Wars had to be won at all costs
James would have been delighted to have been given the title ‘James the Conqueror’, since this is precisely the image he wished to convey in his autobiography. His cultural, administrative and institutional achievements received little mention. Instead, he focused almost exclusively on his military conquests, “so that all men may recognise and know, when we have passed from this mortal life, the deeds that we have done with the help of the powerful Lord”.
James saw himself as part of a line of successful military leaders – he recorded how his father died in battle “since it has always been the custom of our line… that either we must win or die” – and was determined to outstrip his forebears’ achievements by expanding Aragon’s land. Rejoicing at his conquest of Majorca, he asserted: “God has done such grace to us that he has given us a kingdom inside the sea, a thing that no king of Spain has ever achieved before.” He later resolved to conquer Valencia, believing that this would bring him the “greatest gain and greatest honour” because “this was something that nobody of my line had ever done”.
The steely determination with which James pursued his military goals comes across vividly in his account of the two-month siege at Borriana, north of Valencia, in 1233. Here, despite his nobles counselling a retreat because of dwindling food and finances, James refused: “You should wish me to leave here for the assets I might gain! Believe you me that I will not do it. Rather I ask you and I order you, for the lordship I hold over you, that you will help me to take it.”
James’s gritty determination to win at all costs characterised his military campaigns. Against repeated advice that, as king, “we should not risk our person”, James repeatedly dived headfirst into battle and refused to delegate military leadership.
His determination to be in the thick of it even saw him remove an arrow from the nobleman Bernat Guillem’s leg with his own hands. By exposing himself in this way, the king himself was later struck by an arrow to the head and recalled how: “Blood was running down our face… and our eyes swelled up so much that we could not see… for four or five days.”
James also showed himself to be an inventive tactician. In one siege, his knights used a discarded wooden beam to cross the moat and shimmy up a tower using leather belts; and, as he later related, Borriana was finally taken by a surprise attack using underground tunnels.
James I’s forces conquer Majorca, as shown in a detail from an altarpiece. The Aragonese king defined the success of his reign through his feats on the battlefield