Warfare in the Spanish Reconquista Era II

Military Standards and Leadership

The military standard was a sign whereby kings, magnates, Military Orders, and town militias identified themselves; it also acted as a rallying point. Guillem de Montcada, who led the van in the battle of Portopí, commanded his men: “let no one separate himself from my standard” and Alfonso VIII ordered his standardbearer to advance into the midst of the battle of Las Navas to hearten his troops. Standards varied in size and shape in accordance with a person’s rank. Royal standards more than likely were similar to royal seals. Castles were probably depicted on the Castilian standard and lions on the Leonese; after the union of the realms, the two were combined. Innocent III permitted Pedro II and his successors to use a banner bearing their arms, four red stripes on a yellow shield. The royal murals of Barcelona show knights carrying standards with distinctive arms and some have similar identifying signs on their helmets.

Town militias gathered for prayer and for the blessing of their standards before setting out on campaign. In the Cortes of Seville in 1250 Fernando III stipulated that a town’s standard must be borne not by an artisan, but by the juez or judge, a person of knightly rank, who would not bring shame on the town in time of danger, presumably by fleeing. Standards given to towns by the king were destroyed after his death and replaced by others presented by his successor. Soldiers were expected to defend the standard, and suffered dire punishments if they fled with it, thereby disrupting the army, or abandoned it, an act tantamount to treason. Rewards were given to those who defended the standard or recovered one taken by the enemy, or raised up one that had fallen, or captured an enemy standard.

The success of any military undertaking depended largely on the quality of leadership. Although the king was the natural commander, he was not necessarily a good general, and so relied on the counsel of his vassals, who brought their own experience into play. Afonso I and Sancho I of Portugal and Alfonso I and Jaime I of Aragón appear to have been more than competent commanders, while the Cid and Pelay Pérez Correa, master of Santiago, stand out as notable generals. The alférez (Ar., al-fāris, knight) or signifer, a prominent noble who bore the royal standard, commanded the army during the king’s absence. The Cid, named as alférez by Sancho II of Castile, was the most famous person to hold that position.

Below the magnates, each of whom commanded his own vassals, there were many other commanders and the law prescribed harsh penalties for those who killed, wounded, or dishonored them. In its most limited sense adalid (Ar., al-dalīl, guide) meant one whose knowledge of roads and passages was such that he could lead troops safely through difficult terrain, and knew where to place lookouts. Sponsored by twelve of his fellows, he was appointed by the king to command a mounted troop; after swearing an oath to defend the realm, he received a standard from the king as a sign of his office. At least twenty adalides shared in the partition of Seville. If someone were to be promoted to the post of almocadén (Ar., al-muqaddam, commander) or infantry commander, twelve others had to swear that he was brave and loyal, knowledgeable in war, capable of command and of protecting his men. The king conferred on him a lance with a small pennant by which he could be recognized. His twelve sponsors then raised him high four times on two lances; pointing his lance toward each of the four corners of the world, he swore the same oath as the adalid. Fifty-one almocadenes, each with a company of foot, were given property in the partition of Seville.

Wars of Pillage and Devastation

Offensive warfare most often took the form of cavalcades or raids of shorter or longer duration into enemy territory. Both Christian and Muslim raiding parties of lightly armed cavalry tried to profit by a rapid strike, seizing livestock and whatever other booty they could in a day or two. Perhaps numbering only 50 to 300 men, raiders usually were familiar with the land and tried to conceal their movements as long as possible. They had to move swiftly so the enemy would not have time to retaliate and so that they could regain the safety of their town. The best guarantee of that was surprise. When Jaime I carried out a raid with 130 knights, 150 almogàvers, and 700 footsoldiers, they traveled by night, but the Muslims of Valencia alerted their people by bonfires.

Raids lasting several weeks or even months and reaching deep into enemy territory often involved thousands of knights and footsoldiers and had to be planned well in advance. They were usually undertaken during the summer and fall when the harvest was ripe for destruction or could provide sustenance for the raiders. The purpose of these raids was devastation: to destroy the enemy’s crops; trees and vineyards were burned and cut down; livestock was seized; villages were pillaged; fortifications were wrecked; and persons having the misfortune of being in the way were captured. The raiders hoped to undermine the enemy’s morale and his will to resist. Once an enemy had been softened up in this way, it was possible to besiege a stronghold in the expectation that the defenders would have insufficient supplies and manpower to maintain themselves for any length of time.

