Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Siege of Granada

"What if 'mid the cannons' thunder,

Whistling shot and bursting bomb,

When my brothers fall around me,

Should my heart grow cold and numb?"


Isabella's Court at Jaen—The Army Moved from Andalusia and Besieged Baza—Extraordinary Difficulties of this Siege—How Isabella Met Them—She Went to Camp—The Surrender of Baza—General Terms to Cidi Yahye and El Zagal—Surrender of other Cities—Ferdinand Demanded Granada—He Quarrelled with Boabdil, who Refused Him—The Sovereigns for the Winter Return to Andalusia—Isabella Again at Cordova.

In the spring of 1489 Isabella, to be near to the new front, moved her court to Jaen. Ferdinand led out from Cordova a larger army than before—some 40,000 foot and 13,000 horse. He aimed his blow against the Moorish possessions toward the east, where El Zagal still held sway. There were Baza, Guadix, Almeria, and the whole rich region north and east of the Alpujarras. El Zagal put Cidi Yahye, a relative and able warrior, in charge of the active movable defenders, made up principally of hardy mountaineers. Baza came first. It was provisioned for at least fifteen months. The fertile valleys had been made as barren as possible by fetching in herds and grain, so as to leave nothing to the approaching enemy. The siege began. After taking several fortified places and smaller towns, the battle raged around this rugged city. The labyrinth of "the orchards" gave the Moors great advantage. Ferdinand, after several bloody repulses, changed position, finally sitting down farther back in the suburbs. He was much troubled. The difficulties and trials were multiplying beyond all previous calculation. The mountain torrents inundated everything; the roads became execrable. It was hard to keep the army alive; and Baza, with its fierce and resolute defenders, appeared more impregnable than Malaga, for there were here no ships at hand to help. Ferdinand, like all perplexed commanders, at last resorted to a council of war. The council, even the Marquis of Cadiz agreeing, recorded the conclusion that the siege of Baza should be postponed, certainly until other parts of the country had been conquered; but the spirit of the junior officers with the rank and file did not weaken. They pleaded to stay. Isabella's postal express soon brought her the news of this hesitation and proposed action, and she wrote at once to the king: "Why should you despair of God's help after He has led your armies in safety thus far! Never have the Moors been weaker; never have the Christians been so strong. And no prestige in this campaign has thus far been lost—none by a single reverse. You cannot resume operations hereafter under so favorable auspices as those that now exist." . . . In conclusion she said: "If the soldiers will be true to their duty, I will see that they be furnished with all the necessary supplies."

There was no resisting such hopeful, sanguine words, coming as they did from a queen and a woman beloved. The reaction was immediate; the enthusiasm was general; to the soldiers her message was a breath of life and vigor, so that the siege began again with all the freshness and energy of a new campaign. But what a task was set for the besiegers!

It took forty fearful days to clear away the "orchards" and pleasure grounds. Four hundred soldiers were worked as pioneers, and half the army detailed to guard them while they labored.

The surrounding trench, when completed, was over six miles in length. Towers, flanked by long, sheltering barricades, were erected 300 yards apart, to be filled with guards, whose duty it was to watch and protect the advances of pioneers and battalions. Ferdinand's army was creeping up nearer and nearer to the walls of Baza, yet over four months had been used, and no important point was secured.

It is about this time that a communication from the Khedive of Egypt to Isabella at Jaen arrived. He complained bitterly of the intolerance which the sovereigns had exhibited toward the Moors, asserting, in contrast, that he himself had extended to all his subjects uniform protection. The message was brought by two Franciscans, who were kindly received, and sent back by the queen with acceptable presents. She contended in her rejoinder that the sovereigns of Spain also made no difference in dealing with their subjects; but that the province that had been occupied by the Moors belonged not to them, but to the Spanish race. They were simply recovering their own inalienable property.

The autumn rains set in. The defenders of Baza hoped much from these continuous showers—both the spoiling of their enemies' camping-grounds and the interruption of their convoys by swollen mountain streams and creeks and impassable roads. In fact, the soldiers suffered not only from the cold and wet, but their tents in one storm were mostly demolished and their temporary shelters destroyed. Yet within four days there-after these industrious Spaniards had housed their officers in adobe huts with tile roofs, and the rest of the army in little cabins of upright posts covered over with thick branches.

