. Pita was buried next to one of her husbands, but as time passed people have forgotten where her grave is located.
Portrait of Maria Pita. (CC BY NC SA 3.0)
The first possible location of her burial place is the Church of St Mary in Cambre. This is the most prestigious church in her hometown. For many years, researchers believed that this was the site to excavate in search of the grave of this noble woman.
But according to the information which Pita left herself, her remains should be in the St Dominic Church in La Coruña. In her last will she asked to be buried in the church located close to the place where she lived for most of her life. It is also a place where one of her husband’s found his final resting place.
The latest research suggests that her wishes might have been disregarded, and she could be buried in the church located in Oza, (another small town located in the same area). Nonetheless, her grave remains unidentified.
Liberty at Maria's Feet
Between the small streets of the oldest parts of the city of La Coruña, there's a very special place that honors Pita's memory. It's the Maria Pita Casa Museo, a small museum located in a house where she lived for most of her life and from which she left to join the battle in 1589. Visitors to the museum may be surprised by the lack of expositions containing real artifacts which belong to the time when Maria Pita lived there. But, due to the creativity of researchers, it's possible to note her appearance between the walls where she used to live with her family.
Portrait identified as Maria Pita, unknown artist. Maria Pita Casa Museo, La Coruña, Spain. (Orden de Caballeros de Maria Pita)
Nowadays, at the central part of the city there is a square called the Plaza Maria Pita. In this place the Galicians honor the woman who changed the history of their region in the form of a monument depicting Pita during the enemy attack. At her feet is a plaque with the word “Libertad” (Liberty) - the most important word for what is known about her lifetime.
Statue of Maria Pita in the Maria Pita Plaza, La Coruña, Spain. (CC BY SA 2.0)
Featured Image: Painting of María Pita (1987) by Fernández Cersa. Source: Orden de Caballeros de Maria Pita
María del Carmen Saavedra Vázquez,"María Pita: una aproximación a su vida y a su tiempo, 2003
Luís Gorrochategui Santos, "La Guerra de la Sirena. Nueva perspectiva de María Pita", 2002
Miguel González Garcés, "María Pita, símbolo de libertad de La Coruña", 1989