The July 16 1212 battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (Spanish:Batalla de Las Navas de Tolosa / Arabic:معركة العقاب) is considered a major turning point in the history of Medieval Iberia. The forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castile were joined by the armies of his Christian rivals, Sancho VII of Navarre, Pedro II of Aragon and Afonso II of Portugal in battle against the Berber Muslim Almohad rulers of the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula. The sultan Caliph al-Nasir (Miramamolín in the Spanish chronicles) led the Almohad army, made up of people from the whole Almohad empire. Most of the men in the Almohad army came from the African side of the empire, which included Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, Mauritania and that part of the Iberian peninsula south of Las Navas de Tolosa.
In 1195, Alfonso VIII of Castile had been defeated by the Almohads in the so-called Disaster of Alarcos
. After this victory the Almohads had taken important cities as Trujillo
. Then, in 1211, Muhammad al-Nasir
had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar
with a powerful war machine, and invaded the Christian territory and captured the stronghold of the Calatrava Knights
. After this, the threat was so great for the Iberian Christian kingdoms that the Pope Innocent III
called European knights to a crusade
After some disagreements among the members of the Christian coalition, Alfonso managed to cross the mountain range that defended the Almohad camp, sneaking through the Despeñaperros Pass
, so that the Christian coalition caught by surprise and smashed the Moorish army that left some 100,000 casualties at the battleground. The battle was a bloody and decisive encounter.
The Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir himself died shortly after the battle in Marrakesh
, where he had fled after the defeat. Later tales relate that the culmination of the battle took place when Sancho VII of Navarre himself broke into the Caliph's fortified camp, broke up the defensive ring and disbanded al-Nasir's personal bodyguard; nonetheless Muhammad al-Nasir managed to escape. After that, the Christian army engaged in the annihilation of the Muslim troops, so that very few of them could escape the killing.
Despite legends that Christian casualties were very few, in fact they were some 2,000 men, and particularly heavy among the Orders. Those killed included Pedro Gomez de Acevedo (bannerman of the Orden de Calatrava), Alfonso Fernandez de Valladares (comendator of the Orden de Santiago), Pedro Arias (master of the Orden de Santiago, died of wounds on 3 August) and Gomez Ramirez (master of the Orden del Templo). Ruy Diaz (master of the Orden de Calatrava) was so grievously wounded that he had to resign his command.
According to legend, the emir had his tent surrounded with chained slaves as a defence.
The Navarrese however cut the chains and broke into the tent.
As a memorial, the kingdom of Navarre changed its coat of arms to one depicting a golden chain on a gules field with an emerald.
The crushing defeat of the Almohads significantly hastened their decline both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Maghreb
a decade later, this would give further momentum to the Christian Reconquest
begun by the kingdoms of northern Iberia centuries before, resulting in a sharp reduction in the already declining power of the Moors
in the Iberian Peninsula. Shortly after the battle, the Castilians took Baeza
and then Úbeda
, major fortified cities near the battlefield, and gateways to invade Andalucia
. Thereafter, Ferdinand III of Castile
in 1236, Jaén
in 1246, and Seville
in 1248; then he took Arcos
. After this chain of victories, only Ferdinand's death prevented the Castilians from crossing the Gibraltar Strait to take the war to the heartland of the Almohad empire. Ferdinand III died in Seville on May 30
, when a plague spread over the southern part of the Iberian peninsula while he was preparing his army and fleet to cross the Gibraltar Strait. On the Mediterranean coast, Jaime I
, proceeded to conquer the Balearic Islands
(from 1228 over the following four years) and Valencia
(the city capitulated September 28
By the year 1252, the Almohad empire was almost over, at the mercy of another emerging African power. In 1269, a new association of African tribes, the Marinid, had taken control of the Maghreb, and most of the former Almohad empire was under their rule. Later, the Merinid tried to recover the former Almohad territories in the Iberian peninsula, but they were definitively defeated by Sancho IV, Ferdinand's grandson, and King Afonso IV of Portugal in the Battle of Salado, the last major military encounter between large Christian and Muslim armies in the Iberian peninsula.
In 1294 Sancho IV retook Tarifa, key to the control of the Gibraltar Strait; and Granada, Almería and Málaga were the only major Muslim cities of the time in the Iberian peninsula. These three cities were the core of the Nazhari Kingdom of Granada, which was a vassal state of Castile, until the kingdom was finally taken by the Catholic Kings in 1492.