Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Battle of Guadalete

The legends just given are full of the pith of facts. Dread of Africa lay deep in the Spanish heart and gave point to these and other magical and romantic tales. The story of how the great conqueror, Mohammed, had come out from the deserts of Arabia and sent his generals, sword and Koran in hand, to conquer the world, had spread far to the east and the west, and brought terror wherever it came. From Arabia the Moslem hordes had swept through Egypt and along the African coast to the extremity of Morocco. They now faced Spain and coveted that rich and populous land. Well might the degenerate sons of the Goths fear their coming and strive to keep them out with talismans and spells.

Years before, in the days of good King Wamba, a great Mohammedan fleet had ravaged the Andalusian coast. Others came, not for conquest, but for spoil. But at length all North Africa lay under the Moslem yoke, and Musa Ibn Nasseyr, the conqueror of the African tribes, cast eyes of greed upon Spain and laid plans for the subjugation to Arab rule of that far-spreading Christian land.

Africa, he was told, was rich, but Spain was richer. Its soil was as fertile as that of Syria, its climate as mild and sweet as that of Araby the Blest. The far-famed mines of distant Cathay did not equal it in wealth of minerals and gems; nowhere else were such harbors, nowhere such highlands and plains. The mountain-ranges, beautiful to see, enclosed valleys of inexhaustible fertility. It was a land "plentiful in waters, renowned for their sweetness and clearness,"—Andalusia's noble streams. Famous monuments graced its towns: the statue of Hercules at Cadiz, the idol of Galicia, the stately ruins of Merida and Tarragona. It was a realm the conquest of which would bring wealth and fame, great glory to the sons of Allah and great treasure to the successors of the Prophet. Musa determined upon its invasion.

A traitor came to his aid. Count Julian was governor of Ceuta, a Spanish city on the African coast. His daughter Florinda was maid of honor to the queen of Don Roderic. But word from the daughter came to the father that she had suffered grievous injury at the hands of the king, and Count Julian, thirsting for revenge upon Roderic, offered to deliver Ceuta into the hands of the Arabian warrior and aid him in the conquest of Spain. To test the good faith of Julian, Musa demanded that he should first invade Andalusia himself. This he did, taking over a small force in two vessels, overrunning the coast country, killing many of its people, and returning with a large booty in slaves and plunder.

In the summer of 710 a Berber named Tarif was sent over to spy out the land, and in the spring of 711 the army of invasion was led over by Tarik Ibn Zeyad, a valiant chief, who had gained great glory in the wars with the Berber tribes. Who Tarik was cannot be told. He was of humble origin, probably of Persian birth, but possessed of a daring spirit that was to bring him the highest fame. He is described as a tall man, with red hair and a white complexion, blind of one eye, and with a mole on his hand. The Spanish historians call him Tarik el Tuerto, meaning either "one-eyed" or "squint-eyed." Such was the man whom Musa sent to begin the conquest of Spain.

The army of invasion consisted of seven thousand men,—a handful to conquer a kingdom. They were nearly all Moorish and Berber cavalry, there being only three hundred Arabians of pure blood, most of whom were officers. Landing in Spain, for a time they found no one to meet them. Roderic was busy with his army in the north and knew naught of this invasion of his kingdom, and for two months Tarik ravaged the land at his will. But at length the Gothic king, warned of his danger, began a hasty march southward, sending orders in advance to levy troops in all parts of the kingdom, the rallying place being Cordova.

It was a large army which he thus got together, but they were ill-trained, ill-disciplined, and ill-disposed to their king. Ninety thousand there were, as Arab historians tell us, while Tarik had but twelve thousand, Musa having sent him five thousand more. But the large army was a mob, half-armed, and lacking courage and discipline; the small army was a compact and valorous body, used to victory, fearless, and impetuous.

