The Battle of Las Novas de Tolosa (1212)

One of the most important battles fought on the Iberian peninsula, this was the culmination of a major campaign by Alfonso VIII of Castile against the Almohads.  The battle took place on July 16, 1212.  The first account comes from the Muslim text al-Marrakushi, al-Mu'jib, which was written in 1224.  The second account is the report which Alfonso sent to the Pope just days after the battle.  

After returning to Seville from this victory [at Salvatierra], the Amir al-Mu'minin Abu `Abd-Allah called up the people from the furthest reaches of the country, and they assembled in great numbers. He left Seville at the beginning of 609 (June 1212) and marched to Jaen. He stayed there to make his arrangements and organize his troops. Alfonso - may God curse him - left Toledo with a vast army and proceeded to Calatrava, which he besieged. The castle had been in Muslim hands since al-Mansur Abu Yusuf (Ya'qub) conquered it following the great victory [of Alarcos]. The Muslims surrendered it to Alfonso after he had given them a safe conduct. Thereupon, a large number of the Christians withdrew from Alfonso (may God curse him!), when he prevented them from killing the Muslims who were in the castle. They said, “You have only brought us along to help you conquer the country, and forbid us to plunder and kill the Muslims. We don't lave any need of your company [if we're only going to act] in this way.”

The battle of al-`Iqab and the defeat of the Muslims

The Commander of the Faithful left Jaen and encountered Alfonso at a place called al-`Iqab, near the castle called Hisn Salim.  Alfonso drew up his army, arranged his men and launched a surprise attack on the Muslims, who were not prepared for battle. They were defeated, and a great number of the Almohads were killed.

The main reason for this defeat was the divisions in the hearts of the Almohads. In the time of Abu Yusuf Ya'qub they drew their pay every four months without fail. But in the time of this Abu `Abd-Allah, and especially during this particular campaign, their payment was in arrears. They attributed this to the viziers, and rebelled in disgust. I have heard from several of them that they did not draw their swords nor train their spears, nor did they take any part in the preparations for battle. With this in mind, they fled at the first assault of the Franks.

This Abu `Abd-Allah stood firm on that day like no king before him; were it not for his steadfastness, the whole of that army would have be been exterminated, either killed or captured. He then returned to Seville and remained there till Ramadan (January 1213), when he crossed over to Marrakesh... This great defeat of the Muslims took place on the Monday in mid Safar 609 (14 Safar = 16 July).

Alfonso - God curse him! - pulled out of this place after he and his men had taken their fill of the chattels and possessions of the Muslims, and set off towards the towns of Bayyasa (Baeza) and Ubbadha (Ubeda). He found Baeza, or most of it, empty. He burnt its houses and destroyed its largest mosque. He then descended on Ubeda, where many of the defeated Muslims, and the people of Baeza, as well as the town's own population, had collected. He invested it for thirteen days, and then took it by force, killing and capturing and plundering. He and his men set aside as prisoners enough women and children to fill all the Christian territories. This was a greater blow to the Muslims than the defeat in battle.

To the most Holy Father Innocent, Pope by the Grace of God, Alfonso, King of Castile and Toledo by the same, sends greetings, kissing your hands and feet. We know that your Holiness has not forgotten that we planned to do battle against the perfidy of the Saracens, and we reported to you humbly and devotedly by our messengers, begging your help in all things pertaining to a father and a lord, which help we recognize we have obtained in kindly and compassionate fashion from our laving Father.

For this reason we did not delay in sending our heralds (whom we thought most suitable for carrying this forward) out with our letters to certain parts of France, adding that we would provide, to the extent that could reasonably be sustained, the necessary costs of provisioning all those knights coming to join the campaign, and for all their serving-men to the degree that was fitting. Hence it was that, when people heard of the remission of sins which you granted to those coming to join us, there arrived a vast number of knights from the regions beyond the Pyrenees, including the Archbishops of Narbonne and Bordeaux and the Bishop of Nantes. Those who came numbered up to 2,000 knights with their squires, and up to 10,000 of their serving-men on horseback, with up to 50,000 serving-men on foot, for all of whom we had to provide food. There came also our illustrious friends and relatives the Kings of Aragon and of Navarre in support of the Catholic cause, with all their forces. We did not fail to provide for all of them, as we had promised through our heralds, while delaying for a time at Toledo as we waited for some of our men who were due to present themselves for the campaign, and it must be said that the costs for us and for our kingdom were extremely heavy on account of the huge numbers involved. We had to provide not only what we had promised, but also money and clothing, for almost everybody, both knights and serving men, was in need. However, God, who gives increase to the fruits of justice, provided abundantly for us in accordance with the generosity of His grace, and gave us all that could be desired equitably and richly.

