All EOS blogs All Spain blogs  Start your own blog Start your own blog 

Spanish history in art and literature

A blog for ex-pats and others to share their love of art and books with others.

How to gatecrash the Last Supper and end up in a mine
23 January 2021

A hundred and fifty-two years after the cathedral in Siena received its altarpiece, and 30 years before Leonardo was commissioned to paint his Last Supper, the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament were in the process of building a new church which eventually became known as St. Peter's Church. They commissioned an Altarpiece from a 49 year-old Flemish painter called Dieric Bouts, who had moved to Leuven 13 years earlier.

Bouts may have studied under Rogier van der Weyden because his work shows that he was certainly influenced by him and Jan van Eyck, both leading innovators in the Early Netherlandish style typical of Bruges and Ghent. Dieric was from Haarlem, as was the architect of the church, Antoon I Keldermans. Both had probably been recommended by the church leaders in Haarlem, where they had achieved some fame for their work. The Last Supper was to be the central part of the altarpiece of the new church and was to become the first ever Flemish panel painting of the Last Supper.


The central panel showing the Last Supper

However, the commission came with a long list of conditions. The Confraternity did not want the accepted scene of Christ’s revelation of betrayal; they wanted Christ in the role of a priest performing the consecration of the Eucharistic host from the Catholic Mass. Moreover, the two servants and some of the people who would have been painted as apostles were in fact portraits of local businessmen dressed not in the vogue of Jerusalem at the time of Christ, but in mid fifteenth century Dutch attire. To keep attention on the face of Jesus, the head of Christ is painted one-third larger than all the other faces, yet his face and some of the disciples are painted in a flat stylistic manner. However, those who paid to be included have quite good likenesses. Adding to this flagrant self-aggrandisement, the two faces in the serving hatch were the two priests who controlled the purse strings of the Confraternity, and who probably commissioned the painting. This just goes to show that even if you are a nondescript tradesman in a small town, you can elevate yourself to near martyrdom by buying an invite to Christ's last supper with his disciples.

Dieric’s painting of the Last Supper is also famous for its perspective, or to be more accurate, the mistakes in its perspective. Dieric was a student of Italian linear perspective, but he wasn’t too good at it. All the lines in the room should come to one vanishing point and Dieric decided to put his vanishing point in the middle of the lintel over the strange panelled doorway behind Christ. This high vantage allows you to look down on the table so that you can clearly see everybody sitting around it. But looking through the windows and open door, the horizon, which should also run through the vanishing point, is well below it. The side room on the right has a different vanishing point somewhere else, and the general effect is that of an architectural drawing rather than a work of art.


The panels shown in their original order.

Nevertheless, the full Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament, as shown above, remained in St. Peter’s church, Leuven, until the late 1800’s, by which time the art world had lost interest in the early Dutch painters, and some of the side panels were sold to an antiques dealer in Brussels. They later turned up in the museums of Berlin and Munich. Shortly afterwards, the First World War swept across Europe, and when the carnage was over, the negotiators at the Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany should return the panels to Leuven free of charge in reparation for the war.

And there they stayed until 1942, when the altarpiece was removed once again and taken to Germany. This is when life got really interesting for the Leuven Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

When he became Reich Chancellor in 1934, Adolf Hitler had a dream of creating an art gallery in Linz, his home town. He wanted Linz to overshadow Vienna, where he had spent some unhappy years as a struggling artist.  His dislike of the city stemmed not only from its strong Jewish influence, but because of his own failure to gain admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.

Adolf is quite rightly vilified for his many other faults, but he initially established a fund from his own money to buy artwork to put in his proposed gallery. He used money from the sales of his book, Mein Kampf, profit from several property speculation deals, royalties from his image used on postage stamps and state birthday presents in the form of artwork. After a state trip to Rome, Florence and Naples in 1938 he was “overwhelmed and challenged by the riches of the Italian museums.” Hitler sent Heinrich Heim, one of Martin Bormann's adjutants, who had expertise in paintings and graphics, on trips to Italy and France to buy artworks.

After the Anschluss in March 1938, which brought Austria into the German Reich, both the Gestapo and the Nazi Party went on a spree of looting numerous artworks for themselves. Hermann Göring was chief culprit, and many of the purloined pictures ended up in his hands.  In response, on 18 June 1938, Hitler issued a decree placing all artwork that had been seized in Austria be placed under the personal prerogative of the Führer. The order was to guarantee that Hitler would have first choice of the plundered art for his planned Führermuseum, and this later became a standard procedure for all stolen or confiscated art and became known as the Führer-Reserve. Because he was Hitler’s second in command, Göring was given control of the ERR, (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete) or The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories. But when he thought Adolf’s men weren’t looking, he used it as his personal looting organization. At its peak, Göring’s art collection included 1,375 paintings, 250 sculptures and 168 tapestries.

On 21 June 1939, Hitler set up the Sonderauftrag Linz (Special Commission Linz) in Dresden and appointed Hans Posse, director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Dresden Painting Gallery), as a special envoy. Hitler gave Posse a letter which ordered all Party and State services to assist him. By December 1944, Posse had spent 70 million Reichsmarks (equivalent to 261 million 2017 euros) on accumulating the collection intended for the Führermuseum. The acquisitions amounted to "technical looting," since the Netherlands and other occupied countries were forced to accept German Reichsmarks, which ultimately proved worthless.


Hitler's proposed art museum in Linz.

The artworks that Hitler collected were stored in a number of places, mostly in the air raid shelters of the Führerbau in Munich. But Göring's ERR had selected several estates for storage that were remote and unlikely to be bombed by the Allies. In 1943 Hitler ordered that these collections be moved. Beginning in February 1944, the artworks were relocated to the 14th-century Steinberg salt mines above the village of Altaussee, code-named “Dora” The transfer of Hitler’s Linz collection to the salt mine took 13 months to complete, and utilized both tanks and oxen when the trucks could not navigate the steep, narrow and winding roads because of the winter weather. The final convoy of art arrived at the mine in April 1945, just weeks before VE day. The salt mines usually had a single entrance, and a small gasoline-powered narrow-gauge engine was used to navigate to the various caverns. Into these spaces, workmen built storage rooms which boasted wooden floors, racks specifically designed to hold the paintings and other artworks.

In April 1945 Eisenhower gave up Berlin as an objective that would not be worth the troops killed in order to take it. He ordered the Third and Seventh Armies to turn south, towards what the Allies feared might be an "Alpine Redoubt" from which Hitler or fanatical Nazis could operate a guerrilla campaign.

From early on in the war, George Stout, a first World War Veteran working at Harvard's Fogg Museum, had been campaigning for a commission to be set up to catalogue the artwork that he knew was disappearing. American and British authorities were, needless to say, too busy with the war to listen. But in December 1944, the Allies created the Monuments, Fine Arts, and archives program. (MFAA) Stout was in the Navy working on aircraft camouflage, but was transferred the small corps of 17 “Monuments men” who were charged with cataloguing and recovering the missing artwork. They began to follow clues which led them all to locations in the area that Eisenhower had chosen to liberate last.

Captain Walker Hancock, the Monuments officer for the U.S. First Army learned the locations of 109 art repositories in Germany east of the Rhine by interrogating the assistant of Count Wolff-Metternich of the Kunstschutz. Captain Robert Posey and Private Lincoln Kirstein, who were attached to the U.S. Third Army, questioned Hermann Bunjes, a corrupted art scholar and former SS Captain who had been working for Hermann Göring’s ERR. Their information led them to Heilbronn, Baxheim, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castle, where much of Göring’s loot was hidden. 1st Lt. James Rorimer attached to the U.S. Seventh Army  had made contact with Rose Valland, a French resistance worker, who eventually shared the trove of information she had gathered at the Jeu de Paume museum while Göring’s ERR were using it as a store for stolen art.

 The Monuments men.

The gathering of the Monuments men became a frantic race when Hitler issued his Nero Decree shortly before the Russians overran Berlin. It called for all works of art to be destroyed in the event of his death or Germany falling to the Allies. Seemingly, Hitler had second thoughts about his decree and countermanded it, but after his suicide, the interpretation of his decree was left to officers in the field. August Eigruber, the Gauleiter of Upper Austria, had placed eight crates of 500-kilogram bombs amongst the artwork in the mine tunnels and he gave orders that they be wired and detonated.

The managers of the mine argued that the mine was their livelihood, and tried to remove the bombs. They were forced out of the mine by the Gauleiter’s troops who stood guard at the entrance whilst a demolition team set the charges. With the Americans just a few miles away, Eigruber fled with an elite SS bodyguard leaving his troops to finish the job.

Dr. Emmerich Pöchmüller, the general director of the mine, Eberhard Mayerhoffer, the technical director, and Otto Högler, the mine’s foreman approached Ernst Kaltenbrunner, an SS officer of high rank in the Gestapo who had grown up in the area and persuaded him to countermand  Eigruber’s orders. They also persuaded the mine guards left by Eigruber to allow them to re-position the bombs so that they sealed the tunnel entrances without damaging the artwork inside. The plan took three weeks to execute, and on 5 May the charges were detonated. The Americans and the Monuments men arrived on the 8 of May and, aided by the mineworkers, frantically began clearing the entrance and bringing out the artwork. They removed the last pieces just before the Russians arrived.

If you haven’t seen the 2016 film,  Monuments Men,  you should watch it.

To finish the story, Dieric Bouts’ Last Supper was returned to Leuven when the war ended, and that’s where it remains to this day.

Like 0        Published at 09:57   Comments (0)

The seed of a legend germinates.
16 January 2021

The Last Supper did not originate with Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn’t even his idea. Somebody first painted it about 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and it’s entirely possible that the artist could have been in the crowd that welcomed him into Jerusalem.

According to the New Testament, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover and sent Peter and John ahead to meet a man who would show them to their accommodation. When they had rested from the journey, they all came together to eat. Jesus knew that he was in great danger, and it is very likely that he told his friends about his fears. During the meal that night, Jesus announced that he would be betrayed by one of his disciples. This caused consternation and howls of anguish from all of his friends. Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples, explaining that this was his body. He offered them wine, saying that this was his blood, and he charged them to spread his teachings after he was dead.  This meal is the basis for the Eucarist, but is much better known as the Last Supper.

