Today in European history: the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212)

For a relatively small confrontation–most likely less than 50,000 soldiers combined–Las Navas de Tolosa had some far-reaching ramifications for the history of both Iberia and North Africa. It hit the Almohad Caliphate at or near the height of its territorial growth and helped send it into a decades-long spiral that eventually ended with its demise. It reinvigorated Christian efforts to conquer the peninsula, and we all presumably know how that turned out.

reconquista map
Map of the Reconquista. You’ll find Las Navas de Tolosa in kind of the center-south area marked by crossed swords.

What was the Almohad Caliphate, you ask? Good question, one I’ve answered elsewhere. Though I firmly believe you should subscribe to my Patreon so you can read that post in full and get access to a lot of other interesting stuff, it would be hard for us to continue this post without at least a thumbnail understanding of who the Almohads were so here goes. The Almohads formed in the early 12th century as a religious revival movement among a group of North African Berbers led by a preacher named Ibn Tumart. Ibn Tumart taught his own version of Islam that heavily emphasized the oneness of God and the belief that Ibn Tumart himself was the Mahdi. The former is the reason his followers became known as al-Muwahhidun, “the unitarians,” or “Almohads” to European Christians who found Arabic either too difficult or too Muslim-y to bother speaking it properly. The Almohads defeated the power controlling Iberia and North Africa, the Almoravids, and then filled the ensuing vacuum.

King Alfonso VIII of Castile had suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Almohads in 1195 at the Battle of Alarcos, sometimes called the “Disaster of Alarcos” without much exaggeration. Alarcos (you’ll find it in roughly the same spot on that map above) stopped Castile’s conquests in their tracks and caused it to lose several key castles in the vicinity. More urgently it left the Almohads a clear path to Toledo, which they promptly…did nothing about. Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur’s attention was mostly focused on North Africa so he, and the Almohads in general, did not follow up on this decisive victory except via a number of minor raids that accomplished little. It wasn’t until 1211 when Almohad Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir thought “hey, why don’t we do some more conquering in al-Andalus?” and that brings us to today’s story.

Unfortunately for Muhammad al-Nasir, by 1211 Castile had recovered from its massive defeat in 1195. When the Almohads refocused on al-Andalus, their first target was a Christian fortress called Salvatierra, which was embedded so far into Muslim territory that it was practically cut off from the rest of Christian Iberia. Alfonso opted not to attempt a defense for that reason, and so it was easily picked off by the Almohads. But the following year Alfonso put together an army that included forces from Navarre, Aragon, Portugal, and several independent military orders. He led this army out against the Muslims in late June/early July, and they managed to make Alarcos a distant memory.

Muhammad al-Nasir opted not to challenge Alfonso’s army at first, hoping to let it wear itself out and extend its supply lines past their breaking point. He gave the Castilians a couple of weeks to do that before meeting them at Las Navas de Tolosa on July 16. The battle was a rout by the Christians, even though the Almohads may have outnumbered them by as much as 2-to-1 (the Almohad army was probably a couple of thousand men on either side of 25,000, while it’s unlikely that the Castilian-led force had more than 15,000). We don’t really know why it went this way so historians tend to blame Muhammad al-Nasir for being a lousy commander which may well be true. There are accounts that have part of the Christian army breaking through Muhammad al-Nasir’s bodyguard and sending the caliph fleeing the battle, so maybe that was a turning point. The Christians lost around 2000 men against unknown but very high Muslim casualties.

The Almohad position in Iberia declined rapidly, and by 1250 the Christians had taken both Cordoba and Seville, two of the largest and most powerful cities in al-Andalus. Eventually only Granada remained in Muslim hands, and it belonged to the Nasirid dynasty, not the Almohads. Muhammad al-Nasir died in 1213 back in North Africa, and the Almohad dynasty began to come apart at the seams when his successor, Yusuf II, died without an obvious heir in 1224. They hung around in North Africa until around 1270 but emerging regional dynasties spent most of that time chipping away at their territory.

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