How King St. Ferdinand besieged Jaén and how God gave it to him with the whole kingdom of Granada

August 31, 2017

As son as he left the Queen and the infantes in Córdoba, Don Ferdinand left in the direction of Martos. There he had summoned the noblemen to discuss the campaign to conquer Jaén and to return it to the Kingship of Christ. Among those who came was one whom he liked since childhood. This was the Grand Master of Santiago,* the famous Pelay Correa, one of the most characteristic prototypes in history of the medieval knight. He was traveling from Murcia with Don Alfonso, the heir Infante, and was bringing much good news to tell the King. He told of the conquest of the rebel fortresses, of the courage and prudence the Infante had displayed despite his youth, and of the negotiations he had begun for Alfonso to marry the daughter of the King of Aragón. Ferdinand was most pleased with all this news. Hating as he did wars among Christians, he was especially happy that diplomatic relations were improving between the two ancient adversaries, Castile and Aragón. Without the reduced tension in the area and the cooperation of Queen Violante, the Queen of Aragón, the talks would have been fruitless. For this reason, the direction negotiations had taken left him quite satisfied.

King St. Ferdinand III of Castile

But if the news pleased him, so also did the one who brought it. The relationship between King Ferdinand and Don Pelay was like a bridge that united them until death with an intimate and affectionate friendship. Their ideal of the Crusade, the holy war to win the world for Christ, which was strengthened even more by the deep, tender and trusting love both had for the Glorious Holy Mary was the foundation for this strong friendship. In addition, they both exercised courage almost to the point of foolhardiness. So, after the official communications, came the discreet questions of the King which encouraged the good Don Pelay to tell him about his life, including the problems caused by the merchants in their increasing demands for more pay. Sharing one’s troubles with a friend is always helpful but even more so when the friend was Don Ferdinand for, as in the past, he gave the Grand Master and his Order a generous contribution.

During the meetings of the King’s council, Pelay strongly and resolutely defended the position of an immediate siege of Jaén, invoking the protection of the Mother of God—much to Ferdinand’s satisfaction. She must have been quite pleased, looking down with benevolence from heaven, listening to the words of pure and simple faith from her two devoted knights.

The siege of Jaén began with the onset of fall, although not in its full rigor since it was harvest time and the King did not want to call out the militia from its essential task. So he established it with only his own army of noblemen, which was becoming something of a professional permanent armed force, occasionally alternating with some of the militia. During one of his inspection trips, Don Ferdinand perceived that the siege presented all the characteristics of being a long, hard and seemingly endless campaign. The early months would be spent in the winter in the cold open air with the hours of tedium and boredom that demoralize the soul.

Toward the end of November the temperature began to drop, rain poured down daily, and life became hard; it was then that the King appeared and ordered his tent to be erected in the middle of the camp. He announced that there it would stay until he had the unconquerable stronghold in his power.

D. Pelayo Pérez Correa

The King’s arrival completely changed the psychological climate of the siege. More than once, the nobles had murmured about taking leave from the King to spend the winter in their castles in the warmth of their fires; now they thought only of persevering at his side. The knights and noblemen of the realm were always aware of the King’s presence and highly prized any recognition from him for praiseworthy actions.

The monotonous siege had begun to run its course when an incident interrupted the tedium. One of the frontier knights, who knew the terrain inch by inch spoke the Moorish language so well that the Moors could not tell the difference. It was his practice to roam the pathless areas hunting for news. One day he ran into camp and gave the King a message. That morning Alhamar had left Granada with a powerful army planning a surprise attack.

Ferdinand gave orders immediately to prepare to meet him. Only a few were to remain, those necessary to guard the royal camp. The situation was going to be serious, and the King prepared himself well for it. First he summoned Father Remondo, who was his confessor, and knelt humbly before him, reconciling himself to God briefly but piously. He prayed for a long time, entrusting the battle’s success to Christ. He took a harsh discipline, after which he put on his arms, placing close to his skin a terrible shirt of iron mail underplayed with points carved in the form of a cross which covered his chest and shoulders and part of his arms. Over this he wore the pourpoint, which was a quilted tunic that others wore underneath the armor as a sort of protective pad. Then he called his esquires who helped him put on his coat of mail, over which he girded his sword.

