In 1195, the powerful Almohad Caliphate controlled all of Mohammedan North Africa and al-Andalus. It was ruled by Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, a capable general and statesman who’d subdued the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa. Al-Mansur’s father had been killed in battle with the King of Portugal, and he was deeply committed to the jihad against the Christian states of Spain.
In 1194, a temporary truce between the Christian Kingdom of Castile and the Almohad Caliphate expired. Bishop Martin of Toledo and the warrior monks of Calatrava attacked the Almohad-controlled Guadalquivir River Valley, a crucial frontier region over which the Christians and Mohammedans had been sparring for some time.
Castile was ruled by King Alfonso VIII, a shrewd politician and talented general. To protect his capital of Toledo, Alfonso had constructed an impressive castle at Alarcos on the left bank of the Guadiana River. When he received news that al-Mansur planned to invade Castile, Alfonso assembled his army at Alarcos, ready to stand in defense of Castile’s southern border.
After landing at Tarifa in June, 1195, al-Mansur proclaimed the renewal of jihad, then advanced to Cordoba. He marched north through the Puerto del Muradal, then captured Calatrava Castle, home to the Military Order of Calatrava.
In anticipation of the Caliph’s arrival, King Alfonso VIII had sent for aid to Aragon and Leon. However, rather than wait for these reinforcements, Alfonso chose to engage the enemy. It was July 19th.
The Caliph had assembled a very large army, and his forces considerably out-numbered the Castilian host. Large contingents from various Berber tribes comprised al-Mansur’s vanguard, while an Arab host held the left wing. Divisions from al-Andalus held the right. The Caliph kept his best Almohad forces in reserve in the rear.
Alfonso’s vanguard was commanded by his vassal and close friend Diego Lopez de Haro, who led a charge that smashed the Berber vanguard. Alfonso himself led another attack with the military orders, routing several of al-Mansur’s key divisions. Hours into the battle, the Christians appeared to have the advantage despite being outnumbered. Once most of the Berbers had been defeated, the Christian knights engaged closely with the Andalusian troops, which they also broke and scattered. However, the Arab cavalry managed to flank Alfonso’s army, and the Caliph still held his Almohad rearguard in reserve.
By the time al-Mansur launched his elite Almohad warriors, the Christian cavalry had been charging and fighting hard for hours. The Almohad reserve was fresh, and along with the remaining Arab contingents enveloped the Castilian host. The exhausted Christian knights were simply overwhelmed. Alfonso himself charged into the thick of the fighting, trying to rally his men. The King was ready to die in battle, but his own bodyguards dragged him from the field. The Christian infantry was destroyed, the military orders wiped out.
Alfonso’s army retreated in disorder to Toledo. Meanwhile, Al-Mansur occupied Alarcos, Calatrava, and other fortresses that protected the road to Toledo. Loaded down with spoils, al-Mansur retired in triumph to Seville.
In the next episode, we’ll see how Alfonso VIII reacts to his defeat at Alarcos, and what will be al-Mansur’s next move in his grand jihad.