Greatest Nations: Spain - C. F. Horne

Rise of the Christian Kingdoms

Palace of Almanzor


Let us turn now to the story of those Goths who fled from the fatal defeat of Roderick at Xeres. One party, as we have seen, secured peace under the crafty Theodemir, and became subjects of the Moors in Murcia.

Another band refused submission on any terms, and fled northward till they could go no farther and found themselves in the mountains of Asturias, the coast land bordering the Bay of Biscay. This heroic little troop, reduced at one time, according to legend, to only thirty men, sought refuge in the mountain caves. Their leader was Pelayo, who may or may not have been a descendant of the ancient kings of the Goths. He was certainly a valiant warrior, from whom the present royal family of Spain is proud to trace its descent.

While a Moorish army was hunting Pelayo and his men amid the mountain defiles, the fugitives suddenly hurled masses of rocks down upon their pursuers, and amid the confusion and death thus caused, charged boldly upon the entire army. The Moors were put to flight, and this battle of Covadonga (720) marks the turning point in the tide of conquest.

The Mahometans recognized that the subjugation of those wild mountains was impossible, or at least not worth the cost. No second serious attempt seems to have been made to disturb Pelayo, and he ruled over the wild precipices and wilder men of the north, a king, if you choose to call him so, though we do not know that he ever took the title. His subjects, all mingling together, Goths, Romans, Celts, native Iberians, and we know not what fragments of other races, became the ancestors of the modern Spaniards, the hidalgos, who pride themselves upon their blue and ardent blood.

On the immediate successors of Pelayo we need not dwell. They were sturdy fighters all. Gradually they ventured out of the Asturian mountains into the plains to southward. Alfonso I. extended his conquests to the capture of cities on the Douro River, so that the weight of his hand was felt over nearly a fourth of Spain. He did not, however, really rule this land, he only ravaged it, always returning to his region of refuge among the cliffs. It is from these early Spanish forays and fightings, guerrillas or little wars, as they called them, that we get our modern word for that cruel and barbaric system of surprise and licensed robbery, guerrilla warfare.

About the year 910, that is, after nearly two centuries of this wild mountain life, King Garcia, or his brother, Ordofio II., ventured to desert their highland capital of Orviedo and establish their court permanently at Leon, a city of the plains. Ordofio II. was buried there in 923, and from that time the Spanish state may be said to have assumed a permanent power and location. Its chiefs no longer depended on their caves for refuge, but met the Moors upon equal terms. Their possessions, named from their new capital, became the Kingdom of Leon.

At this time Castile was a waste borderland lying between the Christians and the Moors, and harried alternately by both; a land of castles, as its name suggests, strong places to which the inhabitants fled for refuge from the marauders. Aragon was still in possession of the Moors, Navarre was a wild, semi-independent mountain region, half Spanish and half French.

The earliest of the Castilian heroes is Fernan Gonsalez. He was the governor or Count of Castile from 932 to 970, and successfully asserted the independence of the borderland of castles against the claims of the King of Leon to be regarded as its overlord. At one time Fernan was overpowered and imprisoned. But he had won the love of the Princess Sancha of Navarre, and she helped him to escape, bribing his jailer and then guarding his flight with a troop of her wild Navarrese. She became Fernan's bride, and he made her both Countess and Queen of Castile, for he finally achieved the independence of his land. The city of Burgos was founded by his successor in 982 as the Castilian capital.

Ordano, king of Leon


Doubtless Fernan was much helped by the victories of Almanzor, a warlike Moorish chieftain, who at this period rearoused the Moslem fanaticism and sought to urge his race to the complete reconquest of northern Spain. Almanzor repeatedly defeated the kings of Leon, and finally stormed their capital and put all its population to the sword. Once more the Christians seemed on the point of being driven to take refuge in the mountains. Fortunately for them, Almanzor died. Maybe Fernan Gonsalez defeated him first; maybe the King of Leon did; more probably they did not. The earlier Christian chroniclers merely tell us that at last God took pity on their great miseries, that a demon carried off Almanzor, that he died "and was buried in hell." The slow advance of the Christian kingdoms recommenced.

