Battle of Navarette-Nájera, 1367

Martin Davis.

Navarette (Nájera) is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it shows the ascendancy of the English bowman over an unusual opponent-- light cavalry. Secondly, it occurred outside the normal sphere of combat for the period (at least as far as we insular British are concerned). Thirdly, it contains some of the great figures of the high chivalric period-- du Guesclin, Chandos, John of Gaunt and the Black Prince. Finally, but for me interestingly, it forms the background to the last part of Conan Doyle's "The White Company".

The battle had its roots in Spanish politics which appear to have been no less complicated in the fourteenth century than at any other time. The 'rightful' king of Castile, Pedro the Cruel, had been deposed by his subjects, led by his half-brother, Henry of Trastamara, who had become the new king, and Bertrand du Guesclin, the renowned French knight. Pedro fled the country and went to see the Black Prince, administering the English provinces around Bordeaux. Edward was incensed by the idea of a king being deposed (I imagine he was also glad of an excuse to stop doing paperwork and organise a fight) and set about recruiting troops [1]. Men from Gascony and Aquitaine answered his call; his younger brother John came from England with 400 knights and a large number of archers the King of Majorca produced some troops; and of course, the 'Free Companies' of mercenaries were always available.

In February, 1367, Edward set out with his force, through the Pyrenees. He crossed the Ebro at Logrońo where he had heard that Henry of Trastamara was only a short distance off, and the Allied army went through the small town of Navarette along the minor road to Najera.

Henry made his stand with the River Najarilla at his back--this seems to me to be a pretty elementary mistake and one wonders why he did it. Still, he wasn't stupid and with du Guesclin advising him there must have been some motive. The most likely explanation to me is that he felt that the strength of his army lay in its cavalry rather than its large numbers of conscript infantry and that these could be used to best advantage on the featureless plain that separates Najera from Navarette. Quite probably the idea of defeat never even occurred to him--his army outnumbered that of Edward and Pedro by about 29,500 to 24,000 and I should think he was quite happy. Battle of Navaratte diagram

Both sides arrayed their forces in three lines laid out in a comparable manner. The front line of Henry's army was led by du Guesclin in person, with 1500 picked men-at-arms and 500 crossbowmen . To oppose this Edward put his brother John of Gaunt with 3000 infantry and 3000 archers. In Henry's second line were two flanking forces of Spanish light cavalry mixed with a core of heaves. At this time Spain was beginning to experiment with light cavalry--later to develop into the 'genitors' of the Renaissance--for skirmishing purposes; an idea that had dropped out of contemporary European military thinking. The centre of the line was led by Henry himself with the cream of his heavy cavalry, 1500 strong. The Black Prince was also in the second line together with Pedro the Cruel and 4000 infantry, l/2 of them archers. Flanking him were two similar forces under Captal de Buch and Sir Thomas Percy. The third line of Henry's force consisted of 20,000 Spanish infantry of mixed capability, ranging from well armed professionals to reluctant con scripts. On Edward's side, the third line was led by the King of Majorca and the Count Armagnac with 3000 foot and 3000 archers. In all three divisions on Edward's side, the men-at-arms or foot were drawn up in the centre with the archers on either flank. As soon as the Black Prince was satisfied with the dispositions, he ordered his entire army to dismount and had the horses sent to the rear. [2]

Du Guesclin led his vanguard and they smashed into Lancaster's division. The English longbowmen dispersed the Castilian crossbowmen but once the melee had started the press was such that they could con tribute little. Lancaster and du Guesclin remained locked together throughout the remainder of the battle, fighting hand to hand. The Spanish flanking cavalry forces then charged the advancing flanks opposing them. Normally, the heavy contingent held back while the light cavalry harassed the sides of the opposition and probed for a weak spot along the front, seeking to create a gap where the heavy cavalry could drive in a wedge and smash the entire formation. This system had proved very successful--against infantry armed with spears or the slowloading crossbow. Against longbowmen it proved disastrous. As the Spaniards moved along the front, avoiding hand to hand combat and hurling their javelins, they were shot down in droves. Surprised, they drew back to organise--and suffered still more heavily. As they wavered, the heavy cavalry leaders took in charges to restore morale and never even reached the units they were charging. The demoralisation on the Spanish flanks was now complete--the cavalry remaining wheeled about and fled the field leaving Gomez Carillo to be captured.

Percy and de Buch now capitalised on their momentary advantage in the best possible way--by joining up to make a cohesive front. This was done so neatly that I can only imagine that Edward had briefed them to do this before the battle. In any event, they moved in unhurriedly together and managed to link behind du Guesclin's force, still battling Lancaster. The men-at-arms turned inwards to take du Guesclin's men from the rear, while the archers faced out against the inevitable Spanish counter attack. It was not long in coming. Henry realised that the Percy/de Buch line had to be broken. Three times his knights charged; and each time the charge faded to nothing under the withering hail of arrows. Edward moved up his own central division to increase the pressure on du Guesclin. Desperately, Henry ordered up his infantry mass--but again it never came to grips with the forces of Edward and Pedro. Despite the disparity in numbers the archers waited calmly until the infantry were in range and loosed salvo after salvo. The infantry faltered, broke and fled. Realising the battle was lost, Henry went too. The Spanish cavalry were able to scatter but the infantry could only escape over the narrow bridge of Najera. As the fresh third division swept round passed Percy and chased after them, many Spaniards died, both in the press and by drowning. Du Guesclin did not surrender until he realised that the Spanish army had gone. His force had been surrounded throughout the battle, 1/4 of its number were dead, practically all the others injured.

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Consequences of the battle

After the battle, most of Henry's captains were captured by English, who protected them against Pedro. The own Henry had dissapeared, and was supposed to be dead (he managed to escape to France). Pedro recovered the throne, starting one of his frequent blood baths, while arguing with the black Prince, because of the prize of his help. Edward eventually started to negociate secretly the repartition of Castile between England, Aragon, Navarre & Portugal and returned to Aquitaine. A new rebellion started then. In the meanwhile, Henry had raised a new army and returned to Castile. The final battle between the two brothers took place at Montiel, at 13th March 1369, where Pedro was defeated. The night after, he was treasoned, and died in a personal combat with his half-brother.

After the death of Pedro, Henry II fought newly against the English, to recover the lands occuped by them as the price of their help to Pedro I (Biscay). His descendants also took part at the 100 Years War at the French side: Castilian fleets defeated the English one at several battles, like in La Rochelle, in 1372 and 1419.

More information at:

Battle of Najera at The Hundred Years War.

Why the Prince of Wales waged War on Henry of Trastamara, by Jean Froissart.

"Seeking Castles in Spain": Sir Hugh Calveley and the Free Companies intervention in Iberian Warfare (1366-1369) , by L. J. Andrew Villalon. University of Cincinnati

Return to Counts & Kings of Castile page.

Return to Battles of Castile & Leon page.

Notes: by Ismael Barba.

[1]. Actually, the king Pedro, known because of his cruelty, was rather unpopular in the European Courts. it is possible that Prince Edward was simply following his king's orders, who needed Pedro to depose a French ally like Henry.

[2]. The numbers very from author to author. López de Ayala, the chronicler of Pedro & Henry, reduces Du Guesclin division to 1,000 men, while raises the numbers of Henry's one to 2,000-3,000. No third line is mentioned. 1