Warfare in the Spanish Reconquista Era I

During the age of the crusades the organization and operations of Christian armies engaged in the reconquest developed significantly. Not only was the formation of armies improved, but there were frequent opportunities to consider strategic issues of defense and offense, including the relative wisdom of undertaking raids, sieges, or pitched battles. Whereas the focus of this chapter is on peninsular warfare, many will observe that its methods and operations were often typical of medieval warfare in general. Any attempt to distinguish between reconquest and crusade in this regard is meaningless. Whether an expedition had the formal character of a crusade or not, the military organization, strategy and tactics were the same. The ultimate military objective was the reconquest of lands once held by Christians and occupied, unjustly it was believed, by the Muslims, who, in the end, would be expelled from Spain.

Strategic planning to achieve that goal was usually determined by the king and his council. In the Curia of León in 1188 Alfonso IX voiced a principle reflecting ongoing practice: “I promised that I would not make war or peace or treaty without the counsel of the bishops, nobles, and good men by whose counsel I ought to rule.” Strategic discussions surely took place during the Council of León in 1135, when Alfonso VII ordered his frontiersmen “to wage war assiduously against the Saracen infidels every year.” Alfonso VIII, in consultation with his court, developed the plan for the Crusade of Las Navas, and Fernando III, prior to embarking on his initial campaign, took counsel with his mother, his nobles, the Military Orders, and others. Jaime I, who recorded numerous instances when he took counsel, planned the Crusades of Mallorca and Valencia after consulting military experts.

The first line of defense was castles and towns strategically situated along the frontier to provide maximum protection and to delay, if not to prevent, enemy penetration into the heart of the realm. About 1,500 to 2,000 castles in various states of repair still exist. Most were erected on promontories enabling the garrison to see for miles in every direction and to prepare for an approaching enemy. At times a moat was dug as a further protection. Many castles originated as a simple tower around which towns gradually developed. The walls of Ávila, still intact, were likely typical of most frontier towns. Maintenance of the walls was a continuing responsibility. The alcaide (Ar., al-qāʾid) or castellan, who rendered homage to the king, assumed the obligation “to make peace and war” at the king’s command and received a certain sum to provide castle guard, as well as sufficient food, water, and arms. Castles had to be given up to the king on demand, but could not be surrendered to the enemy without his consent.

The Formation of Armies

As there was no standing army, all military operations were essentially ad hoc, usually planned in the winter or early spring to be executed in the late spring, summer, and early fall. If the prince alerted his people by letter, messenger, or lighted fires, according to the Usatges of Barcelona, all men of appropriate age and capacity had to go his aid. A time (about three to four weeks) and a place was usually fixed when the army would assemble with suitable equipment and supplies. The principal ecclesiastical and secular lords were likely summoned individually and in writing. Royal messengers also publicly proclaimed the summons. Everyone summoned had to appear or give a suitable excuse. Failure to respond could result in fines, confiscation, and excommunication. Nobles usually had to serve for three months, in return for a monetary stipend, or tenancy. Towns had a similar obligation. After the expiration of that term troops might be persuaded to remain if their expenses were paid or they were assured of substantial booty. The Muslims of Córdoba, for example, were about to surrender in 1236, but on learning that the Christians were short of food and that the Leonese militias did not wish to remain beyond their three months, they opted to hold out longer.

The Latin sources usually employed the word exercitus for an army, but fonsado and hueste were also used to refer to any military expedition. As a medieval king was expected to lead troops in battle, princes of the royal family were trained to the military life from an early age. Besides his brothers and sons, the king was accompanied by his mesnada, an elite corps of knights acting as his bodyguard. Reilly estimated that about fifty mounted warriors, each supported by a squire and a groom, or about 150 men, attended Alfonso VII. Thirty-five caualleros de mesnada of Fernando III and thirty-three of Alfonso X received land in Seville after its conquest. Jaime I remarked at one point that he was escorted by fifty knights of his maynada.

Prelates and other clerics were often an integral part of the army. While the primary role of the nearly fifty bishops was to provide spiritual sustenance, they were also expected to provide a certain number of troops. Some, such as Jerome, bishop of Valencia, whom the Poem of the Cid depicted as equally adept at liturgical celebration and the use of a lance, may be described as warrior bishops. Both Martín of Pisuerga and Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, archbishops of Toledo, led armies against the Muslims. Gregory IX acknowledged that Rodrigo raised 1,000 men-at-arms and 400 jinetes or light cavalry, and fortified thirty-five castles at his own expense. Bishops Gutierre of Córdoba and Sancho of Coria participated in the siege of Seville “with their company of horse and foot.”

Other clerics and monks promised undetermined numbers of knights, sergeants, and food supplies. The clerical contribution of 269 knights and 2,500 sergeants (servientes, sirvens)—2,769 men in all—was quite substantial. The proportion of sergeants to knights appears to be ten to one, or in the case of the archdeacon of Barcelona twenty to one.

