Thursday, March 10, 2016

Crusader Commanders - James I of Aragon (1213-76)

James I of Aragon's Knights Marching to Fight the Moors, fresco, 13th century.

There were many successful warriors, notably William the Conqueror, but the greatest commander within this period was undoubtedly Richard I. Richard took risks as a matter of policy and it was this which endeared him to his own generation. He too sought advice, but in the end he had the personality to impose himself on others and the skill to recognize military opportunities. At Gisors, he moved quickly to inflict a severe defeat upon Philip Augustus, although he later admitted that his counsellors had been against the risk. During the Third Crusade he managed to control a very disparate army and to adapt to conditions in the East. He also had a keen strategic grasp: he threw a network of alliances around Philip Augustus, while in the Holy Land he wanted, above all, to strike at Saladin's real heartland, Egypt. But whereas we have only an external picture of Richard, one notable commander of the age, James I of Aragon (1213-76), has left us a personal memoir which is worth examining for the insight that it provides into the mind of a medieval commander.

James was only five in 1213 when he was captured after the Battle of Muret, in which his father was killed, and, throughout his long minority, relations with his important vassals were difficult; in Aragon, he had to face open noble defiance and in Barcelona he was not fully recognized until 1228. He first came to prominence in the successful expedition to Mallorca of 1229. This was a Catalan project, and it was their church and nobility who took the initiative to create the army and fleet that sailed on 5 September 1229 - the Aragonese did not participate. James was not allowed to land until a bridgehead had been secured, and when he involved himself in a skirmish he was reproved by the nobles. On 12 September, the main Muslim force came to battle at Santa Ponza. James, in his memoirs, presents himself as being in charge. However, he admits that the nobles made their own decisions and that he could not control the Catalan infantry, who in the end joined them. However, the king acquitted himself well in what seems to have been a confused battle, apparently winning it with a charge uphill. This gallantry, and the death of the influential Moncada brothers, enabled James to take a more active role in the siege of Mallorca, when he stayed in the dangerous camp with his personal following, wielding a crossbow in the final assault. He makes much of the decision of many of the Muslims of the interior to submit to him personally; this probably simplified supply and thereby raised his prestige in the army. However, when the Mallorcans wanted to surrender on terms, the council of nobles rejected the idea against the king's wishes, because they wanted revenge for the loss of their compatriots. After the fall of the city on the night of 30-31 December, they imposed their own division of the spoils upon him. James was not the prime mover in the Mallorcan campaign, and others dominated it, but he was an opportunist who skillfully exploited every chance that it provided to enhance his reputation.

The Mallorca campaign gave James great prestige, and by June 1233 he was in a position to support the Aragonese attack on the kingdom of Valencia. In 1234, the border between Christian and Muslim lay just north of Peñiscola, which at first resisted his attacks. The assault on Burriana was a vital phase of the campaign. James presents this as the opening of a grand strategy to seize Valencia, but this was post facto rationalization. The initiative to attack Burriana came from the Aragonese nobles, and James was drawn into it because he feared that the greatest of them might establish themselves as independent powers. The garrison was determined and the city strong, forcing James to deploy a wide range of machinery. Mining was attempted and throwing- machines used, but the greatest effort was put into an elaborate siege-tower. A road of logs was laid for it and, under the cover of mantlets, iron rings were driven into the ground on the edge of the ditch in front of the city, so that it could be drawn up on ropes by men moving away from the enemy fire. The tower was intended to dominate the defences with firepower, but it was shattered by enemy throwing-machines. James's main problem was to hold together the barons of Aragon in the enterprise. A vital element in this was the provision of supplies, which he achieved by floating an enormous loan of 60,000 sols, guaranteed by the Orders of the Hospital and Temple. With this sum he was able to pay ships to bring food and subsidize the nobles. Ultimately they insisted, against his wishes, on allowing Burriana to surrender on terms.

The surrender of Burriana was not immediately followed up, because James had preoccupations elsewhere, and it was the Aragonese nobles who pressed on to force the capitulation of Peñiscola and Morello. But James worked hard to interest the Catalans in the attack on Valencia, and a joint meeting of the Cortès of Aragon and Barcelona in October 1235 agreed to it.

In 1236, the campaign entered its decisive phase when James attacked Puig de Cebolla, 3km inland and only 17km north of Valencia. Because of earlier defeats, Zayyan ben Mardanis, ruler of Valencia, had dismantled this hilltop fortress. James re-fortified the place, attracting further reinforcements to his 2,000 foot and 130 horse, and repulsed enemy attacks. Although James reports successful raiding, supplies ran low and he was forced go to Tortosa to borrow 60,000 sols; in his absence, his forces repulsed an attack from Valencia. James took an active part in raiding and supervised the transport of horses from Burriana for those who had lost them in the fighting. But the real crisis came when his commander at Puig died, because the Aragonese barons urged him to abandon the place. James refused and ostentatiously went to Puig with his wife and family, and took a public oath never to abandon it. This show of determination brought about the surrender of a number of local enemy forts, notably Paterna, which was less than 10km northwest of Valencia, and an offer of tribute from Zayyan which emboldened James to lay siege to Valencia in April 1238.

