Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

Las Navas de Tolosa

On the 16th of July, 1212, was fought the great battle which broke the Moorish power in Spain. During the two centuries before fresh streams of invasion had flowed in from Africa to yield new life to the Moslem power. From time to time in the Mohammedan world reforms have sprung up, and been carried far and wide by fanaticism and the sword. One such body of reformers, the Almoravides, invaded Spain in the eleventh century and carried all before it. It was with these that the Cid Campeador had to deal. A century later a new reformer, calling himself El Mandi, appeared in Africa, and set going a movement which overflowed the African states and made its way into Spain, where it subdued the Moslem kingdoms and threatened the Christian states. These invaders were known as the Almohades. They were pure Moors. The Arab movement had lost its strength, and from that time forward the Moslem dominions in Spain were peopled chiefly by Moors.

Spain was threatened now as France had been threatened centuries before when Charles Martel crushed the Arab hordes on the plains of Tours. All Christendom felt the danger and Pope Innocent III. preached a crusade for the defence of Spain against the infidel. In response, thousands of armed crusaders flocked into Spain, coming in corps, in bands, and as individuals, and gathered about Toledo, the capital of Alfonso VIII., King of Castile. From all the surrounding nations they came, and camped in the rich country about the capital, a host which Alfonso had much ado to feed.

Alfonso VIII


Mohammed An Nassir, the emperor of the Almohades, responded to the effort of the Pope by organizing a crusade in Moslem Africa. He proclaimed an Algihed, or Holy War, ordered a massacre of all the Christians in his dominions, and then led the fanatical murderers to Spain to join the forces there in arms. Christian Europe was pitted against Moslem Africa in a holy war, Spain the prize of victory, and the plains of Andalusia the arena of the coming desperate strife.

The decisive moment was at hand. Mohammed left Morocco and reached Seville in June. His new levies were pouring into Spain in hosts. On the 21st of June Alfonso began his advance, leading southward a splendid array. Archbishops and bishops headed the army. In the van marched a mighty force of fifty thousand men under Don Diego Lopez de Haro, ten thousand of them being cavalry. After them came the troops of the kings of Aragon and Castile, each a distinct army. Next came the knights of St. John of Calatrava and the knights of Santiago, their grand-masters leading, and after them many other bodies, including troops from Italy and Germany. Such a gallant host Spain had rarely seen. It was needed, for the peril was great. While one hundred thousand marched under the Christian banners, the green standard of the prophet, if we may credit the historians, rose before an army nearly four times as large.

Without dwelling on the events of the march, we may hasten forward to the 12th of July, when the host of Alfonso reached the vicinity of the Moorish army, and the Navas de Tolosa, the destined field of battle, lay near at hand. The word navas  means "plains." Here, on a sloping spur of the Sierra Morena, in the upper valley of the Guadalquiver, about seventy miles east of Cordova, lies an extended table-land, a grand plateau whose somewhat sloping surface gave ample space for the vast hosts which met there on that far-off July day.

To reach the plateau was the problem before Alfonso. The Moslems held the ground, and occupied in force the pass of Losa, nature's highway to the plain. What was to be done? The pass could be won, if at all, only at great cost in life. No other pass was known. To retire would be to inspirit the enemy and dispirit the Christian host. No easy way out of the quandary at first appeared, but a way was found,—by miracle, the writers of that time say; but it hardly seems a miracle that a shepherd of the region knew of another mountain-pass. This man, Martin Halaja, had grazed his flocks in that vicinity for years. He told the king of a pass unknown to the enemy, by which the army might reach the table-land, and to prove his words led Lopez de Haro and another through this little-known mountain by-way. It was difficult but passable, the army was put in motion and traversed it all night long, and on the morning of the 14th of July the astonished eyes of the Mohammedans gazed on the Christian host, holding in force the borders of the plateau, and momentarily increasing in numbers and strength. Ten miles before the eyes of Alfonso and his men stretched the plain, level in the centre, in the distance rising in gentle slopes to its border of hills, like a vast natural amphitheatre. The soldiers, filled with hope and enthusiasm, spread through their ranks the story that the shepherd who had led them was an angel, sent by the Almighty to lead his people to victory over the infidel.

Mohammed and his men had been told on the previous day by their scouts that the camp of the Christians was breaking up, and rejoiced in what seemed a victory without a blow. But when they saw these same Christians defiling in thousands before them on the plain, ranged in battle array under their various standards, their joy was changed to rage and consternation. Against the embattled front their wild riders rode, threatening the steady troops with brandished lances and taunting them with cowardice. But Alfonso held his mail-clad battalions firm, and the light-armed Moorish horsemen hesitated to attack. Word was brought to Mohammed that the Christians would not fight, and in hasty gratulation he sent off letters to cities in the rear to that effect. He little dreamed that he was soon to follow his messengers in swifter speed.

It was a splendid array upon which the Christians gazed,—one well calculated to make them tremble for the result,—for the hosts of Mohammed covered the hill-sides and plain like "countless swarms of locusts." On an eminence which gave an outlook over the whole broad space stood the emperor's tent, of three-ply crimson velvet flecked with gold, strings of pearls depending from its purple fringes. To guard it from assault rows of iron chains were stretched, before which stood three thousand camels in line. In front of these ten thousand negroes formed a living wall, their front bristling with the steel of their lances, whose butts were planted firmly in the sand. In the centre of this powerful guard stood the emperor, wearing the green dress and turban of his ancestral line. Grasping in one hand his scimitar, in the other he held a Koran, from which he read those passages of inspiration to the Moslems which promised the delights of Paradise to those who should fall in a holy war and the torments of hell to the coward who should desert his ranks.

