Ponce de Leon - Frederick Ober

Fighting the Moors


Although the Marquis of Cadiz, by his inconsiderate attack upon Alhama, had precipitated the war which his sovereign would fain have delayed another year or two, still, as he and the Duke of Medina Sidonia had borne the brunt of the fighting, and sustained themselves in the captured fortress until Muley Hassan had been driven away, King Ferdinand regarded them now with greater favor than ever. They divided the laurels between them; and it was not the least of the rich results of this independent foray, in the opinion of the king, that these hitherto implacable enemies should have become reconciled, and thereafter marched forth shoulder to shoulder.

It was not to be expected that the Moors would take their defeat with good grace, although Alhama was but a fair exchange for Zahara, and not a long time elapsed before the agile Muley Hassan made a ravage of Medina Sidonia, which resulted in the loss to the duke of many followers and great herds of cattle. As the Moors were retreating upon Malaga, however, they were attacked by a gallant captain in the service of Rodrigo Ponce, and lost a large number out of the cavalgada, or herd, which they had collected, besides some of their bravest cavaliers. King Muley was greatly incensed; but he would not engage with his main body in conflict, for, as he sagaciously said, after viewing the field: "A handful of troops acquainted with the wild passes of these mountains might well be able to destroy an army encumbered as ours is with booty. Allah preserve us from these hard riders of Xeres!"

Thousands of cattle and horses were allowed to escape in the defiles of the mountains, but other thousands were driven in triumph to Malaga, and on the whole the foray was a great success for the Moors. In retaliation therefore the Marquis of Cadiz resolved upon a counter-foray into Moorish territory. He associated with him such gallant cavaliers as the Adelantado of Andalusia, the Count of Cifuentes, the Master of Santiago, and valiant Don Alonzo de Aguilar, who had saved the baggage of his army in the march upon Alhama.

It was a brilliant cavalcade, nearly three thousand strong, that set forth from the old city of Antiquera one morning in March, 1483, for the mountains of Malaga, with prancing steeds, flaunting banners, and amid the din of drum and trumpet. They should have reserved this noise and display for the return, however, for it proclaimed their purpose to the Moorish spies, who quickly informed the commander of the garrison at Malaga. He was a younger brother of Muley Aben Hassan, named Muley Abdallah, but more generally known as "El Zagal," or the Valiant. He was fierce and fiery, but extremely crafty, and when he heard of the prancing cavaliers approaching, resolved to meet them in the mountains and if possible cut them off. He first despatched trusty officers to arouse the mountaineers, who were all fanatical Mahometans, and then followed as rapidly as possible with his cavalry.

At sunset of their second day's march the Spaniards arrived within sight of Malaga and the Mediterranean, which they beheld at a distance from a lofty pass of the mountains. They were then in the midst of Moorish hamlets, scattered throughout the elevated valleys; but all the huts were deserted, for the mountaineers had been warned, and had fled to the fastnesses with all their belongings. From the battlements of lonely atalayas, or watch-towers, they looked down upon the Spanish horsemen struggling through deep barrancas  and over the ramblas, or dry beds of mountain torrents.

As night came on, and the flames from huts and villages which the Spaniards had set on fire showed the mountaineers the perilous position of their foes, a shout of exultation went up from the Moors on every side. Showers of darts, stones, and arrows descended from the watch-towers and from the brinks of impending precipices, upon the heads of the Spaniards. Alarm-fires ran from rock to rock, and lighted up the gloomy scene sufficiently for the Moors to attack, but not for the Spaniards to repel the assaults of their almost invisible foes. Great rocks, loosened from the cliffs, came plunging down upon the hapless Spaniards, who knew not which way to turn in order to escape.

It was no longer "On to Malaga," but "Every man for himself," since all were equally helpless. In the midst of the tumult, while some of the Spanish horsemen were hemmed within a deep ravine, the war-cries of "El Zagal" resounded from the cliffs. Day was dawning, and the Marquis of Cadiz could see approaching down the defiles the trained troops of El Zagal, guided and supported by the mountaineers. He attempted to form his men in battle array, but through their ranks dashed fragments of rock, hurled from the cliffs above, while darts and lances fell like hail.

