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Category Archives: Reconquista

loarre-copy When Pelayo and his band of warriors defeated the Saracen force at the battle of Covadonga in 722, it was a mere eleven years after the Arab conquest of Spain and the intention was to restore the Visigothic kingdom. As the centuries passed and the dominion of the Arabs continued, new Christian kingdoms were established in the north with shifting alliances and power struggles, each bearing less connection to the original Christian monarchy.

Pelayo’s victory established the small kingdom of Asturias with its capital at Ovideo and which soon expanded to include Galicia and the shrine of the Apostle at Compostela. In the late ninth century Alfonso III recovered the city of León and moved his capital there.

Nevertheless, as long at the Caliphate of Cordoba remained in place, the Christians of the north remained largely restricted to the narrow area between the Cantabrian mountains and the sea.

To the south was a no man’s land, an empty underpopulated region which existed as a shifting frontier between Islam and Christendom.quantanilla It was through these lands that the pilgrimage road passed, although for safety, pilgrims often preferred the more arduous, longer route north of the mountains.

Christian successes were few and far between, Santiago Matamoros had come to lead the Christians to victory at Clavijo in 844 but a century had elapsed before his vision reappeared at Simancas in 939. For  the rest of Europe after the battle of Poitiers, the Pyrenees marked the frontier between the two worlds. Crossing the mountains into Spain was bound to hold a symbolic importance for pilgrims.

For the Christian rulers no matter how long had passed however, the memory of the Visigothic kingdom was never forgotten.

Christ had named the Apostles James and his brother John, the Sons of Thunder.

Castor and Pollux were the sons of Jupiter, known as the Thunderer, thereby they also, were designated The Sons of Thunder.

In ancient mythology Castor descended from heaven astride a white horse to become protector of man and slayer of his enemies in battle. Castor and Pollux were venerated in Roman Spain.

In 844, a generation after the discovery of the tomb of Saint James at Compostela, the caliph of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman ordered a punitive raid on the Christians of the north. The Christian king Ramiro 1st met the large Saracen army on the plain below the castle at Clavijo.

clavijo-by-arbego1In a dream before the battle, Saint James appeared to Ramiro, predicting his victory. During the course of the ensuing battle a figure on a white horse was seen leading the Christian charge. It was the Apostle himself.

Henceforth, Saint James made visionary appearances during the great battle of the Reconquista leading the Christian forces to victory.

He was named Santiago Matamoros – the Moorslayer. Matamoros-WP-2Visions of the saint on a white charger occurred at Clavijo in 9th century, Simanacas in 10th, Coimbra in 11th and Las Navas de Tolosa 1212. When the reconquest was completed in 1492, Ferdinand & Isabella gave thanks at the shrine at Compostela.

In one of the miracles recorded in the Codex of Calixtus the following story is recounted: A Greek bishop rebuked some soldiers for praying to St James for military assistance. That night he dreamed of St James dressed as a crusader ready for battle.

“Blessed James appeared, clad in white garments, bearing the arms of a warrior, shining with radiance and arrayed as a soldier, holding in his hand two keys. Then he made this position even clearer in words, ‘I am appearing to you so that you will not doubt that God has made me a soldier and a contender and sent me to fight for the Christians against the Saracens and to gain victory for them”.

chrismon-bwThe Reconquista began at the battle of Covadonga in the Cantabrian mountains in 722.

An eighth century chronicle recounts that, “A certain Pelayo, the swordbearer of the kings Witiza and Roderic, oppressed by the dominion of the Ishmaelites, had come to Asturias”.

Pelayo was a Visigothic nobleman who  had held high position at the court of the old kingdom and had refused to surrender to the new conquerors.

Along with many others, he had taken refuge from the Arab invasion in the mountain fastnesses of Asturias and had declared an independent Christian kingdom. They held their camp on a rocky outcrop named Covadonga

congas_de_onisPelayo met the Saracen force that was sent to quell his rebellion by an old bridge  at Congas de Onis. Carrying the banner of the Christian Chrismon into battle in imitation of the Roman Emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian bridge. To Constantine it had been told of the Christian emblem: In this sign you shall conquer.

Like Constantine, Pelayo was victorious and the people of Asturias rallied round his band of fighters and managed to keep the Moors out of the small, beleagured, nascent kingdom.

