The Shepherd who Saved an Army
The Crusade of 1212 in Spain
In 1212, in response to Pope Innocent III's call for a new crusade, many knights and foot soldiers had begun to gather near the city of Toledo, Spain. There were men from Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, and, of course, Spain who were preparing to go to war. They had come in response to the call from the pope who hoped to push back the encroachment of the invaders who were aiming to control all of Spain and Portugal.
The foe was the Almohad who hailed from northern Africa and who already held most of the lower half of the Iberian peninsula. They threatened the kingdoms of Spain as they were ever ready to expand their influence and territory as well as to spread the religion of Islam.
Indeed the threat was considered so great that the rival kings of Spain were willing to work together to push back the enemy. The kingdom of Navarre was led by King Sancho VII. And, the army of knights and soldiers from Aragon was led by King Peter II. King Alfonso II of Portugal was also present. Normally, these kings were ever wary of one another's maneuvering, but in this case, they were able to come together for a common cause. The appointed leader of the armies, because the battle would take place in his backyard, was King Alfonso VIII of Castile.
Alfonso also had a score to settle as he had been defeated by the Almohad in 1195 at the Disaster of Alarcos when his army had been badly beaten. The Almohad had pushed northward, taken several key cities and moved the Castilians back into Toledo.
Early Success Followed by Desertion and No Way Forward
The fortunes for King Alfonso VIII initially looked promising with his assembled army despite the reality that his much smaller combined forces were preparing to face a sizable foe. In one of their first initial encounters, the army laid siege to Calatrava which was a stronghold in the disputed border region of Alfonso's Kingdom of Castile.
The Moors of Calatrava surrendered and King Alfonso VIII allowed them to leave on their own terms. This action was not well received by the forces from beyond Spain and Portugal. Soon after that, these still grumbling knights forsook their Crusader oath and returned home in protest which greatly reduced the forces available to confront the Almohad.
Nonetheless, King Alfonso VIII pressed forward and captured several other small cities as he moved forward to his hinevitable encounter with the formidable foe from northern Africa.
Soon the king's army reached Puerto del Muradal only to find that the mountain pass was held by the enemy forces. All scouting reports indicated that there was no alternate way through.
After the earlier desertion of knights, this latest news regarding the strength of the enemy's position disheartened many of the remaining men, and a sizeable portion of them were also preparing to depart.
King Alfonso responded by taking one of his trusty supporters in order to begin a prayer vigil. They took to his tent and began to beseech the Lord for his help in their hour of need. Despite their time in prayer, there seemed to be no reply from Heaven.
As the hour grew late on that evening, only the king and his nobleman remained awake as they continued in prayer.
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The Mysterious Visitor
Suddenly, in the tent, a shepherd appeared. No one had announced his arrival as the shepherd had seemingly passed unnoticed by the sentries.
Surprised and wary, King Alfonso VIII scanned the unarmed shepherd. Dressed in ragged clothes, he had something about him that arrested his attention. Perhaps, it was his noble bearing that did not match the clothes that he wore.
To reassure the king, the shepherd showed his open hands to declare he came without a weapon. And his voice, too, was calm and steady, even reassuring, as he gently but firmly requested to speak with the king alone.
The nobleman, Garcia Romero, protested such a meeting with this unknown stranger who had appeared as if like a phantom. However, ignoring his own concerns, the king brushed aside Romero's concerns, and agreed to the shepherd's request. It seemed the correct action despite the red flags raised by the strange appearance of the shepherd. Obeying the king's decision, Romero left the tent to leave the two men alone.
Their conversation only lasted a minute or two. The king reappeared to his nobleman, and to the amazement of Romero, the king shared that he believed every word of the shepherd. Indeed, he saw that his words were the answer to their prayers not only for their immediate predicament, but an assurance that the battle would be won against the mighty Almohad. The king was almost joyful as he reported the news to Romero.
Then, he ordered Romero to follow the shepherd. Romero gathered a few of his men and followed the shepherd who led with confidence and leadership that Romero had rarely seen in even the best knights.
Soon, the shepherd had shown them a previously unknown path that could take the army where they needed to go. Romero could only shake his head as he knew that that scouts had been assured by all of the local shepherds that no such path existed. Following the path, Romero and his men found their way to the valley which held the enemy.
When he turned to thank the shepherd, he realized that the man had already left. No matter, Romero thought, and he returned to the king to share the great news of the passage that had been shown to him. The king gave thanks to God for His answer to their prayers. The word of the event spread through the camp, and the flagging spirits of the men were replaced by enthusiasm to take the path and engage the enemy as soon as possible given this sign from Heaven.
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Victory in Battle
Indeed, the army would take that action. In a move that seemed to be a withdrawal, the army took the path that had been shown by the shepherd and arrived in the very same valley where the Almohad were camped. The knights and soldiers set up camp and prepared to defeat the invaders. The Almohad, for their part, were dismayed when they saw the arrival of their foes. They had secured the pass through the mountains yet somehow these men were before them. Surely, something outside of the natural world had taken place.
The Spanish forces would go on to win an impressive battle led by King Alfonso as he avenged the loss which he suffered over a decade and a half earlier. Despite far lesser numbers, the king was able to inspire a victory that led to the rapid retreat of the enemy and the recovery of much territory that had been occupied by the Almohad.
The king knew that the shepherd had been the answer to his prayers. And he was not able to shake his belief that the man was no ordinary shepherd. The king had been struck by how the the man had not spoken like a simple shepherd. Instead, he had exuded confidence, strength, and resolve.
It would not be long before King Alfonso would learn the answer to the identity of the shepherd.
The Identity of the Mysterious Visitor is Revealed
Returning from the smashing victory of Las Navas de Tolosa, King Alfonso stopped at the church of St. Andrew in Madrid to give thanks. Just before his visit, torrential rains had uncovered the body of the holy farmer Isidore, who had been dead for over eighty years. Curiously, the body was found to be incorrupt. Of course, the king was keen to see this phenomena.
The king took one look at the body and immediately recognized the features of the shepherd who had come to speak with him. In thanks for his intervention, he commissioned a reliquary to be made to house the body. It was carved with images that depicted scenes from the life of the holy saint. It has come to be known as the Ark of St. Isidore, and it can be seen today at the church of St. Isidore the Farmer in Madrid.
* St. Isidore the Farmer lived from c. 1070 to 1130. He was married to St. Maria de la Cabeza (died c. 1175). They were farmers who were known for their humility and piety. They frequented the parish of St. Andrew in Madrid. St. Isidore was canonized in 1622, and he is the patron saint of Madrid. The story is told that one time when he was in prayer, the angels did his plowing for him in order that he could continue his prayers..
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Learn More About Another Spanish Saint
The greatest king of Spanish history is a saint--St. Fernando III. The grandson of King Alphonso VIII, Fernando was born in 1192. He grew up to exemplify the ideals of a knight who was fully committed to serving God first. Crowned King of Castile and Leon, he ruled his people by administering justice and fiercely protecting them from their enemies. The saintly Fernando died a holy death in 1252. Over 750 years later, you can see his incorrupt body in the Cathedral of Seville.
Feast Day: May 15 (Optional Memorial)