Las Navas de Tolosa: the pitched battle that changed the history of Spain forever

“Never have so many and such iron weapons been seen in Spain”, wrote the Castilian chancellor Juan de Soria in reference to the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. There, in a place in Sierra Morena, on Monday July 16, 1212 a crusader army led by Alfonso VIII, king of Castile, and which included two other Hispanic kings (Peter II of Aragon and Sancho VII of Navarra) at the head of the contingents recruited in their respective kingdoms, the hosts of the military orders of Santiago, Calatrava, the Temple and the Hospital, as well as a multitude of volunteers (Leonese and Portuguese, thousands of “ultramontane” crusaders), sought battle against a Muslim army gathered to wage war against the infidel by the Almohad caliph Muhammad al-Násir, prince of believers.

Numerous sources say that the fight was unique. “The doors of Andalusian Islam were opened to the Christian kingdoms; the Almohad empire, and with it al-Andalus, was sinking.” A decisive milestone in Castilian territorial expansion. This marked the definitive setback of al-Andalus and the date became a turning point in relations between Muslims and Christians in the Iberian Peninsula.. “Contemporaries gave the battle exceptional importance and some of the direct witnesses or those who had access to first-hand information were in charge of spreading the news,” explains Francisco García Fitz, author of Las Navas de Tolosa. The battle of punishment(Wake up Ferro) and “the greatest expert” on the subject, as the editorial presents this doctor in History from the University of Seville and professor of Medieval History at the University of Extremadura.

Through various channels, the news of the Christian victory ended up reaching all ends of continental Europe, the British Isles and the Mediterranean. “We have more than 170 mentions of the battle in chronicles and annals from all these areas”, assures the historian. “Without a doubt,” he continues, “there is no particular war event, at least in the medieval Iberian Peninsula, that has received greater attention from contemporaries, that had such extensive diffusion and to which so much importance was attached (… .) There are historical events that mark an entire generation and that have such an impact on contemporaries that they not only cause an explosion of testimonies, but also create a trail of memory that extends widely over time and reaches to this day.“.

García Fitz describes in his work how the spears and swords locked together not far from Despeñaperros; blood and sweat soaked gambesons and chain mail, neighs and moans of agony echoed in the cliffs, on that torrid day, until the furious charge of the Christian rear decided the day, destroying the Almohad palenque and breaking the black guard who, Chained, she defended the Miramolín store.

The expert includes it in the review that twenty years ago after his own study on the battle of Las Navas, an absolute reference on the subject for, among others, Arturo Pérez-Reverte: “I would never have dared to go to Las Navas without refreshing the classics; among them, the fundamental book by García Fitz”.

An exercise in “total history” – they explain in Desperta Ferro – in which the author once again examines the politics, society, mentalities and ways of waging war of this key moment of our Middle Ages based on recent findings and research carried out (many of them driven by the eighth centenary of the battle): “This new edition, in addition to providing the reader or scholar with this necessary historiographical update, could not do without the advances that have been made in the field of historical cartography nor of the reproduction of images that, from a graphic perspective, enrich the context of the event,” says García Fitz of a text that maintains the “backbone” of the original monograph.

Work in which the work of editing and universal dissemination of the thousands of chronicle and documentary testimonies that are now available to everyone stands out “thanks to the enormous work of Martín Alvira”, he acknowledges, but also “The beginning of the systematic prospecting and excavation campaigns that have begun to be carried out on the battlefield is especially notable and encouraging”.

In this volume, the historian, in line with the chroniclers of yesteryear, does not hesitate to affirm that What happened on July 16 “was truly extraordinary” despite the fact that the political mechanisms that were put in place, the institutional, economic, military and ideological resources that were involved, and even the way in which the adversaries finally confronted each other on the battlefield, are not out of time and place. , but rather they are those of a specific era and specific societies. “Precisely for this reason the study of a battle cannot be apart from history, from the institutions, from the economy, from society, from ideology, from the political developments of which it is a part,” maintains García Fitz.

