A Legendary (and Literary) Publicity Stunt

Nov 22, 2015
11:55 AM
The bridge of El Paso Honroso entering Hospital de Órbigo

The bridge of El Paso Honroso entering Hospital de Órbigo

Nearly 600 years ago, in the community of Hospital de Órbigo along the Camino de Santiago, one of the greatest publicity stunts of medieval Europe took place. Don Suero de Quiñones, a knight from the city of León, challenged knights everywhere to attempt to cross the bridge that enters the town. Challengers would be mounted on a horse and use a lance as their only weapon. Don Suero and nine of his friends would defend the passage, also mounted and with a lance. The defenders vowed to hold the bridge until they broke 300 rival lances. At that point, they would be declared victors of the tournament.

Don Suero’s stated motive for undertaking the bridge’s defense was that only in victory would he become free of his obsession over Doña Leonor de Tovar. Every Thursday he wore an iron collar around his neck to represent the prison in which she held his heart, and he claimed to be in unbearable pain over this unrequited love.

Organizing the tournament took months, and it counted with the full support and sponsorship of King Juan II of Castile. Sixty-eight knights from throughout Europe responded to the challenge, which became known as the defense of El Paso Honroso (The Path of Honor). From July 10 through August 9 of 1434, Don Suero and his nine companions defended the bridge. On the final date, with every defender including Don Suero suffering from serious injuries, but without a single challenger having crossed the bridge, the judges declared him victorious and free of the burden of wearing the iron collar.

Libro del passo honroso

King Juan II had appointed a scribe, the notary Pero Rodríguez de Lena, to record the details of the month-long tournament. One hundred years later, a Franciscan priest, Juan de Pineda, transcribed the proceedings into an engaging narrative, El Libro del Passo Honroso, which helped extend Don Suero de Quiñones’s legend throughout all of Spain. According to Father Pineda’s account, after the defenders recovered from their wounds, Don Suero and his friends made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to give thanks to the apostle for their victory. Don Suero left behind the iron collar attached to a gold chain that today can be seen in the cathedral’s museum.

Upon Don Suero’s return to León, Doña Leonor de Tovar, the object of his knightly love, agreed to marry him. They appear to have lived happily. Twenty-four years after the tournament, however, Don Gutierre de Quijada, a knight who had participated and had long remained bitter over his defeat at El Paso Honroso, challenged and killed Don Suero in a joust near the town of Castroverde.

Don Suero de Quiñones's tomb in the church of San Francisco, León, Spain.

Don Suero de Quiñones’s tomb in the church of San Francisco, León, Spain

In spite of Don Suero’s life ending on this tragic note, the challenge of the bridge of Hospital de Órbigo remained the most famous tournament in medieval Europe. Hidden behind the literary pretext of unrequited love, the true purpose of the contest was for Castile to outdo several tournaments that other Spanish kingdoms had organized.

Ultimately, in creating this fabled event, Don Suero de Quiñones earned a place in history. There are streets named after him in León, his hometown, as well as in Madrid. And every year to this day, over one weekend and with thousands in attendance, the challenge El Paso Honroso is reenacted next to the bridge of Hospital de Órbigo.

But more impressively, in my mind at least, Don Suero’s deed earned him eternal literary fame. His seemingly insane enterprise, as well as his obsession over unrequited love, helped Miguel de Cervantes shape the character of Don Quijote de la Mancha. In Cervantes’s novel, the fictional knight, who came to life 160 years after the defense of El Paso Honroso, mentions Don Suero as one of his historical role models in his quest to resurrect the age of chivalry.

Author Silvio Sirias in front of a depiction of Miguel de Cervantes in Madrid.

Author Silvio Sirias in front of a depiction of Miguel de Cervantes in Madrid.

There can be no higher praise for Don Suero de Quiñones, a flesh and blood knight who became legend while defending a bridge that’s part of the Camino de Santiago.


Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and The Saint of Santa Fe. You can follow him @silviosirias.