Siege of Asilah (Cerco de Arcila)

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Siege of Asilah (Cerco de Arcila)
The assaulters carried enough wood from Portugal to build a fence around the city and besiege it while keeping protected from eventual enemy reinforcements. This second tapestry describes the details of the siege, making it an unequalled document on early firearms and changes in the art of war at the beginning of the Modern Age. Unfortunately, the top legend of the tapestry has not been preserved in full and is now cut.

The Portuguese camp

Unlike the first tapestry, this piece depicts just one scene. The Portuguese camp appears surrounded by a wooden palisade and a moat, its perimeter full of loopholes. The coat of arms of Portugal, along with St George’s Cross and the emblem of Afonso V are used to decorate the walls. Thanks to this enclosure, the Portuguese could organize the siege of the city safe from eventual reinforcements who might arrive to help the besieged. Meanwhile, the Portuguese fleet blocks access to the city by the sea, since Asilah was a coastal stronghold.

Afonso V and Prince John

The camp is fitted with two entries. King Afonso enters on the right and Prince John on the left, both heralded by trumpeters and preceded by their standards – the rodizio in the case of the king, and a pennant with a gold field and a bordure of gules (a red tincture) identifying the heir. These also decorate the trumpets of the musicians. The relevance of the scene lies in the king and the prince, keeping with the series’ extolment of the monarch.

Incipient firearms

War was changing greatly in the late 15th century. Use of artillery and firearms coexisted with chivalric equipment more characteristic of the Middle Ages, such as that worn by the king and his son. Several bombards and other artillery pieces fill the Portuguese camp, where some soldiers can be seen shooting their serpentines (a forerunner of the harquebus) amid the bulk of the troops, equipped with spears, swords and crossbows. Moorish muskets and serpentines can also be seen among the defenders of Asilah, together with spears and arrows.

The siege

According to the chronicles, the Portuguese inflicted three days of continuous bombardment on the city, bringing down part of its defensive wall. The tapestry shows the artillery soldiers manning the weapons, mainly bombards – some of them protected from enemy fire by mantles – and shooting at the enemy walls; the effect can be seen on the defenses of the city, represented as a motley set of constructions looking barely Moorish.

The detail employed in the arms and supplies makes these tapestries a very interesting source of knowledge about war at the beginning of the Modern Age, further from the narration of the events of Asilah in 1471.

Series Conquest of Asilah and Tangier by Afonso V of Portugal (The Pastrana tapestries)

Second tapestry in the series

Manufacture Tournai workshops, a likely manufacture by Passchier Grenier, c. 1471-1475

Fabric Silk and wool

Size 428 (left) / 422 (right) x 1078 cm

Location Museum of the Collegiate Church of Pastrana (Guadalajara)

Origin A bequest in 1667 by the 4th Duke of Pastrana and 8th Duke of the Infantado


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