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The Great Captain
by [?]

The long and bitter war for the conquest of Granada filled Spain with trained soldiers and skilful leaders, men who had seen service on a hundred fields, grim, daring veterans, without their equals in Europe. The Spanish foot-soldiers of that day were inflexibly resolute, the cavalry were skilled in the brilliant tactics of the Moors, and the leaders were men experienced in all the arts of war. These were the soldiers who in the New World overthrew empires with a handful of adventurers, and within a fraction of a century conquered a continent for Spain. In Europe they were kept actively employed. Charles VIII. of France, moved by ambition and thirst for glory, led an army of invasion into Italy. He was followed in this career of foreign conquest by his successor, Louis XII. The armies of France were opposed by those of Spain, led by the greatest soldier of the age, Gonsalvo de Cordova, a man who had learned the art of war in Granada, but in Italy showed such brilliant and remarkable powers that he gained the distinguishing title of the Great Captain.

These wars were stretched out over years, and the most we can do is to give some of their interesting incidents. In 1502 the Great Captain lay in the far south of Italy, faced by a more powerful French army under the Duke of Nemours, a young nobleman not wanting in courage, but quite unfit to cope with the experienced veteran before him. Gonsalvo, however, was in no condition to try conclusions with his well-appointed enemy. His little corps was destitute of proper supplies, the men had been so long unpaid that they were mutinous, he had pleaded for reinforcements in vain, and the most he could do was to concentrate his small force in the seaport of Barleta and the neighboring strongholds, and make the best show he could in the face of his powerful foe.

The war now declined into foraging inroads on the part of the French, in which they swept the flocks and herds from the fertile pastures, and into guerilla operations on the part of the Spanish, who ambushed and sought to cut off the detached troops of the enemy. But more romantic encounters occasionally took place. The knights on both sides, full of the spirit of chivalry, and eager to prove their prowess, defied one another to jousts and tourneys, and for the time being brought back a state of warfare then fast passing away.

The most striking of these meetings arose from the contempt with which the French knights spoke of the cavalry of their enemy, which they declared to be far inferior to their own. This insult, when told to the proud knights of Gonsalvo’s army, brought from them a challenge to the knights of France, and a warlike meeting between eleven Spanish and as many French warriors was arranged. A fair field was offered the combatants in the neutral territory under the walls of the Venetian city of Trani, and on the appointed day a gallant array of well-armed knights of both parties appeared to guard the lists and maintain the honor of the tournament.

Spectators crowded the roofs and battlements of Trani, while the lists were thronged with French and Spanish cavaliers, who for the time laid aside their enmity in favor of national honor and a fair fight. At the fixed hour the champions rode into the lists, armed at all points, and their horses richly caparisoned and covered with steel panoply. Among those on the Castilian side were Diego de Paredes and Diego de Vera, men who had won renown in the Moorish wars. Most conspicuous on the other side was the good knight Pierre de Bayard, the chevalier “sans peur et sans reproche,” who was then entering upon his famous career.

At the sound of the signal trumpets the hostile parties rushed to the encounter, meeting in the centre of the lists with a shock that hurled three of the Spaniards from their saddle, while four of their antagonists’ horses were slain. The fight, which began at ten in the morning, and was to end at sunset, if not concluded before, was prosecuted with great fury and varied success. Long before the hour of closing all the French were dismounted except the Chevalier Bayard and one of his companions, their horses, at which the Spaniards had specially aimed, being disabled or slain. Seven of the Spaniards were still on horseback, and pressed so hard upon their antagonists that the victory seemed safely theirs.