This was a major city with a strong garrison, although it was probably not as large as the 10,000 suggested by James. He had only 200 knights, 150 Almogavars and 1,000 foot. At the start of the siege, his Almogavars and camp followers, acting without orders, were ambushed in the suburb of Rucafa and had to be rescued. But the boldness of his action and the prospect of rich prizes soon brought reinforcements pouring in. James had encamped between Valencia and its port, and he persisted with this as his point of attack, despite being urged to move to the Boatella Gate by the Archbishop of Narbonne. He argued that there was no gate at this point from which the enemy could sally, that there were no towers and so the wall was vulnerable, and that they would in any case need to prevent the garrison communicating with the sea, a point emphasized when galleys from Tunis appeared but then sailed off, having been unable to land. James also sent a force to seize Silla to the south, isolating Valencia.

The panoply of siege warfare was brought against the city, but the key factors that influenced the garrison were the lack of aid from Tunisia, which was much distracted by internal problems, and the lack of food, because the Christians had attacked early in the year before the harvest could be laid in. Even so, the city hung on until Zayyan came to terms for a surrender which spared the citizens' lives on 28 September. James accepted the surrender terms in secret and merely announced them to his barons as a way of underscoring his success.

The Chronicle of James I is self-serving and often at pains to conceal the truth, but it reveals the problems and skills of a commander. First and foremost, he had to persuade, both in the conventional sense and by exposing his body to risk, by leading from the front. James's problems were particularly acute because of the independence of the barons and cities that was fostered by his long minority. Successful war was essential to the stability of his regime: his bravery and skill were a powerful incentive to follow him and they were reinforced by a flair for the dramatic, as in the oath of Puig. But the fruits of success were the most powerful incentive - James gave out far more land after the fall of Valencia than he had acquired. Like most kings he had wide interests, especially north of the Pyrenees, but internal pressures in Aragon and Barcelona drove him first towards Mallorca and then to Valencia. Once involved, he showed remarkable persistence and a clear awareness of the difficulties of the Almohad Empire in North Africa, then in a state of dissolution.

James was far too preoccupied with his diverse interests to pursue consistent strategies. He claimed credit for devising a plan of attack on Valencia, but this was effectively dictated by the political and natural geography of Spain, and the gradual process of nibbling, fortress by fortress, by the episodic nature of medieval warfare. Much of the early fighting was entirely in the hands of Aragonese nobles. The Christian outpost of Teruel was 100km from the coast, but it commands the upper valley of the Guadalaviar which flows down to Valencia and is close to the valley of the Mijares, at whose mouth stands Burriana; hence it served as a base for raids. Morella, which James was at pains to control once it fell, was the only Muslim fortress that could checkmate it. But James played a major role at Burriana and at a crucial stage seized the initiative at Puig, where he demonstrated great persistence. He was keenly aware of the importance of naval support and worked hard to persuade Barcelona to join the attack on Valencia. Once Valencia was besieged, he recognized that the key to sustaining the siege was supply, and Catalan ships guaranteed this to the extent that his army was lavishly supplied even with "apothecaries from Montpellier and Lerida". The failure of the Tunisian fleet to land at Valencia or to cause serious damage in his rear at Peñiscola was largely due to their fear of Catalan sea-power.

In the field, James had a clear view of military realities. He made great efforts to control his troops properly: he was well aware that the loose order of his father's army at Muret had caused the disaster. Above all, he trusted his own household men and rewarded them, for they were the core of his army. He was careful about intelligence. Like all commanders, he was keen to keep order in his army and to establish the laws of the camp. The first such record of such a code that has survived to us is that of Frederick Barbarossa, drawn up in 1158, but such codes seem to have been an ancient institution, perhaps deriving from household laws. One of the most elaborate and stringent of such codes is that of the Templars. At Valencia, James's policy was skilfully adjusted to his means, and he caused the maximum disruption to the city at the minimum risk to himself. Only when his army had been swollen by news of his success did he allow forces to go south of the river to attack the Boatella Gate, where he was wounded in the fighting.

James deserves his soubriquet, "the Conqueror". It was a very real tribute to him, because the nature of medieval armies meant that conquest in the military sense was peculiarly difficult. In his conquests there is a strong element of consent, albeit constrained. The Muslims of the Mallorcan countryside came to terms with him in return for recognition of their rights, and such agreements were frequent in the Valencia campaign. If we leave aside for the moment the Latin East and the German frontier, conquest in the simple military sense was difficult within the settled lands of western Europe.

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