The First Crusade of Fernando III

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The First Crusade of Fernando III

Fernando III remained aloof from the crusading efforts of Archbishop Rodrigo and Alfonso IX because he needed to establish himself firmly on the throne, but the crisis of the Almohad regime soon induced him to take up arms against the Muslims. The death of Caliph al-Mustanṣir in January 1224 opened a power struggle among the Almohads in Morocco and encouraged Almohad governors in Spain to seek autonomy. The ensuing struggle over the office of caliph initiated an era of instability, resulting in the neglect of al-Andalus, where several petty kingdoms proliferated once again.

Fernando III may have been spurred on by John of Brienne, the former king of Jerusalem and a leader of the Fifth Crusade, who, after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, visited the king at Toledo in April 1224 and married his sister, Infanta Berenguela, at Burgos in May. A comparison of the oriental and the occidental crusades surely must have taken place. After the wedding, in the presence of his mother and his court, Fernando III expressed his belief that it was time, unless he should seem weak and ineffectual,

to serve God against the enemies of the Christian faith. The gate is indeed open and the way is clear. There is peace in our kingdom while discord and capital hatreds, divisions, and quarrels are newly arisen among the Moors. Christ, God and Man, is on our side, but on the side of the Moors is the unfaithful and damned apostate, Muḥammad. What is there to do? I beseech you, most clement mother, to whom, after God, I hold whatever I have, that it may please you that I should go to war against the Moors.

After consulting the barons, Queen Berenguela agreed that it was time to abandon the truce and to make war. In the Curia of Carrión in July the decision was taken that all should be ready at the beginning of September. None of the sources mentions whether Fernando III and his barons took the crusader’s vow, but it would seem to have been an appropriate time to do so. The phrase “in fulfillment of his vow” (quasi uoti compos) used by the author of the Latin Chronicle suggests that the king took the vow at this time. Archbishop Rodrigo’s statement that the king “wished to dedicate the first fruits of his knighthood to the Lord” also suggests the taking of a vow. Perhaps it was at Carrión that the masters of Calatrava, Santiago, the Temple, and the prior of the Hospital promised to cooperate “against the enemies of the cross of Christ.”

The campaign in the fall of 1224 resulted in the capture of Quesada, about twenty miles southeast of Úbeda, but the Muslims soon reoccupied it. In March 1225 Abū Zayd, the governor of Valencia, kissed Fernando III’s hand in vassalage and his brother, Abū Muḥammad, commonly called al-Bayāsī, the governor of Baeza, did so in June; he also promised to surrender Martos, Andújar, and Jaén, once he recovered them. Thus, while acknowledging the caliph, the two brothers hoped to maintain themselves in the midst of the general confusion. Meantime, Fernando III, “having a firm and irrevocable purpose of destroying that cursed race [the Muslims],” laid waste the region around Jaén and advanced toward Granada whose people, in return for his promise to depart, liberated 1,300 Christian captives. After the king’s lieutenants inflicted a major defeat on Abū-l-ʿUlā, one of the claimants to the caliphal title, near Seville, Córdoba and many other towns acknowledged al-Bayāsī as their ruler.

Among the magnates engaged in this war was Alfonso Téllez de Meneses. Commending him for struggling “manfully against the Saracens in the affair of the Christian faith in Spain,” Honorius III allowed him to use the tercias or third of the tithe in the province of Toledo to defend Alburquerque, a fortress set on a rocky promontory in Extremadura about twenty-five miles northwest of Badajoz near the Portuguese frontier; the pope also commanded the Military Orders to aid Alfonso. Alburquerque was the likely setting for Cantiga 205 relating the siege of a frontier castle by the knights of Santiago and Calatrava, under Alfonso’s command. During the summer of 1225, Alfonso, the bishop of Cuenca, and the urban militias invaded the kingdom of Murcia, controlled by Abū Zayd of Valencia, who had repudiated his vassalage to Fernando III. Archbishop Rodrigo granted remission of sins to all those who helped for a month to fortify the castle of Aliaguilla about fifty miles southeast of Cuenca. Alfonso’s brother, Bishop Tello of Palencia, “fired by zeal for the Christian faith,” and inspired to participate in the “affair being carried out against the Saracens of Spain,” received Honorius III’s permission to use his diocesan tercias for that purpose. The pope also urged the clergy and people of Palencia to provide the bishop with “a moderate subsidy” for the war against the Muslims.

Early in the fall, on 25 September, the pope congratulated Fernando III and remarked:

Although the affair begun against the Saracens of Spain is the business of all the faithful because it pertains to Christ and to the Christian faith, there is no doubt that it pertains especially to you and to the other kings of Spain because they [the Saracens] remain in occupation of your land, to the very grave injury to all Christendom.

As the king, “fired by zeal for the faith,” had “begun to fight vigorously against the enemies of the cross,” Pope Honorius, in response to the royal petition, conceded to everyone who, “having taken up the sign of the cross,” participated in the Spanish wars the indulgence extended by the Fourth Lateran Council to crusaders going to the Holy Land. Designating Archbishop Rodrigo and Bishop Mauricio of Burgos as protectors of “the crusaders of the kingdom of Castile” (crucesignatis regni Castelle), he commanded them to publicize the indulgence. One would assume that if Fernando III had not taken the cross during the Curia of Carrión in 1224, then he certainly would have done so in response to this papal concession of crusading indulgences.

