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

The Moorish Conquest

A.D. 710-711

When the Goths first became masters of Spain they were a rude tribe of savages, without learning or culture. After they had mixed with the natives for a century or so they became a refined and polished people, speaking Latin, and trained in letters, law, and religion; and they still remained warlike and manly. But after they had been two or three centuries in possession of the rich valleys of Spain they acquired idle and luxurious habits, spent their lives in drinking and feasting and dancing, and thus became as weak and helpless as the people of Italy.

It was the old story. Powerful chiefs, with men-at-arms under their command, seized the richest lands, and made the common people till then for their food and clothes. The man who drove the plough was cowed, houseless, hungry, ragged, unkempt, filthy, and ignorant. The man who owned the land lived in a splendid castle, with soldiers guarding the gate. He wore clothes of silk and rich stuffs, ate choice food, drank fine wines, took his siesta in the shade of olive groves, where fragrant flowers perfumed the air, listened to the sweet music of lutes, or lazily watched lovely girls dancing on Persian carpets for his delight. You know that there was too much contrast here for such a society to last. When the pillars of the arch are so very far apart the corner-stone is apt to fall in.

At the close of the Gothic period in Spain a good deal of fable is mixed with the history. The Gothic king was named Roderick; of that there can be no doubt. He is said to have been brutal, reckless, headstrong, and incapable; of that there is no certainty at all.

The legend says that at Toledo there was a house which had been built by Hercules, the strong man of Greece, and which was called "The House of God." It was the law that no one should enter that house; and for the better assurance of this, every king set his seal upon the door. Roderick had set his seal with the others. But afterwards, consumed with curiosity to know what was in the house, he broke his own and the other kingly seals and forced his way in. First he saw the statue of a man of prodigious size lying in bed, and he knew that this was Hercules. Then be went on, and he came to a room of which one wall was dazzling white, another pitch-black, the third an emerald-green, and the fourth blood-red. In this room stood a tall pillar; in the pillar a niche; in the niche a casket of gold, studded with precious stones and closed with a lock of mother-of-pearl; and in the casket a white cloth, on which were drawn pictures of strange men with turbans on their heads, banners in their hands, swords hanging from their necks, bows tied to their saddles, and a scroll underneath, saying: "Whosoever shall see this cloth shall also see men like these conquer Spain and become the lords thereof."

You do not need to be told that there was no house of Hercules, no colored walls, no pillar, no casket, no pictures on cloth, and no scroll, but that all these were invented long afterwards by the rich Moorish fancy. I cannot be as sure that another story of the same time was also a fable, but I suspect it was.

Over against Spain, on the northern coast of Africa, dwelt tribes of Moors who constantly threatened to invade Europe. To hold them in check, Roderick built forts in Africa, and filled them with fighting men under a captain named Julian. Now this Julian had a lovely young daughter, named Clorinda, whom he sent to Toledo to be educated, and placed under the guardianship of the king.

Forgetting his duty, Roderick fell in love with her, and, though he had a wife already, carried her off from her boarding-school. Her relations flew to arms to rescue her, but when they broke into the place where she was shut up she refused to leave, and said she would cast her lot with the king. At this her kinsmen left her with curses, and from that time to this the Spaniards have never christened a girl-baby by the name of Clorinda, but have taken pleasure in giving the name to dogs.

I suspect myself that this story was made up long afterwards to excuse the treachery of Julian; for, according to the story, just at this time that officer sent word to the Moorish chief that he would surrender his forts if the Moors would despatch a force into Spain to overthrow Roderick. The chief's name was Mousa or Musa. He delayed till he could consult the Caliph; then, receiving a favorable reply, he sent into Spain an officer named Tarif with five hundred men, and on his report despatched another army of seven thousand under another officer named Tarik.

These invaders are called Moors, because they embarked for Spain from Mauritania, which we call Morocco. They were a mixed race, part Arab and part African, of whom I will tell you more in the next chapter. Swarthy but not black, fierce, warlike, unruly; tireless on the march, and fearless in battle; living for a day on a handful of fruit, with a mouthful of water; devoted heart and soul to the Moslem faith, which they believed it to be their duty to spread through the world by fire and sword, they may perhaps remind you of the Carthaginians, who sprang from the same stock and lived also in Northern Africa. They were indeed terrible foes for the weakened Spanish Goths to encounter.

When Roderick heard of their landing he mastered all the troops he could gather, and marched down to Xeres, near Cadiz, with ninety thousand men. It is said that he went into battle in an ivory chariot drawn by two milk-white mules, but this is not certain. What is certain is that, though his force far outnumbered that of the Moors, even after the latter had been reinforced with five thousand fresh troops, he was beaten, after a desperate fight which lasted eight days.

There is an old Spanish ballad which tells the story of the end of the battle, and describes the despair of Roderick:

"He climbed into a hill-top,

The highest he could see,

Thence all about of that wide rout

His last long look took lie;

He saw his royal banners,

Where they lay drenched and torn,

He heard the cry of victory,

The Arabs' shout of scorn.

'Last night I was the King of Spain:

To-day no king am I.

Last night fair castles held my train:

To-night where shall I lie?

Last night a hundred pages

Did serve me on the knee;

To-night not one I call my own,

Not one pertains to me.

Oh! Death, why now so slow art thou,

Why fearest thou to smite?"

The story goes that the king was drowned in the Guadalquivir in trying to escape. His body was never found, hut his crown and his royal robe fell into the hands of the Moors.

His army scattered; neither officers nor men were true to Roderick. He had taught them to hate him by his cruelties and his folly. The Jews, especially, whom he had oppressed, openly took sides with the Moors, in order to he revenged on their Christian oppressors.

Musa, the chief general of the Moors in Africa, had ordered his lieutenant Tarik, when he left Africa, to give one battle, if he thought it safe, but not to follow up his victory, if he won. Musa wanted the glory of conquest for himself. Tarik, looking out for his own glory, chose to disobey. Without an hour's delay, after the battle of Xeres, be marched north, and took city after city. The Spanish spirit had been broken.


The evening prayer.

But Musa had no idea of letting Tarik play the part of conqueror. He placed himself at the head of an army, crossed into Spain, marched on the trail of his lieutenant, took Seville and Merida, and came up with Tarik outside the walls of Toledo.

The Moorish chief, seated on a prancing charger, met his lieutenant with a black frown on his brow and bitter words on his tongue. He charged Tarik with having secreted plunder for himself. When this was disproved, Musa accused him of having aimed at making himself ruler of Spain. When this was also denied, Musa slashed him across the face with his whip and ordered him into prison.

While the Moorish conquerors were quarrelling among themselves the Spaniards submitted quietly to be conquered. They were tired of the Goths and of their government, which latterly had neither preserved the peace nor protected the peasant. All they asked of the Moors was to be allowed to keep their old laws and their lands on the old terms; these conditions the conquerors granted. As to their religion, the Moors promised that it should not be interfered with, but so long as a Spaniard remained a Christian he must pay head-money. This was not so bard to bear as some of the oppressions they had endured when the Gothic chiefs had been warring against each other.

As you read Spanish history you will find no trait in the Spanish character more clearly marked than an unconquerable hatred of foreign control. That trait had not developed when the Moors overran Spain in the year of our Lord seven hundred and eleven.

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