The Capture of Ceuta by the Portuguese (1415)

In July 1415 King D. João I of Portugal led 242 armed ships left Lisbon for North Africa, taking with him the Infantes Dom Henrique, Dom Pedro and Dom Duarte.  The fleet landed near the Moorish port of Ceuta, and after a short siege, the city was taken on August 22, 1415.  A more complete account of this conquest can be found on this website.  The main account for this event comes from the Chronicles of the reign of King Dom Joao I by Gomes Eannes de Azurara (d.1474).  Azurara was an assistant to Fernao Lopes in the Portuguese Royal Library and Archives, and in 1450 made a supplement around to Lopes chronicles.

CHAPTER VI: How the City of Ceuta, was taken by the Portuguese

We must say somewhat of the feelings of Salabensala when he realized the intentions of the King. Salabensala was a man of advanced age; he was descended from the noble line of the Seafarers, the best of all those in Africa; and he was the lord of the city of Ceuta and of many other cities on the shores of this sea. You may imagine what must have been his thoughts when he beheld these new neighbours who had suddenly arrived before the gates of his city. As the wisest men are those who perceive with the clearest sight such things as are great and perilous, Salabensala was well aware of the power of the King Dom Joao. Although the exploits of this prince had been accomplished on the other side of the sea, Salabensala was by no means ignorant of them. He knew how Dom Joao had accepted battle against the King of Castile, although the Portuguese forces were but few as compared with the great and splendid army of the Castilian sovereign; and how the King of Portugal had vanquished and completely routed the Castilian; and how thereafter he had for so long a; time sustained against the same enemies great and numerous battles, from which he had always issued victorious. Thereto Salabensala told himself how great must be the wisdom of Dom Joao, that he should have contrived thus to bring so great a fleet against Ceuta without that any, even to the last moment, had knowledge of it.

"How may I prepare the city against an attack so formidable, and arrange for the defence in so short a time?" Salabensala asked himself. " . . How warn the King of Fez? Before he has time to assemble his army the walls of Ceuta will be levelled . . ."

Being thus deep in these thoughts, a throng of young Moors came to him . . .

"It is not so great a thing to see the. Christians thus come upon us," they said. "Their numbers are not so many that we cannot oppose them. Who knows? it may be they will give us the occasion for a great victory . . . it may be that all this beauty of their fleet will after all remain in our dockyards; that all their gold and silver plate will serve for the wedding-feasts of our children; that the rich adornments of their chapels will bedeck our mosques in token of our victory.

"Their fleet," they said, "is divided into two parts, and we believe that they will disembark today. We will go to encounter them on the beach, and there we will make a great carnage, for the greater number and the best among them are covered with iron, and for this reason their movements must be slow and difficult; whereas we are light and swift, and shall be able to attack them with great advantage. Once fallen to the ground, it will be hard for them to rise again. How can they rise when they are as heavy as rocks? . . ."

And as the Infante Dom Henrique was awaiting only the signal of his father in order to disembark, Martin Paes, who was his chaplain, took in his hands the consecrated Host, and showing it to all the Christians assembled before him he spoke to them thus: "Brothers and friends, it has seemed to me that no man can have a good issue of the thing he undertakes if he does not know for what end he is undertaking it. And it is very possible that you do not exactly know why you are here. Know then that you save come to render service to Our Lord Jesus Christ, Whom I present to you at this very moment, and for the love of Whom the King our lord has undertaken this expedition . . ."

The words of the chaplain Martin Paes strengthened the hearts of all who were in that ship. But as in the other vessels no other priest spoke to the men, and as the sun was already waxing hot, they became impatient in that they had not received the order to attack, but were still awaiting the signal, which was long in coming. The Moors ran down on the beach and defied the men of the fleet, thereby increasing their desire to go ashore and give battle.

Then Joao Fogaca, who was squire to the Count of Barcellos, being no longer able to endure such delaying, went down into his boat and commanded the rowers to take him to the shore. The first man to leap ashore was one of his companions, Ruy Goncalves, he who afterwards became commander of Canha and squire to the Infanta, the wife of the Infante Dom Joao. But the Moors did not find it so easy to throw him down as they had told Salabensala, for immediately he was on the land he began to smite them with such blows that they had to withdraw from this place where the boats were to land.

The Infante Dom Henrique leapt into a boat, taking with him Estevam Soares de Mello and Mem Rodrigues de Refuios who was his lieutenant, and he commanded the trumpets to sound the attack. When the Infante leapt ashore the number of those from the fleet was beginning to increase upon the beach. Ruy Goncalves, who had been the first to arrive, was already fighting at a distance, beside a German gentleman, and they had overthrown a Moor of very great stature, who was distinguished among the rest by his strength and valour.

