Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1227
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 chess game. Troops from Granada marched to defend the town. Urged by Isabella, the powerful Duke of Medina Sidonia forgot his quarrel with the Marques of Cadiz. The combined strength of the Spaniards drove Abul Hassan back to Granada, where his disappointed subjects revolted against him and crowned his son Boabdil, nicknamed El Chico, the young king.
By a wealth of details Irving keeps his account from being a dry catalogue of battles and proves that the war was fought during the age of chivalry. Moors and Christians vied to outdo each other in courtesy. Boabdil, captured by King Ferdinand, was released in exchange for Christian captives. Isabella, marching to visit her fighting husband, was allowed to pass by the Moors, who were unwilling to wage war against women. Fatima, niece of Boabdil’s vizier, was captured by the Count of Tendilla while on her way to marry the governor of Tetuan. To ransom her, Boabdil offered a hundred Christians in exchange. Without waiting for their arrival, Tendilla loaded Fatima with jewels as a wedding present and escorted her home. The admiring king increased her ransom by twenty priests and a number of peasant women, and the delighted vizier started a correspondence with Tendilla that lasted through the siege and was useful in persuading the hesitant Boabdil of the uselessness of further fighting.
The author divides his study into two volumes, the first dealing with a succession of brief forays, and the second narrating the slow “picking” of the pomegranate seeds. While the world watched, Malaga, Granada’s seaport for trade with Syria and Egypt, was besieged. The Grand Turk and the Soldan of Egypt stopped their feuding to send help to their Moorish brother monarch. Queen Isabella called on all Spaniards under the age of seventy to enlist in the Holy War, and she and her daughter, later to marry Henry VIII of England, came to cheer the fighters. Even the ancient Grand Cardinal of Spain donned armor and promised high pay to all who would follow him into battle.
Eventually the worried Boabdil offered to rule Granada as a vassal of Ferdinand if he were allowed time to prepare the minds of his subjects for the change; but with the capitulation of the last Moorish stronghold in sight, the Catholic monarch refused. When the Moors burned the camp of their besiegers, Ferdinand ordered a permanent city built, called Santa Fe, to prove his intentions of remaining in the field until Granada surrendered.
From legends and ballads, as well as histories, Irving reconstructed the last year of the siege. He told of the brave Moor who rode into the Christian camp and flung an insulting spear at the queen’s tent and of Hernando Perez del Pulgar, who answered the Moorish knight by stealing into Granada and fastening a scroll bearing the words “Ave Maria” to the door of the chief mosque. There were no pitched battles. At the king’s command, Spanish soldiers refrained from fighting while they waited for the starving Arabs to capitulate. Finally, on November 25, 1491, a sixty-day truce was declared. Before it ended, Boabdil surrendered, and on January 2, 1492, he marched out of the fallen city. With the Count of Tendilla appointed governor of Granada, Spain concluded a crusade of reconquest that had lasted for seven and a half centuries.
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