SJA Turney’s Knights Templar books follow the adventures of Arnau de Vallbona as he travels across Europe to fulfil his duties as a new knight of the Temple. Simon tells Historia about the background to his latest book, The Crescent and the Cross.
This is the fifth and penultimate book in a series in which I have tried to explore the world of the early 13th-century Templar order from new and unusual angles.
Much of the series has been set in Spain during the era of ‘Reconquista‘, a series of struggles to drive Moorish control from Iberia. The Reconquista is often overlooked by those with an interest in the crusades, and yet, as a process, it lasted for seven centuries, giving us some of the most famous of medieval legends such as Guzman the Good and El Cid.
Despite the range and scope of the Templar series, the entire run was always going to be primarily focused upon Reconquista Spain, and, having begun the series in 1198, I have taken readers through the Fourth Crusade in 1204, into medieval Germany, and now back to Spain for the tumultuous events of 1212.
The Reconquista is commonly said to have started with the Battle of Covadonga in 718 when a Visigoth chieftain called Pelayo struck the first blow against the expansion of the Moorish Caliphate and began to push back.
It ended 774 years later, in 1492, with the fall of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella, with the dramatic and poetic departure of the last sultan, Boabdil, who led his people from Spain over a pass that is now known as Suspiria del Moro – the Moor’s sigh. These two events essentially mark the start and end of this great and drawn-out reconquest; yet one other particular battle can claim to be of equal value in the sequence.
In 1212, with the blessing of the Pope, a fresh crusade was called in Iberia. The nations of Aragon, Castile and Navarre, who were more often at odds with one another than allied, gathered a grand army, including the manpower of three crusading orders in the peninsula: those of Santiago, Calatrava and the Temple and a small contingent of Franks from across the Pyrenees, who proved to be more trouble than they were worth.
In the years leading up to this crucial time the Almohad caliphs had been busy putting their own house in order in Africa, but had now returned to Spain with a great army of their own and plans to press for fresh conquest. Two sides were set for the greatest clash in centuries.
In fact, all the cards were held by the Moors in 1212. They held the passes of the Sierra Morena with strong fortified garrisons, effectively sealing off their lands from the Christian north. These constituted a serious obstacle, as we are told in contemporary accounts, for the Christian army was held at the mountains for some time.
The Almohads boasted the greater manpower, outnumbering the Christians two to one, and of course they had the terrain advantage, for it was their land that the Christians were now invading, and the Moors could rely upon fortresses already in place that the Christians would have to take or circumvent in their campaign. The odds were stacked against the crusaders.
Indeed, were it not for one odd legendary event it is quite possible that the Christians would have become bogged down in crossing the fortified passes and never achieve victory.
The battle that was to come that year, that of Las Navas de Tolosa, only occurred, according to accounts, because of a shepherd who showed the Christians a secret way across the Sierra Morena, allowing them to bypass the fortified valleys. This man, known as Martin Alhaja, uncovered a way marked with cow skulls on posts, which the Christians used to bring their army across the mountains so that they could face the Moorish army in open battle.
Though the legend seems likely to be largely fictitious, it must contain a grain of truth, for a contemporary Moorish account tells that the Christians “launched a surprise attack”, and while the Latin Chronicle makes no mention of this, the King of Castile wrote in a letter to the Pope 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.”
Las Navas was rather a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth for the Christians. The forces were led by the kings of Castile, Aragon and Navarre, with Alphonso of Castile the preeminent commander. However, as well as the three kings, several high ranking noblemen led divisions, and each of the three crusading orders had their masters present as well as Frankish lords who owed fealty to none of the above. That things were not precisely well-directed in the battle could be reasonably expected.
Without wanting to spoil the story for the reader of The Crescent and the Cross, the battle was almost lost for the Christians at more than one point due to foolhardy charges and panicked near-retreats. Only an astounding and legend-worthy charge by the King of Navarre saved the day. The surreal defence of the caliph by a half-buried ring of chained fanatics is said to be the source of the gold chains that feature on the royal coat of arms of Navarre, a relic of the events of 1212.
Despite everything, the crusaders won the field at Las Navas, the caliph escaping to flee south; and there, on that hillside in southern Spain, the path of the Reconquista changed for good. There had been territory won back steadily by the Christians before then, for certain, but the future was always a thing of uncertainty, and there was never any guarantee that the Christian nations would survive, as such setbacks as their disastrous defeat at Alarcos a decade earlier proved.
After Las Navas, though, the Moors were never again truly on the offensive. From 1212, their lands begun to shrink, their power to wane, and gradually the world of Moorish Iberia vanished. So while Covadonga marks the start of the Reconquista, and Granada the end, Las Navas de Tolos could be said to be the turning point.
The Crescent and the Cross is about this battle more than anything, but it also draws on a number of threads and legends. While doubt can easily be cast over the truth of Martin Alhaja (especially given that he is also linked with the fall of Cuenca in a similar legend, where he is a shepherd who shows the Christians the way into the city), there are hints of a kernel of truth beyond the King of Castile’s letter.
Some veracity can also be gained from the fact that legend has the king renaming Martin Cabeza de Vaca (cow head) suggesting that he is the ancestor of the explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca five centuries later, but still it is easier to see this as a fairy tale with a grain of fact at the heart than a fully true story. As such, I have taken the bones of that tale and reused it, working it around a different character.
One of the more important aspects of the battle and its lead-up is that of the Order of Calatrava, a fictional member of which I have drawn in to be my Martin Alhaja. The fortress of Calatrava, the order’s home, had been taken by the Moors years earlier, and the order had consequently been based in absentia at the fortress of Salvatierra which, in turn, had also been taken from them.
Thus this crusade was something or a personal matter for the Order of Calatrava, who retook their home with glee as they advanced on the Sierra Morena. My Calatravan knight who takes the place of Alhaja is himself a former convert, similar to those men attested as forming the caliph’s last line of defence, and he allows the reader to see the entire sequence of events leading to the battle from both side of the mountain frontier.
My tale, then, is an account of Las Navas de Tolosa, and the events immediately prior, from the fall of Salvatierra and the rise of the crusade to the secret path across the mountains and the great and world-changing clash that followed. Drawing from accounts of the time and from legends, the whole has become a rich tapestry that is far more than a simple battle, and which effectively ended the era of Moorish expansion and began the real reconquest of Spain.
Read more about this book.
Simon Turney has also written about the women of the Knights Templar in what has become one of Historia’s most popular features.
He is the author of a number of historical fiction series, including Marius’ Mules, Praetorian and The Damned Emperors.
Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa by Francisco de Paula Van Halen: via Wikimedia
Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile: via Wikimedia
Sierra Morena by Javier Martinlo: via Wikimedia
Statue of Sancho VII, King of Navarre, photo by Arenillas: via Wikimedia
Fortress of Calatrava (Calatrava la Vieja) by Alejandro MezcuA: via Wikimedia