His betrayal, arrest, trial and subsequent crucifixion separated him from the Jewish faith, which stretched all the way back to Abraham. From now on, he would be the long awaited Messiah, the son of God. In the New Testament, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (11:23–25) has the earliest reference to the meal and dates from the middle of the first century, 20 years after the crucifixion. Matthew (26:17–29) gives a detailed description of the betrayal, but was written 30 years later.  Mark’s (14:12–25) was 40 years later and Luke (22:7–38) 50 years later. Some of these accounts of the life and death of Jesus are hotly debated regarding origin and authenticity, but it is possible that what happened during the meal may have been elaborated upon when verbally passed on and spread amongst the early Christians shortly after Jesus’ death.

The first paintings of the last supper date from about the same time as Paul’s First Epistle, and they were found in the catacombs in Rome. The Fractio Panis fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria is one of the most famous of catacomb paintings and it gives an idea of how early Christians took Communion. It is one of several from the first century CE and is the clearest example we have in catacomb art of the ritual of the Eucharist during the first two hundred years of the Gentile Church in Rome. In the New Testament book of Acts, (c. 63-70) there are references to Christians gathering to “break bread,” at what was called an “Agape Love Feast.” Considering that these figures are painted above an opening in the wall where a corpse was to be placed before bricking up the tomb, the paintings are more likely to show the poor soul attending a meal in heaven with Christ rather than a worldly event. Nevertheless, this was the first painting showing the concept of a Last Supper.

In the painting, seven people, one of whom is a woman, are reclining at a table where there is a cup of red wine and two large plates. One plate contains five loaves of bread, the other two fish, replicating the numbers in the multiplication miracle from the Gospels. A man at the left end of the table is breaking a small loaf in his hands. These pictures in the catacombs are the only illustrations of how early Christians of the first century after Christ’s death devoted themselves to the new religion, with baptisms and “breaking bread” in their homes, “with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:42 to 2:46) The catacomb paintings of Rome are the first depictions of a Last Supper, but we have to wait around 1,150 years before there is another painting of the Last Supper.

In 1196, the cathedral masons’ guild, the Opera di Santa Maria, was given the commission of the construction of a new cathedral in the city of Siena, which is about 50 km south of Florence. From the outset, this was designed to be a showpiece of art and sculpture that had no rivals. The architect /sculptor who directed the masons was Giovanni Pisano, whose work on the Duomo’s (The name of the Cathedral) façade and the pulpit was influenced by his father Nicola Pisano. His famous father had sculpted the pulpit in the Cathedral in Pisa, and it was he who was commissioned to sculpt the pulpit at Siena from Carera marble. Father and son worked together to build the west façade, which uses dark and white marble in horizontal stripes. This is the most impressive of the four façades of the Cathedral, with the middle of the three entrance portals overlooked by a huge bronze sun. 

The Dumo Catherdral, Siena

Work was started on the north–south transept, and by 1215 the priests were already holding daily masses in the new church. The pulpit was finished and added in 1268, and is the oldest original work of art in the Cathedral. However, by this time Nicola had died sometime before 1284, and though Giovanni had taken up residence in Siena, he left abruptly in 1296 after falling out with the Opera di Santa Maria. He returned to Pisa, (His and his father’s home town.) and began working on their Cathedral.

I imagine that you are wondering what all this has to do with the Last Supper, well here is the link.

The altarpiece showing front on the left and the rear on the right.

In 1308, the Bishop of Siena commissioned the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, a local artist, to paint an altarpiece for the cathedral. The front of the altarpiece showed the Madonna and Child with saints and angels. The reverse had panels showing the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin in 43 small scenes. The wooden altarpiece was mounted on a plinth, or praedella, on which were painted panels showing the childhood of Christ. The idea was that it could be seen from all directions when installed on the main altar at the centre of the sanctuary. At five meters high, it was a pretty impressive altarpiece for the time, and turned out to be the artist’s biggest commission and greatest work.

The construction of the altarpiece itself before painting was a complicated job involving the cutting, jointing and gluing of many frames and panels. The central panel alone was 2.1meters by 4 meters. When the carpenters had finished, it was left to Buoninsegna and his assistants to paint the scenes on the panels in his studio close to the cathedral.

On 9 June 1312, the altarpiece was unveiled and carried around the streets of Siena in a great circle before being installed in the cathedral. All the shops and workshops in the city were closed and the bishop commanded that all the high officers and devoted priests, followed by the population of Siena were to file past carrying candles.  The cathedral bells rang and the poor received alms and the whole city prayed to the Holy Mother of God that she might “in her infinite mercy preserve this, our city, from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.”

One of the panels showing the life of Christ is this scene showing the last supper. Buoninsegna was occupied with the Maestà of Duccio  as it became known, for at least two years and he was probably unaware that he was changing the style of art in the process. Until now, religious art had been very formalised and stylistic. Duccio, either deliberately or in haste, painted his scenes much more realistically. Church congregations in those days were mostly illiterate, and his depiction of the bible in everyday terms was very popular. Duccio became one of the most favoured and radical painters in Siena and his fame spread. Unlike many of the artists of the time, he painted in egg tempera and became a master in the medium.

Unfortunately, the local boy struggled with his own reality. There is little documentation concerning his life except for lists of unpaid bills. He is said to have been married with seven children, and when he died in 1260 his family disowned him because of his debts. His masterpiece fared a little better. The altarpiece remained in position for 465 years until it was decided to display it in pieces arranged between two alters. During the dismantling, many of the paintings were damaged and several disappeared or were sold. Some of the panels can now be found in in other museums in Europe and the United States. The panels that remain in Siena can be seen in the Duomo museum adjacent to the Duomo di Siena.

As we all know, this is not the end of the story for the idea of a last supper, or the artists who developed its potential.


Like 0        Published at 09:50   Comments (2)

When it’s OK to copy
09 January 2021

Sometime around 1450 the Duke of Milan, Francesco I Sforza, ordered the construction of a Dominican convent and church at the site of a prior chapel dedicated to the Marian devotion of St Mary of the Graces. Construction of the church took several decades, and when Francesco died in 1466, his son Duke Ludovico Sforza decided to have the church serve as the Sforza family mausoleum. He rebuilt the cloister and the apse, both completed after 1490, and he added a mortuary chapel adjacent to the cloister. The Duke decided to have the walls of the mausoleum decorated with biblical scenes, above which he wanted to have painted the Sforza coat of arms. For this task he employed a 38 year-old artist called Leonardo, who had studied in the studio of the renowned Italian painter Andrea del Verrocchio and was gaining a reputation as an artist. Leonardo’s origins were not auspicious. He was born out of wedlock to a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina. They both lived in the Tuscan town of Vinci, in the region of Florence, and Leonardo became known as Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo was allowed a free hand in how he depicted his scene, but it seems likely that the Duke chose the subject of the Last Supper. Around 1495 Leonardo began preparing the wall of the mausoleum for painting. He decided to paint in the fresco style with oil and tempera paints. Da Vinci used experimental techniques on the painting. Instead on painting in the buon fresco style (applying pigments to wet plaster), Leonardo used a style known as a secco (painting on dry plaster). Because he painted on the dry plaster, the colours did not blend into the surface as well. This caused the painting to be much more fragile and led to its rapid deterioration.This was compounded by the fact that the other side of the wall was open to the often wet and sometimes freezing weather of Northern Italy, causing condensation and damp.

The opposite wall of the mausoleum  was covered by a fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano showing the Crucifixion. Leonardo was asked to add figures of the Sforza family in tempera to the other fresco, and these figures deteriorated as quickly as his Last Supper. The work dragged on over three years, and there were long periods when Leonardo was absent. He was berated by a prior in the monastery who had been complaining to the Duke about the length of time Leonardo was taking over the painting, and an irate Leonardo told the prior that if he didn’t shut up he would paint his face on the figure of Judas.

The deterioration of the painting continued. Sixty years after Leonardo had finished the painting, the figures were unrecognisable, and 150 years later there was little evidence left that there had ever been a fresco painted on the wall, and a doorway was cut through which obliterated Christ’s feet. The greatest Last Supper of all time, painted by the greatest genius of the century was lost forever.

The now restored Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie

Leonardo de Vinci was tutor to many students who later followed his style. In the list of members of his studio that he kept, Leonardo mentions an artist called Giampietrino. This is a nickname, and scholars have struggled to ascertain the real name of the artist. It’s important because it was Giampietrino who helped Leonardo paint the Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie.

When Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, was deposed by the French in 1500, Leonardo fled to Venice where he was employed as a military architect and engineer. He spent the next six years in a number of roles, but he was given several important artistic commissions, one of which was a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. In 1506 he was summoned back to Milan by the acting French governor of the city, Charles II d'Amboise. Upon his return, he took on another young pupil, Count Francesco Melzi, the son of a Lombard aristocrat, who later on became Leonardo’s secretary and lifelong friend.

During his earlier travels, Leonardo had been accompanied by a young man whom he had taken under his wing at the age of 10 as a garzone (studio boy) in the workshop. Now known only as Salaì, (little devil) he was the son of Pietro di Giovanni, a tenant of Leonardo’s vineyard near the Porta Vercellina, Milan. Leonardo sometimes used him as a model for his paintings, but he was an unruly boy and Leonardo described him as, “A liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton.” after he had made off with money and valuables on at least five occasions and spent a fortune on clothes. Nevertheless, Leonardo kept him in his household for more than 25 years, and though he produced several copies of Leonardo’s paintings, (including a nude Mona Lisa) Salaì’s work is considered inferior. Leonardo’s sex life is very obscure, but it’s significant that there were never any women in his life.

By1508, Leonardo was back in Milan, living in his own house in Porta Orientale in the parish of Santa Babila. It was probably during this time that Melzi worked with Leonardo on the unfinished portrait of Lisa del Gioconda. Apart from all his other achievements, Leonardo will be remembered primarily for the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, which was copied whilst Leonardo was alive, and probably with his guidance and approval. There are two paintings of the Gioconda in existence. The first is hanging in the Louvre, and is attributed to Leonardo. The other is in the Museo del Prado, Madrid and only came to be recognised for what it was when restorers began cleaning it. Exhaustive tests revealed that the second was painted at the same time as the first, and the most likely second artist was Melzi, Leonardo’s favourite student. However, nobody had yet copied the Last Supper.

