By half XII century, and as the Almoravid principalities crumbled in the face of Leonese-Castilian, Portuguese and Aragonese-Catalan pressure, peninsular Muslim history repeated itself once more. A new reformist and puritanical North African movement, the Almohads, gathered its forces and invaded Almoravid Spain in the last decade of Alfonso VII's rule. By the death of Alfonso VII in 1157, the Almohads had secured the Almoravid territories, and operating out of Seville and Córdoba they substantially increased the Muslim threat to the Christian frontier while bringing heavy pressure to bear on the Tajo River line. Compounding these difficulties, Alfonso VII chose to divide his kingdom into its Leonese and Castilian components between his sons Fernando II and Sancho III, respectively. Thus, the Christian frontier appeared to be in the process of fragmentation at the very time the Almohads were bringing unity to Islamic Spain. By 1162, all of the Christian kingdoms save Portugal had young and inexperienced monarchs on their thrones in the face of an aroused Muslim south. In this age, the Christians would need all of the military frontier resources at their command.
King Alfonso VIII's Castile and the turncoat Muslim prince Ibn-Mardanìsh of Murcia (known to Christians as King Lobo) seemed to rank as the Almohad priority targets, followed by pressure on the Tajo Valley to drive the Christian kings back into the Trans-Duero. The Christian enclave at the Mediterranean port of Almería soon fell along with Baeza, the advanced staging point for Christian raids into Andalusia. During the next several decades, the main battleground would be the lands south and east of Toledo: New Castile and La Mancha. In this zone, everything pivoted upon the ruler's making the time and finding the energy to take and retake fortresses and towns, as well as his generating the human resources to repopulate and defend what he had conquered. In this regard, the towns of the frontier were to play a vital role.
Battle of Caracuel (1173).
The militia of the town of Ávila possessed a leader whose name was Sancho Jimenez Albarda, called Hunchback (el Giboso) by the Christians and Xanmanis the Packsaddler (Abú Bardaca) by some Muslims. With his brother Gómez, Sancho the Hunchback was credited with leading some 25 raids against the Muslims from the 1140's until 1173. Sancho was in many ways the heir of Munio Alfonso, the great combat leader of Ávila in the 1130's and 1140's, and like him died heroically but tragically in combat. The Christian sources take note of Sancho's command of the Ávila militia for a raid against Seville in the latter part of Alfonso VII's reign, as well as others he led against the same city in 1158 and 1171. The spectacular nature of his last expedition with the Abulense militia in 1173 drew citation from four Muslim sources, one of which mentions the "Friars" of a military order (ifrîr) who may have accompanied the militia on campaign. By one Muslim account, the Hunchback and his Abulense raiders had already struck deep into the Muslim south at Tarifa and Algeciras and returned home once that year. This second campaign took the force into central Andalusia, where it crossed the Guadalquivir at Palma del Río and laid waste to the region southwest of Córdoba. If they brought back even a substantial fraction of the 50,000 sheep and 2000 head of cattle attributed to their booty-taking by one Muslim source, they would have made a spectacular sight as they herded their animals and prisoners back across the Guadalquivir. They got no farther than the southern approach to the old fortress of Calatrava just north of the Muradal Pass in the Sierra Morena. Doubtless slowed down by the pace of their four-legged booty, Sancho and his militia were overtaken at Caracuel by an Almohad force mustered at Seville and reinforced at Córdoba. Unwilling to give up the profits of combat, the Christians gathered their herds and prisoners in a large cluster and made a stand against the numerically superior Almohads. Driven up the side of a mountain, the Hunchback and his followers fought to the last man while a handful of the Abulense militiamen who still survived in other parts of the battlefield fled the hopeless contest. The Muslims recovered all of the stolen animals and their kindred taken prisoner. The head of Sancho the Hunchback rode a spear back to Seville with an accompaniment of Muslim tambourines. Nonetheless, the Muslims paid Sancho the ultimate compliment by the great value they placed on the victory and the termination of his career. Possibly the grimmest indication of all of the extent of the Christian losses was the comparative silence of the Chronicle of Ávila regarding Abulense militia exploits for the next two decades.
Siege of Huete (1172).
