Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Four


Reconquest and Failure

Between 1210 and 1213, Pedro the Catholic triumphs in Spain and fails in France

ON THE SPANISH PENINSULA, the Christian kings had fallen out with each other. Thirty years earlier the five kingdoms in the north and the west had presented a united front to the Almohad Muslims of the south. But for decades this unity had been fracturing.

Portugal and León were at odds; so were Navarre and Castile. Sancho I, son of the founder Afonso Henriques, ruled in Portugal and fought off constant attacks against his northern border from Alfonso IX, king of León. When he wasn’t attacking Portugal, the king of León was helping the king of Navarre—Sancho the Strong, a giant of a man, over seven feet tall—attack Castile. The king of Castile, Alfonso VIII, was Sancho’s first cousin, but this did not protect him from Navarre’s hostilities.

The fifth kingdom, Aragon, was ruled by Pedro II, great-grandson of Ramiro the Monk. In November of 1204, just after Constantinople’s fall, he had journeyed to Rome to be crowned by the pope. He was the first king of Aragon to receive this honor, and in return he promised Innocent III and his successors a perpetual tithe of 250 gold mazmudins. The mazmudin was a coinage borrowed from the Almohads; the tribute was worth, perhaps, a decade and a half of annual wages for an Aragonese craftsman. Pedro II also promised to defend the faith and persecute heresy and wickedness whenever it reared its head in Aragon, earning him the nickname “Pedro the Catholic.”1

The Albigensian Crusade put Pedro the Catholic into a difficult position. Raymond of Toulouse was his brother-in-law; Pedro’s older sister Eleanor had married the Count of Toulouse in 1200 (she was his sixth wife; he had outlived three and divorced two), creating an alliance between the two men with bordering lands. Now the Catholic king found his relative and ally falling out with the powerful Simon de Montfort, and (by extension) with the pope himself.

Pedro did his best to walk in the middle. In 1210, he traveled to his brother-in-law’s lands and met with Montfort himself, proposing a truce with the Crusader general. As part of the treaty, he offered to betroth his own son and heir, three-year-old James, to Montfort’s own young daughter Amicia. This would eventually make Montfort the father-in-law of the queen of Aragon, and Montfort agreed.

As a sign of goodwill, Pedro sent the toddler to live with his prospective bride’s family. Then he returned home, where another fight awaited him.

For at least two years, he had been raising funds for a major invasion of the southern Spanish lands. The Almohad caliph Muhammad al-Nasir, grandson of Abu Ya’qub Yusuf, had himself been agitating for war since at least 1207; although he had, as yet, been restrained by the advice of his councillors, who were nervous about the strength of the Christian kingdoms.2

Now, Pedro II decided, the time had come to break the stalemate. As soon as he arrived back home, he launched a preliminary anti-Almohad campaign by invading the Muslim city-kingdom of Valencia, attacking the Muslim city Adamuz, and folding the Muslim town of Castielfabib into his own kingdom.

Meanwhile, Raymond of Toulouse drew further away from the Catholic cause.

He had not yet finished fulfilling all of the penances that had been laid on him by the pope in 1209 as a condition of his reinstatement in the Church’s good favor, and he continued to drag his feet. In early 1211, another letter from Rome arrived for the count, insisting that he make good the penance and join fully in the fight against his heretical vassals. In addition, since his zeal was in question, he was to dismiss his mercenary soldiers, require his knights to dismantle their castles and strongholds, and give the clergy of the orthodox Church supreme authority “in everything they might require.”3

This was no more or less than a demand that he give up all authority over his realm, and Raymond refused, indignantly. He retreated to Toulouse and his own estates; and there in the summer of 1211, Simon de Montfort laid siege to him, laying waste all of the surrounding countryside.

Pedro II was going to have to choose sides, but he was not immediately in a position to throw his weight either onto Raymond’s side or onto Montfort’s. Muhammad al-Nasir had assembled a vast Almohad army at Rabat, in North Africa, and in May 1211 the Almohad troops had begun to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.4

Alfonso VIII of Castile hurried to Pedro’s side, but the kings of León, Portugal, and Navarre refused to join the coming fight (in fact, Sancho the Strong contemplated joining with the Muslim forces against his neighbors). Castile and Aragon were braced alone to meet the storm.

