During the Third Crusade’s years, power in Spain swung back in the Muslim direction, but by the time of the Fourth Crusade, the Christians were again ascendant. As in the Middle East, the key to not losing was to stop infighting and join a larger movement. Human nature being what it is, that was always harder than it sounds.
By 1194, there were five important Christian kingdoms: Portugal (based in Lisbon, prize of the Second Crusade), Leon, Castile, Navarre, and Aragon. Navarre was the smallest, but it was also set most securely in the Pyrenees. The language of these kingdoms was halfway between Spanish and French, in fact nearly identical to the language of Provencal, home of the Cathars. There was minimal cultural barrier to French knights riding south to join these kingdoms’ Crusades, and the royal families on both sides of the mountains were tightly intermarried and related. Richard the Lion-Heart’s bride was from Navarre, and one of his sisters married the king of Castile.
In 1194, a truce between Castile and the Almohad king in Morocco expired. King Alfonso of Castile attacked Seville, with the help of the Order of Calatrava (Spain’s answer to the Knights of the Temple). The Almohad king, al-Mansur, brought a force from Africa to defend Muslim holdings, and the armies met at a field on the border of Castile. Alfonso had asked help from Leon and Aragon, but those reinforcements had not yet come. I don’t fully understand how battles were joined at that time; there seems to have been an element of choice, often. Either king could have held back and just stayed out of reach, waiting. In any event, Alfonso did not wait, and in the battle, Castile lost badly. The losses were so severe that they abandoned the castles along their southern border. Toledo, the most important Christian capital of the time, was threatened.
Alfonso of Castile began building a stronger coalition and planning more carefully. Fifteen years passed, during which his southern border was never safe, and at any time, Muslims probably could have taken Toledo. But Alfonso’s luck held; the Almohads would generally rather go home to Morocco (much like the Franks wanting to go home from the Holy Land), so they made no determined effort. Finally the kings of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal agreed on a joint effort to drive the Almohads farther south. This was a diplomatic coup, since the Christian kingdoms were themselves often at war. One source says that the King of Portugal arrived at the truce meeting on a dragon, with a Berber in a box. But that’s the internet for you.
In 1211, the Almohads captured Salvatierra Castle, which the Order of Calatrava had just built to replace the castles lost in the 1190s. Interesting bit of trivia about the current Almohad Caliph, whose name was Mohammed al-Nasir: Matthew Paris, the English chronicler, claims that King John sent envoys to Morocco asking for military help in exchange for his own conversion to Islam. It’s a stretch. If John’s envoys actually had some other message, then it’s just interesting that Matthew Paris thought the scuttlebutt he picked up about a conversion offer was plausible enough to report. Just imagine England minus the Magna Carta, plus Almohad-style Islam!
In any case, the Almohad gains were very bad news for the Christian towns along the southern border. To stop the Almohads from going further north, Pope Innocent III (the one in Rome) proclaimed a new Crusade. French knights who had missed the Holy Land voyages or couldn’t stomach fighting French villagers now came to join the combined Christian armies.
The story says that a shepherd helped the Christian armies come through a pass in the Sierra Morena mountains, while the African army was off its guard, thinking the mountains impassable. The pass they used was actually a very ancient road in this region; there are prehistoric cave paintings in the Despeñaperros Canyon. Perhaps the secret lay in knowing enough different paths that a large army could assemble on the other side fairly quickly, instead of trickling in, single file, over the course of a day. In any case, the shepherd marked the road with a cow’s skull and was rewarded with the hereditary title “Cabeza de Vaca” (Cow’s head). His descendant Alvar Nunez made the title famous when he explored the New World.
The surprise attack worked, and the Almohad army was devastated. The Caliph escaped, but his survival in this case did not amount to success. In the next years, all of the Christian kingdoms pressed their advantage by seizing border cities, then farther and farther south. The original Castilian King Alfonso’s grandson Ferdinand took Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248. In 1252, he was preparing to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, taking the battle to Morocco, but when he died these plans were abandoned. Still, talk about momentum! You can also see the Kingdom of Castile pulling ahead in the rivalry with other kingdoms. It was already moving into the position that it held two centuries later, when its Queen Isabella would merge Castile with Aragon for a united Spain.
Here’s a picture of the monument to the battle at Las Navas de Tolosa.