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Old June 19th, 2015, 06:01 AM   #1

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The Battle of Sagrajas/Zalaca, 1086

I'm just reading a brand new analysis of Zalaca, based on the one true source (KIng of Granada) and a lot of reasoning and other sources of contemporary events. Zalaca was one of the very few times in Spain that 2 armies actually sought each other out to fight.


For the uninitiated Zalaca was the battle referred to in El Cid, when Alfonso screams at Charlton Heston's El Cid for not being there - historically he could never have made it even if he wasn't tied up elsewhere far away. They did have a general rendezvous confusion some years later near Aledo which led to the fallout transposed into that scene.

Zalaca covers a number of things often discussed on here - size of armies and ludicrous numbers in sources. Cavalry and infantry use and supply. Analysis of the army commanders etc. the Almoravids and the Al Andalus natives.

This was not the Almoravid invasion as such, that would come later. It was a specific and repetitive request by 3 of the Taifa kings of Al Andalus - Badajoz, Granada and Sevilla - for help, to the Almoravid Emir Yusuf Ibn Tashufin against the ever-expanding and bullying Castille, following the fall of Toledo. A specific invasion for one battle, the plot for takeover of Al Andalus by the Almoravids would develop later - that is another tale. It is debateable whether the Emirs of Sevilla, Granada and Badajoz hated each other more than they hated Alfonso VI of Castille. Luckily the strong Yusuf was able to focus them under a single banner.

The Almoravid army landed at Algeciras in July 1086. Alfonso was at the time besieging far-away Zaragoza in an attempt to get more tributes out of that state. When the news reached him he was faced with a long March.

The obvious targets for Yusuf might have been Toledo itself, or more likely Coria, sticking out into Badajoz terrotory as an exposed strongpoint.

The ever-cautious Yusuf - this was the 3rd request for help - decided to base his army in front of Badajoz and wait. This meant he was in allied territory, with the Badajoz Emir providing supplies, with the opportunity to withdraw within friendly walls in the case of defeat and call for reinforcements. The enemy was unknown to them and the loss of Yusuf could cause collapses in the whole Almoravid Empire. So given all the disadvantages of extending himself toward hostile Coria - supply train, hostile land etc - it seems smart enough.

This is where the impulsiveness and lack of judgement of Alfonso VI came into play - lets face it Yusuf was leader by his achievements - Alfonso by birth and good fortune. Since the death of Abd Al Malik and collapse of the Caliphate the northern kingdoms had the weak Taifa kingdoms in their power - they only had to take to the field to win with their powerful feudal forces and over 80 years this led to total complacency.

Alfonso headed west and south - there was no advance warning so no supplying posts could be prepared. Once he went past Coria he would be operating in enemy territory - with the obvious problems that entails - against a wholly-unknown enemy, which he must have assumed would roll over like those of Al Andalus. The smart move may be to sit at Coria - or reinforce it and withdraw - which would force the end of the campaign season and the withdrawal of a prestige-hit Almoravid army.

Supplies - a brief calculation gives the authors that a force of 1000 cavalry would need to be supplied by around 1200 pack animals for a campaign of 15 days (or equivalent carts). Over bad roads. In a no mans land with no agriculture. This gives an insight to reality as against these 'tens of thousands of slain' often found in these times and also in much later muslim chronicles of Zalaca.

Numbers - through much varying analysis which obviously cant be written here, the authors conclude a numerical advantage of about 5 to 3 for the Almoravids and Al Andalus allies. They would have around 1000 Andalusian cavalry, 1500-2000 African light cavalry and around 2000 infantry of various sources (mostly African). It is often referred that the Almoravids could not tell the Al-Andalus cavalry from the Christians because of the similar heavy armour. The Castillians would have around 2000 'caballeros' and around 1000 infantry - this last is just an intelligent guess, it is never referred to but there must have been men looking after the supply train, men without horses and footsoldiers etc. Dont forget there had been no need for large battles since the fall of the Caliphate, only smaller skirmishes. they would never have ridden into battle in large formation, wheres the Almoravids had fought across Morocco.

Clash of styles - as we all know the main European/Castillian tactic at the time was to rush headlong into the enemy with all your heavy knights and break it's centre. The Almoravid tactic was to receive such charge with a force of infantry, kneeling, with javelins with, just behind them, other troops throwing the weapons. Once the initial shock has been received cavalry are let through the infantry ranks to participate - it is unclear how but referred to more than once. Jihadists and other expendables could be put in front of the lines to cause more of a nuisance and tyre out christian knights killing them.

