Today in European history: the Battle of Alarcos (1195)

It’s a strange cosmic coincidence that the 1195 Battle of Alarcos and the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa wound up so close together on the calendar. I mean, I suppose it’s not that big a coincidence, since there were only so many months out of the year that you could go on campaign back in the 12th and 13th centuries. But these two battles bookend the high water mark for the Almohad Caliphate in Iberia, so the fact that their anniversaries are only two days apart is notable. It’s helpful, too, because you already know how this story ends.

Actually it’s also helpful in another way: instead of reintroducing the Almohads, for those who aren’t familiar with them I can just quote what I wrote about them in the other post:

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.

Yeah that was pretty nice. A hearty thank you to me from two days ago for writing that.

Also I have the right map handy:

reconquista map
Alarcos is marked with crossed swords in the south-central part of Iberia

In 1195 the Almohad Caliph was Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (d. 1199). He’d succeeded his father, Abu Yaqub Yusuf, upon the latter’s death–he was killed in battle with the Portuguese–in 1184. but this was a period during which the Almohads’ attentions were divided between Iberia and North Africa, and Abu Yusuf Yaqub had to immediately head to North Africa after being crowned in order to deal with the remnants of the Almoravids. He finally returned to Iberia in 1190 and resumed his father’s war with Portugal. Over the next year, give or take, the two sides clashed in a conflict that ended with a modest Almohad victory in their recapture of the city of Silves and armistices with the kingdoms of Castile and León. He then returned to North Africa and promptly fell deathly ill.

Abu Yusuf Yaqub’s illness got Christians in Iberia to thinking, particularly when rumors began to spread about a brewing Almohad civil war. Alfonso VIII of Castile decided to raise an army and attack Seville, the Almohads’ Andalusian capital. There was just one problem with his plan: Abu Yusuf Yaqub got better, and he tamped down any internal dissension fairly easily. He then headed back over to Seville before Alfonso had a chance to get his campaign started.

A miniature of Alfonso VIII (Wikimedia)

The Almohads assembled their own forces at Seville and then marched to Cordoba at the end of June 1195, where they added additional forces. Included among these was a contingent of Christian fighters under the command of Pedro Fernández de Castro, a Castilian nobleman and cousin of Alfonso, though clearly they weren’t getting along at this particular time. I mention this in order to highlight the degree to which loyalties in Reconquista Iberia were often personal rather than religious, despite the conflict’s obvious religious overtones. Alfonso assembled his army at Toledo and marched out to meet the Almohads. He chose Alarcos, a fairly recently built fortress near the southernmost point of Castile, as the site for the battle that was to come.

OK, you probably had already figured that out from the whole “Battle of Alarcos” thing. Sorry.

As with Las Navas de Tolosa, we don’t have any great sources that describe the battle in detail. We don’t know how large the Castilian force was–Muslim sources claim that 30,000 Christians were killed in the battle, but that’s almost certainly exaggerated. We don’t know how large the Almohad force might have been, though we have a pretty good sense that it was larger than Alfonso was expecting. We don’t even know for sure when the battle took place. July 18 is the most often cited date as far as I can tell, but you’ll find July 17 and July 19 as well. I’m splitting the difference here.

We do know the general contours of the fighting. Alfonso, again expecting the Almohad army to be smaller than it was, massed his heavy cavalry in a single packed line for a massive charge. For a while that charge looked like it would carry the day–it smashed into the Almohads’ vanguard and did considerable damage and then continued charging and routed another portion of the Almohad army. But between fatigue and constant arrow fire from the Almohads’ archers the charge eventually lost its steam. Meanwhile, the right wing of the Almohad army had been working its way around the charging knights’ flank and was eventually able to surround them and cut them off from the rest of Alfonso’s army. At this point Abu Yusuf Yaqub led a reserve force into the battle, possibly from the Castilians’ rear, that seems to have caught Alfonso completely off guard.

The entire Castilian army routed and its casualties must have been extremely heavy. Alfonso and whatever remained of his bodyguard hightailed it back to Toledo. Pedro Fernández de Castro negotiated the surrender of Alarcos’s garrison. The crushing defeat sent ripples across Castile, and no fewer than five castles in the vicinity of Alarcos surrendered or were abandoned in short order. Toledo was vulnerable, and with it possibly the entire Kingdom of Castile. And so Abu Yusuf Yaqub…went back to North Africa. The Almohads’ political situation back in Marrakesh was still unsettled after his illness and all the tensions it caused, and he simply couldn’t afford to undertake a lengthy campaign in Iberia at that time. In fact it would be another 15 years or so before an Almohad ruler returned to al-Andalus to pick up where he left off, and as I say you already know how that went.

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