The horse of the marquis was killed beneath him. Two brothers and two nephews were pierced by lances and fell dead within his sight. A huge fragment of rock swept his last remaining brother, Beltram, from his saddle, crushed and dying, at which the marquis gave a cry of anguish and fled the field. All his relatives and most of his followers were either dead, wounded, or prisoners, so there was nothing to stay for, and, guided by a faithful adalide, he made his way back to Antiquera.

Thenceforth, for months, the marquis bided his time for revenge. It came before the year was ended, for one day his scouts reported the advent of a small body of Gomeres, or fighting Moors from Africa, who were ravaging the plains of Andalusia, not far from his capital city of Xeres. As his faithful troops were always prepared for action, he and they were soon on the trail of the invaders, who had become alarmed and were retreating towards the fastnesses of Ronda. The faster they retreated, the faster the marquis pursued, for in their flight some of the Moorish warriors had cast aside pieces of the very armor, such as helms and corselets, of which they had stripped the Christians in the mountains of Malaga. This proved them to be the same who had committed that dreadful massacre, and even though their numbers might be overwhelming, nothing on earth could stay the marquis in his pursuit.

The approach of night, and the apparent cessation of the pursuit (for the marquis had made a detour behind a hill, which hid him and his men from sight), gave the Gomeres confidence, and they halted awhile to refresh their panting steeds, on the banks of the river Guadalete. Suddenly, without warning, the avenging Spaniards burst forth, and though inferior in numbers, put them to flight, with slaughter. Many of the Moors wore armor which they had taken previously from the Spaniards, and these being recognized, were the first selected for massacre, while the marquis, seeing a powerful warrior riding the very horse on which his brother Beltram had been killed, attacked him with the fury of a tiger. The contest was short, though fierce, and ended in the death of the Moor, who could not withstand the onset of the avenger, whose lance transfixed and threw him to the ground. The enemy fled in wild confusion to the hills, hundreds of them falling by the way, to rise no more; but the marquis did not join now in the pursuit, since his brother had been avenged.

He caught the horse from which he had hurled the Moorish warrior, and gazed long and mournfully, as in a trance, at the empty saddle. Both steed and saddle Beltram, his brother, once had owned, and ridden into battle many times. Tears came to his eyes, a sigh burst from his bosom, and he murmured, as if communing with the departed, "Ay de mi, hermano!"  (Woe is me, my brother!)

The brothers of the marquis had been avenged, but not the deadly insult to his pride of birth, and honor. He had hastened the war against the Moors of Granada by the taking of Alhama, which in turn had fallen in requital for the loss of Zahara. While the latter continued in possession of the Moors, he considered the fact a reproach against the Christians, and resolved to regain it for his king by force of arms or strategy. To resolve was to act, with this energetic Marquis of Cadiz. Having informed himself, through his spies, that Zahara was weakly garrisoned, he marched against it with about two thousand soldiers, horse and foot. It was in the month of October, 1483, and between midnight and morning, that he and his men secreted themselves in the ravines around the fortress of Zahara.

So silently and secretly had they arrived, that the Moors within had no knowledge of their coming, until, shortly after dawn, a small body of cavalry rode within gunshot of the fortress gate, as if to defy them to come out and skirmish. The Moors were ever brave and fiery, so a band of seventy sallied forth, and pursued the Christians towards the ravines, until, hearing a tumult behind them, they turned and saw a party of the enemy scaling the walls. Instantly they wheeled about for the gate, which they gained, though the Spaniards in ambush tried to cut them off. Failing in this attempt, the marquis immediately went to the assistance of Ortega de Prado, who was endeavoring to plant his ladders against the walls. Sword in hand, he sprang from his horse and mounted a ladder to the battlements, where he led his troops in such a vigorous attack upon the garrison, that the fortress was soon in possession of the Spaniards. For this gallant action the king gave him authority to use, in addition to his original title, that of the "Marquis of Zahara"; but as the Marquis of Cadiz he is better known.

