The first years of James I, the Conqueror, at the head of the Kingdom of Aragon were not easy. The king who was educated by the Templars had to face the distrust of the Aragonese nobles and the Catalan nobles. Between the different families and also towards the young man who became king when he was not yet five years old. James I also dealt with the loss of prestige that followed the reign of Peter II, his father, as well as the economic difficulties suffered by the kingdom and the general discontent caused by all of the above. The year he turned twenty, when he no longer needed any regency to govern on his behalf, James I decided that, in order to tackle all of the above, he would continue the conquering spirit that had characterized his ancestors. Always with the Templars at his side, James I did not look south: he looked east.
We can point to two fundamental facts as the beginning of this conquest. Firstly, an evening at the home of a Catalan nobleman, a moment in which James I seemed to be convinced that Mallorca, in Muslim hands, should be conquered. The Templars had long had it in their sights; in fact, there are historical records that place their sights on Mallorca in the years around the founding of the Order. This conquest would not have been carried out without the support of the Order, which already enjoyed a consolidated presence in the Peninsula.
The Muslim kingdom had settled in the tenth century in the Balearic archipelago, which was known in the Mediterranean for being related to pirate activities that caused havoc. It was these activities at sea that provoked the second significant event that precipitates the story: two ships of the Kingdom of Aragon were hijacked by the Mallorcans. This was the definitive trigger.
In December 1228, at a meeting held in Barcelona, it was decided that the Crown of Aragon would launch a conquest. This would involve Aragonese knights, but would be financed and executed mainly by Catalans. With the help of the religious orders close to the Crown, in September 1229 a Christian fleet of 150 ships set sail from the Catalan coast. Reaching the island was not easy, as they were beset by a great storm that diverted their trajectory to Santa Ponça, where they disembarked almost five days later.
“We found a place that had Santa Ponsa in its name and decided it was a good place to dock. On Sunday at noon a Saracen named Ali, from La Palomera, came swimming to us, and gave us news of the island, the city and the King,” recounted James himself, as a chronicler, in what is known as the Llibre dels feits. Indeed, the intervention of Ibn ‘Abbad or Benhabet, a Muslim who turned his back on his kingdom because he was on bad terms with it, is fundamental to understand the Christian successes. Ali of La Palomera provided fundamental information on the Muslim armies, their positions and their strategies. The first battle was fought shortly after landing, and was also the first Christian victory.
The most important armed confrontation was known as the Battle of Porpotí, which was fought halfway between the landing site and what was then called Madîna Mayûrqa, the capital of the island. It took almost three months to reach what is now Palma de Mallorca, and James I lost several of his most important men along the way, but he won victory after victory, weakened the enemy army and by the time he besieged the capital in December 1229, there was no doubt which side would be the victor.
On December 31, 1229, the conquest of the capital became effective. The months that followed this event, however, were not easy months for the army of James I, nor for the king himself. The troops that had participated in the siege began a sacking of the city that was not definitively ended until April 1230. By then, dividing up the city already seemed a complicated task. James I tried, however, that the big names who had participated in the conquest received the agreed share. One of the king’s objectives was, precisely, to achieve a benefit for all. Finally, he divided the island into eight parts. The Knights Templar received most of the territories of Alcudia and Pollença, where they settled.
But the almost 20,000 men who disembarked in Mallorca did not face death only on the battlefield: they also did it afterwards. Studies indicate that it was precisely 20,000 Muslims who died in the siege of Madîna Mayûrqa; James I himself spoke of 25,000 dead. The Christian army, more concerned with enjoying the victory than with consolidating its presence in the area, forgot about the thousands of corpses abandoned in the city. This caused an epidemic of plague that decimated the Christian troops, and made it easier for many Muslims to take refuge in the Serra de Tramuntana. The resistance of the latter lasted until 1232.
It was the Catalan population that repopulated, for the most part, the island. Around this, the struggle continued for a few more years. In 1231, Menorca accepted James I as king, with the condition that its inhabitants were allowed to continue being Muslims; its definitive conquest became effective fifty years later, with Alfonso III of Aragon. Both Ibiza and Formentera came under the rule of the Kingdom of Aragon in 1235. The Crown went as far as Alfonso I once dreamed.
But James I did not stop here. His sights were still set on the Levante, on the land that Aragon had tried, so many times before, to dominate. Valencia would be his next objective, and also his last great struggle alongside the Knights Templar, from whom he never distanced himself. In fact, the religious and spiritual values of the knights who educated him were always a basic pillar in all the actions undertaken by the Conqueror.
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