The Muslim prince named Grandee of Spain and Commander of the Order of Santiago

His name was Muley Xeque and, with that name, it seems easy to assume that we are talking about a Muslim and Moroccan character. However, the deduction is not entirely inaccurate, it must be qualified because although it began with such conditions, at the end of his life they had changed radically: an aspirant to the sultanate of Morocco, son of the overthrown incumbent, who embraced Christianity in his Spanish exile and he lived happily in it until the difficult vicissitudes of the period, between the 16th and 17th centuries, forced him to also leave that host land to die in a distant and foreign land.

Let us locate ourselves geographically and chronologically: Marrakech, the year 1566. Muhammad al-Mutawkil, Sultan of Fez, has just had a son whom he gives the name of Muley Xeque (Mawlay al-Shayj). He will never inherit the throne because a decade later his uncle Abd al-Malik al-Mutasim carries out a coup and seizes power with the help of the Ottomans.

Al-Mutawkil does not give up and enters into an alliance with Portugal to recover his kingdom. The Portuguese monarch, Sebastián I, was a fervent Christian eager to lead a crusade, partly to silence comments about his sickly physique; the situation in Morocco suited him like a glove.

As then North Africa was a territory of special geostrategic importance for the control of the Mediterranean, hence the continuous disputes between the Ottomans, Spanish and Portuguese, Sebastián not only decided to intervene in favor of the ousted sultan but to do it personally. Felipe II gave him economic and material help, although the generals sent advised canceling such an uncertain adventure; The Portuguese king, enthusiastic, ignored the recommendation and went ahead.

On August 4, 1578, he faced Al-Malik’s troops in Alcázarquivir, in what is known as the Battle of the Three Kings, which ended in the disaster that the Spanish predicted. The defeat of the allies was total and doubly tragic, as both Sebastián and Al-Mutawkil died in combat. In fact, Al-Malik also died and thus the two main countries involved were left without a king.

While the legend of Sebastianismo was sprouting in Portugal (the king would have survived and would return), Felipe II found himself with a golden opportunity to unite that kingdom to Spain under his crown, which he did in September 1580. But in Morocco the death of the usurper did not mean the return of his rights to the young Muley Xeque, who saw how another uncle of his occupied the space: Mulay Ahmed alias al-Mansur (the victorious) or Ad Dahb (the golden). To save him from a foreseeable reprisal, Portugal welcomed Muley, installing him in Lisbon with a pension of two thousand maravedis a day.

Battle of Alcázarquivir/Image: Georges Jansoone on Wikimedia Commons

He was then twelve years old and would reside in other towns before becoming a man, according to the chronicles quite strong and dark complexion, which earned him the nickname of black prince.

In 1587 he went to Spain to try to convince Felipe II to give him a small army with which to recover his kingdom, since he was sure that the people would rebel in his favor; something difficult considering that al-Mansur had managed to establish a period of peace and prosperity. And since the all-powerful sovereign was not willing to repeat Sebastián’s mistake, Muley had to stay and establish himself in the royal fortress of Carmona.

His arrival in the Sevillian town, chosen because an important Moorish community resides there (more than a thousand residents, half of the total population), caused a serious economic problem because maintaining that court of fifty people was not exactly cheap and the place had suffered considerably after the plague epidemic of 1583 and a series of bad harvests; On top of that, the money from the royal coffers destined for it did not finish arriving (in fact, it would not do so until years later).

Muley Xeque lived in Carmona until 1593, facing the discomfort of his residence (an old Almohad fortress reformed by Pedro I the cruel but which had been left in poor condition after suffering an earthquake in 1504), and trying to integrate as much as possible into the environment.

It is known that he participated in local festivals and events, such as cane games, bullfights and hunts; without a doubt, the young age with which he had arrived on the peninsula helped him. What’s more, in 1590 he met a tax collector named Miguel de Cervantes, whom he impressed enough to later have him appear in his work. Journey to Parnassus.

Another thing was its people, much older, who had more and more frequent friction with the population and the bailiffs, and who were accused of going to the slave market to buy Barbary prisoners and free them. As Muley was also uncomfortable, always watched by men of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia following instructions from the Crown, he decided to move to Seville, probably with the intention of chartering a ship that would take him to his land.

