The chains of Navarra (or, The monk's story)
I, Ambrosius, monk benedictine, confessor palatine of our late good King Sancho of Navarra, Aragón, Castilla, León, Portugal and France, defender of the Christian faith and inspirer of his vassals, undertake by his instructions this history of recent events.
On November of the year of our Lord 1087 it came to pass that the Count of Tangiers came to Burgos with his retinue and would see the King. The Tangerines, being at most half converted to the true Faith and not used to Christian customs, were highly noted at the Court, and the King found an early occasion to call the count to his rooms by the throne and bid him speak.
And the Count told the King of the rising peril of the Almoravids, or al-Murabitids as he, being raised a moor, still called them. These heathen, he said, were building a huge army in the desert and the mountains, reaching south into black Mali and raiding the African commerce routes, and harassing our border towns, and razing the villages. Moreover, they had been grabbed by a new and fiery brand of the wrong faith of Muhammadism, and where the civilized heathen tolerated christians in their midst, albeit on sufferance, these al-Murabitids were cruelly persecuting them.
Let it be remembered that, although for some centuries under the Muslim yoke, the North of Africa had been for many more centuries a Christian realm, first Roman, and then Vandal; indeed, until recently there were Byzantine strongholds in those lands. Many christians still lived there, and monasteries, and priests.
Now, the al-Murabitids were raking the land and burning the mark of the true faith from its long-time home, culling the Christians or driving them out. The persecutions had been terrible, and the flood of refugees into Tangiers had only stopped when the al-Murabitid zealots had set themselves on our borders, to harass us as aforetold. Even now, lamented the count, the fires burned that consumed the martyrs.
And the al-Murabitid armies were led by muslim warrior-monks, who inhabited fortified monasteries and lived for war against the infidels, in a perpetual unholy crusade. Those warriors trained and fought continuously, and were thus much to be feared in the field, and much more after their victory.
And thus it came to pass that the King gathered his counsellors and sent informers into North Africa, to measure the enemy. And he received tidings that the enemy was fierce, but not large, with small garrisons and no heavy troops; also, that it had allies in the East, but none large that could help it. And the King and his council decided to set up an expedition into the kingdom of the al-Murabitids, to punish them and lead them into the true faith of our Lord.
But the King had decided to send his Marshall and most veteran troops to the lands of Sicily and Outremer, so now he gathered divisions from his own domain and the southern provinces, and crossed the straits. First he pursued the enemy's northernmost vassals, and then he planned to launch on the al-Murabitid domain. And it came to pass that many vassals of the King joined in his war, and launched their own invasions.
The red flag of King Sancho marched triumphantly into Massat on the coast, and then into the Atlas mounts to besiege Fes. But soon the King of the al-Murabitids made his presence felt, and his warrior-monks too. He was a great and skilled warrior, and his warcraft was close to the land. His skirmishers would follow our columns in the valleys and kill the rearmost. His patrols would hound our foragers and shoot arrows into our camps. And when the terrain was propitious, his heavy infantry phalanxes dared to face the troops of Navarra, and not infrequently they won.
For our troops were not as adequate as our King would have liked. Our heavy horse were useless in the deep sands, and in the mountains. Our armour was a hindrance in the sun. And our intendance had been designed for other climates, where now we often marched for league upon league of sand, and lost many men to thirst and sunstrokes. And worst of all, our generals were not as good as the daring King of the al-Murabitids.
And the vassals' armies were lukewarm. They helped our King in several defensive battles, but mostly they stood on conquered land, or close by the fertile coast valleys where their heavy armies could trample the al-Murabitid phalanxes.
The war was going very badly. But the good King Sancho would not allow the Cross to retreat in the face of the infidels. He decided to try one last option.
He sent to Iberia for reinforcements, calling the Prince of Viana with troops from his Andalusian lands, but he didn't wait for their arrival. He embarked on an expedition to wrest the south of the enemy domain from their hands. For in those areas, the enemy armies were few, and the news of their victories against our forces seemed to him to be exaggeration. How, he asked, could a camel-bound army of less than 300 beat back a whole division of over two thousand? The general must have been ambushed, he maintained, or otherwise ensnared in the desert, for never could so few savages kill as many of our armies as had been reported.