The main chapter dealing with the battle is yet to come - if any new interest arises I will post. But I think we all know that it was an utter disaster for Castille, losing much of it's nobility and knights. The mad headlong rush into the firm allied lines just got bogged down, whilst an Almoravid light cavalry force attacked the rear, causing a total panic in which Alfonso himself was lucky to escape, as many didn't.

The Castillian generals never really got to grip with Almoravid tactics, losing at Almodovar del Rio, Consuegra and Ucles in the coming years, being unable to 'think out of the box'.

Only El Cid, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, would consistently defeat them around Valencia by his unbeatable combination of shrewdness, charisma, sheer power and shortcomings in the Almoravid opponents and logistics. Because after all Yusuf Ibn Tashufin was very experienced, very old and very wise. In his few times in the Peninsula, he never personally went up against El Cid, unlike the Herbert Lom character in the film!

Coincidence? Or wisdom?

There is obviously a lot behind this, so if anyone has any specific interest or questions, I will expand if I can.

Last edited by johnincornwall; June 19th, 2015 at 06:06 AM.
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Old June 25th, 2015, 01:29 AM   #2

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The Battle itself:

Our Historian authors and army officers have analysed everything available along with contemporary practices and events and their assessment of the battle site and events (scarcely known) is summarised by me here:

The allied muslim army set out it's camp/stockade right before Badajoz - across the Guadiana so that conflict would be inevitable (if they had stayed on the other side a messy stand-off was likely). The muslim right was anchored on the shallow Gevora tributary of the Guadiana. The left was anchored on some hills and high ground. As is widely known the Andalucian cavalry was placed in the front to receive the assault - whether by honour/pride (Al Mutamid of Sevilla was senior ally of Yusuf and must have helped with planning, not yet sub-servient) or placed there to keep the Almoravid forces more intact is not known. Also in the front of the field were the yihadists - barely armed and little more than nuisance value, detaining a charge slightly as they died under the hoofs of a horse! The Badajoz cavalry were on the right, against the river, Sevilla in the middle and Granada and Levante on the left.

Behind the front cavalry were the Almoravid infantry masses, armed with javelins as described above, with Almoravid light cavalry behind. A sizeable force of light cavalry was kept behind in or to the rear of the stockade.

The Castellano-Leones camp was some 5km to the north. They must surely have had less time to prepare the camp (see later). The basic plan was the usual european (and Andalucian) plan of the age - a mass charge of heavy cavalry to smash the enemy and drive it into full, panicky retreat.

The charge was of course a trot for most of the way, otherwise the horses would drop dead carrying all that armour and man. There would have been some method (among mesnadas that had not fought in such a large army before) to keep a fairly even front and there would be plenty of spacing to allow avoidance of hazards and obstacles along the way. Also two waves, the second to provide relief and back up after a few minutes.

The Andalusian cavalry advanced slightly to meet the charge. The Northern cavalry was superior, both in number and power, and after a few minutes started to drive back the southern troops, who eventually withdrew. The Badajoz contingent withdrew along the shallow Gevora round the right flank of the Almoravid infantry, the Levante and Granada contingents round the left flank by the hills and the Sevilla troops were 'saved by an Almoravid general' - most likely opening a path in the centre of his infantry lines to allow them to withdraw through. This brought the christians against the Almoravid javelin wall and some hardpressed Almoravid light cavalry - who coud hardly fight toe to toe with the heavy christian knights due to lack of equipment.

Yusuf could not now allow Alfonso time to consolidate or think. He had moved a sizeable portion of his cavalry to the rear of the stockade, around the back of hills holding the left flank and out of sight. A section of this - size unknown - rode directly around the left and headed straight for the christian base camp at 5km. the other part - surely the larger - fell on the christian right from over the hills, so they were suddenly pressed from 2 sides, front and right.

The attack on the christian camp - included in all known sources. The cavalry charge was to destroy and kill, not take possession. What is not known is why they were able to access it so easily.

1) Was the main christian infantry actually advancing down the battlefield to support the cavalry, therefore leaving the camp exposed with only boys, infirm, tradesmen etc? Rather than defending the camp.
2) In such a case they would themselves by exposed to sudden cavalry and forced to form a square or hedehog for safety
3) Did the Almoravid cavalry attack one exposed point and thus gain access?
4) Did the christian infantry just gather into safe little groups within the camp, whilst the light cavalry ransacked and killed around them?
5) Did someone actually leave the gates open (their view should have given them warning)?
6) My suggestion - we know Alfonso was supremely confident. With their arrival and the little time allowed to prepare before rushing into battle, did they actually build a satisfactory fortified camp at all? The authors seem to discount that but why not?

When the King was advised of the attack in his rear he was able to withdraw in some order - his left flank, having defeated the Badajocenses, was for example less engaged and could withdraw back to the camp. Sources coincide in where there was a battle in the christian camp where the Almoravid cavalry was driven out.

