The Reconquista in Spain, 1236-1265

The Reconquista moved into final stages when King Ferdinand III of Castile and Toledo inherited the kingdoms of Leon and Galicia, in 1230. He was the wealthiest, most powerful Spanish king yet: he married first a princess from the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Germany, then the Countess of Ponthieu. Both wives brought him both wealth and children; his second wife’s daughter Eleanor became the English Queen to whom the “Eleanor Crosses” are dedicated.

Ferdinand began a concerted sweep of all remaining Muslim cities, at the end of which only the Kingdom of Granada remained. In 1236, he picked up the first really significant conquest: Cordoba, the former capital of Andalusia under Abd al-Rahman. Parts of Cordoba had already been occupied by Almogavars, who were independent fighters of common birth. They were a cross between mercenaries and guerillas; they fought in small groups with surprise attacks, imitating the tactics of Muslims. Ferdinand conquered the Medina, the downtown Old City of Cordoba, when he came with his official royal army. Over the next few years, Cordoba was divided into estates and counties, handed out as rewards to family and friends.

The city of Murcia (“Myrtle”) became a Castilian protectorate (in other words, conquest) in 1244. Its location on the Segura River, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea, gave Castile its first port access. Christian Aragon to the north and Muslim Granada to the south both would have swallowed up Murcia if possible, so Castile really did need to protect its protectorate. But two years later, Castile took the port city of Cartagena (“New Carthage”) as it moved south along the coast. Water access could rapidly increase Castile’s wealth.

Ferdinand’s army moved inland, then, to take the towns around Seville. They occupied these regions to begin a loose siege, then tightened it into a real siege when a general sailed up the Guadalquivir River to destroy the bridge that still connected Seville to Muslim lands. Ferdinand entered Seville in time for Christmas, 1248. It was the most important city in south-central Spain, so Ferdinand began transforming it into his Christian capital with public buildings and cathedrals. Compared to the long period when Christian kingdoms could manage only in the northern mountains, Castile had really arrived.

King Ferdinand appears to have been very attentive to his domestic rule, as well. In his time, the University of Salamanca grew, and he established houses for the new reforming mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. His son Alfonso X’s reign had even more cultural achievements, showing that the Reconquista had moved from a tenuous hold to secure dominance. Alfonso later established the first sheep-breeders’ association, the Mesta, to coordinate and improve wool export. Alfonso was also in line to become the Holy Roman Emperor, or at least the King of the Germans/Romans, through his mother. The German electors were bitterly divided, liking none of their options. At one point, Alfonso was elected, but later Richard of Cornwall, one of the brothers who had married sisters of Louis IX’s Queen Margaret, was elected and actually traveled to Germany to claim his crown.

Closer to home, a number of Muslim cities that had paid tribute to Ferdinand refused to acknowledge his son. Alfonso X saddled up and headed out to conquer them. Jerez was besieged in 1261, but fairly quickly its citizens negotiated to resume tribute rather than see their vineyards and orchards damaged. One by one, the rebel towns submitted and became permanently part of Castile.

In the end, only Granada was left as the southernmost Muslim kingdom. It was a recent kingdom, established by a strongman after the Almohad Prince Idris sailed to Morocco to claim its crown. In 1246, Granada established a 20-year truce with Castile, with tribute payments, in exchange for military alliance in the defeat of Seville. Somehow, despite periodic rebellions, Granada managed to survive as a tribute-paying state for two more centuries.

 

 

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