During his second stay in Milan, it seems almost inconceivable that Leonardo did not return to Santa Maria delle Grazie and inspect his Last Supper painted 13 years earlier. He would have seen the paint and plaster peeling and realised that his masterpiece was doomed. It’s hard to say how he felt, but he was busy with so many things in his life that he probably had no time to do anything about it. Giampietrino, the student who had helped him paint it, was still living in Milan, and was a famous artist in his own right with a multitude of commissions from prominent figures of the aristocracy. But they were both together in Milan for around 7 years. Another of his old students was doing quite well, too. Andrea Solari followed Leonardo’s style, and was also working on a sizable number of commissions. Both of these artists frequently copied Leonardo’s paintings.

Then fate stepped in, and during October 1515, King Francis I of France recaptured Milan and a year later, Leonardo entered Francis’ service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé near the king’s residence of the royal Château d’Amboise in the Loire valley.  He was given a pension of 10,000 scudi, and he was accompanied by Salaì and Melzi who also received pensions. It was during this time that Leonardo suffered a stroke that paralysed his right arm and stopped him from painting. More than one chronicler proposes that this is why he never finished the Mona Lisa. Leonardo died at Clos Lucé on 2 May 1519 at the age of 67. 

Meanwhile, in Milan around 1520, Giampietrino began painting an exact size-for-size copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, but this time in oils on canvas. At virtually the same time, Andrea Solari, began another full-size copy of the Last Supper in oils.

To my mind, there are two ways to look at this. Both Giampietrino and Solari waited for Leonardo to die before copying his Last Supper, knowing that the original would soon be obliterated and they could vie to claim credit for the work. Or, during the time that Leonardo lived in Milan, he collaborated with his old pupils and helped them copy it so that it would not be lost. Giampietrino and Solari were already famous artists; they did not need to claim the Last Supper as their own. I would like to think that they copied it to preserve their old master’s masterpiece for posterity.

One thing is for certain, were it not for these copies, Leonardo’s Last Supper would have faded on the wall and been forgotten. If ever there was a good reason to copy another’s work this surely qualifies.

Over the centuries, the Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie has had six attempts at restoration, and one failed attempt to remove it in its entirety to a safer place. It was vandalized by French troops, bombed by the allies during the Second World War, (Which I suppose can also be classed as vandalism.) and finally restored in 1999 to the painting we see today. That it survived at all in its present form is a tribute to all those people over the centuries who tried to restore, protect and preserve it, but without the two copies, nobody would have known what the original looked like.

The cut-down Last Supper painted by Giampietrino

Giampietrino (Scholars of the art world now believe that Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli was the real name of Giampietrino.) went on to promote Leonardo’s style, and produced over 70 paintings which are hung in 47 museums or private collections around the world. The copy of the Last Supper that he painted now hangs in the Magdalen College, Oxford, and is part of the collection of The Royal Academy of Arts. Sometime after the copy had been made, the top third and the ends were sliced off of Giampietrino’s painting. Solari’s painting is still full-size, and is hanging in Tongerlo Abbey in Westerlo, near Antwerp.

The full size Last Supper painted by Solari

Over the centuries, Leonardo’s The Last Supper has become the most copied painting of all time, but Leonardo was not the originator of the idea of a Last Supper, nor is he the only one to exploit a theme that had many uses.

Like 1        Published at 05:00   Comments (0)

The cornered Caliphate
19 December 2020

The battles of Pinus Puente and Teba were a huge psychological setback for the Caliphate of Granada. The age of splendour was gone forever, and it was now very clear that the Christians were intent on driving the Moors out of Iberia for good; it was just a matter of time.

The Marinids in Morocco had lost all their lands in Iberia, and their port of Algeciras, which had been occupied by Berbers for 628 years had been sold to the Granadans. Gibraltar, just across the bay, was occupied by the Christians, as was Tarifa. They also controlled much of the land around the two ports. It was obvious that taking isolated Algeciras was the next item on the Christian’s agenda. 

Just as so many times in the past, the Granadans turned to Morocco in their time of need. Muhammed IV, Emir of Granada, asked the Marinid emir Abu al-Hasan 'Ali to help him take back Gibraltar and perhaps claw back some of the land that he had lost to the infidels.

In late 1332 Abu al-Hasan ordered his navy to secure the bay of Algeciras and the waters around Gibraltar. The following spring, he sent an invasion force of 5,000 troops who laid siege to Gibraltar. Within two months, the town had surrendered, and the Granadans helped the Berber troops to expel the Christians from the surrounding area, so that the two ports were once again within the Caliphate of Granada. This made it feasible to plan bigger campaigns against the Christians. However, in the ever changing political climate of the Caliphate of Granada, the reigning emir, Muhammad IV was assassinated in 1333, and his 15 year-old brother, Yusuf, became emir under the regency of his grandmother, Fatima. She and her ministers negotiated a four-year peace treaty with Castile, Aragon and the Marinids. In the brief breathing space that the treaty supplied, the family of the dead emir expelled the Banu Abi al-Ula family, the killers of the old emir and their hired Marinid mercenaries, the Volunteers of the Faith. When the dust had settled in the caliphate, the young emir and his advisors agreed closer ties and alliances with the Marinids, knowing that the next onslaught from the Christians could be fatal for Granada.   

Abu Hasan slowly gathered his forces, notably his navy, to stage an invasion on a scale not seen since the Marinid raids of 60 years earlier. By the end of 1340, he had assembled a fleet in the harbour at Ceuta. Sixty galleys, along with 250 other kinds of boat were tied up or anchored in readiness for the invasion. They landed troops at Gibraltar, but the admiral of the Castilian navy, Alfonso Jofre de Tenorio, who had surrendered Gibraltar in 1333, challenged the Marinid fleet commanded by Muhammad ibn Ali al-Azafi. The resulting naval battle on 8 April resulted in the encirclement and capture of 28 of the Castilian galleys and the death of its admiral. The Castilian navy was scattered, and only 16 of its galleys reached friendly ports. With control of the straits established, Abu Hasan began ferrying troops and supplies to Iberia, and by late September, with the aid of the Granadan emir, had encircled Tarifa. Believing, that the Castilian fleet’s losses would take the best part of two years to make up, the Moroccan emir stood down many of the front-line ships that he had used and returned those which he had borrowed for the invasion. He left only 12 ships to guard the bay of Gibraltar.

During the build-up to the invasion, King Alfonso XI had begun increasing the size of his fleet by ordering the building of 27 new ships in the dockyards of Seville. The half-ready ships were hastily completed and sent downriver. These joined the Portuguese ships loaned by King Afonso, and with the addition of 15 hired Genoese galleys, he had enough ships by October to close the straits to the Moroccans. Abu Hasan and Granada lost their supply of food and replacement troops for any further incursions into Christendom. On 10 October, the Moroccan emir made a desperate concerted attack on Rate Castle at Tarifa, which was repulsed with great loss of life on both sides. On the same day, an Atlantic storm wrecked 12 of the Castilian galleys and drove them ashore. The naval battle for the straits was becoming expensive in ships and lives.

On land, King Alfonso left Seville at the head of a column of troops intent on relieving the siege of Tarifa. On 15 October the King of Portugal joined them, and they stopped at the Rio Guadalete to wait for further Castilian and Portuguese forces to join them. Ten days later, the combined army, now 20,000-strong, crossed the frontier into the Caliphate. As soon as he received news of the approaching Christians, Abu Hasan abandoned the siege and re-grouped his forces on a hill outside Tarifa on the shoreline, whilst the Granadan emir, Yusuf I, took up position on an adjacent hill. The Christians arrived on 29 October and faced the Moors across a half-kilometre wide valley crossed by two streams, El Salado and La Jara.

During the first night after their arrival, King Alfonso ordered 4,000 foot-soldiers and 1,000 cavalry to march through the night, bypass the camps of the Moors, and reinforce the garrison at Tarifa. They were sighted by a 3,000 strong detachment of Moorish light cavalry, who for some reason offered only slight resistance. More significantly for the coming battle, the commander of the cavalry told Abu Hasan that no Christians had reached Tarifa. 

In a dawn meeting with his lords and advisors, King Alfonso decided that he would lead the army of Castile and attack the forces of Abu Hasan, whilst the Portuguese, reinforced by 3,000 Castilians of the orders of Alcántara and Calatrava, would engage Yusuf I. Two thousand inexperienced troops were left to guard the Christian camp. The Castilian vanguard, led by two brothers from the Lara family successfully crossed the Jara, but met stiff opposition from the Moors at the El Salado. The king’s two sons, Fernando and Fadrique, led a group of 800 knights to a small bridge and drove through the defending Moors to take it. Their father then reinforced them with 1,500 more knights, and the Christians surged across the gulley.

 The battle of Rio Salado.

In the centre ground, Juan Núñez de Lara broke the enemy line, crossed the stream and began climbing the slope to where Abu Hassan had set up his command centre. At this point, the reinforced garrison of Tarifa appeared at the rear of the Marinid lines and drove in a wedge of troops that split Abu’s forces in two. Half fled to Algeciras and the other half joined the main body of Moors in the valley below. With half his forces pursuing the retreating Moors or looting Abu’s camp, King Alfonso found himself in the thick of the main battle and dangerously exposed. Abu Hasan called his troops to rally and attack the centre, and King Alfonso drew his own sword and was about to fight hand-to-hand with the surging Moors when the Archbishop of Toledo, Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz, grabbed the reins of his  horse and stopped him. Luckily, Castilian troops surrounded the king and pushed the Moors back. When the troops who had been looting Abu’s camp realised that their king was in danger they returned to the battle and attacked the Moors from behind. Finding that they were now surrounded, Abu Hassan’s forces broke and fled to Algeciras. Only the Granadans were still in position, but when the Portuguese, reinforced by the Castilians, fought their way across the Saldo and attacked them they also fled. From first contact to the final rout had taken just three hours.