... the Christians already disembarked on the beach were nearly one hundred and fifty, and they attacked the Moors hotly, wounding many and causing them to draw back, pushing them towards the Almina gate. The first to pass through this gate, fighting and encompassed by Moors, and to find himself in the city, was Vasques Annes Corte Real, and immediately after him the Infante Dom Duarte, and behind him the rest; all struggling with fury in a great melee with the Moors.

Then the Infante Dom Henrique recognized his brother; although the Infante Dom Duarte had already for some time been in the thickest of the fight, you must not believe that men in such circumstances, and armed at every point, can readily recognize each other. But when Dom Henrique knew his brother he made him a grand salute, saying that he rendered thanks to the Lord God for giving him so good a companion.

"And to you, Lord," he said; "I thank you a thousand times for your goodwill in coming thus to our aid."

The occasion was not fitting for the exchange of many words, for the lances and stones were not idle. And the battle continued, the Christians still driving the Moors toward the gate of the city and wounding and killing them without pity . . . and among all these Moors there was one, very tall and of a most threatening complexion, all naked, who used no other weapons than stones, but each of the stones that he threw seemed to be hurled by a catapult or a cannon, such was the strength of his arm. And when the Moors were thrust back as I have said against the gate of the city, he turned back to the Christians, stooped himself, and threw a stone which struck Vasco Martins d'Albergaria and carried away the vizor of his casque.

The aspect of this Moor was such as to inspire terror, since all his body was black as a crow, and he had very long and white teeth, and his lips, which were fleshy, were turned back. But Vasco Martins, despite the violence of the blow received, did not lose countenance and did not fail to pay the Moor for his labour; he had had barely time to turn round when the lance of the Portuguese pierced him., through. So soon as the Moor fell lifeless all the others were taken with panic and rushed towards the gate to take refuge in the city, and the Christians: with them …

. . . Vasco Martins was the first to enter the city and the first royal flag that floated in the city was that of the Infante Dome Henrique . . . and when the Infantes entered they were followed by five hundred Christians . . .

The Infantes, the Count of Barcellos, and those who were with them, finding themselves in the city, took up their position on a sort of little hill which had been gradually formed by the accumulation of ordures from the houses, which these people had long been casting away in that place. There they held their own, waiting until the other Christians from without should come to their aid. The five hundred of whom we have spoken would by no means be enough to disperse themselves and continue the battle at different points, for the city is very large, and there would be danger in so doing, since the Moors might have closed the gates, preventing the others from entering in their turn. But the time of waiting was not long, for the men of the fleet made haste to disembark, and very soon they came in a throng. And Vasco Fernandes d'Athaye did not wish to enter by the gate which the Infantes had already passed. He therefore went aside from those who were going in that direction, and in company with some of his uncle's foot-soldiers he proceeded along the wall on the outer side, until he had come to another gate, which he straightway began to batter down. Other Portuguese then coming up, and giving themselves likewise to this work, with blows of the axe and with fire they succeeded in destroying these gates. But this was not done without great difficulty, and seven or eight Portuguese, less well armed than the rest, found their death there, for their enemies were many on the wall, and their strength was constantly increasing, and they defended the gate by casting before the Christians, from the height of the walls, stones and weapons . . .

Vasco Fernandes with his men destroyed the gate, but he paid with his life.

            There were already very many men on shore, so that the Infante Dom Henrique, at his brother's request, commanded that the men should be divided into troops, each of which would advance independently . . .

… and the Infante Dom Duarte said that it would be well if his brother and he were to go along the containing wall in order to take possession of all the high places before the Moors had time to take refuge there. And the sun being already very hot and the hill hard to climb, the Infante Dom Duarte put off divers pieces of his armour, for it was heavy to carry, and the Moors were already beginning to depart from the city. The Infante Dom Henrique could not follow his brother, for he still wore his armour, and Dom Duarte had to stop twice in order to wait for him; then he too put off the greater part of his armour, keeping only his coat of mail . . . he ran to rejoin his brother . . . and after some time they had to separate, each going his own way, and the Infante Dom Duarte took in succession divers high places, and the highest of all, which was called Cesto. And do not believe that these points could be captured without difficulty, for the city was still full of Moors, and one could not go a few steps without discovering numbers of them. But the Infante Dom Duarte never found enough. of them to satisfy his desire. . . . Many things might be related of his courage and his exploits; things which if told of another man, however brave, would be considered heroic; but the Infante did not wish that anyone should speak of them, for they were all far below what he could have wished . . .