At the crossroads of 1212, many of the lines of action and relationships that had been unfolding in the Hispanic political landscape for some time converged, which led to the formation of what the expert describes as two great “fronts”: one Christian, led by the Castile of Alfonso VIII, flanked by the kings of Aragon and Navarre, reinforced by Portuguese and Leonese troops, sponsored and supported by the pope, and supported by a part of “ultramontane” Christianity through the crusade; and another Muslim, headed by the Almohad caliph, which encompassed the most significant forces of Western Islam, both in the Maghreb and al-Andalus. The clash at Las Navas was nothing more than the collision of these two formations that converged that year. “Of course, in the Iberian sphere it was not the first time that two large political-military formations met face to face, but until the summer of 1212 the contenders had never had an arsenal of military and logistical resources like the one they had achieved. gather for this occasion”. It is difficult to make an exact calculation of the volume of the heterogeneous Christian contingent, but the “most prudent and realistic” estimates speak of 12,000 troops (4,000 knights and 8,000 pawns).

But one of the keys is in the type of war that was carried out at that point in the Middle Ages. The most recent studies have shown that most of the campaigns revolved “around the control of space,” says García Fitz. In a castellated world like the medieval one, any attempt to exercise control over the population that lived in a certain environment required conquering the strong points that articulated it, something that, in principle, was only possible by establishing a siege. However, it has been proven that the defensive capacity of a well-equipped garrison, supplied and protected by a wall was much more efficient than the offensive activities of a besieging army. For this reason, it was necessary that, before siege operations began, a gradually wear down the resources of defenders, a practice that was carried out by carrying out rides whose objective was not the conquest of the fortress whose dominion was intended, but the destruction of its economic resources and its consequent destabilization. This explains why most of the military operations were sieges or destruction raids, which represented the daily life of medieval warfare.

everything was different

But Las Navas was different: “I am not sure that the Almohad caliph ever considered that the breaking of the truces with Castile had to be resolved through a battle in the open field. On the contrary, the analysis of his decisions and “His movements, confirmed by some of the testimonies that have reached us, show that at all times he tried to avoid it. His strategy was prudent and adjusted to the usual ways of waging war.”. On the contrary, the case of Alfonso VIII is completely different. The historian has no doubts “because the testimonies in this regard are conclusive”: the king of Castile planned the campaign, from the end of 1211, thinking of settling the conflict through a pitched battle. In reality, his attitude towards the frontal clash was unusual: if the military “paradigm” of the time was to avoid battles as much as possible or to seek them when starting from a situation of clear superiority or a context in which Since there was no other option, Alfonso VIII went against the paradigm and did everything in his power to meet the caliphal troops in the open field.” This was what he announced months before: his only objective was to defeat the caliph in a pitched battle.

If the chroniclers who knew him are right, García Fitz justifies, “the humiliation suffered in Alarcos had not disappeared from his mind and the only way to get revenge was in the open field.”

Even so, The defeat did not mean the immediate disappearance of Almohad military power, which would last on the peninsula for another decade and a half, and with it the prolongation of the war. There were 280 years left for the Castilians to place their flags in the Alhambra. Therefore, the professor sees it as too daring to speak of Las Navas de Tolosa as the “beginning of the end.” He breaks the myth. “After all, the Islamic powers on the peninsula would last until the end of the 15th century, experiencing very long periods of stability between 1212 and 1492, represented by a basically stable border, the Castilian-Nasrid one.”


In Las Navas, not only two large armies collided, but also two powerful ideologies legitimizing war: jihad and crusade. “Since the beginning of the 12th century, the Papacy had equated the fight on the Iberian borders against the Muslims with the Jerusalem scenario. For all legal, spiritual and penitential purposes, those Hispanic campaigns that were protected by the popes under the mantle of a bull of crusades must be considered crusades, without any distinction with respect to the oriental ones. If we may be joking, comments García Fitz, it makes no sense for a historian of the 20th or 21st century to discuss with Innocent III what can be considered a crusade. crusade and what not”. On the other hand, the historian also has reasons to talk about jihad in the Almohad part: it was “another military tool to achieve their objectives of religious reform and political unity. First they used it, primarily, against the Almoravids, and later against the Christians.” peninsular. The language and jihadist scenography flood the speeches of the Almohad leaders and the testimonies of the chroniclers.

  • “Las Navas de Tolosa. The battle of punishment” (Desperta Ferro), by Francisco García Fitz, 672 pages, 28.95 euros.