ALFONSO VIII., King of Castille, succeeded to his throne in troublous times. His native country was overrun and subjugated by a people alien in nationality and religion, and his own particular dominions were a prey to civil dissensions, which had gathered strength during his minority. The Pope, Innocent III., seeing how he was beset, had called on other Christian nations to assist him in resisting the encroachments of the Moors; and these auxiliaries had unhappily shown themselves disorderly and rapacious, wasting the territory they had come to protect. By his prudence, Alfonso found the means to remedy all these disorders in turn. His French, German, and English allies he dismissed to their own homes without involving himself in any quarrel with them. He established tolerable order and harmony among the rival families of the nobility, and he struck a blow against the Moors which they never recovered, and which deserves to be remembered as one of the noblest achievements in the history of Christendom. After driving their hordes before him across the Sierra Morena, he gave them battle at a place called Las Navas de Tolosa, undismayed by their overpowering numbers. During the early part of the day, it had seemed impossible to resist their countless hordes. "Father," said Alfonso, turning to the Archbishop of Toledo, "here are we called upon to lay down our life for the Faith." "Nay," answered the prelate, with almost prophetic instinct, "say, rather, here are we called to establish the triumph of the Faith." The cross-bearer, filled with ardour at the words, rushed into the thickest of the fray; the Christian soldiery hastened to protect the venerated sign, and so great was the enthusiasm which Alfonso's bravery kindled, that the infidel host was entirely routed, and its commander ran away into Africa.
Yet, notwithstanding his bravery and his wisdom, Alfonso, like King Solomon of old, found it a harder matter to govern himself than to govern his kingdom; and though he had vanquished his adversaries, he suffered himself to be led away by his passions.
At Toledo, now a splendid ruin, then the magnificent capital of his kingdom, was a beautiful Jewish maiden, named Raguel or Rachel, for whom he conceived a strong attachment. Now the precepts alike of his religion and of his high position precluded his union with a Jewess and an obscure person, yet for all this he refused to part from her. The voice of the Archbishop, which had so notably animated his drooping spirits on the field of battle, was powerless with him now; and he warned him in vain for seven years.
Mindful of the services he had rendered them, and for which they had awarded him the appellation of "the Noble," the people bore with the scandal all these years in silence, though with averted faces; but at last, when they found him gradually more and more unmindful of his former virtues, and all his prowess forgotten that he might squander his time and his revenues on the fancies of the Jewish maiden, murmurs began to arise, and they determined to deliver their noble king from her enchantments.
Hernan García de Castro and Alvar Fañez, two of the highest nobles of Castille, were foremost in leading the resolve of the people, and urging it on the king. They had never failed his summons in the hour of danger, they had fought bravely by his side against their country's enemies, and their virtue and valour gave weight to their words. Yet the king was so tardy in attending to them that the people lost all patience.
The king was keeping his court in the sumptuous Alcázar, the palatial fortress whose ruins even yet strike the traveller with admiration. Abandoning himself to the enjoyments of the delightful spot, Raguel and he sat one day, surrounded by their favourites and flatterers. "May divine Raguel's surpassing beauty ever continue to be the aurora of Toledo, ever enamel its brilliant sunlight!" said one of their minstrels, to the accompaniment of his joyous instrument.
"May she rejoice in her surpassing beauty as many ages as there are sands of gold  under the limpid torrent of crystal Tagus!" responded another.
Suddenly there burst on their affrighted ears the noise of a tumultuous gathering of people. The venal minions fled. The king, still worthy of himself, rose to show himself to his people, and Raguel was left alone to hear her sentence pronounced in ominous shouts from without:--
Muera Raguel, para que Alfonso viva!"
"Rachel must die, that Alfonso may live!"
García de Castro stood between the king and his angry people. The king called him a traitor; and he knelt and laid his sword at his feet, offering willingly to receive sentence of death if he could be proved a traitor, but insisting on being heard first. He then exposed to the king the wrongs of which his people complained. He asked him of what use were all the laurels he had gathered in the earlier part of his reign, if they were to be hung up to wither out of sight.
"Corn cannot ripen if the sun withhold its rays, flowers will not flourish if the gardener neglect to water them, neither can the Castilian people prosper if their king hide himself from them." So well did the intrepid García plead the right cause, that the king, overcome by his righteous arguments, promised to be himself again, to dismiss Raguel, and live once more for his subjects.
Delighted with his promise, the people returned peaceably to their homes.
The king, however, was not so strong as he thought. He imagined he had conquered himself, and went to take leave of Raguel. But the beautiful Jewess had no idea of letting him off so easily. Decked in her most captivating attire, she came out to meet him, and with her graces and tears succeeded so well in undermining his determination, that his promise was forgotten; and, like the phoenix from its ashes, Raguel rose more powerful than ever, and more dangerous too, for now a struggle had begun between her and the people--one or the other must be vanquished.
Infatuated by her entreaties, the king went so far as to place her on the throne. The indignation of the Castilians at seeing a low-born Jewess on the ancient seat of their monarchs, can scarcely be conceived; but it overflowed all bounds, when decree after decree went forth, heaping taxes on the Christian population and exemptions on the Jews--when proscriptions and executions of the highest in the land were threatened, and the noble García himself was sent into exile.
In this last step Raguel had outwitted herself. García gone, there was no one to act as moderator of the people. They rose in mass and stormed the palace; assembling in the basilica, they solemnly pronounced her worthy of death as an enemy of their king and country, and with desperate resolve drew their swords and turned to execute their award on the spot.
The king was absent on a hunting expedition; but García, who had heard of the new rising of the people, risked his life by infringing the sentence of banishment in order to save the life of his persecutor.
He succeeded in reaching her before the people had made their way into her apartment, and telling her of her danger, urged her to fly. But, loth to lose her high position, she refused, calling on her guards to defend her. The Castilian guards, however, refused to draw on their countrymen in defence of a Jewess. Meantime the people streamed in, and rushed upon her.
"Stay," said García, "stain not the bright steel of your Toledan blades with blood which belongs only to the sword of the executioner."
And his voice acted for a moment like the spell upon them.
But they were determined not again to leave it in her power to trample on their ancient institutions, and once more turned to slay her.
Then Alvar Fañez drew from his hiding-place behind the throne, a trembling Jew, who had been Raguel's minister in her elevation, but had not the courage to defend her now, and compelled him to be her executioner.
The king, hastily recalled from the chase, arrived but in time to see her expire. In the first burst of grief and fury he would have steeped his sword deep in the blood of his subjects; but once more the good García interposed, and by his temperate counsels recalled him to reason. When the violent throbbing of his agony had subsided, he acknowledged that his people had acted as a wise surgeon, that he alone had been in fault, that his punishment was deserved, and once more he was hailed as
Alfonso el Noble.