Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Oliver Otis Howard

Moorish War

"Then mounte, then mounte, brave gallants all,

And don your helmes amaine;

Deathe's couriers, Fame and Honour,

call Us to the field againe."

—William Motherwell.

Isabella's Energy—Ferdinand Relieves Alhama—She Introduces Religious Observance—The Mosques Become Churches—The Forays—Ferdinand's Siege of Loja—His Sad Discomfiture—Isabella's Fortitude and Comforting—Dissensions of the Moorish Royal Household—More Spanish Raids—Muley Aben Hassan's Successful Foray into Medina Sidonia—The Spanish Campaign at Azarquia—The Terrible Defeat—Isabella's Chagrin—Her Daughter Maria's Birth—Her Fine Generalship.

The resolute queen, who had such power, not only to show strength of character under discouraging circumstances, but to inspire with something of her own fortitude those who yielded to indecision, now began to exhibit those other qualities which were essential to the sovereign.

Ferdinand was at times over-prudent, losing his opportunities; then he became, under the impulse of his personal ambition, too ardent and rash, too often setting out with insufficient force and inadequate preparation.

Providentially his queen saw clearly and steadily what was needed, and did what was a little mortifying, yet a wholesome discipline to the husband: she supplemented his deficiencies.

At this juncture of events, pending the return to the front and the relief of Alhama, she labored night and day, much as a great quartermaster or commissary of modern times would do, to have all the necessary food collected and in hand and the transportation ready. She reviewed the soldiers, and spoke to them in groups. "We confide to you," she said with patriotic fervor—"we confide to you the honor of that flag which was planted by you upon the great tower of Alhama."

Indeed, she was half inclined to go with them, as they were fired with patriotic zeal and marched off gayly to the dangers of a new campaign; but an approaching accouchement rendered this impossible.

The object of this advance, pushed rapidly and finished without bloodshed, was speedily gained. On Ferdinand's approach with an army larger than his own, Muley Aben Hassan raised the siege, and withdrew from Alhama.

One writer says: "Ferdinand made his entrance into the city of Alhama, May 14th, 1482, like a triumphant conqueror. He was clothed in his finest royal dress, and escorted by all the nobility and prelates who had followed his march."

The mosques of the city were immediately converted into Christian churches. The costly ornaments which Isabella had sent for these churches were put in them, and the very first mass which was held in one (denominated the Cathedral) was celebrated by the great Cardinal of Spain.

Thus was demonstrated to the inhabitants what was the veritable object of the conquest—viz., "the triumph of the Christian faith." Subsequent to these exhibitions of religion there were many depredations and much foraging on the part of Ferdinand's army, in the interval between his visit to the garrison at Alhama and his entrance upon the other objects of this campaign of 1482—viz., to capture new cities. Forays like these were made again and again, and they were quite as annoying and destructive to the enemy as the taking of fortified towns. They, however, secured at this period no permanent results.

But it was not long—about July 1st, 1482 before Ferdinand brought together his forces, .loon light cavalry and 12,000 footmen, in the vicinity of Loja (Loxa), a strongly fortified town about twenty-five miles north of Alhama, and on the road from Granada to Cordova.

The river Genii (Xenil) half encircled the city on the southern approaches, and had then but one practicable ford and one bridge.

The aged Moor, Ali Atar, Muley Aben Hassan's best lieutenant, was in command, having some 3000 men, with abundance of light cavalry for sorties, which the rugged old warrior could so well handle. We will not delay to describe Ferdinand's abortive attempts at a partial siege. He located his troops badly at first; then he undertook to mend matters by attempting to gain, hold, and fortify an important elevation, called the Heights of Albohacen. Here the old warrior out-generalled him by the ruse  of a false retreat and an ambush.

Again Ferdinand sought relief by what was meant to be a moving of part of his force for position. The other troops, many of them very poorly supplied with food, mistook the rearward movement for a retreat, and so broke up and scattered toward the Spanish frontier. There was much hard fighting of the cavaliers; the king was more than once saved by the gallantry of the Marquis of Cadiz and other fearless leaders. Yet the main affair was much like the first battle of Frederick the Great in Silesia, and ended like the first Bull Run in the American Rebellion. Only a semblance of an army appeared at Ecija, the place for gathering the scattered forces, situated about half way between Seville and Cordova.

In this mortifying extremity Ferdinand displayed the cool and resolute conduct necessary to save his force from utter destruction.

He escaped just in time, for old Muley Aben Hassan was already on the road with abundant help for Ali Atar, when the king was beating back the latter, securing his retreat and regathering his stragglers.

At Ecija he made a more effective stand, then put an officer of rank into the field command, and retired with a small escort to meet his saddened queen at Cordova.

Nobody can measure Isabella's depression and chagrin at this defeat, taken as it was in connection with the illness already upon her. Like all those disguised blessings against which the first impulse of the heart is to rebel, from them, as Prescott says, "she received a salutary lesson." "It showed the importance of more extensive preparations for war, which must of necessity be a war of posts, and it taught the nation to entertain greater respect for an enemy who, whatever might be his natural strength, must become formidable when armed with the energy of despair."