As the element of surprise was missing in a large cavalcade acting in broad daylight, the army had to be well organized and disciplined, moving in a column, ready to defend itself at any moment. The army ordinarily was divided into a vanguard, a rearguard, and flanking detachments. Defensible places adjacent to water and food supplies were chosen for encampments. Tents were set in a circle or a square with the king’s tent in the center. Sometimes defensive barriers were established. In 1231 Jaime I ordered 300 campfires lit so the Muslims would conclude that his army was much larger than in actuality. From a base camp smaller raiding parties were detached to plunder the surrounding area. Alfonso I, departing from Zaragoza in September 1125 and ending about a year later, carried out a notable cavalcade through Andalucía. Once the decision was taken to return home, the army was vulnerable to reprisals because of the burden of captives and livestock seized as booty.

Siege Warfare

Sooner or later, if the king wished to take possession of any area, he had to seize the enemy’s strongholds and the territory dependent on them. Some fortresses were taken by surprise, usually because the garrison was small and unprepared. Taking advantage of the dark of night, the twelfth-century Portuguese adventurer Geraldo the Fearless scaled the walls of several towns but few of his conquests were permanent. Other places were captured when the attackers overwhelmed the defenders. When the crusaders enroute to Las Navas seized Malagón in a few hours, other nearby fortresses, after offering minimal resistance, soon capitulated. After breaking into the suburbs of Córdoba by surprise, the Castilians soon established a full-blown siege.

A siege was a long and costly operation of uncertain outcome (see Figure 6). The approaches to a fortress were often difficult to traverse, especially if it stood on a mountain, or if it were protected by a moat or a palisade. The Genoese closed the moat of Tortosa, reportedly about 126 feet wide by 96 deep, by filling it with stones. The Muslims defending Calatrava la vieja in 1212 set iron spikes in the Guadiana River to impede the crusaders. Stone walls several feet thick protected the defenders while holding off the enemy; sometimes an outer wall encircling the original walls presented an additional barrier. The last bastion of defense was the citadel within the walls and often on a height overlooking a town. Sieges such as those of Toledo (1085), Zaragoza (1118), Lisbon (1147), Almería (1147), Tortosa (1148), Silves (1189), Alcácer do Sal (1217), Mallorca (1229), Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Jaén (1245), and Seville (1248) occupy a significant place in contemporary narratives. The besieging army attempted to sever the enemy’s lines of communication and to deprive the defenders of sustenance by ravaging the surrounding countryside. Care had to be taken, however, not to destroy the army’s own food supply. While the work of pillage continued, the defenders often made sorties, skirmishing with their opponents, and then retreating hastily to safety.

Arms and armor as well as water, wheat, and other food supplies were stockpiled in preparation for a siege. The defenders of Lisbon eventually were reduced to eating cats and dogs—to the horror of the crusaders—as well as garbage thrown from crusader ships and washed up under the walls. Although the food supply supposedly had rotted, when the crusaders occupied the city they discovered 8,000 seams of wheat and 12,000 sextars of oil, which they found quite acceptable. Failure to cut off the food supply or to reduce the defenders to starvation often forced a siege to be abandoned. Limitations on military service also hampered besieging armies, as knights or townsmen opted to depart once their term was up.

A blockade was established so supplies and reinforcements could not be introduced and the defenders could not escape. Attempts were made to breach the walls by sapping or battering them. Mantlets made of hides and osier protected sappers trying to dig under the walls and others using a battering ram from being pummeled from above by stones. If a castle were built on rock, mining would be time-consuming and costly and ultimately unsuccessful. Within a month the crusaders at Lisbon dug a mine with five entrances, extending about sixty feet; when inflammable material was placed in the mine about forty-five feet of the wall fell down. Crusaders mining the walls of Alcácer do Sal caused one tower to collapse. The Muslims thwarted an attempt during the siege of Seville to undermine Triana.

While mining was in progress, wooden towers were constructed and moved up against the walls, sometimes on wheels, sometimes over greased wooden rollers. Standing on top of the towers, archers and crossbowmen shot arrows and other missiles down on the defenders; eventually an assault might be launched across a bridge from the tower to the walls. Two movable towers, one eighty-three feet high and another ninety-five feet, were built during the siege of Lisbon. Mats, penthouses, and mantlets made of interwoven branches protected the towers against fire and stones; however, the defenders dumped burning oil on one tower, reducing it to ashes. During the siege of Almería the Muslims used Greek fire to burn wooden castles built by the Christians.

