Early Christian kingdoms: Pamplona, Navarre.

The Early Christian Kingdoms: 8th to 10th Centuries (2).

Between 711 and 720 Muslim forces swept northward from Gibraltar through the Iberian Peninsula and
into the south of France. The history of early Christian resistance to the Moors (as the Muslim newcomers are commonly called in Spanish history) is obscure, partly conjectural and dependent of chronicles written in the 9th century and later. Resistance to the Moors centred on two areas: 1. the Cantabrian mountain strip along the north coast and, 2. the Pyrenees mountain range forming the border with France. In this page, we’ll deal with resistance in the Pyrenees and the formation of the early Christian kingdoms of Pamplona and Navarre.  We’ll touch upon Aragón and Catalonia, but there are separate pages on each: see Aragón and Catalonia.

Resistance in the Pyrenees.

Christian resistance in Asturias and León has received most attention, but Christian opposition to Muslim rule was also encountered along the Pyrenees. Here two factors gave the resistance a different flavour.

First, the Muslims, as they swept north, established and held a major military presence around Zaragoza and the Ebro river, reducing Christian-held territory to the valleys of the Pyrenees.  From Zaragoza and garrisons such as Tudela and Huesca, the Moors could respond quickly to Christian raids. This meant that Christian expansion was limited as long as the Ebro valley was in Muslim hands (Zaragoza remained Muslim until 1118).

                                  Iberian Peninsula ca. 800.

The second factor was the role of the Franks, who had established themselves firmly in Aquitaine, just north of the Pyrenees by 759. That year they took Narbonne, the last Muslim garrison in France. One of the most famous kings of medieval Europe, Charles the Great/aka Charlemagne (r. 768-814) set about consolidating Frankish hold on Aquitaine by creating defensive frontier counties (also known as marches, districts set up to defend a border) along the Pyrenees to protect against Moorish incursions.  It didn’t start too well for Charlemagne.  After an unsuccessful military campaign to conquer Zaragoza**, his army was ambushed in the pass of Roncesvalles in 778 –not by Muslims, however, but by Basques.
** Charlemagne had actually responded to a call for assistance
from the Muslim leaders of Zaragoza in their revolt against the emir
Abd al-Rahman I (r.756-788). However, a change of heart by the
Muslims resulted in armed resistance against Charlemagne, who
then retreated to France.  On the way, he destroyed the ancient
walls of Pamplona, which probably precipitated the attack on the
rear-guard of Charlemagne’s army by Basques in the pass of
Roncesvalles. In the famous French epic poem (ca. 1100), the
defeat at Roncesvalles was attributed to Muslim forces, not Basques,
probably in response to increasing tensions between Christians and
Muslims. E.g. the first Crusade is dated from 1096.

Still, Charlemagne persisted and in 785 his forces penetrated the eastern end of the Pyrenees and conquered Gerona.  In 801 his army, commanded by his son Louis the Pious, advanced further south and drove the Moors out of Barcelona. It was a decisive victory for the future of the region because from then on all the territory from Barcelona north was to remain in Christian hands. Nevertheless, as part of Charlemagne’s defensive strategy, the newly conquered territory was administered by the duchy of Aquitaine in Charlemagne’s name.  (For the emergence of Catalonia or the County of Barcelona as it was first called, see separate page on Catalonia.

The Franks had less success in Navarre, at the western end of the Pyrenees, where the Basques proved to be as resistant to them as they had been to the Romans, Visigoths and Moors. Defeat at Roncesvalles in 778 was followed by another in 824, after which the Franks abandoned the area (in any case, Louis I had to attend to problems in the north of his kingdom).

Out of the murky power vacuum at the western end of the Pyrenees emerged the independent kingdom of Pamplona, sometime between 825 and 850. Little can be said with certainty of the early years of the kingdom of Pamplona. There was a fairly close association, through marriage, with the Banu Qasi family, a leading Muwallad (i.e. convert to Islam) faction which controlled much of the upper Ebro valley from Tudela. This alliance was probably based on Navarrese fear of the Franks or even of the Asturians who had expanded eastward as far as the upper reaches of the Ebro River. The alliance also benefitted the Banu Qasi in their periodic conflicts with their political masters in faraway Córdoba. It was one of numerous instances where political needs trumped religious differences.

Around 859, the ruler of Pamplona, García Iñíguez was abducted (by some Vikings!). His place was quickly taken by a rival Navarrese family, the Jimenos, allied through marriage with Asturian royalty. For a while, the kingdom of Navarre (as it was now known, rather than Pamplona) was  linked politically to Asturias, and only became independent at the beginning of the 10th century, under Sancho Garcés I (r. 905-25). Under Sancho, Navarre expanded its territory south east into Upper Rioja, wedging itself between the county of Castile, on the eastern boundary of the kingdom of León, and the Muslim garrison of Tudela.

                                     Iberian Peninsula ca. 910.

During most of the 10th century Christian lands suffered numerous raids (razzias) undertaken first by Abd-al-Rahman III (r. 912-961), the most powerful of all Andalusi leaders, and later by the Andalusi viceroy, al-Mansur (de facto leader of al-Andalus from ca 980 until his death in 1002). Al-Mansur’s raids are particularly noteworthy for their frequency and grand sweep. He zigzagged over Christian lands, from Barcelona (985) to Coimbra (987); he attacked León and Zamora (988), and numerous smaller places. The high point was the raid on Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) in 997, in which the town was razed, the church destroyed and its bells taken to Córdoba –on the backs of prisoners-of-war-- to be used as lamps in the Great Mosque.

Interestingly, while the raids demonstrated the relative ease with which the leaders of the caliphate of Córdoba raided Christian lands, they did not lead to any attempt to retake the land or towns lost to the Christians.  The raids were, in a way, an acknowledgement of the growing strength of the Christians; it was easier to move quickly over the land than engage in pitch battle, especially after Abd al-Rahman’s defeat by Castilian and Navarrese forces at Simancas in 939. However, where León had succeeded in extending its territory southward almost to the Guadarrama mountains by the mid-10th century (e.g. Salamanca and Sepulveda were repopulated around 942), Navarre was hemmed in by the county of Castile to the west, Muslim Zaragoza to the south and the county of Barcelona (later Catalonia) to the east.

Among the areas controlled by Navarre in the 10th century was the county of Aragón (one of the many making up the Spanish marches), located along the valley of the river Aragón (between Catalonia and Navarre). Aragón scarcely made an impact at that moment, but within 150 years the kingdom of Aragón was to have a major impact on Iberian politics.


By the end of the 10th century, then, all the major Christian "actors" had made their appearance on the Iberian stage: León, Castile (for these, see Asturias), Navarre, Aragón and the county of Barcelona (Catalonia). Of these, only two –León and Navarre—were kingdoms. Ironically, León was to lose its pre-eminence to Castile, and Navarre was to be overshadowed by Aragón, and the political life of Catalonia subsumed under that of Aragón.

For the 10th century, the politics of al-Andalus largely governed events in the Peninsula but behind Christian subservience there lay expansionist dreams. Those dreams received a major boost in the 11th century with the dramatic collapse and fragmentation of the caliphate of Córdoba. Suddenly it was the politics of the Christian kingdoms that governed events and proud al-Andalus was reduced to politically impotent mini-states (taifas).

Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd. ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009.
Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity 400-1000 2nd. ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 1995
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for the Cid London 1989
 “    Moorish Spain London 1992
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona 1984
Phillips, William D. and Carla Rahn A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010.