The Christian pursuit of the Moors was relentless and little mercy was shown. Abu’s camp was destroyed and looted and many of his wives were killed along with the nobles who had fought with the emir. Both emirs escaped and took refuge in Gibraltar, Abu crossed the straits in a galley that same night and Yusuf returned to Granada.

This was the last Marinid invasion of Iberia, and in1344 the Christians took the fortress of Algeciras after a siege that lasted 2 years. When the city fell, Alfonso XI signed a peace treaty with Yusuf, but constantly broke it by attacking the borders of the Caliphate. He only captured a handful of isolated castles on the border, but he did make a determined effort to take Gibraltar, again in violation of the treaty he had signed. The siege held for a year before the Black Death swept through Iberia and King Alfonso died from the plague. Yusuf granted free passage to the Christian troops as they withdrew carrying the body of their king.

Even though his reign was marred by constant Christian attacks and internal insurrection Ysuf I was responsible for encouraging literature, architecture, medicine, and the law, and he oversaw the construction of the Madrasa Yusufiyya inside the city of Granada, as well as the Tower of Justice and various additions to the Comares Palace of the Alhambra. Many great cultural figures served in his court, and historians consider this to be the golden era of the Caliphate of Granada. Ysuf I was assassinated by a madman while praying in the Great Mosque of Granada, on the day of Eid al-Fitr, 19 October 1354.

Castile also suffered its own royal convulsions until Queen Isabel of Castile and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon stabilised a newly united España when they married at the Palacio de los Vivero in Valladolid on the 19 October 1469. They inherited a bankrupt country, but just to the south of the united Christian kingdoms lay the rich farmlands of the Islamic Caliphate of Granada, and they began a new campaign against the Moors. Muhammad XII of al-Andaluz was his full title, but Emir Boabdil as, he was known in the palace, gathered his troops once more to fight in what had been for him a ten-year war of attrition. It was not really his war; the war against the Moors had begun centuries before. Boabdil was just unlucky to have to bear the shame of surrendering the last of the Muslim lands to the Christians. In 1492, the last Emir of Granada handed Queen Isabel the keys to the city, and the whole of España, including Sardinia, Sicily and the Balearic islands came under Christian rule.

The surrender of Granada

Accompanying the King and Queen when they entered Granada was a man who had been courting favour with them, and had been invited to share in their triumph. Christopher Columbus had sought the finance from all the kingdoms for a voyage across the Atlantic, where he was convinced he would find the Asian continent and lucrative trade. Isabel was dubious, but Ferdinand persuaded her to give him the money and ships that he needed.

Just ten weeks after the fall of Granada, Isabel issued the Alhambra decree. It seems to have been all Isabel’s idea, and the theory is that her confessor had changed from the tolerant Hernado de Talavara, to the fanatical Francisco Jiménez de Cisternos. España was about to enter its most awful era; the Inquisition and the Conqistadoras of America.

We have come full circle. This is where I started earlier in the year at the beginning of lockdown. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these blogs, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading them. I know that my blog and website has been shamelessly copied and reproduced elswhere, but they say that imitation is a form of flattery.  Remember that you saw it here first. I would like to thank my 27,000 visitors for supporting me, but I am stopping for Christmas now. 

I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and let’s all hope for a better New Year in 2021.


Like 2        Published at 05:00   Comments (11)

The story of Black Douglas
12 December 2020

After the death of his mother in 1321, Alfonso XI had to wait four years until he was old enough to be crowned. The people who were running his kingdom as regents were unscrupulous and greedy, but he could do nothing about it. As soon as he was crowned, he declared war on the Caliphate of Granada. The death of his uncles and the hawks in the Cortez ensured that he continued the war against the Moors. In 1325 he sent out invitations for other kingdoms to join the campaign and share the booty, but in the meantime he initiated hostilities by marching his troops to the nearest and least guarded part of the frontier just 50 miles from Seville.

His objectives were Wubira (Olvera), Ayamonte,  Pruna, Torre-Alháquime and Teba. The first four were outposts, but Teba guarded the road down to Málaga, a vital trade route within the caliphate. He chose reliable and trusted friends to help him, one of whom was the son of Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, Juan Alonso, the new Duke of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. In1327 he arrived at Ayamonte and surrounded the small fortress, then pressed on to Torre-Alháquime and Wubira, which he laid siege to.  The garrison at Ayamonte slipped away in the night to Ronda, and Riu Gonzalez de Manzanedo, the Sevillian nobleman in charge of the siege there gave chase. He did not go far before he met the far superior forces around Ronda, and was lucky to escape with his life.

 The fortress of Olvera. Photo; Wikipedia.

The sieges of Wubira and Torre-Alháquime were successful, and the Christians entered the towns and took control. The Moors were given the choice of staying, or moving into the caliphate, which still controlled nearby Ronda and Ardales.  Pruna held out, and was not overcome until much later. Content with his first campaign, the king left a garrison headed by Rui Gonzales and ceded the newly occupied lands to Juan Pérez de Guzmán. He then left Olvera and returned to Seville, where he began another round of fundraising for the next assault on Teba.

It took two years to organise the next attack on the caliphate. The coffers of his kingdom were nearly empty after the 1327 campaign, and he offered a share of the plunder to the King of Portugal if he supplied troops for the attack on Teba. The offer was agreed, and he provided 500 knights, but for a limited period. All Christendom was watching the war against the Moors in Iberia, and religious fervour had been whipped up by the church. During his stay in Seville, King Alfonso had sent out offers to mercenary warriors throughout all the kingdoms, and knights from all Europe responded. They gathered in Córdoba during the winter of 1329 and King Alfonso led the Portuguese troops and other contingents who had arrived in Seville by boat. Among these mostly foreign soldiers were a group of Scottish mercenaries. They came with a letter of recommendation from their king, Edward III of England.

The Scottish troops were nothing like the other troops that had been arriving all winter. For a start, when not in armour, they wore brightly coloured skirts, and even though there were many English-speaking mercenaries marching with Alfonso’s column, few could understand their speech. Other English mercenaries who had fought against them in England’s wars spoke highly of their fighting abilities, and 19 year-old Alfonso was enthralled by them.

He offered them the same terms as the other mercenaries, but they refused all payment. Their leader, Sir James Douglas, who had earned the name  Black Douglas during the battle of Bannockburn, explained their mission to the king. The year before, the King of the Scots, Robert Bruce, lay dying and asked his friend Sir James to embalm his heart when he died and take it to the Holy Land on a crusade. (According to one chronicler) Bruce had always wanted to make the trip, as many had done before. Sir James wore the embalmed heart of his dead king around his neck in a small casket, and when he heard of the coming battle against the Moors, he decided that this was near enough to a crusade and joined the other mercenaries. Sir James declared that he and his men were prepared to offer their arms in the service of the king free as humble pilgrims seeking absolution for their sins. Alfonso assigned them experienced guides to train them in the fighting techniques of the Moors and gave them command of all the foreign mercenaries that he had hired. 

The Scottish poet, John Barbour recorded the names of the Scottish knights accompanying Sir James as: Sir William de Keith, Sir William de St. Clair of Rosslyn, the brothers Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig and Sir Walter Logan. Other chroniclers have mentioned that at some point, this group was accompanied by John de St. Clair, younger brother of Sir William, Sir Simon Lockhart of Lee, Sir Kenneth Moir, William Borthwick, Sir Alan Cathcart and Sir Robert de Glen.

In June 1330 they crossed the frontier and made camp near to Almargen, five miles west of Teba. King Alfonso had to wait for his siege towers and catapults before he encircled the castle, and he immediately realised that he had a problem with water for his animals and troops. The castle was on the top of a substantial hill, and the nearest water was around the other side of the hill in a valley.  Each day, the animals had to be led around the hill to the River Turón to be watered.

 The Castle of the Stars at Teba Photo; Inland Andalucia.

The same General Uthman ibn Abi al-Ula who led the cavalry at the battle of Pinus Puente was commanding the emir’s forces around Málaga, and the Berber nobleman led six-thousand cavalry and several thousand foot-soldiers north to defend the castle at Teba. Uthman's force crossed over into the valley of the River Turón, where they pitched camp between Ardales castle and the supporting fortress of Turón, ten miles south of Teba.

Uthman took advantage of the need to water the animals and attacked the watering parties, knowing that without water Alfonso’s army would have to retreat. This happened several times and Alfonso knew that it was a lure to a trap. Uthman had hidden his main force in a valley, where they waited to surprise Alfonso’s troops. The King prepared his own trap and sent a large force of troops to accompany the watering party. He also ordered a reserve force to be ready to mount a counter attack.

Before the siege engines arrived, and on the eve of engaging Uthman’s troops, the Portuguese announced that their allotted time of service was up and they were going home. King Alfonso was furious, but could do nothing. At dawn the next day, a battle developed at the river. When the king was notified that his men had been ambushed, he ordered the second force, led by Don Pedro Fernández de Castro, with the Scottish knights in the vanguard, to assist the first. Uthman’s plan was to engage the watering party and then attack the unsuspecting Christian’s main camp with his cavalry. But when his jinetes crested the hill, they found row upon row of armed soldiers led by Douglas and ready to fight. The Moors retreated, and the Christians advanced.

Down by the river, things had not gone well for Uthman, and when the Scots arrived they found the Moors in full retreat. They charged, and fell into a classic Moorish cavalry trap. The knights separated themselves from their foot-soldiers, who were busy looting, and chased the cavalry, who wheeled around and surrounded them. One-by-one, they were unhorsed and cut down. Douglas was trying to reach Sinclair when he was surrounded. When the battle was over, almost all the Scots were dead. King Alfonso ordered Rodrigo Álvarez de las Asturias to attack with a further 2,000 men, and the Granadan retreat turned into a rout.  Despite further skirmishes, Uthman made no further attempt to raise the siege, and shortly afterwards the garrison of Teba surrendered. The old Berber general died some weeks later.

The poet Barbour relates that the body of Douglas and the casket containing the heart of his king were recovered after the battle. The bodies of the knights were boiled until the flesh fell from them and their bones were brought back to Scotland. Douglas’ bones were buried at Dunfermline Abbey.