Previously to the battle of Caracuel, and under Abú Yacqub Yusuf I, the Muslim Caliph who had just crossed over from North Africa, Almohads led an assault on King Lobo's Murcia in the spring of 1172, and with the death of Lobo accepted the surrender of Murcia. Yúsuf then moved to retake the sections of northern La Mancha w hich Lobo had granted to Castile, a drive which saw the capturing of the castles of Vilches and Alcaraz and was climaxed by the siege of the town of Huete. This was not a seasonal booty-gathering raid but an assault designed to capture critical strategic locations to anchor the Muslim frontier well north of Andalusia. Whether the Muslims would have simply destroyed Huete or attempted to resettle it, we do not know. In either case they were to be frustrated. The young Alfonso VIII had just reinforced Huete and its militia a few weeks before, and the added numbers may explain why the Muslim force caught the town shy of supplies, particularly water. The attendant clergy of both sides besought the heavens for relief or submission, respectively. Forays and costly combats proved unavailing to force the capture or break the siege, and surrender terms could not be agreed upon. Then the arrival of an unusual summer rain front appeared on Sunday, refilling the cisterns of Huete and dampening the effectiveness of a Monday Muslim assault. Abú Yacqúb chided his troops for their lackluster fighting, which had persuaded Allah that they had not wanted victory keenly enough. The large and famished Muslim army then withdrew to neighboring Cuenca for resupply. Ultimately the Muslim force was to campaign in La Mancha and Murcia, and even attack the Tajo Valley near Toledo and Talavera before the year was out. The campaigns terminated as mere booty-gathering raids with no lasting impact on the frontier settlement pattern. Even Beja was lost to the fearless Geraldo and Portugal that year. The Almohad Caliph accepted a seven-year truce with Alfonso VIII, which signaled the conclusion of a period of Muslim expansive frontier momentum.
After the truce with Castile, Almohads turned to the Portuguese front, Serpa and Beja being retaken and repopulated by the Almohads in 1174. Emboldened by these successes, the Muslims of Seville, Beja and Serpa attacked the zone surrounding Alcáçer do Sal. A regional force sallied forth to meet them and a battle ensued. During the course of combat the Santarém militia arrived, catching the Islamic force off guard and turning the struggle into a rout of the Muslim army. The resultant alarm from this battle so discouraged the new settlers of Beja that they packed up and retreated to Mértola without awaiting a Christian assault.
Siege of Cuenca (1177).
Shortly thereafter in 1177, the Castilian king violated this truce by assembling an expedition to lay siege to Muslim Cuenca, a town of great strategic significance since it functioned as a supply base for Andalusian expeditions in La Mancha (as at Huete) and controlled a crucial passage through the Iberian Cordillera to Aragón. The city, sitting astride the Júcar and Huécar river gorges on an extended ridge flanked by precipitous cliffs, was thought to be invulnerable by Ibn Sâhib al-Salâ who mentioned its "lofty citadel, unconquerable, whose height reached heavenward to touch the clouds." Apparently Alfonso's besieging forces were too large to be attacked directly by the Islamic musters available, instead raids were launched against the Tajo Valley at Toledo and Talavera, almost certainly as a diversion to dissuade Alfonso from his project. These sources also note the 1177 raids of Ciudad Rodrigo and Talavera and the capture of a portion of the latter's militia when these Christian towns launched a counter-strike at Arcos and Jérez de la Frontera. All of this 1177 activity failed to accomplished its basic mission, the relief of Cuenca or the capture of any other Christian towns in compensation. Rather, Cuenca capitulated to Alfonso VIII on 21 September 1177 after a siege of several months. For the Almohads it was a major loss, and possession of the town substantially enhanced Castile's grip on La Mancha. Seville concentrated its campaigning efforts in the next few years against the Alentejo in Portugal, although the Muslim sources do note a raid of dubious success against Talavera in 1182, as well as a counter-strike by the militia of Toledo against Córdoba in the same year.
Alarcos (July 18, 1195).
In 1190 the Almohad caliph Abú Yusuf Yacqub forced an armistice on the Christian kings of Castile and Leon, after repulsing their attacks on Muslim possessions in Spain. At the expiration of the truce (c. 1194) Alfonso invaded the province of Seville, prompting Abu Yusuf to leave his North African capital, Marrakech, with an expedition against the Christians. The Almohad Caliph led an expedition across La Mancha, probably directed against Toledo and the Tajo Valley. King Alfonso VIII, moved south to Alarcos (al-Arak in Arabic) near the Guadiana River, where the Almohads sought to prevent a new fortress being constructed by the Order of Calatrava. Alfonso VIII's prompt arrival relieved that pressure at the cost of facing a numerically larger enemy, who had been joined by the cavalry of the Castilian Pedro Fernández de Castro, a personal enemy of Alfonso. In the subsequent conflict, an attempt to break the Muslim center was parried by Yacqub's reserve, followed by the rapid deterioration of the Christian position. Alfonso VIII barely got away with his life in the ensuing rout (entering at the castle of Alarcos by one door, and going out by another one, while Almohads attacked the castle thinking he was still there), at the price of very heavy losses. Yacqub returned triumphantly to Seville, there he assumed the title al-Mansur Billah ("Made Victorious by God").
