18 April 2011

Cowards: Prince Juan of Castile

By Lisa Yarde

Near the end of the thirteenth century in medieval Spain, jealousy and bitterness made for a strange alliance between a rebel Spanish Christian and his Moorish or Muslim counterparts. On the shores of Tarifa, the Castilian army defended itself against a confederation of Moorish troops from Morocco and Granada, the last bastion of Spanish Islam, and the insurgent prince of Castile, the Infante Doñ Juan (1262-1319).

Juan was the son of the illustrious King Alfonso X, called the Wise by his people, born in 1262. Unfortunately, Juan inherited none of the wisdom or chivalrous behavior of his father. After the accession of the Infante's brother Sancho IV in 1284, Juan sought refuge in Portugal to continue his vicious struggle against the king. When he defected to Portugal, part of his retinue included a young page, Fernan Alonso de Guzman, who would play a tragic role in the actions of cowardice that followed.

King Sancho appealed to his counterpart, Dinis of Portugal, to expel the Infante. The Portuguese acquiesced, a move that only embittered Juan further. He fled across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco, where he offered his services to the Marinid ruler, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf. The Marinids had long played a role in the politics of Spain, alternating between the roles of ally and foe with Christian Spain, as well as the rulers of Moorish Granada. Lately, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf had been on the losing side of several conflicts. Juan promised to fight for the Moroccans, launching an attack at Tarifa with five thousand warriors. King Sancho had captured the coastal city in 1292 from the Marinids, who once held it as part of a treaty with Granada. Juan thought he could easily force the capitulation of Tarifa, because he held something very dear to the defender of the city.

The castle at Tarifa, site of Juan's shameful invasion
Tarifa's protector was Doñ Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, a Leonese knight descended from Moors, whose family had converted to the Christian faith in generations past. He had given his eldest son into service to the kings of Castile. In 1294, the Infante Juan appeared on the shores of Tarifa at the head of his five thousand troops. He led the young son of Doñ Alonso, his own page Fernan Alonso, before the gates and threatened to put him to death unless his father surrendered Tarifa. Juan had no reason to suspect his cowardly actions would not bring about the desired result. Years before, he had besieged a fortress at Zamora on his father’s behalf. Zamora submitted because Juan promised to kill the young son of the woman who held command in her husband’s stead.

Spanish chroniclers recorded the answer Doñ Alonso gave Juan: “I did not beget a son to be made use of against my country, but that he should serve her against her foes. Should Doñ Juan put him to death, he will but confer honor on me, true life on my son, and on himself eternal shame in this world and everlasting wrath after death. So far am I from yielding this place or betraying my trust, that in case he should want a weapon for his cruel purpose, there goes my knife!”

When Doñ Alonso threw his knife over the wall, Juan cut the young page’s throat. His allies were horrified by his actions and abandoned the siege. The Infante withdrew in disgrace to Granada.

My next novel, Sultana's Legacy, opens with the Infante Juan's cruelty at Tarifa.

Lisa J. Yarde is a historical fiction author. Her novels ON FALCON'S WINGS, an epic medieval novel chronicling the starstruck romance between Norman and Saxon lovers, and SULTANA, set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain, are available now.