The main body of the Almoravid army did not follow up fully and Alfonso was able to withdraw in some order, badly mauled. Whether this was Yusuf being cautious, battle wearyness who knows? But a follow-up may have changed history.

Contrary to what I myself hinted in part 1, it was not a total anihilation, though obviously there were substancial losses and Alfonso - who was either in the first or secone wave of heavy cavalry - was wounded to some degree. The superior armour, weapons and probably some discipline of the Castellano-Leones cavalry, together with the lack of a pursuit, meant that the whole nobility was not destroyed as some historians state. The same army was able to take the field in force 2 years later to ride to the relief of Aledo.

Piles of heads - one of the traditional stories of Zalaca is that an imam preached to the soldiers after the battle from the top of a mountain of Castillian heads. Whilst the Almoravids were not known for their charity work, there wouldn't have been enough heads to create such a pile. No contemporary souces mention this - it seems to be one of those fairy stories that was woven into history later - when muslim-christian relationships had deteriorated and everything muslim was evil - smacks to me of later crusading mentality.

Alvar Fanes - lived to a ripe old age as the senior Castillian general, after the death of the likes of El Cid and his deadly rival Garcia Ordonez. If I recall rightly he died in about 1115. I have thought myself he often seems to be associated with defeat and the authors point out that, whilst he was at Zalaca in 1086 with Alfonso he seems to have learned nothing at all by Ucles in 1108. He lost at Zalaca, lost at Almodovar del Rio when in command of the army to the Almoravid general Sir, leaving Cordoba to the Almoravids and then lost disastrously at Ucles in 1108 when effectively in charge, basically to the same manouvre. He did hold Aledo, being a thorn in the Almoravid side for a while, and before that supported Al Qadir in Valencia, but this was always with '200 lancers' - small skirmishing stuff. Maybe he was one of these people that wasn't too good in full field battles? Ucles (see another thread) was a much greater disaster both numerically and strategically - It also cost the death of the young infante Sancho (theoretically in command but effectively it was Alvar Fanez and Garcia Ordonez - Alfonso Vi was now too old to take the field.). Garcia Ordonez and Sancho were reputedly killed in the aftermath. During the rout-driven retreat they took refuge with a small party of knghts in the village/fortress of Belinchon. Belinchon was one of those places that not long before formed part of the Taifa of Toledo. Although Toledo had been incorporated by Alfonso a lot of the towns were populated by muslims. When the party took refuge in Belinchon the local garrison changed sides and murdered them, in spontaneous anticipation of an impending Almoravid takeover. I'm sure they were suitably punished in due course.

But I digress - I'll post anything of further interest from casualties and consequences.
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Old June 25th, 2015, 09:30 AM   #3

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Camps were often just piled stones and dirt in Spain weren't they? Walled camps with gates etc made by rural cabaleros and a young king in a hurry sounds unrealistic to me. Otherwise I don't know about the infantry in this battle but generally when moving quickly not many men would have time to gather- probably just few locals whose main duty more would be defending herds gathered for food and the camping site.

Badajoz was also on periphery of Castilian territory at this time wasn't it? I wonder how many local Christians were in the nearby mitias.

From the description I also wonder how much Almoravid cavalry was present in the main battle with some being sent to attack the camp. If Castilians withdrew in some order and the Andulusians were considered a bit untrustworthy by Yusef then pursuit might have seemed dangerous.
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Old June 25th, 2015, 09:00 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Ichon View Post
Badajoz was also on periphery of Castilian territory at this time wasn't it? I wonder how many local Christians were in the nearby mitias.
Badajoz (Arabic Batalyaws) was the capital of an Andalusian Taifa kingdom. It was a muslim city, and the border with the Christian kingdoms was located 200 km to the north at that time.
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Old June 26th, 2015, 01:44 AM   #5

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Originally Posted by Ichon View Post
Camps were often just piled stones and dirt in Spain weren't they? Walled camps with gates etc made by rural cabaleros and a young king in a hurry sounds unrealistic to me. Otherwise I don't know about the infantry in this battle but generally when moving quickly not many men would have time to gather- probably just few locals whose main duty more would be defending herds gathered for food and the camping site.

Badajoz was also on periphery of Castilian territory at this time wasn't it? I wonder how many local Christians were in the nearby mitias.