When both hosts were assembled, we set out on the road God had chosen for us, and coming to a certain fort named Malagon, amply defended, the French, who got there one day ahead of us, at once stormed and took it with God's help.

Even though it had fallen to us to provide them generously with all necessities, they [the French] became too concerned with the difficulties of the terrain, which was empty and rather hot, and they wished to turn back and go home. At length, after much pressure from us and the King of Aragon, they continued as far as Calatrava, which was only some two leagues from the aforementioned fort, and we all - Castilians and Aragonese and French, each from his own side - began to attack it in God's name. The Saracens inside, realizing that they would not be able to hold off this army of God, negotiated about surrendering the place to us, on condition that they should be allowed to leave unharmed, although without their belongings. We were unwilling to accept any such arrangement. The King of Aragon and the French held a council about it, and knew that the place was strongly fortified with walls and outer defences, deep ditches and lofty towers, so that it could not be taken unless the walls were undermined and made to collapse; but this would be much to the detriment of the Friars of Salvatierra, to whom it had earlier belonged, and by whom it would not be tenable (the walls being razed) in case of need. For this reason they most earnestly urged that the place should be handed over, to us whole and undamaged with the weapons and all the great stores of food that were in it, and that the Saracens should be allowed to leave empty-handed and without weapons. So we, paying heed to their firm wishes in this matter, assented to their proposals, the conditions being that a half of all that there was inside should go to the King of Aragon and the other half to the French, no part of it being retained by our selves or our men. The French - still keen on the idea of going home, even though the Lord God was showing us grace and favour, and even though we were willing to go on providing them all with necessities in a generous way - driven as they were by the urge to go home, all together abandoned the Cross, together with the Archbishop of Bordeaux and the Bishop of Nantes, even though here was certainly going to be a battle with the Saracens; and they went off, except a very few who stayed on with the Archbishop of Narbonne and Tibaldo de Blazon, who was one of our liegemen, and also his men and certain other knights of Poitou. Those who remained, knights and serving-men, amounted to scarcely 150; and of their foot-soldiers, none at all remained.

Since the King of Aragon was waiting at Calatrava for certain knights of his and the King of Navarre, who had still not joined us, we set out with our men and arrived at a certain enemy castle called Alarcos. We took this castle, well defended though it was; together with three others, Caracuel, Benavente, and Piedrabuena.

Going forward from there we reached Salvatierra, where the King of Aragon joined us, he having brought only a small number of noble knights in his army; and the King of Navarre, who similarly was accompanied by a force of scarcely 200 knights:

Since the Sultan of the Saracens was close to us, we resolved not to attack Salvatierra, but, advancing towards the Saracen host; we reached a mountain range which was impossible to cross except in certain places. Since on our side we were at the foot of the range, the Saracens advancing from the other side were able to occupy the crest, seeking to bar our passage. But our men went up bravely, because up to that time only a few Saracens had reached that area, and our men vigorously drove them off, with God's help; and they took a fort called Ferral, which the Saracen ruler had built in order to bar our way. Once this was taken, the army of the Lord was able to go on up to the mountain peaks in safety, but it was hard going because of the lack of water and the barrenness of the place. The Saracens, seeing that they could not block that pass, occupied another passage on the downward slope, exceptionally narrow and difficult; it was such, indeed, that a thousand men could readily defend it against the greatest army on earth. At the far end of it lay the whole Saracen army with their tents already pitched.

Since we could not stay there because of the lack of water, nor advance because of the difficulty of the pass, certain of our men advised that we should go back down the mountain and look for another pass some distance away. But we, concerned for the anger to the faith and disgrace to our person, refused to accept this advice, preferring to die for the faith on the difficult terrain of the pass rather than to seek an easier way, or to back down from an affair which concerned the faith, in whatsoever fashion it might be.

When we had thus strengthened our resolve, our barons - who were to strike the first blows in the battle - heard of the suggestion of a certain shepherd, whom God by His command sent to us, that in that very spot another relatively easy passage existed. In a certain place close to the enemy camp, although barren and dry, they pitched camp, since the Saracens did not know of this pass. When the Saracen army realized what was happening, they advanced in order to stop the camp being established. Our men, even though few, defended themselves bravely.

We and the Kings of Aragon and Navarre waited, fully armed, with our men in the place where we had first halted, which was on the crest of the mountain, until the whole army of the Lord safely reached the spot where our advance patrols had marked out the camp. Thanks be to God, it happened that although the way was difficult and waterless, also rocky and wooded, we lost none of our men. This was Saturday, 14 July. Late that day the Saracens, observing that we had safely erected all our tents, drew up their battle-lines and approached our camp, indulging in skirmishing rather as in a tournament, as a prelude to battle.

