Don Roderigo Ponce de Leon, Marques of Cadiz, takes Alhama by storm

December 5, 2011

Don Roderigo Ponce de Leon, Marques of Cadiz

The Marques [of Cadiz] had a secret conference with Don Pedro Enriquez, Adelantado of Andalusia; Don Diego de Merlo, Commander of Seville; Sancho de Avila, Alcayde of Carmona, and others, who all agreed to aid him with their forces. On an appointed day, the several commanders assembled at Marchena with their troops and retainers. None but the leaders knew the object or destination of the enterprise; but it was enough to rouse the Andalusian spirit, to know that a foray was intended into the country of their old enemies, the Moors. Secrecy and celerity were necessary for success. They set out promptly, with three thousand genetes, or light cavalry, and four thousand infantry. They chose a route but little traveled, by the way of Antiquera, passing with great labor through rugged and solitary defiles of the Sierra or chain of mountains of Arrecife, and left all their baggage on the banks of the river Yeguas, to be brought after them. This march was principally in the night; all day they remained quiet; no noise was suffered in their camp, and no fires were made, lest the smoke should betray them. On the third day they resumed their march as the evening darkened, and forcing themselves forward at as quick a pace as they rugged and dangerous mountain roads would permit, they descended toward midnight into a small deep valley, only half a league from Alhama. Here they made a halt, fatigued by this forced march, during a long dark evening towards the end of February.

The Marques of Cadiz now explained to the troops the object of the expedition. He told them it was for the glory of the most holy faith, and to avenge the wrongs of their countrymen at Zahara; and that the town of Alhama, full of wealthy spoil, was the place to be attacked. The troops were roused to new ardor by these words, and desired to be led forthwith to the assault. They arrived close to Alhama about two hours before daybreak. Here the army remained in ambush, while three hundred men were dispatched to scale the walls and get possession of the castle. They were picked men, many of them alcaydes and officers, men who preferred death to dishonor. This gallant band was guided by the escalador Ortega de Prado, at the head of thirty men with scaling-ladders. They clambered the ascent to the castle in silence, and arrived under the dark shadow of its towers without being discovered. Not a light was to be seen, not a sound to be heard; the whole place was wrapped in profound repose.

Fixing their ladders, they ascended cautiously and with noiseless steps. Ortega was the first that mounted the battlements, followed by one Martin Galindo, a youthful esquire, full of spirit and eager for distinction. Moving stealthily along the parapet to the portal of the citadel, they came upon the sentinel by surprise. Ortega seized him by the throat, brandished a dagger before his eyes, and ordered him to point the way to the guardroom. The infidel obeyed, and was instantly dispatched to prevent his giving an alarm. The guardroom was a scene rather of massacre than combat. Some of the soldiery were killed while sleeping, others were cut down almost without resistance, bewildered by so unexpected an assault; all were dispatched, for the scaling party was too small to make prisoners or to spare. The alarm spread throughout the castle, but by this time the three hundred picked men had mounted the battlements. The garrison, startled from sleep, found the enemy already masters of the towers. Some of the Moors were cut down at once, others fought desperately from room to room, and the whole castle resounded with the clash of arms, the cries of the combatants, and the groans of the wounded. The army in ambush, finding by the uproar that the castle was surprised, now rushed from their concealment, and approached the walls with loud shouts, and sound of kettle-drums and trumpets, to increase the confusion and dismay of the garrison. A violent conflict took place in the court of the castle, where several of the scaling party sought to throw open the gates to admit their countrymen. Here fell two valiant alcaydes, Nicholas de Roja and Sancho de Avila; but they fell honorably, upon a heap of slain. At length Ortega de Prado succeeded in throwing open a postern, through which the Marques of Cadiz, the Adelantado of Andalusia, and Don Diego de Merlo entered with a host of followers, and the citadel remained in full possession of the Christians….

The castle was now taken; but the town below it was in arms. It was broad day, and the people, recovered from their panic, were enabled to see and estimate the force of the enemy. The inhabitants were chiefly merchants and tradespeople; but the Moors all possessed a knowledge of the use of weapons, and were of a brave and warlike spirit. They confided in the strength of their walls, and the certainty of speedy relief from Granada, which was but about eight leagues distant. Manning the battlements and towers, they discharged showers of stones and arrows, whenever the part of the Christian army, without the walls, attempted to approach. They barricaded the entrances of their streets, also, which opened towards the castle; stationing men expert at the crossbow and arquebus. These kept up a constant fire upon the gate of the castle, so that no one could sally forth without being instantly shot down. Two valiant cavaliers, who attempted to lead forth a party in defiance of this fatal tempest, were shot dead at the very portal.

Seige of Alhama, 1482. Relief carving from Toledo Catherdral (Rodrigo, Alemán c. 1492)

The Christians now found themselves in a situation of great peril. Reinforcements must soon arrive to the enemy from Granada; unless, therefore, they gained possession of the town in the course of the day, they were likely to be surrounded and beleaguered, without provisions in the castle. Some observed that, even if they took the town, they should not be able to maintain possession of it. They proposed, therefore, to make booty of everything valuable, to sack the castle, set it on fire, and make good their retreat to Seville.

The Marques of Cadiz was of different counsel. “God has given the citadel into Christian hands,” said he; “he will no doubt strengthen them to maintain it. We have gained the place with difficulty and bloodshed; it would be a stain upon our honor to abandon it through fear of imaginary dangers.” The Adelantado and Don Diego de Merlo joined in his opinion; but without their earnest and united remonstrances, the place would have been abandoned; so exhausted were the troops by forced marches and hard fighting, and so apprehensive of the approach of the Moors of Granada.