The knights and soldiers in the meantime used this time to put their spiritual life in order. It was for this purpose that the King had given them the afternoon off, and for which he always took a good number of brave priests and friars with his army. Enveloped in the darkness of the night, with the greatest possible silence they moved through the mountains against Granada. They marched without rest, always vigilant since Moors could be encountered at any time.

The sun was trying to rise when one of the Calatrava knights, who was in the vanguard, brought the warning to Ferdinand that the Moorish army was ascending the opposite slope.

The Christians mounted the crest of the hill above in disorder because they were marching throughout the night in darkness. Ferdinand organized them at the top in a tight battle array. By intercepting the Moslem line of march at this point, when they were about to climb the hill, the King gained the maximum tactical advantage.

Virgin of the Battles, at the Cathedral of Seville. Photo by Jose Luis Filpo Cabana. This ivory statue went with St. Ferdinand in all of his warlike undertakings. He carried the Image, set in his saddle horn.

Motionless, all awaited the King’s orders as they watched the Moors below, who had also noticed their presence and had stopped. King Don Ferdinand, who had prayed all night entrusting the success of this battle to the Virgin of Battles, had a joyful face and a firm posture. As was his custom, he was the first to take the spear and began to encourage his men with words of audacity, a holy audacity based on the confidence he had placed in Jesus Christ, which overflowed from his heart into his words and expression.

He lifted his eyes to heaven with the look that inspired all to victory, and affectionately murmured: “I seek Thy glory, Lord, not mine!”

Then, turning to his men, he shouted with a strong voice that woke up the sleeping echoes of the valley: “Santiago and Castile!” His voice unleashed the torrent. Behind the leadership of the valiant King, the army of the Cross charged down the hill. “They passed their arms through the handles of the shields in front of their hearts, they lowered the lances enveloped with the pennons, they inclined their faces over the pommels, they went to wound them, boldly.”**

The fierce impact broke the Mohammedan lines; those terrible, sure knights of King Ferdinand passed through the squadrons like a needle through a cloth. How it enthused the warriors to watch their King fight among them! He alone had killed six Moors in the first attack, and four more in the second, and was now preparing the third.

The Moors could no longer withstand the terrible onslaught. Lacking strength to mount the slope, they rushed with a sudden burst of speed down the valley, searching for a way out. There the Christians met them, and the death toll among the Moors was dreadful. Finally the clarions of the King of Castile sounded, and the army surrounded him. A ceremony took place, which would have astonished anyone who did not know the spirit that encouraged those invincible warriors.

Ferdinand removed the Virgin from his horse and placed her on a rock that was adorned naturally by fresh ivy from the mountains of Granada. Before her, with an oak for a canopy and the perfumed lavender for incense, Father Remondo intoned the Te Deum in thanksgiving, as the King and the whole army answered in a full choir. After that they bandaged the wounds of those who needed it and dug graves to bury the dead piously. Through the mercy of God, these were very few compared with the hundreds of Moslem corpses covering the field. A priest blessed the graves and recited the prayers. While the earth fell on the bodies of those brave ones who had succumbed, the good King Don Ferdinand stood with folded arms and mournful face, praying for their souls. His mind passed to the sorrow of the mothers and wives waiting for them in vain, and also to that young son who slept forever in a church in Toledo.

The Castle of Jaén, captured in 1246 by King St. Ferdinand III of Castile.

Before midnight they were back in the encampment in Jaén. Those who had remained guarding it could not believe that such a battle could have been won in such a short time.

The siege continued to be difficult because of a storm of torrential rains and hurricane winds, so intense and persistent that none could remember a harsher winter. A rash of illness then ran through the Christian camp causing many losses, and the infidels in the city harassed them constantly with their raids and their challenges to individual combat, which were so common in those days.

