Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212)

Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212)

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The battle ofLas Navas de Tolosa in 1212 is a decisive stage for the success of the Reconquista of southern Spain by the Christian kingdoms. After a first phase which culminated during the capture of Toledo in 1085, the Reconquista had to stop in the face of the Almoravid counter-offensive from the battle of Zallaqa in 1086. It was not until the middle of the 12th century that the Christian kingdoms resume their walk; but this time they meet on their way another Berber dynasty, the Almohads.

The Almohads before Las Navas de Tolosa

The latter succeed the Almoravids (whom they defeated in the Maghreb), of whom they share roughly the same origin and the same motivations. Their political and religious ideology, on the other hand, is original, with a universal vocation, and is based on the thought of a Mahdi: Ibn Tûmart. His successors thus proclaim themselves caliphs, and affirm an ambition even vaster than the Almoravids. But this doctrine clashes with Malikite Sunnism, and also causes the failure to mobilize the Andalusian populations.

The Almohads take the place of the Almoravids in Al Andalus, eager to lead the jihad: they occupy Cordoba in 1148, Granada in 1154 and above all take Almeria from the Christians in 1157. They try to impose, like the Almoravids, an ideology of Holy War , which culminates with the great victory of Alarcos in 1195. But nevertheless these victories hide real difficulties, in particular vis-a-vis Christians more and more united. Which will lead to the defeat of Las Navas de Tolosa.

A union of Christian kingdoms?

Since the capture of Toledo in 1085, there have been several attempts to unite the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1109, Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon, without a male heir, entrusted his throne to his daughter Urraca, whose marriage he arranged with Alfonso I the Battler, King of Aragon. The result is a civil war, which leads to the withdrawal of Alfonso I (his marriage is annulled by the Pope) and the coming to power in Castile of Alfonso VII, son of Urraca (died in 1126) from his first marriage with Raymond of Burgundy. Like his grandfather, his ambitions are imperial and he manages to obtain the title from Alfonso I of Aragon. The latter died in 1134 without a successor, which caused a crisis in Navarre and Aragon…

The next twenty years saw the attempts of Alfonso VII to assert his imperial power, thanks to the allegiance of the counts of Barcelona, ​​Toulouse and then of Navarre. This did not last long because of the intervention of the Pope who demanded the application of the will of Alfonso I (his states had to be ceded to military religious orders to continue the crusade!). The situation is further complicated with the appearance at the same time of a new kingdom, that of Portugal, recognized by Alfonso VII. In 1139, Alphonse Henriquez was recognized as King of Portugal by the Pope.

The death of Alfonso VII in 1157 moved the lines, but not towards unity: his kingdom was divided between his two sons, Sancho and Ferdinand, the first receiving Castile and the second Leon. Yet despite this fragmentation, the Reconquista ideal does not seem to have left the competing rulers.

A "crusade"?

If the Reconquista is an intangible objective for the various Spanish kings, it does not mean that they agree on the objectives and on their own possessions. Indeed, they are fighting over the territories themselves: Leon and Portugal are strangling over Southern Galicia and the Algarve; Aragon (united with Catalonia in 1150) and Castile, the left bank of the Ebro and the Kingdom of Murcia; Castile and Navarre, Rioja, Alava and Guipuzcoa. In addition, Castile is also looking north, with sights on Gascony following the marriage of Alfonso VIII to the daughter of Henry II Plantagenêt. Wanting to have his rights to these lands recognized, the King of Castile approached Philippe Auguste at the beginning of the 13th century, by marrying the latter's son, Louis, to his daughter Blanche (future mother of a certain Saint Louis). Finally, Portugal is threatened by Leon and Castile who want to cut it up and share it ...

Fortunately, Castile and Aragon are much closer when it comes to pursuing the Reconquista. This did not really restart until the beginning of the 1170s, when the Spanish problems calmed down a bit, as did the Almohads' difficulties to impose themselves on a land where the Andalusians did not want them, as they did not. did not want Almoravids. The conflict takes place mainly on the plateau of the Tagus, without any real major confrontation but rather sieges of towns and castles. The religious military orders such as the Templars and the Hospitallers then took part but, above all, the Spaniards created them themselves: the Order of Calatrava for example, which obtained the recognition of Pope Alexander III in 1164. It was through this that we can compare the Reconquista to the crusade in the East, at this turn of the middle of the 12th century: the sovereigns no longer have the monopoly of the struggle, they are "in competition" by the religious orders, clerics as important as Bernard de Clairvaux and his successors at Cîteaux, and by the popes. The Reconquista is no longer just temporal, but also spiritual.

