In the summer of 1229, while Jaime I was engaged in the Mallorcan crusade, the Almohads in Morocco engaged in civil war and two competitors for leadership appeared in al-Andalus. Ibn Hūd, who acknowledged the ʿAbbāsid caliph of Baghdad, and ruled Granada, Almería, Jaén, Córdoba, Málaga, and Seville, seemed at first the stronger of the two; he did not control Valencia, where Zayyān seized power from Abū Zayd, nor Niebla in the Algarve where Ibn Maḥfūt asserted his independence. His great rival was Ibn al-Aḥmar (1232–73), the founder of the Naṣrid dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Granada until 1492. Proclaiming his independence at Arjona in 1232, he soon gained recognition in other towns and presented a serious challenge to Ibn Hūd.
Taking advantage of this discord Fernando III seized several castles near Úbeda in 1229, and in the following summer unsuccessfully besieged Jaén, a formidable fortress in upper Andalucía. The death of his father, Alfonso IX, in September 1230 interrupted this campaign, though he was now able to acquire the kingdom of León, separated from Castile since 1157. With the combined resources of both kingdoms he would be able to push deep into the Guadalquivir valley before the middle of the thirteenth century.
While the king was busy securing his new realm, Gregory IX, acknowledging that Archbishop Rodrigo girded himself to “to rip occupied land from the hands of the impious,” in April 1231 conceded the indulgence authorized by the Fourth Lateran Council for the Holy Land to anyone who joined the archbishop or the king in an invasion of Saracen lands “to vindicate injury to the Crucified One;” those who helped to pay the expenses of the expedition would also gain the indulgence. Furthermore, the archbishop was empowered to absolve crusaders who incurred the penalty of excommunication by inadvertently striking clerics in battle. Shortly afterward Archbishop Rodrigo captured Quesada southeast of Úbeda as well as other castles, including Cazorla, about three miles to the north, which became the basis of an archiepiscopal administrative district. In June the pope reiterated his previous concession of the indulgence and the power of absolution. Inasmuch as the archbishop raised an army at his own expense and fortified numerous castles, Gregory IX in 1232 admonished the churches and monasteries of the archdiocese to assist him with an appropriate subsidy payable over three years. Recognizing the necessity of Christians settling in Quesada to trade with the nearby Muslims, the pope permitted them to do so, excepting strategic materials such as arms, horses, iron, and wood. At the king’s request, Gregory IX, in 1234, again allowed the bishops to absolve anyone who set out “to spread Christianity” and accidentally laid violent hands on a cleric. He also permitted the knights of Santiago to use the tercias of their churches to defend the frontier and urged the bishops to support those “athletes of Christ” with victuals and not to cite them before civil tribunals during campaign.
Besides the archbishop, Fernando III’s brother, Alfonso de Molina, together with Álvar Pérez de Castro and the knights of Calatrava and Santiago, devastated the Andalusian countryside. When the master of Calatrava and the bishop of Plasencia attacked Trujillo, about twenty-five miles east of Cáceres, Ibn Hūd made a half-hearted effort to relieve it, but the defenders had to surrender on 25 January 1232. By then, Fernando III was ready to undertake a major offensive and besieged Úbeda, about thirty miles northeast of Jaén, whose possession was essential to the security of Baeza and Quesada. The Muslims surrendered in July 1233 on condition that they be allowed to leave with whatever goods they could carry. Soon after the king made a truce with Ibn Hūd, who promised to pay 1,000 dinars daily as tribute. The Castilian offensive, however, continued in other sectors. In the old Muslim kingdom of Badajoz the Military Orders captured Medellín, Alange, and Santa Cruz in 1234 and Magacela in February 1235. In the spring the king renewed the truce with Ibn Hūd, who, as a sign of vassalage, promised to pay over the next year a substantial tribute of 430,000 maravedís. That done, Fernando III ravaged the lands of Ibn al-Aḥmar, king of Jaén and Arjona, taking several castles north of Úbeda and Baeza.
The Castilian advance reached an unexpected climax toward the end of 1235 when Christian soldiers, called almogávares (from Arabic, al-maghāwīr), abetted by Muslim traitors, broke into eastern quarter of Córdoba and sent an urgent summons to Fernando III to come to their aid. Álvar Pérez de Castro and other royal lieutenants on the frontier hastened to join them. The king was at Benavente in the kingdom of León when he received their message in January 1236. Some among his courtiers tried to dissuade him from taking action because it was mid-winter, when the roads would be impassable because of rain and snow, and it was feared that Ibn Hūd and the Moroccans would come to Córdoba’s aid. “Placing his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Fernando III, a miles Christi, closed his ears to such talk, and resolved that he had to help those who had placed themselves at such great risk.
All the while summoning his vassals to join him, he rapidly moved southward, arriving at Córdoba on 7 February with only 100 knights in his company. To deny the defenders free egress from the city, the king, with 200 knights, occupied the area south of the Guadalquivir opposite the bridge of Alcolea on the road to Écija. Ibn Hūd gathered a force of reportedly 4,000 to 5,000 knights and 30,000 footsoldiers, as well as 200 Christian knights in his service, and came up to Écija, but inexplicably failed to challenge the Castilians and withdrew to Seville. After Easter reinforcements from Castile, León, and Galicia swelled the Christian ranks. As the siege tightened, the defenders perceived the hopelessness of their situation and negotiated a settlement.
