Lucrecia de León. The dream spy

The Golden Age of Spain, which began in the momentous and controversial 1492, existed for less than two centuries and brought incredible wealth to the world in the field of geography, science and the arts. On the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Spanish empire was atop of it’s military glory, society experienced fatigue from the world supremacy and it’s consequences.

The high society was eager for court frolic, fun and comfort, and according to the famous philosopher Ortega y Gasset “led an illusory existence with their backs turned towards reality.”

It was the time when the prophetic dreamer Lucretia de Leon was born, one of the most influential women of Spanish Renaissance.

Lady of the Spanish court circa 1600, Sofonisba Anguissola. This is what probably Lucrecia could look like.

Lucrecia de León was born in Madrid in 1567 in the family of a solicitor. As it was usual in the Medieval times, her education was focused on religion and marriage preparation, so he was illiterate, despite having an intelligence and wit out of the ordinary. Her family was renting a spacious apartment on the first floor of a house owned by the widowed Duchess of Feria. There were no books in the house. Lucrecia learned the stories of Biblical characters and Spanish heroes from folk tales, which later became the basis of her dreams.

First dream. The Royal Death.

When Lucrecia was twelve years old, she told her family about seeing the dream of death amongst the royal family. She was very specific and described the exact place of this event: the royal estate of the city Badajoz, South-West of the country, where the King was heading at that time. Lucrecia depicted black-covered horses and a hearse at the King’s funeral procession. Her father was horrified. Even a single thought about King’s death could be regarded as treason.

Lucrecia insisted that she had seen the funeral procession of another royalty in her dream, not King Philip II, but her father still punished her and ordered never to talk about her visions again. However, two weeks later, news spread over the country about the death of Anna of Austria, King Philip’s wife, which happened in Badajoz. From that moment on it was obvious that Lucrecia had a gift of providence.

Apparently, after the first prophetic dream, Lucrecia had become some sort of a local psychic, and the town folk approached her for answers and prophecies. So the girl was telling her dreams for anyone who was willing to listen and pay.

The Duchess

In September 1587 when Lucretia was nineteen, she was staged at the royal palace as a maid to the governess of the Prince, the future Philip III. Of course, it was just a formal position. In reality, Lucrecia has gotten the attention of a powerful court lady, Duchess of Feria, an extraordinary English woman better known as Lady Jane Dormer. 

Lady Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria portrait by Anthonis Mor

There was a lot of controversy surrounding Lady Jane. Since 16 years old Lady Jane was in the heart of power, serving as the confidant of Queen Mary (also known as The Bloody Mary). Lady Jane was the wife of Duke of Feria, one of the closest friends of Spanish King Philip II. She kept up her correspondence with English queen Elizabeth I, as well as with the popes and other numerous contacts with Roman Catholic Church. On her husband’s death in 1571 she took over the management of his estates. The Spanish respected her for her political understanding, and in 1592 she was a strong candidate to take up the governorship of Flanders lands.

Lady Jane was fascinated not only by Lucrecia’s ability to see vivid and very detailed dreams, but the way they were structured, and the manner in which Lucrecia was narrating them.

The Method

“I wake up when I close my eyes,” Lucrecia explained about her nightly dream routine.

Stories of her dreams were beginning in the same way, as a theatrical act begins when the curtain rises. Every night in her bed she was closing her eyes, waiting for the dream to start, Lucrecia was waiting for a special figure to appear, who guided her throughout the dream. She described this figure as “The Ordinary Man” without mentioning any of his specific features. This person appeared at her bed and then led Lucrecia to the window, from where she could see a restless crowd on the narrow street. And from this moment an ordinary dream transformed.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

On different days she saw either religious processions or theatrical performances, filled with metaphors.  In addition to the Ordinary Man, she was often visited by two other characters, who she considered to be her teachers. Both of them carried fishing nets as their attributes. One of them liked to appear in front of her with a lion on a leash, so Lucrecia sometimes called him “The Man with the Lion” and considered him to be the wisest of the teachers. None of them told her their names, although there are many conversations about this, both in dreams and in wakefulness.

Despite the apparent originality of Lucrecia’s nocturnal imagination, her dreams had structure and thematic similarities with various literary dreams, especially those,  found in classics such as the Romance of Rose, The Pearl; Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and Langland’s Piers Plowman. In this genre, the dreamer-author typically encounters an authoritative figure, who serves as a dreamer’s guide and instructor. The dreamer, in turn, is expected to convey an important message to others by recounting what has been learned.