During the Crusade of Lisbon Bishop Pedro of Porto and Archbishop João of Braga played prominent roles as preachers and negotiators. Sancho I subsequently exempted the Portuguese clergy from military service except when the Muslims “invade our kingdom.” Although Bishops Sueiro of Lisbon and Sueiro of Évora took an active role in the Crusade of Alcácer, evidence concerning later participation by Portuguese prelates in the reconquest is minimal. The bishop of Porto, who held the city in lordship, strongly objected when Sancho II demanded military service from the clergy and laity of the city; Gregory IX twice ordered the king to desist.

As royal vassals receiving estates in full ownership from the king or else as benefices, the magnates (ricos hombres, barones) were a major component of the army. From the eleventh century onward as the flow of tribute from the petty Muslim kings increased, kings were able to pay their vassals a cash stipend (stipendium, soldadas). Many a noble enriched himself by plunder and was rewarded for faithful service to the king by the concession of additional estates. As feudalism was more fully developed in Catalonia, nobles retained their fiefs and castles so long as they remained loyal and fulfilled their feudal obligations.

The nobility gradually developed an awareness of their distinctive character formed by the common bond of knighthood or chivalry. Young nobles were trained to war from childhood under the direction of a master soldier and served their elders as squires. A young man who distinguished himself on the battlefield might be knighted at once, though it became customary for an aspirant to undertake the vigil of arms and to receive the accolade the next day from an older knight or from the king. Kings such as Afonso I, who, at fourteen, took his arms from the altar on Pentecost Sunday, knighted themselves. Knights were expected to be courageous, experienced in military matters, endowed with good judgment and a sense of loyalty, and capable of evaluating horses and arms. The number of magnates probably was no more than a dozen or two at any given time. Each one was usually accompanied by his own retinue of vassals, responding to a similar obligation to serve. González suggested that the minimum number of knights in the mesnada of a Castilian magnate was 100, but some were able to maintain 200 or 300. At least fifteen magnates and 200 knights received a share in the partition of Seville.

Various magnates pledged a certain number of knights to the Mallorcan Crusade, as well as an indefinite number of archers, and sergeants, and agreed to provide them with food, drink, arms, armor, and horses.

Nobles  Knights

Nunyo Sanç, count of Roselló 100 knights

Hug, count of Empúries 70 knights

Guillem de Montcada, viscount of Béarn 100 knights

Ferran de San Martín 100 knights

Guerau de Cervelló 100 knights

Ramon de Montcada, lord of Tortosa 25 knights

Ramon Berenguer d’Ager 25 knights

Bernat de Santa Eugénia  30 knights

Gilabert de Croyles 30 knights

 Total 580 knights

If a ratio of sergeants to knights similar to that of the prelates is assumed, that is, ten or twenty to one, then the number of sergeants might approach 5,800 or 11,600. That would give a total of either 6,380 or 12,180 men, but it is impossible to say whether these figures are reasonably accurate or not.

The Military Orders comprised the first line of defense, but the number of friars ready for battle at any given moment is difficult to determine. There were perhaps no more than fifty to a hundred, depending on the Order. The Templar commander of Miravet, for example, pledged thirty knights, twenty mounted crossbowmen, and other troops for the Mallorcan Crusade. When Pelay Pérez Correa, master of Santiago, agreed in 1246 to provide Baldwin II of Constantinople with 1,500 men, that included 300 knights, but not all were members of the Order. Nor is it likely that the 200 archers (100 horse and 100 foot), and 1,000 sergeants or footsoldiers belonged to the Order.

Perhaps aware that rivalry between the Templars and Hospitallers had contributed to the downfall of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the peninsular Orders several times promised mutual support and collaboration. In 1221 the masters of Calatrava and Santiago concluded a pact of brotherhood, stipulating that their knights would march together, fight side by side under one commander, and share booty equally. Three years later, the masters of Calatrava, Santiago, the Temple, and the Hospital in León and Castile pledged concerted action in battle. In 1239 the masters of Calatrava and Santiago confirmed all previous agreements between their Orders, and four years later they again emphased the need for cooperation under a single commander.

The municipalities also were required to respond to the summons to war. As the population of most Christian towns probably ranged between 1,500 to 3,000 persons, the number of adult males eligible for military service likely was no more than 600 to 1,200. Sentinels or lookouts were posted to warn of an approaching enemy so that the summons to defend the town could be given. The walls provided a secure haven for both urban residents and those living within the district. Towns also raided enemy territory in the hope of bringing back booty. Indeed, Dufourcq and Gautier-Dalché spoke of “war as an industry” during this era.

The nature and extent of municipal military obligations were spelled out in royal charters, such as the Fueros of Jaca, Teruel, Cuenca, and Coria. While in theory all able-bodied men, organized by districts or parishes, were required to serve, only a limited number might have to do so. Kings often granted exemption from military service in exchange for a tax called fonsadera. Before setting out, a muster (alarde, Ar., al-ʿarḍ) was held in the town square to determine whether the soldiers were properly equipped. Knights, who were a prominent element in the municipal militia, came to enjoy both political and social ascendancy in their towns. After the conquest of Seville, as the towns allowed their military skills and equipment to deteriorate, Alfonso X in 1256 and 1264 assured municipal mounted warriors of significant tax advantages, provided that they were suitably equipped for war. The urban militias were commanded by the juez or chief administrator of the town, but the alcaldes or magistrates organized the troops from each district. Scouts, lookouts, a chaplain, a surgeon, and notaries or scribes responsible for supplies and the distribution of booty, accompanied the militia.

