The triumph of the First Crusade greatly impacted the early-twelfth century Christian kingdoms of Iberia. Inspired by Pope Urban II’s message of holy war, the knights and clergy of Spain began to conceive of their centuries-long struggle against the Moors of al-Andalus as a Crusade that merited spiritual benefit for its participants. A pioneer in this movement was Alfonso I of Aragon (1104-1134), a tough warrior-king deeply moved by the concept of Christian struggle against the infidel, who viewed himself as a crusading monarch in the same vein as the Latin kings of Jerusalem in Outremer.
King Alfonso appealed to France for assistance in his first proposed crusade. His target was Zaragoza, a formerly independent Moorish city, which had in 1110 fallen to the powerful Almoravid Empire based in North Africa. In 1118, Alfonso sent Bishop Esteban of Huesca to the Council of Toulouse, where the French clergy confirmed “the way of Spain” as an avenue for Crusade. Several French nobles responded to Alfonso’s appeal, Gaston IV of Bearn (who had fought in the Holy Land), his brother Centulle of Bigorre, and Bernard Ato of Carcassone all took the cross to aid the King of Aragon, as did the Iberian nobles Diego Lopez de Haro, Lord of Vizcaya, and Count Ramon of Pallars. The coalition French-Aragonese army marched on Zaragoza, and the siege began May 22, 1118.
Alfonso I of Aragon
Later that same year, Alfonso sent Bishop Pedro, already selected to rule the episcopate of Zaragoza, to meet with Pope Gelasius II, who was touring southern France. Gelasius made a definitive declaration on the Zaragozan Crusade: “If anyone receives penance for his sins and is killed in this expedition, we, by the merits of the saints and the whole Catholic Church absolve you from your sins.” -Reconquest and Crusade, p. 37. He also offered “remission and indulgence of their sins” to those laboring “in the service of the Lord,” confirming that anyone participating in Alfonso’s Crusade would gain the same spiritual benefits as if he’d fought in the Holy Land. The Pope also added a new innovation to this Crusade bull, granting an indulgence to anyone who aided in the construction of the churches in Zaragoza.
In response to Alfonso’s siege, the Almoravids dispatched a considerable army to relieve Zaragoza. Alfonso moved out with his troops to counter the Almoravid advance, and on December 6th the two forces met in battle. The result was an overwhelming victory for the Crusaders, in which the Almoravid host was shattered. This made the fall of Zaragoza inevitable: on December 18th, the Almoravid garrison surrendered. Mohammedan citizens wishing to depart were granted safe passage, while those opting to stay were free to do, provided they paid an annual tax to the King of Aragon. In early 1119, Alfonso granted privileges to Christians choosing to settle in Zaragoza. Over the next two years he captured the fortresses of Tudela, Tarazona, Borja, Calatayud, and Daroca, extending his frontier well south of the Ebro River.
In 1120 the Almoravids, eager to recover their losses, launched another army against Aragon. Alfonso met them at Cutanda, near Daroca, and once again the Christian army triumphed, with Alfonso’s cavalry smashing the Almoravid lines.
Alfonso before the defeated Almoravids at Cutanda, 1120
Inspired by the newly founded Knights Templar in Jerusalem, King Alfonso established his own order of warrior monks to defend his conquests. In 1122 he installed the brothers at Castle Belchite, some twenty-two miles south of Zaragoza. Described in the sources as a militia Christi – army of Christ, the order mirrored the Templars in most respects. The brothers took a monastic vow, with an additional oath to defend Christendom against her enemies. In 1124 Alfonso established another community of brother knights sixty miles south of Zaragoza at Monreal, a castle named after a frontier fortress in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In addition to charging these knights with the defense of Christian Aragon, Alfonso gave this order the extraordinary mission of eventually overcoming the Mohammedans of Africa and opening another route to Jerusalem. We can see how deeply Alfonso was oriented toward the concept of crusading, viewing his efforts in Iberia as working in concert with the Crusader states in Syria and Palestine.
Next Alfonso embarked on a bold campaign of raids deep into Almoravid territory. He ravaged from Valencia to Denia, Jativa to Murcia, and even threatened Granada. In March of 1126 he encountered an Almoravid army at Lucena, and there, in the heart of Moorish territory, won yet another major victory. Thousands of Christians living in Mohammedan lands rallied to Alfonso’s army, and traveled with him back to his kingdom, where they settled in the Ebro valley.
Alfonso then campaigned to capture the remaining Moorish castles in the Ebro valley. In 1133, carrying a relic of the true cross, his army seized Mequinenza some sixty miles south of Zaragoza. However, on July 19, 1134 he suffered his first and only defeat by the Moors at the Battle of Fraga. Despite this final disappointment, the long legacy of Alfonso’s many victories over the Moors had far reaching consequences. Most importantly, his conquest of Zaragoza resulted in that great city never again returning to Moorish control. Later that year, the great warrior King Alfonso the Battler died on September 7th. His efforts had established Aragon as a major power on the Iberian Peninsula. The famous chronicler Ordericus Vitalis described Alfonso and his knights as “Christi crucesignatos” – warriors signed with the cross of Christ – the medieval expression for crusaders. And rightly so, for Alfonso’s ideological commitment to crusading combined with his military successes helped solidify the Reconquista as an Iberian Crusade.
Indeed, Alfonso was so committed to the ideal of the Crusade, that in his will he bequeathed the whole of his Kingdom to the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Aragonese military orders he had established in his domain.