Aragón: The Early Years.
For most people, the autonomous community of Aragón is little known, although it played a significant role in the history of Spain during the Middle Ages. Like its neighbours Navarre and Catalonia, Aragón was formed out of a buffer zone (known as the Spanish march: “Marca hispánica”) created by the famous Frankish king Charlemagne (742-814, king in 768 and emperor 800-14) in the mountain valleys of the Pyrenees. The march was intended as defence against the threat posed by the constant raids of the powerful Muslim emirate of al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied) in the nearby Ebro valley to the south. Gradually, however, Aragón developed into a condado (county), like its neighbours, but still subordinate to the Carolingian crown. Then as Frankish power declined at the end of the 9th century, Aragón fell under the dominance of its more powerful neighbour, Navarre, which was already a kingdom (earlier called the kingdom of Pamplona) and which had extended considerably westward.
Aragón finally became a kingdom in its own right at the death of Sancho III of Navarre (r. 1004-35) when Navarre was split into three kingdoms between his sons: García received Navarre, Castile went to Fernando/ Ferdinand, and Aragón passed to Ramiro.
Aragón’s territorial gains were modest in the 11th century. For its first king, Ramiro I (r. 1035-63), the choicest land and the direction most likely to avoid confrontation with his Christian rivals lay to the south: the taifa (small state) of Zaragoza, only recently formed after the disintegration of Córdoba in 1031.
Seeing himself threatened by Ramiro, the emir of Zaragoza sought protection, not from his fellow Muslims but ironically from Ramiro’s brother, Fernando I of León/Castile (r. 1035-65) who wanted to cut off Aragonese expansion! (This is an excellent example of politics trumping religion and was commonplace during the existence of al-Andalus and the time of the emerging Christian kingdoms: i.e. Christians fought for Moors against Christians and Moors fought for Christians against Moors.) The irony does not end here. Ramiro met his death at the hands of the Zaragozans in 1063; amongst the Leonese-Castilian troops engaged in defending the Moors against Ramiro was a certain Rodrigo de Vivar… the youthful Cid was just beginning his illustrious career!
Predictably, in these uncertain times conditions along the frontier were very fluid, and by the end of the 11th century Aragón had manage to extend its territory at the expense of the Moorish taifas of Zaragoza and Lérida, its most significant conquests being the towns of Huesca (in the taifa of Zaragoza 1096) and Barbastro (in the taifa of Lérida in 1100).
These conquests coincided with and to a considerable degree responded to an increased hardening of attitude towards the Moors. The arrival in the peninsula of the fundamentalist Almoravids in 1086 sharpened the religious divide between Muslims and Christians whilst in France and Rome concern over the fate of Jerusalem and Christians living in the Middle East was already a hot topic and talk of “crusades” already in the air. In fact as early as 1064, Pope Alexander II had advanced the idea of a crusade to take Barbastro, which indeed was temporarily conquered by a combined force French, Aragonese and Catalan soldiers. (The following year, Barbastro was back in Muslim hands.)
It was these concerns that gave birth to the famous Crusades to the Middle East, the first of which took off for Jerusalem in 1096. The crusading spirit was particularly active in France, and French crusaders –buoyed by papal assurances of salvation as well as indulgences and financial rewards—were at the forefront. But as Pope Urban II (1088-99) made clear in a famous sermon in 1095, Jerusalem was not the only target of crusading zeal; he underlined too the importance of reconquering Spain, which had been under Muslim yoke for over 30o hundred years.
Urban’s call to action in Spain was facilitated by long marital links between Aragón and French royalty (the same was true for Navarre and Castile): Ramiro I had married a French princess, and his son the second king of Aragón, Sancho Ramírez I (r. 1063-94) was both cousin and brother-in-law to the French count Ebles of Roucy. Sancho Ramírez’s son Pedro followed a similar path around 1079, marrying Inés of Aquitaine. These matrimonial alliances eased trans-Pyrenean traffic and ensured a common front between the Papacy, the French and the emerging Christian kingdoms in Spain vis-à-vis their common enemy at both extremes of the Mediterranean, Islam.
Another significant factor uniting the Spanish kingdoms with the French in a common cause was the role played by French abbey of Cluny, run by Benedictine monks, the most powerful religious order at the time. Owing a special vow of obedience to the pope, the monks of Cluny established monasteries along the north of the Iberian peninsula as part of popularising the growing cult of Santiago at the same time as they undertook reforms urged by Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), e.g. abandoning the Visigothic (or Mozarab) rites in Spain in favour of the Roman liturgy. The Abbey of Cluny also fostered crusades to Jerusalem, and Islam’s presence in the Iberian Peninsula was a constant reminder of the urgent need to defend Christianity on its western front.
No one embodies the crusading spirit better than Alfonso I of Aragón, more familiarly known as Alfonso el Batallador (the Fighter, r. 1104-34). With the fanatical Almoravides assuming control of al-Andalus in 1086 and progressively expanding northwards retaking Valencia in 1102 (Valencia had earlier fallen to the Cid, in 1094 ), Albarracín in 1104 and Zaragoza in 1106, Alfonso called upon French volunteers to assist him, many of whom were crusaders who had already fought in the Holy Land. Alfonso’s dreams were by no means modest; not only did he want to conquer the Moors of al-Andalus, he even envisioned crossing the Mediterranean to defend Jerusalem (conquered by the Christians in 1097) and strike at the very heart of Islam. Alfonso never did get that far, but with the important input of French crusaders he was able to take back Zaragoza (1118) and numerous other smaller towns in the Ebro valley. Significantly, the siege of Zaragoza was viewed as a crusade, having been endorsed as such by a meeting of church dignitaries in Toulouse in 1118. In addition, Alfonso made an audacious sortie of several months in 1125 as far south as Murcia and west to the coast of Málaga; on his triumphant return he led back with him thousands of Mozarabs whom he settled in the Ebro valley.
Fittingly Alfonso el Batallador died fighting, when his troops were soundly defeated in 1134 (in the Ebro valley) near Lérida.
Nevertheless, with the definitive conquest of Zaragoza in 1118, expansion well into the Ebro valley, and forays into enemy territory, Alfonso had catapulted Aragón to the forefront of the Reconquista and converted his kingdom into a powerful rival of León/ Castile. Very soon after his death, his kingdom would grow again, substantially, not however through conquest but through marriage. And for that step we have to turn to Catalonia.
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Map of Pamplona/Aragon: http://www.spainthenandnow.com/userimages/pamplona-kingdom-of-c-1000-wikipedia.gif
Map of Aragón within Iberian peninsula, ca. 1150:http://www.spainthenandnow.com/userimages/aragon-ca-1150-wikimedia.JPG