A Celebration of Women Writers

"Agostina of Zaragoza." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
From: A Book of Golden Deeds. (1864) by Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., n.d.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



One of the most unjustifiable acts of Napoleon's grasping policy was the manner in which he entrapped the poor, foolish, weak Spanish royal family into his power, and then kept them in captivity, and gave their kingdom to his brother Joseph. The whole Spanish people were roused to resistance by this atrocious transfer, and the whole of the peasantry rose as one man to repel this shameful aggression. A long course of bad government had done much to destroy the vigour of the nation, and as soldiers in the open field they were utterly worthless; but still there were high qualities of patience and perseverance among them, and these were never more fully shown than in their defence of Zaragoza, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Aragon.

This city stands in an open plain, covered with olive grounds, and closed in by high mountains. About a mile to the south-west of the city was some high ground called the Torrero, upon which stood a convent, and close beside the city flowed the Ebro, crossed by two bridges, one of which was made of wood, and said to be the most beautiful specimen of the kind of fabric in Europe. The water is of a dirty red, but grows clear when it has stood long enough, and is then excellent to drink. There were no regular fortifications, only a brick wall, ten or twelve feet high, and three feet thick, and often encroached upon by houses. Part of it was, however, of old Roman workmanship, having been built under Augustus, by whom the town was called Cæsarea Augusta, a name since corrupted into Zaragoza (both z 's pronounced as softly as possible). Four of the twelve gates were in this old wall, which was so well built as to put to shame all the modern buildings and their bad bricks. These were the material of even the churches and convents, all alike with the houses, and so bad was the construction that there were cracks in most of the buildings from top to bottom. The houses were generally three stories high, the streets very narrow and crooked, except one wide and long one, called sometimes the Calle Santa, sometimes the Cozo. Zaragoza was highly esteemed as the first seat of Christianity in Spain; indeed, legend declared that St. James the Great had preached there, and had beheld a vision of the Blessed Virgin, standing upon a marble pillar, and bidding him there build a church in honour of her. The pillar was the great object of veneration in Aragon, and there was a double cathedral, with service performed alternately in the two parts. So much venerated was our Lady of the Pillar, that Pilar became a girl's name in the surrounding country, and this was the centre of pilgrimages to the Aragonese, as St. James's shrine at Compostella was to the Castilians. As is well said by Southey, in the fiery trial of the Zaragozans, "the dross and tinsel of their faith disappeared, and its pure gold remained". The inhabitants appeared, like most Spaniards since the blight of Philip II's policy had fallen on them, dull, apathetic beings, too proud and indolent for exertion, the men smoking cigaritos at their doors, the women only coming out with black silk mantillas over their heads to go to church. The French on first seizing it, with the rest of Spain, thought it the dullest place they had ever yet entered and greatly despised the inhabitants.

General Lefebvre Desnouettes was sent to quiet the insurrection against the French in Aragon; and on the 13th and 14th of June, 1808, he easily routed the bodies of Spaniards who tried to oppose him. The flying Spanish troops were pursued into Zaragoza by the French cavalry, but here the inhabitants were able from their houses to drive back the enemy. Don Jose Palafox, a Spanish nobleman, who had been equerry to the King, took the command of the garrison, who were only 220 soldiers, and endeavoured to arm the inhabitants, about 60,000 in number, and all full of the most determined spirit of resistance to the invaders. He had only sixteen cannon and a few muskets, but fowling-pieces were collected, and pikes were forged by all the smiths in the town.

The siege began on the 27th of June. The French army was in considerable force, and had a great supply of mortars and battering cannon; such as could by their shells and shot rend the poor brick city from end to end. The Torrero quickly fell into their hands, and from that height there was a constant discharge of those terrible shells and grenades that burst in pieces where they fall, and carry destruction everywhere. Not one building within the city could withstand them, and they were fired, not at the walls but into the town. All that could be done was to place beams slanting against the houses, so that there might be a shelter under them from the shells. The awnings that sheltered the windows from the summer sun were taken down, sewn up into sacks, and filled with earth, then piled up before the gates, with a deep trench dug before them; the houses on the walls were pulled down, and every effort made to strengthen the defences, the whole of the lately quiet, lazy population toiling earnestly together, in the midst of the deadly shower that was always falling from the Torrero, and striking down numbers as they worked.

The same spirit animated everyone. The Countess Burita, a beautiful young lady, formed the women into an organised company for carrying wine, water, and food to the soldiers on guard, and relieving the wounded, and throughout the whole siege her courage and perseverance never failed; she was continually seen in the places most exposed to the enemy's fire, bringing help and refreshment wherever she appeared among the hard-pressed warriors. The nuns became nurses to the sick and wounded, and made cartridges, which were carried to the defenders by the children of the place. The monks attended the sick and dying, or else bore arms, feeling that this–the cause of their country, their king, and their faith–had become to them a holy war. Thus men, women, and children alike seemed full of the same loyal spirit; but some traitor must have been among them, for on the night of the 28th, the powder magazine in the centre of the town was blown up, destroying fourteen houses and killing 200 people. At the same time, evidently prepared to profit by the confusion thus caused, the French appeared before three of the gates, and a dreadful fire began from the Torrero, shells bursting everywhere among the citizens, who were striving in the dark to dig their friends out of the ruined houses.