Perhaps a more important lesson, which aroused her strong emotions and which the queen began to perceive, was that her husband was not a great general, and that, if she would guard her soldiers, her cause, and her country, dearer to her personally than life itself, she must hereafter rely more upon herself, she must garner in more power and exercise it without stint till the end of the war.

So, with incredible activity and energy, like all great souls after defeat, she at once set herself to reorganize the broken and scattered fragments of her army, to bring new forces to the front, which were better prepared for an advance into an enemy's country, and better equipped for carrying on to completion the conquest which she firmly believed to be a work almost Divine. And, indeed, there soon came tidings from the city of Granada which deepened her conviction of the holiness of her task; it was of that dissension in the royal family of the old king which grew out of his polygamous life, when a repudiated wife and her son turned upon him and repelled his neglects and cruelty with interest.

Here was coming help of the right sort; for did Isabella not know from her previous life, as well as from the teaching of her Church, that a house divided against itself cannot stand? After Muley Aben Hassan's double defeat at Alhama and return to his capital, there was great murmuring among the people. When a tyrant is on the upward wave of his successes he is not wanting in friends; when the reflux of misfortune comes, the fair-weather. friends are all found wanting. This aged monarch, whose rule hitherto had been in fierceness and bloodshed, began to experience during this period the effect of secret plottings against his throne. Among his many wives, the historians tell us, he had two whom he really loved, though in succession. The eldest, Ayxa, called by the Moors La Hora, because of her chastity, had a son, who, it was conceded, was the true heir to the throne. The name given him at his birth was Mahomet Abdalla, but his sobriquet, Boabdil, has become his historic appellation.

An unfortunate prediction of some of the seers of Granada concerning this child, to the effect that the kingdom would expire during his reign, appears to have turned his father and many others against him, and to have so far biased his own mind as to create discouragement and self distrust But the mother, who loved him, made up for his father's dislike, and tried her best to inspire him with noble sentiments At last, finding that a younger wife not only possessed her husband's affection, but was planning to displace Boabdil as the prince of succession, Ayxa hatched a strong conspiracy against Muley Aben Hassan himself, which the fierce old king quickly surmised. This plot his younger queen, Fatima, who was of Christian origin and very beautiful, and who had two sons to promote, more thoroughly unveiled.

At once Muley Aben Hassan displaced the chaste Ayxa and imprisoned her and also the son, Boabdil, in a part of the Alhambra. The tower where they were confined is still pointed out to visitors. It was there that the unbelieving old father, when some one spoke of the prediction of Granada's fall, had said: "The sword of the executioner shall prove the falsehood of these lying horoscopes.

But Ayxa had friends. She heard of the king's resolve to put her son to death, and, in concert with some faithful women, managed at midnight to let him down from a tower window by "shawls and scarfs tied together."

A horse was waiting at the foot of the outside slope; upon this the young prince succeeded in making his escape to Guadix, a strong city in the mountains of Alpujarras. There for a time he was in hiding. After enough enemies of the old king had gathered around Boabdil, he began to make a more formidable opposition. A little later, taking advantage of his father's temporary absence from the city of Granada, Boabdil and his adherents seized the capital and the Alhambra, and, having formally dethroned his father, caused himself to be proclaimed king. Muley Aben Hassan, on returning, found the gates closed against him and another commanding the guards and forces of the city.

The baffled monarch in deep chagrin turned away, but finding the city of Baza still loyal to him, he hastened to that city, where he was well received. He was soon aware that he could control nearly all of his domain outside of the capital, so that in time he gathered enough armed men to meet Boabdil and fight for the recovery of the throne. He came suddenly upon Granada in a night attack, and succeeded in reaching the lower part of it. He slew the inhabitants without pity, and for a time it seemed as if he would recover his Alhambra; but this time Boabdil and his followers, after a determined struggle, drove out the terrible old warrior, who, leaving the streets bathed in the blood of his own people, fled to Malaga, which was still subservient to his cause. Washington Irving, in his "Conquest of Granada," referring to this civil strife, thus sums up these events:

"Such was the commencement of those great international feuds and divisions which hastened the downfall of Granada. The Moors became separated into two hostile factions, headed by the father and the son, and several bloody encounters took place between them; yet they never failed to act with all their separate force against the Christians, as a common enemy, whenever an opportunity occurred."

It is not an easy task to fix with certainty upon the exact time of the different expeditions. But it appears that, while the quarrels of the Moorish royal family were absorbing their attention, King Ferdinand himself, later than the unfortunate siege of Loja, made a brief raid, like those of the cavalry in the American Rebellion. He penetrated into the richest parts of the great Vega, drove off cattle and horses, and carried back to Cordova abundance of other supplies, which aided him to keep a semblance of an army together through the ensuing winter.