Almogávers or almogávares (Ar., al-maghāwīr, raiders), men wearing rough garments, armed with daggers, short lances, and darts, and often living in forests, engaged in daily raids against the Muslims. In Catalonia they were usually footsoldiers, but in Castile they might also be horsemen. Light infantry carrying lances, knives, and daggers, perhaps the most numerous element of the army, included archers (arqueros) and crossbowmen (ballesteros); some ninety-five ballesteros received lands in the partition of Seville. While the cavalry was more mobile, the infantry was valued because it could go where cavalry could not.

Once an army was organized obedience and prompt execution of orders were essential for discipline. Disobedience, fomenting discord, quarreling, wounding, killing, stealing, desertion, and aiding and abetting the enemy were punished severely. Penalties included fines, exile, shaving the head and face, mutilation of the ears or hands, and execution. Trading with the enemy during wartime, especially in wheat, horses, weapons, iron, and wood, was condemned as treason, although the popes occasionally permitted people on the frontier to purchase necessities from neighboring Muslims.

Arms and Armor

In order to acquit themselves effectively soldiers were required to bring a sword, a lance, a javelin, a bow and arrows, or a crossbow and darts. Knights ordinarily carried an iron sword, usually about three feet long, doublesided and with a hilt. The sword was primarily used for striking an enemy in the hope of cutting through his coat of mail, rather than piercing his body. Both knights and footsoldiers used wooden or iron lances about six or seven feet long, and tipped with a long iron point. Footsoldiers also wielded a shorter javelin. Although the bow and arrow enjoyed some popularity, the crossbow became the most important projectile weapon, employed by both knights and footsoldiers.

Protective armor included the coat of mail, worn over a quilted jacket, and reaching the knees or even below; the helmet or iron cap, sometimes fitted with a nose guard, and worn over a cloth cap; and metal or leather braces protecting the arms and thighs. Shields or bucklers made of wood covered with leather or iron bands, were either round, or triangular, similar to a kite. The coats of arms of kings and knights were painted on their shields. Almoravid shields were made from hippopotamus hides. Body armor and arms varied greatly depending on the warrior’s status. Magnates may have adorned their helmets with precious stones, as visual testimony of their triumphs.

Several codices illustrate various types of weapons and protective gear. A twelfth-century miniature in Beatus’s Commentary depicts soldiers on horseback and on foot, wearing conical iron caps and chain mail covering the body including the head and reaching to the knees; they carried swords, lances, and round shields. A battle scene in Cantiga 63 displays Christian knights wearing chain mail covered with surcoats, gloves, and bowled or square helmets shielding the entire face; their kite shields have distinctive markings such as a zig-zag pattern in black and white (a Muslim shield has gold half-moons on red); they carry lances with triangular pennons, and a red flag. Around 1300 murals in the royal palace of Barcelona portrayed knights in chain mail with pot helmets, footsoldiers bearing lances and swords, and archers equipped with swords, as well as crossbows and darts in quivers.

Knights sometimes imitated the Muslim riding style, known as a la jineta; with a short stirrup strap and bended knees the knight was able to control his horse and to move swiftly. The French practice, known as a la brida, also gained popularity. A long stirrup strap extended the warrior’s legs giving him greater security, though somewhat sacrificing maneuverability. Horses were sometimes protected by a coat of mail. Given their great cost and the expense of maintaining them, the number of mounted warriors likely was small in comparison with infantrymen. Thirteenth-century laws prohibiting the export of horses attested to their scarcity. After losing eighty-six horses, Jaime I purchased replacements but admitted that he probably paid more than they were worth. The Almoravids brought camels to Spain, causing consternation among the Christians, but neither Muslims nor Christians used them regularly.

Armies probably employed trumpets or other horns to summon one another. The sound of Almoravid war drums covered with elephant hides reportedly terrified the Christians who had never heard them before. Cantiga 165 illustrates a Muslim army equipped with standards, trumpets, and drums.

Supply was a major concern of any army. It has been estimated that each man required about two and a half pounds of grain and two quarts of water per day; horses needed eight gallons of water and twenty-eight pounds of fodder. Beasts of burden, rather than wheeled carts, ordinarily were used to transport supplies. Mules, needing less food and water and able to cover as many as twenty-five miles a day with loads of 200 pounds or more, were preferred to horses. Municipal fueros often specified the obligation to provide beasts of burden. Jaime I employed 2,000 pack animals capable of carrying 400,000 pounds of supplies to relieve Puig, while the king of Granada sent 1,500 animals to Fernando III’s siege of Jaén. An army on the move usually followed river routes and marched through areas that might yield forage and plunder.