The worst of the attack was at the gate called Portillo, and lasted the whole day. The sand-bag defence was frequently destroyed by the fire, and as often renewed under this dreadful shot by the undaunted Spaniards. So dreadful was the carnage, that at one moment every man of the defenders lay dead. At that moment one of the women who were carrying refreshments came up. Her name was Agostina Zaragoza; she was a fine-looking woman of two-and-twenty, and was full of a determined spirit. She saw the citizens hesitate to step forward to man the defences where certain death awaited them. Springing forward, she caught the match from the hand of a dead gunner, fired his twenty-six-pounder, and seating herself on it, declared it her charge for the rest of the siege. And she kept her word. She was the heroine of the siege where all were heroines. She is generally called the Maid of Zaragoza, but she seems to have been the widow of one of the artillerymen who was here killed, and that she continued to serve his gun–not solely as a patriot, but because she thus obtained a right to provisions for her little children, who otherwise might have starved in the famine that began to prevail. If this lessens the romance, it seems to us to add to the beauty and womanliness of Agostina's character, that for the sake of her children she should have run into the hottest of the peril, and taken up the task in which her husband had died.

Her readiness in that critical moment saved the Portillo for that time, but the attacks were renewed again and again with equal fury and fearful bloodshed. The French General had fancied that he could easily take such an unfortified place, and finding it so difficult, had lost his temper, and was thus throwing away his men's lives; but after several such failures, he began to invest the city regularly. Gunpowder was failing the besieged until they supplied its place by wonderful ingenuity. All the sulphur in the place was collected, nitre was obtained by washing it out of the soil of the streets, and charcoal by charring the stalks of the very large variety of hemp that grows in that part of Spain. At the end of forty-six days the city was entirely surrounded, provisions were falling short, and there was not a single place safe from shot and shell. On the 2nd of August a hospital caught fire, and the courage of the women was again shown by their exertions in carrying out the sick and wounded from the flames in spite of the continued shot from the enemy's batteries; indeed, throughout the siege the number of women and boys who were killed was quite as great in proportion as that of men; the only difficulty was to keep them from running needlessly into danger.

On the 4th of August, the French opened a battery within pistol-shot of the gate called after the great Convent of St. Engracia. The mud walls were levelled at the first discharge, and after a deadly struggle the besiegers forced their way into the convent, and before the end of the day had gained all that side of the city, up to the main central street, the Cozo. General Lefebvre thought all was now over with his enemies, and summoned Palafox to surrender, in a note containing only these words–"Headquarters, St. Engracia. Capitulation." The answer he received was equally brief–"Headquarters, Zaragoza. War to the knife."

There they were! A street about as wide as Pall-Mall was all that lay between besiegers and besieged, to whom every frail brick house had become a fortress, while the openings of the narrow cross streets were piled up with sand-bags to form batteries. Soon the space was heaped with dead bodies, either killed on the spot or thrown from the windows, and this was enough to breed a pestilence among the survivors. The French let them lie, knowing that such a disease would be the surest destruction to the garrison, and they fired on the Spanish whenever they ventured out to bury them. Upon this Palafox devised tying ropes to his French prisoners, and driving them out to bring in the corpses for burial. The enemy would not fire on their own countrymen, and thus this danger was lessened, although not entirely removed, and sickness as well as famine was added to the misery of the brave Aragonese. The manufacture of powder, too, could no longer be carried on, but happily Don Francisco, the brother of Palafox, was able to make his way into the city with 3000 men, and a convoy of arms and ammunition. Padre Santiago Sass, the curate of one of the parishes of Zaragoza, showed himself one of the bravest of all the brave, fighting at every hazardous point, and at other times moving about among the sick and dying to give them the last rites of the Church. No one's heart failed in that eleven days of one continual battle from house to house, from room to room, when the nights were times of more dreadful conflict than the days. Often under cover of the darkness, a party would rush across to seize a battery; and once a Spaniard made his way under cover of the corpses, which filled the whole space between the combatants, and fastened a rope to one of the French guns. It had almost been dragged across the street, and was only lost by the breaking of the rope.

On the 8th of August, the Spaniards agreed that if they could not hold their ground in the city, they must retire across the Ebro, break down the bridge, and defend the suburbs as they had defended the streets. Only an eighth part of their city now remained to them; and on the night of the 13th the enemy's fire was more destructive and constant than ever. The great Convent of St. Engracia was blown up, the whole of the French part of the city glared with flaming houses, the climax of the horrors of the siege seemed to be come! But the reports of the batteries gradually ceased, and, with the early morning light, the garrison beheld the road to Pamplona filled with French troops in full retreat.

In effect, intelligence had been received of reverses to the invaders, and of extended movements among the Spaniards, which had led the French to decide on quitting Zaragoza ere these desperate defenders should be reinforced by the army which was collecting to relieve them.

Their fortitude had won the day. The carnage had ended, and it remained for them to clear their streets from the remains of the deadly strife, and to give thanks for their deliverance. Agostina, in testimony of her courage, was to receive for life the pay of an artilleryman, and to wear a little shield of honour embroidered on her sleeve.

So ended the wonderful siege of Zaragoza. It is sad to know that when the French forces came in full numbers into Spain, the brave town shared the fate of the rest of the country. But the resistance had not been in vain; it had raised a feeling for the gallant Spaniards throughout Europe, and inspired a trust in their constancy which contributed to bring them that aid from England by which their country was, after six years, finally freed from the French usurpation.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom