The year 1204 was the darkest year of the Byzantine Empire: Crusaders led by the old Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo stormed Constantinople, and stripped it of most of its possessions. They set up their own Latin Kingdom, and perhaps destroyed any hope of stopping the Turkish advance westward. However, this history does not deal with war and intrigues in the East, but rather, its focus is on a large peninsula in the western most part of Europe: Iberia.
The year 1205 marked the 47th year of King Alfonso VII reign as King of Castile. The Reconquista of Iberia had been going on for centuries, but recently there was a cease in hostilities; this gave Alfonso ample time to build up his military for the everpresent threat of war with the Almohads to the south.
In 1209 King Alfonso invaded the small Kingdom of Navarre to the north of Castile, and used this invasion as a small preparation for the future. However, he did tell his troops that the war with the Moors would be much bloodier and much more difficult than this “practice” invasion. He had witnessed firsthand the power of the Moorish armies in 1195, when he as defeated in the so called “Disaster of Alarcos”. He would have his revenge against his southern neighbours soon enough. Still, it took King Alfonso 17 years to get things in order in his Kingdom before he could set his eyes across the border towards Almohad land to exact his vengeance. In 1226, his son Prince Sancho led a large force of 6,500 into Almohad-held Valencia. He was met by a 12,500 man army led by the Moorish Prince Umar.
The Almohads had set up their troops upon a small hill overlooking the plain on which the Castilian army was stationed. Prince Sancho took up a wide V formation, playing his spear Sergeants on the left flank, and his men-at-arms infantry on the right. There were a few skirmishes on the left flank as the Castilians advanced, mainly with scout units sent out to harass the Spaniards. The two forces finally collided at the foot of the hill.
After much fighting, the Castilian troops were able to push the Moors back to the wooded crest of the hill, where they surrounded the surviving troops. The fight that ensued can best be described as a massacre: the slaughter throughout the whole battle was mainly one-sided, as the light troops fielded by the Moors stood no chance against the heavy troops of Castile.
At the end of the day, the total number of Castilian casualties numbered 2,000, while the total number of Moors killed, wounded or taken prisoner was a staggering 7,000. The Battle of Valencia staggered both the Muslim and Christian worlds: this was a fatal blow to the Almohads, one that would begin their downfall and expulsion from Iberia. After the battle at Alarcos, the Castilian Kingdom was thrown into disarray, and for a short period of time, its existence was under threat. However, with victory at Valencia, hope was restored throughout Iberia.
But the Castilian celebration was too early. In 1228 Prince Sancho was forced to retreat back into Castile due to a 15,000 strong Almohad relieving force sent in from the south. The same year King Alfonso VIII fell ill and died in his palace in Toledo. He was succeeded by his eldest son Alfonso, who became King Alfonso IX. The following year an army of 10,000 commanded by Prince Muhammad invaded Castile, and threatened the safety of Toledo. Alfonso IX would have to prove himself to the Castilian people by protecting their homeland from the Moors. So he mustered the army and marched forth with his 6,500 men to counter the Moorish advance.
The two armies met several miles to the west of Toledo, near a small village at the bottom of a valley. Alfonso set his troops up along a ridge running alongside a road leading from Toledo down the valley towards the village. Prince Muhammad, certain of victory, rushed forward and attacked the Castilian army all along the ridge
There was fierce fighting all over the line of battle. Both generals threw themselves into the heat of battle, but Prince Muhammad was cut down while fighting in the centre of the line. Though the death of their general dismayed the Moors, they continued to fight with fierce intensity. The Moorish cavalry, consisting of both horses and camels, made a thunderous charge uphill from the village, only to be met by the Castilian knights, and a brutal melee ensued. Slowly but surely the Almohad army began to crumble: its right flank was broken by a charge of 50 knights whose units had been completely wiped out. The flight of the right wing caused a panic that spread along the line: soon, the whole Almohad army was in flight (for their actions, the knights were received the King in his palace in Toledo for a royal banquet, and named the 50 Defenders of Toledo).
It was a glorious day for Castile, one that outshone even the victory at Valencia: Moorish casualties numbered more than 8,000 total, while Castilian casualties were less staggering, but still numerous - more than 3,000.
The effect of this battle upon Iberian history can not be overstated: as a result of the Castilian victory, the following year the Kingdoms of Leon and Castile were officially combined into the Kingdom of Castile-Leon; this union was one step towards the reunification of the Iberian Peninsula under one banner. King Alfonso IX had also reaffirmed his place as King, and the peoples’ confidence in his was restored. The same year the Almohad Khalifah died of illness, though it is said that the news of the Moorish defeat near Toledo was the real reason of death. In 1231 the Kingdom of Portugal took advantage of the Castilian victory and took Cordoba from the Almohads. In 1234 Prince Sancho of Castile-Leon took Murcia, and in 1238 a Holy Roman-sponsored crusade took Granada. The only remaining Muslim outpost in Iberia was Valencia, and in 1247, a Castile-Leonese army marched over the border to end Muslim occupancy once and for all…
To be continued…