Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
MOORS OF SPAIN
"And shall we leave, from age to age,
To godless hands the Holy Tomb?
Against Thy saints the heathen rage
Launch forth Thy lightnings, and consumer!"
The Moors of Spain—The War (A.D. 1481)—How Isabella
Prepared for It—Reorganization—How Muley Aben Hassan Hastened the
Outbreak—The Surprise of Zahara by Moors—Spaniards' Attack upon
Alhama—The Marquis of Cadiz—How the City was Sacked—Muley Aben Hassan's
Siege—Guzman's Relief and Reconciliation to the Marquis of Cadiz—Meeting at
Seville—Advice to Abandon Alhama—How Isabella Met It.
 CHRISTIAN nations, so called, and those which followed Mahomet, have for ages been arrayed against
each other. Practically both have resorted to arms to further the desire of propagating
their doctrines, or of extending their domain; so that, along with the teachings of our
Saviour which the adherents of Rome in some form brought to the people of Europe, here was
always a speedy appeal to arms, either to preserve a
 dynasty or to conquer new lands, wresting them from the common enemies of Christianity.
Mahomet's disciples were even fiercer than their foes, and for a while as persistent as
they in similar efforts. Under the name of Moors they once overran all Spain and a great
stretch of land beyond the Pyrenees. Little by little Christian princes, separately and in
combination, had been pushing back the Moors, across the mountains and down the peninsula.
In the middle of the fifteenth century, when Isabella of Castile was born, this remarkable
people, so cruel in their hates and yet so abundantly successful in the arts of peace, had
been constrained within the country of Granada. It was a kingdom which Irving pictures by
a single sentence as "in the southern part of Spain, bordering on the Mediterranean Sea,
and defended on the land side by lofty and rugged mountains, locking up within their
embraces deep, rich, and verdant valleys, where the sterility of the surrounding heights
was repaid by prodigal fertility." The central city, Granada, in the midst of the largest
and most productive plain or rolling prairie, was already most famous. It was really the
citadel of a vast fortification, where the Ronda, the Segura, the Nevada, and the
Alpujarras mountain ranges presented grand and substantial faces and flanks. Isa
 bella, and, in fact, the inhabitants of Castile and Leon generally, had inherited that
spirit of the Crusades that made it seem to them an imperative duty to regain from the
Moors all the portion of Spain which they still held. Isabella never doubted this
constraining spirit. Her ancestors, almost without exception, had driven the infidel
southward from their limits.
As De Nervo phrases it, "Toledo, Seville, Cordova had successively opened their gates, and
the flag of Castile was already floating above their mosques," when Isabella in her turn,
catching up this grand idea of reclamation, cast her eyes upon the last realm which the
infidels were holding, the last in all Spain; and she strongly wished to be the instrument
which should complete the great work by the conquest of Granada. Her purpose had never
changed. It was in the marriage contract. It appeared in her official conferences with
Ferdinand and others. It seemed to be known in the halls of justice, in the reorganization
of her forces, in her unyielding aim to bring about more centralized power, in her
perfecting the Hermandad, and in subordinating to her authority the Church officials and
the great orders of her realm. The purging her provinces from the disaffected and the
rebellious was only stripping
 for the race. Those most hateful and troublesome conflicts for the succession but revealed
weak points to be repaired, and showed the want of arms, ammunition, and other supplies to
be purchased or created, all and ever with a sole view to the accomplishment of this most
holy, most glorious work of her life and that of her husband—the extension of their
sway to the Mediterranean, and the transfer of all the territory then under the Crescent
to the Holy Cross.
Isabella had not finished the troublesome civil struggle before the new war, like a black
cloud, began to darken the southern sky. As we have seen, she had reorganized her court
and all that pertained to the civil functions of Castile.
With Ferdinand to help, and certainly in this with more than his wonted zeal, she
proceeded to make an army. The habit of the rank and file electing their captains so much
prevailed up to this period that these leaders, often, it is true, the bravest and best of
the lords, controlled the coming and going of their forces. The whole army was indeed but
a fairly well-regulated militia, upon which, as the trial showed, Isabella could not
depend in emergencies with any reasonable certainty.