Two years more passed away before the marquis signalized himself by a great action, though he was constantly engaged in warlike operations under the king. While the latter was vainly attempting to force the surrender of Malaga, in the year 1485, Rodrigo received intelligence from an apostate Moor of Ronda that its fortress, considered one of the strongest and most important then held by the enemy, was without an adequate force to repel a determined assault upon its walls. Ronda was like an eagle's nest, amid the crags of the sierras, with towers and triple walls rising above and surrounded by a ravine with precipitous sides, in the depths of which flowed a rapid river. It was under command of Hamet el Zegri, fiercest of African Moors, who had often defied the marquis and ravaged his territory. Rodrigo longed to meet and measure swords with him, but another reason for the capture of Ronda existed in the fact that within its dungeons were confined some of his former companions, who had been made captive in the Malaga mountains.

King Ferdinand fell in with Marquis Rodrigo's plan at once, heartily approving of the deep strategy at the bottom of it, which in brief was this: The king, who had really set about the siege of Malaga in earnest, was to return suddenly in the direction of Ronda, and surround it with his army. Meanwhile, Hamet el Zegri, attracted by the defenceless condition of Andalusia, from the plains of which the Christian troops had been withdrawn, could not resist a chance for ravage, and set forth with the better part of his garrison, intending to make a forced march into the heart of the land, gather an immense cavalgada of cattle and captives, and return without unnecessary delay. This, in the language of the great Captain Drake, who harried King Philip, a century later, would be "singeing the King of Spain's whiskers," in truth. But, as the sequel showed, it was the Moor who lost his whiskers, and not the Castilian, for, when Hamet el Zegri returned from his ravage, with vast herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and, in fact, spoil of every sort, he was astonished at hearing the thunder of cannon. Spurring his horse to a mountain crag that overlooked the region roundabout, he saw a vast army encamped beneath the walls of Ronda, which were visibly dissolving before a well-directed fire of artillery.

He raged and gnashed his teeth, of course; but to what avail? The Christian army was between him and his stronghold, overwhelmingly numerous, and so strong that repeated attempts to cut his way through it were repulsed with fearful loss to the Moorish forces. Old Zegri retreated into the heart of the mountains like a lion at bay, making frequent springs at his enemy, loath to abandon the stronghold in which he had formerly held sway without dispute; but at last he turned his back upon it, never to return.

The walls fell in masses and the great towers crumbled, beneath the cannon-fire of Ferdinand's gunners; fiery balls of tow were hurled into the town and set the houses in flames; but the stout-hearted inhabitants of Ronda did not capitulate until their water supply was cut off, and they were forced by thirst to surrender. The Marquis of Cadiz discovered the subterranean supply upon which they drew, by means of a shaft through the solid rock, and cut it off, by counter-mining from the side of a precipitous cliff.

The fall of Ronda was followed by the release of the Christians captured two years before, who had lain in the dungeons loaded with manacles, scarce daring to hope for deliverance. The chains they wore were exhibited to Queen Isabella, and afterwards hung on the walls of a church in Toledo known as San Juan de los Reyes—where the writer of this biography has seen them—reminders of Moorish barbarity four hundred years ago.

After the fall of Ronda, which was mainly due to the rare discernment of Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, this cavalier was, if possible, held in greater esteem than ever by the king. He accompanied him at court and in the field, and on one occasion, at Velez Malaga, in 1487, was instrumental in saving his life. The king had gone with the advance-guard to take possession of a height overlooking the city. Suddenly confronted by a superior force of the enemy, his escort was thrown into confusion, and Ferdinand, left for the moment unprotected, was surrounded by the Moors. They pressed upon him so closely that he could not draw the sword which hung at his saddle-bow, but with his lance he transfixed a Moor who had cut down one of his grooms, and then was helpless, in the midst of his foes.

