Today in European history: the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212)

The Castilian victory marked a significant turning point for the "Reconquista."

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For a relatively small confrontation—probably fewer than 50,000 soldiers combined—the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa had far-reaching ramifications for the history of both Iberia and North Africa. The Almohad Caliphate, at or near the height of its territorial growth, suffered a defeat that helped send it into a decades-long spiral eventually ending with its demise. On the flip side, the battle reinvigorated Christian efforts to conquer the peninsula, and we all presumably know how that turned out.

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.

By the late 12th century, the Almohads had supplanted the Almoravids as the dominant power in Iberia, and they were making life difficult for the Christian kingdoms there. They laid a major defeat on Alfonso VIII of Castile in 1195 at the Battle of Alarcos, which is sometimes called the “Disaster of Alarcos” without much exaggeration. Alarcos (you’ll find it in roughly the same spot on that map above) stopped Castile’s conquests in their tracks and cost the kingdom several castles and territories in the vicinity. More ominously for the Castilians, it gave the Almohads a clear path to Toledo, with which they promptly…did nothing. Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur’s attention was mostly focused on North Africa, so he—and the Almohads in general—did not follow up on this decisive victory apart from a few minor raids that accomplished little. It wasn’t until 1211 that then-Almohad Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir thought “hey, why don’t we do some more conquering in al-Andalus?” and that brings us to today’s story.

Unfortunately for Muhammad al-Nasir, by 1211 Castile had recovered from its massive defeat 16 years earlier. When the Almohads refocused on al-Andalus, their first target was a Christian fortress called Salvatierra, which was embedded so far into Muslim territory that it was practically cut off from the rest of Christian Iberia. Alfonso opted not to defend it because of that geography, and so it was easily picked off by the Almohads. But the following year Alfonso put together an army that included forces from Navarre, Aragon, Portugal, and several independent Christian military orders. He led this army out against the Muslims in late June/early July, and they managed to make Alarcos a distant memory.

Muhammad al-Nasir didn’t challenge Alfonso’s army at first, hoping to let it wear itself out and extend its supply lines past their breaking point. But when a couple of weeks went by with no sign his plan was working, the Almohad caliph decided to march his army out to meet Alfonso at Las Navas de Tolosa on July 16. The battle was a rout by the Christians, even though the Almohads may have outnumbered them by as much as 2-to-1 (the Almohad army was probably a couple of thousand men on either side of 25,000, while it’s unlikely that the Castilian-led force had more than 15,000). We don’t really know why the battle went this way, so historians tend to blame Muhammad al-Nasir for being a lousy commander, which may well be true. There are accounts that have part of the Christian army breaking through Muhammad al-Nasir’s bodyguard and sending the caliph fleeing the battle, so maybe that was a turning point, but the actual details surrounding the battle are relatively sparse. The Christians lost around 2000 men against unknown but very high Muslim casualties.

After the battle, the Almohad position in Iberia declined rapidly, and by 1250 the Christians had taken both Cordoba and Seville, two of the largest and most powerful cities in al-Andalus. Eventually only Granada remained in Muslim hands, and it belonged to the Nasirid dynasty, not the Almohads. Muhammad al-Nasir died in 1213 back in North Africa, and the Almohad dynasty began to come apart at the seams when his successor, Yusuf II, died without an obvious heir in 1224. The Almohads hung around in North Africa until 1270 or so, but emerging regional dynasties spent most of that time chipping away at their territory.