|Previous: Byzantine-Persian Wars|
|Next: Anglo-Scottish Wars|
|Conflict: The Crusades|
|Date: 718-1492 CE|
|Place: Spain and Portugal|
|Outcome: Christian victory|
A Muslim Advance
Since the prophet Muhammad first proclaimed his message in the 7th century, a series of Arab conquests had spread the word of Islam through much of the known world. Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, the Moors (the Muslim inhabitants of North Africa) had taken most of Spain. Their advance in Western Europe had been held by the Franks at the Battle of Poitiers, but this left almost all of the Iberian Peninsula in Moorish hands. Only in a tiny pocket, in the mountains of Asturias in the far north, did Christian rulers still hold sway.
A Glittering Kingdom
Most of what we think of today as Portugal and Spain were under the control of the Caliphate of Cordoba, proclaimed in 929 by Abd ar-Rahman III. The Moors referred to their Spanish kingdom as al-Andalus: centered on the south, in the region known today as Andalucia, it was a place of wealth and culture. Toledo, the Visigothic capital of the country, became a major center under the Moors as well. After quarrels among the rulers of the al-Andalus, this region went its separate way, becoming an independent kingdom under the control of the caliphate.
The Spanish Reconquistas started as a fight for survival and became a power struggle, only gradually did it take on the character of a crusade. By the middle of the 8th centuiry, the Moors had occupied almost the entire Iberian Peninsula. In 722, however, amid the mountains of Asturias to the north, the Muslims had been held by the local Visigothic ruler, Pelayo, at the Battle of Covadonga. Here, at least, the idea of a Christian Spain endured.
In the centuries that followed, the region of Asturias not only flourished but managed to extend its boundaries. In 910, indeed, it was divided into two. A new kingdom, Galicia, was established to the west, with a new state centered on Leon. Next to this, the Kingdom of Castile was created: the two later united as the kingdom of Castile and Leon in the 11th century. To the east, following Frankish incursions across the Pyrenees, the kingdoms of Navarra, Aragon, and Catalonia emerged. Although this was a patchwork of little states that warred as much with one another as with the Moors, all of northern Spain had now fallen into Christian hands.
War without endWithin these little kingdoms too, conflict was very much the norm, with local lords locked in endless small-scale turf wars. Combat was mostly between mounted knights: any local peasants who might have made up the infantry were usually needed on the land. At the same time, there were truces in fighting with the Muslims - some of them of long duration. The Moors had their own divisions, with inequalities between the Arab elite and the North African Berber rank-and-file leading at times leading to tension, and in some cases, open conflict.
The Reconquista was more messy and confusing than the later mythology would have us believe. The story of the renowned "El Cid" is case in point. Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (c. 1045-1099) was a truly formidable figure; but he was also a profoundly ambivalent one, as his very nickname shows. "Cid" is no Spanish word, but comes from the Arabic sayyidi ("chief" or "boss"). He was a warlord, loyal mainly to himself. Amid the complicated realities of a rapidly changing situation, he found himself fighting on the Muslim side on more than one occasion.
Though real, religious oppositions sometimes paled into insignificance beside other enmities. It was not unusual for Muslim and Christian leaders to form alliances against rivals in their own camps. Even so, by slow degress Christian kings were extending their sphere of influence: in 1074 Ferdinand I of Leon took Coimbra, now in Portugal, from the Moors.
Holy warIn 1077, Alfonso VI of Castile announced that he was "Emperor of all Spain". No longer content to tussle with his fellow kings, he saw himself - in aspiration, at least - as ruler of the peninsula as a whole. He captured Toledo, until then the center of a rich and prestigious Muslim state.
Thrown into panic, the rulers of al-Andalus called on assistance from the Almoravids, who had recently taken on power in North Africa. The Almoravids went on to beat Alfonso at the battle of Sagrajas in 1086. But their fight was only just beginning, as the elite of al-Andalus found out to their consternation. A Berber movement, dedicated to both moral and spiritual renewal within Islam, the Almoravids disapproved of the easygoing attitudes they found in Moorish Spain, and now set about transforming it into their own kind of aggressively Islamic state. The Almoravids started reversing the conquests of the Christians, but met their match in 1094 at Valencia. El Cid took the southeastern city after a siege of 20 months: he set up as ruler over there, ostensibly in Alfonso's name. In many ways, El Cid was the last in a line whose attitude to the struggle with the Muslims remained opportunistic. But such pragmatism was becoming unacceptable. Even as the Almoravids were changing the tone of the conflict on the Muslim side, there was a clear shift on the side of the Christians too. The calling of the First Crusade in 1099 placed the conflict with the Moors in a new perspective, as a sacred struggle to reclaim Iberia for the creed of Christ.
On the OffensiveIt was a struggle the Christians seemed to be winning: in 1118 King Alfonso I of Aragon and Navarra took the city of Zaragoza. El Batallador ("The Battler") soon made deep inroads into the south, where Christian Mozarabs - happy under Moorish rule for many generations - were finding life a lot less comfortable under the Almoravids. After one audacious raid, King Alfonso brought 10,000 of them back with him for resettlement along the Ebro in the far northwest.
In 1139 another Alfonso won a victory, defeating the Almoravids at the Battle of Ourique, in what is now the south of Portugal. Here, Afonso Henriques, son of Henry of Burgundy, who also claimed the title of Count of Portugal, led his considerably outnumbered Christian army to a victory. In the cold light of military history, this result, although unexpected, seems to have been the consequence of failing communication and disagreements on the Moorish side. Not unnaturally, the Christians were overjoyed at this most unexpected triumph and were quick to attribute it to divine agency.
It was in fact this triumph that brought the modern country into being. Alfonso declared - defying Castile and Leon - that he intended to reign over his conquered territory as Afonso I of Portugal. That country's capital, Lisbon, was liberated following a six-week siege by crusaders en route for the Holy Land: the local bishop promised them the right of rape and plunder in the city in return.The Almoravids found themselves faced with another enemy in the 12th century. This time, they were Muslim. These were the Almohads, also Berbers, and also seeking Islamic renewal. Having already taken over the territories of the Almoravids in North Africa, establishing their capital at Marrakesh, they invaded al-Andalus in 1147. In doing so, they reversed what had been the gradual weakening in Moorish resistance to the Reconquista. Even so, the northern kingdoms scented victory and pressed hard to repel them;. Begged by his officials in al-Andalus, Abu Yusuf Yaqub, the Almohad Caliph, came from Morocco and took personal command of the kingdom's armies. He inflicted a shattering defeat on Alfonso VIII of Castile in the battle of Alarcos, earning himself the title, by which he is still remembered, al-Mansur ("the victor").