The Spanish Reconquista: The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

            The capture of Salvatierra by the Almohad’s in 1210 provided the impetus for Pope Innocent III (p.1198-1216) to issue a general call for crusade in Spain and grant the remission of sins for those who would go to Spain and fight for Christendom.[1]  For several reasons including hostility between the Christian monarchs of Spain, a council was not convened until the spring of 1212 in Toledo; even so, the kings of Portugal and Navarre did not attend.   When the council met a plan of campaign was discussed and agreed on as well as timing for the campaign to begin.

            The main nobles that met at Toledo were Alfonso VIII of Castile (r.1158-1214), Pedro II of Aragon (r.1196-1213), Archbishops Amaury of Narbonne and Guillaume of Bordeaux, some minor nobility from southern France, and the masters of the Spanish military orders with representatives from the Temple and Hospital as well.   Alfonso VIII agreed to bankroll the Aragonese contingent because of the king’s debt, and he also provided mounts and money to some of the French contingents due to their poverty.[2]

            The Crusade began in earnest on 20 June 1212 when the Crusaders left Toledo with the French Crusaders in the van.   On June 23, St. John’s Day, the Crusade captured Malagon and Calatrava fell on July 1 after a short siege.   The Crusade continued south taking several minor forts and on July 13, the Christians spotted the Muslim army.   At some point between the fall of Calatrava and July 13, Sancho VII of Navarre (r.1194-1234) put aside his differences with Castile and joined the Crusaders.

            The Muslims under Caliph Muhammad Al-Nasir (r. 1199-1214) had started out from Seville on June 22 and marched north to meet the invading army.[3]  The Muslim army was a combination of Spanish levies and Moroccans who had crossed the straits of Gibraltar, the Muslim cavalry was mostly light Arab and Berber cavalry.

            The battle was joined on July 16 1212, after both sides had prepared, the Christians celebrated mass and the priests exhorted the soldiers to fight for Christ.  The crusading army was drawn up in the typical fashion for medieval armies with three battles or divisions with Pedro II commanding the left, Sancho VII commanding the right, and Alfonso VIII commanding the Christian center, including the Military Orders.   The Muslim army facing them had their cavalry out front with archers and foot troops drawn up to the rear, while the Caliph Muhammad Al-Nasir stationed himself in the center of the army surrounded by his bodyguards.

            The Christian heavy cavalry charged and broke the Muslim lines whereupon the Muslim began to a retreat that quickly turned into a rout.   The Caliph fled the battlefield when he saw the battle turn against and returned to Seville.   The Christian army pursued and killed much of the Muslim army while suffering relatively few casualties of their own.   Exact numbers are hard to reach, although Alfonso VIII reported to the Pope that they had killed 100,000 Muslims while suffering only twenty or thirty Christian casualties, numbers that are hard to believe.[4]  Without question, the Muslim casualties were severe, as in the aftermath of the battle the Christina army swept further south capturing several more towns and fortresses before turning to return to Toledo.

            After Muhammad Al-Nasir retreated to Seville, he attempted to lessen the scope of his defeat by propaganda, saying that the Muslims retained divine protection while the Christians were in terrible shape.   He showed the lie to his words by returning to his capital of Marrakech where he died on Christmas day 1213.[5]  Among the Christian rulers, Alfonzo VIII would die in 1214 and Pedro II died at the Battle of Murat in 1213, it would be up to the next generation of Christian monarchs to capitalize on the battle.

            The battle marked the high point of the Muslim presence in Spain.   Initially although the battle was heralded as a success, it was not perceived to be as decisive as it was in reality.   It would be almost ten years before the Reconquista was renewed, because of the minority of the ruler of James I of Aragon (r.1213-1276), and the unrest in Castile and Leon until the kingdoms were joined under Fernando III (r.1217-1252).

            The Christians used Las Navas de Tolosa as a springboard for further conquests and over the next forty years would sweep through Andalucía until only the kingdom of Granada remained in Muslim hands.   The reasons for this are simple if one looks at the map, the Christian conquests after the battle drove a large wedge shaped salient into Muslim lands.   After Muslim losses in the battle and the succession disputes after the death of Muhammad Al-Nasir, the Almohads were in no shape in subsequent years to fend off further attacks from the new generation of aggressive Iberian monarchs.

[1] Madden, Thomas F.   The New Concise History of the Crusades. p. 122

[2] O’Callaghan, Joseph F. Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain. pp. 70-71

[3] Ibid. pp. 70-72

[4] “Letter from Alfonso VIII to Pope Innocent III”, July, 1212.

[5] O’Callaghan. pp. 74-75