Under Alfons I, the Crown of Aragon initially expanded into Occitania in what is now southern France. After Pere the Catholic was defeated at the Battle of Muret, the Catalans turned their attention south and out into the Mediterranean. Jaume the Conqueror took Mallorca in 1232 and Valencia in 1238. These new territories were incorporated as separate kingdoms into the Crown of Aragon as the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation entered its Golden Age.
The two territories that originally comprised the Crown of Aragon not only retained their laws and customs but more importantly their respective languages, Navarro-Aragonese and Catalan. This makes referring to the monarchs a little difficult as they had slightly different names, as well as different numbers, in each realm.
Catalan is a thriving modern language currently with nearly 10 million speakers. Navarro-Aragonese died out in the 16th century and its modern variant is only spoken by a little over 10,000 people in the Aragonese Pyrenees. The Aragonese court did not begin using Castilian Spanish until after the accession of the first king of the Castilian Trastámara dynasty came to the throne of the Crown of Aragon in 1412.
For this reason, it makes sense to refer to the early count-kings of the Crown of Aragon by their Catalan name rather than the Castilian version often found in history books. Consequently, the son of Ramon Berenguer and Peronella, the first king of the united Crown of Aragon is Catalan Alfons rather than the Castilian Alfonso.
Alfons the Chaste
Born in Huesca in Aragon in 1157, Alifonso II of Aragon or Alfons I of Barcelona acceded to the throne of the Crown of Aragon in 1164 at the tender age of seven and became Duke of Provence two years later in 1166. For the Aragonese, the reign of Alfons I was one of consolidation and treaties with Castile. He married Sancha, the sister of the king of Castile in 1174, and signed the Treaty of Cazorla with Castile in 1179. This agreement defined the borders of the two kingdoms. Aragon renounced its pretensions to Moorish territories to the south whilst promising to participate as Castile's military ally against the Saracens when required.
Unable to expand on the Iberian peninsula, The Treaty of Cazorla also meant that Alfons concentrated his foreign policy on consolidating the traditional Catalan territories in what is now Southern France. The Crown of Aragon incorporated Provence in 1166 and also the county of Cerdanya in 1168. Alfons inherited Roussillon in 1172 and Béarn and Bigorre paid homage to him from 1187 onward.
Alfons's involvement in the affairs of Languedoc proved highly beneficial, strengthening Catalan-Aragonese trade with the region. It also stimulated emigration from the north to colonise the newly conquered lands in what was known as Catalunya Nova or New Catalonia, in what is now Tarragona Province just north of the River Ebro.
Pere the Catholic
Alfons's son Pero II of Aragon and Pere I of Barcelona came to the throne in 1196. In 1205 he became the first king of the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation to be crowned by the Pope. He swore to defend the Catholic faith and became known as Pere the Catholic. Pere led the Aragonese troops at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 alongside the Kings of Castile, Navarre and Portugal. The battle was a great victory for the Christian forces and is considered a turning point in the Reconquista of Christian Spain from Muslim domination.
Meanwhile, in France, the Catalan forces came into conflict with the Papacy as a result of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heresy in Catalan-controlled Occitania. Pope Innocent III ordered Louis IX of France to suppress the heresy and with typical restraint, his military leader Simon de Montfort began slaughtering Cathars and Catholics alike. When questioned by a local bishop about this practice, de Montford is reported to have replied that God would know the difference between Christians and heretics when they got to the gates of heaven.
Returning from Navas de Tolosa, Pere found that Simon de Montfort had conquered Toulouse and had exiled his brother-in-law and vassal Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Pere the Catholic immediately crossed the Pyrenees in response. The Battle of Muret began on September 12, 1213 but the disorganised Catalan-Aragonese forces soon disintegrated under the assault of de Montfort's squadrons.
Pere himself, caught in the thick of fighting, was thrown to the ground and killed. The Catalans broke in panic when their king was slain and de Montfort's crusaders won a crushing victory.