As the idea grew upon her that she and
 her consort were destined to bring about a "total expulsion of the Mussulman" from the
peninsula, she worked effectively to unify and consolidate her authority. She became, in
fact, the commander-in-chief. To her artillery, rude as it yet was, she gave much
attention, and as far as was possible, little by little, she made herself felt in the
cavalry and infantry arms, and it was not long before Ferdinand became in fact, as well as
in name, the senior general of her forces, with an army that had some coherence and that
she through him could handle at will.
The immediate, ostensible cause of a war with Granada arose from the old king, Muley Aben
Hassan, refusing to pay the large annual tribute to which his predecessor had agreed by
formal treaty. Irving gives a graphic account of the visit of the haughty. Christian
knight, Juan de Vera, to the proud king in his palace at Granada, preferring the demand
for the tribute, which Muley Aben Hassan had of late willfully neglected to pay.
"Tell your sovereign," said the fierce old Moor, "that the kings of Granada who used to
pay tribute in money to the Castilian crown are dead. Our mint at present coins nothing
but blades of cimeters and heads of lances."
This Spanish embassy was sent in 1478; but till the contest with Portugal had been
 fully concluded, it would have been impossible to enforce by arms the demand which had
received so bitter and contemptuous a refusal.
Finally, three years after, the war began (in 1481). Though Isabella had already made
abundant preparations for the conquest, and Ferdinand at Medina del Campo had partly
revealed his plans to his subordinate commanders when he said, "I will pick up the seeds
one by one of these pomegranates" (Granada), it was left to the enterprising Muley Aben
Hassan to make the first advance and attack of the war.
The first blow came upon the strongest frontier post along the border, Zahara, situated on
the mountain road from Medina Sidonia to Ronda. The strength of the place, like a fort cut
in solid rock with perilous approaches, had induced a fatal carelessness on the part of
the commander, Hernandez de Saavedra, so that Muley Aben Hassan, with a large force, was
able at night to surprise the garrison and put the most of it to the sword. The
inhabitants were gathered at the dawn, and without pity marched off to Granada. After
repairing all weak points of the works, and giving the place a garrison of Moors, the old
king returned to his capital in triumph. This took place just after Christmas in 1481.
 It is not difficult to imagine the intense chagrin of Ferdinand and Isabella when the
news, with exaggerated horrors, first reached their court at Medina del Campo. It taught
them, however, thus early a wholesome lesson, which may be summarized in the common
expression, "More than one can play at the game of war." But in this game one can seldom
predict the end from the beginning; this very disaster served to unite and inspirit all
Spaniards, and begot for them among the Christian nations a wide and deep sympathy. And,
strange to say, the potion appeared too strong even for Granada. An old Moorish prophet,
on hearing the first tidings, cried in the streets: "Woe! woe to Granada! its hour of
desolation approaches. The ruins of Zahara will fall upon our heads! My spirit tells me
that the end of our empire is at hand!"
To Muley Aben Hassan's fierce challenge and fiercer action the sovereigns were not slow to
respond. They now went into the campaign with all the vigor, energy, and force that they
could command. Immediately, before Ferdinand's indignation and disappointment could
subside, for he and Isabella had greatly desired to begin the war themselves, the former
issued retaliatory instructions. Every Spanish commander along
 the irregular Moorish frontier was to put himself in readiness, keep a constant vigilance,
and expect to rush across the border upon any favorable occasion, in order somehow to
compensate quickly the losses already sustained, and procure military advantage by further
ravages and slaughter. The first onslaught reached Alhama, a city of the Moors, situated
on a mountain road between Granada and Malaga.
The place, with its famous citadel, was naturally capable of the strongest defence. It was
renowned for its baths, and had gathered there, as in a safe storehouse, much merchandise;
furthermore, it always had a reasonably large garrison of soldiers for its protection.
