This edited article about Ferdinand and Isabella originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 731 published on 17 January 1976.
“To him, we owe it all,” King Philip of Spain is reported to have said of King Ferdinand II. He was referring mainly to the way that Ferdinand, together with his wife, Isabella, had re-established the power of the monarchy in Spain. History remembers him more perhaps for the way he drove the Moors from their last stronghold at Granada.
The story of Ferdinand, heir to the kingdom of Aragon, begins really with his marriage to Isabella, heiress to the kingdom of Castile.
Ferdinand was 17 and Isabella was a year older. It was a strange wedding. Isabella’s father, Henry IV, was trying to disinherit her, and Ferdinand had had to travel from Aragon in disguise to evade the many people who were anxious that the marriage should not take place.
The young couple had scarcely a penny between them. They even had to borrow money to see the wedding through with the splendour necessary to their rank.
Within 10 years, the position had become very different. Castile and Aragon were united under their rule. Order and justice had been re-established, and the energy which had been wasted in civil war was diverted to the reconquest of the southern, Moorish, Kingdom of Granada.
The Moslem Moors had swept into Spain from North Africa in the 8th century, and Spain fell before them. The few survivors fled to the north. Then, slowly, the tide turned, and the Moors were gradually driven south again. By the 13th century, their rule was limited to the kingdom of Granada.
Granada still covered a large area of southern Spain, and for its defence, it had a powerful asset in its geographical situation, for it was bounded on one side by the Mediterranean and on the other side by mountains.
Granada was a fertile kingdom, and one endowed with considerable mineral wealth. Its cities were the wealthiest in Spain; its trade was prosperous and its industries, especially metal-working, were renowned. Civilization attained a high level in Granada, and the splendour of the Court there attracted many brilliant men.
The core of the kingdom was the city of Granada itself – a city fit for a king and containing the wonderful Alhambra palace. The Moors did not intend to let it go.
For Ferdinand and Isabella, their continuation of the war against Granada was in the nature of a Crusade. And they were fortunate in one respect, for although Granada was strong in many ways, she was weakened by the instability of her rulers.
Muley Hassan, the ruling Emir, had antagonised his wife, Aisha, by the lavish attention he paid to a younger and very beautiful wife named Zoraya. Aisha feared that her children would be disinherited, and made up her mind to place her eldest son, Boabdil, on the throne at all costs.
In the winter of 1481, Muley Hassan attacked and took the Christian town of Zahara. Ferdinand and Isabella began to mobilise. Then, in reply, they hit deep into the Moorish kingdom and took the unsuspecting town of Alhama. Muley Hassan brought a great army to Alhama; then, in the face of a gathering Spanish host, he retreated to the city of Granada. But fortune did not favour him there either, for, in his absence, Boabdil had taken over control as King, and Muley Hassan had to retire to Malaga.
In the early months of 1483, the war was going badly for the Spanish, but in April. Boabdil ventured forth, only to be defeated and captured at the battle of Lucena.
Ferdinand and Isabella made the best possible use of this stroke of good fortune. They demanded a huge ransom for the foolish and irresolute Boabdil, who became their vassal and was packed off home, where his treacherous antics were bound to pay the Spanish huge dividends.
Ferdinand and Isabella then worked out an organised plan of campaign. They aimed to subjugate the three regions of Granada in turn. Isabella took charge of mobilising a great army to attack the western region of Malaga. Help came from all over Europe, and she organised the production of the best artillery available. She also saw to it that a steady supply of food was sent to the army.
In the spring of 1485, siege was laid to the city of Ronda. The Moors’ water supply was cut off and the city was subjected to heavy artillery attack. Battering rams hammered at the walls and projectiles were hurled over them.
After 10 days of sustained effort. Ronda surrendered, and the capture of this city was of great importance. Its inhabitants were accounted the most hardy of the Moorish warriors and, on the news of Ronda’s fall, nearly 100 castles in the region were surrendered.
In 1485, Muley Hassan died, and Boabdil, who had broken his treaty with the Spanish, fled to the city of Loja. But Loja was Ferdinand’s next objective. Resistance there lasted a week, at the end of which time the city capitulated, and Boabdil was brought before Ferdinand. The Spanish King let him go again, but with a new treaty to curb his activities.
The campaign in the west continued with the attack on Malaga, a city which had impregnable twin fortresses. Malaga was confident of her strength, and the Spanish force of 70,000 ran into difficulties. There were outbreaks of plague, and even the most courageous assaults made little headway.
Then, as the Spaniards’ morale was sinking, Isabella arrived, and her confidence and cheerfulness steeled the army to fresh valour.
By this time, although Malaga still refused to surrender, its inhabitants were becoming so short of food that they were eating the cats and dogs that ran about in the streets. They no longer felt so confident, and on August 18th, 1487, the city gave itself up.
After the subjection of the Moors’ western province, there was a two-year lull in the war. During it, Ferdinand and Isabella prepared to reduce the eastern province of Almeria.
But at the siege of Baza, in May 1489, nothing at first went right, and it seems that it was again Isabella’s presence which brought good fortune. Three days after her arrival at the camp on November 7, 1489, the Moors began to negotiate terms. The outcome was that they surrendered not only Baza but the cities of Guadix and Almeria as well, and the whole eastern province fell into their hands.
The final moments of this Holy War were vibrant with a spirit of joyous expectancy, Granada, the final stronghold, was packed with the remnants of the Moorish army, and other refugees. The Spanish host appeared before this jewel city, and their siege of it is the subject of a host of legends.
Even when their camp went up in flames, the Spaniards’ spirits were high. A new camp was built of stone. The Moors were filled with despair. Negotiations were conducted with Boabdil, who agreed to surrender the city in 60 days. But events overtook him, for when the news of the treaty leaked out, the city flared up in revolt, and Boabdil appealed to Ferdinand and Isabella to come and take over.
On January 2, 1492, after 10 years of war, the Spanish entered the city of Granada. A dream had been realised. Christian Europe rejoiced with them, for the Infidel had been expelled from the West.
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