The strength and spirits of the party within the castle were in some degree restored by the provisions which they found. The Christian army beneath the town, being also refreshed by a morning’s repast, advanced vigorously to the attack of the walls. They planted their scaling-ladders, and, swarming up, sword in hand, fought fiercely with the Moorish soldiery upon the ramparts.

In the meantime, the Marques of Cadiz, seeing that the gate of the castle, which opened toward the city, was completely commanded by the artillery of the enemy, ordered a large breach to be made in the wall, through which he might lead his troops to the attach; animating them, in this perilous moment, by assuring them that the place should be given up to plunder, and its inhabitants made captive.

Rodrigo Ponce de Leon

The breach being made, the Marques put himself at the head of his troops, and entered, sword in hand. A simultaneous attack was made by the Christians in every part—by the ramparts, by the gate, by the roofs and walls which connected the castle with the town. The Moors fought valiantly in their streets, from their windows, and from the tops of their houses. They were not equal to the Christians in bodily strength, for they were for the most part peaceful men, of industrious callings, and enervated by the frequent use of the warm bath; but they were superior in number and unconquerable in spirit; old and young, strong and weak, fought with the same desperation….

The contest raged from morning until night, when the Moors began to yield. Retreating to a large mosque near the walls, they kept up so galling a fire from it with lances, crossbows and arquebuses, that for some time the Christians dared not approach. Covering themselves, at length, with bucklers and mantelets, to protect them from the deadly shower, the latter made their way to the mosque, and set fire to the door. When the smoke and flames rolled in upon them, the Moors gave up all as lost. Many rushed forth desperately upon the enemy, but were immediately slain; the rest surrendered themselves captives.

The struggle was now at an end; the town remained at the mercy of the Christians…

The town was given up to plunder, and the booty was immense. There were found prodigious quantities of gold and silver, and jewels, and rich silks, and costly stuffs of all kinds; together with horses and beeves, and abundance of grain, and oil, and honey, and all other productions of this fruitful kingdom; for in Alhama were collected the royal rents and tributes of the surrounding country; it was the richest town in the Moorish territory, and, from its great strength and its peculiar situation, was called the key to Granada….

Many Christian captives, who had been taken at Zahara, were found buried in a Moorish dungeon, and were triumphantly restored to light and liberty; and a renegado Spaniard who had often served as guide to the Moors in their incursions into the Christian territories, was hanged on the highest part of the battlements, for the edification of the army.

A Moorish horseman had spurred across the Vega, nor reined his panting steed until he alighted at the gate of the Alhambra. He brought tidings to Muley Abul Hassan of the attack upon Alahama. “The Christians,” said he, “are in the land. They came upon us, we know not whence or how, and scaled the walls of the castle in the night. There has been dreadful fighting and carnage in its towers and courts; and when I spurred my steed from the gate of Alhama, the castle was in possession of the unbelievers.”

Muley Abul Hassan felt for a moment as if swift retribution had come upon him for the woes he had inflicted upon Zahara. Still he flattered himself that this had only been some transient inroad of a party of marauders, intent upon plunder; and that a little succor, thrown into the town, would be sufficient to expel them from the castle, and drive them from the land. He ordered out, therefore, a thousand of his chosen cavalry, and sent them in all speed to the assistance of Alhama. They arrived before its walls the morning after its capture; the Christian standards floated upon its towers, and a body of cavalry poured froth from its gates and came wheeling down into the plain to receive them.

The Moorish horsemen turned the reins of their steeds, and galloped back for Granada. They entered its gates in tumultuous confusion, spreading terror and lamentation by their tidings: “Alhama is fallen! Alhama is fallen!” exclaimed they; “the Christians garrison its walls; the key of Granada is in the hands of the enemy!”

Collision of Moorish Horsemen Painted by Ferdinand Victor Eugéne Delacroix

When the people heard these words, they remembered the denunciation of the santon. His prediction seemed to resound in every ear, and its fulfillment to be at hand. Nothing was heard throughout the city but sighs and wailings. “Woe is me, Alhama!” was in every mouth; and this ejaculation of deep sorrow and doleful foreboding, came to be the burden of a plaintive ballad, which remains until the present day.

Many aged men, who had taken refuge in Granada from other Moorish dominions which had fallen into the power of the Christians, now groaned in despair at the thoughts that war was to follow them into this last retreat, to lay waste this pleasant land, and to bring trouble and sorrow upon their declining years. The women were more loud and vehement in their grief; for they beheld the evils impending over their children, and what can restrain the agony of a mother’s heart? Many of them made their way through the halls of the Alhambra into the presence of the King, weeping and wailing and tearing their hair, “Accursed be the day,” cried they, “that thou hast lit the flame of war in our land! May the holy Prophet bear witness before Allah that we and our children are innocent of this act! Upon thy head, and upon the heads of thy posterity, until the end of the world, rest the sin of the desolation of Zahara!”

Mulley Abul Hassan remained unmoved amidst all this storm; his heart was hardened (observes Fray Antonio Agapida) like that of Pharaoh, to the end that, through his blind violence and rage, he might produce the deliverance of the land from its heathen bondage.

 

Washington Irving, The Conquest of Granada (Agapida edition), (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), pp. 35-48.

 

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 131

 

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