The Marquis of Cadiz, a typical young noble of that chivalric period, full of ardor and
the love of enterprise, was at Marchena when he received the orders of his sovereigns. He
promptly sent around to neighboring towns, and soon had gathered a force of some 6000
soldiers, of whom about 3000 were light cavalry. Meanwhile, he had dispatched a trusty and
experienced leader, Ortego de Prado, to make a most thorough reconnoissance of the roads
and approaches to Alhama. This was completely done. Ortego penetrating the citadel itself,
found that the Moors' fancied
 security in their fastness was so great that even the men of the garrison of the citadel
were not exercising the .usual care and vigilance.
The marquis did not wait for Ortega's return. He and the leaders of the expedition,
undiscovered, halted their men in a valley near Alhama, and there for the first time the
marquis explained to the command what they were to undertake, and seems to have awakened
the greatest enthusiasm and universal eagerness on the part of his men to make the
Ortega and his scouts having joined him, his presence as yet unsuspected by the Moors, the
marquis hastened to execute his plan. A French writer (the Baron de Nervo) gives the
following brief recital: "They arrived at night at the foot of the immense rocks, at the
top of which was the citadel. The ladders were at once set up, and thirty men scaled the
ramparts, strangled the sentinels, and pushed on into the fort, whose gates they then
swung wide open. All the garrison of this fort, caught asleep, were put to the edge of the
sword; and, in the morning, when the inhabitants of the city caught sight of the Castilian
flag planted upon the ramparts of their fortress, they were paralyzed with terror and
 The Moors were always fierce warriors, and soon recovered in a measure from their
surprise, and attempted a vigorous defence. All—women, old men, and children
included—seized arms, and when the Christian soldiers endeavored to enter their
streets, already fully barricaded, they found death to meet them "under a shower of stones
and projectiles of every sort; they were burned by boiling water, oil, and tar cast upon
them from roofs and balconies by the women."
The Castilians, after a hard struggle, were at last (February 28th, 1482) victorious; but
the scenes that followed in the path of the victors were replete with horrors. Many of the
helpless inhabitants were massacred, and of those that were spared, both men and women
were taken and held as the slaves of the haughty conquerors, for this was at that time the
favorite custom of cruel war.
The pillage, also, of this rich city was excessive. Lying as it did so far within Muley
Aben Hassan's domain, the Spaniards believed that the place must be finally abandoned, so
they proceeded to waste and destroy what they could not carry off. They discovered plenty
of gold and silver and precious stones; silks, satins, and choice fabrics of divers sorts.
There were also in great abundance the usual fruits of that
fer-  tile region, tanks of olive oil, grain, and honey.
Perhaps the only palliation for this work of destruction was the finding and setting at
liberty of many Christian prisoners, some that had been long in confinement, and some that
had been recently penned up in those dreadful dungeons, such as the Moors delighted to
keep ready for their captives.
Amid triumphant joy the Marquis of Cadiz, finding a renegade spy, chose a point on the
citadel ramparts which was the most conspicuous, and had the man hanged in sight of his
army and the Moorish captives.
Very soon, however, thinking of the retaliation that must ensue as soon as the old King of
Granada heard the unwelcome news of his daring seizure of Alhama, the marquis turned his
attention to his defences. All breaches were repaired, and the fort was properly
garrisoned against any possible attack or siege. After the heavy losses incurred in the
capture of Alhama, the brave marquis had remaining not to exceed 5000 men, with whom to
maintain himself in the enemy's country. He was not kept long in suspense. Muley Aben
Hassan, without waiting an instant, at the first breath of the disaster, dispatched r000
light cavalry as an advance. These, however, met such a warm reception from the Spaniards
 outside of the gates of Alhama, that they rode with precipitation back to the capital, and
spread the alarm, "Alhama is fallen! Alhama is fallen!"
It may well be believed there was terror, widespread and not easily curbed or controlled;
for the fulfillment of the old Moorish prophet's prediction was indeed already at hand.
The fierce old king, however, wasted no time in indulging in useless sentiment or in
replies to the frightened. He took with him an army 50,000 strong, but unwisely, in his
impulsive haste, without artillery. He had but little of that arm, and was too impatient
to delay for the slow moving of heavy guns.