 The plaque commemorating the Battle of Teba

The Battle of Teba was not decisive, and the lands around the castle were in dispute for the next 150 years. This round of victories for the Christians prompted the Marinid emir, Abu Hasan, to send forces in support of Muhammad IV to take Gibraltar in 1333, but the Marinid emir’s attempt to take back Tarifa in 1340 led to a disastrous defeat at Rio Salado, which would end the intervention by Marinid caliphs in the affairs of Iberia, leaving the Caliphate of Granada alone and isolated in a country ruled by Christians.  


Like 1        Published at 05:00   Comments (5)

A Traitor's Demise
05 December 2020

After nurturing her son Ferdinand until he was old enough to be crowned, it must have been a numbing loss for Maria de Molina when he died in 1312, aged 26. To prevent further bloodshed between the competing factions, she stood in again as regent of Castile for her one year-old grandson, Alfonso. It would be another 12 years until he was old enough to be crowned. Whilst the child grew to age, Maria had to allow her lifelong enemy, John of Tarifa, to become his guardian and mentor along with one of his uncles, Pedro.

The spectre of further invasions from Africa by the Marinids was still troubling the minds of many in Castile, and the pope was eager to remove Islam from Iberia altogether. In Fez, Abu Sa'id Uthman, the emir of the Marinids, was a pious and peace-loving man who was facing rebellion from his own son. In 1313, to rid himself of any further military entanglements in Iberia, Abu Sa'id returned the towns of Algeciras and Ronda to the Naṣrid ruler, Ismail I of Granada. The knowledge that the Marinids were unwilling or unable to help the Granadans inflamed the hawks and glory seekers in the kingdoms. During a meeting of the Cortez of Medina del Campo in 1318, it was decided that Pedro and Juan would lead the allied nobles to initiate another invasion with the intention of striking at the heart of the caliphate.

During the winter of 1318 supplies for the invasion were stockpiled in Córdoba and plans were drawn to have the armies assemble there in the month of June 1319. Caliph Ismail I of Granada sent an urgent appeal to the Marinid emir for assistance, but Abu Sa'id Uthman imposed such onerous conditions that the Granadans decided to face the Christians without him and began amassing their own troops on the border.

Long before the fateful meeting of Cortez of Medina del Campo, Castile had signed a non-aggression treaty with Ismail I, and the emir wrote Pedro a letter reminding him of its terms. Pedro was caught between the Cortes and his conscience, and requested that the kingdoms respect the treaty. Pope John XXII heard of his lack of commitment and threatened to excommunicate Pedro unless he led the army. Furthermore, he elevated the attack to that of Holy Crusade and offered him a portion of the tithes that the church collected on the proviso that he did not sign any further peace treaties with the emir, Under pain of obedience and love of the Holy Eglesia.”    

As with the siege of Algeciras, King Jamie II of Aragon was asked to attack on a second front in the east, not to capture territory, but to devastate the lands of the caliphate and then withdraw. The pope gave Jamie the same offer of church tithes, but Jamie refused to join the attack. When the emir heard of the threats made against Pedro he wrote another letter expressing his “Very great regret” and that he would have liked to live in peace in his own lands, but would leave the outcome to the judgement of God. Many of the Castilians were unhappy with breaking the treaty with the emir, and criticism of the attack grew in Christian lands. Nevertheless, the invasion plans went ahead unchecked.

Pedro went to Toledo to meet the troops of the Order of Santiago, Calatrava and the Archbishop of Toledo, Gutierre Gómez de Toledo. He ordered them to bring their army to readiness and to march them to the border. Next, he travelled to the city of Trujillo in Extremadura and met with the Masters of the Order of Santiago to whom he gave 3,000 doubles of gold so that the Crown could recover the castle of Trujillo, which had previously been pawned to raise money. Seville was where the siege catapults were stored, and Pedro ordered them to be transported to the border.  His final meeting was with the heads of all the orders and the Archbishops of Toledo and Seville at Jienense de Ubeda, where he told them that their first objective was the Castle of Tiscar. John, who was feeling unwell, decided to stay in Córdoba.

Tiscar was chosen because, according to Pedro, it was “the strongest fortress the Moors had,” but just a few days the after the siege began, the castle surrendered.  Its commander, Mahomad Handon, abandoned it and its 4,500 inhabitants left for nearby Baza, their safety guaranteed by Pedro. Tiscar was an outpost to the east of Jaen, and in the greater picture of events was a minor success.  The rapid fall of Tiscar would suggest that the emir sacrificed the citadel to give Perdro something to offer the pope. He could always take it back later. However, John was now worried that Pedro was stealing the glory for the campaign with such a rapid success, so he left Córdoba and sent word for them to meet at Alcaudete.

Alcaudete was on the border between the caliphate and Christendom, and John left some of his troops under the command of his son to cover their rear at Baena. He persuaded Pedro to focus their campaign on the Vega de Granada, where the looting would be more profitable, and who knows, they may even capture Granada, the greatest prize of all. The two united armies numbered around nine thousand horsemen and several thousand foot-soldiers. John decided to take the lead, and Pedro was to stay in the rear with the Master of the Orders of Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcántara, the Archbishops of Toledo and Seville, and by numerous members of the high nobility.

John drove his troops through to Alcalá la Real, where they camped overnight and the following day looted the surrounding countryside. They moved on to Moclin and Illora and rather than waste time trying to besiege the fortresses there, they bypassed them and marched on to Pinus Puente near to the confluence of three small rivers before they joined the Rio Genil. They were now nearly at the gates of Granada, and they had employed the same slash and burn tactics as used by the Marinid invasions. Juan’s troops had accumulated huge amounts of booty, but were tired and decided to camp by the rivers and rest.

A row broke out between John and Pedro when John suggested withdrawing to Christendom with their booty. Pedro was indignant that they had fought their way to Granada and were going to waste the opportunity to capture the city. John was right; they had over-extended their lines deep into the caliphate and were in danger of being cut off and surrounded. The emir could draw upon huge reserves of men, and the longer they remained, the more dangerous it would become. Relations between the John and Pedro had become so strained that they were barely talking to each other. The Christians were now in a very perilous situation. John’s plan prevailed, and the Christians began to retreat. Pedro was put in the lead of the withdrawal and John was to be the rear-guard.

General Ozmin was commander of the Granadan defence and had prepared the city for a siege. When he realised that the Christians were retreating he swiftly changed from defence to attack. He led a force of five thousand cavalrymen and several thousand foot-soldiers against the retreating columns of Christians. At first, there were limited skirmishes with the retreating Christians, but when he realised that the enemy was preoccupied with the wagonloads of loot that they had robbed, he ordered Uthman ibn Abi al-Ula’s cavalry, the "Volunteers of the Faith",  to attack in force. The Christians scattered, and the retreat turned into a rout. The Castilian-Leónese column under John’s command was taking the brunt of the attacks and he sent word to Pedro to turn back and help him. At first, Pedro was persuaded not to help John by his troops, who still had all their booty and did not want to risk losing it, but when Pedro lost his temper and ordered them to turn and fight they refused. Gathering whatever loyal troops that he could, he rode to the rear to help John. According to the chroniclers, twenty-nine years old Pedro was unhorsed in a charge and was trampled to death.

John was fighting with the master of the military orders, the Archbishop of Toledo, and the Bishop of Cordoba, and when they were told of Pedro’s death they abandoned the fight and fled. The Moors regained all their stolen goods as the Christians ran for their lives for the frontier. Knights on horse-back with full armour tried to defend themselves and their troops, but it was the hottest part of the summer and they soon fell back. Many tried to cross the Rio Genil and were drowned.

John had either suffered a heart attack or collapsed with heatstroke during the fighting, and he was put on a horse and joined the remains of the Christian army as they fled for the frontier, dropping everything in their panic. They were constantly pursued by Uthman’s 5,000 strong cavalry, who mercilessly cut them down. Pedro’s body was wrapped and put on a board to join the exodus out of Granadan lands. The retreat continued through the night, but at some point the horse carrying John became lost in the darkness. When Pedro’s body reached Baena, John’s son began to question the returning troops about the whereabouts of his father.

He soon realised that his father was lost somewhere on the battlefield and he ordered his troops to search for him.  When they came back empty-handed, he sent emissaries to the Emir of Granada, who ordered his men to search. John’s body was eventually found and he was taken to Granada and placed in a coffin covered with gold cloths. The emir ordered a guard of honour made up of Moorish cavalry and Christian knights to escort the remains of Juan to the frontier where Christians took charge of the body and transported it for burial at the side of the main altar of Burgos Cathedral, where it still lies today. Pedro was also buried in Burgos, but in the monastery of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas de Burgos.

Maria de Molina was still regent for her grandson Alfonso. He would not be crowned until 1325, but she would die in 1321and never see him as king. Eight-year old Alfonso had to wait 4 years and watch as John the Traitor of Tarifa’s son, Juan the one-eyed, and Juan Manuel (the king's second-degree uncle by virtue of being Ferdinand III's grandson) carved up his kingdom in a power struggle, whilst the noble families and the Caliphate of Granada fought to take land from each other. 

A Troubled land is the second book in Joseph Puedo´s story of the reconquest. It follows Tanan, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán’s lifelong friend. He and his family have been abducted in Seville and taken to a town in the Marinid caliphate, where their abductees have hidden a fortune in gold. He is held there as a slave, but is forced to participate in the battle of Pinus Puente, where he encounters the killer of his friend’s son. He is finally released and reunited with the rest of his family in Seville, but there are still some who want to know where the gold is, and he is forced to fight a last ferocious battle for his freedom.

Like 0        Published at 05:00   Comments (2)

A Traitor's Triumph.
28 November 2020

By 1308 Alonso Pérez de Guzmán was a very wealthy man. His loyalty had been tried and tested and his prowess in battle was legendary. Noblemen were expected to be able to raise an army from their own lands and lead them into battle. Each lord and landowner had a duty to donate fighting men and arm and feed them should their duke require it. King Ferdinand and his mother feared other invasions from Africa. They held Tarifa, but the real danger was from an army landing at the now Nasrid held ports of Gibraltar or Algeciras. Since the reign of Alfonso X, these two ports had held the key to defending Christendom.