And thus a march began that could be told as that of the Greeks that returned with Xenofon. For King Sancho set south with many, intending to surround the al-Murabitids by taking their southern provinces, and then ride north again, hammering the enemy against his armies in the north.
He arrived in the deep south, and won several battles. He occupied Tharasset on the Sahara, and defeated the Sheik of Ifni, who would soon be vassalized. He triumphed, and he returned north to break the al-Murabitid army.
But on the bleak deserts of Infa he was finally ambushed.
An unexpected sand storm had forced the army of Navarra to set camp hastily in unprotected country. When the storm was raging, an al-Murabitid army overran the camp, and killed as many as were lost in the dunes and never returned. The King rallied the troops and repelled the raiders, for they were few, but had to lift camp and retreat across the wastes, almost without water, supplies or even tents, lost in a storm that lasted three days.
The army retreated into the higher lands, and foraged on the small towns and oases of the lower Atlas, but even so found little, for the al-Murabitids razed the land around them so they would starve, and even poisoned the wells with corpses of animals and Christian prisoners.
And thus the King rode at the head of his army, changing course often to shake the deadly pursuit, as much southward as northward, and riders were sent to the coast, west and north, for help, but none returned, and none arrived, for the al-Murabitids were vigilant and fast on their camels. And the host diminished daily, and every copse found was fast turned into crosses for the tombs of the brave. Most of the survivors were wounded, sick, and half starved, but the King held them fast with example and address, and they managed to inch their way out of the trap. Also, they kept up hope for a relief force, and thus they fortified every hamlet and every camp they made, and drove off the al-Murabitids once and again and again. When they ran out of arrows, they did like the Greek before them and became slingers. The unhorsed knights became spearmen and fought on foot. They learned to find and dig wells, for they could not trust those that were already opened.
Day by day, the little army hardened as they rode north (or walked, as most horses were soon fodder for their riders, leaving only those of the scouts, skirmishers and royal guard) and the rabid al-Murabitids pursuers weakened and dropped away from their flanks, like dogs bloodied by the hunted stag.
And then it came to pass that the army arrived within sight of the town of Infa, and from a height found out the reason that had driven their moorish scourges away. Closer to the city, between it and the King's army, was the King of al-Murabitid with three or four times their force in fresh fighters, lying in wait while they harried the city, which was at the time in Navarran hands (the sieges and counter-sieges had been many, but the King had been away south during most of them). The hounds had driven them to the hunter, indeed, and the kill seemed very near.
King Sancho took counsel with his followers and they decided to set up camp where they could be seen from the city, so as to make it known that they were making a stand, and to have a chance of help. The scarred, burned faces around the table were very sober, for they thought that the al-Murabitids, in those numbers, could not be resisted for long, and many a prayer was muttered by lips more used to harsher words. But they refused to despair within sight of the walls of the city, and thus chose a knoll that had water and was protected on three sides by falls of sheer rocks. And the troops that could still work fortified the knoll with ramparts of stones and branches, and dug spiked trenches to stop the horses, and those that knew how started work making arrows and sling-bullets. And then they built a small tower in the highest point of the knoll, and put a large red flag on it, hoping that the Navarran forces in the city would see it and come.
When the al-Murabitids saw that King Sancho would not march against them to battle, but was fortifying himself in the hills near the city, they laughed and set forth to surround him and his army. For they knew that no Navarran host could arrive soon enough to help them, and the troops garrisoning the city walls were few and had no horses. And indeed the soldiers in Infa could do little, beyond sending riders to Massat and Algiers for help, which they had already done when they thought the al-Murabitids were come to besiege them again.
