The Crusader's Way: en route to the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212)

Francisco García Fitz.   University of Extremadura

On Monday, 16 July 1212, at first light, near the present town of Santa Elena (Jaén), two large armies set out face to face to begin a pitched clash that would become one of the great military landmarks of medieval Hispanic history, an extraordinary event that would come to be known as the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

After several decades of confrontation between the Christian kingdoms of the Peninsula and the Almohads, which for the former had resulted in major rural defeats - such as that suffered in Alarcos by the Castilian forces in 1195 - and substantial territorial losses to the south of the Tagus, in 1211 the Muslims once again struck the borders of Castile and conquered the Calatrava fortress of Salvatierra.

In view of this debacle, the King of Castile, Alfonso VIII, began to carefully develop a military response: in the last months of 1211 he began preparations that not only mobilized Castilian troops, but also achieved the concurrence of troops from all the Iberian kingdoms and the preaching of a crusade that allowed to gather a large contingent of ultra-Pyrenees. With the spiritual support of Pope Innocent III, with the political and military support of Peter II of Aragon and Sancho VII of Navarre, with the reinforcement of Portuguese and Leonese troops and with the encouragement of thousands of crusaders from France, the expeditionaries met in Toledo in mid-May 1212.

A month later this Crusader army set out and their progress southwards, along the road that linked Toledo and Cordoba, was dazzling: in barely twenty days they took the fortresses of Malagón, Calatrava, Alarcos, Piedrabuena, Benavente and Caracuel. Meanwhile, the Islamic army, which had remained in Seville since the Salvatierra campaign of the previous year, headed for Jaén to stop the Crusaders from passing through Sierra Morena, first settling in Baeza while waiting for their Christian enemies to approach. Shortly afterwards, when they saw the Christian advance towards the peaks of Sierra Morena, they got to the location of the present town of Santa Elena in Jaén, blocking thr access to the Sierra and the descent thanks to the control of Ferral Castle and the Losa Gorge.

Finally, the Christians found a path and managed to position themselves in front of the Muslim camp. On the aforementioned date both contenders expanded their forces on the field and staged an extraordinary pitched battle, in which the Crusaders achieved a memorable victory that has traditionally been considered the definitive turn in the centuries-old confrontation between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.

After the flight of the Almohad caliph -first towards Jaén and then towards Seville- during the following days the Crusader army exploited the success of the camp, taking some fortresses south of Sierra Morena, such as Ferral, Baños, Tolosa and Vílchez. In their advance, the Christians reached Baeza and conquered Úbeda before illness forced them to return to Toledo.  



The path of the winning army begins in Toledo, a city declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Following the footsteps of many of the contingents that arrived to Toledo, the traveller who enters the city through the Puerta de la Bisagra will come across the Hospital de Tavera or San Juan Bautista, now the Duke of Lerma Foundation Museum, just three hundred metres away. This is an impressive mid-16th century Renaissance building that owes its layout to Alonso de Covarrubias and is now also the headquarters of the Historical Archives of the Nobility.

Once inside, it is highly recommended that you walk around the streets until you reach the highest part of the city, where you will find the Alcazar de Toledo. It was probably here that Alfonso VIII and the members of his court stayed while they waited for the campaign to begin. Substantially modified in the 16th century, also by Alonso de Covarrubias and Juan de Herrera, it now houses the Army Museum.

The weeks that the expeditionaries stayed in Toledo were not peaceful, especially because of the ultra-Pyrenean crusaders, whose conflictive behavior forced them to stay on the outskirts of the city, in the Huerta de Rey, so it is likely that this large contingent had to pass before the walls of the castle of San Servando, located on the other side of the Tagus River, between the Puente de Alcántara and the Huerta del Rey. It is a fortress whose current structure was built in the 14th century, but it already existed in the time of Las Navas. 

