The Last Battle of the Valiant Don Alonso de Aguilar

May 9, 2013

To such as feel an interest in the fortune of the valiant Don Alonso de Aguilar, the chosen friend and companion-in-arms of Ponce de Leon, marques of Cadiz, and one of the most distinguished heroes of the war of Granada, a few particulars of his remarkable fate will not be unacceptable.

Plaque of Alonso de Aguilar (older brother of the Great Captain) in the Pavilion of San Martín de la Plaza Mayor in Salamanca

For several years after the conquest of Granada the country remained feverish and unquiet. The zealous efforts of the Catholic clergy to effect the conversion of the infidels, and the coercion used for that purpose by government, exasperated the stubborn Moors of the mountains. Several missionaries were maltreated, and in the town of Dayrin two of them were seized and exhorted, with many menaces, to embrace the Moslem faith; on their resolutely refusing they were killed with staves and stones by the Moorish women and children, and their bodies burnt to ashes.

Upon this event a body of Christian cavaliers assembled in Andalusia to the number of eight hundred, and, without waiting for orders from the king, revenged the death of these martyrs by plundering and laying waste the Moorish towns and villages. The Moors fled to the mountains, and their cause was espoused by many of their nation who inhabited those rugged regions. The storm of rebellion began to gather and mutter its thunders in the Alpuxarras. They were echoed from the Serrania of Ronda, ever ready for rebellion, but the strongest hold of the insurgents was in the Sierra Bermeja, or chain of Red Mountains, which lie near the sea, the savage rocks and precipices of which may be seen from Gibraltar.

Aguilar de la Frontera, is a town in the province of Córdoba, and it was Don Alonso de Aguilar’s ancestral town in Andalucia. Photo by Bert Kaufmann

When King Ferdinand heard of these tumults he issued a proclamation ordering all the Moors of the insurgent regions to leave them within ten days and repair to Castile; giving secret instructions, however, that those who should voluntarily embrace the Christian faith might be permitted to remain. At the same time he ordered Don Alonso de Aguilar and the counts of Urena and Cifuentes to march against the rebels.

Don Alonso de Aguilar was at Cordova when he received the commands of the king. “What force is allotted us for this expedition?” said he. On being told, he perceived that the number of troops was far from adequate. “When a man is dead,” said he, “we send four men into his house to bring forth the body. We are now sent to chastise these Moors, who are alive, vigorous, in open rebellion, and ensconced in their castles; yet they do not give us man to man.” These words of the brave Alonso de Aguilar were afterward frequently repeated, but, though he saw the desperate nature of the enterprise, he did not hesitate to undertake it.

Arabs Painting by David Roberts 1840

Don Alonso was at that time in the fifty-first year of his age—a warrior in whom the fire of youth was yet unquenched, though tempered by experience. The greater part of his life had been spent in camp and field until danger was as his habitual element. His muscular frame had acquired the firmness of iron without the rigidity of age. His armor and weapons seemed to have become a part of his nature, and he sat like a man of steel on his powerful war-horse.

He took with him on this expedition his son, Don Pedro de Cordova, a youth of bold and generous spirit, in the freshness of his days, and armed and arrayed with the bravery of a young Spanish cavalier. When the populace of Cordova beheld the veteran father, the warrior of a thousand battles, leading forth his son to the field, they bethought themselves of the family appellation. “Behold,” cried they, “the eagle teaching his young to fly! Long live the valiant line of Aguilar!”*

Moor with Falconer Painting by Henri Emilien Rousseau

The prowess of Don Alonso and of his companions-in-arms was renowned throughout the Moorish towns. At their approach, therefore, numbers of the Moors submitted, and hastened to Ronda to embrace Christianity. Among the mountaineers, however, were many of the Gandules, a tribe from Africa, too proud of spirit to bend their necks to the yoke. At their head was a Moor named El Feri of Ben Estepar, renowned for strength and courage. At his instigation his followers gathered together their families and most precious effects, placed them on mules, and, driving before them their flocks and herds, abandoned their valleys and retired up the craggy passes of the Sierra Bermeja. On the summit was a fertile plain surrounded by rocks and precipices, which formed a natural fortress. Here El Feri placed all the women and children and all the property. By his orders his followers piled great stones on the rocks and cliffs which commanded the defiles and the steep sides of the mountain, and prepared to defend every pass that led to his place of refuge.