But the restless Muley Aben Hassan had hardly reached Malaga, in the early spring of 1483, when he realized that something must be done, if he would maintain his authority against foes from without and within his much-troubled domain. He then gathered a considerable force (1500 horse and 6000 foot), and marched eastward till he had gained the province of Medina Sidonia. He took up a central defensive position on the banks of the Celemin, and then spread his foraging parties under escorts and guards in every direction. His systematic foraging exceeded that of King Ferdinand in the Vega.

He turned back after a few days rather overburdened with flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle, and droves of horses; but he did not get away without serious interruption and loss. As he passed the small town of Castellar, the Governor of Gibraltar, Pedro de Vargas, who had been waiting his chance all the time, with 70 horsemen dashed upon his columns, defeated a part of his command, and rescued 5000 cattle. Still the old king went back to Malaga with such abundance that he received all the éclat  of a conqueror.

There seemed so little substantial success on the part of the Spaniards during this season, that the queen's heart was again wrung with disappointment; and now, while the sovereigns were getting ready for a stronger effort in the prosecution of the great war, they consented to another, a sort of preliminary foray. At Antiquera, early in 1483, a council was held; here we find the governor of the province, Don Pedro Henriques; the Marquis of Cadiz; Don Juan de Silva, who bore the king's standard, and who was the commander at that time of Seville; Alonzo de Aguilar, and Alonzo de Cordova, then Grand Master of Santiago.

These, as we have seen, were enterprising cavaliers. They considered various projects for doing something brilliant and effective. At last they determined to follow the advice of some scouts, who, as it proved, were either themselves deceived or were disloyal at heart. They planned to make a rush for the little, fertile valley of Azarquia, which stretches from the vicinity of the mountains near Antiquera almost to the Mediterranean west of Malaga. The purposed expedition was to descend by the defiles of the mountains, conquer the smaller places, gather in the herds and other booty, pass beyond Malaga, and if perchance Malaga could not be taken, come back to Spanish territory by the shores of the great sea.

This army probably did not exceed 12,000, though it embraced all the great leaders who had been in the council of war at Antiquera. It was a most showy body of men, and attracted great attention as it left Antiquera.

Wealthy merchants in large numbers, with pack-mules in droves, followed the columns. We need not undertake a detailed account; the outcome was plain. The neighborhood of the valley was reached, but the news had preceded the march. The hamlets and villages were already deserted; flocks and herds had disappeared; and El Zagal, the younger brother of Muley Aben Hassan, a prince accustomed to arms, was ready with sufficient force in the mountains to waylay the raiders at the right places. Suffice it to say, that this expedition of the confident Spaniards through the country of Malaga ended more disastrously than any other during the long war. The words of De Nervo summarize the final situation "Vainly they tried to resist" (the peasants rolling stones upon them in the narrow passes)—" it was a thing impossible."

The Christian soldiers, disbanded, without leaders, were forced to obey only that sad cry: "Sala,e qui peut!" "They spread themselves over all that rough country, ruined by the separation, and only found in detail death under all its most terrible forms."

A few, however, escaped as by miracle, and among them the gallant Marquis of Cadiz, also Aguilar and the Grand Master of Santiago. The other leaders who had been part of the council of war were taken prisoners and led by El Zagal, amid the great rejoicing of the Moors of Malaga, to their places of confinement. The spot where most of the Spaniards fell is still called "The Hill of the Massacre."

Nearly every family of Andalusia, from peasant to cavalier, was represented in that massacre and in the ensuing retreat; and, in truth, there was hardly a household in that part of Spain that was not in mourning.

Probably Isabella had never been more deeply pained and depressed in her life than when one of the best of her knights, Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, at last appeared at her court of Cordova, covered with dirt and blood, pale and haggard, to make his sad report. There is little said in the chronicles of one very important event—other more absorbing things occurring in this sad year—but Isabella's fourth child, Donna Maria, was born (1483) at Cordova during that darkest period of the Moorish War. It was then that Isabella's husband, baffled, defeated, the great part of his army, lately so fine, being scattered to the four winds, discouraged and crestfallen, came to her bedside. Yet he found there extraordinary fortitude, the same old encouragement, the same unswerving faith in a final victory.

A few months later she had garnered up her little strength, though still weak from her late confinement, to prepare a new force to leave Cordova.

She had materially aided in getting supplies and funds, and had sent forth her bravest and best cavaliers, who had formed the council at Antiquera, only to be broken in pieces and to be overwhelmed in the mountains of Malaga—a terrible destruction really effected by the Moorish peasants, who had caught the well-armed soldiers in narrow passes and difficult defiles.

At the last a few had come back covered with blood and shame, with brothers and comrades of high and low degree slain or prisoners in horrid dungeons! These were things almost too hard to be borne. She, the queen, with her little ones around her, suffered with her soldiers; yet she braced up her heart, gave words of hope and strength, and, still believing that the Lord would eventually give her the victory, began at once to make new preparations on a larger scale. When in the outset she accepted the challenge of old Muley Aben Hassan and went to war, she knew that final and complete success would cost much suffering, treasure, and the lives of many whom she loved.

Her heart bled, but her resolve was unyielding. Isabella was a woman, but she was also a great general.