Batalla de las Navas de Tolosa - Battle of Tolosa Plains - 1212
This battle, which saw the Catholic Monarchs of Spain rout the occupying Almohads, changed the course of Spanish history. Fought on a hilly battlefield near the town of La Carolina (Jaen) in 1212, Las Navas de Tolosa was a key victory in the Catholic Monarchs' reconquest of Spain, especially since its location was at the gateway to al-Andaluz, an important Moorish stronghold.
Lead-up to the battle
In 1195, Alfonso VIII of Castile had been defeated by the Almohads in Alarcos, and the Moorish rulers had subsequently captured many cities in central Spain: Trujillo, Plasencia, Talavera, Cuenca and Ucles. Then, in 1211, the Almohad Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar with a powerful army, ridden all the way north to the Pais Vasco, and captured the stronghold of the Calatrava Knights in Salvatierra. After this, the threat to the Iberian Christian kingdoms was so serious that Pope Innocent III called the European knights (Spanish, French and Portuguese) to a crusade.
In spring 1212, the three Christian Spanish armies - Castilla-Leon, Aragon, and Navarra, plus some Portuguese troops and military orders including the Knights Calatrava and Templar - met in Toledo. This force of 50,000 was headed by the King of Castilla Alfonso VIII, assisted by Pedro II of Aragón and Sancho VII of Navarra. The 30,000 French crusaders withdrew to France over disagreements about showing mercy to captured enemy soldiers (or couldn't cope with the heat, or both, according to which historical record you believe).
In early July Christian forces reached the Sierra Morena mountains, to the south of the plains of La Mancha, which form a natural border with Andalucia. They stopped here, unsure how to cross the seemingly impenetrable mountain range and continue south to the Moorish strongholds of Al-Andaluz.
The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa: 16 July 1212
Legend has it that a local shepherd named Martin Halaja showed the Christian forces a hidden way through the mountains: a gorge unknown to the Almohads, the only way to gain access through the 480km-long Sierra Morena mountain range. Thus they were able to mount a surprise attack on the 200,000-strong Islamic contingent, led by Muhammad al-Nasir. The battle took place on 16 July 1212.
The story goes that the Caliph's tent was surrounded by a bodyguard of Christian slave-warriors, who were chained together as a human shield. The Navarran force, led by their king Sancho VII, broke through this defence. The Caliph escaped, but the Moors were routed, leaving some 100,000 casualties on the battlefield. Christian losses were far fewer, only about 2,000 men.
Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir himself died in Marrakech shortly after the battle, where he had fled after the defeat.
This is how King Alfonso described the scale of the defeated Almohad army forces (remember that the Spanish tend to exaggerate):
"when our army rested after the battle… in the enemy camp, for all the fires which were needed to cook food and make bread and other things, no other wood was needed than that of the enemy arrows and spears which were lying about, and even then we burned scarcely half of them…"
Muslim chroniclers attribute the defeat to the greed of the Caliphs, and Andalucian traitors and cowards, who were supposed to be fighting for their Almohad rulers. They emphasize the ruthless Christian violence (contrary to the Catholic-Spanish version):
"The heralds of Alfonso cried: slay and seize. If you take a prisoner, you will be killed with him."
The crucial pass in the Sierra Morena through which the Christian forces had entered al-Andaluz, was charmingly renamed Desfiladero de Despeñaperros - "the pass of the overthrow of the dogs".
The aftermath of the battle
After Las Navas de Tolosa, Alfonso VIII returned north to confront the Almohads near Toledo, in 1213.
Fernando III of Castilla, Rey San Fernando, who inherited the Castillian throne from Alfonso in 1217, carried on his predecessor's work, fighting the Almohads in the Guadalquivir Valley. He captured Cordoba in 1236, Jaen in 1246, and Seville in 1248; he then took Arcos, Medina Sidonia, Jerez and Cadiz. Fernando's death in 1252 prevented the Castilians from crossing the Gibraltar Straits to take the war to the heartland of the Almohad empire.
What can be seen today?
The actual battlefield of Las Navas de Tolosa is situated to the south-east of the present-day village of Miranda del Rey, in a wide area known as Mesa del Rey, which stretches up to a small hill known as Cerro de los Olivares - this is where the Christian troops formed their lines facing north west towards the Muslim forces.
An interpretation centre in Santa Elena, Museo de la Batalla de Las Navas de Tolosa, which opened in 2009, offers information about the geo-political backgrounds of the different factions who fought in the battle; plans of the local terrain showing where the various forces were camped and their strategic movements during the conflict; and displays showing the weapons and armour used in wars of the 13th century. The museum is situated on a hilltop overlooking the battlefield and is designed to resemble a castle complete with lookout tower. It is open Tuesday to Sunday, with guided tours of the battlefield on Sundays from September to May (the summer months are too hot).
To get to the museum, leave the A4/E5 motorway at exit 257, and take the JV5021 towards Miranda del Rey; the museum is on the other side of the motorway from Santa Elena itself.
A large, modern monument to the battle, situated to the left of the A4 (going north) at km 266 near La Carolina, shows the kings Alfonso of Castilla, Pedro of Aragon, and Sancho of Navarra, plus several Archbishops who also took part in the battle. The figure in front of them, pointing ahead, is the shepherd who led the Christian forces through the mountains.
A modern sculpture to the battle can be found at the entrance to Santa Elena near motorway exit 257.
In the Museo de La Carolina you can see relics from the battle.
If you're interested in finding out more about events in the area to commemorate this battle, there is an open Facebook group of battle enthusiasts called Batalla de las Navas de Tolosa.