Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa: An important milestone of the Reconquista

At first light on Monday, July 16, 1212, not far from the present-day town of Santa Elena (Jaén), two massive armies lined up opposite one another to begin a pitched clash that would become one of the great military milestones in the history of the Reconquista and come to be known as the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

The Reconquista of southern Spain by the Christian kingdoms was mostly successful because of the pivotal Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, which took place on July 16, 1212. The Reconquista was halted in 1086 when the Almoravid counterattack ended a first phase that concluded with the seizure of Toledo in 1085. Beginning in the middle of the 12th century, the Christian kingdoms began their advance, only to run across yet another Berber dynasty in the form of the Almohads. After their loss at Las Navas de Tolosa, the Almohad Empire disintegrated into a series of brief dynasties known as the Taifas, allowing the Christian monarchs to gain control of most of southern Spain.

The Almohads before Las Navas de Tolosa

The latter took over after the Almoravids, whom they had previously vanquished in the Maghreb and with whom they shared a common ancestry and driving forces. However, they had a unique political and theological doctrine that was founded on the ideas of a Mahdi named Ibn Tumart and had a global calling. His successors, who also declared themselves caliphs, were much more ambitious than the Almoravids. This concept, however, was incompatible with Malikite Sunnism, contributing to the inability to rally Andalusian citizens.

The Almohads eagerly regained control of Al Andalus from the Almoravids, retaking Cordoba in 1148, Granada in 1154, and, most notably, Almeria from the Christians in 1157. Like the Almoravids, they attempted to impose a doctrine of Holy War, and it paid off with the decisive victory at Alarcos in 1195. These successes, however, mask more serious challenges, especially in the face of Christians’ growing unity. This would lead to the defeat of Las Navas de Tolosa.

Christians unite around the kings of Aragon and Castile

There have been several efforts to bring the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula together since the conquest of Toledo in 1085. Without a male heir, King Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon gave the reins of government to his daughter Urraca, whom he had married off to King Alfonso I of Aragon in 1109. As a consequence, a civil war broke out, and Alfonso I withdrew after having his marriage annulled by the pope, making way for Alfonso VII, the son of Urraca and Raymond of Burgundy (who died in 1126), to ascend to the throne of Castile. His grandfather’s imperial aspirations were passed down to him, and he followed in his footsteps by becoming Alfonso I of Aragon. Upon his death in 1134, there was an immediate crisis in both Navarre and Aragon.

Due to the support of the counts of Barcelona, Toulouse, and Navarre, Alfonso VII was able to consolidate his imperial authority during the next twenty years. That doesn’t last long, though, because the Pope steps in and says he’s applying Alfonso I’s will (his States were to be yielded to the military religious orders to continue the crusade!). The situation was further complicated by the appearance at the same time of a new kingdom, that of Portugal, recognized by Alfonso VII. In 1139, Alfonso Henriquez was recognized as King of Portugal by the Pope.

Alfonso VII’s death in 1157 shifted the boundaries, but not toward unification; his kingdom was split between Sancho and Ferdinand, with Sancho inheriting Castile and Ferdinand taking Leon. Nonetheless, it seems that the rival sovereigns have not abandoned the concept of the Reconquista despite the disintegration of the Spanish empire.

A “crusade”?

Even while the Reconquista represented an abstract goal for the several Spanish monarchs, it didn’t always imply they were in agreement with one another or with regard to their respective territories. As a matter of fact, they fought amongst themselves over territory: Leon and Portugal fought over southern Galicia and the Algarve; Aragon (united with Catalonia in 1150) and Castile fought over the left bank of the Ebro and the kingdom of Murcia; and Castile and Navarre fought over the Rioja, Alava, and Guipuzcoa. After Alfonso VIII married the daughter of Henry II Plantagenet, Castile looked north, hoping to reach Biscay. King Ferdinand II of Castile married Louis, the son of King Philip Augustus of France, to his daughter Blanche in the early thirteenth century in an effort to strengthen his relationship with the latter and secure recognition of his claim to these territories (the future mother of a certain Saint Louis). Finally, Leon and Castile pose a danger to Portugal by attempting to divide it between them.

Castile and Aragon were a lot closer in terms of pursuing the Reconquista, therefore it was a plus. Beginning in 1170, after the turmoil in Spain subsides a little, this one picks back up where the last one left off, with the Almohads struggling to establish themselves in a region where the Andalusians are resistant to foreign rule for the same reasons they were resistant to the Almoravids. Without any significant conflicts, the war was fought mostly on the Tagus plateaus via the besieging of towns and fortresses.