In late 1308, at Alcalá de Henares, King Ferdinand IV of Castile and the ambassadors from the Crown of Aragon, agreed to the terms of a new treaty. Ferdinand, supported by his brother, Pedro de Castilla y Molina, the archbishop of Toledo, the bishop of Zamora, and Diego López V de Haro agreed to wage war against the Caliphate of Granada. The previous treaty between Granada and Castile was set to expire at the end of June 1309, and Ferdinand, instigated a new round of war against the Moors. To avoid the possibility of betrayal, it was also agreed that James II of Aragon would not be allowed to sign a separate peace accord with the Emir of Granada, and that a combined Aragonese-Castilian navy would be formed to support the siege. It was also agreed that James II would simultaneously launch an attack on Almaria, giving the Nasrids two fronts to defend. On 29 April 1309, Pope Clement V issued the papal bull Prioribus decanis which officially conceded to Ferdinand IV one 10th of all clergy taxes collected in his kingdoms for three years to aid in financing the campaign against Granada.

In return, Ferdinand IV promised to cede one sixth of the conquered Granadan territory to the Aragonese crown. Some of the king’s nobles were not happy with this arrangement, notably John, the Traitor of Tarifa. After the signing of the treaty, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon sent emissaries to Pope Clement V to give the enterprise the official stamp of Holy Crusade. In 1309, for the very first time, the Cortez was held in Madrid, where King Ferdinand declared war on the Caliphate of Granada and requested that his dukes assemble their armies. John of Tarifa was to assist with the siege of Algeciras along with his son.

Old Moorish battlements above Gibraltar.

Guzmán was assigned to the siege of Gibraltar along with Juan Núñez II de Lara, the Archbishop of Seville and Garci López de Padilla, the grand master of the Order of Calatrava. Their troops were drawn from the militia councils of Seville and noblemen of that city. In The Chronicles of Ferdinand IV the historian writes that Guzmán spent some weeks at the beginning of the siege building two low stone towers on which he placed engeños. It’s not clear what these weapons were, but it’s entirely possible that Guzmán was using cannons for the first time in Europe. The defenders lasted a few weeks before they were forced to surrender the city. Guzmán and Lara allowed the Moors to leave unharmed, ending a Muslim occupation of Gibraltar that had lasted 600 years. King Ferdinand ordered the rebuilding of the fortifications of Gibraltar and the building of a new dock where ships could be repaired.

Meanwhile, the siege of Algeciras was dragging on without success. The siege had begun in July, but before long, so many men and horses in one place made the living conditions in the Christian camp appalling. The River Andarax became little more than an open sewer, and as the summer turned to autumn, torrential rain turned their camp into a quagmire. King Ferdinand was late in paying his troops, and John of Tarifa incited a rebellion. Five hundred knights led by John, and backed by Alfonso de Valencia, Don Juan Manuel and Fernán Ruiz de Saldaña deserted. The news of this betrayal spread throughout Castile and provoked indignation. James II of Aragon rode after John to try to persuade him to return and fight, but John refused all pleas.

King Ferdinand still had the support of Guzmán, Juan Núñez II de Lara, and Diego Lopez V de Haro and they agreed to continue the siege, but money was running short, and King Ferdinand was forced to sell his wife’s jewellery to pay his troops. They were reinforced by large army sent by Felipe de Castilla y Molina and another sent by the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, who arrived at the head of 400 knights and a great number of foot-soldiers.

Guzmán moved to the mountains north of Algeciras where the Nasrids were attacking the besieging army, and it was whilst he was pursuing a group of enemy troops near the town of Gaucin that he was mortally wounded by an arrow.

His body was brought back to Seville by his troops, who marched as a guard of honour. He was interred in the Monastery of San Isidoro del Campo overlooking the river Guadalquivir just outside Seville, near to the Roman town of Itálica. He and his wife had prepared their own last resting place in 1301 by converting and renaming an old Moorish mosque and establishing a monastery there. It was named after a canonised bishop of Seville. Later, A second nave was added to the original, and the monastery gained the less formal name of Los Gemelos. (The twins) Alonso’s son, Juan, now took on his father’s title, and it was Juan who had the body of his father buried on the left side of the alter, and much later, his mother on the right.

With the Caliphate of Granada and the Kingdom of Castile nearly bankrupted by the campaign, both sides signed another peace treaty, the terms of which were heavily in favour of the Christians. The emir had lost the respect of his troops and generals by agreeing to the Christian demands, and when he discovered a plot to have him assassinated, he quickly returned to Granada. He found that he was equally unpopular there, and his brother, Nasr Abul Geoix, had installed himself as emir. Muhammed III was made to watch his prime minister murdered and his palace plundered. He abdicated in favour of his brother shortly afterwards.

Things were not much better in Gibraltar. Conquered towns were difficult to repopulate and when the Moors left, the town was virtually empty of people. The king appointed Alfonzo Fernando de Mendoza as governor, but a year after it had been captured it was still unoccupied and useless as a port. Ferdinand offered incentives for people to move into the town. One of the incentives was that:

All swindlers, thieves, murderers and wives escaped from their husbands could have refuge in the city and be free of any prosecution from the law, including the penalty of death. (although this last provision did not extend to traitors to the crown.) He also abolished all duties on goods passing in or out of the port. The lifting of prosecution laws was to be used again throughout the repopulation of the rest of al-Andalus, and the kind of people who trickled into Gibralter dissuaded other honest traders and families from settling there. These rejects from society became known as Homicinos, and they began to fill the empty towns as the Moors were expelled.

There was one last casualty to this war. In the terrible conditions of the siege of Algeciras, Diego Lopez V de Haro had become ill and subsequently died. He was the current Lord of Biscay, and John, the traitor of Tarifa and Algeciras, who had long coveted this title, was able to install his wife as Lady of Biscay. But John’s ambition was to be his undoing when he led Christian forces on the next round of the reconquest of Iberia.     

Like 3        Published at 05:00   Comments (1)

Something fishy this way comes
21 November 2020

The gifts of towns and ports, firstly by King Alfonso X, then Sancho IV had given Alonso Pérez de Guzmán and his family a sizable income. Maria’s dowry had brought vineyards and flourmills around Seville, and when he left Morocco behind for good, he began buying land that the Marinid invasions had left desolate and depopulated. The Cortez was a battleground where he was outgunned by the likes of Pedro Ponce de León, who controlled the finances of the kingdom. Pedro and his brother owned lands adjacent to Guzmán’s and were eager to extend their territory. There were other powerful families jostling for favour with Maria de Molina and King Ferdinand, and the ever perfidious, John, the Traitor of Tarifa, wove his webs of intrigue amongst all of them.

Guzmán had faithfully served three kings of Castile now, and Maria de Molina knew that he was unhappy in her court. Much of western Iberia had been abandoned, and the people had moved north of Seville where the African invasions rarely reached. The territory that Guzmán owned was unproductive and lawless, but before the invasions it had been a very rich and fertile area that had supported Moors and Christians for centuries. The Order of Calatrava had been given charge of the lands around Huelva and Niebla, but they were too busy hatching plots against each other to bring stability to the west coast. Maria was very clever, and knew where the money was. She released Guzmán and gave him the gift of the almadrabas of Conil and Chiclana. The Calatravans had been running the almadrabas, and she suspected that a lot of the money that they earned was not appearing as revenue in the coffers of her kingdom.

For thousands of years the fishermen of the west coast of Iberia had reaped a harvest from the Atlantic Ocean between the first full moon in May and the end of July. Far out in mid-Atlantic, Bluefin Tuna that had fed all winter began to migrate down the Iberian coast to enter the Mediterranean and spawn. They came in their hundreds of thousands and were pursued by the most ferocious hunters in the sea; killer whales. Knowing that the huge Orcas could not come into shallow water by the beaches, the tuna shoaled close to the shore. This is where the fishermen laid their traps to catch them. Down the west coast, and through the straits, teams of fishermen laid out elaborate systems of nets. The traps were only effective on a gently sloping beach with no underwater obstacles. There were several small traps such as Sancti Petri and Castilnova, Cadiz, and Huelva, but by virtue of their beaches, the biggest and most productive were at Chiclana, Barbate, Zahara, Conil and Tarifa.  

The tira, or looped nets system of catching the tuna.

When Guzmán arrived at Conil he discovered a meticulously planned and executed operation for catching the huge fish. A cabal of highly skilled fishermen, who knew the ways of the atun, organised the hundreds of itinerant workers who arrived every year at Huelva to work in the traps. At the same time, the salinas dotted up and down the coast loaded their salt onto wagons and began to deliver it to the fishing sites. Carpenters around Donaña and Bollullos began cutting Holm Oak to repair boats and make oars, whilst others cut cork for floats for the nets. Willow hoops for the barrels were made by highly skilled tradesmen in Rocinas, and all these essential products were delivered to the beaches where the men who would cut up, salt and pack the huge fish were setting up their trellises and tables. Nets were made or repaired in warehouses in Huelva and shipped to the traps, where they were coiled on the beach ready to be pulled into the sea. Last of all, a group of men spread out along the coast and climbed small stone towers dotted along the cliffs from Chiclana to Barbate. Each tower was in sight of the next, and the men donned their sombreros and waited for the tell-tale thrashing of the water and the high pointed fins of the Orcas as they herded the tuna down the coast.  Once the watchmen sighted this, they raised flags, and the boats pulled out the nets to catch the terrified fish.

As soon as the first fish were hauled out of the surf the dealers arrived in their ornate and expensive wagons. They travelled in their finery, with each covered wagon equipped with sofas, tables, crockery and stoves for heating and cooking. They set up camp away from the poor fishermen’s tents and only came to the chanclas, where the butchers worked to bid for the finest cuts of flesh. It was obvious where all the money was going. Some of the traders had come from as far away as Valencia and the north coast of Iberia to buy the choicest cuts. A few were selling to the private armies and navy of Iberia and some to other kingdoms in France and Italy. Armies march on their stomachs, and a navy on patrol cannot stop to augment its supplies by fishing.  The logistics of supplying troops and sailors required a varied diet, and oily fish like tuna was a necessary supplement. If it was salted and sealed in barrels, it could keep for months.  Everything was organised to the last detail. The only thing missing was the bookkeeping.