From all these centuries of battle Spanish romance has fastened upon two, heroes as specially its own. They are Bernardo del Carpio and the Cid.. Modern critics have insisted that history shall abandon Bernardo altogether. Romance makes him the chief hero of the Spanish resistance to Charlemagne's inroad, which seems, by the way, to have been directed quite as much against Christians as against Moors. Bernardo is represented as the Spanish leader at the victory of Roncesvalles. He slays most of Charlemagne's paladins, and finally, finding Roland's armor invincible to sword-blow, takes the Frankish champion in his arms and strangles him to death.

The Cid, on the other hand, is a positive historic figure, who lived toward the end of the eleventh century. It is not our province to separate carefully the real from the fanciful in his career. He was one of the leading nobles of Castile, and when, in 1072, his sovereign was assassinated, the Cid consented with his peers, though most unwillingly, to acknowledge the next heir as their king.

This heir was Alfonso VI., King of Leon, and thus the two kingdoms were once more united, though by this time Castile had grown to be the greater and more important of the two. Castile's first hero, Fernan Gonsalez, had separated the kingdoms; the Cid, her most celebrated hero, saw them reunited.

The Cid's real name was Rodrigo Diaz, the title by which he is generally known, El Cid Campeador, meaning merely the Signor, or Lord Champion. Before Rodrigo would submit to his new King, Alfonso, he insisted on that monarch's making oath that he had taken no part in the assassination of the previous King. Naturally the ceremony did not please Alfonso, and he and the Cid were never friends. Indeed, the Cid soon found himself a banished man, and went forth on his good steed Bavieca to carve a kingdom for himself from troublous Spain. We find him warring now in one service, now in another, lending his mighty sword, if truth must be told, to Moors as well as Christians.

At length he gathered such strength and wealth and so many followers that he set up as a king on his own account in eastern Spain, and, in 1094, he undertook the most gigantic enterprise of his fierce career. Next to Cordova, the most powerful city of the Moors was Valencia, on the eastern coast. The Cid besieged Valencia and captured it after a desperate resistance. He wanted it for his capital city; but unfortunately the Moors also recognized its value. Again and again they endeavored to retake it; each time the Cid repulsed them. Finally, in 1099, he died, and the Moors coming again to assault Valencia, we are told that his followers placed his dead body on horseback and rode out behind it. The mere sight of the Cid was enough, and once more his enemies fled. This method of defence seems, however, to have had no permanent value, for a year or so later Valencia was easily retaken by the Moors.

King James of Aragon


In the mean time the Cid's despised sovereign, Alfonso VI., had made a conquest of more permanent effect. In 1095 he recovered from the Moors the city of Toledo, which had been the ancient capital of Gothic Spain. We may, therefore, fairly consider this period to indicate that the balance of power in the Peninsula was at last inclining to the Christian side. Indeed, Alfonso is said to have marched his forces right through to the southern coast and stood in mailclad might upon the shores of Gibraltar's strait.

The coming of new hordes of Mahometans into Spain saved their dominion from extinction. Alfonso was defeated, Valencia recaptured. The newcomers, however, were not civilized like the Spanish Moors; they were barbarians, and the opulent magnificence of Andalusia declined as their power increased. In the course of a half-century these wild Africans drew all' the Moorish power into their own hands, and reinforced by armies of their African kinsmen, started out once more to conquer Spain and Europe.

A crusade was preached against them. Warriors from all over Europe hurried to Toledo, where Alfonso IX., King of Castile and Leon, held his court. The crusaders met the foe in a great battle on the borders of the southern mountain land in the region called the Navas (fields) de Tolosa, July 16, 1212.The result was long doubtful, but in the end the Mahometans fled, and their power in the West was broken forever.

The Moors were not, however, immediately driven from Spain. Alfonso IX., well content with having repelled the great African invasion, disbanded his costly army of crusaders and went back to his capital. He died soon after and left it to his grandson, Fernando III. (Saint Fernando) to reap the fruits of his victory. Fernando captured the ancient Moorish capital of Cordova in 1235, and soon after, by adding Seville to his dominions, extended them to the southern ocean.