However, when they learned that the Christians were short of food and that the Leonese towns intended to depart once their three months service was up, the Córdobans reneged on the agreement. To intimidate them, Fernando III made an alliance with Ibn al-Aḥmar, the king of Jaén, an enemy of Ibn Hūd and of Córdoba. As a consequence the defenders offered to surrender, provided that, taking their movable goods, they would have safe passage out of the city. Some counselled Fernando III to take the city by assault, but he opted to accept the conditions stated and Córdoba surrendered on 29 June 1236. A truce of six years was now concluded with Ibn Hūd, who again promised to pay an annual tribute of 156,000 maravedís.
Thus “the famous city of Córdoba . . . which for such a long time had been held captive, that is, from the time of Rodrigo, king of the Goths, was now restored to the Christian cult.” Abū Hazam, the governor of Córdoba, “delivered the keys to our lord the king and the lord king at once, as a uir catolicus gave thanks to our Savior.” He ordered the standard of the cross and his own standard to be placed on the highest tower of the mosque. At vespers Bishop Juan of Osma, the royal chancellor, and Master Lope who had placed the standard of the cross on the tower, made preparations so “that the mosque should become a church . . . the superstition and filthiness of Muḥammad being expelled therefrom.” When the king, his barons, and people entered the city on the next day, 30 June, the bishops of Osma, Cuenca, and Baeza, and all the clergy in solemn procession received them at the mosque now dedicated as the church of Saint Mary. After the bishop of Osma celebrated mass, the king entered the Muslim royal palace and sat on the throne of glory of the kingdom of Córdoba. Next he compelled Muslim captives to carry back to Compostela the bells that al-Manṣūr had seized nearly three hundred years before and, “to the distress of the Christian people, hung as lamps” in the mosque of Córdoba. Centuries later al-Maqqarī mourned that Córdoba, “that seat of the western Khalifate, repository of the theological sciences, and abode of Islam, passed into the hands of the accursed Christians.”
As the Muslims had evacuated Córdoba, and there was a shortage of food, most of the nobles elected to return home, leaving the king to provide the city with a Christian population. Each of the magnates and the masters of the Military Orders agreed to supply knights for defense of the city; the arrival of 150 knights from Segovia helped as well. Entrusting the defense to Tello Alfonso and his brother Alfonso Téllez de Meneses, the king returned to Toledo. While he fell seriously ill, people unexpectedly began to flock to Córdoba by mid-November 1236. The fall of Córdoba opened the whole of the Guadalquivir valley, where many adjacent towns and castles, including Écija, acknowledged his sovereignty and agreed to pay tribute. The king soon realized, however, that in order to maintain Córdoba he would have to send substantial sums of money and other supplies. Returning to the city in 1240, he spent thirteen months there providing for its defense, organizing the municipal council, overseeing the restoration of the bishopric, and distributing property among those who had collaborated in the conquest. After establishing municipal boundaries, he granted the city a fuero based on that of Toledo, derived in turn from the old Visigothic Code, the Forum Iudicum; the king had commanded that it be translated into Castilian as the Fuero Juzgo. He also renewed his truce with Ibn al-Aḥmar.
The financial drain represented by Córdoba prompted the king to appeal to Gregory IX, who in September 1236 praised him as an “athlete of Christ” and instructed the prelates to provide a subsidy of 20,000 gold pieces annually for three years from both the Castilian and Leonese churches and monasteries in support of the king’s campaigns. On the same day he encouraged the bishops to exhort their people to enlist in the royal army for a year or to pay the expenses of others, in return for which they would receive the crusading indulgence granted by the Fourth Lateran Council. As a further measure of his esteem the pope took Fernando III under his protection and forbade anyone to excommunicate him without papal permission.
While the king attended to matters of internal administration he entrusted the defense of the frontier and his new kingdom of Córdoba to his son Infante Alfonso, Alvar Pérez de Castro, Alfonso Téllez, and the Military Orders. In recognition of the ongoing crusade in which the Military Orders had played a prominent role, Gregory IX on 12 April 1238 granted an indulgence to all those who accompanied the knights of Alcántara on campaign and lost their lives in battle. Two years later, on 2 June, the pope acknowledged that because the knights of Calatrava
are placed near to Saracen territory, so that you may be seen as a sign placed for an arrow, it is necessary for you to fight often against them, in which fight many of the faithful following your standard are killed. . . . To those who for the defense of the Catholic faith fought the Saracens . . . we . . . grant to all the faithful who die in this way indulgence of all their sins which they have confessed and of which they are truly contrite.
He also allowed the ordination of persons of illegitimate birth in the province of Santiago de Compostela if they lived on the frontier and wished to take part in the defense of the faith. The wisdom of cooperation in campaigns against the Muslims, even to the extent of placing their Orders under a single command, was recognized by Gómez, master of Calatrava, and Pelay Pérez Correa, master of Santiago, in a pact concluded on 1 August 1243, after the latter’s return from Murcia.
