Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

Spain's Heroic Age

We have followed the Moors in Spain through the first three hundred years of their history. Let us now retrace our steps and pursue the fleeing Goths, when, after their defeat on the banks of the Guadalete, they left all southern Spain in the hands of the invaders. "At the time of the general wreck of Spain by the sudden tempest of Arab (African) invasion," says Washington Irving, "many of the inhabitants took refuge in the mountains of the Asturias, burying themselves in narrow valleys difficult of access, wherever a constant stream of water afforded a green bosom of pasture land and scanty fields for cultivation. For mutual protection they gathered together in small villages, called castors  or castrellos, with watch-towers and fortresses on impending cliffs, in which they might shelter and defend themselves in case of sudden inroad. Thus arose the kingdom of the Asturias, of Pelayo and the king's successors, who gradually extended their dominion, built towns and cities, and after a time fixed their seat of government at the city of Leon. An important part of the region over which they bore sway was ancient Cantabria, extending from the Bay of Biscay to the Duero, and called Castile, from the number of castles with which it was studded."

By referring to a map of Spain you will find the Asturias in the far north, all of four hundred miles from the scene of the disastrous battle; and here it was, in the Mountain valleys, surrounded by frowning peaks and gloomy gorges, that Pelayo the Cave King, first ruler of the Goths after their defeat, established his little kingdom. Living at first in caves, then in rude habitations of earth and stone, the hardy mountaineers gradually gathered in hamlets and villages, and in a few years were strong enough to resist the forces that finally penetrated to their abode. With their backs against the mountain walls, from the brinks of dizzy precipices, they hurled down rocks and trees upon the invading Africans, and drove them back to ravage the more fertile plains below.

Pelayo the Cave King is said to have been the son of a noble Goth who was banished by Witica, but who returned to serve Roderick as sword-bearer on the fatal field of Guadalete. Little is known of his career and by some he is treated as a myth; but the Spaniards believe in his existence, and in recent years one of Spain's most powerful battleships received the name of this first king who stemmed the tide of Moorish conquest.

To the Asturias was later united Galicia in the extreme northwest of Spain, then Leon farther south; the Moslems soon encountered opposition in Navarra, to the east of Leon, in Aragon, still farther toward the eastern coast, and finally in Catalonia, where the Counts of Barcelona fought the Saracens in their ancient seaport founded by the father of Hannibal. The story of the reconquest of Spain—in its first stages at least—is long and complicated, involving the development of no less than six separate provinces: Aragon, Catalonia, Navarra, Asturias, Castile, and Leon, stretching across the country from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. But, without descending to wearisome detail in the narration of the feuds and fights of petty kings and chiefs, we should note, first of all, that the first stand against the Moslems was in the north. There, with their castled towns and hamlets defended by the almost inaccessible mountain ranges, the Goths drew valour and might from the difficulties of their situation, and soon were developed scores and hundreds of heroes, whose sole occupation was war; fighting often among themselves, but always ready to unite against the common enemy, the hated Moslem.

We have already had a glimpse of this unhappy country during the reign of the Ommiades, and have seen that, while the Moor might be victorious in one direction, the Christian would prevail in another. But, with the mountains behind them ever, as places of refuge and retreat, the growing hosts of the Christians became more and more annoying to the Moors. Under the first Alfonso, between the years 939 and 756, the territory of Leon was greatly extended, while during the, reign of Alfonso II (791842) this king, who had allied himself with the great Charlemagne, founded the cities of Oviedo and Compostella, and raided the region southward to Portugal. There are so many and various Alfonsos, Ferdinands, Sanchos, Pedros, Don Juans, Ordofos, etc., rulers over different kingdoms and over the same territory at different times, that it will be impossible to narrate the doings of them all. But, however they Might quarrel among themselves, they were persistent in their opposition to the Moors, through decades and centuries, until finally the detested infidels were expelled from Spain.