In the following year Pedro Fernández was entrusted by Yacqub with the command of Muslim troops who were to fight under the command of the king of León, the cousin of the Castilian king, in a co-ordinated Almohad-Leonese attack on Castile. In accordance with this plan Yacqub sent major expeditions in the summers of 1196 and 1197. The first came up from Seville through Extremadura, capturing the exposed frontier settlements at Montánchez, Trujillo and the newly-founded town of Plasencia as the defenders withdrew from the walls into the keep of the citadel, only to capitulate. The Muslims then struck the Tajo Valley towns, moving in turn against Talavera, Escalona, Maqueda, and devastating the area around Toledo (including a "pleasure residence" of King Alfonso VIII at Munia). At the same time Pedro Fernández attacked the Tierra de Campos north of Palencia. Almohad diplomacy had also succeeded in fanning Navarrese border disputes with Castile into flame: Sancho VII of Navarre (brother-in-law of the crusader Richard I) invaded Castile from the North. So, a year after a defeat that had sent waves of shock throughout Western Christendom - registered by monastic chroniclers as far away as Yorkshire - the unhappy victim found himself simultaneously attacked from three different quarters by a Christian enemy, a Muslim enemy, and a close relative whose general was a renegade vassal leading Muslim troops into an area where they had not been seen since the days of Almanzor two centuries before.
The following year the Andalusians returned to the central Tajo district once more, this time testing the defenses of Maqueda and Toledo, and then swinging north into the Manzanares and Henares valleys to harass Madrid, Alcalá and Guadalajara, finally trying the walls and militias of the municipalities of upper La Mancha at Uclés, Huete, Cuenca, Alcaraz and Alarcón. The Anales Toledanos likened the two years to a visitation of the "wrath of God." Doubtless the booty was comparatively rich and the disruption of town life substantial, but the Muslims achieved nothing of permanence save the fortresses of Alarcos and Calatrava gained in the wake of the great battle and their subsequent conquests in Extremadura early in 1196. The Tajo Valley and La Manchan towns, without any assistance from Alfonso's depleted forces or the military orders, absorbed the shock of the post-Alarcos assaults and sufficiently discouraged al-Mansur so as to persuade him to seek a truce with the King of Castile. A more classical example of deep-based defense would be difficult to find. Moreover, the municipal military capability constituted a decisive factor in the Christian kings being able to maintain their conquered territories even in the aftermath of disasters like Alarcos. To besiege the towns one by one took time and resources, and these were never sufficiently available to the Almohad caliphs, particularly when they had to consider what mischief the other Iberian kingdoms and their North African tributaries might be plotting.
Las Navas de Tolosa (July 16, 1212).
The chronicles give no indications of military activity by the towns for the first decade of the thirteenth century, but this proved to be merely a pre-storm lull. By 1210, Alfonso VIII was again prepared to renew settlement pressure in La Mancha by settling Moya and the Castilian zones of Extremadura by settling Béjar. In May of 1211 Alfonso led a raiding force made up of the militias of Madrid, Guadalajara, Huete, Cuenca and Uclés down the Valencia road to attack Játiva and the Mediterranean coast. The Almohads responded by assaulting the castle of Salvatierra, the last Calatravan fortress deep in the south of La Mancha. While the knights of Calatrava held out against the extended siege in the summer of 1211, Alfonso VIII pressed his municipalities for a second time in that year to gather a relief army. Despite the fact that Alfonso VIII would be able to gather the same municipal militias utilized in the Júcar Valley castles later in October, sufficient assistance in July and August was not forthcoming, and the king had to stand by helplessly as Salvatierra capitulated by the end of summer. However, for Muhammad al-Nâsir (known as "Miramamolín"), the new Almohad caliph, Salvatierra was a decidedly pyrrhic victory, since it both distracted him from further campaigning against a possibly vulnerable Castile for the remainder of that year, and because the fall of Salvatierra alarmed both the papacy and the Cistercian order, to whose organization the Calatravans were attached. Innocent III promptly assisted Alfonso VIII in the summoning of a great crusade which brought thousands of reinforcements across the Pyrenees (under the command of the bishops of Narbonne, Bordeaux and Nantes), as well as the troops and personal leadership of Sancho VII of Navarre, Pedro II of Aragon and Afonso II of Portugal to the Castilian side. The result was a gathering of the largest Christian army in Spanish history in Toledo in June of 1212, assembling with the ostensible purpose of re-taking Salvatierra but with a far greater destiny to achieve as events unfolded.
The huge expeditionary force started the campaign at Toledo, on 20th July 1212, entering the town of Malagón, where the French crusaders razed and killed all the population (with the opposition of Castilians). Shortly after, they entered to Calatrava, where the Iberians pacted the surrender of the Muslims. The bishops of Bordeaux and Nantes, and most of the crusaders abandoned the campaign dissapointed with their allies, who prefered the conquest by pact.