The King accepted everything, his tent soaked with water like the rest. He was no better nourished or warmed than his men, but was actually in worse condition because of his lack of health, his strength broken by years of austerities and physical toil.

The winter months passed by, and with the arrival of spring the situation took a turn for the better. Life outdoors became more bearable for the Christians while those in the Moslem stronghold were lacking food. Also with the better weather, the brave Moorish King Alhamar took new courage and began to prepare another expedition against Ferdinand. Alhamar’s spirits had been improved by the belief that the sufferings undergone by the Christian army through the hard winter had weakened Ferdinand’s army. But man proposes and God disposes, and on this occasion He decided things in favor of His champion King Ferdinand.

In Granada there was a powerful party called the Oximeles, who stood in opposition to Alhamar. This band rebelled with such strength that the king feared that his crown would fall. It was impossible to fight against the Oximeles and Ferdinand at the same time. Both the Moors and Christians were quite familiar with the loyalty and nobility of soul of the Castilian. On an impulse, Alhamar decided to seek help from him who until then had been his implacable enemy. Consequently, he left Granada, accompanied by only one knight, and traveled through the mountains to Don Ferdinand’s royal camp.

Ferdinand was in his tent when a nobleman entered to give him the amazing news that at his door was the Moslem king of Granada, waiting to see him. The serene features of the King were not altered with the incredible news. He lifted his eyes with immense gratitude to the Holy Face Whom he venerated in his tent and said to the nobleman: “Tell him to come in, and summon the prelates and noblemen.”

King St. Ferdinand III of Castile

He had spent the previous night in a vigil asking his Counselor for the surrender of Jaén, and had waited with simple trust for the answer. Now he had it.

Standing in the center of the tent, surrounded by his court, the King of Castile waited. Moments later a Moor of noble countenance appeared on the threshold. He wore a red hooded cloak that reached his knees and was covered with an ample white mantle; his head was covered with a white turban that made his sharp eagle-like face look even darker. He had a reddish brown moustache and beard, trimmed to a point. He stopped for a moment as if to ascertain who was the king, then approached Don Ferdinand with a dignified bearing, bent his knee and, to the amazement of all, took Ferdinand’s hand and kissed it. That meant nothing less than recognition of King Ferdinand of Castile as his lord.

Don Ferdinand, filled with compassion and proper deference, realizing that the Moorish king had come with great humility and patience, lifted him from the ground and embraced him, calling him friend. He then ordered a chair set at his side for him, and began to talk to him with courtesy and understanding.

Soon the basic elements of a treaty were agreed to. Jaén, as a prize of war, was to remain in the power of the King of Castile. The King of Granada would continue to rule the rest of his kingdom as before.

With the main propositions established, Alhamar took his leave to return to Granada, and Ferdinand, now alone, gave thanks with all his soul to Christ for the unexpected ending He had given to the costly and long siege. Suddenly he felt that light tremor that shakes us in the presence of great interventions of Providence. The formidable obstacle that had prevented him from pursuing the objective designed by God for him had just fallen. His next conquest would be Seville.

Sr. Maria del Carmen Fernández de Castro Cabeza, The Life of the Very Noble King of Castile and León, Saint Ferdinand III (Mount Kisco, NY: The Foundation for a Christian Civilization, 1987), 205-10.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 590

 

* In the long and bloody struggle between the Cross and the Crescent, some of the most courageous warriors were members of the religious orders which included the Knights of Santiago and the Knights of Calatrava. Their members had the double character of monk and soldier and combined the monastic state with war; heroism with religious inspiration; the austerities of ascetic life with the privations of camp life and wounds of battle. They were eager to take heaven as they took earthly strongholds, by storm.

** El Mío Cid. The lances had some pennons to stop the blood from running the shaft. These pennons were wrapped around the shaft when attacking.

 

 

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