Arabs

The Christian commanders arrived, and pitched their camp before the town of Monarda, a strong place, curiously fortified, and situated at the foot of the highest part of the Sierra Bermeja. Here they remained for several days, unable to compel a surrender. They were separated from the skirt of the mountain by a deep barranca, or ravine, at the bottom of which flowed a small stream. The Moors commanded by El Feri drew down from their mountain-height, and remained on the opposite side of the brook to defend a pass which led up to their stronghold.

One afternoon a number of Christian soldiers in mere bravado seized a banner, crossed the brook, and, scrambling up the opposite bank, attacked the Moors. They were followed by numbers of their companions, some in aid, some in emulation, but most in hope of booty. A sharp action ensued on the mountain-side. The Moors were greatly superior in number, and had the vantage-ground. When the counts of Urena and Cifuentes beheld the skirmish, they asked Don Alonso de Aguilar his opinion. “My opinion,” said he, “was given at Cordova, and remains the same: this is a desperate enterprise. However, the Moors are at hand, and if they suspect weakness in us it will increase their courage and our peril. Forward then to the attack, and I trust in God we shall gain a victory.” So saying, he led his troops into the battle.

Battle

On the skirts of the mountain were several level places, like terraces; here the Christians pressed valiantly upon the Moors, and had the advantage; but the latter retreated to the steep and craggy heights, whence they hurled darts and rocks upon their assailants. They defended their passes and defiles with valor, but were driven from height to height until they reached the plain on the summit of the mountain where their wives and children were sheltered. Here they would have made a stand, but Alonso de Aguilar, with his son Don Pedro, charged upon them at the head of three hundred men and put them to flight with great carnage. While they were pursuing the flying enemy the rest of the army, thinking the victory achieved, dispersed themselves over the little plain in search of plunder. They pursued the shrieking females, tearing off their necklaces, bracelets, and anklets of gold, and they found so much treasure of various kinds collected in this spot that they threw by their armor and weapons to load themselves with booty.

Evening was closing. The Christians, intent upon spoil, had ceased to pursue the Moors, and the latter were arrested in their flight by the cries of their wives and children. Their leader, El Feri, threw himself before them. “Friends, soldiers,” cried he, “whither do you fly? Whither can you seek refuge where the enemy cannot follow you? Your wives, your children, are behind you—turn and defend them; you have no chance for safety but from the weapons in your hands.”

Arabs attacking

The Moors turned at his words. They beheld the Christians scattered about the plain, many of them without armor, and all encumbered with spoil. “Now is the time!” shouted El Feri: “charge upon them while laden with your plunder. I will open a path for you.” He rushed to the attack, followed by his Moors, with shouts and cries that echoed through the mountains. The scattered Christians were seized with panic, and, throwing down their booty, began to fly in all directions. Don Alonso de Aguilar advanced his banner and endeavored to rally them. Finding his horse of no avail in these rocky heights, he dismounted, and caused his men to do the same: he had a small band of tried followers, with which he opposed a bold front to the Moors, calling on the scattered troops to rally in the rear.

Night had completely closed. It prevented the Moors from seeing the smallness of the force with which they were contending, and Don Alonso and his cavaliers dealt their blows so vigorously that, aided by the darkness, they seemed multiplied to ten times their number. Unfortunately, a small cask of gunpowder blew up near to the scene of action. It shed a momentary but brilliant light over all the plain and on every rock and cliff. The Moors beheld, with surprise, that they were opposed by a mere handful of men, and that the greater part of the Christians were flying from the field. They put up loud shouts of triumph. While some continued the conflict with redoubled ardor, others pursued the fugitives, hurling after them stones and darts and discharging showers of arrows. Many of the Christians in their terror and their ignorance of the mountains, rushed headlong from the brinks of precipices and were dashed in pieces.

