Read a blow-by-blow ac­count of the Re­con­quista’s most crit­i­cal bat­tle

Chris­tian ri­vals join forces to cam­paign against the Al­mo­had Caliphate, dur­ing Spain's bloody 'Re­con­quista'


Fast-rid­ing bands of mounted Chris­tian knights raided Mus­lim vil­lages, towns, and castles along the Castil­ian-an­dalu­sian fron­tier in 1194. The raids were part of of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions by King Al­fonso VIII of Castile aimed against the Ber­ber Al­mo­had Dy­nasty. It was a chal­lenge that could not go unan­swered by Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf.

The fol­low­ing spring the caliph as­sem­bled a multi-eth­nic caliphal army in North Africa, fer­ried it across the Strait of Gi­bral­tar and marched north seek­ing bat­tle with his Chris­tian neme­sis.

When word reached Al­fonso of the for­mi­da­ble army headed his way, he hastily gath­ered a large army in Toledo con­sist­ing of Castil­lian and Navar­rese knights, war­rior-monks of the mil­i­tary or­ders, and mu­nic­i­pal mili­ti­a­men with which to en­gage the caliph.

The two hosts clashed on 19 June out­side the par­tially com­pleted Chris­tian hill­top fortress at Alar­cos. The Mus­lim horse archers rained hiss­ing death upon the densely-packed ranks of the Cru­sader army.

Af­ter soft­en­ing up the en­emy with storms of ar­rows that black­ened the sky, the Mus­lim horse­men sys­tem­at­i­cally be­gan carv­ing up Al­fonso’s army. To save the re­main­der of his army, Al­fonso ne­go­ti­ated an agree­ment with Caliph Yusuf.

He agreed to pay an enor­mous sum of gold if al­lowed to safely with­draw the rem­nants of his badly blood­ied army. Leav­ing be­hind a dozen hostages to guar­an­tee pay­ment, the Chris­tian com­man­der re­turned to the safety of Toledo’s sand-coloured walls. Af­ter his vic­tory, Yusuf took the Is­lamic hon­orific al-mansur, mean­ing ‘the one who is vic­to­ri­ous’.

The Al­mo­had vic­tory at Alar­cos so un­nerved

Al­fonso that he did not con­duct of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions against the Al­mo­hads for a decade and a half. Dur­ing that pe­riod, the

Al­mo­hads con­quered many of the towns and fortresses south and west of Toledo. Mus­lim raiders even burnt the lush vine­yards sur­round­ing the city.

By the early 8th cen­tury, the Is­lamic Umayyad Caliphate had wrested con­trol of the Ibe­rian Penin­sula from the Visig­oths and es­tab­lished a Mus­lim-ruled do­main known as al-an­dalus.

Al­though re­sis­tance by the non-mus­lim peo­ples oc­curred al­most im­me­di­ately, it would not be un­til the 11th cen­tury that the Chris­tian states of the north were able to be­gin re­cap­tur­ing ter­ri­tory in the penin­sula in what be­came known as the Re­con­quista. In the mid11th cen­tury the Ber­ber Al­moravid Dy­nasty had sup­planted the Umayyads.

The Al­moravids were in turn de­stroyed in the early 12th cen­tury by an­other Ber­ber dy­nasty, known as the Al­mo­hads.

Al­though the King­dom of León had spear­headed and di­rected the Re­con­quista in its ini­tial pe­riod, Castile had emerged in the early 12th cen­tury as the dom­i­nant Chris­tian power in the war against the ri­val Mus­lims.

Pre­vi­ously a fron­tier prov­ince of the King­dom of León, Castile stood to be­come the most pow­er­ful king­dom in Ibe­ria should it even­tu­ally come to re­take south­ern Ibe­ria.

But that was a long way off. In the sec­ond half of the 12th cen­tury, the Chris­tian king­doms were thrust on the defensive by Al­mo­had ag­gres­sion un­der gifted com­man­ders.

Al­fonso VIII had in­her­ited the throne of

Castile when he was just two years old in 1158 and dur­ing his long mi­nor­ity Castile was highly vul­ner­a­ble to Al­mo­had of­fen­sives.


To pre­vent the loss of Toledo dur­ing this pe­riod, his un­cle, King Fer­nando II of León, sent troops to gar­ri­son the city.

When Al­fonso at­tained his ma­jor­ity in 1169, he con­tin­ued the pol­icy pre­vi­ously es­tab­lished of re­ly­ing on the na­tive Ibe­rian mil­i­tary or­ders, such as the Or­ders of Al­can­tara, Cala­trava, and San­ti­ago, to de­fend the Castil­ianan­dalu­sian fron­tier.

A long his­tory of con­flict among the Chris­tian king­doms com­pli­cated the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion in north­ern Ibe­ria. The kings squab­bled over who had the right to var­i­ous fron­tier castles and these squab­bles led to fre­quent armed clashes. If Castile, León, and Aragon were to suc­ceed in de­feat­ing the Mus­lims, they would have to find some way to avoid hav­ing dis­tract­ing small wars against each other.