Al-Nasir’s forces swarmed forward across southern Spain, forcing the surrender of the Castilian fortress of Salvatierra. Set in the midst of Muslim lands, Salvatierra had been Castile’s strongest outpost; a symbol of Christian power, nicknamed the “right hand of the Lord of Castile.” Alarmed by the ease of the Muslim advance, Pedro II sent a strategic message to Rome. Al-Nasir, he wrote, had sent him a letter warning, “You have inflicted many damages on us, and you say that this has been ordered by the lord of Rome. Once we have subdued your lands, we will go to Rome and bring misery upon its lord.”5

The threat of invasion galvanized Innocent III to resort, once more, to his most powerful weapon. In January 1212, he declared another crusade. Once again, those who fought against the enemy—this time the Almohads, on Spanish ground—would receive remission of sin, forgiveness, eternal glory.6

The well-used strategy once again proved its power. Sancho the Strong of Navarre relinquished his plans to join the infidels, and agreed to ally himself with Castile and Aragon instead. A score of powerful French knights temporarily left the Albigensian Crusade and journeyed east, assembling at Toledo. By June, the new Crusade was ready to begin. The joint Spanish force, reinforced by Crusaders, began its march from Toledo south; and the Almohad troops, assembled at Córdoba, marched north under the personal command of al-Nasir.

On July 16, the Muslims and Christians met at Las Navas, in the very south of Castile. The Crusader force had divided into three, each wing commanded by one of the Spanish kings. In a pincer move, two wings crushed the Muslim center, while Sancho the Strong (according to battlefield tales told afterwards) burst through the chains of men protecting al-Nasir’s personal tent and raided it himself. Al-Nasir, who had remained at the back of the assault, fled on horseback. His men, routed, retreated in his wake.

“It was publicly reported, that about 100,000 Saracens fell in the battle,” reports William of Puylaurens, “. . . as the King of the Saracens fled in shame.” The tapestry that had covered the entrance of al-Nasir’s tent was sent to the monastery of Las Huelgas, where it still hangs. Al-Nasir himself backed across the strait into Africa, where he seems to have fallen into a depression; he lingered at Marrakesh, taking no steps to reassure his army, until his death the following year.

The victory in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa rested heavily on the Christian side of the balance, and it never righted itself towards the Muslim side again. The Almohad empire, already tottering, soon lost its hold on even the remaining Muslim territories in Spain; and in Africa, al-Nasir’s young successor Yusuf II lost territory after territory, his governors breaking away one at a time to establish their own dynasties.7

After Las Navas, the kings of León, Castile, and Portugal agreed to a truce. Pedro II spent several months organizing affairs at home, and in January of 1213 rode back across the Pyrenees to the side of his besieged brother-in-law. Fresh from the great victory in Spain, he had every confidence in his ability to solve this problem as well.

He attempted to negotiate a peace between Raymond of Toulouse and the belligerent Simon de Montfort, even sending to Pope Innocent III and asking him to order Montfort to stand down. But nine months of correspondence, argumentation, threat, and counterthreat drew all of the parties farther apart. Simon de Montfort ignored appeals from both sides; Innocent III, getting contradictory reports from Pedro II and his legates, reversed his own position several times.


34.1 The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

Meanwhile, the people of Toulouse suffered from hunger and disease, lost crops and slaughtered livestock, burned homes and fields.

By fall, Pedro and Raymond had decided to mount a direct attack on Montfort’s most central fortification, the castle at Muret: “a garrison,” writes William of Puylaurens, “which was causing great difficulties for the city of Toulouse.” They were joined by a “great many men” from the neighboring territories. Simon de Montfort’s violent and unceasing campaigning had increasingly seemed less for the church than for himself, and the local nobility wanted him gone, crusade or no crusade.8

On September 12, a sizable army of knights from Aragon and Toulouse attacked Muret. With only fifteen hundred men at his disposal, the badly outnumbered Simon de Montfort managed to rout them. The king of Aragon was “so severely wounded,” says the anonymous conclusion to William of Tudela’s account, “that his blood spilled out on the ground and he fell his full length dead.” His men scattered, many of them drowning as they tried to flee back across the Garonne.

Raymond too was forced to flee. Simon de Montfort marched into Toulouse and claimed it as his own. He had won control now of all of Languedoc; and Pedro II, victor over the Muslim enemy, had fallen at the hands of his Christian brothers.9

Young James, his heir, was still in the hands of Montfort. The people of Aragon pled with Innocent III to order his release, and Montfort reluctantly obeyed. But with a five-year-old king on the throne, Aragon remained in chaos. “Happy would Pedro have been,” a Castilian account lamented, “had he concluded his life immediately after the noble triumph in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.”10


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