The fall of Córdoba was a blow to the Spanish Muslims, who were unable to join forces in a common defense against the Christian advance, and seemed to foreshadow even worse things to come. Indeed the loss of the city and the increased burden of tribute paid to Fernando III cost Ibn Hūd, who witnessed a rapid decline in his popularity. His assassination by one of his own men at Almería in January 1238 illustrated the disarray of Spanish Islam. While his family was now confined to the kingdom of Murcia, his principal rival, Ibn al-Aḥmar, proclaimed as king in Málaga, Almería, Arjona, Jaén, and Granada, enjoyed an ascendancy over Andalucía. The task facing Ibn al-Aḥmar and the other surviving Muslim lords in Spain was how to avoid being swallowed up by advancing Christian armies.
In the quarter century following the Crusade of Las Navas de Tolosa, several crusades were undertaken as the Christian rulers broadened their frontiers at Muslim expense. Although Innocent III hoped to focus attention on the recovery of the Holy Land, Honorius III and Gregory IX frequently conceded crusading indulgences for the peninsular war against Islam. Once again crusaders intending to take part in the Fifth Crusade collaborated with the Portuguese in capturing Alcácer do Sal. The Portuguese bishops conferred the crusader’s cross on numerous persons while at the same time Alfonso IX of León, Sancho VII of Navarre, and many bishops and nobles took the crusader’s vow. The king of León achieved major goals with the conquest of Mérida and Badajoz which opened the way toward Seville.
Archbishop Rodrigo of Toledo, one of the more active crusaders, carried out military operations in the southeast at a time when Fernando III still maintained a truce with the Almohads. Jaime I of Aragón, as he tells us in his autobiography, took the crusader’s cross, though his attempt to seize Peñíscola ended in failure. A few years later, however, he received the cross from the papal legate before embarking on the crusade that resulted in the conquest of Mallorca. Gregory IX supported that endeavor with crusading bulls on at least two occasions. About the same time Archbishop Rodrigo, aided by crusading indulgences, captured Quesada. Fernando III’s subsequent conquest of Córdoba must also be counted among the crusades because the pope in 1231 offered the indulgence to everyone who collaborated with the king or the archbishop. In 1238 Gregory IX conferred crusading indulgences on the Military Orders and those who joined forces with them. Another important note of these papal privileges is that persons contributing money could also gain the indulgence, though, unfortunately, there is no evidence of how much money was raised in that way.
Joseph F. O’Callaghan
“Through a meticulous choice and interpretation of Arabic, Catalan, Castilian, English, and Latin chronicles and ecclesiastical, municipal, and royal notarial records, O’Callaghan lays out with consummate care and with great detail the story of the brutal struggle for control of the Strait of Gibraltar—a struggle that would ultimately seal the fate of Spanish Islam.”—The Medieval Review
“[O’Callaghan] does a superb job of sifting through the chronicles of the Christian and Muslim rulers that provide the foundation for this entire narrative. . . . This very interesting book makes it abundantly clear that pragmatism and financial gain had as much to do with the correlation of forces as did religious practice.”—Journal of Military History
“What truly makes this work a prominent addition to the field of Iberian reconquest lore are the Castilian, Latin, Arabic, and English sources O’Callaghan uses with proficient erudition to tell the story of this ‘epic battle’—one that certainly needed to be told.”—Historian
The epic battle for control of the Strait of Gibraltar waged by Castile, Morocco, and Granada in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries is a major, but often overlooked, chapter in the history of the Christian reconquest of Spain. After the Castilian conquest of Seville in 1248 and the submission of the Muslim kingdom of Granada as a vassal state, the Moors no longer loomed as a threat and the reconquest seemed to be over. Still, in the following century, the Castilian kings, prompted by ideology and strategy, attempted to dominate the Strait. As self-proclaimed heirs of the Visigoths, they aspired not only to reconstitute the Visigothic kingdom by expelling the Muslims from Spain but also to conquer Morocco as part of the Visigothic legacy. As successive bands of Muslims over the centuries had crossed the Strait from Morocco into Spain, the kings of Castile recognized the strategic importance of securing Algeciras, Gibraltar, and Tarifa, the ports long used by the invaders.
At a time when European enthusiasm for the crusade to the Holy Land was on the wane, the Christian struggle for the Strait received the character of a crusade as papal bulls conferred the crusading indulgence as well as ancillary benefits. The Gibraltar Crusade had mixed results. Although the Castilians seized Gibraltar in 1309 and Algeciras in 1344, the Moors eventually repossessed them. Only Tarifa, captured in 1292, remained in Castilian hands. Nevertheless, the power of the Marinid dynasty of Morocco was broken at the battle of Salado in 1340, and for the remainder of the Middle Ages Spain was relieved of the threat of Moroccan invasion. While the reconquest remained dormant during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada, the last Muslim outpost in Spain, in 1492. In subsequent years Castile fulfilled its earlier aspirations by establishing a foothold in Morocco.
Joseph F. O’Callaghan is Professor Emeritus of Medieval History, Fordham University. He is the author of The Last Crusade in the West and Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain, both available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.