When the route to the southern border of Castile began to meet the Almohad army, one of the first stops was next to the Guadalerzas Castle. Moving twenty kilometres to the east of this fortress, the traveller can visit the castle of Consuegra, one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Castile-La Mancha, the headquarters of the Military Order of Jerusalem at the time when the Crusaders on their way to the Sierra Morena passed through its surroundings.

Once this stretch of the road was overcome, the Christian army began to conquer various fortifications but, reaching the castle of Salvatierra, the leaders of the expedition decided not to waste any time in taking it and continuing its advance. At this point on the route, in the vicinity of Aldea de Rey, the traveller can stop to visit the impressive castle of Calatrava la Nueva, which would become the headquarters of the military order of the same name after the battle of Las Navas. And in this same town you can see the Clavería Palace, the headquarters of one of the main institutional offices of the Order, the claveros.

The pitched victory allowed them to go ahead in the following days, taking the castles of Ferral, Vílchez and Baños de la Encina. The latter, an imposing fortress of Umayyad origin from the 10th century, is perfectly preserved and allows for a leisurely visit to enjoy not only the building but also the privileged landscape.

The Crusaders still had the impetus to reach Baeza, which they found almost empty, and finally the expedition got right in front of the walls of Úbeda, which they besieged until they were able to surrender it and captivate thousands of Muslims. It was then that, struck by an epidemic, they decided to stop their advance and return to Toledo in the first days of August 1212.

The route of the Christians had begun in a city that is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ended in another, Úbeda, which is also a World Heritage Site. At the end of the route, the traveller will be delighted in this Renaissance city, visiting the splendid Sacred Chapel of the Palace of Francisco de los Cobos, a jewel of the Renaissance, next to the Palace of Francisco de los Cobos, who was the secretary of Carlos V. Reach the Palace of Vela Cobos and the plateresque building of the Counts of Guadiana. And look for a well-deserved rest in another Renaissance palace, the Dean Ortega, the current Parador Nacional of the city.

Where does the route take place?

  • Hospital de Tavera o de San Juan Bautista,  Toledo
  • Alcázar de Toledo
  • Castillo de Consuegra. Toledo
  • Castillo de Calatrava la Nueva.  Aldea del Rey.  Ciudad Real.
  • Palacio de la Clavería.  Aldea del Rey.  Ciudad Real.
  • Castillo de Burgalimar.  Baños de la Encina. 
  • Sacra Capilla del Salvador. Palacio de los Cobos.  Úbeda.  Jaén. 
  • Palacio del Deán Ortega, Parador de Ubeda. Jaén.

This route links with

The Crusader's Way: en route to the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) II

Francisco García Fitz.   University of Extremadura   On Monday, 16 July [...]

Know castles and palaces in this route

The Hospital de San Juan Bautista, better known as Hospital Tavera, was built in the 16th century with a double function: a charitable one for being a hospital “for those afflicted by different illnesses” and a sepulchral one, for being a mausoleum for its founder, Cardinal Juan Pardo Tavera, Archbishop of Toledo, Inquisitor General, Governor of Castilla and Governor of the Kingdom in the absence of the Emperor.

Its palatial appearance is due to its first architect Alonso de Covarrubias, Senior Master of the Main Cathedral and Royal Architect who in order to come up with a new concept for a hospital modelled it on the large Roman private double patio house described by Vitruvio.

Its construction, started in 1540, the architectural and urban renewal program that the humanist circles in the Court of Emperor Charles V designed in order to match the image of Toledo with its status as Imperial capital city. This was depicted years later by El Greco in his famous "View of Toledo" in which this Hospital is reversely situated in the foreground, floating on a cloud, this way the painter helped in the furnishing of the building.

The outlandish sum of half a million ducats that had already been spent in 1599, according to the Hospital administrator, Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, when there was still much of the church to build makes it one of the most splendid constructions of the period, perhaps only comparable, according to the art historian, Fernando Marias, to the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial.

The fortress began to be built in the middle of the 9th century during the splendour  period of the caliphate of Cordoba, its construction being completed in the middle of 13th century by the knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, over 350 years of uninterrupted construction and since then three different castles can be visited in a single building.

