9-year-old Crown Prince Alfonso’s first battle against the Moors

April 29, 2013

The King [Saint Ferdinand] was still not satisfied.Since he had not been able to go in person to the battle, which he considered his God-given mission in this world, he decided to send to it his dearest possession, his firstborn and heir the Infante, Alfonso, a boy of nine…. But the little Infante was so young that he needed a protector who could effectively lead the expedition. After giving some thought to which nobleman he could entrust his beloved son, he chose Count Don Alvar Pérez de Castro.

St. Ferdinand III

St. Ferdinand III

“Don Alvar,” he said to him one day, “you see how the Moors have become quite proud and why it is necessary to lower their heads. Unfortunately, I cannot leave this kingdom of mine. I want them to receive an exemplary punishment by means of the Infante Don Alfonso, but because he is very young and not yet strong, I want you to go with him to protect him and to lead the army.”

Faced with such honor and trust from the King, the formidable Don Alvar, terror of the Moors, felt an emotion that made his eyes shine extraordinarily.

Alfonso X of Castile

“You know, Lord, I have never been defeated. My back was never seen by either Moors or Christians. But I never thought I would deserve an honor as great as your faith in me for the protection of the Infante your son. I swear to you, Lord, by God Almighty and Holy Mary and Saint James, that the safety of Don Alfonso is more important to me than my own life.”

“I realize that well, and I entrust him to you with the greatest confidence. You will travel to Toledo with him, and there you will organize the army for a campaign of skirmishes. Choose good men; while the Archbishop is occupied with Quesada, you will enter the area of Córdoba and Seville, destroying all the land, burning the crops and cutting their trees until you think it expedient to return.”

Don Alvar was never so happy as that spring morning. He attended Holy Mass in the royal chapel and had lunch with the King. This was an unheard-of honor since etiquette required that the King eat alone. Solemnly, in the presence of the whole court, Ferdinand entrusted his son to Don Alvar. The young Prince was armored in a light coat of mail under the pretty white surcoat that his mother had embroidered for him with red lions and golden castles, but his head was not yet covered with the iron helmet.

Saint Ferdinand III of Castile. Painted by Spanish School.

Saint Ferdinand III of Castile. Painted by Spanish School.

The King placed his hand on his son’s head, looking at him with love and satisfaction.

“Son, understand well that you are involved in the service of Jesus Christ and must act as a good knight of such a great King. And because you are very young, you must obey Don Alvar the same way you obey me. I am giving him the same authority over you that I have. Behave in such a way that all the men will esteem you and believe that when your hour comes, you will be a good and brave king.”

These were the instructions that King Ferdinand gave to his firstborn. How handsome he looked, so blond and with a rosy complexion, as he left among those serious Castilians with faces tanned by the sun and the wind.

When Doña Beatrice could no longer hold back her tears, she retired to her room. The King followed to console her, assuring her that since the boy was leaving in the service of Our Lord Jesus Christ, she should not worry because He would return him to her safe and sound….

Doña Beatrice

Doña Beatrice

On the way to the rendezvous in Toledo, the young Alfonso stayed close to Alvar Pérez, asking him about everything he saw around him with that thirst for knowledge that was so typical of him. The count was delighted with the boy’s intelligence, which grasped and understood any explanation given to him. Once in Toledo, at the site designated for organizing the army, a parade of noblemen and knights placed themselves under the command of Don Alvar, and all paid homage by kissing the Infante’s hand….

There in those days the future King, el Sabio (the Wise), met many of the heroes whose unprecedented feats he himself would immortalize in his chronicles. Among the first were two young esquires from Toledo, noble young men named Diego and Garci Pérez de Vargas. Castro, who admired their bravery and virtue, entrusted to them the protection of the Infante. The older one, Garci, almost twenty-one, was determined to perform so many acts of heroism that, upon his return, his lord Don Alvar would dub him a knight….

Another day Don Alvar introduced to him a nobleman with dark black eyes and features that revealed his Moorish origin; it was Don Ferdinand Abdemón, the young son of the king of Baeza, given to the King of Castile by his father as hostage years before. He had converted to Christianity by the power of Don Ferdinand’s example.