As soon as Isabella heard of this curious city, she thought that she would endeavor to preserve the contentment of the men by some provisions beyond the ordinary coarse fare; so she opened the way for bands of traders. They came at her call from the farthest provinces, and even from Sicily, and were soon scattered over the soldier villages, selling their luxuries and fabrics. This would seem rather a demoralizing operation, but the customary discipline of much work helped to keep the peace. With these humble houses for shelter and the busy traders to amuse the men, they would stand the late fall and even a winter in the field. So Isabella hoped; but the interruption of the trains of supply began at last to result in want of food.

Discontent always follows the prospect of famine. Again, in view of this condition, the indefatigable queen employed some 6000 pioneers and set them at work. They speedily repaired the roads, rebuilt the bridges which the flood had broken up, and put in comparative order two thoroughfares from Jaen to Baza, so that supplies might go in by one route, and the wagons and pack animals return by the other. From Andalusia were collected immense stores of grain. Isabella had this ground in the Jaen mills and sent forward. It is estimated that 14,000 mules were seen at that time daily passing the mountain crest, packed with food, and so restoring to the army the plenty never to be again imperilled. And this was not done by forced loans or constraint. She easily raised the levies, and with that rare facility she had to obtain money in sufficiency, kept replenishing her treasury. She borrowed from clergy and laity, giving mortgages on the royal demesne, at times pawning a part of the crown jewels and her personal valuables to the merchants of Barcelona and Valencia The mutual confidence between the people and Queen Isabella was something phenomenal. Her simple word would control the commercial world around her and open the strong boxes at need.

One secret of this potent influence was that Isabella promptly met her pecuniary obligations. But in spite of all this work in the rear and at the front, the soldiers, accustomed to go home for the winter, found their hardships too great. There was already much sickness, and the fretful complaints at their officers' failure to secure results grew daily louder. There was a growing danger of mutiny. All patriots began to call for the presence of the queen. Some hoped that, when she came and saw their suffering, she would cause a retreat; others remembered how courage and vigor had ever ensued upon the queen's appearance among them; and others still had a vague confidence that she was powerful enough to capture the well-defended city itself.

Isabella quickly answered the call. She arrived in camp, accompanied by her eldest daughter, the Cardinal of Spain, and the ladies of her court. The army, notwithstanding its dejection under its extreme trials, which seemed to bring no results except sickness, wounds, and death, received her and her charming train with the utmost enthusiasm. The Moors from their walls, pinnacles, and housetops gazed with wonder upon the unusual pageant, and they unaccountably seemed to be touched with a feeling of dismay, as if the great queen had waved over them some magic wand. They witnessed the renewed activity, the completed communications, the winter huts, the incoming luxuries; and the king himself, instead of leaving Baza for a furlough, was joined by the irrepressible queen. No wonder that a messenger came from Cidi Yahye, the warrior, and Mohamed Ben Hassan, the aged governor, with a petition for negotiation. The capitulation was soon concluded. The troops in Baza, which had been brought there as auxiliaries, were allowed to march out with the honors of war. The natives also might retire, keeping their personal property, whithersoever they liked, or remain near at hand, as subjects of Castile under taxation, their religion undisturbed, their colonies and laws secured to them. Such were the main conditions, next to impossible of fulfilment in the presence of a conquering Spanish army. On December 4th, 1489, as on former like occasions, the Spanish sovereigns took formal possession of the impregnable city of Baza. They abated nothing of the usual pomp and ceremony in their triumphant entry and subsequent processions. Isabella, after her fashion, was grateful to God for His favors and blessings; and, like all able commanders, she was very proud of this evident personal victory, where friends and enemies united to do her honor.

The acquisition of Baza was not the only fruit of this remarkable campaign. Though the sturdy warrior, Cidi Yahye, by fierce sal lies and impregnable walls, was able to keep back 50,000 fighting men for seven months, yet he managed to persuade his old cousin, El Zagal, to tender to Ferdinand and Isabella the immediate surrender of Almeria, Guadix, and their dependencies.