The order made it the capital of an extensive priory. The cession of the castle and its alfóz was made in 1183 by Alfonso VIII to the knights, although the fortress had been already reconquered by Alfonso VI, exactly one hundred year before, being the place of constant war, it was lost going from Christians to Muslims repeatedly so that finally moving to the kingdom of Castile.

The enlargements and reforms of the castle continued throughout the centuries to adapt gradually to the uses and customs of each era, providing it with a archive, chapel, chapterhouse, water cisterns, powerful defenses (it was necessary to break 7 doors to access to the central core of the strength and the average thickness of its walls is 4.5 meters and the height of its towers of 30 meters, which together with its strategic position, gave it an impregnable aspect).

Its last extension was made in the XVII century with the intention of housing a new hermitage. The fortress remained inhabited until the beginning of the 19th century. In the year 1813 the building was blown up by Napoleon's troops and left in ruins. In 1837 Mendizábal expropriate the castle to be finally acquired by the City Council in 1962.

It is currently in the rehabilitation phase having recovered 50% of the castle. Today it is possible to visit two of three water cisterns, gallery, archives shed, hermitage, chapterhouse, albarrana tower, terraces,  garden, barbican and the steps of the round, being used for theatrical performances and cultural events.

The World Heritage City of Úbeda is located in the province of Jaén, west of the Cazorla and Segura mountains near the Guadalquivir River. You will find the Parador in the old quarter, housed in a 16th-century palace on Renaissance-styleVázquez de Molina Square. The local architecture will remind you of an Italian Renaissance city, but with the folklore, age-old handicrafts, cuisine and joyous atmosphere of Andalusia. The hotel façade conceals an extremely beautiful interior courtyard and some of the guest rooms offer a spectacular view of the square.

Just a short stroll separates the Parador from some of the loveliest buildings in Úbeda, including El Salvador Chapel, the palace of the Marquis of Mancera and Vázquez Molina Palace, now home to the city hall.

The city's wealth of cultural heritage is reflected in its walls, palaces, churches, monasteries and convents. Begin your tour on Redonda de Miradores Street, Úbeda's viewpoint overlooking a sea of olive trees. Continue along its winding streets, visiting antique shops, museums, neighborhoods such as San Millán, and picturesque Valencia Street, where you can still find artisan potters working in their shops. You will discover a truly unique place.


Know the environment

The quality and state of preservation of its many Renaissance buildings and the unique urban environment led this municipality in the province of Jaén to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 3, 2003.

Known as the ‘city of the hills’, it is located in the La Loma district (top producer of olive oil in the area), near the Sierra Mágina mountains. The essence of Úbeda lies in its magnificent Renaissance buildings and monuments, in its palaces, walls, monasteries, convents and stately homes. It is truly the jewel of the Andalusian Renaissance.




With the erection of this chapel in 1536, an urban transformation of the city of Úbeda began, which, in a very short time, scarcely fifty years, produced one of the most outstanding and prodigious collections of Renaissance architecture in Spain. It was created under the patronage of the Secretary and Chief Adviser to Emperor Charles V, Francisco de los Cobos, and his relatives, with the purpose of creating an urban setting to match their dizzying heights of social ascension.

This monumental square, today known as the Plaza Vázquez de Molina, is presided over by a large church, la Sacra Capilla del Salvador the centerpiece, together with the neighbouring Baeza´s monumental ensemble, of Unesco´s World Heritage Site. This is Diego de Siloé’s masterpiece. Its architectural layout makes an ideal resemblance of the Holy Sepulcher built in Jerusalem where a basilica and a funerary  chapel are constructed in the same space.

The funerary chapel was constructed for the aforementioned Francisco de los Cobos and his family. Siloé’s project was executed by Andrés de Vandelvira, and the Sacristy may be entirely due to him.

The result is a Church at the very heights of the best Italian Renaissance architecture and partakes in the humanist ambition of fusing classical heritage with that of the Christian world, an ambition that is also present in its rich iconographic programme.