moors

Don Alonso still maintained his ground, but, while some of the Moors assailed him in front, others galled him with all kinds of missiles from the impending cliffs. Some of the cavaliers, seeing the hopeless nature of the conflict, proposed to abandon the height and retreat down the mountain. “No,” said Don Alonso proudly; “never did the banner of the house of Aguilar retreat one foot in the field of battle.” He had scarcely uttered these words when his son Pedro was stretched at his feet. A stone hurled from a cliff had struck out two of his teeth, and a lance passed quivering through his thigh. The youth attempted to rise, and, with one knee on the ground, to fight by the side of his father. Don Alonso, finding him wounded, urged him to quit the field. “Fly, my son,” said he; “let us not put everything at venture upon one hazard. Conduct thyself as a good Christian, and live to comfort and honor thy mother.”

Don Pedro still refused to leave his side. Whereupon Don Alonso ordered several of his followers to bear him off by force. His friend Don Francisco Alvarez of Cordova, taking him in his arms, conveyed him to the quarters of the count of Urena, who had halted on the height at some distance from the scene of battle for the purpose of rallying and succoring the fugitives. Almost at the same moment the count beheld his own son, Don Pedro Giron, brought in grievously wounded.

Arab

In the mean time, Don Alonso, with two hundred cavaliers, maintained the unequal contest. Surrounded by foes, they fell, one after another, like so many stags encircled by the hunters. Don Alonso was the last survivor, without horse and almost without armor, his corselet unlaced and his bosom gashed with wounds. Still, he kept a brave front to the enemy, and, retiring between two rocks, defended himself with such valor that the slain lay in a heap before him.

He was assailed in this retreat by a Moor of surpassing strength and fierceness. The contest was for some time doubtful, but Don Alonso received a wound in the head, and another in the breast, which made him stagger. Closing and grappling with his foe, they had a desperate struggle, until the Christian cavalier, exhausted by his wounds, fell upon his back. He still retained his grasp upon his enemy. “Think not,” cried he, “thou hast an easy prize; know that I am Don Alonso, he of Aguilar!”—”If thou art Don Alonso,” replied the Moor, “know that I am El Feri of Ben Estepar.” They continued their deadly struggle, and both drew their daggers, but Don Alonso was exhausted by seven ghastly wounds: while he was yet struggling his heroic soul departed from his body, and he expired in the grasp of the Moor.

Ibrahim Ali-al-Atar, statue in Loja, Granada, of Aliatar. Photo by Menesteo

Ibrahim Ali-al-Atar. Statue in Loja, Granada. Photo by Menesteo

Thus fell Alonso de Aguilar, the mirror of Andalusian chivalry—one of the most powerful grandees of Spain for person, blood, estate, and office. For forty years he had made successful war upon the Moors—in childhood by his household and retainers, in manhood by the prowess of his arm and in the wisdom and valor of his spirit. His pennon had always been foremost in danger; he had been general of armies, viceroy of Andalusia, and the author of glorious enterprises in which kings were vanquished and mighty alcaydes and warriors laid low. He had slain many Moslem chiefs with his own arm, and among others the renowned Ali Atar of Loja, fighting foot to foot, on the banks of the Xenil. His judgment, discretion, magnanimity, and justice vied with his prowess. He was the fifth lord of his warlike house that fell in battle with the Moors.

“His soul,” observes the worthy Padre Abarca, “it is believed, ascended to heaven to receive the reward of so Christian a captain; for that very day he had armed himself with the sacraments of confession and communion.”

Arabs

The Moors, elated with their success, pursued the fugitive Christians down the defiles and sides of the mountains. It was with the utmost difficulty that the count de Urena could bring off a remnant of his forces from that disastrous height. Fortunately, on the lower slope of the mountain they found the rear-guard of the army, led by the count de Cifuentes, who had crossed the brook and the ravine to come to their assistance. As the fugitives came flying in headlong terror down the mountain it was with difficulty the count kept his own troops from giving way in panic and retreating in confusion across the brook. He succeeded, however, in maintaining order, in rallying the fugitives, and checking the fury of the Moors; then, taking his station on a rocky eminence, he maintained his post until morning, sometimes sustaining violent attacks, at other times rushing forth and making assaults upon the enemy. When morning dawned the Moors ceased to combat, and drew up to the summit of the mountain.