Some foreign religious military organizations took part, such as the Templars and the Hospitallers, but the Spanish also established their own, such as the Order of Calatrava, which was officially recognized by Pope Alexander III in 1164. At this juncture in the 12th century, the sovereigns no longer have a monopoly on the struggle; they are “competing” with religious orders, clerics as important as Bernard of Clairvaux and his successors at Cîteaux, and the popes. This is how the Reconquista can be compared to the crusade in the East. The Reconquista is no longer only temporal but also spiritual.

The Almohads; a new threat

But this wasn’t sufficient! A new Almohad caliph landed in Tarifa in 1195 and defeated Alfonso VIII’s forces at the Battle of Alarcos, a setback similar to the one at Zallaqa in 1086 that slowed the Reconquista. The Christians eventually capitulated when Sancho VII of Navarre and Alfonso IX of Leon agreed to pay tribute to the Almohads and when Alfonso VIII of Castile signed a truce with the Caliph al-Nasir. The fighting between Castile and Navarre persisted.

Although the Christians were saved, this was only because the Caliph wanted to break the truce and go on the offensive in Al Andalus after his successes in Ifriqiya and the Balearic Islands (the capture of Majorca in 1203). In 1208, the Spanish kingdoms finally made peace with one another thanks to the efforts of Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada, the Archbishop of Toledo. More than fifty days were lost in the defense of Salvatierra by the warrior monks of the Order of Calatrava against the Almohad armies.

For this reason, on the feast of Pentecost in 1212, King Alfonso VIII assembled an enormous crusading army consisting not only of Castilians but also of troops from other Spanish kingdoms and French knights. It wasn’t just a desire to protect territory that motivated the fighters; religion played a role as well. Though, after the 30th of June’s reconquest of Calatrava, the French contingents reproached Alfonso VIII for being too lenient with the Muslim prisoners, and so they decided to leave the army. Eventually, more Spanish troops join them, and they all set out for Las Navas de Tolosa.

Aftermath of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

Finally, the king of Castile was able to rally the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre to his side. They resolved to attack the Almohads from behind on July 16, 1212, by going through the La Llosa Pass mountains. There was an imbalance in the number of soldiers present, with some reports claiming there were only 30,000 Almohads and 70,000 Christian troops. It is generally accepted that there were a disproportionately large number of male participants in the conflict, even though it is true that numbers in medieval sources should be treated with caution.

Peter II of Aragon’s army is on the left, Sancho VII of Navarre’s army is on the right, and Alfonso VIII of Castile’s army is in the middle. The Christians had a rough start to the conflict, taking fire from enemy arrows and then being charged by Berber and Andalusian light cavalry. The battle’s momentum must be turned around, and the Moslem army must be sent packing with the help of Alphonse VIII’s cavalry. Total and lasting success was achieved.

Not everyone in the West felt the effects of the Christian triumph at Las Navas de Tolosa right away, but it had far-reaching consequences. The Spanish under Alfonso VIII came out on top, while the Almohads saw the beginning of the end of their reign. In later years, the Caliphs even begged Christian sultans to aid them in their struggle against their rivals in the Maghreb.

After a lengthy pause, the Reconquista began again when it was time for the Christian kingdoms to restructure. Due to issues in the Maghreb (with the Marinids, for example), the Almohads were forced to leave Al Andalus, while the Christians were met with resistance by the Taifa emirs. However, the most significant Andalusian towns eventually fell: Cordoba in 1236, Seville in 1248, and Cadiz in 1263. The Emirate of Granada, where the Nasrid dynasty was created in the 1230s, was the last remaining stronghold, and it only lasted until 1492 thanks to the creation of new conflicts between Christian powers.

Nonetheless, the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa is a significant event in Reconquista history since it effectively signals the end and maybe the reversal of Muslim expansion into Andalusian territory. And it represents the religious fervor, or crusading zeal, that characterized the Reconquista in the second half of the 12th century.


  1. Rosado Llamas, María Dolores y Manuel Gabriel López Payer, La batalla de las Navas de Tolosa: historia y mito, Jaén, Caja Rural, 2001. ISBN 84-699-6793-2. Reeditado en 2012.
  2. Vara Thorbeck, Carlos, El lunes de Las Navas, Universidad de Jaén, 1999. Reeditado en Las Navas de Tolosa, 1212. La batalla que decidió la Reconquista, Barcelona, Edhasa, 2012.
  3. etton, Kenneth Meyer, A History of the Crusades, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), 423.
  4. Martín Alvira Cabrer: Las Navas de Tolosa, 1212: idea, liturgia y memoria de la batalla. Madrid 2012, p. 332
  5. López Payer, M. G. y Rosado Llamas, Mª D. (2002): La batalla de Las Navas de Tolosa, Madrid.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.