The King, who had remained with the Infante Dom Pedro and part of the fleet on the other side of the city, was waiting to give the signal of the attack when the Moors assembled on that shore. He did not know that the others had already disembarked and that the battle was joined. Fearing, however, the dangers of longer delay, he sent the Infante Dom Pedro, attended by one of his squires, to the Infante Dom Duarte with the order to disembark.

The reply was soon received. The King knew then that the attack had begun, and that the Infantes Dom Duarte and Dom Henrique were already, with their men, in the city. Straightway he caused the signal to be sounded, so that all those who were on board this portion of the fleet should be landed and should join the others.

The captains and the lords, having heard the news, were by no means content, but murmured. Certain of them said: "We shall arrive too late. There will be no shining and glorious feats of arms for us. They have already entered into the city."

And they related to the King the noise and the shouting which were heard, and how it seemed to them that they - had heard also the sounding of trumpets.

"Verily," they said, "those who were, there at the moment of the attack had great good fortune; of all the honour of this exploit they will always have the better part."

At this moment the certain news was brought that the gates of the city were passed, and that the Infantes and the Count of Barcellos were there, fighting each on his own.

I say nothing of the joy of the King Dom Joao; albeit it was as great as you may conceive, he did not at all betray it. For it was not in the character of this king to betray his joy, even in the greatest happiness, nor yet his sadness even in the greatest misfortune. But he gazed at the lords who were there, and he laughed when he knew how the Infante Dom Duarte had gone secretly to join Dom Henrique, so that he might be among the first in the assault upon the city…

So soon as the signal to attack had been given to this portion of the fleet all these men, who had waited so long in impatience, rushed forward, full of an extreme zeal, which was not by any means and this must be said free from jealousy and envy; the nobles would fain have been with those who were the first to enter the city, for these would always have the greatest glory and the greatest honour; and the common people were stricken with grief to think that their companions had already laid their hands on the better part of the booty, and that for them would remain only things without value.

            Such was their haste that they very soon found themselves within the city, and dividing themselves into companies, Dom Pedro with his men, the Constable with his, and so also the other lords, they spread through the streets of Ceuta, fighting as best they could, and they had much to do, for the city was still filled with Moors who were defending it foot by foot.

The King, well encompassed, sat himself down at the gate of the city, remaining there for some while; and this for two reasons: the first, because he was wounded in one leg; and the second, because the city was as good as taken, and it was not befitting his condition to mingle in these combats until the time for the attack upon the castle, which he wished to dead in person.

You may imagine the ardour of the combatants on either side. The din of battle was so great that there were many persons who said afterwards that it was heard at Gibraltar.  Some most noteworthy feats of arms were accomplished this day, very worthy of being recalled if they had come plainly to our knowledge; but you must think that there were there so many brave men, so numerous and so desirous of excelling, that nothing of all that passed was unworthy of being noted; all the more as the great slaughter which they worked among the Moors is testimony of this. But you must know the two reasons which prevented these exploits from being known as perfectly as they deserved: the first and the chiefest is in the fact that this battle was fought in the city itself, whose streets were so straight that those who were in the front rank could not be many, and those who followed them could not witness their exploits; the second reason was the time that has passed between these feats and the moment of writing them down; for, as I have said in the prologue to this history, the greater part of the nobles and persons of quality who were in this battle were already dead, and the others, those of the common sort, had no other care this day than theft, for they found on every hand the wherewithal to assuage their covetous–ness. And this was a thing very perilous, for that the houses had low and narrow doorways, according to the custom of the Moors. Those men who were led away by this heat of covetousness entered without any prudence, which often caused their destruction, for many of the Moors had taken refuge in their houses and were defending them to the end, preferring thus to lose their life rather than preserve it by taking to flight . . . and seized by this grief (at losing their homes and their city) they hid themselves behind the doors in order to kill their enemies when these crossed the threshold; but from this they had little advantage, for behind the foremost were others, and they were all armed . . . and the rage of the Moors was such that at times, even without arms, they threw themselves upon the Christians; and their despair and their fury were so great that they did not surrender themselves, even if they found themselves alone before a multitude of enemies; and many of them, already lying on the ground, and with their souls half severed from their bodies, still made movements with their arms as though they would deal mortal blows to those who had vanquished them. Some of them took their riches and threw them into the wells; others buried them in the corners of their houses; for despite the loss of their city they believed that they would retake it afterwards, and would then be able to seek their treasures there where they now hid them . . .

We have told how the Infante Dom Henrique separated from his brother when the two assailed the high places of the city. Dom Henrique, having lost sight of his brother, made towards the street Direita thinking to attempt the assault of the castle . . .

