The last Emir

Granada, the last Muslim City in España. Photo: Eurail


As soon as she was crowned, Isabel discovered that her kingdom was practically bankrupt. Enriqui’s desperate attempts to keep his crown had caused him to give first gold, and then his estates as bribes, or to pay for troops. Furthermore, the country was lawless, and bands of robbers were terrorising the population. 

Two years after her coronation, and just after she had miscarried with her second child, the twenty five year-old Queen began to take control of her lands. In 1476 at the Cortes of Madrigal she created the Santa Hermandad, or Holy Brotherhood, which was in effect a national police force. It was not the first time that one had been formed, but this was the first time that it had been controlled by the crown.

She ordered a tax of one-thousand eight hundred Maravedi shared between every 100 households to pay for the officers, who would be made up of locals and charged with bringing the lawlessness to an end. The first of the Hermanidades were set up in the kingdoms of Asturias, León and Castile, but the following year, she traveled to Extremadura and Andalucia and recruited officers there, too. Her biggest challenge was Galicia, the most lawless and recalcitrant kingdom of all. In 1481 she empowered two officials to recruit agents to eliminate the bands of robbers that controlled the, pueblos and highways in this mountainous kingdom. They achieved this near impossible task, and well over a thousand thieves and petty tyrants were driven out or arrested. 

The nobility that she needed to run the country was suspicious of her. At the Cortes of Toledo in 1480 she proposed buying back some of the estates Enriqui  had given away. Those lands that had not been granted as a reward were to be returned without compensation, and those that had been sold at too low a price would be bought back at the same price. The nobles warmly agreed, and the rents and taxes from these began to fill the treasury of Castile. To her eternal credit, Isabel did not take back any gifts to the church, hospitals or the poor. 

The next problem was that the coinage of Castile was nearly worthless. Originally there were five mints, but these had grown to a hundred and fifty whilst Enriqui ruled. Isabel closed many of them, and brought the rest under her control. Inspectors standardised the coins, and the Queen backed their authority legally. Confidence in Isabel and Ferdinand grew, and so did their popularity. It was during the 70’s and 80’s of their reign that Isabel took a firmer grip on the state administration. Traditionally, the king or queen made the laws, and the most powerful nobles at court carried out her policies through lesser levels of bureaucracy to the people in the country. Isabel streamlined the process, shedding many of the people who were there by heredity or privilege. Finally in 1485, as if to cap her achievements, she gave birth to her final child, and named her Catherine.


Of all her children, Catherine would be the one to change the religious and political shape of the whole of Europe for the next three hundred years. But it was not because of something she did, but something she could not do. Meanwhile, the Church and Queen Isabel looked to the south of their united kingdoms. The Emirate of Granada was a rich Muslim caliphate that had tantalised Christian eyes for centuries, even though it had been a vassal state since 1238 and forced to pay a tribute to the Christians. The fact that it had been ruled by successive Muslim dynasties for over five hundred years infuriated the Christian kingdoms and the powerful Catholic Church. They saw it as an intolerable Islamic threat in the west, whilst they were trying to keep the Ottoman Empire at bay in the east. 

Isabel began to mobilise and re-arm her army, and from around 1482, she and Fernando began a series of incursions into the Emir’s lands. Each summer, they assembled an army composed of mostly Castilian troops, whilst Aragon provided guns and ships and loaned her money for the short campaigns. They recruited mercenaries from all over Europe to fight with their own troops and drive back the Muslim frontiers.

The network of stone castles that had defended the emirate for centuries, were now rendered useless by the use of gunpowder and cannons. Isabel had been watching her soldiers and selecting her leaders for decades, and one in particular was being mentioned by her generals for his outstanding abilities. 

Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba had fought on Isabel’s brother’s side during the civil war against Enriqui IV. He had been under the command of Alonso de Cárdenas, a grand master of the Order of Santiago, who had sung his praises after the battle of Albura. After the death of her brother Alfonso, he became Isabel’s devoted follower.

