The Battle of Jerez in 1231

The Battle of Jerez was fought in 1231 between the forces of Ferdinand III, king of Castile and León, and Ibn Hud, ruler of Murcia and the de facto successor of the Almohads. It took place near the modern city of Jerez de la Frontera, in southern Spain. The Primera Cronica General provides this account of this victory by Castilian forces, who were under the command of Prince Alfonso de Molina, brother of King Ferdinand, and Alvar Perez de Castro.

Even though the Christians were few in number, Ibn Hud feared and did not belittle, them, so he drew up his men in seven battle-lines, in the weakest of which there were upwards of 1,500 horsemen, and in others 2,000 and perhaps more., but the Christians all together could not make more than a single line, equal in numbers to the weakest of the Moorish lines. However, they had with them the son of the King of Baeza, for this ruler was the vassal of King Ferdinand, and when he learned that Prince Alfonso was starting the campaign, he sent his son with 200 horsemen to accompany him, together with 300 infantry; also, knights of Santiago and Calatrava and the other military orders came too. But all this was as nothing compared with the power of the Moors. Tello Alfonso and Ruy Gonzilez de Valverde took part in the battle, with distinction. Even when all were added together, the knights numbered not more than 1,000, even including all the other men who were mounted, and the infantry scarcely reached 2,500. When the Christians saw such a mighty force ranged against them, and their own army so small, if they felt fear let nobody dare to ask me. There was one commander present with 700 Arab horsemen, who had come to help Ibn Hud, and as soon as these arrived they began to encircle the Christians and to challenge them in every possible way. The Christians were in great danger, and difficulty, for they could find no refuge on the sea, where the water was deep, and. they could not turn aside because the Moors were blocking the way. Don Alvar Perez put new heart into them and raised their courage in many ways, to the extent that they lost all fear, as though they had ten times the numbers of the Moors. The Prince held the rearguard and was responsible for 500 Moorish prisoners who had been taken on the raid earlier; Alvar Perez, who commanded the front ranks, sent to tell him to behead all the prisoners, and this was done. Alvar then consulted the army leaders. It was agreed that all the infantry should be separated from the cavalry, as was the case in the Moorish army, and this was done. They did not form up in a battle-line, but made a single troop, for they realized they did not have enough men to do otherwise. Alvar Perez ordered that all the pack-animals should be placed together, and mounted by foot-soldiers, these to make the largest demonstration of their strength that they could; and they were to stand guard over the booty. The shouts and war-cries of the Moors, and the noise from their drums and trumpets were so loud that it seemed heaven and earth were about to collapse. That day Alvar Perez took up a slender spear and a rod, and with these weapons went into the fray very proudly and cheerfully and bravely, leading his men and giving them every kind of encouragement, making everyone think that he had a poor opinion of Ibn Hud’s strength. The Christians all made their confession, to priests if they could, to each other if they could not. Don Alvar, before he went into battle, knighted Garci Perez de Vargas that day, and our story will tell later on how he began and continued his knightly career. Then, once the Christians had all made their confession and commended themselves to God, Alvar sent to tell the Prince, who was at the rear, to come forward so that all could form up as one troop; and this was done.

After Don Alfonso had come forward from the rear and a troop had been formed, Don Alvar went from side to side giving everyone all possible encouragement and making them lose their fear. Then they rode forward, with everyone shouting in unison. ‘St James!’, and at times ‘Castile!’. They began to pierce the Moorish ranks, shattering the first, then the second and third, and then all one after the other, killing and rolling back the enemy and causing great loss of life. Then they started to fight to each side, the Moors being unable to make any sort of stand. It was said – and the Moors themselves averred the same afterwards – that St James appeared there on a white horse with a white banner in one hand and a sword in the other, together with a regiment of knights dressed in white; also that angels were seen to fly through the air above them; and that it seemed as though these white knights were causing greater havoc than any other body of men. Many of the Christians saw this vision too. Then the Moors began to scatter and flee, turning their backs as quickly as they could and confessing defeat. The Christians started to pursue them, killing some and capturing others. The slaughter was so great, that the infantry in their pursuit could not go forward after a time because they found the piles of the dead an obstacle to their progress. Eventually the Christians forced the enemy back against the gates of Jerez, where the slaughter was also very great: the press of men was so tight in the gateway, and so few were able to enter compared with the huge mass that they formed that they were killing each other. What more can one say? Our men whittled them down as a carpenter whittles a beam of wood, and the Moors offered no kind of defence. The field was quickly cleared of them, some being dead, others prisoners, the rest fugitives. In the fray the leader of the Gazuls was killed, together with many other Moors of high rank. The text we are following says, in confirmation of what was stated by those present, that the new knight Garci Ferez de Vargas, whom Alvar Perez had knighted before battle was joined, did himself honour at the start of his career, for it was he who unhorsed and killed that leader of the Gazuls. He it was who had come up with the 700 Arab horsemen mentioned earlier; and even though our text calls them ‘Arabs’, they were earlier and still at that time called ‘Gazuls’, and on account of that name the man was called ‘leader of the Gazuls’. He had come from overseas as it were on pilgrimage, in Muhammad’s service. When he arrived in al-Andalus, Ibn Hud gave him Alcala, the one now known as ‘Alcala de los Gazules’ [province of Cadiz]. Ibn Hud, not daring to stay in Jerez while the Christians were so strongly on the attack, made his way to the coast with as many men as he had, and set sail for a place of safety. Who could ever manage to tell how great was the booty taken that day, and the extent of the favours which God heaped upon the Christians? Our men began to search the battlefield, and found so much lying about that they wearied of picking it up. As for what they found in the tents, it was uncountable and beyond any man’s reckoning. After they had searched the field they began on the Moorish tents, and found them so richly stocked that they had no need to send elsewhere for what they needed; and it is said that while they remained there they had all the wood they needed for their fires from the shafts of shattered lances. And the nooses and the gallows which had been prepared for them were filled with the bodies of the Moors who had made them…

This text was first published in Christians and Moors in Spain, edited by Colin Smith (Aris & Phillips: 1989-92). This three volume set can be purchased through Oxbow Books. We thank Aris & Phillips for their permission to republish these texts.

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