The Muslim Surrender of Granada to Fernando and Isabella, 1492
If the Western world ever becomes serious on how to deal with the current, mostly Muslim, invasion of its once sacred soil, all it needs to do is to look to its glorious past. In particular, it should examine the heroic actions of one of its greatest figures, Isabella of Castile. This is why the historian William Thomas Walsh entitled his magisterial biography of the queen, Isabella of Spain: The Last Crusader.
While the Reconquista was not directed at securing access to the Holy Land and Jerusalem as earlier Crusades had attempted, the ridding of the Spanish peninsula of Muslim power was a definite part of what Jonathan Riley-Smith calls the “paraphernalia of crusading:”
. . . with the union of Aragon and Castile in the
persons of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1479 and
the resurgence of crusading ideas that had followed
the loss of Constantinople the Spanish court, with
Isabella taking the lead, began to seethe with fervour,
nationalistic as well as religious. The paraphernalia
of crusading – papal letters and crusading privileges –
were in evidence. [Jonathan Riley-Smith,
The Crusades: A History, p. 312
Isabella and Fernando used their money and resources not for “national greatness,” or their own self aggrandizement as the later “absolutist” monarchs would do, but instead employed their treasures to triumphantly defeat one of Christianity’s mortal foes.
Huge sums of money were spent and large armies
raised and the war was pursued with a remarkable
singlemindedness at the expense of almost
all the country’s other interests. [Ibid]
If Christian principalities and powers had a portion of Isabella’s ardor for the Faith, the infidel would have long since been vanquished or at least pushed out of the former lands of the Roman Empire which they had brutally overrun. Unfortunately, the Western world went in an increasingly secular direction after the passing of the great queen, eventually adopting totalitarian social democracy as its governing system while pushing Christianity out from nearly every sector of public life.
Norman Housley in Contesting the Crusades adds, “. . . the Granada war of 1482-92 had shown not just that the crusading mechanism could still work, thereby confirming the lesson of the Hussite crusades, but that it could generate military success.” (p. 138) He points out that the Reconquista was a part of crusading tradition and not some separate political aggrandizement scheme of Isabella and Fernando: “A significant feature of recent research on the Granada war, however, has been the demonstration that the campaigns were advanced with the help of a cluster of ideas and emotions that had strong links with past crusading.” (p. 139)
Before the final elimination of Muslim power in Spain, Isabella was engaged in crusading activity. Her forays against the Muslims were undertaken outside of Spain proper and done despite the kind of internal political difficulties which kept other sovereigns from taking up the Cross.
In 1479, the Grand Turk Mohammed II besieged Rhodes which Venice had abandoned, in part, to preserve its own trading privileges in the Levant. While the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem had held off the Muslims, it did not end the threat as the Turks set their sights on the coast of Italy which, of course, sent shock waves not only throughout the country, but Europe at large.
In August of 1480, the Turks attacked and took the city of Otranto in the Kingdom of Naples. The atrocities committed were particularly heinous as Walsh details:
Of the 22,000 inhabitants, the barbarians bound 12,000
with ropes and put them to death, thus helpless, with
terrible tortures. They slew all the priests in the city.
They sawed in two the aged Archbishop of Otranto,
whom they found praying before the altar. On a hill
outside the city, now known as Martyrs’ Hill, they
butchered many captives who refused to become
Mohammedans, and threw their corpses to the dogs.
[Walsh, Isabella of Spain, p. 192]
The account of these actions became widely dispersed and certainly known to Isabella.
As happened far too often in earlier crusades the political leadership, this time in Italy, was too busy with their own petty squabbles to recognize the Muslim threat despite pleas from the pope: “If the faithful, especially the Italians wish to preserve their lands, their houses, their wives, their children, their liberties, and their lives; if they wish to maintain that Faith into which we have been baptized, and through which we are regenerated, let them at last trust in our word, let them take up their arms and fight.” [Quoted in Walsh, Isabella of Spain, p. 192]
Not only for the rest of Europe, but the Moors’ capture of Otranto was a threat to Spain, especially since Granada, with two important sea ports on the Mediterranean, could easily be used as military bases. Isabella, however, keenly understood what the establishment of a Muslim foothold on Italian soil would mean for the security of Christendom. In response, she sent the entire Castilian fleet to assist in the recapture of Otranto. The queen went beyond just providing arms for defensive purposes, but took the offensive despite delaying much needed domestic reform as Walsh describes:
. . . it was characteristic of Isabella to stop at nothing short of
her utmost. At a moment when she had need of her new
revenues to complete her program of reform and to prepare
for war with Granada . . . she generously threw all her energies
and material resources into the major struggle for the safety
of Christendom. She formed the audacious design of raising
a fleet powerful enough not only to defend Italy and Spain,
but if necessary to defeat the Turks on the high seas and
smash their whole offensive. [Ibid., p. 193]
The idea of compromise or coexistence with the Muslims, a policy which had been taken by crusaders both in the East and in Spain’s case with El Cid was anathema to Fernando and Isabella. [S.J. Allen & Emilie Amt, eds.,The Crusades: A Reader, pp188-191] After the sultan of Egypt, al-Ashnat Saifud-Din Qa’it Bay, had won a significant victory over the Ottoman Turks, he demanded that Fernando and Isabella stop their war on Granada. He threatened, among other measures, to take reprisals on Christian pilgrims and suggested destroying the Holy Sepulcher. [Warren H. Carroll, Isabel of Spain: The Catholic Queen, p. 190]
Fernando was not to be intimidated. He quickly retorted with a sharp and detailed history of the Reconquista which showed that it was his and his predecessors’ right to regain their homeland from the Muslim invaders. Moreover, if Catholics were killed to stop the war in Granada, Fernando would kill Granada Moors in retribution. [Ibid.] To this warning, no response was ever recorded from the sultan!