Siege engines previously used were sometimes transported to the current site, while at other times they were built on the spot. While bombardment might continue by day and night, walls were not easily destroyed. The defenders often had siege engines of their own to hurl missiles at their tormentors. Chevedden argued that all siege machines were essentially variations of the trebuchet, a wooden beam on a rotating axle fixed on a single pole or on a trestle. Attached to the long narrow end of the beam was a sling containing a projectile; ropes tied to the other, wider end, when pulled by a crew, propelled the projectile through the air. Three types were used: the traction trebuchet driven by a crew pulling ropes; the counterweight trebuchet powered by a counterweight placed opposite the sling; and the hybrid trebuchet employing both the counterweight and the pulling crew.

Among the siege engines in which the beam was fixed on a single pole were the mangonel, probably a traction trebuchet; the fundibulum; and the algarrade (Ar. ʿarrādah). Heavier machines set on a trestle included the al-manjanech (Ar. al-manjanīq), probably a hybrid trebuchet; and the brigola, a counterweight trebuchet. Stones were often transported to the siege, but at other times were gathered on site. The maximum size that could be fired by a traction trebuchet was 200 pounds for a maximum distance of about 120 meters or 390 feet. A counterweight trebuchet could launch even heavier missiles. Two Balearic mangonels, hybrid trebuchets used by the crusaders at Lisbon with alternating crews of 100 men, were able to fire 5,000 stones in ten hours, or 250 an hour, or approximately four every minute. One can imagine the destruction that might be done and the fear raised among the population.

Both sides also practiced a form of pscyhological warfare. Jaime I, for example, shot the head of a Muslim captive over the walls of Palma. While the crusaders at Lisbon impaled the heads of eighty Muslim captives so the defenders could see them, the Muslims taunted them, objecting to their worship of Jesus, abusing the cross, and suggesting that their wives were producing bastards at home. When the Almoravids threatened Toledo in 1148, Queen Berenguela called their manhood into question for attacking a woman and told them to seek out her husband, Alfonso VII, who would readily take them on. Shamed, they withdrew.

Persistence eventually brought the besieged to their knees. As supplies were exhausted, starvation loomed; people died; rotting corpses raised a stench, and disease began to spread. In the circumstances the defenders might appeal to their coreligionists for help, promising that if that proved fruitless within a specified period they would surrender. After an army coming to relieve Alcácer do Sal was defeated, the defenders capitulated a month later. When Alfonso IX routed Ibn Hūd at Alange, Mérida surrendered; nearby Badajoz apparently put up little resistance, and the Muslims abandoned Elvas. Fernando III allowed Carmona to seek help in 1247, but when it was not forthcoming, the town yielded.

Although no surrender pacts for Castile-León and Portugal are extant, the chroniclers often reported the terms of surrender. Some Aragonese pacts do survive and are likely representative of the genre. Alfonso VI allowed the Muslims of Toledo to remain, retaining their property, worshipping freely, and living in accordance with Islamic law; those who wished to depart with their movable goods could do so, but they could return later if they wished. Alfonso I gave similar guarantees to the Muslims of Zaragoza. Although the Muslims of Lisbon were permitted to leave, provided that they gave up their arms, money, animals, and clothing, the crusaders sacked the city, killing many. Sancho I agreed to allow the Muslims of Silves to depart with their movable goods, but his crusading allies insisted on their right to plunder the city, even though he offered them 10,000 maravedís as compensation.

Fernando III’s general policy in Andalucía was to require the Muslims to evacuate the principal urban centers capitulating after a siege. Thus the Muslims of Capilla, Baeza, Úbeda, Córdoba, Jaén, and Seville were allowed to depart, taking their movable goods under safe-conduct to Muslim territory. The Muslims similarly evacuated Palma, Borriana, and Valencia, but a significant number remained in Jaime I’s dominions, assured of religious liberty and the observance of Islamic law. The fall of a city usually resulted in the capitulation of smaller towns in the vicinity. Thus when Toledo surrendered, other towns in the Tagus valley acknowledged Alfonso VI’s sovereignty. After the surrender of Córdoba, several adjacent towns offered tribute to Fernando III. Many towns in the countryside surrounding Seville, including Jerez and Medina Sidonia, acknowledged his suzerainty, while retaining their property, law, and religion.

