ALARCOS, 19 July 1195

Lying between Christian Toledo and Muslim Cordoba, the plains around Calatrava were strategically crucial during the decades on either side of 1200. That is why the Knights of Calatrava had fortified the site and constructed other castles in the region. In 1195, caliph al-Mansur won a victory at Alarcos, and seized the fortresses; but in 121 2 the combined forces of Christian Spain turned the tables at Las Navas de Tolosa. This was to prove a decisive point in the progress of the Reconquista. From now on the Muslim states were militarily outmatched.


The arrival of the Almohads in the 1140s had thrown the Christians back on the defensive. In these circumstances, their kings were quite happy to sponsor Muslim buffer states. Sayf ad Dawla, the independent king of Saragossa, took Murcia and Valencia in 1146, but died soon afterwards. His successor in the region was Ibn Mardanish – ‘king Wolf – who although a Muslim spoke Spanish and used Christian troops and equipment. He survived until 1172 at Murcia, dying deserted by his Christian allies. The Military Orders now played the greatest role in frontier warfare, as the Knights of Calatrava illustrate.

They had been established in 1156 to protect Toledo and guard the route south. Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214) recognized the strategic importance of the ‘Campo de Calatrava’ and was an enthusiastic patron. By 1174, he had granted them rights to every castle captured from the enemy, one-fifth of his future conquests, and one-tenth of royal revenues. The king of Aragon also rewarded them for the capture of Cuenca in 1177, with Alcañiz castle, to help advance his borders further south of the Ebro. In 1182, the Order was further strengthened by a pact with the rival Knights of Santiago, reinforced in 1188.

In 1190, the Almohad caliph, al-Mansur, responded to truce-breaking Castilian raids by bringing a large invasion force from Africa to Cordoba. In June, Alfonso VIII mustered at Toledo and then advanced to Alarcos, where he was constructing a town. In early July, his reconnaissance force was annihilated at Salvatierra. Al-Mansur then outmaneuvered the Christians and inflicted a heavy defeat upon them at Alarcos. As a result, the Knights lost Calatrava and many other castles. When the Almohads followed up by attacking in the Tagus valley, the Order’s Master made the daring decision to occupy Salvatierra, now deep in Muslim territory (1196). While Alfonso VIII made a truce with the Ahmohads, Peter II of Aragon (1196-1213) went on the offensive, and gave the Knights strong support in the Ebro valley area.

The battle

A large force of Almohades under Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur defeated a much smaller Castilian army under Alfonso Vlll. The Moslems drew up with their first line made up of Andalusian cavalry on the right and Almohades . on the left and centre (the latter comprising the army’s veterans), with a second line of African troops arrayed in close order, mostly bow-and javelin-armed. ln addition there was a reserve division several thousand-strong which included Negro guardsmen.

Alfonso’s 8,000 cavalry broke through the centre of the Moslem front line at their third charge, but the gap thus created was dosed behind them and, disorganised and unsupported by infantry, they were surrounded by the Almohade archers and cavalry of the second line and decimated by volleys of arrows and javelins. Even Alfonso’s rearguard, which he led into the fray in a last desperate effort, was unable to retrieve the situation. After this the Moslems’ front line rallied and made a general advance against the Castilian infantry who, without the support of their cavalry, were rapidly routed with heavy losses. Some made a stand in a pass between La Zarzuela and Darazutan but were killed or taken captive. Others, including Alfonso himself and the Master of Calatrava, escaped to the castle of Guadalherza, while yet others took refuge in Alarcos, which the Almohades subsequently captured.

20-25,000 Castilians were reputedly killed or taken captive in the battle, the Master of Santiago being amongst the dead, while legend has it that the Moslems lost only 500 men.


The major victory in a pitched battle against the army of Alfonso VIII of Castile at Alarcos was followed by a series of highly profitable raids on Christian territory, as at Trujillo and even before the walls of Toledo and, less successfully, at Madrid and Guadalaljara. Muslim allies were also present when a Christian coalition invaded Castile. Taken together, these sorties, in their effect and in geographical scope, were the high-water mark of Almohad power.

By 1198 al-Mansur clearly felt it was time to return to Marrakesh and see to the less exciting aspects of running his empire. Upon returning, however, he suddenly took ill and, in 1199, died. Al-Mansur had been a more serious military man than his father, and his successes against his foes in al-Andalus (and elsewhere) reflect that. But for him as for all the Almohads, it is worth putting all this military activity in context. As with the Saljuqs and Ayyubids in the east, jihad was just one aspect of a broader attempt on the part of the Almohads to reform society and legitimize their state. Al-Mansur’s campaigns thus went hand in hand with the administrative reforms he enacted from Marrakesh and pious gestures such as building programs, fortification of cities, and, most notably, putting on trial in Cordoba the famous (or perhaps infamous) philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whose teachings had led to accusations of heterodoxy on the part of some of the Andalusi religious classes. Who could reject a caliph who policed orthodoxy, buttressed justice in his kingdom, and kept the predations of the infidels at bay?