At this period, then, there were five kingdoms in Spain. Castile and Leon was the central and most powerful one, its bounds touching the coast line on the north, west, and south. But the Moorish kingdom of Granada still lay in the extreme south, Portugal was in the extreme west, and Navarre among the northern mountains, while all eastern Spain had been gathered into the kingdom of Aragon, second only to Castile in power and importance.

Aragon had grown slowly with the centuries. Its independence of Castile and Leon had been positively established in 1096, when its King, Pedro I., aided by the Cid, won the battle of Alcoraz against both Moors and Castilians. The Aragonese King, Alfonso the Battler (1104-1134), wellnigh conquered all Spain, but the Moors slew him in battle, and his power disappeared with his death. Pedro II. lent a generous and most efficient help to Castile in the great battle of Tolosa; and then came his son, James, called the Conqueror, who made Aragon permanently an important state, one of the powers of Europe. The first exploit of James the Conqueror was the conquest of the Balearic Isles from the Moors, in 1228. To win these he had to build a fleet, and for the first time Spain disputed the Mahometans' sovereignty of the Mediterranean and its islands. James then conquered the great city of Valencia, which had been the glory and death of the Cid. The new conqueror, however, wisely retained his own seat of government, the safer inland capital of Saragossa.

Pedro III., son and successor of James, interfered in the quarrels of Italy and became King of Sicily. This drew him into a quarrel with France, and a powerful French army invaded his country. The heroic defence of one city after another wore out the invaders. They died in great numbers, and Pedro drove the exhausted remnant back through the Pyrenees into their own country. His ships, under his great admiral, Roger de Lauria, twice defeated and shattered all the naval force of France. Thus Aragon was fairly established as a naval power, a kingdom of islands, stretching from Spain to Italy, the equal and rival of France and of Castile.

Of Alfonso X. of Castile (1252-1284), Alfonso the Wise, we need hardly speak, except to remind you that he was elected Emperor of Germany during the Great Interregnum there. He was a learned busybody, feebly intruding himself everywhere, .and accomplishing nothing, with the best of intentions. He was, however, a really noteworthy scholar, the earliest to appear among the kings of Europe.

Pedro II of Aragon


Pedro of Castile (1350-1369), the Cruel, is only memorable as the miserable and bloody tyrant who called the English Black Prince into Spain to save him from his infuriated subjects. The French also entered the Peninsula, upholding the cause of Pedro's rival and brother, Henry; and the land was a prey to horrors of every kind. The Black Prince defeated the French in a great battle at Navarrete, and restored Pedro to power; but the knave cheated him out of his pay, starved the English army, and let the Prince wander back to Bordeaux, a prey to the disease from which he died. The rebels under Henry took heart once more. Pedro was besieged in a small castle and, seeking escape, met Henry in a personal and undignified squabble. Each stabbed at the other with a dagger, and the cruel King was slain. Henry succeeded to the throne of the exhausted land as Henry 11. (1369-1379).

These and similar dissensions had delayed the final expulsion of the Moors for over two centuries. At last Henry IV. (1454-1474), on coming to the throne of Castile, announced his intention of leading his subjects in a final crusade against the Mahometans. The warlike Castilians took up the project eagerly, but Henry proved to have neither the valor nor the wisdom necessary for a general. He led his armies year after year into the Moorish territories, but dared not risk a serious battle, contenting himself with establishing a strong camp, from which small parties were despatched to burn and plunder.

Henry's people finally became so disgusted that many rebelled against him and the nation thus returned to its favorite pastime of civil war. The insurgents set up a young half-brother of Henry as his rival, and the lad was so successful that he is sometimes included in Spain's list of kings, as Alfonso XI. He died suddenly, perhaps poisoned. The rebels besought his sister, Isabella, to take his place; and thus comes into our pages that fair young lady, the greatest and most striking figure in all Spain's story, the Queen to whom she owes both her greatness and her fall.

Death of Pedro the Cruel