The result of the Catalan defeat at Muret was that the Occitan territories passed to the French crown. This also meant that the only options for territorial expansion left for future Catalano-Aragonese rulers were either south of the River Ebro or out into the Mediterranean.
Jaume the Conqueror
Born in Montpellier in 1208, Jaume I was just five years old when his father Pere died. When he came to the throne, he was under the tutelage of his father's slayer Simon de Montfort. Concerned for young Jaume's safety, Pope Innocent III forced de Montford to hand him over to the Knights Templar in 1214.
The young king was sent to Monzón, where he was entrusted to the care of Guillem de Montredó, the head of the Knights Templar in Spain and Provence. In 1217, accompanied by the Templars and a group of loyal nobles, the nine-year-old Jaume arrived in Zaragoza. Under the knights' protection, the next ten years were fraught with challenges to his power. Jaume only finally gained control of the Crown of Aragon after the Peace of Alais in 1227, when he was still only 19. This treaty between the young monarch and rebellious nobles established the basis for future government.
A combination of a difficult start and the loyalty of the Knights Templar contributed to Jaume becoming one of the legendary strong men of Catalan history. In 1228, he regained the county of Urgell for the House of Barcelona. After a failed attempt at creating an alliance between Aragon and Navarre, which would form a new state straddling the French and Aragonese Pyrenees, Jaume I finally turned his attention to expansion into the Mediterranean and the conquest of territories south of the River Ebro.
On 5 September 1229, the Catalan troops, consisting of 155 ships, 1,500 horsemen and 15,000 soldiers, set sail from the southern Catalan ports of Tarragona, Salou, and Cambrils to conquer Mallorca from Abú Yahya, the semi-independent Almohad governor of the island. After a bloody fight, the main Balearic island fell that same year and Menorca was conquered in 1232 followed by Ibiza three years later in 1235.
As the conquest of Mallorca was a Catalan endeavour, the islands were populated by Catalans, many of whom came from the Empúries region. To this day, the influence of medieval Empordanès is noticeable in the Catalan dialects spoken in the Balearic Islands. The sea between Barcelona and the Balearics was now free from Saracen pirates and the Catalan merchants would now be able to exploit the Mediterranean trade routes.
In 1238, with a joint army of Catalans and Aragonese, Jaume I began the campaign to take Valencia from the Moors. The prized region finally fell in September 1238, following an extensive campaign that included the Siege of Burriana and the decisive Battle of the Puig, where the Aragonese commander, Bernat Guillem d'Entença died from wounds received in action. As this was a joint operation, Catalans ended up occupying the coastal areas, where Catalan is still spoken, whilst the Aragonese populated the inland areas.
It was during the conquest of Valencia that the bat became a heraldic symbol of the House of Barcelona. Apparently, Jaume I's troops were camped for the night before a major battle when the dastardly Saracens decided to make a surprise attack. Coming across a field in the dark, they disturbed thousands of bats, who flew screeching into the sky and alerted the sleeping Catalan troops. The Catalans, of course, won the day and since then the bat has been a revered heraldic animal.
During the next few decades, Jaume I also made incursions into Murcia, mainly at the request of Aragonese nobles, but ended up signing a treaty with his son-in-law King Alfonso X of Castile promising to respect Castilian expansion south of Biar and Villajoyosa. He also headed an ill-fated crusade to Jerusalem in 1269.
Jaume I's main contribution was the consolidation and extension of the Crown of Aragon into the Balearic Islands and then Valencia. That the joint Catalan-Aragonese venture can be considered a confederation is obvious when we see that the new territories became the separate Kingdoms of Mallorca and Valencia.
Over the following centuries, these kingdoms were normally ruled by the same monarch as Aragon and Catalonia but at times would also be divided between different sons. Spanish historians should note that while neither of these conquered territories speak Navarro-Aragonese, large sections of both the Balearic and Valencian populations still speak Catalan to this day.