It was on Sunday, the 19th of July, 711, that the two armies came face to face on the banks of the Guadalete, a river whose waters traverse the plain of Sidonia, in which the battle was fought. It was one of the decisive battles in the world's history, for it gave the peninsula of Spain for eight centuries to Arab dominion. The story of how this battle was fought is, therefore, among the most important of the historical tales of Spain.

Roderic's army consisted of two bodies of men,—a smaller force of cavaliers, clad in mail armor and armed with swords and battle-axes, and the main body, which was a motley crew, without armor, and carrying bows, lances, axes, clubs, scythes, and slings. Of the Moslem army the greater number wore mail, some carrying lances and scimitars of Damascus steel, others being armed with light long-bows. Their horses were Arabian or Barbary steeds, such as Roderic had seen on the walls of the secret chamber.

It was in the early morning of a bright spring day that the Spanish clarions sounded defiance to the enemy, and the Moorish horns and kettle-drums rang back the challenge to battle. Nearer and nearer together came the hosts, the shouts of the Goths met by the shrill lelies  of the Moslems.

"By the faith of the Messiah," Roderic is reported to have said, "these are the very men I saw painted on the walls of the chamber of the spell at Toledo." From that moment, say the chroniclers, "fear entered his heart." And yet the story goes that he fought long and well and showed no signs of fear.

On his journey to the south Roderic had travelled in a chariot of ivory, lined with cloth of gold, and drawn by three white mules harnessed abreast. On the silken awning of the chariot pearls, rubies, and other rich jewels were profusely sprinkled. He sat with a crown of gold on his head, and was dressed in a robe made of strings of pearls interwoven with silk. This splendor of display, however, was not empty ostentation, but the state and dignity which was customary with the Gothic kings.

In his chariot of ivory Roderic passed through the ranks, exhorting the men to valor, and telling them that the enemy was a low rabble of heathens, abhorred of God and men. "Remember," he said, "the valor of your ancestors and the holy Christian faith, for whose defence we are fighting." Then he sprang from his chariot, put on his horned helmet, mounted his war-horse Orelia, and took his station in the field, prepared to fight like a soldier and a king.

For two days the battle consisted of a series of skirmishes. At the end of that time the Christians had the advantage. Their numbers had told, and new courage came to their hearts. Tarik saw that defeat would be his lot if this continued, and on the morning of the third day he made a fiery appeal to his men, rousing their fanaticism and picturing the treasures and delights which victory would bring them. He ended with his war-cry of "Guala! Guala! Follow me, my warriors! I shall not stop until I reach the tyrant in the midst of his steel-clad warriors, and either kill him or he kill me!"

At the head of his men the dusky one-eyed warrior rushed with fiery energy upon the Gothic lines, cleaving his way through the ranks towards a general whose rich armor seemed to him that of the king. His impetuous charge carried him deep into their midst. The seeming king was before him. One blow and he fell dead; while the Moslems, crying that the king of the Goths was killed, followed their leader with resistless ardor into the hostile ranks. The Christians heard and believed the story, and lost heart as their enemy gained new energy.

At this critical moment, as we are told, Bishop Oppas, brother-in-law of the traitor Julian, drew off and joined the Moslem ranks. Whether this was the case or not, the charge of Tarik led the way to victory. He had pierced the Christian centre. The wings gave way before the onset of his chiefs. Resistance was at an end. In utter panic the soldiers flung away their arms and took to flight, heedless of the stores and treasures of their camp, thinking of nothing but safety, flying in all directions through the country, while the Moslems, following on their flying steeds, cut them down without mercy.

Roderic, the king, had disappeared. If slain in the battle, his body was never found. Wounded and despairing, he may have been slain in flight or been drowned in the stream. It was afterwards said that his war-horse, its golden saddle rich with rubies, was found riderless beside the stream, and that near by lay a royal crown and mantle, and a sandal embroidered with pearls and emeralds. But all we can safely say is that Roderic had vanished, his army was dispersed, and Spain was the prize of Tarik and the Moors, for resistance was quickly at an end, and they went on from victory to victory until the country was nearly all in their hands.