From the description I also wonder how much Almoravid cavalry was present in the main battle with some being sent to attack the camp. If Castilians withdrew in some order and the Andulusians were considered a bit untrustworthy by Yusef then pursuit might have seemed dangerous.
Ichon if you read the whole thing some of that is answered in there somewhere. Semper Victor is right as usual. Badjoz was one of the remaining Taifas, one of the bigger ones. Many others had been swallowed up by the big boys by this time, especially in the west. But Badajoz territory would have been muslim for 3 and a half centuries by now. Although the fundamental rule of the Almoravids and much worse the later Almohads was still to come, the Calpihate was pretty intolerant at times and I'd be surprise if there was a large Christian community in Badajoz at that time. What is more likely is that they may have had some christian soldiers - people would do anything for money and there were always people fallen out with the king - rivals, exiles etc who might fight for muslim Taifas.

Coria was exposed as a target simply because, since the recent fall of Toledo, it stuck out into the clearly muslim territory of Badajoz.

My point about the christian camp (wood) is that - whilst Yusuf had good time to select his battlefield Wellington-style, Alfonso had marched all the way from Zaragoza, with some troops joining at Coria. He was supremely confident after dealing with the non-militarised Taifas for many years, and may not have put much care into building defences in the temporary camp. To be honest, in contrast to the well-documented Almoravid infantry, there is absolutely no reference to Castellano-Leones infantry and everything they have said is based on normal practice/best practice and need to bring supplies etc. I guess it is conceivable that Alfonso travelled with cavalry only with such an urgent task. Which would mean the camp only had squires and mule-drivers etc

I did an interesting (I think!) thread on Taifas somewhere (listing them all) - it can be found on search.

Your last point is interesting. In this case the authors put quite a lot of emphasis on the superiority of the christian heavy cavalry in equipment. This is why the wily old Yusuf had to use his brain more. A javelin thrust that may leave a small bruise or cut through the body armour of a 'Spanish knight' (of either religion) may be fatal or at least incapacitating for an Almoravid. They contend that actual battle injuries may have been higher for the Almoravids for this reason, but having more numerous forces this would not be critical. So this, as well as tiredness, may have formed part of the lack of ability/will to pursue. I think the oft-emphasised caution of Yusuf played a big role - he had his great victory - why gamble with it and extend?

The authors calculate by various means and guesswork that the christian force had about 20% casualties. No prisoners are mentioned in any sources and it is likely that, against contemporary custom, the Castellano-Leones wounded were put to death on the battlefield.

There were no immediate consequences of Zalaca. Yusuf went back to Morocco with his army - leaving a permanent fortified base at Algeciras - on the death of his eldest son. The Taifa kings could stop paying the pariahs to Castilla for a while, but they didn't take much advantage of this to build up their forces.

Alfonso went back to Toledo to lick his wounds. Cid was still fighting his private ventures in the east - mainly against Lerida (muslim), Aragon and Barcelona and had not yet come into contact with the Almoravids or Valencia (muslim).

The above-mentioned Alvar Fanez posted himself in Aledo and his raids became a pain to the Taifas of that area (Granada, Denia, Almeria etc). Valencia was nominally a muslim ally under Al Qadir, recently bribed out of Toledo by Alfonso with the throne of Valencia.

To eliminate the threat of Aledo the Taifas were able to once again call on Yusuf to come over with an army in 1088. However the siege of Aledo failed badly on the approach of the Castillian army under Rodrigo and was marked by the constant squabbling of the Taifa kings, combined with a mutual lack of support. This, together with their lack of religious piety, seems to have resolved Yusuf to come and depose them all. Always cautious he had learned Islamic judgements proclaimed from Cairo and elsewhere to justify deposing the Andalusian monarchs on grounds of dissolute behaviour.

Once again the Almoravid army came under under General Sir, who spent the next few years knocking over the Taifas like dominos. Al Mutamid of Sevilla was 'retired' to Morocco and if I recall lived in peace and wealth. Others weren't so lucky - the wife of the Emir of Cordoba fled north after Alvar Fanez' defeat at Almodovar del Rio and ended up marrying Alfonso VI in the glorious fashion of pre-crusade politics. She was the mother of the Infante Sancho murdered after Ucles in 1108. The last of the western Taifas to fall was our old friend in Badajoz, who played both sides of the coin (Almoravid and Castillian) for which his head was removed (1094 I think). That left only Valencia, then under El Cid, a few smaller Taifas and cities tributary to him and the large kingdom of Zaragoza to the north as Almoravid-free muslim states. The death of Cid in 1099 made the position of (muslim) Valencia untenable for the Castillians and his widow Jimena was evacuated with the remaining troops sometime later by a force led by Alfonso himself. With Valencia and Cid gone the Almoravids swept up the remaining little Taifas, much of the north after the Castillian disaster at Ucles and Zaragoza itself.

The Almoravid Empire was at it's peak.

Last edited by johnincornwall; June 26th, 2015 at 01:53 AM.
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