The Reconquista 1212–1222

An extraordinary transformation of the political landscape occurred in the nearly forty years following the Crusade of Las Navas de Tolosa. As the Almohads struggled to survive in Morocco, Spanish Muslims asserted their independence, but the Christians, taking advantage of Muslim disunity, demanded tribute, set rival Muslim leaders against one another, and eventually conquered Muslim cities and towns. Once again northern crusaders collaborated with the Portuguese in taking Alcácer do Sal, while the Catalans conquered Mallorca, the Leonese captured Mérida and Badajoz, and the Castilians seized Córdoba, once the seat of the Caliphate.

Innocent III, convinced that the danger posed by the Almohads to Spain and to Christendom had been repulsed and that the Albigensian heresy had been contained, determined to direct western energy to the recovery of the Holy Land. When he convoked the Fourth Lateran Council in 1213, he “revoked the remissions and indulgences granted by us to those going to Spain against the Muslims or against the heretics in Provence,” because of the succ7ess achieved in both regions. The Council, in 1215, launched the Fifth Crusade and also imposed a tax of one-twentieth on ecclesiastical income for three years to support the enterprise. When the Spanish bishops attending the Council asked the pope to extend the crusading indulgence to those fighting the Muslims in Spain, he replied that if a war against the Muslims were undertaken there he would gladly do so.1 In making that response he was no doubt well aware that a decade might pass before any of the Christian kings (except Alfonso IX of León) would be in condition to undertake a crusade against Spanish Islam. The minorities of Enrique I of Castile (1214–17), Jaime I of Aragón (1213–76), and the Almohad Caliph Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf II al-Mustanṣir (1213–24) precluded any significant military action and dictated the necessity of seeking a truce and prolonging it until more favorable circumstances.

Pope Innocent’s death in 1216 left this issue as well as the prosecution of the Fifth Crusade to his successor, Honorius III (1216–27), who exhorted everyone who had taken the cross to fulfill their crusading vows.

The Crusade of Alcácer do Sal

The Fifth Crusade, in which the Spanish Cardinal Pelagius served as papal legate, had a direct impact in Spain when a fleet of about 300 ships carrying crusaders from Frisia and the Rhineland reached Galicia in June 1217.4 After making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela they sailed to Lisbon, arriving on 10 July. Afonso II of Portugal (1211–23) apparently made no effort to use their services, lest he be seen as violating the truce with the Almohads. Nevertheless, Bishops Sueiro of Lisbon and Sueiro of Évora, joined by the Cistercian abbot of Alcobaça, the commander of Palmela, the Templars, Hospitallers, and magnates tried to persuade the crusaders to collaborate in an attack on Alcácer do Sal on the river Sado about forty miles south of Lisbon. Alcácer had changed hands more than once and had been lost again in 1191. Besides offering to provide food and expenses, the Portuguese attempted to rouse the crusaders by announcing that the Almohads demanded an annual tribute of 100 Christians. Citing Innocent III’s revocation of crusading indulgences in Spain, however, the Frisians departed for the Holy Land with about eighty ships on 26 July. After plundering Santa María de Faro and Rota on the southern coast, they stopped at Cádiz, whose terrified people fled; passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, they sailed up to Tortosa and Barcelona and thence to the orient. Despite that defection, Count William of Holland and Count George of Wied concluded that their presence in the Holy Land would be of limited use, because the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and many German princes had not yet set out; thus they opted to remain with 180 ships.

The fleet reached Alcácer do Sal on 30 July and the arrival of the Portuguese three days later completed the siege. The bishops preached and imposed the sign of the cross “on almost everyone in our dioceses and indeed in all the dioceses of the realm.” The crusaders attempted to mine the walls but the Muslims impeded them; however, one tower collapsed in part around 24 August. The Muslim governors of Seville, Córdoba, Jaén, and Badajoz attempted to relieve the beleaguered fortress but were thoroughly defeated on 11 September. The crusaders attributed their victory to three miracles: first, the day before the battle, “at evening the triumphant sign of the holy cross appeared in the sky as a sign of victory;” secondly, after mid-night, Pedro Alvítiz, the master of the Temple in Spain, arrived with reinforcements; thirdly, a heavenly host of knights all clad in white appeared in the battle, blinding the Muslims in a shower of arrows. The defenders of Alcácer attempted to hold on, but as no further succor appeared, they had to surrender on 18 October 1217.