The Chrismon became the symbol of the kings of the Reconquista and can be found carved above the entrances of numerous twelfth century church in Aragon. It displays the first two Greek letters of the word Christ and the first and last words of the Greek alphabet alpha and omega. This is a reference to chapter 1 verse 8 of the Book of Revelation: I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is and which was and which is to come.jaca-4

This placed the Reconquista within an eschatological narrative.  In adopting this paleo-Christian symbol, the Christians of Spain saw themselves as God’s Chosen People whose struggle against the Moors thus became an integral part of the working of Abraham’s covenant with God through history towards the Apocalypse

In 711 the Visigothic Christian kingdom of Spain was invaded by a Moslem army of Arabs and north African Berbers. In an incredibly short time, Spain was overrun and defeated.

The Saracens, as they were known to the Christians, continued northwards entering France and establishing their rule over the Frankish province of Septimania. In 731 they were defeated at the battle of Poitiers by Frankish forces under the leadership of Charles Martel. The Saracen foothold in France proved tenuous and they were soon expelled. In Spain, however the Arabs were destined to survive and prosper.

In Damascus, meanwhile, an internal power struggle led to the overthrow of the ruling Ummayad dynasty by the Abbasids who now took control of the Caliphate. The Ummayads were hunted down and killed, but one of their number, Abd ar-Rahman escaped to Spain and succeeded in taking power there.

Cord-Ext-Mosque-D1Designating himself emir Abd ar-Rahman Ist, he made Cordoba the capital of the autonomous emirate henceforth known as Al-Andalus. The Arabs soon developed Andalusia into what was probably  the  wealthiest and most developed region of the age. They evolved a highly refined culture combining scientific learning and the arts. Cordoba, itself became a model city of one million inhabitants.

Christian Europe lagged behind far behind. In Moslem Spain,  Christianity was tolerated by the authorities but the Christians of Andalusia, or Mozarabs as they were known, were second class citizens and many converted to Islam. Christian Spain was cut off from the rest of Europe and developed its own  special liturgy. Only a small enclave remained free from Arab rule in the region of Asturias in the north, protected as it was by sea and mountains. It was from here that the process of the recovery of Spain from the Moors began. It was called the Reconquista and it combined the desire for territorial gain with Holy War.

A chronicler of the ninth century could only reason that the misfortune of the Christian Visigothic kingdom of Spain was due to the iniquity of her rulers Witiza and Roderic: “The Saracens entered Spain on account of the treachery of the sons of Witiza”, he wrote.

Cord-Int-Mosque-1The caliphate of Cordoba ruled over Al-Andalus until 1031 when internal squabbling led to its dissolution. During the course of its hegemony over the Spanish peninsula, the Christian north remained impotent. The vizier Al-Mansur, was able to attack the towns of León and Compostela with impunity, razing the cathedral of Santiago in 997 and carrying its bells to Cordoba, as though to silence the growing cult of the Apostle.

After the Arab invasion, Christian Spain was restricted to a small kingdom north of the Cantabrian mountains called Asturias. It was from here that the origins of the Reconquest were born and that an abbot, Beatus of Liebana composed a famous commentary on the Apocalypse in the late eighth century.

The Christians of Asturias found significance in their defeat at the hands of the Saracens. These were events long prophecied.

It was reckoned that the Antichrist was now come and the End Times were unfoldng. Beatus was one of the first to claim that Saint James had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission in Spain following the Pentecost and prior to his martyrdom at Jerusalem in A.D. 44.

It was not long after, in the early years of the ninth century that the miraculous discovery of his tomb was made by a shepherd at Compostela. The location of the most important shrine of western Europe at such a significant site as the frontier between Christendom and the Caliphate on the very edge of the known world, may not have been mere coincidence but it certainly had a great pull on contemporary imaginations. How the body had reached Spain from Jerusalem was the subject of an elaborate legend.

The manuscript of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse was copied in the monasteries which lined the pilgrim road, for a long time the front line of the war between Christians and Arabs

beatus-12A Spanish chronicler writing in 754 about forty years after the Arab invasion was at a loss for words to describe the extent of his country’s misfortune: “Who can relate such perils? Who can enumerate such grievous disasters?” he wrote. “Even if every limb were transformed into a tongue, it would be beyond human capacity to express the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils”.

In 711 when an army of Arab and Berber invaders crossed from north Africa via the Straits of Gibraltar, Spain was a Christian Catholic kingdom of Visigoths.

The Visigoths were one of the two branches of the Gothic people who had migrated to the eastern Roman empire from the Russian steppes in the fourth century. The word visi suggested noble in the Gothic language although contemporary historians took it to mean western when they settled in France and Spain in the sixth century.

The Visigoths were Christianised early on but they had adopted the Arian creed which was then quite prevalent in the Roman Empire but was subsequently contested and denounced as heretical. Although the ruling elite later accepted orthodox Catholicism, this combined with the Arab invasion had meant that the Spanish church was for a long time distinctive and seperate. In particular the Book of Revelation held a special significance in the liturgy.