By Edward Lawrence Holt
Honor’s Thesis, Duke University, 2010
Introduction: July 16, 1212. Poised on the plains near the city of Las Navas de Tolosa, two armies prepared to engage in battle. On one side stood three kings of Spain, one prince, two archbishops, monks from the four crusading orders and between 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers. 2 Armed not just physically, but spiritually with the indulgences of crusade granted by Pope Innocent III, they faced Muhammed al-Nasir (Miramolin, according to the Christian sources), caliph of the Almohad Empire, and his army. Just a year earlier, al-Nasir had swept into the Iberian Peninsula with his army and taken the Christian stronghold of Salvatierra. Furthermore, as Cesarius of Hesterbach asserted, he coupled this act with the challenge that he would “seize all of Europe, transform the porch of St. Peters into a stable for his horses and establish his banner in the top.” This threat struck at the core of Christendom, for as St. Jerome penned in the early fifth century “If Rome can perish, what can be safe.”
As a result, in October 1211, the kings of the Spanish peninsula’s two most powerful kingdoms, Alfonso VIII of Castile and Pedro II of Aragon, agreed to fight this threat, meeting in Toledo on May 20, 1212. 5 During this interim, emissaries enlisted help from neighboring kingdoms, signed truces and reaffirmed papal support. All was going according to plan for the Christian crusaders until they encountered the Muslim army, who had the advantageous position and blocked all the known passes. That night, chroniclers record the miraculous arrival of a shepherd who revealed a passage through the mountains unknown to all that “had often crossed through those places.” On the day of the battle, July 16, 1212, buoyed by this advantage, the Christians “triumphantly won, by God alone and through God alone.” This victory shattered Almohad power and removed the threat of a Muslim attack of Europe through Spain.