The Portuguese then appealed to the pope to permit the northerners to remain for a year “for the liberation of Spain” and “the extirpation of the perfidious cult of the pagans.” In addition they asked that Portuguese crusaders and those who might assume the cross be granted the indulgence merited by persons going to the Holy Land and that the twentieth should be used for their war, as Innocent III had stipulated. Furthermore, crusaders who had been away for too long, or whose infirmity or poverty made it impossible for them to continue to the Holy Land, should be allowed to return home with full remission of sins. Torn between his pledge to go to the Holy Land and the prospect of more victories in Spain, Count William of Holland informed the pope that Alfonso IX of León, Sancho VII of Navarre, and many Spanish prelates and nobles had taken the cross and broken their truces with the Muslims in the hope that the northerners would continue the crusade in the following summer. Though he congratulated them on their victory, Honorius III commanded the northerners to continue to the Holy Land, leaving Alcácer do Sal to the Portuguese; those lacking the means to do so could be absolved of their crusade vow. Thus at the end of March the northern crusaders set sail from Lisbon, arriving at Acre in late April and May 1218.

Alcácer do Sal, whose conquest was the only positive outcome of the Fifth Crusade, was turned over to the knights of Santiago, who made it their headquarters and began the advance further into the Alentejo and the Algarve.

The Crusades of Archbishop Rodrigo of Toledo and Alfonso IX

About the same time as the fall of Alcácer do Sal, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, archbishop of Toledo, hoping perhaps to lay hands on the twentieth intended for the Fifth Crusade, resolved to organize his own crusade, in spite of the truce with the Almohads. Appointing the archbishop as his legate, Honorius III on 30 January 1218 authorized him to lead a crusade: “When kings with one accord set out to war against” the Muslims, Rodrigo “like another Joshua will lead you to wrest from their hands the land which they have occupied and where they have profaned the sanctuaries of God.” The legate’s first task, however, was to bring about peace between Castile and León.

After the sudden death of Enrique I of Castile, his older sister Berenguela was acclaimed as queen, but she ceded her rights to her son, Fernando III (1217–52). His father, Alfonso IX of León, from whom she had been divorced because of consanguinity, was determined to recreate his grandfather’s Hispanic empire by reuniting the two kingdoms. The pope, commenting that dissension among Christians encouraged the Muslims who would never leave Spain of their own volition, warned him to preserve the peace and to collaborate with Archbishop Rodrigo in his crusade against the Muslims. Early in 1218 Alfonso IX acknowledged his son as king of Castile and both men pledged to act in unison against all enemies. Fernando III promised, once his truce with the Muslims expired, to collaborate with his father against them. Meantime Castilians wishing to assist the king of León would be permitted to do so.

Inasmuch as Archbishop Rodrigo and certain magnates had “assumed the living cross” and were determined “to rip from the hands of the Muslims the land they held to the injury of the Christian name,” the pope on 15 March 1219 offered remission of sins to those personally participating in the crusade; those who paid the expenses of others or contributed financially would also receive the indulgence. Anyone taking “the sign of the cross” with the intention of going to the Holy Land, with the exception of magnates and knights, unless they were ill or poor, was authorized to fulfill his obligation in Spain. The archbishop was allowed to use half of the twentieth from the sees of Toledo and Segovia for his crusade and to distribute among the crusaders (crucesignatos) a third of the tithe collected in the province of Toledo for three years.

Although Navarre did not have a contiguous boundary with al-Andalus, Sancho VII, “burning with zeal for the Christian faith . . . took the sign of the cross to set out against the Moors of Spain.” The pope commanded Archbishop Rodrigo to protect Navarre against invasion by its neighbors and to admonish Sancho VII not to injure the kingdom of Aragón during his crusade. Quite possibly the king joined the archbishop in an expedition into the kingdom of Valencia in September 1219. Several castles were taken and Requena, about forty miles west of Valencia, was besieged; but after the loss of 2,000 men the siege was abandoned on 11 November.