Al­fonso achieved con­sid­er­able suc­cess in his early cam­paigns against the Al­mo­hads. While Al­mo­had forces were busy cam­paign­ing west of the Ta­gus River against Por­tuguese and Leó­nese forces in the early 1180s, the young Castil­ian monarch in­vaded cen­tral al-an­dalus be­sieg­ing Cór­doba and cap­tur­ing Sete­filla Cas­tle mid­way be­tween Cór­doba and Seville. But Al­fonso re­mained strictly on the defensive af­ter his crush­ing de­feat at Alar­cos.

When Caliph Yusuf died in 1199, he was suc­ceeded by Muham­mad al-nasir. How­ever, it was not un­til 1209 that Al­fonso was ready to re­sume sus­tained of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions against the Al­mo­hads.

The dam­ag­ing raids, which in­creased in in­ten­sity over a pe­riod of two years, even­tu­ally pro­voked a re­sponse from al-nasir. Cross­ing into Castile with a large host in June 1211, he be­sieged Sal­vatierra Cas­tle, which was lo­cated ap­prox­i­mately 60 miles south of Toledo. Since Al­fonso’s forces were widely scat­tered con­duct­ing raids, he was un­able to as­sem­ble them in time to re­lieve the be­lea­guered gar­ri­son.

The caliph’s army con­structed siege en­gines and po­si­tioned them on nearly hill­tops.

They pum­melled the walls of Sal­vatierra Cas­tle, ul­ti­mately forc­ing the gar­ri­son to sur­ren­der af­ter 51 days. Leav­ing be­hind a Mus­lim force to hold Sal­vatierra, the caliph re­turned to Mar­rakesh con­fi­dent that he would en­joy fur­ther suc­cess when he re­sumed of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions on the Castil­ianan­dalu­sian fron­tier the fol­low­ing spring.

Af­ter his ex­pe­ri­ence at Alar­cos, Al­fonso knew that he could not take on the much larger caliphal army alone. He needed ad­di­tional troops, not only from the other Chris­tian king­doms in Ibe­ria, but also from France and Italy. In re­sponse to di­rect ap­peals for as­sis­tance from Al­fonso, Pope In­no­cent

III in­structed the prelates of the Chris­tian king­doms in Ibe­ria, as well as those of south­ern France, to preach a Cru­sade that Al­fonso would lead against the Al­mo­hads.

The pope coun­selled the Chris­tian kings of Ibe­ria that in or­der to suc­ceed against the Al­mo­hads they would have to stop their in­fight­ing and unite against a com­mon foe.

He au­tho­rised the prelates to grant the in­dul­gences for re­mis­sion of sins not only to par­tic­i­pants who took up the cross, but also to wealthy in­di­vid­u­als who helped fi­nance the ex­pe­di­tion. As a re­sult, a sub­stan­tial num­ber of knights in Poitou, Gas­cony and Langue­doc, as well as north­ern Italy, made prepa­ra­tions to jour­ney to Toledo to join the Cru­sade.

The loss of Sal­vatierra Cas­tle served to gal­vanise the Chris­tian king­doms against the Al­mo­hads. In spring 1212 the Cru­sad­ing army be­gan as­sem­bling in Toledo. Contin­gents from Aragon, Navarre and Por­tu­gal ar­rived, as did knights from south­ern France and Italy.

King Pe­dro II of Aragon ar­rived in Toledo with a large body of troops. Al­though King San­cho of Navarre had sent word that he would par­tic­i­pate, he did not ar­rive in time and Al­fonso marched with­out him. The one Ibe­rian monarch who re­fused to par­tic­i­pate was King Al­fonso IX of León. Al­fonso IX was un­will­ing to set aside a long-sim­mer­ing ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute with Al­fonso VIII.


Lastly, arch­bish­ops Ar­naud Amaury of Nar­bonne, Guil­laume Amanevi of Bour­deaux, and Ro­drigo Ximenez de Rada of Toledo joined the ex­pe­di­tion to fur­nish spir­i­tual guid­ance and in­spi­ra­tion.

The Cru­saders, who were clad in sur­coats em­bla­zoned with the cross, de­parted Toledo on 20 June march­ing south to­ward al-an­dalus. Al­fonso in­tended not only to re­cover fron­tier castles lost to the Al­mo­hads, but also de­feat al-nasir’s caliphal army if he of­fered bat­tle. The French, who marched in the van­guard, sacked Malagon Cas­tle on June 24. The next ob­jec­tive, Cala­trava Cas­tle, fell to the Cru­saders on 1 July.