Cane games in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, by Juan de la Corte/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Felipe II forbade him and, fearing that he would end up subverting the Moors, installed him in Andújar, where thirteen thousand two hundred reales were sent to prevent new problems. It was in this city that he renounced his faith and converted to Christianity. Lope de Vega, who was a friend of his and composed a sonnet for him, as well as making him co-star in one of his plays (Tragedy of King Sebastián and baptism of the Prince of Morocco), he attributed it to an illumination when contemplating the pilgrimage of the Virgen de la Cabeza, although it seems more likely that he was assuming the impossibility of being sultan and sought to lead a normal life in his adopted country.

As might be expected, the decision both excited some and offended fellow Muslims. His uncle Abd al-Karim, for example, tried to poison him, although his other uncle, Muley Nazar, did not see him with such bad eyes because he was the next in line (Philip II got rid of him by authorizing him to return to Morocco , where in 1595 he ended up defeated and assassinated). The fact is that, after the corresponding catechism, Muley Xeque was baptized in El Escorial on November 3, 1593.

He was named Felipe in honor of Felipe II, who sponsored him (Philip of Africa he used to be told), naming him Grandee of Spain and Commander of the Order of Santiago, the latter with the curious prior accreditation of not having Jewish blood. They also granted him the Bédmar y Albáñez encomienda, which would provide him with rather meager income and for this reason he always had financial problems, despite the fact that in Madrid, where he moved when the city was named capital of the kingdom, he lived in a small palace with servants. .

Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial/Photo: Madrid Tourism Tourism Consortium on Wikimedia Commons

Nothing changed with the rise to the throne of Felipe III; Muley led a life similar to that of any Spanish nobleman, attending regular mass in the Atocha basilica, showing a special fondness for bullfighting (as do many Moors) and having reserved space in a comedy corral. But he was not satisfied with that relaxed life and requested to join the Tercios as a captain to go fight in Flanders; unfortunately, although the king was willing and even subsidized his expenses, the Duke of Lerma did not deem it appropriate.

The refusal must have left him frustrated, as well as discovering that the integration he was attempting could not go beyond a certain point: his children were not admitted to schools or allowed access to public office. He probably understood then that he had hardly been more than a pawn of Philip II to keep the Moroccan sultan at bay and prevent him from allying with the English or with the followers of Antonio, prior of Crato, candidate for the Portuguese throne.

In this sense, the final straw in his situation was the valid project to expel the Moors, even though he had integrated perfectly, like many other upper class. And so Muley Xeque -or Felipe de África- decided to leave Spain in 1609 to end up in Italy, where a large number of Moors had gone, some as illustrious as Carlos de Austria (son of the King of Tunis) or Gaspar de Benimerín.

Once in transalpine land he was able to meet Pope Pius V and settled in Milan, placing himself under the orders of Governor Pedro Enríquez de Acevedo as captain; His friendship would become so close that Enríquez bequeathed him part of his property as his inheritance.

He no longer got along so well with his successor and moved to the neighboring town of Vigevano, where he did become a good friend of the bishop, staying in his palace.

Death surprised him on November 4, 1621, at fifty-five years of age, leaving a natural daughter named Josefa de África, who was a nun in Zamora, as executor of his limited resources.

It is not known exactly where he is buried – some point to the cathedral of Vigevano – but the town of Valdemorillo, where he lived during his catechism, has dedicated a street to him with the name of Felipe de África.


Muley Xeque. Conversion, integration and disappointment of the prince of the Moors (presentation by Esteban Mira Caballos at the II International Congress of Moorish Andalusian Descendants in the Western Mediterranean, Ojós, 2015)/Four essays on Gabriel Lobo Laso de la Vega (1555-1615) (Jack Welner)/ Mulay Ech-Cheij, the so-called Don Felipe de África (Moroccan Hispanist from the 16th-17th century) (Ahmed Mgara in Eco de Tetuán)/Wikipedia / Life of Don Felipe of Africa, Prince of Fez and Morocco (1556-1621) (Jaime Oliver Asín).