This tiled picture can be seen in Conil and shows the almadraba fishermen.

Guzmán decided to take a hand in every aspect of the trap. He waded into the surf with the paraleros who pulled the thrashing fish out of the water with iron hooks, and helped uncoil the nets as the boatmen pulled them into position.  He befriended the quiet men who organised everything on the water and gained their confidence and trust. He became known as the Duke of the Almadrabas. Ten weeks later, all the tuna had passed, and the fishermen received their pay.

An average catch for a season at Conil was 16,000 tuna, and the fish were bought by the traders for around 8 marvaledís each, which means that the income was 128,000 marvaledís. Chiclana would probably bring in the same number of tuna, so the total income for the two traps would be around 256,000 marvaledís. At that time, a skilled tradesman would be paid around 135 marvaledís a year. There would be around 300 people involved in the fishing at each site, and there was another disquieting aspect of this arrangement; if the nets remained empty (and sometimes they did) nobody got paid.

It became clear to Guzmán that somebody was making a lot of money out of the almadrabas. He knew how much the traders bought the tuna for, but now he wanted to know how much they were selling it for. The Order of Calatrava was riddled with corruption and the traders had taken advantage of this. But Guzmán had many contacts in the Cortez and knew where they were selling. The Calatravans had no authority over the lands that they had been given custody over, but Guzmán did. He could have traders, mayors or corrupt officials thrown into prison, or worse.

At the end of that first year, Guzmán presented the taxes that he had collected to King Ferdinand and his mother, Maria de Molina. They were ecstatic. They had the means to fund the army of Castile that would enable them to override the many powerful families and their private armies. They immediately gave him the trap of Zahara de los Atunes, and he now had control over the three most lucrative almadrabas in Iberia. I don’t doubt that Alonso had made a tidy profit for himself, but in the long run, he had opened up the lawless wilderness of south-western Iberia to settlers and farmers.

His next move was to build a secure storage compound for all the almadraba boats, nets and equipment that he owned. He chose to do this at Zahara de los Atunes where a decade earlier he had welcomed Emir Abu Yusef Yaqub in the ill-fated attempt to stop Sancho taking the crown. The fortified compound faces the beach and allows the boats, nets and all sundry equipment needed for the almadrabas to be brought within the walls. Now known as the Palace of Jadraza, it is mostly in disrepair.  His other major construction was in the town of Conil, where he built a castle which had a watch-tower or Atalaya to connect him by line of sight to the other manned outposts of Roche and all the way to Chiclana.      


The Palace of Jadjara at Zahara de los Atunes.


A drawing of the castle at Conil (in red) and the boats and nets of the almadraba. On the left is the tower of Guzmán

The story of the Duke of the Almadrabas does not end here. Each spring when the almadrabas began, the Guzmán family drove down to Conil and set up camp. They could have sailed down river from Seville, but they chose to go by road in a caravan of beautifully painted covered wagons with all the furniture and finery that a duke should have. They took up residence in the castle at Conil, but would drive down to the beach away from the smell and the flies of the almadraba, and his young family and wife could play and swim in the sea. Guzmán himself often joined in with the other fishermen as they pulled the tuna out of the surf. This tradition was passed down through the Guzmán family, and three hundred years later, a poor writer called Miguel de Cervantes wrote that he was going to Conil to “buy tuna and see the duke.”

With law and order restored, farmers began returning in droves to work the fertile land. Guzmán gained more in taxes as the villages grew, and he put this money into improving the roads.  He ensured that he employed local labour for all his developments, with the result that the hand-to-mouth existence of the villages became more stable.  Alonso Péres de Guzmán had proved that he was worthy of the title “El Bueno” and this should be a happy ending.

But the Marinids still held Gibraltar and Algeciras, and for their own safety, the Christian kingdoms wanted the threat of invasion that they posed removed forever. Guzman was now one of Iberian Christendom’s top generals, and before long he was drawn into his final campaign.

Like 1        Published at 05:00   Comments (0)

The lioness mother
14 November 2020

King Sancho IV died of tuberculosis in April 1295 leaving a widow and seven children. Thanks to his father, King Alfonso X, Sancho had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. This meant that his children were considered illegitimate and ineligible for the crown. There were two other eligible contenders.

The first was Sancho’s nephew, Ferdinand de la Cerda, who had been chosen by King Alfonso X to succeed him instead of Sancho. He was living with Sancho’s mother in Aragon. The alternative was John, the Traitor of Tarifa. Both of these had a substantial number of followers amongst the nobles of Castile and León, making the potential for another civil war enormous.

Maria de Molina, Sancho’s widow, sent for Guzmán El Bueno (King Sancho gave Guzmán the agnomen “El Bueno” after Tarifa) to come to Alcala de Heneres to help her rule. Sancho had designated Maria as regent in the event of his death. Her first priority was the Church. She began petitioning the bishops and archbishops to ask the pope for an annulment of the excommunication order against her children. Guzmán, she sent out to rally the noble families around her cause.

John of Tarifa had moved quickly and already established himself as King of León, which had split from Castile as a separate kingdom. Maria’s oldest son, Ferdinand, was ten when his father died, and if she could have the excommunication lifted then he had a good chance of becoming king. The two biggest and most powerful families, Haro and Lara, were clawing for a bigger share of the power, but clever, patient Maria held them all at bay.


Maria de Molina presenting her son Fernando at the Cortez. Painting by Antonio Gisbert.

Maria was trying to keep John at arm’s length; she knew how dangerous he could be. He had brought her kingdom to the brink of war with Asturias shortly after she became regent of Castile.  Apart from the brotherhoods or hermanadades that the nobles had created to protect themselves from rogue kings and coups, there were other orders that were often operating outside the control of the king.The Order of the Temple of Solomon, or the Templers, reached a level of freedom from accountability that is only matched in modern times by the likes of Amazon or Facebook. All of them were given special powers by the Vatican, and a mere kingdom had little power to influence them. However, all the orders were led by men, and they could be influenced.

Rue Perez Ponce de León was Grand Master of the Templers until his death in 1291 when the order elected his nephew, Pedro Ponce de León to succeed him. Pedro became one of the richest of the noblese after the death of his father. Together with his brother, Fernando, who was chancellor to Maria and Prince Fernando, they had control over vast areas and huge amounts of money.  In 1292 they collected 75,720 Maravadís as tribute payments, as well as the right to collect taxes for parts of Extremadura controlled by León. At the same time, Pedro was collecting taxes from his father’s estates in Asturias and Galicia, rents from salinas along the coast and rents from the Jewish ghettos of Córdoba. He was also majordomo to the prince, and a rising star in the kingdoms. He had not gone unnoticed by John.

John involved Pedro in a secret deal with the King of Asturias to gain political favour in the court of Maria de Molina. For this he would receive a bribe of land and the rent from two towns. Before long, Pedro realised that he was becoming involved in something treasonable and told John that he wanted nothing more to do with the deal. John immediately changed tack and told Pedro that unless he complied he would tell Maria of Pedro´s attempt to involve him in the treasonous deals he had been committing.

For a week Pedro suffered in anguish before confessing all to Maria and Fernando. Fernando was furious and ordered John arrested and executed. Worse was to follow. The King of Asturias demanded the return of the land titles that he had used as a bribe or he would invade Castile. Fernando was like his father and would have gone to war, but his mother managed to dissuade him. This is when John´s 80 year-old mother arrived at court with the title deeds which she offered to give to Maria in exchange for pardoning her son. Evil John walked free.

At long last, the pope lifted the excommunication of Sancho, and in 1301, Sancho’s son was crowned King Ferdinand IV of Castile and a reunited León. All the others, including John of Rate, had to acknowledge him as king and abandon their claim to the kingdom. The next biggest prize in the kingdom was Lord of Biscay, and with the crown settled, greedy eyes focused here. Diego López V de Haro, “the intrusive” still held the title, but John of Rate considered that he had a greater claim. He petitioned Maria de Molina and the king to have him reinstated. Diego López V de Haro became so worried by John’s obvious attempt to undermine him that when John appeared uninvited at one of the king’s meetings in Guadalajara, Diego López arrived with an army to surrounded the town and demanded to see the king and his regent. An angry King Ferdinand would not allow him into the town and he ordered John to leave, too. Finally, in 1307, by petitioning the pope, John was able to go above the king’s head and have legal claim to the title, but only on Diego’s death. Even then, wily Maria managed to prevent John becoming Lord of Biscay, and it was his wife who took the title of Lady of Biscay and became head of the House of Haro.

Within the kingdoms, the only standing armies were those of the religious Orders. If a king wanted to fight a war against another kingdom he must ask his loyal nobles to provide troops and the provisions to feed them during a campaign. If he was lucky, there might be enough booty to pay everybody. (Booty was usually captured land and the taxes from towns. Added to this would be all of the livestock of these poor people. The land and taxes could then be divided up amongst the victors.) As the kingdoms grew and amalgamated this kind of funding for an army became impracticable.

Through the Cortez, Maria de Molina and her son lobbied to tax the rich landowners to pay a tax for a trained and equipped standing army. King Alfonso X had done the same in 1270 by creating the Order of Santa Maria, which was the nearest thing to a royal navy. Funded and controlled by a mix of clerics and nobles, they were specialists in naval warfare and instrumental in several major battles to control the straits between Africa and Iberia. The order had ships stationed in San Sebastián, La Coruña, and El Puerto de Santa María, but the main port and command centre was at Cartagena.

Maria and King Ferdinand also had to deal with The Order of Calatrava. The order took its name from the Arabic name for a castle in al-Andaluz which was captured from the Moors in 1147.  The Templars were the original custodians, but were unable to hold the castle. Abbot Ramond of the nearby Cistercian monastery of Fitero offered to take on its defence. Shortly after, Father Diego Velázquez, a simple monk in the monastery, but who had once been a knight, had the bright idea of employing the lay brothers of the abbey to defend Calatrava. Lay brothers were the labourers of the monastery who were not in Holy orders and were employed for manual trades such as those of tending herds, construction, farm labour or husbandry. Diego recommended that they become soldiers of the Cross. Thus a new order was created in 1157. I am sure that the lay brothers were eternally grateful to Father Diego.