The next day was Sunday. The Moslems, eager for battle, stood all day in line, but the Christians declined to fight, occupying themselves in arranging their different corps. Night descended without a skirmish. But this could not continue with the two armies so closely face to face. One side or the other must surely attack on the following day. At midnight heralds called the Christians to mass and prayer. Everywhere priests were busy confessing and shriving the soldiers. The sound of the furbishing of arms mingled with the strains of religious service. At the dawn of the next day both hosts were drawn up in battle array. The great struggle was about to begin.

The army of the Moors, said to contain three hundred thousand regular troops and seventy-five thousand irregulars, was drawn up in crescent shape in front of the imperial tent,—in the centre the vast host of the Almohades, the tribes of the desert on the wings, in advance the light-armed troops. The Christian host was formed in four legions, King Alfonso occupying the centre, his banner bearing an effigy of the Virgin. With him were Rodrigo Ximenes, the archbishop of Toledo, and many other prelates. The force was less than one hundred thousand strong, some of the crusaders having left it in the march.

The sun was not high when the loud sound of the Christian trumpets and the Moorish atabals  gave signal for the fray, and the two hosts surged forward to meet in fierce assault. Sternly and fiercely the battle went on, the struggling multitudes swaying in the ardor of the fight,—now the Christians, now the Moslems surging forward or driven back. With difficulty the thin ranks of the Christians bore the onsets of their densely grouped foes, and at length King Alfonso, in fear for the result, turned to the prelate Rodrigo and exclaimed,—

"Archbishop, you and I must die here."

"Not so," cried the bold churchman. "Here we must triumph over our enemies."

"Then let us to the van, where we are sorely needed, for, indeed, our lines are being bitterly pressed."

Nothing backward, the archbishop followed the king. Fernan Garcia, one of the king's cavaliers, urged him to wait for aid, but Alfonso, commending himself to God and the Virgin, spurred forward and plunged into the thick of the fight. And ever as he rode, by his side rode the archbishop, wearing his chasuble and bearing aloft the cross. The Moorish troops, who had been jeering at the king and the cross-bearing prelate, drew back before this impetuous assault, which was given force by the troops who crowded in to the rescue of the king. The Moors soon yielded to the desperate onset, and were driven back in wild disarray.

This was the beginning of the end. Treason in the Moorish ranks came to the Christian aid. Some of Mohammed's force, who hated him for having cruelly slain their chief, turned and fled. The breaking of their centre opened a way for the Spaniards to the living fortress which guarded the imperial tent, and on this dense line of sable lancers the Christian cavalry madly charged.

In vain they sought to break that serried line of steel. Some even turned their horses and tried to back them in, but without avail. Many fell in the attempt. The Moslem ranks seemed impervious. In the end one man did what a host had failed to perform. A single cavalier, Alvar Nuņez de Lara, stole in between the negroes and the camels, in some way passed the chains, and with a cheer of triumph raised his banner in the interior of the line. A second and a third followed in his track. The gap between the camels and the guard widened. Dozens, hundreds rushed to join their daring leader. The camels were loosened and dispersed; the negroes, attacked front and rear, perished or fled; the living wall that guarded the emperor was gone, and his sacred person was in peril.

Mohammed was dazed. His lips still repeated from the Koran, "God alone is true, and Satan is a betrayer," but terror was beginning to stir the roots of his hair. An Arab rode up on a swift mare, and, springing to the ground, cried,—

"Mount and flee, O king. Not thy steed but my mare. She comes of the noblest breed, and knows not how to fail her rider in his need. All is lost! Mount and flee!"

All was lost, indeed. Mohammed scrambled up and set off at the best speed of the Arabian steed, followed by his troops in a panic of terror. The rout was complete. While day continued the Christian horsemen followed and struck, until the bodies of slain Moors lay so thick upon the plain that there was scarce room for man or horse to pass. Then Archbishop Rodrigo, who had done so much towards the victory, stood before Mohammed's tent and in a loud voice intoned the Te Deum laudamus, the soldiers uniting in the sacred chant of victory.

The archbishop, who became the historian of this decisive battle, speaks of two hundred thousand Moslem slain. We cannot believe it so many, despite the historian's statement. Twenty-five Christians alone fell. This is as much too small as the other estimate is too large. But, whatever the losses, it was a great and glorious victory, and the spoils of war that fell to the victors were immense. Gold and silver were there in abundance; horses, camels, and wagons in profusion; arms of all kinds, commissary stores in quantities. So vast was the number of lances strewn on the ground that the conquering army used only these for firewood in their camp, and did not burn the half of them.

King Alfonso, with a wise and prudent liberality, divided the spoil among his troops and allies, keeping only the glory of the victory for himself. Mohammed's splendid tent was taken to Rome to adorn St. Peter's, and the captured banners were sent to the cities of Spain as evidences of the great victory. For himself, the king reserved a fine emerald, which he placed in the centre of his shield. Ever since that brilliant day in Spanish annals, the sixteenth of July has been kept as a holy festival, in which the captured banners are carried in grand procession, to celebrate the "Triumph of the Cross."

The supposed miracle of the shepherd was not the only one which the monastic writers saw in the victorious event. It was said that a red cross, like that of Calatrava, appeared in the sky, inspiriting the Christians and dismaying their foes; and that the sight of the Virgin banner borne by the king's standard-bearer struck the Moslems with terror. It was a credulous age, one in which reputed miracles could be woven out of the most homely and every-day material.

Death soon came to the leaders in the war. Mohammed, sullen with defeat, hurried to Morocco, where he shut himself up in gloomy seclusion, and died—or was poisoned—before the year's end. Alfonso died two years later. The Christians did not follow up their victory with much energy, and the Moslems still held a large section of Spain, but their power had culminated and with this signal defeat began its decline. Step by step they yielded before the Christian advance, though nearly three centuries more passed before they lost their final hold on Spain.