A heated dis­pute arose over the di­vi­sion of the spoils from the two castles. The French be­lieved that since they had done the bulk of the fight­ing in­volved in cap­tur­ing the castles, they should re­ceive all of the spoils, but the Ibe­rian troops dis­agreed. When the res­o­lu­tion was not to the sat­is­fac­tion of the French Cru­saders, all but the 130 Nar­bonese knights led by Arch­bishop Ar­naud de­parted for home in anger. The Ital­ians also used the episode as an ex­cuse to bow out. The timely ar­rival, how­ever, of King San­cho with around 200 Nava­resse knights served to off­set the losses in­curred by the de­par­ture of the for­eign Cru­saders. The up­side of the de­par­ture of the French and Ital­ians was that the glory “would be cred­ited to the fa­mous Spa­niards and not to the north­ern­ers,” wrote the anony­mous au­thor of the Latin Chron­i­cle of

the Kings of Castile be­tween 1217 and 1239. Un­will­ing to squan­der pre­cious time be­sieg­ing the strong Mus­lim gar­ri­son hold­ing Sal­vatierra Cas­tle, Al­fonso by­passed it. He in­tended to cross the Sierra Morena Moun­tains into the heart of al-an­dalus. Two days af­ter the Cru­saders set forth from Toledo, Caliph al-nasir led his caliphal army north from Seville. March­ing north­east, al-nasir led his army past Cór­doba and then turned north into the des­o­late Sierra Morena Moun­tains. The long Al­mo­had col­umn as­cended into the Mu­radal Pass where it bivouacked to await the en­emy’s next move. The Mus­lim troops fanned out into the high ground on both sides of the pass. By block­ing the pass, al-nasir sought to pre­vent the Cru­saders from reach­ing Al­mo­had ter­ri­tory in the Guadalquiv­ir basin to the south.

On 12 July, Al­fonso reached Mu­radal Pass only to find it strongly held by al-nasir’s army. Al­fonso had a stroke of good for­tune when his scouts found a lo­cal shep­herd who vol­un­teered to lead the Cru­saders through a hid­den pass west of the Mus­lim po­si­tion. Mov­ing in a thin col­umn through the nar­row de­file, the Cru­saders de­bouched into Mesa del Ray hav­ing turned the Mus­lim army’s left flank. At that point, al-nasir had lit­tle choice but to coun­ter­march to con­test the Cru­sader ad­vance into the heart of al-an­dalu­sia.

The caliph re­de­ployed his army in the south­ern foothills of the Sierra Morena, hop­ing to force a bat­tle with the smaller Cru­sader army. The ter­rain was far more rugged than the field of bat­tle at Alar­cos. The land con­sisted of rocky hills criss-crossed with steep ravines. The two armies came within sight of each other on 13 July. They spent the next two days in­volved in peace ne­go­ti­a­tions. Both sides de­ployed for bat­tle on 16 July.

Al­fonso’s forces con­sisted of heavy cavalry and heavy in­fantry. Both were clad in mail, wore hel­mets, and car­ried shields. The Cru­sader horse­men were armed with lances and swords, whereas the foot sol­diers had spears and axes. In con­trast, al-nasir’s army con­sisted of mostly in­fantry and archers, al­though there also were also horse archers and some medium cavalry. The Mus­lim foot sol­diers car­ried swords, spears, maces, axes, and bows. The wide, open ter­rain of the plateau con­sid­er­ably favoured the pow­er­ful Cru­sader cavalry over the lighter Mus­lim cavalry.

In the de­ci­sive bat­tle that un­folded on

16 July, al-nasir was out­fought by the more ex­pe­ri­enced Cru­sader com­man­der.

The vic­to­ri­ous Cru­sader army de­stroyed more than half of the caliphal army and ac­quired great plun­der when it cap­tured al-nasir’s bag­gage train, which con­tained gold to pay his troops. The Al­mo­had Dy­nasty, racked by in­ter­nal dis­sen­sion, would not sur­vive the 13th cen­tury.

The vic­tory so­lid­i­fied Castil­ian con­trol over cen­tral Ibe­ria and put the Mus­lims in alan­dalu­sia on the defensive for the re­main­der of the Re­con­quista. Al­fonso, who was as­tute enough to press his ad­van­tage, pushed his fron­tier 75 miles south to the Gua­di­ana River.

Al­though Al­fonso VIII died in 1214, his suc­ces­sors would com­plete the con­quest of al-an­dalus in 1249. This left the King­dom of Granada as the only re­main­ing Mus­lim­ruled realm in Ibe­ria. It would fall to a fu ture Castil­lian queen, Isabella, and her hus­band Fer­di­nand II of Aragon, to con­quer it and com­plete the Re­con­quista.

Three Chris­tian kings in Ibe­ria joined forces against Al­mo­had Caliph Muham­mad al-nasir

Al­fonso VIII of Castile

Eve of the Bat­tle of Las Navas de Tolosa

Al­fonso VIII, cel­e­brat­ing the vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Las Navas de Tolosa, 1212, against the Al­mo­hads

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