Alfonso X of Castile

Alfonso X of Castile

Castro selected a few of the best knights to form his army. The suffering during those raids of harassment was extensive. Throughout the campaign, the warriors wore only their weapons, never taking them off. They ate what they could steal from the enemy, sleeping in the towns they had assaulted or in the open fields. These campaigns required men with a spirit of sacrifice who would not back down in the face of any austerity. The King had selected a good school to form his son.

The Infante, who, like all boys, based his idealism on modeling himself after his father, did not turn back because of the harshness of such a life. He would see all those young, brave men laugh merrily, and he would laugh too, happy and proud to be among the most courageous warriors of the Cross. The first time he slept in the open air, he asked his guardian, “How does my father sleep on these campaigns?”

“Lord Infante,” answered Don Alvar, “the King, your father and my lord, has slept at my side many times under a tree and sometimes without one, and not a few time in the rain and cold weather.”

Hearing that, Alfonso threw himself on the ground with that idealistic self-sacrifice of youth.

Battle sceneThe knights were delighted with the brave little Infante. The gesture of his father’s trust in giving him to them raised their spirits to a high pitch. These knights, Tello Alfonso, Rodrigo González, Pedro de Guzmán, all personal friends of the King and of his generation, were an exceptional group. Each one of them was capable of defeating up to eight Moors in one battle. That this was no false claim was proved time and time again.

After assaulting towns and devastating fields in the valley of the Guadalquivir River, Don Alvar was informed the the king of the Gazules had traveled from Africa to find and destroy the Spanish knights in a pitched battle. It never occurred to the great leader to turn back, but rather to erase a humiliation suffered centuries before.(1) He turned his army to the south and waited for the Mohammedans among the olive trees and the grapevines, watered by the Guadalete.

After locating the Christians, the Moslem army advanced to a position opposite them.

They were so numerous that the mountains and fields were covered with white burnooses and turbans. Compared to them, the Castilians seemed to disappear like a small crumb that falls to the ground when the bread is broken. But nobody thinks of avoiding the clash by fleeing. Are they not soldiers of Christ? Have they not experienced he power of the God of Battles a hundred times?

But they did think about saving their souls in case they would die in combat. For that reason, Don Alvar, deeply conscious of what the King demanded from him when he gave him authority over the boy, told the Infante why it was necessary to be on good terms with God on the eve of a battle, and that the King his father never failed to go to confession. He also confessed after the young Prince had finished. There were long lines of knights waiting for their turn around the olive trees, under whose shade the clerics who accompanied the army were hearing confessions. Because of time and other pressing responsibilities, many were forced to confess with one another. In one of those lines, Alfonso saw the two Pérez de Vargas….

Subscription8In these preparations of souls and bodies the whole night went by. At its end, while the stars still lit the sky, Don Alvar called the esquire Garci Pérez, and there before the King’s son and all the noblemen, he said to him, “Garci Pérez de Vargas, I know well, despite your humility and silence, all you have done since we left Toledo. I do not want such a brave man to enter into battle without receiving the Order. So kneel that I may dub you a knight.”

The young man obeyed with a religious fervor. Alvar took the sword from his belt and asked the questions of the ritual:

“Garci Pérez de Vargas, do you swear to God Almighty and to Holy Mary and to Santiago to defend the holy Christian Law and the land where you were born, and to protect the needy and the helpless?”

“I swear!” Garci Pérez answered, kissing the cross of the sword.

Then Alvar Pérez de Castro struck his shoulder with the sword. Afterward, he fastened it to his waist again while Ferdinand Abdelmón and Tello Alfonso placed the spurs on him.

“You are a knight,” he said to him. “Be careful to act as you have sworn.”

Garci kissed his sponsor’s hand. All present embraced him and with this the ceremony ended.

No time could be wasted. At the dawn’s lightly the formidable Moorish army could already be seen, divided into seven squadrons. Don Alvar, without his usual armor, taking as his only weapon a long and strong wooden staff, inspected the Christian army accompanied by the young Infante. The boy, with the optimism proper for his age, observed everything with vivid interest. Joyfully and vigorously the leader spoke to all the knights with such a festive attitude that it transmitted to their hearts the premonition of victory.