We can, however, merely glance at those most conspicuous for gallantry, for deeds of daring, and mention only those great battles that were decisive in their effect upon the general welfare of Spain and the progress of the hosts engaged in its reconquest. During the reign of Alfonso the Victorious, one of his Moorish neighbours invaded his territory and ravaged his fields, until he was met and defeated by that gallant hero, Bernardo del Carpio, who cut off the Moslem's head and took it to Alfonso as a precious gift. Having performed such a service for his sovereign, it might be supposed that Bernardo would be richly rewarded; but, far from that being the case, his father was kept in prison upon some pretext, by Alfonso and Bernardo's great services were ignored. At last wearied by the injustice of which he was the victim, Bernardo resolved to leave Alfonso's court and go over to the Moors. He shut himself up in his castle of Carpio, from which he made many a pillaging raid into the territory of his king, until at last Alfonso besieged him there. But Bernardo's defence was so valiant that the king offered to give him possession of his father if he would yield up his castle. This was a great price to pay, but the devoted son at once agreed to it. The treacherous Alfonso sent assassins who murdered Count Sancho in prison, then seated his corpse upon a horse, richly attired, and led him to meet Bernardo. When the latter saw him coming he went to meet him, and not until he had taken his father's hand to kiss it did he discover the cruel deception. Then he turned his face aside and cried: "Ah my father, Don Sancho Diaz, in an evil hour didst thou beget me. Thou art dead, and I—I have given my stronghold for thee, and now indeed have lost all!"

Some time later reigned one Alfonso III (from 866–909), who gained many a victory over the Moors, but who unwisely divided his kingdom, at his death, among several sons, and thus brought about the disunion of territory already united, and retarded the general advance of Christian power so amply extended by the prowess of his arms. Before him, however, came King Ramiro, whose short reign was made memorable by his refusal to pay to Abderrahman the customary tribute, which had been agreed upon by some of his predecessors, of one hundred beautiful maidens annually. In the patio  of the Alcazar  of Seville is shown to-day the spot where these disconsolate maidens, abandoned by their friends to the, savage mercies of the Moors, were gathered when this base bargain was carried out. But Ramiro refused to pay this tribute, and so Abderrahman sent an army against him which, after two days of terrible fighting, the Christians destroyed.

In the noble city of Burgos stands the statue of another hero of that age, Fernan Gonzalez, grandson of one of the first judges of Castile, after that province had thrown off its allegiance to Leon. When Fernan Gonzalez was but seventeen years old he was elected to rule, under Alfonso the Great, with the title of count. A Moorish captain was ravaging the territory of Castile at that very time, and Count Fernan placed himself at the head of a small body of troops and set out to meet him. He was successful, and returned to Burgos with immense booty, part of which he used for the endowment of a convent. After that he kept the field almost continually widening the range of his conquests until Castile was freed from the Moors. But his great successes gained for him the ill will of other Christian kings and leaders, notably of Sancho; King of Navarre, with whom he was obliged to fight, and whom he killed in single combat.

A son of Sancho the Fat (who was cured of obesity by a Moorish physician), Don Garcia, surnamed "the Trembler," finding himself unable to cope with Count Fernan in the open field, resorted to treachery, and, having proposed that he should marry his sister, when Fernan went to claim her, with but a feeble guard, he was captured by the wily Garcia and thrown into a dungeon. The Princess Sancha, the lady in question, wondered why her lover did not come to take her away as his bride, and when she finally learned the truth—heard that an honourable cavalier was languishing in chains for her sake, in a dismal dungeon—she bribed the guards, appeared before the count an angel of beauty, and led him forth to liberty, after first exacting an oath that he would make her his wife as soon as they were safe within the confines of his domains.

And, after many perilous adventures, they arrived safely in the city of Burgos, where the princess was welcomed with acclamation as the future "first lady of the land," and their marriage was followed by feastings, tilts, and tournaments. Garcia the Trembler followed hard after them with his army, but in the battle that eventuated he was taken prisoner, though subsequently sent home laden with honours, at the intercession of his sister; which shows what a noble gentleman Count Fernan was, and what a jewel he got for a wife.

Such are the stories told of the heroic days of early spain, chiefly of Castile, when continual fighting between Moors and Christian had wrought the warriors to the highest state of efficiency. They were not happy unless engaged in. warfare, and this accounts for the many feuds among the Goths themselves; and it was owing to their continuous dissensions that the reconquest of all Spain was so long delayed. And yet, among the Moors there was still greater dissension, on account of the hatred that existed between the Arabs and the Berbers.

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