Don Francisco Ramírez de Madrid

Don Francisco Ramírez de Madrid

It was then that the Christians had time to breathe and to ascertain the sad loss they had sustained. Among the many valiant cavaliers who had fallen was Don Francisco Ramirez of Madrid, who had been captain-general of artillery throughout the war of Granada, and contributed greatly by his valor and ingenuity to that renowned conquest. But all other griefs and cares were forgotten in anxiety for the fate of Don Alonso de Aguilar. His son, Don Pedro de Cordova, had been brought off with great difficulty from the battle, and afterward lived to be marques of Priego; but of Don Alonso nothing was known, except that he was left with a handful of cavaliers fighting valiantly against an overwhelming force.

As the rising sun lighted up the red cliffs of the mountains the soldiers watched with anxious eyes if perchance his pennon might be descried fluttering from any precipice or defile, but nothing of the kind was to be seen. The trumpet-call was repeatedly sounded, but empty echoes alone replied. A silence reigned about the mountain-summit which showed that the deadly strife was over. Now and then a wounded warrior came dragging his feeble steps from among the cliffs and rocks, but on being questioned he shook his head mournfully and could tell nothing of the fate of his commander.

Arab soldier by Adolf Schreyer

The tidings of this disastrous defeat and of the perilous situation of the survivors reached King Ferdinand at Granada: he immediately marched at the head of all the chivalry of his court to the mountains of Ronda. His presence with a powerful force soon put an end to the rebellion. A part of the Moors were suffered to ransom themselves and embark for Africa; others were made to embrace Christianity; and those of the town where the Christian missionaries had been massacred were sold as slaves. From the conquered Moors the mournful but heroic end of Alonso de Aguilar was ascertained.

Ferdinand the Catholic, king of Aragon

On the morning after the battle, when the Moors came to strip and bury the dead, the body of Don Alonso was found among those of more than two hundred of his followers, many of them alcaydes and cavaliers of distinction. Though the person of Don Alonso was well known to the Moors, being so distinguished among them both in peace and war, yet it was so covered and disfigured with wounds that it could with difficulty be recognized. They preserved it with great care, and on making their submission delivered it up to King Ferdinand. It was conveyed with great state to Cordova, amidst the tears and lamentations of all Andalusia. When the funeral train entered Cordova, and the inhabitants saw the coffin containing the remains of their favorite hero, and the war-horse led in mournful trappings on which they had so lately seen him sally forth from their gates, there was a general burst of grief throughout the city. The body was interred with great pomp and solemnity in the church of St. Hypolito.

Subscription14.1

Many years afterward his granddaughter, Dona Catalina of Aguilar and Cordova, marchioness of Priego, caused his tomb to be altered. On examining the body the head of a lance was found among the bones, received without doubt among the wounds of his last mortal combat. The name of this accomplished and Christian cavalier has ever remained a popular theme of the chronicler and poet, and is endeared to the public memory by many of the historical ballads and songs of his country. For a long time the people of Cordova were indignant at the brave count de Urena, who they thought had abandoned Don Alonso in his extremity; but the Castilian monarch acquitted him of all charge of the kind and continued him in honor and office. It was proved that neither he nor his people could succor Don Alonso, or even know his peril, from the darkness of the night. There is a mournful little Spanish ballad or romance which breathes the public grief on this occasion, and the populace on the return of the count de Urena to Cordova assailed him with one of its plaintive and reproachful verses:

The family tomb of González de Aguilar y Fernández de Córdoba, in the Church of San Hipólito de Córdoba. Photo by Lancastermerrin88

     Count Urena! Count Urena!

     Tell us, where is Don Alonso!

      (Decid conde Urena!

     Don Alonso, donde queda?)

     * Bleda, 1. 5, c. 26.

 

* “Águila,” Spanish for eagle.

Washington Irving, Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (Agapida edition), (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850), pp. 541-548.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 280

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