Painting by Adolf Schreyer

Moors and Christians were already face to face. The rays of the rising sun played with the brilliant colors of the Moorish attires and broke in sparks on the coats of mail of the Christians. Suddenly the powerful voice of Don Alvar gave the battle cry: “Santiago and Castile!” Like a torrent that has broken its dikes, the Christian cavalry charged forward, those terrible “righteous knights,” as the Chronicle says, that where they aimed their lances they undoubtedly left a dead man on the ground and a loose horse running through the fields. Surging on were the men from Toledo, their arms almost like the steel of their swords: the knights of the Orders with their capes floating in the wind like a legion of exterminating angels; the noblemen followed by their armies, desiring glory, always in competition for the achievement of honor and fame. Like the sickle plunges into the golden wheat, the Army of the Cross plunged into the crowd of Moors, opening breaches throughout the line, jumping over the dead and the wounded; and breaking after them, the second squadron, then the third, and the fourth, and, after them, the rest. There was no formation anymore, or lines, or squadrons or anything but a confused, horrible scramble wherein each Christian knight, fighting against three or four Moors, would vanquish them and sweep them away because his effort was sustained by a superhuman virtue. Three horses had been killed under the new knight Pérez de Vargas, and three times, picking himself up from the ground stunned by the terrible fall, he had found another horse with no living owner and had returned with the same strength to the fight. Don Alvar—who did not leave the Infante for a minute—saw Pérez go by covered with his blood and that of others and shouted to him, “Are you wounded, Garci Pérez?”

But the young man, who was riding his fourth horse, answered smiling and vigorous, “Now you will see, Don Alvar my lord, how my wounds weaken me.”

And tightening the spurs, he flew like an arrow, holding his lance securely, toward a point where he had distinguished the flag of the king of the Gazules. Unconcerned at the many blows that were falling over him like a shower, his attention concentrated so his aim would not be deviated, and overcome by an intensity that made him insensible to everything, he fell on the Moor with the strength of a hurricane, hitting him with the terrible weapon in the middle of his chest. The clash was so horrendous that the Gazul king, pierced with the formidable young man’s spear, was knocked clean from his saddle. Barci let the weapon go so it would not drag him in the fall, and, taking up his sword, he began to deliver cuts and blows with such a fury that he cause all of the infidels to flee in disorder. While fleeing they spread the news of their lord’s death, adding to the discouragement among the already demoralized Moslems.

Moors

Then the battle went into its last phase, the Moors were being beheaded without compassion by the hundreds. Suddenly, Don Alvar heard a strong blow and, turning to look, he called the Infante’s attention to an incredible scene that caused him to laugh heartily. Diego Pérez de Vargas, Garci’s brother, whose spear, sword and club were all broken, had made another one by seizing an olive tree with a tremendous root. With it, he was distributing terrible blows under which even the hardest heads broke as if they were made of fragile glass.

The Moors fled like a scattered herd, followed by the Castilians as far as the gates of the city of Jerez. There, trying to enter all at the same time, they squeezed one another in a panic, not even bothering to defend themselves. Out of their minds with fear, they exposed their backs to the Christians, who, not running any risks, were cutting them down.

That night joy reigned in the Christian camp. All congratulated the Vargas brothers as the heroes of the day, and the Infante, who had grown so fond of them, embraced them as Don Alvar had told him his father used to do with soldiers who distinguished themselves for their courage. The Christian dead were very few in comparison with the Moslems. They buried them piously by torchlight in the ground blessed by the priests who accompanied them.

(1) The defeat of the Christian Visigoths by the Berbers in 711 at the Guadalete opened up all Spain to the Mohammedan onslaught.

 

C. Fernandez de Castro, A.C.J., The Life of the Very Noble King of Castile and León, Saint Ferdinand III (Mount Kisco, N.Y.: The Foundation for a Christian Civilization, Inc., 1987), 125-31.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 277

 

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