Isabella’s personal sanctity and love for her people has never been denied. Prior to the attack on the Muslim held fortress of Loja, Isabella organized a massive army the makeup of which consisted of soldiers from across the Continent eager to join the crusade, inspired, no doubt, by the queen’s indomitable will as the late Warren Carroll shows:
The whole army knew that Isabella . . . was praying night
and day for their success; knowing her holiness, they were
immensely confident in the power of her prayers. Never
had her prestige among them stood so high; her constant
care for the wounded, her fine and firm hand upon their
supply line, keeping them equipped with all they needed
wherever they might go, were now known and honored by
every soldier. [Ibid., p. 172]
Even her love for her husband would not dissuade the queen from accomplishing what she believed was a holy mission. In 1484, Fernando had sought to reclaim rights that his family had in Roussillon, France. Yet, the financial situation at the time only allowed for one war to be fought so a decision had to be made: a conflict over a dynastic dispute or the continuation of the struggle to expel the Muslims.
Isabella never wavered. Unlike other sovereigns who became embroiled in internal politics instead of fulfilling their crusading vows, Isabella pressed on, even more determined. In one of the few instances where her disagreements with her husband became public, the queen wrote:
This is so just and so holy an enterprise that among all
those of Christian princes there was none more honorable
or more worthy, none more likely to gain the aid of God and
the love of the people. . . . Two years ago the war with the
Moors began, in which great efforts were made and great
preparations undertaken on land and sea, at immense cost.
In view of all this, it appears unwise to lose all by beginning
another war with the French. [Quoted in Carroll, Isabel of Spain,
The Reconquista was not only a part of Spain’s struggle, but became one of Christendom’s, which can easily be seen with the participation of knights and fighting men from across the Continent. The most important of these were the Lombards whom Isabella recognized as crucial for the achievement of the ultimate goal as Carroll points out:
. . . the Lombards became the key to the war against Granada;
they were the decisive and irresistible weapon, once brought
to the scene of action. It was not easy to transport these
monsters over the primitive roads of southern Spain, but
it was done under Isabella’s constant prodding. [Ibid., p. 159]
While the conquest of Granada at the beginning of 1492 ended seven hundred years of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula, the victory would have never been achieved without the sacrifices of Queen Isabella. Before an attack on Granada could be made, the fortress of Baza had to be captured, however, Fernando’s earlier defense of Sicily and his foray into France left him critically short of funds. He considered postponing the assault until the needed money and supplies could be procured and sought Isabella’s advice.
Her response was typical, “[Baza] has to be continued and it will continue.” [quoted in Carroll, Isabel of Spain, p. 192] Another retreat would be fatal to the spirit of the people and ultimate success. William Thomas Walsh explains the heroic efforts the queen made to secure the funds, soldiery, and supplies for Baza’s capture:
Money was the first need. She pawned her gold and plate,
priceless heirlooms from her ancestors; and she sent all
her jewels by speedy messengers to Valencia and
Barcelona . . . her pearl necklace, her balas rubies, even
the jeweled crown of Saint Fernando. [Walsh, Isabella of
Spain, p. 312]
The amount sold was astronomical totaling some 60,000 gold florins. [Carroll, Isabel of Spain, p. 192] “The pawning of Isabella’s jewels,” Walsh contends,” was the turning point in the Crusade, and the fall of Baza marked the beginning of its third and final phase.” [Walsh, Isabella of Spain, p. 314]
The capitulation of Granada and the restoration of Christianity throughout Spain was celebrated throughout Europe and recognized at the time for its supreme significance. Probably no one summed up the accomplishment of Fernando and Isabella than King Henry VII who proclaimed:
These many years the Christians have not gained new ground
or territory upon the infidels, nor enlarged and set farther the
bounds of the Christian world. But this is now done by the
prowess and devotion of Fernando and Isabella, sovereigns
of Spain, who to their immortal honor have recovered the
great and rich kingdom of Granada, and the populous and
mighty city of the same name from the Moors . . . for which
this assembly and all Christians are to render laud and thanks
to God, and to celebrate this noble act of the King of Spain, who
in this is not only victorious but apostolical, in the gaining of
new provinces to the Christian faith. [Quoted in Walsh, Isabella
of Spain, pp. 333-34]
While it took some 700 years to rid Spain of the Muslim yoke, at least Isabella and her predecessors had only to contend with the infidel. Today, however, those who oppose the invaders have a two-fold problem: not only must they battle a hostile, alien group which may freely roam within their midst, but they must counter the Continent’s political elites who are allowing and, often times, encouraging the catastrophe to take place.
If victory is to be achieved, those who seek to preserve Europe’s cultural and demographic heritage must adopt Isabella’s uncompromising policies and replicate her own tremendous sacrifices. Many have done so already and will certainly be honored by history for their gallant stand, but many more must join if the contest is to be ultimately won.
Allen, S.J. and Amt, Emilie, eds., The Crusades: A Reader. 2nd ed., Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Carroll, Warren H. Isabel of Spain: The Catholic Queen. Front Royal, VA.:
Christendom Press, 1991
Housley, Norman. Contesting the Crusades. Malden, MA.: Blackwell
Smith, Jonathan Riley. The Crusades: A History. 3rd ed., London:
Bloomsbury Academic, 1987; 2014.
Walsh, William Thomas. Isabella of Spain: The Last Crusader. New York:
Robert M. McBride and Company, 1930; Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and
Publishers, Inc., 1987.