South-central spain, 16 July 1212
The epic turning point in the battle to restore Christian rule in Spain
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 mid-11th 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 Cast ilia na nd al us ian 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 a way to avoid 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. 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 Castilian-andalusian 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 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 longsimmering 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 damaging raids, which increased in intensity over a period of two years, eventually provoked a response from al-nasir
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, though, of King Sancho with 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 counter-march 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 crisscrossed 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 al-andalusia 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 Muslim-ruled realm in Iberia. It would fall to a future Castillian queen, Isabella, and her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon, to conquer it and complete the Reconquista.
PLENTY OF PLUNDER With the caliph’s camp in Crusader clutches, the Christians were free to loot. Among the treasures taken was a tapestry banner that covered the mouth of the caliph’s tent. This was sent to a monastery in the capital of Castile.
Three Christian kings in Iberia joined forces against Almohad Caliph Muhammad al-nasir The cavalry had difficulty gaining an advantage over the Crusaders