He came upon Alhama so quickly as to stop and turn back, in much disappointment, a
re-enforcement of the Andalusians, under Don Alonzo de Aguilar, who had just then
approached within a few leagues. He chased Don Alonzo till he was rid of his presence and
annoyance, and then with indescribable fury and persistence assailed the city of Alhama.
After his assaults, which at each renewal proved vain against his well-prepared and
vigilant foe, he resorted at last to every kind of strategic contrivance.
There was but one spring or well of water inside the walls, and this gave an insufficient
 supply. The people were necessitated to go to the river, which was beyond the city limits,
for their daily needs. They effected this without difficulty by an underground passage.
Muley Aben Hassan discovered this gallery, and so obstructed it that it was said that
"hereafter each drop of water cost a drop of blood."
With the water supply so cut off and provisions failing a famine set in, when even the
brave Marquis of Cadiz began to fear that he might be forced to give up his brilliant
prize, thus losing the city which had been taken at so much peril. But there came a relief
that he had not dreamed of. The wife of the marquis seemed instinctively to have
apprehended the imminent straits of her husband, and, strange to say, appealed to one who
was powerful enough, but who had long been (and most probably still was) an avowed
personal enemy of that husband and all his belongings. It was Don Juan de Guzman, the Duke
of Medina Sidonia.
But the woman's tender and strong appeal found in his heart a ready response. Instantly
all the past was either forgotten or forgiven, and the relief of the gallant little
besieged army was assured to the faithful Marchioness on the spot. The duke drew his
warriors from all parts of Andalusia. He
 assembled his forces at Seville in an incredibly short time, and he soon more than matched
the Moorish host in numbers, gathering 5000 horse and 50,000 foot.
Ferdinand, from Medina del Campo, rode night and day to overtake this army and take
command; but the enterprising Guzman was too rapid for him. He was indeed beyond the
border, far on the way, when the king's desire was made known to him. He sent a message to
the effect that it was impossible to stand still, and that the danger of destruction to
the besieged was too imminent to admit of an hour's delay. So for a time the disappointed
Ferdinand remained behind.
The rapid approach of this great army left no choice to the Moor. With sullen anger, after
one more bold attempt wherein he lost seventy of his bravest warriors, the old king
retired to Granada. It had been a siege of three short weeks, which had proved to be to
his cause worse than useless, and fraught at every step with most cruel losses.
The duke and the marquis, at their first meeting, embraced each other like brothers coming
together after alienation and separation, and they soon put Alhama to rights.
They garrisoned the place with the queen's favorite Hermandad, and put a trusty commander,
Diego Merlo, in charge; and then
 marched homeward across the mountains to receive the plaudits of their anxious and waiting
friends. Thus spasmodically the Castilians and the Moors made war in those times. To-day
an army of 50,000; to morrow the scattered inhabitants of towns and villages, telling
tales of their heroes' prowess, and perchance too of their own.
Isabella, at Medina del Campo, as soon as the good news of the taking of Alhama arrived,
went, as she was wont, to the Church of St. James, and, having the Te Deum sung, returned
thanks to God for this initiatory victory.
Then she followed her husband to Andalusia. They met at Seville; and here came the leaders
of the late expedition to receive from her the most marked approval for their enterprise.
But, as one might anticipate, Muley Aben Hassan did not leave them much time for
glorification. Understanding the smallness of the force left at Alhama, he returned, this
time dragging along his siege artillery with him, and with his usual energy invested the
This news without delay came to the court at Seville. What was to be done? A council was
hastily assembled, and after considerable deliberation, as councils of war are apt to do,
decided "that it was more prudent,
 considering the forces and position of the Moorish king, to destroy and abandon Alhama."
As soon as Isabella heard of the unwelcome decision, her strong character at once became
manifest. "No! no!" she. said; "Alhama must not be given up!"
She demonstrated in a few words the absolute necessity of completing the victory; the
honor that would result to their arms, to the future plans, and to Castile by promptly
succoring the little garrison and its brave commander.
The effect of the young queen's spirit and language was then, as always, electric. The
brave among the cavaliers, including Ferdinand, who desired to command an active army,
were soon ardent for an immediate return to Alhama.