Over the intervening 40 years, the order of Calatrava had developed into a potent force in the Cortez and had developed abundant resources of men and wealth, with lands and castles scattered along the borders of Castile. It exercised feudal lordship over thousands of peasants and vassals and could field 1200 to 2000 knights; a considerable force in the Middle Ages. Moreover, it enjoyed autonomy and acknowledged only clerical superiors, with the pope as final arbiter. The order gained a big slice of its revenue from an annual fishing event on the west coast, and Maria decided to tap into this income, but she needed somebody she could trust who had the strength and courage to take on the powerful order. She turned to the man who had stood by her and her husband for decades, and whose loyalty was beyond question. Alonso Pérez de Guzmán. 


Like 2        Published at 05:00   Comments (5)

The hardest decision a man could face.
07 November 2020

When King Sancho eliminated the main opposition to his rule, he threw his nefarious brother, John, into jail. When the killing was over, and he had made some changes, he released him again. While John was in prison, the king and his relatives executed a power-play that ensured that John was left out in the cold.

John had allied himself with Lope Díaz III de Haro, the Lord of Biscay, a lifelong enemy of King Alfonso X, and also Sancho. Sancho had executed Lope and all his followers after his accession to the throne. John was next in line to be the Lord of Biscay, but whilst John was in prison, he was unable to claim the title. Instead, Lope’s brother, Diego López V de Haro, who had been a supporter of Sancho, stepped in to take the title.  Diego was ever after known as “the intrusive” for grabbing the title, but Sancho had planned the whole thing.

John was understandably furious.  Without title, and his brother watching him like a hawk, John bided his time, but soon began plotting again. When Sancho discovered his renewed duplicity, John fled to Portugal, where he resumed his scheming. King Dennis of Portugal decided that John was too dangerous to have around, and threw him out of his country.

We will come back to John in a minute.

When Sancho’s elder brother died at Écija, and with his father in France, he instantly became de-facto commander of the entire Castilian army. The dates are muddled, but Sancho must have been around 20 years-old at the time. True, he had generals who were veterans of warfare, but it was his fighting spirit that impressed them and his troops. Fighting with Sancho around Córdoba during the Marinid invasion was another young warrior who was just as courageous as he was, and perhaps a little cleverer.

The origins of Alonso Pérez de Guzmán are obscured by the re-writing of history during the intervening centuries, and the deliberate erasure of the truth by his family prior to the inquisition. In an interview by Bettany Hughes for the BBC programme, When the Moors Ruled in Europe, the then XXI Duchess of Medina Sidonia, a direct Guzmán descendent, showed a document dated 1288 that permitted Guzmán to trade in grain. In another document dated 1297, and signed by the king, Guzmán was described as a “vassalo,” which means that he was a Moor.

Guzmán was at the signing of the treaty with Emir Abu Yusef Yacub after the first Marinid invasion. Sancho was also there, but at the signing, Guzmán’s half-brother, Álvero, publicly denounced “to the four winds” that Guzmán was a bastard and a Moor.  Shortly afterwards, Guzmán left Iberia and allied himself to the Moroccans.

When King Alfonso X sought the support of the emir to combine armies and take Córdoba from Sancho, it was Guzmán who acted as go-between. In gratitude, the dying king gave Alonso land and towns along the west coast of the now sparsely-populated al-Andalus. He also suggested that Alonso should marry Maria Coronel, the daughter of one of his nobles, but before anything could be arranged the king died. As soon as Sancho was crowned, Guzmán returned to Africa. He had been instrumental in aiding King Alfonso lead an army against him, and he thought it best to move to Marinid lands where he was still in favour.

Sancho had grown up with Alonso as a friend, and he wanted him to return to Castile.  He sent a message saying that he would honour the marriage to Maria Coronel. This would give Guzmán land and title in the middle of the Cerda stronghold that had supported his father. It would also put him and his possessions on the front line of any invasions by the Marinids.  Sancho had inherited some of his father’s wisdom, and he realised that with a foot in both camps, Alonso could be a huge asset to his kingdom. In 1282 Alonso returned to Seville and married 16 year-old Maria.

For a while, he played an impossible double role. When Abu invaded Nazrid lands, Alonso fought with him, and he also led armies against Abu’s enemies in the Rif. But in Castile, he was one of the king’s trusted noblemen. When Abu Yusef died, his son became emir, and Alonso’s fortunes changed for the worse. Abu Yacub hated Christians, but he hated Alonso more, and when Alonso discovered that Abu Yacub was planning to kill him, he fled across the straits to Seville.

Guzmán helped Sancho strengthen the south west of Iberia against Marinid attacks and he fought with Sancho to take Tarifa in 1293. According to the treaty, Sancho was supposed to return Tarifa to the Nazrids, but the Marinids still had Algeciras, which was a staging post for invasions. He reneged on the deal with Muhammad and kept Tarifa, with a longer-term plan to take Algeciras, too, and stop Abu from crossing the straits for good. The problem now was finding somebody to take stewardship of Rate Castle at Tarifa. It was a very dangerous posting with Algeciras just along the coast, but from Tarifa's port, Christian fighting ships could control the straits. Guzmán volunteered, and King Sancho personally brought supplies and arms to Tarifa to back up his most trusted general.

This is where John reappears. Knowing of Abu’s hatred of Alonso, he left Portugal and crossed the straits to Africa, where he convinced Abu that he could take Rate Castle from Guzmán. He was going to use a tactic that he had used when he was fighting for his father at the siege of Zamora. He had captured the son of the woman who held the castle there and he threatened to kill the boy if she did not surrender. In those times, it was usual for noble families to have children brought up with other noble families; a way of cementing alliances. The chroniclers say that this is how John came to have young Pedro. It seems unlikely, given his time in prison and being thrown out of Portugal, but by some means John held Guzmán’s second oldest son as hostage.  On the strength of this, Abu shipped 5,000 of his cavalry across the straits and added troops from Algeciras, and with this small army under his command, John laid siege to Rate Castle.

 The west gate of Rate Castle, Tarifa.

Over the centuries this story has been written and re-written and the facts are muddled. Books and plays have been written about it, and it has become a legend in Spanish history.

Guzmán had learned of John’s plans and sent messengers to King Sancho. Sancho’s navy was at that time on the east coast of Iberia and would take weeks to arrive to give support, but what ships he had available he sent downriver form Seville and Huelva laden with troops. Alonso had also sent word to Vejer de la Frontera for backup troops to attack John’s northern flank. But regardless of troops and displacements, the battle would be decided when John brought out Guzmán’s son.

The siege went on until reinforcements from Sancho were attacking John´s troops from the rear, and the Castilian ships had been sighted on the horizon. That was when John dragged out the eight-year old son of Guzmán. John demanded that he surrender the castle or see his son killed before the gates. We cannot imagine the pressures and aguish that Alonso and his family felt, but Alonso stood on the battlements and refused to surrender the castle.

 Guzman painted by Martinez Cublles

There are several versions of the speech that Guzmán supposedly gave that day, but they all follow the same theme.

“Here is my knife, use it to kill him with. No son of mine would dishonour me, and his death will bring honour upon him and shame on you.”

Alonso drew his own dagger and threw it down to John. In fury, John cut Pedro’s throat and carried on hacking until he had severed the boy’s head. One chronicler writes that he put Pedro’s head into a siege catapult and fired it over the walls.

With his plan in tatters, John retreated to Algeciras and Abu Yacub withdrew his cavalry to Africa. Guzmán and his devastated family returned to Seville, where they stayed in mourning for several weeks. King Sancho had tuberculosis, and his health was deteriorating. He could not travel, so he sent a letter to Alonso asking him to bring his family to his palace at Alcalá de Heneres. The letter was full of praise, and likened Guzmán to Abraham. Alonso set off in his carriage from Seville, but when he arrived at the gates, all the noble families of the city had lined the road north. They fell in behind Guzmán’s coach and followed him. At each town they passed through, more people joined the procession. When they reached Córdoba, the nobles of the city, led by the mayor, met him outside the walls, and he and his family were welcomed as royalty.  By the time they reached Alcalá de Heneres, the train of supporters numbered nearly a thousand, and it was swelled by nobles and villagers who had come from neighbouring towns. King Sancho addressed them all from a balcony above the palace plaza.

“Behold your model, no man can show more love for his country than to give his own son. Whilst Castile has men like this, we will never be defeated.”

Most of the tales about Guzmán end at Rate Castle, but there is much more to the Guzmán story. Guzman himself became very rich, and his descendants became the first Dukes of Medinia Sidonia.

When Francis Drake sailed into the harbour at Cádiz and “Singed the King of Spain’s beard” it was another Alonso Péres de Guzmán who chased him out. The same man later led King Phillip’s Armada fleet for the planned invasion of England in 1588.

Perhaps the least known of the Guzman line was a daughter of the Queen of Portugal, Donaña Louisa de Guisamo, whose fourth child became Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, and Queen of England.      

Meanwhile, John had returned to Castile and continued his plotting with the disaffected nobles. He had by no means given up on being royalty. He had a lot to overcome, least of all his new title of “The Traitor of Tarifa.”


For the full story of Guzmán el Bueno I can recommend this book.

The Path to Nobility is a gripping historical novel telling of Guzmán el Bueno´s rise not only through the courts of Christian kings, but his career fighting for Emir Abu Yusef Yaqub in Fez. The story begins with his birth as the illegitimate son of a nobleman in the court of King Alfonso X, and his youth during the Mudejar uprising. Whilst still a young boy, he fights in the streets of Toledo against the king´s cruel rule and joins the exodus of Moors trekking south when King Alfonso expels them from Castile. He is forced to leave his mother and return to the King´s court where he distinguishes himself in battle before defecting to join the Berber Emir of Morocco. He finally becomes one of the richest and most trusted nobles in Castile.



Like 1        Published at 05:00   Comments (1)

Spam post or Abuse? Please let us know

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More information here. x