Some of Lucrecia’s dream adventures unfold in a different reality and erased the borderline between dreams, art and material world. Most of Lucrecia’s visions seem to be a synthesis of the dreams she actually saw, her own fantasies, as well as the expectations of her audience. But she was so passionate to share her visions, that it was obvious to the audience, that she was able to see the hidden subtext in everything.  

Robert Moss, in his book “The Secret History of Dreaming” gives a great sentiment on this phenomenon: “It penetrated into the reality, hidden behind the external manifestation of things, where world events are controlled by forces that are invisible to ordinary people”.

The Fable, El Greco, 1580

The English Duchess opened a very elegant theater salon, where Lucrecia’s dreams were staged as dramatic pieces and were played for the audience. 

Surprisingly, the stories and performances of Lucretia’s dream travels were tolerated for so long, given the fact that her dream characteristics of the King were becoming more and more offensive. She once told how Philip snored and drooled on the throne, how insects crawled into his mouth, and in his hands, the king holds the sign “Defeat”. Lucretia even had a dream in which The Ordinary Man finds his way into the royal bedroom and decapitates King Philip with a saw.

It’s not known for certain whether these dreams were shown in the form of theatrical performances in the salon of Lady Jane, but they were talked about a lot in the high society of Madrid, and, of course, even the most tolerant ruler would not ignore such rumors.

M for Mendoza

Don Alonso was a theologian, a very influential cardinal in the state. He was also very interested in dream practices, interpretations, and modern prophecies. He was researching the theme and supported several dreamers across Spain, but Lucrecia was someone special. Lucrecia was very observant, she gave accurate descriptions of people and places, and he immediately got the idea of how to use this feature of her dreams for military intelligence purposes. Don Alonso took the dream travels very seriously.

Urbi et Orbi. Flammarion engraving. (Wikipedia)

He became a frequent guest at her home. Not to be suspicious Don Alonso came up with a plausible excuse, he turned the tales of dreams into a part of a weekly confession. Soon enough he invited several monks to help him record and categorize the dreams, and they kept it in secret, not wanting to attract the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, which was at its full glory at the end of 16 century.

Don Alonso established a standard format for dream recording. The time of each sleep was noted as accurately as possible. He always demanded a detailed description of the details of the clothes and the place of the event, down to the length of the collar on the court costume. He recorded the total content of the dream and asked Lucretia to supplement it with the necessary details. They have recorded more than 400 dreams in total.

Mendoza had ordered paintings on the plots of Lucrecia’s dreams, which he was demonstrating to the powerful and influential people during closed meetings. This contributed to the growth of Lucrecia’s fame. He also prepared an index of her dreams and cross-referenced images. Mendoza was encouraging and training the girl to spy on internal and external enemies, we could even call him a coach, helping her to build up visionary powers. Her increased ability to travel in sleep sometimes frightened monks, who recorded her visions. Once she described a monastery and a room with all the decor and details, where brother Lucas de Allende lived. He was so terrified with the precision of her dream, he ran off from her house, burned down all the pages, he had recorded before and said he would never return to this woman, who is possessed by the Devil. 

Lucrecia’s night visit to the monastery of Brother Lukas was a turning point in relation to her of the church establishment. Now they knew that, in addition to metaphorical visions, she was able to see exactly what was happening behind closed doors. If Lucrecia could slip into a Franciscan monastery with her dream body, she could travel, unnoticed, to other, much more interesting places and become a dream-spy.

The Armada

The Ordinary Man met her in her bedroom as soon as she closed her eyes. Led her to the window, as usual, flew with her through the window and traveled to a high tower, from where all the states of the world were visible. They went down to a house in England, where Lucrecia saw Sir Francis Drake, who has already raided Spanish ports and ships and was plotting new attacks on Spain. She saw him write a letter to the Turkish Sultan to enlist his support. Drake had a jacket of bright red fabric with fur trim. This is how Lucrecia had a dream about the defeat of the Great Spanish Armada in 1588.

Sir Francis Drake, Unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, London

The Prophet

Lucrecia and the growing number of her fans were not invisible. Five months after her dreams began to be recorded, in the Spring of 1588, Brother Diego de Chavez ordered an investigation of her activities. The girl was briefly detained and accused of inciting a state mutiny, but thanks to Don Alonso’s connections she was quickly released. After this event, Lucrecia suffered a nervous breakdown and began to refuse to tell her dreams. But when in the summer of 1588 her prophecy came true regarding the disastrous defeat of the Spanish Armada. The rumor had spread across Spain that Lucrecia was a real prophet capable of saving Spain from the crimes and reckless acts of its rulers. One day, she became an object of universal worship. Thanks to the attention of the public, she again had a desire to talk about her dreams. Many high-ranking people, scared and eager to know the future, wanted to meet with a charming dreamer and listen to her. Lady Jane’s salon was at it’s most success. 