. . . The writer conceives that the Infante Dom Henrique at this moment reasoned as follows: "What matters it to me that I was the first captain to whom the King, my lord, gave the order to leap ashore and attack the city, since I have won the victory with so little pains? And for what glory will they be able to praise me on the day when I am made knight, if my sword has not been dipped to the hilt in the blood of the Infidels?"

Accompanied by this thought, he came to the street Direita. He had been following it for some moments when he saw a company of Christians who came towards him, some five hundred, running and fleeing before the Moors. The Infante lowered the vizor of his casque and thrust his arm through the straps of the buckler which he had not discarded. He let all the Christians pass him; when the Moors came nigh he flung himself upon them, and his blows were so vigorous, and so swift and sure, that soon the Moors recognized them among all the others which they received; and in such wise that very soon they turned on their heels and fled in their turn.

The Christians, having recognized the Infante, took heart again, and turning upon the Moors pursued them until they had come with them before the houses where they unloaded the merchandise which came from without, and which were called Dewan. These houses had a gate which formed a barrier in the direction of Almina. When the Moors had come thither perchance because they saw other Moors who were coming to help them, or because it seemed to them that the Portuguese were less furious in their pursuit they faced about and again attacked their enemies, who retreated for the second time. The Infante, who was then but twenty-one years of age, and whose limbs were vigorous and his courage very great, on seeing this was overcome with rage, and running on the Moors assailed them so strongly that in the end he scattered them.

But the Christians were seized with such a fear that the greater number continued on their way and passed close to the Infante without seeing him. Those who remained fought bravely at the side of the Infante, and carried themselves so well that a goodly number of the Moors fell, and the others, unable to abide the combat, fled. The Infante, however, did not allow them to escape as before, but pursued them closely with his companions as far as the walls of the castle. And the course thus run was marked by the number of corpses that littered it . . .

. . . The Moors on reaching the walls of the castle found there some respite, for there are three walls in this place, the walls of the castle, and the other wall which divides the two sides of the city . . .

. . . Protected by these walls, which gave them shelter, and by the multitude of other Moors who were upon the walls and doing great injury to their enemies, they made ready to fight, all the more as they now perceived the small number, of Christians who accompanied the Infante Dom Henrique, which gave them hope of an easy vengeance. For of those who had set out with the Infante after the Moors there were now no more than seventeen, since the others had little by little become scattered on the way; some drawn away by the lust to steal, others by thirst, for all their victuals were salt, and the great heat of the sun dried the moisture of their bodies and made them constantly seek the wells; others again were soft and frail by nature and could not very long support the fatigue of combats.

            Thus, with the seventeen soldiers who were left him, the Infante had to support this desperate battle for two hours and a half. Under their blows many of the Moors were mortally wounded; and they in their turn wounded so sorely a squire of the Infante's, who was called Fernao Chamorro, that he fell to the ground without any semblance of life. The Moors strove to take him, but the Infante, and those who were with him, would by no means permit this. For a long while the struggle continued for the possession of this body upon the ground. And of a sudden the Infante attacked the Moors with such vigour and courage that they began to fall back; and the Christians always harassing them, they were forced to abandon this street and take refuge under the gate, the Infante still hard upon them and never ceasing to hew at them.

But of those seventeen who were with Dom. Henrique in this adventure there were left no more than four …

…Who could have believed that the Infante, or a sole one of these four men, would escape such peril? Over this gate the wall was very thick and garnished with two rows of crenellations, in such sort that it was defended from above on either side. And there is also a tower with a vault which is pierced in divers places (for defence). In this tower is the second gate, which is round, and between this wall and the barrier is the passage leading to the third gate.

What would now befall? For the Moors whom they were driving before them were many, without counting the multitude who were upon the walls, and whose sole care was to prevent the entrance of the Christians. When these men saw that the Christians were entering as they fought, in a great melee with their own people, they essayed to prevent them by casting stones upon them through the holes in the vault of the tower. But God willed that their desire should not be accomplished; and the Infante passed the gate, running before those Moors whom he had hitherto driven before him.

There are some who believe that the fact that they were so few in the accomplishment of this exploit was for the Christians one of the causes of their victory, for mingled as they were with this multitude of Moors, those on the walls feared by casting their weapons and projectiles to slay their own people. And so at length the Infante and his companions passed beyond the third gate . . .

This assault of the Infante's, and this hard and so unequal battle, which lasted for more than five hours without a moment's respite, determined the final victory of the Portuguese. When later, after many combats, the King commanded the assault upon the castle, those who entered it found it empty, for Salabensala had left the city.

This translation is from Conquests and Discoveries of Henry the Navigator, ed. Bernard Miall (London, 1936).