And thus it came to pass that the King Sancho and his little army were surrounded and besieged, but the moors could hardly touch them, for the knoll was well chosen and the defences were crude but well thought. In the first day of the siege, the moors tried a tentative assault and sent a phalanx against the ramparts of the King. As all al-Murabitid army, they didn't retreat until they could no longer fight, and so very few came back, for the Navarrans harried them with stones and then cut them down from their ramparts and palisade. The Navarrans took heart, and one humble monk, who battled along the King with a war hammer, was heard to say that the Romans of Mario had once killed many more barbarians with the same method at Aquae Sextiae. So the King took the monk aside and asked for the story, and he had it, and the remaining captains were called and heard it too, and were heartened further, until they came to believe that they might yet survive and reach the city.
And indeed, for a few days it seemed as if it would happen that way, for the King of the al-Murabitids sent wave after wave of fighters along the narrow and steep neck of the knoll, to be slaughtered by the King of Navarra and his faithful. And the red flag grew larger every night, and flamed every day to call for help and shout defiance.
But the King of the al-Murabitids knew the classics too, or had good sense enough to pause. And seeing that his men were being decimated without use, and that the enemy was cooped but could not be overcome, he decided to give a final try with his hardest troops, and if it failed, to settle the matter through thirst and hunger. For even if the Navarrans had water, which he doubted, they could not have much food.
This it was that at dusk on the eight day of the siege, the tabor of the King of al-Murabitids, his personal regiment, marched up the knoll, having sworn to return with the red flag or not at all. It was a desperate, gallant attempt, and the moors were close to winning. But at the height of the fight, when the second wave of the tabor was breaking the defences on the right of the ramparts, the King flung himself into the battle with his bodyguard, and turned the tide, and after that no further waves could breach the Navarran defences.
And so the al-Murabitids retired to the feet of the knoll to strengthen their camp, and attempt to break the Christians by hunger.
They did not yet know that the King Sancho had been seriously wounded, taking a lance head below the arm while using his sword on the attackers, for he always was more brave than skilled with weapons. He had lost much blood during the fight, for he had refused to lay down until the attack was repealed, and he was not strong to begin with, due to the hardships of the travel.
The wound might have been cured had a physician been present, but only the battle monk was in the knoll, and he could do little. So the King was fast seized with fever, the nights being so cold and he being so exhausted, and it was clear to those that saw him that he would not live out the siege even if the rest of the army could.
It was then that the captains and the battle monk (for he had grown close to the commanders during the last weeks) gathered by the royal tent and debated what to do. For the resistance was desperate. Food would run out soon, except in the shape of horses, who would only keep them for less than a week. Water was not a problem. But debilitated arms could not hold the moorish attack at bay. And there was no sign of help from the city.
Thus the captains debated back and forth whether it would be worse to stand the siege to death, and save the honour of the Kingdom, or to parley with the moors and attempt to save the King Sancho, even if he had to be ransomed.
But neither was to be. For a guard came out from the tent, and bid them come in. The King was seated in his cot, pale and sweaty and with bright eyes.
"My vassals, and my friends, I have heard your words", he said. "Hear now what your King says".
Then the battle monk tried to make the King rest, but he wouldn't, and he spake on.
"The heathen are building their own ramparts and defences around their camp so as to fence us in with stones like they now fence us with swords. In one more day, maybe two, we will be locked in. And then it will really be a matter of time, for know that while I live, the red flag will not surrender..."
And he broke in a fit of coughing.
"If we stay here, we will eat our horses and be no better off in the end. If we stay here, our only hope is the arrival of help which must now be really far off, since we cannot see it from up here. It is death or capture either way. So my decision is this. We shall start work right now to open a way through our defenses up to our frontmost rampart, in a way that the moors can't see. This very night, at dusk, we will pull down those stones and open the way. Then I will ride with my guard or whoever may join me, and we will break the lines of the moors, for they don’t believe we can sortie, and the remains of the army will pour out, and attack their camp if they can, or dissolve in the night and run for the city if they can't".
"But my Lord!", cried a dozen voices. "You can't ride! You will die on the way!"