By 1482 the frontier with the Moors had been pushed back to Medina del Campo, and the end of the caliphate was inevitable. Fernández de Córdoba had distinguished himself with his innovative tactics, and under the tutelage of his brother, had developed what is now known as guerrilla warfare. The use of muskets had changed the way battles were fought, and rather than line his men up to be shot at, he had them dig trenches to fire from. He had the support of the Counts of Aguilar and Tendilla who had also him earmarked for bigger things. Gonzalo was also fluent in the Berber tongue, and so it was he whom Isabel chose to discuss the final terms of surrender when Granada fell.  

In 1485, Isabel’s forces laid siege to Ronda, which fell after a bombardment by cannon lasting two weeks. The following year, she conquered Loja capturing the emir, whom she later released. In 1487 Christian troops took Malága, and the whole western end of the caliphate fell into her hands. The following spring, she took the eastern end of the caliphate with the fall of Baza. Captured Muslim lands and their riches were annexed to Castile and Isabel donated them as gifts for her supporters. Now there only remained the biggest prize of all, and the siege of Granada began in the spring of 1491. 

Francisco Pradilla Ortiz was awarded the Medal of Honor in the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid and the senate commissioned him to paint the  Rendición de Granada in 1879. It took three years to finish and it is one of well over a thousand paintings that he produced during his lifetime. 


Seven hundred and eighty years after the invasion of Iberia by Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Moors had been forced into an enclave around the old city of Granada. They faced the final battle with the Christian kingdoms of Iberia. Mohammad XII of al-Andaluz was his full title, but Emir Boabdil as he was known in the palace and to his mother, gathered his troops once more to fight in what had been for him a ten-year war of attrition. His boarders had been pushed back until only Granada was left. The Christian forces had broken off in winter, and resumed fighting each spring. It was not really his war, the war against the Moors had begun centuries before; a relentless crusade against their faith. Boabdil was just unlucky to have to bear the shame of surrendering the last of the Muslim lands to the Christians. 

His caliphate had not been easy to rule. Towards the end, it had been crippled by civil war, whilst the Christians were unified and resolute in their cause. Granada was besieged and surrounded by Christian forces led by Queen Isabel and Ferdinand. They called Boabdil to parley in the autumn and discuss terms, but he would not surrender. It was after the winter, when all supplies were exhausted, and the snows above Granada glowed pink in the morning sunshine that he was forced to accept the truth.

On the second of January 1492, Emir Boabdil surrendered the Emirate of Granada, the city of Granada, and the beautiful Alhambra palace to Isabel and Ferdinand. Now the whole of España, including Sardinia, Sicily and the Balearic islands came under Christian rule.

The King and Queen waited at the gates to the city as Boabdil led his remaining courtiers and family outside the walls. He had been spared the indignity of having to kiss the hands of his conquerors, or give them the key to the city gates; his mother had intervened for her son in the surrender negotiations. He took his family and about a hundred of his court up to the winding snow covered Alpujarras pass, to the south of Granada. Before he began to descend towards the sea, he looked back at his beautiful city and wept. His mother, riding beside him, was unforgiving of her son, and stung him with her words.

“Now you weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man.”

 Shortly after his surrender, Muhammad Boabdil sent a letter to the Marinid rulers of Morocco asking for refuge. The letter was long, extremely well written and began with a long poem praising the Marinids, followed by a prose where he laments his defeat and asks forgiveness for past wrongdoings of his forefathers against the Marini emirs. He continued, 

“The lord of Castile has proposed for us a respectable residence, and has given us assurances of safety to which he pledged by his own handwriting, enough to convince the souls. But we, as descendants of Banu al-Ahmar, didn't accept this, and our faith in God does not permit us to reside under the protection of disbelievers. 

We also received from the east many letters full of goodwill, inviting us to come to their lands and offering the best of advantages. But we cannot choose other than our home and the home of our forefathers, we can only accept the protection of our relatives, not because of opportunism but to confirm the brotherhood relationship between us and to fulfill the testament of our forefathers, that tells us not to seek any help other that of the Marinids and not to let anything obstruct us from going to you. So we traversed the vast lands and sailed the tumultuous sea and we hope that we would not be returned and that our eyes will be satisfied and our hurt and grievous souls will be healed from this great pain” He signed the letter, Muhammad Abu Abdallah.