Doomed

But after the breakdown she could only see dreams about the complete collapse of the Spanish empire. And it was exactly what was going on in the real world. The government was broken, the king was weak and irrecoverably ill, the navy laid beneath the ocean, Spain’s longtime enemy took its place on the throne of France, the British hosted Spanish ports and attacked Spanish caravans of merchant ships, destroying them and taking their gold.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada

Lucrecia not only had her own theatre but also began to assemble her own army of fans. Her supporters, including the royal architect, stored food and weapons in a cave called Soren in the hills west of Madrid. There was created a huge underground shelter, where people could hide, escaping from the misfortunes that Lucrecia had foretold. The secret Order of the Holy Cross of the Restoration was founded in memory of Lucrecia’s dream, in which the army carried white crosses to put to flight the enemies and future invaders of Spain. Members of the order wore a white cross on a black shoulder pouch, small enough so that it was not visible under outerwear. In one of her dreams, Lucrecia saw her riding a white horse into battle with the enemy. If before the girl remained a passive observer, now in dreams she began to play a much more active role, similar to that of Joan of Arc. 

It all ended pretty quickly, and in 1590 Lucrecia, Don Alonso de Mendoza and all the monks, that were transcribing her dreams were arrested by the Inquisition with a personal order of King Philip. All of the government officials friendly to Lucrecia were removed from their posts. Inquisitors kept in jail and tortured Lucrecia for several years. 

She was found guilty of blasphemy, lying, making a deal with the devil, communicating the content of her dreams to other people, and also allowing her to keep records of her dreams. In addition, she was condemned as the “mother of the prophets,” encouraging other people to look into the future. All sorts of astromancy and fortune-telling were strictly forbidden by the Catholic church and were considered as witchcraft and satanic worshiping. Dozens of women were burnt every day by the Inquisition for lesser sins, even for nothing.

Spanish Inquisition at work

Lucrecia was given a very mild sentence: a hundred lashes, an exile from Madrid, and two years of imprisonment in a monastery. Since it was difficult to find a suitable monastery, she was put on time in a hospital for the poor and leprosy patients. Lucrecia begged to transfer her to another place, as at that time she had a baby daughter on her hands, and she was desperate to keep her safe. When she 1595 she was finally set free, Lucrecia was broke, unsettled, with a child on her hands, family members have abandoned her. From that moment on, she disappears completely from the sight of historians.

Lucrecia’s life on the borderline of real and illusive worlds was extraordinary and mysterious, probably she would see other dreams and traveled happier places if she would not be patronized by a group of influential people in Madrid. Maybe she did escape in the end. We will never know.

“Life is a dream” final scene illustration, Salvador Dali

Thirty years after Lucrecia’s disappearance Pedro Calderon wrote is his masterpiece “Life is a dream”:

«What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough; for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams».

Bibliography

None of Lucrecia’s portraits survived, but most of the transcriptions of her dreams have. We encourage you to dive deeper into this amazing journey. It will help you understand the figure of M, and who he really is. Maybe M stands for Mendoza?

  • Blázquez, Juan Miguel (1987). Dreams and processes of Lucrecia de León. Tecnos, Madrid.
  • Fernández Luzón, Antonio (2000). Prophecy and social transgression: the case of Lucrecia de León . SL
  • Jordán Arroyo, María V. (2007). Dream History: risk, creativity and religion in the prophecies of Lucrecia de León . 21st Century (Madrid).
  • Kagan, Richard L. (1990). Lucrecia’s dreams: politics and prophecy in sixteenth-century Spain . Nerea (San Sebastián).
  • Kagan, Richard L. (1993). Lucrecia de León: dreams and politics in sixteenth-century Spain . History 16, No. 201. ISBN 0210-6353 .
  • Roger Osborne (2002). The dreamer of the Street of San Salvador: visions of sedition and sacrilege in sixteenth-century Spain . Pimlico (London). ISBN 0-7126-6497 .
  • Robert Moss, The Secret History of Dreaming (2009)
  • SF Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (1993)
  • J. Le Goff, Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages (1990), chapter on “dreams in the culture and collective psychology of the medieval West”.
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