Plaza María Pita, also known sometimes as the Plaza Mayor, is the epicentre of the city of A Coruña not just because it is in the centre of its historic quarter. This beautiful classical square surrounded on three sides by elegant colonnaded grand residences facing the magnificent town hall is also very much the symbolic heart of this region.

The reason for this can be found in its name, for this stylish plaza is named after A Coruña’s most famous person, the heroine María Pita. Born María Mayor Fernández de Cámara y Pita in 1565, this colourful woman would become forever synonymous with the successful defence of the city against an invading English army in 1589.

The previous year remnants of the famed Spanish Armada had limped back from northern waters, defeated by English fire ships and raging tempests before dispersing into Spanish ports. One of these, in fact the first one encountered by ships returning from western side of the British Isles, was A Coruña.

Spain was fearful of English retaliation during this period of vulnerability, and it was the important port of A Coruña, with its vital strategic position, that would bear the brunt of the attack when the English Armada arrived. This it did in the spring of 1589, when a fleet under the command of Francis Drake took up strategic positions in the bays around the city and large numbers of troops were set ashore.

In those days the original walled city that now forms the historic centre of A Coruña had spilled over into a sprawling township facing the bay upon which the port is located. It was here that British troops landed, meeting little resistance and growing confident that this would be an easy take. Knowing they were outnumbered and outgunned, the locals had however abandoned the area and concentrated their defence behind the town walls.

The birth of a legend

So low were the defenders in numbers that every man, woman and child was forced to make a contribution, with children acting as camp attendants and nurses, while the men fought and the women rearmed the muskets and cannon. At the height of the battle, when the English appeared to be breaking through, a young woman was seen to cut down an English soldier and the standard he was attempting to plant.

It proved to be a turning point, with María Pita becoming a rallying point behind which the exhausted defenders found new resolve and led a counter-attack that surprised the English and eventually repelled their attack. More attempts at a break-through were made in the following days, but it soon became clear that the tide had turned, so keen not to be caught out by the imminent arrival of Spanish reinforcements, Francis Drake sounded the retreat and withdrew his forces from A Coruña.

At just 24 years of age María Pita became the symbol of the successful defence of the city. In her rather colourful lifetime she would be feted by aristocrats and rewarded by King Philip II of Spain. Her heroic deeds would propel her to a fame that endures to this day and finds its ultimate expression in the grand square named after her and the large statue that stands at the heart of it. A museum dedicated to her tells the story not only of the defence, but also of María Pita herself, and what it was like to live in A Coruña at the time – today a vibrant, modern city whose rich history and traditions are never far away.