"In this moment of awful jeopardy," writes the talented author of the Conquest of Granada, "the Marquis of Cadiz and four other cavaliers came galloping to the scene of action, and, surrounding the king, made a loyal rampart of their bodies against the assaults of the Moors. The horse of the marquis was pierced by an arrow, and that worthy cavalier exposed to imminent danger; but with the aid of his valorous companions he quickly put the enemy to flight, and pursued them, with slaughter, to the very gates of the city."

Such glorious actions as these we have narrated caused Rodrigo Ponce de Leon to be regarded as the "mirror of chivalry," by the queen, who did not hesitate to declare him almost the equal in prowess of Spain's immortal hero, the great and glorious Cid. He always claimed the post of danger as his by right, and at the siege of Malaga, which was begun in the early summer of 1487, he was stationed opposite the most powerful fortress of Gibralfero, against which he directed the fire of his lombards and led the assault.

While in camp here he was honored with a visit from his sovereigns, whom he entertained in a silken tent decorated with hangings of rich brocade. After serving a bountiful collation, he invited the queen and her ladies to witness the effect of a discharge of his artillery against the Gibralfero fortress. As the thunder of the lombards woke the echoes of the mountains, and huge masses of the Moorish fortification fell to the ground, the high-born dames exclaimed with delight; but as the smoke rolled away, revealing the battlements of the fortress, their cries were subdued by a feeling of pity for their gallant host, whose swarthy cheeks, at the same moment, crimsoned with shame. For there they saw, floating above the ramparts, his own banner of Cadiz, which had been taken from him at the time of the massacre in the mountains. Some of the enemy, also, had arrayed themselves in garments and armor of which they had despoiled the Christians at that time, and at these things they pointed, as well as at the banner, with derisive gestures and cries.

The royal party was silent, from sympathy, and the marquis held his peace; but after the sovereigns' departure his repressed rage broke forth, in an artillery fire of redoubled intensity. All that night and next day the cannon roared and volleyed, until the tower from which the banner had flaunted so defiantly was reduced to ruins, and a breach opened in the lower walls. Advancing his camp still nearer, he meditated an assault next morning; but was forestalled by the Moors themselves, who, two thousand strong, sallied out, and put his men to flight. They nearly succeeded in capturing another banner, indeed, and utterly destroying the camp, when he stemmed the tide, sword in hand, and, shouting to his men: "To the foe! To the foe!" turned what threatened to be a defeat into a victory. It was a barren one, however, and dearly was it bought, for many cavaliers had fallen, and among them the brave Ortega de Prado, who may be said to have begun the final war against the Moors of Granada, by his initiative at the storming of Alhama.

In this destructive war to the death, which was prolonged through ten years of almost incessant fighting, the Marquis of Cadiz, Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, bore a most important part, from its beginning to its ending, in 1492. He was one of the cavaliers selected by King Ferdinand to act as sponsors to his son, Prince Juan, when he began his career of arms and received the dignity of knighthood on the field of war, beneath the walls of Granada. He was also one of the principal nobles who accompanied the king in that last campaign against the Moors of Granada, when, with an army fifty thousand strong, in the month of April, 1491, he began the siege which was not to end until the last Moslem had capitulated. He took an active part in every engagement in front of the walls, witnessed the raising of the Spanish banner above the tower of La Vela, and was one of the knightly cavalcade that guarded the sovereigns when they received the capitulation of Boabdil, last king of the Moors, on the banks of the Xenil.

It was in January, 1492, that the Marquis of Cadiz entered the glorious Alhambra palace, in the train of Ferdinand and Isabella, and participated in the ceremonies that attended their re-enthronement in the famed "Hall of Justice." He may have been there when, a little later, in the same place, they signed the "capitulation" with Columbus for the voyage that resulted in the discovery of America; but a few weeks after he returned to his marquisate, hoping to enjoy the pleasures of a lasting peace. It was not to be his privilege, however, for, exhausted by the fatigues he had undergone and the wounds he had received, he expired at Seville August 27, 1492.