Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

The Battle of Las Navas

A.D. 1002-1212

After the fall of the great Vizier Almanzor all Moorish Spain went to pieces. The nobles declared themselves independent and absolute rulers over the country round their castles. They were continually warring with each other, and wasting the substance of the people who worked. Almost every year the Christians of Castile and Leon and Asturias, with the Berbers of Galicia, swooped down upon the Moorish cities, robbed them and murdered their inhabitants. In this way the beautiful city of Cordova was sacked, and most of its splendid monuments destroyed.

After enduring this misery for over half a century, the Moors resolved to call upon their friends in Africa for help. These friends were called Almoravides, or Marabouts, which means "the truly pious." They formed a powerful nation, which lived round the city of Morocco; their ruler was an old man named Yussef, who was tall and dark, with piercing eyes, a long beard, a powerful frame, and a pleasant voice. Like many of his people, he was ignorant, and could barely read and write; but his mind was broad, and his foresight clear.

When it was first proposed to invite this African to Spain some of the Andalusian chiefs objected, declaring,. that the fierce dwellers in the African desert were more like tigers than men. But it was answered that they could not be worse than the Christians, and that it would be better for an Andalusian to drive camels for Yussef than to herd swine for the dogs of Castile.

So Yussef came with an army, met Alfonso, who was then King of Castile, Leon, and the Asturias, at Zallaka, in October, 1086, and utterly defeated him. The Christian king had trouble to escape with his body-guard, and the Moorish chiefs, who for several years had been paying him tribute for the sake of peace, threw him over and welcomed Yussef to their cities.

They did not make much by the change. One of Yassef's first acts was to seize the chief who had invited him to Spain, and to banish him and all his family to Africa in chains. The Moslem went on board ship with unmoved face, saying to his children:

This is the will of Allah; let us bear it in patience." Then Yussef took Seville, Granada, and other cities, rich and splendid, and divided their treasures among his men. He put down robbery, because he intended to do all the robbing himself. He took the goods of Christians because they were Christians, the goods of Jews because they were Jews, and the goods of Moors because they were rich. His troops, who were never tired of comparing the fertile valleys of Andalusia with the parched sands of the desert where they had been brought up, turned brigands. He was laying a heavy hand on Spain, when he died, at the age of ninety-seven.


The Cathedral, Seville

His power fell to a son, who died; then to a grandson, who one dark night rode over a precipice into the sea; and then to a boy, named Ibrahim. Now it befell that the city of Morocco, in Africa, where Ibrahim lived, was besieged by the son of a lamplighter, who said that he was more devout than the Marabouts themselves. Like the Arab chief who put General Gordon to death ten years ago, he called himself the Mahdi. The Mahdi's army took Morocco, and young Ibrahim on his knees begged his life from the conqueror, who hesitated, the boy was so young and so fair.

But a Mahdist cried:

"Would you spare the cub of the lion, who may some day devour us all?"

Which sealed the fate of Ibrahim and his followers.

It was this butcher who now took the command of the Moors in Spain, and declared he would tread in the footsteps of Yussef.

But Christian Spain was aroused. The Pope sent letters to the kings and counts, imploring them to save Spain from the power of the infidel, For a time they agreed to forget their quarrels. The kings and counts embraced, and swore they would stand shoulder to shoulder. Castile and Aragon, Navarre and Asturias, Catalonia and Galicia, all sent troops to serve under the banners of the King of Castile, who was another Alfonso; and many a good knight from France and Portugal rode to join the host. After a solemn fast, King Alfonso gave the signal, and the mighty army was set in motion. When it reached the great mountain range which divides New Castile from Central Spain they found the Moors in possession of all the mountain passes, and the king was for a moment puzzled. But a shepherd showed him a pass which the Moors had neglected, and by that pass the whole army gradually defiled into the southern plain.

It was the July of 1212. In front of the Christian army which had camped at the mountain slope was the village of Tolosa, in a plain called Las Navas, on which the Moors were drawn in line of battle with the long thread of their spears shining in the sun from the blue horizon on one side to the purple mountain ridge on the other. At the trumpet call the Christians rolled down the slope like an avalanche and fell upon the enemy. They knew that if they were beaten the Cross in Spain would go down in blood, and the Crescent would rise, perhaps to stay. So every man tightened his waist-belt, called on Saint Jago, and struck his heaviest blows.

The sun had not set, though it was low down in the sky, the hot air still glowed on that sultry July afternoon, when an African led a swift mule to the Moorish chief, and gasped:

"Prince of the faithful, how long wilt thou remain here? Rost thou not see that thy Moslems flee? The will of Allah be done."


A Moorish Camp

"Allah," gravely replied the Moor, "Allah alone is just and strong; the devil is false and wicked."

And he mounted the mule, drove his spurs into its sides, and was soon out of sight.

The victory of the Christians showed kings and counts what they could do when they were united. They did not all learn the lesson. Feuds still broke out among them, but after this they generally acted in concert against the Moors. In those old dark days, when there was no printing, there were few writers of history, and our accounts of events were meagre; but bits of stories have come down to us, which are sometimes pleasant and sometimes not.

One of the Alfonsos of Castile, sixth of the name, lost his son in a battle, and was nearly killed by his grief. The legend says that he paced the rooms of his court. crying:

"Oh, my son, joy of my heart, and light of my eyes, my mirror, in which I used to see myself! Oh, my dear! Cavaliers, what have you done with him? Counts, give me my son! Give me my son!"

Another Alfonso, who was King of Aragon, died without heirs. Being extraordinarily pious, he left his kingdom by will to a body of monks at Rome. But the people of Aragon had no idea of being willed away like a herd of cattle. They met as a Cortes, annulled the king's testament, and elected his brother to be their king. He was a monk by calling, but he made a very good king.

It was during this period of conflict between Moors and Christians that the Spanish people acquired their first liberties. Towns were generally built around castles, and the count of the castle ruled the town and the country round about, often cruelly and unjustly. I read of one of them who used to yoke his prisoners, and sometimes, when prisoners ran short, his own vassals, to the plough to till his lands; when they complained of not having enough to eat, he bade them go fill themselves with grass.

When the king founded a city he gave it a charter, or Nero, which provided that the people should have certain rights that could not be taken from them. After a time the people of districts demanded charters from the counts who claimed to rule them, and in a great many cases, especially where the demand was made by a city which lent money to the count, the charters were granted. These not only provided for the punishment of crime, but likewise set limits to the power of the counts, declared that all men were equal before the law, forbade the persecution of Jews, fixed the amount of taxes which the count could collect, forbade his interference in households, and in several cases imposed penalties on bachelors who refused to marry. If the king or the count attempted to break these charters the people flew to arms to maintain them.

You will see, as we go on with this Child's History, that these fueros, or charters, were the nest of Spanish liberty, just as township self-government has been the nest of national liberty in this country. The Spaniard who lived in a town which had a fuero knew that he had rights which no king or count could trample on; it was a short step for him to learn that he had also rights as a member of the nation, and he would have learned the lesson, to his unending benefit, but for an influence of which I shall have to tell you in the remainder of this history.

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