Today in European history: the Battle of Alarcos (1195)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

It’s a strange coincidence that the 1195 Battle of Alarcos and the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa wound up so close together on the calendar. I mean, it’s not that strange a coincidence, since there were only so many months out of the year when you could go on campaign back in the 12th and 13th centuries. But these two battles bookend the high water mark for the Almohad Caliphate in Iberia, so the fact that their anniversaries are only two days apart is notable. It’s helpful, too, because you already know how this story ends.

Actually it’s also helpful in another way: instead of reintroducing the Almohads, for those who aren’t familiar with them I can just quote what I wrote about them in the other post:

What was the Almohad Caliphate, you ask? Good question, and one I’ve answered elsewhere. But to spare you the click, and since it would be hard for us to continue this post without at least a basic understanding of who the Almohads were, here’s the short version. The Almohads formed in the early 12th century as a religious revival movement among a group of North African Berbers led by a preacher named Ibn Tumart. He taught his own variety of Islam that heavily emphasized the oneness of God and also, as it happens, stressed that Ibn Tumart himself was the Mahdi, Islam’s End Times redeemer figure. The former is the reason his followers became known as al-Muwahhidun, “the unitarians.” European Christians, who found Arabic either too difficult or too Muslim-y to bother speaking it properly, corrupted al-Muwahid, the singular form of al-Muwahhidun, into “Almohad.” Around the middle of the 12th century the Almohads defeated the dynasty ruling Iberia and North Africa, the Almoravids, and then filled the ensuing vacuum.

Also I have a useful map already handy:

In 1195 the Almohad Caliph was Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (d. 1199). He’d succeeded his father, Abu Yaqub Yusuf, upon the latter’s death—killed in battle with the Portuguese—in 1184. But this was a period during which the Almohads’ attentions were divided between Iberia and North Africa, and Abu Yusuf Yaqub had to immediately head to North Africa after being crowned in order to deal with the remnants of the Almoravids. He finally returned to Iberia in 1190 and resumed his father’s campaign. Over the next year, give or take, the Almohads fought a war against the Iberian Christian kingdoms that ended with a modest victory, in their recapture of the city of Silves and armistices with the kingdoms of Castile and León. The caliph then returned to North Africa and promptly fell deathly ill.

Abu Yusuf Yaqub’s illness got Christians in Iberia to thinking, particularly when rumors began to spread about a brewing succession-fueled Almohad civil war. Alfonso VIII of Castile decided to raise an army and attack Seville, the Almohads’ Andalusian capital. There was just one problem with his plan: Abu Yusuf Yaqub got better, and he tamped down any internal dissension fairly easily. He then headed back to Seville before Alfonso had a chance to get his campaign started.

The Almohads assembled their army at Seville and then marched to Cordoba at the end of June 1195, where they added additional forces. Included among these was a contingent of Christian fighters under the command of Pedro Fernández de Castro, a Castilian nobleman. He happened to be a cousin of Alfonso, though clearly they weren’t getting along at this particular time. I mention this in order to highlight the degree to which loyalties in Reconquista Iberia were often personal rather than religious, despite the conflict’s obvious religious overtones. Alfonso assembled his army at Toledo and marched out to meet the Almohads. He chose Alarcos, a fairly recently built fortress near the southernmost point of Castile, as the site for the battle that was to come.

As with Las Navas de Tolosa, we don’t have any great sources that describe the battle in detail. We don’t know how large the Castilian force was—Muslim sources claim that 30,000 Christians were killed in the battle, but that’s almost certainly exaggerated. We don’t know how large the Almohad force might have been, though we have a pretty good sense that it was larger than Alfonso was expecting. We don’t even know for sure when the battle took place. July 18 is the most frequently cited date as far as I can tell, but you’ll find July 17 and July 19 as well. I’m splitting the difference here.

We do know the general contours of the fighting. Alfonso—who was, to reiterate, expecting the Almohad army to be smaller than it was—massed his heavy cavalry in a single packed line for a massive charge. For a while that charge looked like it would carry the day. It smashed into the Almohad vanguard, did considerable damage, and then continued charging and routed another portion of the Almohad army. But between fatigue and constant arrow fire from the Almohads’ archers, the charge eventually lost its steam. Meanwhile, the right wing of the Almohad army had been working its way around the charging knights’ flank and was eventually able to surround them and cut them off from the rest of the Castilian army. At this point Abu Yusuf Yaqub led a reserve force into the battle, possibly from the Castilians’ rear, that seems to have caught Alfonso completely off guard.

The entire Castilian army routed and its casualties must have been extremely heavy. Alfonso and whatever remained of his bodyguard hightailed it back to Toledo. Pedro Fernández de Castro negotiated the surrender of Alarcos’s garrison. The crushing defeat sent ripples across Castile, and no fewer than five castles in the vicinity of Alarcos surrendered or were abandoned in short order. Toledo was vulnerable, and with it possibly the entire Kingdom of Castile. Naturally, at the moment of his enemy’s greatest weakness Abu Yusuf Yaqub…went back to North Africa. He really didn’t have much choice. The Almohads’ political situation in Marrakesh was still unsettled following his illness, and he simply couldn’t afford to be away from court. In fact it would be another 15 years or so before an Almohad ruler returned to al-Andalus to pick up where he left off, and you already know how that went.