While many sieges ended with capitulation, some towns were taken by assault. This was the bloodiest outcome of a siege and in some respects the least desirable. Men, women, and children were slaughtered indiscriminately, and survivors were reduced to slavery. Although the defenders at Almería offered Alfonso VII 100,000 maravedís if he would lift the siege, the Genoese refused to agree and took the city by assault. Some 20,000 Muslims were said to have been killed and another 30,000 taken captive; 10,000 women and children were transported to Genoa, where they were likely sold as slaves or ransomed. Following Las Navas the Muslims of Úbeda offered Alfonso VIII 1,000,000 maravedís to pass them by, but he refused and assaulted the city, enslaving the survivors. Jaime I reported that 24,000 inhabitants were massacred during the assault of Palma.


Numerous battles resulted when a relieving army attempted to drive off besiegers or to intercept a raiding expedition, but only rarely did kings risk the possibility of a great victory or a terrible defeat by deliberately engaging in a pitched battle. The Cid, besieged in Valencia, repulsed the Almoravids at Cuart de Poblet in 1094, and two years later Pedro I triumphed at Alcoraz over the Muslims coming to relieve Huesca. The Almoravids, in turn, overwhelmed a Christian army trying to succor Uclés in 1108. Alfonso I gained three notable victories on the battlefield, first over the king of Zaragoza who made a sortie from his beleaguered city in 1118; then at Cutanda in 1120 over the Almoravids; and at Lucena in 1126 during his march through Andalucía. He was not so fortunate, however, at Fraga in 1134, when he was defeated and killed by the Almoravids. There is little information about it, but at Ourique in 1139 Afonso I defeated the Muslims attempting to halt incursions into the Alentejo. A century later, as noted above, at Alange in 1230 Alfonso IX bested Ibn Hūd attempting to relieve Mérida. Muslim troops stationed on a height at Portopí overlooking the shore attempted to halt Jaime I’s invasion of Mallorca in 1229, but the Christians forced them to flee. When Zayyān, the king of Valencia, attacked Jaime I’s base at Puig de la Cebolla in 1237, he was driven off. The victory undermined the morale of the Valencian Muslims and stiffened the king’s determination to have the city.

The classic battles of the reconquest, however, were Zallāqa, Alarcos, and Las Navas de Tolosa. Alfonso VI and Yūsuf ibn Tashufīn fought the battle of Zallāqa on 23 October 1086, on a broad plain in a place now called Sagrajas, near the juncture of the Guadiana and the Gevora Rivers, about eight to ten miles north of Badajoz. A description by a contemporary author, Abū Bakr al-Turṭūshī, probably reflects the tactics employed by the Almoravids at Zallāqa:

This is the battle order that we use . . . and which seems most efficacious in our battles with our enemies. The infantry with their shields, lances, and iron-tipped and penetrating javelins are formed in several ranks. Their lances rest obliquely on their shoulders, the shaft touching the ground, the point aimed at the enemy. Each one kneels . . . on his left knee and holds his shield in the air. Behind the infantry are the elite archers, whose arrows can pierce coats of mail. Behind the archers are the cavalry. . . . When the enemy comes near, the archers let fly against them a shower of arrows, while the infantry throw their javelins and receive the charge on the points of their lances. Then infantry and archers . . . open their ranks to right and left and the Muslim cavalry, charging through the open space, routs the enemy, if Allāh so decides.

Alfonso VI, possibly expecting a quick victory over forces assumed to be as ineffective as the reyes de taifas, charged and drove back the taifa contingents, but superior Almoravid numbers halted his advance. Their first line of defense consisted of soldiers equipped with long lances, and the second line threw javelins at the enemy. At this point Yūsuf carried out a flanking movement and surrounded the Christians; many were killed as they attempted to escape, but some apparently died from the labors of the day. Though wounded, Alfonso VI escaped under cover of night. Despite his victory, Yūsuf advanced no further, perhaps reasoning that it was late in the year and that greater success could be achieved in the spring. Thus he gained no significant territory at Christian expense, though the subjugation of Andalucía to Almoravid rule put the Christians on the defensive for many years to come. Another consequence was to attract French knights to the war against Islam in Spain.