30 October 1340
Many of the battles fought between Islam and Christianity have been hailed as the decisive encounter between the two religions. Few of them can have been more decisive than the crushing defeat of the wealthy emir of Marinid Morocco, Abu al-Hasan, inflicted by King Alfonso XI of Castile and King Afonso IV of Portugal on a clear October day in 1340 in the far southwest of Spain. The Battle of Salado was blessed by the Papacy as part of a new crusade against the infidel; a relic of the True Cross was held aloft in the battle by a priest dressed in white, seated on a white mule. Abu al-Hasan put round his neck on the morning of the battle a reliquary holding a fragment of the Prophet’s clothing. He was determined to smash Christian power in Spain with a major holy war, or jihad, after decades in which the Muslim hold on southern Spain had been slowly eroded.
Later chronicles speak of an army of 70,000 cavalry and 400,000 to 700,000 foot soldiers massed at the Moroccan port of Ceuta to cross the straits to Algeciras, a port still in Muslim hands. The best estimate today suggests perhaps a total of 60,000. The Christian kings between them could muster 22,000 horse and foot. Contemporary opinion held that in open battle the Moroccans were difficult to defeat, but open battle is exactly what Alfonso XI sought.
The battle at the River Salado was won against many odds, and not just the numbers on the battlefield. For years Alfonso had had to battle his own nobles, who accepted vassalage or rule from Castile with ill grace. He was forced to balance the threat from Morocco with the challenge from the vassal state of Granada, still under an Islamic ruler, Yusuf I; he had to win support from other rulers, notably from Aragon or Portugal, and this was a laborious and frustrating task. When the threat from the Marinid Empire of Morocco became evident in the late 1330s, Alfonso found himself almost entirely isolated. Only fear of a Muslim invasion persuaded Afonso IV of Portugal to reach an alliance with Alfonso, signed on 1 July 1340.
By this time the invasion was already under way. In 1339, one of Abu al-Hasan’s sons, Abu Malik, began raiding Andalusia from his bases in Gibraltar and Algeciras. In a major skirmish in late October with Spanish knights, Abu Malik was killed. Abu al-Hasan was already preparing an expedition, but his son’s death sharpened his desire for a savage revenge against the infidel. A letter claimed to have been found after the battle, allegedly from the Sultan of Babylon (probably an Egyptian title), called on the emir to ‘smash their children against the wall; slit open the wombs of pregnant women; cut off the breasts, arms, noses, and feet of other women… Do not leave until you have destroyed Christendom from sea to sea.’ Though probably a piece of Christian propaganda, it is at least consistent with the fiery threats made by Abu al-Hasan as he prepared his campaign.
Troops began to cross the straits in July and on 4 August 1340, Abu al-Hasan himself arrived at Algeciras. By this time Pope Benedict XII had declared a crusade and sent Alfonso the necessary banner and additional funds. Alfonso’s real difficulty was money, a problem that meant little to the wealthy Marinids. He could bring with him supplies for only a few days of fighting, and in order to pay for what he needed he had to pawn the royal jewels. On 23 September, Abu al-Hasan, now joined by Yusuf I of Granada with 7,000 cavalry, began the siege of Tarifa, the only port overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar still in Christian hands. He hoped Alfonso would rise to the challenge. A few weeks later, on 29 October, the Christian army arrived at La Peña del Ciervo (The Hill of the Deer) about 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Tarifa, intent on battle. There were 1,000 knights with the Portuguese king, while Alfonso XI counted on 8,000 knights and 12,000 foot soldiers, mostly recruited from Asturias and the Basque provinces. The number of their Moroccan enemy was much lower than the hundreds of thousands suggested by Christian accounts, but was certainly greater than the crusaders. Alfonso reduced the size of his army even more by sending 1,000 knights and 4,000 foot soldiers round the Muslim lines to reinforce the 1,000 men in Tarifa. This was to prove an inspired move.
Abu al-Hasan drew back from the siege and arrayed his forces along the hills surrounding the port. On the morning of 30 October both sides received blessing from their clergy before moving out to face each other. On the Christian left was Afonso of Portugal, reinforced by 3,000 of Alfonso’s men; on the Portuguese flank were the foot soldiers with lances and crossbows; on the right the bulk of Alfonso’s remaining knights. The Islamic armies were drawn up with Yusuf’s Granadans on the right, the emir’s son Abu ‘Umar on the left, in front of Tarifa, and the centre commanded by Abu al-Hasan himself. Exactly what happened in the battle is not entirely clear. The Christian right began to cross a small bridge over the River Salado where they forced back the Muslim defenders. Then the bulk of Alfonso’s force smashed into the army of Abu ‘Umar, driving it uphill towards the Muslim camp. At some point the 6,000 men in Tarifa stormed out and hit the enemy in the rear, causing a panic which left the emir’s baggage train unprotected.
While the Castilians swarmed up to the camp in pursuit of booty, Alfonso found himself temporarily supported by only a small body of troops. Abu al-Hasan tried to wheel his army around to attack the king, but soon found himself surrounded as the Castilians charged back down the hill and the force from Tarifa hit his flank. Instead of fighting for the faith, he fled with his troops, putting his honour, as one account put it, ‘under his feet’. When he arrived at Ceuta. he told his followers that he had won a great victory, but the sorry remnant of his army that returned could scarcely be concealed.
The victorious Christians pursued the enemy for 8 kilometres (5 miles), slaughtering those they overtook, leaving a field littered with bodies, though how many is uncertain. Muslim women and children, including Abu al-Hasan’s wife, Fatima, were murdered when the camp was overrun and all its occupants killed. Only twelve ships were needed to take the survivors back to Morocco, which suggests either a large-scale massacre or that the Moroccan forces were much smaller than most medieval accounts claimed. Either way the defeat was decisive. Africa never again mounted a major invasion of Spain and Castile extended its domination over the peninsula. Algeciras fell to Alfonso four years later, leaving only Gibraltar as a Muslim outpost. Yusuf was lucky to escape, and Granada survived for a further 150 years. The colossal booty in gold and treasure captured at Salado helped to solve, at least temporarily, Alfonso’s financial embarrassments. So great was the wealth that it temporarily forced down the value of gold and silver on the Paris exchange.