Washington Irving, youngest of the eleven children of a wealthy New York merchant, was sickly as a child. Unable to continue in school, he educated himself along lines that struck his fancy, and his studies included the Spanish language. One of the early books in his scattered reading was DON QUIXOTE, which inspired in him a life-long interest in Spain and the Spanish people.
In 1825, while traveling in southern France, he decided to see the land of Cervantes, using as his excuse the need to go to Madrid to consult manuscripts dealing with Columbus. Out of this visit developed A HISTORY OF THE LIFE AND VOYAGES OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1828). From material uncovered but unsuitable for this work, and from impressions of his travels, he wrote a chronicle of the conquest of Granada which he attributed to an imaginary historian, the Jesuit Fray Antonio Agapida. While in Granada he visited the Alhambra, then no national monument but a dirty, run-down building, and secured permission to live there while writing the tales contained in THE ALHAMBRA (1832).
In the introduction to the first edition of A CHRONICLE OF THE CONQUEST OF GRANADA, Irving invented details of the life of Fray Antonio and affirmed that the original manuscript was in the Escorial Library. In a note to the 1850 revised edition, however, he confessed that the Jesuit priest was his own invention. He also admitted romanticizing some of the scenes and incidents of the history, but in this respect he was only doing what the Spaniards had done before, especially Gines Perez de Hita (c. 1544-c. 1619) in his CIVIL WARS OF GRANADA (1595-1604), which he attributed to an imaginary Arabic contemporary.
The advantage of putting the account of the conquest of Granada into the mouth of a monkish zealot like Fray Antonio Agapida was to keep it in spirit with contemporary accounts by orthodox chroniclers of Spain. It also provided an explanation for its attitude toward religion and the throne, so much a part of the Spanish spirit in the fifteenth century.
After seven centuries of warfare between Moors and Christians, Aben Ismael, King of Granada, became weary of fighting in 1457 and bought a truce from King Henry IV of Castile and Leon. When his proud son, Muley Abul Hassan, inherited the throne in 1465, he stopped payment of the tribute. King Henry did nothing about the matter, but his successors, Ferdinand and Isabella, after amalgamating the kingdom in 1478 sent Juan de Vera as their ambassador to demand resumption of payment. The Moorish monarch rebuffed the ambassador with the statement that the Moorish mint no longer coined money, only scimitar blades and the heads of lances.
Ferdinand listened to de Vera’s report of the strength of the city, whose name means pomegranate, and the impossibility of direct siege, then made a punning threat that he would pick out the pomegranate’s seeds one by one. Washington Irving’s book tells with fascinating and romantic details how he kept that promise.
Granada in the late fifteenth century was a fortress city of parks, fountains, pools, and architectural gems still to be seen; but it was also a city of intrigue, as Irving bears witness. Among the women of Abul Hassan’s harem was the captured daughter of a Christian warlord, Isabella Ximenes de Solis, better known to history by her Arabic name of Zoraya, the Morning Star. As mother of two of the king’s sons, she schemed to place one of them on the throne of Granada instead of Abul Hassan’s firstborn, Boabdil, the son of Princess Ayxa la Horra. Nobles in the court were taking sides in this intrigue, and one group was plotting to depose the king in favor of Boabdil.
Meanwhile, the ambitious Abul Hassan, unpunished for refusing to pay tribute, decided to break the unwritten truce and reconquer a poorly defended frontier town. Now that war with Portugal had ended, however, Ferdinand was free to retaliate by sending an army against the Moorish town of Alhama. Irving makes the campaign sound like a...
(The entire section is 1,227 words.)