The Almohad Caliph had had ample time to make his preparations. His troops were encamped on the level plain of Las Navas de Tolosa, just to the south of the Despeñaperros pass through the Sierra Morena: the site is not far away from today's road and rail link between Madrid and Cordoba. The Almohads had blocked a narrow canyon (el Muradal) through which the Christian army would have to pass. The Christian army, stalled by this parry, encamped to consider returning to Toledo, but information provided by a local shepherd led the way through an alternative passway (el Rey) unknown to the Almohad scouts. On Monday 16 July battle was joined. The castilian king, Alfonso VIII, commanded the centre of the Christian army, Pedro II of Aragón the left wing, and Sancho VII of Navarre the right wing. The militias of the Castilian towns were distributed among the three divisions. Specific reference is made to the militias of Ávila, Segovia, Medina del Campo and Toledo and their placement in the Christian right wing under the command of King Sancho the Strong of Navarre. Since other militia forces were collectively alluded to in the other wings of Alfonso VIII's forces, other towns must have contributed their militias, as well. We will probably never possess the complete list or deduce the full numbers involved. The infantry detachments from the towns were mixed with cavalry forces in all wings, a mixture subsequently justified by King Alfonso in his letter to Pope Innocent III as needed to secure his flanks from envelopment.
Muslims also resorted to a conventional arrangement of their troops in three units along a line (a center and two wings) with a reserve held back. They also had an advance line of light skirmishers, whose provocative thrust at the Christian lines probably opened the battle. Archers and Almohads occuped the centre, over a hill, and Andalusian troops were placed at the two wings.
The battle began in earnest when the Christian forces began a full-scale advance against the Muslim skirmishing line and scattered it while moving toward the main Islamic lines. The two forces then engaged and grappled in indecisive combat. In time Muhammad al-Nâsir committed a portion of his reserve with the initial effect of buckling the Christian lines, causing some of the Christians to flee. While it was not clear who was involved in the flight, townsmen, nobles, or military orders (all these had experience in battlefield flight prior to Las Navas), the threat was sufficient for King Alfonso to consider ending his life in the center of the fray rather than survive another loss such as Alarcos. Archbishop of Toledo Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, King Alfonso's companion throughout the battle, sent then his portion of the reserve and the Toledan standard were committed to the conflict at that point, while the fleeing Christians were persuaded to return to the yet undecided battle. The lines stabilized once more, and indeed began to bend in the opposite direction when the Andalusian Muslims began to give ground and flee. The Muslim loss of momentum had unnerved Muhammad al-Nâsir. When a detachment of Christians, under King Sancho's command, approached his battlefield position and broke through his line of chained Negro bodyguards, the Muslim caliph himself broke into headlong flight toward Jaén. By now the North African Almohad and Arabic units were retreating, a retreat which quickly evolved into a disastrous rout with the Muslims taking heavy losses of men and battle gear, during a pursuit which lasted into the evening. The Christian army then re-grouped during the following day to assess the number of Muslim dead and the profits to be taken from the field. The booty taken by the Christians was enormous, so much so that one observer insisted that two thousand asses were insufficient to carry it away. Alfonso VIII reported on the victory to pope Innocent. His letter vividly conveys the magnitude of the Christian success: 'In order to show how immense were the numbers of the enemy, when our army rested after the battle for two days in the enemy camp, for all the fires which were needed to cook food and make bread and other things, no other wood was needed than that of the enemy arrows and spears which were lying about, and even then we burned scarcely half of them.'
In the follow-up campaigning for the remainder of the summer of 1212, Alfonso VIII concentrated on the capturing and garrisoning of fortresses which would assure that the passageway forced into Andalusia would remain secure. The upper Andalusian towns of Baeza and Úbeda were captured, their walls dismantled and fields devastated, and the population of the latter carried off into slavery. Córdoba, Jaén and Granada sent forces to attempt recapture of the fortresses of Baños, Tolosa and Ferral, but the Muslims were stymied by the Christian municipal militias of Toledo, Madrid and Huete. Finally, the plague which ensued from the spreading death and destruction accomplished what the Muslims could not, and the growing illness in the Christian ranks persuaded the Castilian king to return to the victorious celebration awaiting in Toledo.
The death of Alfonso VIII in 1214 and the untimely death of his son Enrique I in 1217 meant that no further advance would be made in the wake of Las Navas de Tolosa in the immediate future. However, much that would be accomplished by Alfonso's grandson Fernando III in the next thirty-five years had been made possible by the achievements of the military forces so adroitly harnessed in these few critical years by the king of Castile. The meridional frontiers of Christian kingdoms never receded again. The battle won the purposes of an authentic Iberian crusade against the Mohammedan, constituting, therefore, a crucial moment of the so called Reconquista.
Battles of Castile and Leon