Crusader Commanders – Peter II of Aragon against Simon de Montfort

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Las Navas de Tolosa

The victory of La Navas de Tolosa was the result of a carefully prepared campaign, intended to recover the initiative held by the Almohad Caliph Muhammad since the Christian defeat at Alarcos in 1185. A crusade was preached with considerable success, for despite the fighting between Léon and Portugal, whose rulers played no part, troops gathered from all over Spain. They included those of the religious orders, the King of Navarre – although he came late – and many French crusaders. So large was the army that, as it gathered outside Toledo, enormous sums of money had to be minted for its support and there were great difficulties over feeding it, as Alfonso VIII of Castille admitted in his letter proclaiming the victory.

On 20 June the army, led by Alfonso VIII of Castile and Peter II of Aragon, left Toledo and seized Malagon and Calatrava. At this point, all but 130 French knights abandoned the crusade, although Sancho VII of Navarre then arrived with 200 knights. Encouraged by this desertion, the Muslim army left Jaén and moved to the foot of the Losa canyon. Topography now dictated events. The Islamic army effectively blocked this narrow pass and a vigorous debate ensued in the Christian camp, quite comparable to that before Hattin. However, a shepherd told them of a narrow defile by which they could descend, and this they followed, their vanguard debouching into the plain of the Mesa del Rey to the west of the Muslim advance guard. Both sides spent the whole of 15 July preparing. The Christians planned an attack, while the Almohads took up a defensive position on the slopes opposite them. The battle on 16 July was a confused affair, with the Christian army making a series of attacks with infantry and cavalry over the rocky slopes seamed with ravines, until a final cavalry charge broke the enemy.

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Battle of Muret – September 12, 1213: in which the French nobleman Simon IV de Montfort defeated Raymond VI of Toulouse and King Pedro II of Aragon in a major battle of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Peter’s death – a famous crusader who had faced the Muslims in Spain-was detrimental to the Cathar cause.

The next year saw Peter II, one of the victors of Las Navas de Tolosa, in battle against Simon de Montfort at Muret on 13 September. The battle arose as a consequence of Simon’s ambition, supported by the Church, to forge a principality in southern France at the expense of the Count of Toulouse and other southern leaders who had been declared heretical. Peter, deeply opposed to such a creation, raised a great army and joined Raymond of Toulouse at Muret. The men of Toulouse besieged the city, while the Spanish army established a camp in the hills to the west of the River Saudrune, about 3km away. The reasons for this dispersion of force are not in the least clear, but it was fatal. Simon de Montfort led his army into Muret in an effort to relieve the city, but his position seemed hopeless, because he only had about 800 knights against an estimated 1,400-1,500 in the allied force, which also had huge numbers of infantry.

The allied army then debated what to do. The Count of Toulouse wanted to continue the siege, for Muret was not a strong place. He seems to have assumed that this would force Simon’s army into a sally, and suggested that the Spanish should fortify their camp so that they could shoot down Simon’s desperate cavalry with crossbows, before emerging to crush a weakened enemy. But the Aragonese were offended by this proposal, perhaps overconfident after the victory of Las Navas de Tolosa, and they urged an immediate attack. This took the form of a mounted assault on Muret through the Toulouse Gate, which was left open, perhaps to facilitate negotiations that the clergy were conducting. It is possible that this was a ploy by Simon to draw in enemy forces but, if so, it was a great risk and the southerners all but seized the town before retiring to eat lunch. Simon de Montfort then led his forces out of the open gate to confront the southern army, which had taken up station about 2.5km northwest of Muret between the Saudrune and the Pesquiès marsh, a position in which they should, given their numbers, have been invulnerable. They were drawn up in two lines, each of three divisions, and King Peter insisted on taking his place at the head of one of these, dressed only as a simple knight. They appear to have left all of their infantry in the camp, a kilometre to their rear, suggesting that they intended to fight a mounted battle on the open plain. Simon marched his men out of the city, divided them into three squadrons, and sent the first two hurtling into the mass of the enemy army, focusing their effort on King Peter. As they struck the southern army they became enveloped in it; Simon moved forward and to the right, crossed the marsh and took the enemy in the left flank, causing a panic which was intensified when Peter II was killed; “when the rest saw this they thought themselves lost and fled away”.

The sources are quite clear on the reasons for this disaster: the southern army was poorly organized, while Simon formed his squadrons in close order. James I had no doubt as to the causes of his father’s defeat: “And thereon they [the French] came out to fight in a body. On my father’s side the men did not know how to range for the battle, nor how to move together; every baron fought by himself and against the order of war. Thus through bad order, through our sins and through those from Muret fighting desperately since they found no mercy at my father’s hands, the battle was lost.” As Simon’s army struck the Aragonese, the knights of Toulouse rushed up with no idea of what was going on and “paying heed to neither count nor king”. It seems as if the forces between the marsh and the river had not expected an attack and had little time to prepare when it materialized. It is not clear that anyone was in command of the allied army, which had dispersed its strength dangerously. A substantial force, including many cavalry, had tried to get into the Toulouse Gate and seems to have played no part in later events: a massive infantry force was left to do nothing, a kilometre behind the fighting. Once battle was joined, King Peter – imprudently positioned like Frederick I at Legnano – was unable to direct events. By contrast, Simon was very much in command and judged his moment to launch his reserve. His force was small, but it was the kernel of the crusader army and many of its members had been fighting together for a long time. It had the qualities of a highly cohesive force and fought as such against an uncertain and virtually leaderless enemy.

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