St. Raymond of Fitero, the Cistercian warrior abbot & founder of the Military Order of Calatrava.
The Almohads, the new dynasty of Moroccan fanatics who had subdued all the Moslems in al Andalus, launched an all-out attack on the Christians by moving a huge army north into south central Spain. The impetuous Alfonso VIII of Castile, without waiting for reinforcements, attempted to bar the way at Alarcos. On July 18, 1195, his hopelessly outnumbered army was decisively defeated. Since this occurred just a few years after a similar defeat by Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in Palestine, the future of Christendom indeed looked bleak….
Alfonso VIII of Castile
Only the Orders maintained any pressure against the Moslem invaders. The Calatravans, who had lost their garrison at Calatrava, built another one inside the Moslem lines at Salvatierra, complete with a tall bell tower. This infuriated the Moslems, who despised the Christian practice of ringing bells. Finally, raids from Salvatierra and larger incursions by Alfonso VIII and Pedro II of Aragon provoked the Moors to resume hostilities.
Pedro II, king of Aragon by Manuel Aguirre y Monsalbe
Both sides made preparations for a major confrontation. Pope Innocent urged all leaders to resolve the differences that had hampered any coordinated effort in the past and pronounced plenary indulgences for the participants….
Three kings, Alfonso VIII of Castile, Pedro II of Aragon, and Sancho VII of Navarre, heretofore an enemy of the Castilians, led a force of 10,000 knights and 60,000 infantry into the plain near Las Navas de Tolosa to confront an army of perhaps twice that size made up of Berbers, African Negroes, and Andalusians. After two days during which each side evaluated the other’s intentions, the Christians launched a fierce frontal attack that was absorbed by the Moors, who then counter-attacked with more success.
With the battle slowly going against him, Alfonso rallied the Knights of Calatrava and Santiago and charged furiously. The sight of the King flying into the Moslems with his lance lowered and accompanied by a canon carrying the banner of Our Lady inspired the entire front to sweep forward. Moslem resistance collapsed and the battle turned into a rout. The estimate of the Moors lying dead on the battlefield that day ranged as high as 150,000.
Las Navas de Tolosa
Jeremias Wells, History of Western Civilization (n.p., n.d), pp. 249-250.
Nobility.org Editorial comment: —
Certain moments are turning points in History. In such moments, the decisive leadership of one man can be the tipping point that makes all the difference.
Las Navas de Tolosa was one of these great historical moments and the leadership of Alphonsus VIII of Castile–grandfather of St. Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon–was the intervention that turned what was beginning to look like defeat into one of the most decisive Christian victories ever.
As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of this great battle, we should ponder on how Spain, Portugal, and perhaps much of Christian Europe could have fallen once more under the dominion of Islam, but for one man: a King who risked his life and throne to safeguard Christendom, personally leading the cavalry charge into the thick of the enemy and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.