Nicknamed “El Justiciero” (“The Avenger”), King Alfonso XI of Spain was the only European monarch to succumb to the Black Death. He died while he was in what is now known as La Linea de la Concepción in an attempt to re-conquer the Rock from Muslim rule during the Second Siege of Gibraltar – a battle he did not win, although he was able to take the Kingdom of Algeciras.
Digging into the history of the region will normally bring up some surprising stories: One of them, relatively unknown to many, is the story of the King of Castile Alfonso XI’s ties with the Campo de Gibraltar. This Spanish King died of the Black Death during the Second Siege of Gibraltar; becoming the only European monarch to succumb to the plague.
The global health crisis caused by Covid-19 has stirred our interest in the history of other global pandemics, with some claiming millions of lives, such as the incorrectly-named and infamous Spanish Flu that swept across the globe between 1918 – 1920, ending the lives of over 40 million human beings.
But well before this, the world was battling the Black Death between 1347 – 1351, which caused 200 million deaths. According to National Geographic, the Iberian Peninsula may have gone from having a population of six million to just over two million – a 60% reduction in its population.
It was the Black Death that claimed the life of King Alfonso XI, at the age of 38, who was nicknamed “El Justiciero” (“The Avenger”) and “El Cruel” (“The Cruel”). He was born in Salamanca in 1311; the son of Ferdinand IV of Castile and Constanza of Portugal. He ascended to the throne at the age of one, and his regency was assumed by his grandmother, María de Molina. At the age of 15, he was able to assume his reign and proposed to ‘liberate the Strait of Gibraltar from Muslim rule.
Alfonso XI has an intense relationship with the Campo de Gibraltar during the years of conflict. According to Manuel López Fernández, a professor of History at the University of Distant Education (UNED), he visited the area around five times.
The First Siege of Gibraltar
As written by López Fernández in a report commissioned by the Institute of Campo-Gibraltarian studies, Alfonso XI of Castile laid siege to Gibraltar, which had been conquered by the Benimerines and was under the rule of the infant Abu-Mailk at the time, in 1333. The Castillian monarch established an encampment on the isthmus. The Moors of Granada and Algeciras blocked the Castillians “on a sandy bank that separates the Sierra Carbonera from the Rock”. For this reason, the king ordered a moat to be constructed, spanning from coast to coast in anticipation of the events that would unfold.
Franciso Millán Reviriego published an interesting article which brings us closer to the events that occurred in “La Línea en Blanco y Negro” entitled ‘Alfonso XI, the king who lived, loved, fought and died in La Línea’.
According to the research, the first time that the king had travelled to the Campo de Gibraltar was in June 1333 to come to the assistance of Gibraltar which was under the Spanish governorship of Vasco Pérez de Meirás. According to the scholar, Pérez de Meirás had neglected the fortifications, something which the son of the Sultan of Morocco took advantage of. The Castilian king held a Council of War, and nine days later, he arrived to the area that leads to the isthmus with an army. After almost two months, the monarch abandoned the isthmus and returned to Seville empty handed.
The Taking of Tarifa and Algeciras
In 1342, after Spain claimed victory against the Moors in the Battle of El Salado in Tarifa, Alfonso XI laid siege to Algeciras, which was also under the control of the Benimerines. He was assisted by “a great Genoese fleet, commanded by Egidio Bocanegra, and paid for with spoils obtained in the Battle of El Salado and supported by Catalan ships, which blocked the port of Algeciras”.
The Christian contingents were joined by the English and Germans, led by Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Salisbury. Felipe de Evreux, King of Navarra, who died during the siege, and some ships that were sent by France also joined in”, José Alberto Cepas said in the “History Magazine”.
The Christians defeated the Benimerines in the battle of the Palmones River, and Alfonso XI entered Algeciras victorious on March 27th, 1344, where a statue has been erected in his memory.
The Second Siege of Gibraltar
Following the end of a truce with the Moors after the capture of Algeciras, Alfonso XI set out to once again besiege Gibraltar beginning in 1349. He set up camp north of the Isthmus, in the surroundings of Carteia. Although at first he tried to take the Gibraltar by direct assault, “using of the most powerful war machinery known at the time”, and the defenders were on the verge of surrendering, fearing that they would suffer another siege as prolonged as that of Algeciras. However, a shortage of funds caused the king to opt instead to lay siege.
According to Millán Reviriego, in order to achieve this, he laid waste to existing orchards and crops on the land where La Línea is located today. “He then set up his camp on the esplanade formed to the east by the isthmus, probably around La Atunara. The camp was installed not only with spacious tents but also brick buildings for the ladies and high dignitaries of the court”.
By February 1350, seven months had elapsed since this new blockade of Gibraltar began. “The Muslims were supplied in abundance with frequent aid arriving from the African coast, which the Castillian fleet was unable to stop. Added to this setback was another worse one that was to prevent the conquest of Gibraltar: an epidemic that reached the royal camp. Despite the advice to abandon what is now La Línea, Alfonso XI refused to lift the siege and died from the plague. On this last occasion, Alfonso XI had spent seven months in what is now La Línea with his lover, Leonor de Guzmán.
Once the siege of Gibraltar came to an unsuccessful end, the monarch’s body was taken to Seville, where it was buried. With his death, the Reconquest was interrupted.
Millán Reviriego also writes in his book that many Muslims came to pay their respects to the Christian king when he died and that when his troops began to lift camp and withdraw from their positions in front of Gibraltar, taking with them the corpse of the monarch, part of the Gibraltar garrison came out from the walls and another group formed on the battlements to pay their respects.