Without a day's delay, under the inspiration of its new-found joy and energy, this great army pushed on across a mountain range already clad in snow, through passes so narrow and along steeps so precipitous that a few hostile battalions could have fatally obstructed their march. The king, with his grand escort, led the way; and Queen Isabella, with her suite—an unwonted adjunct to an army on the march—brought forward the rear division. At this time certainly it was the guard of honor.

They had hardly come in sight of Almeria when El Zagal, the aged king and warrior, whose name since the massacre in the mountains of Malaga had been more terrible in the ears of the Spaniards than any other, came out to meet them. Soon after the greetings the two kings, apparently courteous friends, rode on together, with no show of opposition from any quarter, into this wealthy, commercial city. A quiet encampment for a few days' rest, while the sovereigns made Almeria secure, prepared the troops for another march. As they came near, Gaudix also threw open its gates; and in the briefest time thereafter, by the adroit methods of judiciously appointing and distributing garrisons under able commanders, King Ferdinand had taken possession of the region of the Alpujarras, which had for some time been the only acknowledged possession left to El Zagal. The same terms as those accepted by Baza were granted and agreed to on every side. The old king had assigned to him in the treaty no insignificant award for a humble vassal; and if by any possibility the wary and unscrupulous Ferdinand had kept faith and El Zagal had properly curbed his proud spirit, he would have been in very comfortable circumstances the remainder of his life. He was made the ruler of all the territory of Andarax and the fertile valley of the Alhurin; he had also half the salt pits of Maleha with which to increase his income. The title of king, sustained by a grand guard of 2000 Moors, was assigned him. His annual revenue was never to fall short of 4,000,000 of maravedi, or $12,000.

Yet the sharp iron of humiliation and discontent had entered the heart of the haughty old monarch. He soon sold his possessions and fled to Africa, where, it is said, he was robbed of all the money that he had carried away, and died, afflicted with blindness, in abject poverty.

When Boabdil, at Granada, heard the news of the fall of his hated uncle, El Zagal, he was at first greatly rejoiced. Without doubt his kingdom would now return, and he would rule the whole province of the Moors, though of course as the obedient vassal of the sovereigns of Spain! But the demand speedily came from Ferdinand to fulfil an old promise which he had made—that is, seeing that the Alpujarras country was conquered, to surrender at once his capital. Boabdil was crest-fallen at this terrible demand. He could not, even if he would, fulfil his almost forgotten promise without the immediate presence of the Spanish army; for almost to a man his Moorish subjects, on the reception of the tidings of El Zagal's fall, had turned their hearts against him. Boabdil, made to feel their chagrin, very properly sought for delay from Ferdinand in the execution of his promise.

Washington Irving gives a clear account of the situation in a few choice words. He says: "Ferdinand was not to be satisfied with such a reply. The time was come to bring his game of policy to a close, and to consummate his conquest by seating himself on the throne of the Alhambra. Professing to consider Boabdil as a faithless ally, who had broken his plighted word, he discarded him from his friendship, and addressed a second letter, not to that monarch, but to the commanders and council of the city. He demanded a complete surrender of the place, with all the arms in the possession either of the citizens or of others who had recently taken refuge within its walls. If the inhabitants should comply with this summons, he promised them the indulgent terms which had been granted to Baza, Guadix, and Almeria; if they should refuse, he threatened them with the fate of Malaga."

The reply of the citizens was made through the eminent Muza Ben Abil Gazan, a citizen of royal extraction, who in a previous harangue said: "If the Christian king desires our arms, let him come and win them; but let him win them dearly. For my part, sweeter were a grave beneath the walls of Granada, on the spot I had died to defend, than the richest couch within her palaces, earned by submission to the unbeliever."

The citizens' dispatch declared: "We will suffer death rather than surrender the city."

It was too late in the season for further offensive operations, so that, after putting Inigo Lopez de Mendoza in command of the extensive garrisons, with his headquarters well forward—in fact, within 25 miles of Granada, at Alcala la Real, where he could hold with tenacity the most important routes, the sovereigns and the main army passed back again by comfortable journeys to Andalusia.

The main court, moving from 'Jaen, joined Isabella, and spent the remainder of the winter and the early spring of 1490 in the city of Cordova. But the month of April found this movable caravan of a court again at Seville.