Pleased with Archbishop Rodrigo’s success thus far, the pope now permitted him to appropriate the entire twentieth from the province of Toledo for use in his crusade during the next three years (4 February 1220). Within five months, however, Honorius III, irritated that conflicts among the Christians were diverting attention from the crusade, revoked his concession, insisting that the entire twentieth should now be used solely for the Fifth Crusade. Despite that, Rodrigo laid siege to Requena again in the summer of 1220, but with no better success. For all practical purposes his crusade had achieved little other than the seizure of several castles. Sancho VII of Navarre, who complained that while he was on the frontier, “having assumed the cross against the Moors,” the Aragonese plundered his kingdom, may also have taken part in this crusade.

Archbishop Rodrigo’s crusade would seem to have been in violation of the truce with the Almohads, but a campaign in the kingdom of Valencia may have been construed as only an indirect threat to the caliph. Violations occurred on both sides, as an agreement between the masters of Calatrava and Santiago in August 1221 makes clear. Promising mutual assistance in case of Muslim attacks, they agreed to fight as a unit and to divide booty equally. For the time being, however, Fernando III was unprepared to break the truce, and renewed it in October.

Meanwhile, in 1217, Alfonso IX, who had taken the crusader’s vow, granted the recently conquered fortress of Alcántara on the Tagus River to the Order of Calatrava. In July of the following year Calatrava ceded Alcántara to the Leonese Order of San Julián del Pereiro, thereby satisfying the king’s desire to create an autonomous branch of Calatrava in his kingdom. The presence on that occasion of the masters of Calatrava and the Temple, and the prior of the Hospital, suggests that a military campaign was discussed. In November the “friars of the Orders of Spain began a crusade” (fizieron cruzada), aided by men from Castile, León, Gascony, and other kingdoms, including Savaric de Mauléon, former castellan of Bedford. They besieged Cáceres, a long-time objective of Alfonso IX, but heavy rains and flooding forced them to withdraw by Christmastime.

Two years later, Honorius III, reacting to a complaint by the master of Calatrava that the kings of Spain—he clearly meant Fernando III—prohibited the Order from responding in kind to Muslim attacks, warned the kings not to impede those wishing to assist the knights. To anyone who helped to defend the Order he extended the indulgence already granted to those combating the Muslims and especially to Alfonso IX, “who has assumed the cross.” In the hope that Spanish Christians might achieve a success comparable to the capture of Damietta by the Fifth Crusade, Honorius III on 13 February 1221 granted absolution of sins to those who joined the king of León in the struggle against the Muslims. The same privilege was offered to financial contributors and to those paying the expenses of others. It seems quite ironic that Alfonso IX, against whom Pope Celestine III had proclaimed a crusade in 1197, should now declare himself a crusader and thus profit from the spiritual benefits that that entailed. He may be the only figure of his time to be both the object of a crusade and the leader of a crusade.

Alfonso IX evidently convened his Curia at Zamora in November 1221 to organize a crusade against Cáceres for the following May. Expressing his desire to “exalt the Catholic faith and suppress the wickedness of the Moors,” Bishop Martín Rodríguez of Zamora declared that “in this year we took care to sign ourselves in God with the sign of cross, so that we might obtain indulgence from Christ, as our sins require.” The king told him to be prepared for war by 1 May. Although these documents are undated, the probability is that the bishop took the crusader’s vow during the Curia of Zamora. A formulaic letter in which an unnamed bishop, perhaps the bishop of Zamora, requested 1,000 gold pieces from an abbot “because we will be with the king of León on 1 May to invade the frontier” is certainly related to this crusade. The same is true for a letter of the master of the Temple “in the whole of Spain” (Pedro Alvítiz), requiring his subordinates to provide him with money, because he intended to set out for Muslim territory around Eastertime (3 April 1222), and did not have the wherewithal to do so. With the help of the Military Orders, Alfonso IX “made a crusade” (fizo cruzada), besieging Cáceres in the summer of 1222. The Christians knocked down towers and seemed on the verge of taking it when the caliph in Morocco offered to pay a substantial sum if Alfonso IX would withdraw; although he did so the caliph failed to fulfill his promise. Apparently Alfonso IX made another unsuccessful attack on Cáceres in the following year.