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


A.D. 1213-1284

Between the dates of the battle of Zallaka and the battle of Las Navas, all Spain, except a strip in the North, was in the hands of the Moors. They held the valley of the Guadalquivir, with Seville and Cordova, and the best portions of Andalusia; the province of Granada with the city of the same name; most of Murcia; the province of Valencia with its city; parts of Aragon, and the valley of the Ebro, with Saragossa; and in the centre of Spain the best part of Estremadura and New Castile, with the valley of the Tagus and the city of Toledo. The whole sea-coast, from the Cape of Gibraltar to the mouth of the Ebro, was theirs.

At this time the Christians held their own country in the North, spreading from the Bay of Biscay to the foot-hills of the Guadarrama Mountains, and comprising, in whole or in part, the provinces I have so often named—Galicia, the Asturias, the Basque Country, Leon, Old Castile, and Aragon. Navarre and Catalonia considered that they were independent, and not part of Spain.

After the battle of Las Navas the parts were reversed. One city after another, one kingdom, or principality, after another deserted the Moors, and declared itself on the side of the Christians. In 1236 Ferdinand of Castile occupied Cordova, and planted the flag of the Cross over the great mosque. Ten years later, after a long siege, he took Seville, which had been the Moorish capital after the Moors had been driven out of Cordova; two years afterwards he took Valencia. Malaga fell soon after. Thus, about the year 1250, the only part of Spain which the Moors still held was the City of Granada, the fertile country round it to the slopes of the snowy mountains, its seaport Almeria, and a strip of coast running towards Gibraltar. All the rest of Spain was in Christian hands, and was ruled by Ferdinand the Third, who had united Castile and Leon, and was recognized as the head of the Christian princes. He was a valiant soldier and a just ruler; but what made people think most of him was that he was in the habit of scourging himself frequently by way of penance for his sins.

When he died his body was embalmed and was placed in a silver coffin with glass sides, which stands in the royal chapel of the cathedral of Seville. He is in his royal robes, with his crown on his head. His hands are crossed over his breast. On one side of him lies his sceptre, on the other his sword. There were once jewels in the handles of both, but. they were long ago stolen, it is said, by later kings of Spain. On holidays the body is exhibited to the people.


A Street Corner, Seville

When Ferdinand took Seville it was one of the largest and most beautiful cities of Spain, It is still marvellously beautiful, though it is not as large as it was five hundred years ago. It then contained as many people as Baltimore or San Francisco to-day. It only houses one-third as many in our time. The city stood in a plain on the banks of the Guadalquivir, and was surrounded by a wall with sixty-six towers and eighteen gates. Outside the wall were orange and olive groves, groups of palms, vineyards, and forests of graceful and fragrant trees from the East. The houses were of marble, and some of them were magnificent. The old Spaniards had a proverb: Who has not seen Seville has missed one of the wonders of the world,

It is one of the oldest cities we know. Twenty-three or twenty-four hundred years ago it was a Phoenician or Carthaginian town, and a place of active trade. The Carthaginians called it Sephela, and built there a temple to Astarte, their goddess of Love; the building has been successively a temple of Astarte, a temple to some Roman god, a Gothic church, a Moorish mosque, and a Catholic cathedral. It is a noble edifice, with a tower three hundred and fifty feet high, an immense organ, and a library which was founded by the son of Christopher Columbus. Other buildings carry you back, as you look at them, to very an¬cient times indeed, and remind you of the changes which the world has seen. There is a spot where the Cartha¬ginians used to light fires to Moloch and throw their children into them; it was afterwards a parade-ground for Roman legions; then a barrack was built on it for Moorish cavalry; and now it is covered with a bull-ring, in which eleven thousand people watch fights between bulls and matadors.

You can see a tall building which goes by the name of the Tower of Gold. This was built by the Romans. Patricians used to ascend to the top of it to enjoy the evening breeze and the sight of the silver Guadalquivir winding through the orange-groves and the purple vines. When Spanish galleons began to bring gold from America the tower was turned into a treasure-house, and regiments of soldiers camped round to guard it. It is a ruin now. And there is another building, where three thousand women, chiefly from the Canary Islands, make cigars and cigarettes. On its site there was once a Moorish castle, where many a dark deed was done and many a bright-eyed girl was stabbed to the heart by a jealous lover.

The Moors of Seville were as polished as the Moors of Cordova, and they were gentle in disposition, though fierce fighters when they were roused. Of the siege which led to its capture the ballad says:

"King Ferdinand alone did stand

One day upon the hill,

Surveying all his leaguers

And the ramparts of Seville.

The sight was grand when Ferdinand

By proud Seville was lying,

O'er tower and tree far off to see

The Christian banners flying."

A Christian knight who covered himself with glory at the siege of Seville was Don Garcia de Vargas, of Toledo. He was a mighty man of war, and never counted odds. Once he was attacked by seven Moors together. The ballad tells us how he got out of the trouble:

"That day the lord of Vargas

Came to the camp alone,

His scarf, his lady's largess,

Around his heart was thrown;

Bare was his head, his sword was red,

And from its pummel strung

Seven turbans green, sore hacked I ween,

Before Don Garcia hung."

King Ferdinand of Castile and Leon died in 1252; his son and successor, Alfonso the Learned, reigned from 1252 to 1284. As his sobriquet indicates, he was a man of prodigious learning. He understood music, astronomy, and mathematics. He drew a code of laws. He wrote a history of Spain. He translated the Bible into Spanish. He wrote prose, discourses on politics and morals, and poetry on love and romance. He knew so much, and was so well aware of it, that be is said to have observed that if he could have been consulted when the world was created he might have made some useful suggestions.


A Lane in Seville

But, with all his learning and all his good heart—he was really a kindly monarch, though he had murdered his brother in the flush of youth—he was always in trouble. He forbade any interference with the Moors, who had gathered in Granada, and thus displeased the Christians, who were eager to persecute the Moslems, now they had got them down. He had two sons; they quarrelled with each other and with him about the succession, and both the Pope and the Ding of France took a hand in the quarrel; the former with bulls of ex-communication, the latter with threats of war.

One of the Sons was named Sancho. He actually rebelled against his father, and took the field at the head of a body of fighting men. King Alfonso cursed him, and the Pope cursed him, and Sancho, who was a good deal broken up by so many curses, laid down his arms and took to his bed, declaring that he was going to die. At this the fond old father relented, and moaned and lamented till he also was taken ill of a fever. He was for taking back all his curses, but Sancho said it was no use, he was going to die, and a few curses more or less would not matter. At this the father bemoaned himself more piteously than ever, until he made himself so ill that, with the assistance of a few physicians, he presently died. On which occurrence Sancho got out of bed, shook off his illness, and began to rule the kingdom.


The Giralda Tower, Seville

You may be interested to know that at the very time the Christians were crushing the Moors of Spain and taking cities which the latter never recovered, the same Moslem race were inflicting terrible defeats on the Christians, who for fifty years had been crusading to the East to rescue Jerusalem from the hands of the infidel. In the same year that the Spanish Moors were penned up in Granada, the knights and men-at-arms who, under the lead of Saint-Louis of France, had engaged in the Fifth Crusade, were slaughtered and driven into the sea by the Moslems in Egypt, and shortly afterwards the king himself was taken prisoner and held to ransom. Thus at one end of the Mediterranean the Cross was up and the Crescent down, while at the other end the followers of Mahomet were triumphant and the followers of Christ were plunged into overwhelming disaster.

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