"I can't, but I will, for you will tie me to my horse, and a red flag with me. It doesn't matter if they bring me down or not, for I know that I will be dead by tomorrow whether I rest or I ride. But if you don't take the men out of this trap and make them run for the city walls and save their lives, I swear I will drag you to hell myself!", and he broke coughing again and sent them out of the tent, calling for the monk to shrive him.
And so that day the Navarran camp laboured hidden, tearing down the defences they had built, while the al-Murabitids leisurely started to build up their own some hundred paces down the slope. For they had not bothered to fortify their camp, seeing that the Navarrans had blocked their own exits of the knoll, and being themselves many.
As soon as the sun was touching the mountains on the horizon, the whole army gathered. The King, who could hardly move nor speak, was tied to his horse with a length of wood behind him and another in front, to keep him upright, and the lance arm tied to a lance with a plain red flag. The remaining handful of horses had been quarrelled over until they carried a selection of the best and most faithful warriors, all looking fierce and sad, for they knew this was to be the last charge of the good King who had led so many.
And then the soldiers drove the stones down, with a crash, the face of the rampart crumbled, and the horsemen surged forth. The sun had not yet sunk, and there was an eerie red light upon the hill when they followed the King's stallion in a wild charge down the slope and onto the surprised foe. Someone started yelling "The King! Long live the King!", and suddenly all the hundred survivors were shouting it, and the moors thought that a new army was upon them, and ran disorganised.
The King was upon them indeed, and if he did not use his sword, his armored horse tore through them just as well. Arrows were shot seeking the carrier of the flag, and many went home. Sancho didn't fall from his seat, but continued rampaging almost straight across the al-Murabitid camp, and his guard behind him crying "The King! The King!" in a terrible voice and striking left and right. And the al-Murabitids, scared witless at this iron King that could not be killed by arrows or swayed by lances, scattered before them while their camp started to burn.
And it came to pass that the wedge of the King’s riders came to the center of the heathen camp, where the tent of the al-Murabitid leader rose. And it was the custom of berber chiefs at the time to surround their royal tents with a guard of eight slave warriors, chained to it and among themselves, and those now rose and tried to stop the ghostly charge. One of them, a black giant, stood in front of the horse of the King and tried to thrust a lance at his chest. But he lance hit the shield and the King did not fall, but rode down the slave, which was caught in the harness. At this, the rest of the chained warriors turned and ran terrified, and their chain became entangled in the tent, and their flight and the King’s horse started to pull it down.
Then the monk, who rode by the King, took heed of this, and shouted to his fellows, and the King’s guard strove to smite and grab the chained and terrified slaves, and they did so, and killing the slaves either rode with them or chopped off the limbs that held the chain and fastened it to the pommel of their riding chairs.
And thus the Murabitid saw their King’s tent pulled down in fire and chaos, and the seven riders that were left followed the awesome shape of King Sancho in the falling dusk, through the tents, past the wagons, down the hills and towards the city, and the moors that faced them were either run down or smitten by the invisible strands of the chain, and many of the rest fought each other in the dark. While behind them, without noise, the few hundred Navarran soldiers, most wounded and all weak, slipped from their trap and into the confusion of the darkness, there to run all night toward the lights of the city.
Thus it was that Infa awoke to the blazes in the enemy camp, the shouts, and the eight riders who came noisily to her walls in the middle of the night. When the guards challenged them, one of their number answered in a voice that didn't seem human, so loud and bitter it was:
"The King is here! The King is dead! Long live the King!"
Thus the good King Sancho rode to his death to save his army and the honour of Navarra, and thus was the spirit of the al-Murabitids broken.
So I attest, and so I can witness, for I, a humble battle monk and the King's confessor, was there.
On the evening of the next week, the banners of Luis the Prince of Viana were sighted from the towers of Infa. Like his father before him, he is to take the crown of Navarra from the ground of a field of battle after a grievous defeat. Is armies are scattered, his allies far away, and his realm unsecured. May the Lord have mercy of him and guide his way.