Post-classical history

Las Navas de Tolosa, Battle of (1212)

A great victory in southern central Spain by a combined Christian army led by the kings of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre over the Muslim Almohads and their Andalusian allies.

The Christian defeat at Alarcos (1195) was followed in 1197 by a truce with the Almohads, which was renewed until the year 1210, when it expired. Prior to that date, King Alfonso VIII of Castile had nevertheless resumed hostilities against the Muslims, an aggressive attitude that was shared by Peter II of Aragon, whose kingdoms had recently suffered an Almohad naval attack. In 1210 Peter led an expedition to the Rincôn de Ademuz, a region in northwestern Valencia, which he incorporated into his domains. The Muslims of al- Andalus asked the Almohad caliph for help. Muhammad al-Nasir agreed to intervene after some hesitation. In February 1211 he and his forces left Marrakech; they reached Tarifa in mid-May and finally Seville at the end of that month. The caliph’s aim was to conquer an important Christian fortress and thus show the strength of the Muslims. His choice was Salvatierra, an isolated Christian strongpoint south of Ciudad Real, which had been boldly taken by the Order of Cala- trava in 1198. The fortress fell in the summer of 1211.

A major confrontation was now inevitable, because the Christian kings feared the projects of the caliph, who in turn wished to check Castilian and Aragonese expansionism. In the early autumn, Alfonso VIII began preparations for an important campaign, although there are doubts whether he was seeking God’s judgment in battle. He instructed his subjects to concentrate efforts on this project, received Peter II’s promise of full Aragonese participation, and sent ambassadors to Pope Innocent III to ask for crusade bulls. The pope clearly supported the project by stimulating foreign participation in the war against the infidel and by threatening other Iberian kings with spiritual sanctions in case they attacked Castile while at war with the Muslims (Alfonso IX of Leônwas not impressed and attacked Castilian positions while Alfonso VIII was on campaign). Papal propaganda for the crusade in Spain was so effective that, well before the fixed assembly date of 20 May 1212, numbers of ultramontanos (people from beyond the Pyrenees) reached Toledo. Among them was Arnold Amalric, archbishop of Narbonne, who while on his way persuaded King Sancho VII of Navarre to drop his traditional opposition to Castile and join the common effort.

The expedition left Toledo in mid-June 1212. A few days later it reached Muslim territory and conquered the fortress of Malagôn. Calatrava la Vieja, the central headquarters of the Order of Calatrava, which had been lost after Alarcos, surrendered after a short siege. Then most of the ultramontane crusaders left the army, perhaps disappointed at the peaceful way Calatrava had been taken. By mid-July the Christian army had reached Sierra Morena. The Almohads and their Andalusian allies were positioned on the other side of the hills. According to a legend, a shepherd showed the crusaders a way down into a plain, where the battle took place on 16 July 1212. The complete disarray of Muslim forces after a few hours fighting has been a source of debate since. In spite of their superior numbers (around 20,000 against 12,000 Christians), the Muslims were unable to put up a strong resistance, probably due to lack of internal coherence; for various reasons, sections of the Andalusians defected during the battle.

The crusaders exploited the caliph’s swift return to Africa and conquered various sites (Vilches and Baeza) before besieging the strong fortress of Ùbeda where most of the population of the district had sought refuge. On 3 August 1212, it surrendered and soon the Christian army disbanded due to illness. The campaign had finished.

The modern name of the major battle in the campaign, wrongly regarded as a turning point in the Reconquista (reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims) is misleading. It was known in the Middle Ages as the battle of Ùbeda or simply as “the Battle,” as in contemporary chronicles. Even Jeronimo Zurita in the late sixteenth century spoke of the gran batalla de Ùbeda (“great battle of Ùbeda”), because the relevant aspect was not so much an open confrontation, but the loss of an important fortified city. The modern name is also misleading because Tolosa was probably a deliberate corruption invented by the archbishop of Narbonne in his report to the Cistercian general chapter. He altered the local toponym Losa to match that of Toulouse in France (Sp. Tolosa) where other infidels, namely, the Albi- gensian heretics, were under attack by crusaders and might expect the same fate as the Muslims in Spain.

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