However, this is not enough! In 1195, the new Almohad caliph landed in Tarifa and crushed the armies of Alfonso VIII at the Battle of Alarcos, a defeat comparable to that of Zallaqa in 1086, which so slowed the Reconquista. Christians must bow, first of Sancho VII of Navarre and Alfonso IX of Leon, who agree to pay tribute to the Almohads, then Alfonso VIII of Castile himself who signs a truce with Caliph al-Nasir. The conflict continues between Castile and Navarre ...

Christians in fact owe their salvation only to the ambitions of the Caliph who, intoxicated by his successes in Ifriqiya and the Balearics (capture of Mallorca in 1203), decides to resume the offensive in Al Andalus, and to break the truce. However, it takes the mediation of the Archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada, for the Spanish kingdoms to make peace in 1208. The Order of Calatrava resists more than fifty days against the Almohad armies in the fortress of Salvatierra, but the warrior monks must finally surrender. It was then the occasion for Alfonso VIII to raise a large Crusader army on the day of Pentecost in 1212: Castilians participated, but also armies from other Spanish kingdoms and French knights. The spirit of the combatants is therefore very religious, not just the will to defend a territory. However, following the reconquest of the fortress of Calatrava on June 30, the French contingents reproached Alfonso VIII for having been too lenient with the Muslim prisoners, and decided to leave the army. It is then joined by other Spanish troops and heads for Las Navas de Tolosa ...

The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

The King of Castile finally managed to unite the kings of Aragon and Navarre around him. On July 16, 1212, they decided to bypass the mountains of the Losa pass to take the Almohads from behind. The forces in presence are disproportionate: it is estimated at 70,000 Christian troops, while the sources speak of three and a half times more Almohads ... Even if we should always be wary of figures in medieval sources, we can when even agree to say that the number of combatants is quite unequal.

The Christian armies are positioned as follows: Peter II of Aragon on the left wing, Sancho VII of Navarre on the right wing, and Alfonso VIII of Castile in the center. The beginnings of the battle are difficult for the Christians, assailed by the enemy arrows then by the light cavalry of the Berbers and Andalusians. It took the intervention of Alfonso VIII's cavalry to turn the tide of the battle and put the Muslim armies to flight with a full-hearted charge. The victory is total, and decisive in the short and long term.

The results

We do not immediately measure the impact of the Christian victory in Las Navas de Tolosa, but it is causing a stir in the West. It was Alfonso VIII who emerged as the great winner on the Spanish side, while on the Almohad side it was the beginning of the crumbling of power: in the following years, the caliphs even had to ask the Christian rulers for help against their rivals in Maghreb!

The Reconquista really resumes after several years, the time for the Christian kingdoms to reorganize. The Almohads had to leave Al Andalus because of their problems in the Maghreb (facing the Mérinides for example), and the Christians had to face emirs of taifas who resisted for a time. But one by one the most important Andalusian cities fell: Cordoba in 1236, Seville in 1248, Cadiz in 1263,… Finally, only the emirate of Granada, where the Nasrid dynasty settled in the 1230s, resisted the blows, and even take advantage of new rivalries between Christian kingdoms to resist until… 1492!

This does not prevent the fact that the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa is a key date of the Reconquista, because it truly marks the stop and even the ebb of Muslims in Andalusian soil. In addition, it is symbolic of the religious spirit, which some qualify as the spirit of the crusade, which marked the Reconquista from the second half of the 12th century.


- D. MENJOT, Medieval Spain (409-1474), Hachette, 2006.

- P. JANSEN, A. NEF, C. PICARD, The Mediterranean between countries of Islam and the Latin world (middle Xth - middle XIIIth), Sedes, 2000.

- Grandes Heures du Beau XIIème Siecle: From Hastings to Bouvines via Canossa, Constantinople and Las Navas de Tolosa by Jean-Jacques Tijet. 2008.

- The Bloodiest Battles in History, Famot, 1997.

Video: Battle of Taillebourg 1242,. Project France.