Al-Mansur was succeeded by his son al-Nasir, who, aside from successfully capturing Majorca from its Muslim lords, was not the warrior his father was. Although he came to power in 1199, al-Nasir engaged in no activity against the Franks of al-Andalus until 1211. That at least was a small success at Calatrava in retaliation for Christian raids over the previous years in the Levante. But this triumph was overshadowed by a defeat-perhaps the most significant of all-in 1212. It was in that year that King Alfonso VIII of Castile, assisted by a coalition of Christians from Spain and beyond, marched south to revenge himself against al-Nasir and to reclaim lands and strongholds that had been lost to the Almohads in previous years. Al-Nasir preferred to wait and see, perhaps hoping that scarce supplies would force the Christians to withdraw, as had happened so often in the past. While the Almohad army encamped in waiting at a place called al-‘Iqab, Alfonso marched on them by an unexpected route and, on July 16, caught them unawares. Confounded, it seems, by divisions within the Muslim forces, the caliph fled almost as soon as Alfonso arrived, and the Almohad army was routed. As the chronicler al-Marrakushi (d. 1270) put it, “The main reason for this defeat was the divisions in the hearts of the Almohads. In the time of [the caliph al-Mansur] they drew their pay every four months without fail. But in the time of this [caliph, al-Nasir], and especially during this particular campaign, their payment was in arrears. They attributed this to the viziers, and marched to battle bearing this grudge. I have heard from several of them that they did not draw their swords nor train their spears, nor did they take any part in the preparations for battle. They fled at the first assault of the Franks, having intended to do so from the start.” As it happened, supply problems did vex Alfonso, and he was not able to build upon this victory; the major Muslim cities of the area, Cordoba, Granada, and Jaen, remained safe. But the damage was done. Al-Nasir shipped back to Marrakesh, where, in 1213, he was killed by one of his own men. The Battle of al-‘Iqab, or, as it is known in the West, of Las Navas de Tolosa, would emerge as one of the most decisive engagements ever fought on the Iberian Peninsula and marked the end of Almohad power.

After al-‘Iqab, Almohad collapse came swiftly.

Almohades’ Christian mercenaries

The Murabits’ briefera ofsupremacy ended with the fall of Marrakesh in 1145 and the death of their last amir, Tashulin ibn Ali (1143-45), at the hands of a new Berber religious sect, the Almohades (ai-Muwahhidun, ‘unitarians’). This movement bad been founded by a chieftain’s son named Ibn Tuman who, claiming in 1121 to be the Mahdi prophesied by Mohammed, succeeded in uniting the Masmuda Berbers of the Atlas Mountains against the puritanical and (he argued) heretical Murabits, who were anyway the traditional enemies of the Masmudis. They commenced guerilla actions against the Murabits in 1121 and, although these initially met with only limited success, they were nevertheless able to undermine the structure of the Murabit state and increase the disaffection felt by the over-taxed and poorly governed Moroccan populace. Under Ibn Tuman’s successor Abd al-Mu’min (1130-63, proclaimed Caliph in 1133), Almohade control was established throughout North Africa by 1147 and extended to Moslem Spain in 1149, most of which was soon subdued by an army of just 30,000 men.

The composition of the Almohade army fundamentally differed little from that of the Murabits, consisting of Masmudis and other Berbers (the Zanata and Marinids being specifically mentioned on many occasions) plus Arabs, Ghuzz, Sudanese and the inevitable corps of Christian mercenaries, the so-called ‘Militia Christiana’.

The Almohades’ first Christian mercenaries were probably inherited from the Murabits, appearing in Abd al -Mu’min’s army by 1147 (in fact, it may even have been Christian mercenaries who actually admitted the Almohades into Marrakesh in 1145). Referred to as the Banu Farkhan or Ifarkhan, they were soon regarded with the same respect as they had enjoyed under the Murabits, ironically being held in higher regard and paid at considerably higher rates than were the mercenaries in Christian Spanish armies. Under Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur (1184-99) a Castilian knight, Pedro Fernwdez de Castro, commander of 100 mercenary cavalry, even became ‘Captain-General’ of the Almobade forces in Spain and was in the army that defeated the Christians at Alarcos. After 1169, however, Christian mercenaries are not recorded in the Maghreb itself until 1228, when Caliph Abu’l Ula al-Ma’mun, in exchange for the surrender of territory in Spain, was allowed to hire allegedly 12,000 Castilian cavalry (or, more credibly, 500 according to a Moslem source) from King Ferdinand Ill for use against the pretender Yahya. These provided the core of the Almobade army until at least 1236, and the Christian mercenary who killed the Marinid amir Mohammed Abu Marraf in battle in 1244 was perhaps one of their number. The last mention of Christian mercenaries in Almobade employ, by now predominantly Castilians and Catalans, dates to 1248 when, following the death of Abu Sa’id during his attack on Zayanid-held Tlemcen, some defected to the Zayanids while others went over to the up-and-coming Marinids. The Zayanids of Tlemcen, in fact, had been hiring Christian troops since c. 1236, when they reputedly numbered 2,000 men. Others probably switched their allegiance to the Zayanids’ overlords, the Hafsids of Tunis, who are known to have been employing Christian mercenaries by c. 1249. In Hafsid employ they were chiefly Catalans, part of their salary being paid directly to the Aragonese royal treasury while the King of Aragon actually had the right to appoint and dismiss their commander (called the alcayt, from Arabic al-qa’id). In both Zayanid and Hafsid employ it was these Christian mercenary cavalry, along with Negro infantry, who provided the royal bodyguard.