Around the feast of All Saints (1 November), despite the harshness of the weather, the king returned to the frontier, summoning al-Bayāsī to appear before him and to surrender Andújar, Martos, and other castles and to admit a Castilian garrison into the citadel of Baeza to guarantee the transfer of custody. In the following spring, while Fernando III besieged Capilla, about fifty-five miles west of Ciudad Real, the people of Córdoba assassinated al-Bayāsī; as a consequence the Castilians garrisoned in Baeza seized the entire town. The defenders of Capilla, seeing that they could expect no relief, capitulated and were allowed to depart, taking their movable goods with them. The archbishop of Toledo, the bishop of Palencia, and others cleansed the mosque of Capilla “of all the filthiness of the Muḥammadan superstition” and “dedicated the church . . . to Jesus Christ, celebrating mass and the divine office with great joy.” Fernando III then returned to Toledo and would not reappear on the frontier for several years.

Perhaps having agreed to act jointly with his son, Alfonso IX carried out an expedition in the vicinity of Badajoz on the Guadiana River in July 1226. In preparation for that campaign Martín Muñiz, known as Falcón, drew up his will in April, declaring: “I am crossed with the sign of the cross [Cruciatus sum cum signo crucis] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and for love of my lord the archbishop and I wish to go with him in the host against the Saracens to serve him and the lord king Alfonso and I wish everything to be in order if perchance I should die.” The new king of Portugal, Sancho II (1223–48), also took the offensive, laying waste the area around Elvas, about twelve miles west of Badajoz, and destroying its walls.

Rising hostility in Spain toward the Almohads, meanwhile, prompted Ibn Hūd (1228–38), descended from the former kings of Zaragoza, to rebel at Murcia. Condemning the Almohads as heretics, he declared that the caliph of Baghdad was Muḥammad’s true successor. In order to contain the uprising, Caliph Abū-l-ʿUlā, probably in November, concluded a truce for one year with Castile promising to pay tribute, but his departure for Morocco in the following year left Islamic Spain to its own defenses.

The new pope, Gregory IX (1227–41), continued his predecessor’s policy of encouraging the crusade in Spain while also attempting to persuade the Spanish clergy and laity to lend financial support to the oriental crusade. When the Castilian clergy protested that Fernando III was taking the tercias for his campaigns, the pope initially ordered him to desist, but later praised his efforts to extend the Christian religion, and advised the bishops to provide the king with financial support. It is also likely that the papal legate Jean Halgrin d’Abbeville, cardinal bishop of Santa Sabina, who convened several councils in all the Christian kingdoms in 1228–29 to promote the reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council, exhorted the Christian rulers to take up arms against the Muslims, as his contemporary, Lucas of Túy, indicated. Gregory IX had, in fact, authorized his legate to grant the usual indulgences to those who did so and to employ ecclesiastical censures against any Christian ruler who invaded the territory of his Christian neighbors.

The Last Crusade of Alfonso IX of León

Indeed, Lucas stated that on that account Alfonso IX, aided by Castilian troops (chiefly knights of Calatrava) besieged and captured Cáceres in the summer of 1227. Nevertheless, the legate had not yet arrived in Spain, so the fall of Cáceres cannot be attributed to his encouragement. The settlement charter given to Cáceres declared that “our Lord Jesus Christ, who never refuses the prayers of the Christian people, gave Cáceres to the Christians. . . . The pagan people were expelled from it and it was restored to Christian society.” No doubt like many others intending to join the king, Fernando Suárez, “wishing to go in the expedition against the Moors,” made his will.

After the knights of Santiago and others took Montánchez, about twenty-five miles southeast of Cáceres, the king in the spring of 1230 besieged Mérida on the Guadiana River, another twenty-five miles directly south. The defenders appealed to Ibn Hūd, who was now widely recognized as king by the Muslims of Seville, Córdoba, Jaén, and Granada. Determined to oppose further Leonese expansion, he advanced to Alange, about eight miles southeast of Mérida, where he was routed by Alfonso IX. According to Lucas of Túy “the blessed St. James visibly appeared in this battle with a host of white knights who valiantly overthrew the Moors.” Once Mérida was taken in March 1230, the king of León moved against Badajoz, which quickly surrendered on Pentecost Sunday, 26 May. Deploring the loss of this region, the seventeenth-century historian al-Maqqarī expressed the pious hope, “may God restore it to the rule of Islam!” Bishoprics were soon established in both Mérida and Badajoz, although the metropolitan status of the former see, dating to Visigothic times, was not restored, its rights having been transferred to Santiago de Compostela.

News of the fall of Mérida prompted the Muslims of Elvas, about twelve miles west of Badajoz, to flee. Portuguese knights, who had been campaigning with Alfonso IX, occupied the fortress and informed Sancho II, who took possession of it, as well as Juromenha about twelve miles farther south. Alfonso IX’s next goal was to move on Seville but he died on 24 September 1230 en route to Santiago de Compostela to give thanks for his triumph. The king who had once been himself the object of a crusade died as a crusader and, no longer excommunicated, was given the honors of Christian burial in the cathedral of Santiago.

Unaware of the king’s death, Gregory IX authorized Archbishop Pedro of Compostela to commute the vow of any Leonese crusaders (crucesignati) planning to go to the Holy Land so that they might participate in the Spanish crusade. Now that the Muslims were put to flight, the pope encouraged the people to help retain the places conquered by giving their personal or financial support. Assuring them that this cause was a matter of eternal salvation, he conferred the indulgence for a term of four years.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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