Very early next day, Sunday, the Saracens came up with their huge army arrayed in battle-lines. We, wishing to study the numbers of their men and their disposition and attitude, and to find out how they behaved in all circumstances, took advice from our expert and seasoned men, and resolved to wait until the following day, Monday. In these circumstances, we posted cavalrymen and foot-soldiers so that the enemy should not in any way be able to attack the ends of our line, and this, thanks to God's grace did not happen.

The following day, Monday, we all armed and set out in God's name, in full array, to do battle with them for the Catholic faith. The enemy occupied certain eminences, very steep places and difficult to climb by reason of the woods which lay between us and them, and by reason of some very deep gorges cut by streams, all of which formed a major impediment to us and was a great help to the enemy. Then indeed He by whom, and in whom, and through whom, all things are miraculously done, directed His army against His enemies; and our front ranks, and some of the middle ranks, by virtue of the Cross of the Lord, cut down many lines of the enemy who were stationed on the lower eminences. When our men reached the last of their lines, consisting of a huge number of soldiers, among whom was the King of Carthage, there began desperate fighting among the cavalrymen, infantrymen, and archers, our people being. in terrible danger and scarcely able to resist any longer. Then we, realizing that the fighting was becoming altogether impossible for them, started a cavalry charge, the Cross of the Lord going before and our banner with its image of the Holy Virgin and her Son imposed upon our device.  Since we had already resolved to die for the faith of Christ, as soon as we witnessed the shame being suffered by the Cross of Christ and the image of His Mother when the Saracens assailed them with stones and arrows, we broke their line with its vast numbers of men, even though the Saracens resisted bravely in the battle, and stood solidly around their lord.

Our Lord slew a great multitude of them with the sword of the Cross. Then the Sultan with a few of his men turned in flight. Others of the enemy for a time bore the thrust of our attacks, but soon, after heavy loss of life, the rest turned and fled. We followed up the pursuit till nightfall, and killed more in that rout than we had in the battle.

In this way the battle of the Lord was triumphantly won, by God alone and through God alone. To God be the honour and the glory, who granted the victory of His Cross through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The Saracen horsemen had numbered 185,000, as we afterwards learned in a true account from certain servants of the Sultan, whom we took prisoner; the foot-soldiers were uncountable.

On their side there fell in the battle 100,000 armed men, perhaps more, according to the estimates of Saracens we captured later. Of the army of the Lord - a fact not to be mentioned without the most fervent thanksgiving, and one scarcely to be believed, unless it be thought a miracle - only some twenty or thirty Christians in our whole host fell. What cause for joy and thanksgiving! Yet there is one cause for regret here: that so few in such a vast army went to Christ as martyrs.

In order to show how immense were the numbers of the enemy, when our army rested after the battle for two days in the enemy camp, for all the fires which were needed to cook food and make bread and other things, no other wood was needed than that of the enemy arrows and spears which were lying about, and even then we burned scarcely half of them. Even though our army was running short of food and other supplies, because we had spent so long in bare and barren countryside, we found such an abundance of food and weapons, as also of war-horses and beasts of burden, that our men, by taking as many of them as they wished, still left more out of the huge number of animals than those they took.

On the third day we advanced to certain enemy fortresses, Vilches, Banos, and Tolosa, and at once captured them.

Eventually we reached two towns, Baeza and Ubeda, the largest there are on this side of the sea except for Cordova and Seville. We found Baeza already destroyed. A great number of people had fled from all the nearby settlements to Ubeda, because it was exceptionally strong both on account of its situation and on account of its defences. Since the people knew that no other city of that size had been stormed or taken by the Emperor or by any other Hispanic ruler, they thought they would be safe there. However, by God's grace we captured Ubeda in a short time, and, since we did not have enough people to settle it, we raze it to the ground. Some 60,000 Saracens perished there: some we killed, others were taken as captives into the service of the Christians and of the monasteries which needed to be repaired in the border regions.

We ordered all this to be set down in writing for you, most Holy Father, earnestly offering all the thanks we can for the aid of all Christendom, and humbly asking you whom God has chosen for the highest rank among His priests, with all praise to Him, to offer up a sacrifice for the salvation of our people.  

These texts were first published in Christians and Moors in Spain, edited by Colin Smith (Aris & Phillips: 1989-92).  This three volume set can be purchased through Oxbow Books.  We thank Aris & Phillips for their permission to republish these texts.