Category Archives: Spanish History

Camino de Santiago. Why Santiago de Compostela? Why St. James?
That the obscure, medieval settlement of Santiago de Compostela should become the third most important destination for Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages (after Jerusalem and Rome) is a mystery. Pilgrims headed there to pray at the resting place of the apostle St. James the Greater –one of Christ’s closest disciples (he was one of three disciples present at Christ’s transfiguration –Mark 9: 2-13, Matthew 17: 1-13, Luke 9: 28-36), the first Christian to suffer a martyr’s death and the only one whose martyrdom is mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 12: 2)

The Location.
Where exactly is Santiago de Compostela? It’s located in Galicia in the isolated north west of the Iberian Peninsula, an area that has always lent itself to mystery and fantasy. Often bathed in mists and rain, it is hilly and tree covered and edged by a wild, stormy coastline.
Early on, it was populated by Celts, Druid-led worshippers of nature and believers in mystery and magic (including lycanthropy, the transformation of humans into werewolves). And as sun worshippers, the Celts would have noted, on this stretch of the turbulent Atlantic coast, the death of the sun followed by impenetrable darkness. The sight would have inspired considerable awe and wonder and prompted rituals to ensure the return of the sun. It seemed like the end of the world, a menacing concept the Romans captured in the words finis terrae (“the end of the earth”) from which we get the Galician location: (Cabo/Cape Finisterre, Cabo Fisterra in Galician). However, geography and climate alone are surely not sufficient in creating such an important and influential Christian pilgrim destination. We’ll return to this under Signiificance, below.

Cabo/ Cape Finisterre.

Why St. James/ Santiago?
As fertile ground for rituals, it was certainly not impossible for the cult of a saint to take root in Galicia. The question is … why St. James? How did the veneration of his bones get established so far from the scene of his martyrdom in distant Jerusalem? There is, in fact, no evidence that St. James ever visited Roman Hispania and the description of the miraculous transfer of his remains to Galicia after his execution is pure fantasy.

Tradition has it that his relics were transported by two disciples, guided by an angel, in a crewless and rudderless stone boat through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast to Iria Flavia (now part of the town of Padrón) on the Galician shores. All this apparently in a week! 

The source of this legend, with its several variants***, is lost in the mists of time and we hear nothing about the location of St. James’s relics until approximately 818-840/2 when his tomb was miraculously discovered by a shepherd (or hermit ) named Pelayo who was led there by twinkling stars.

[***One variant has it that St. James was buried in Mérida (Extremadura), a town he had supposedly visited before arriving in Galicia as part of his evangelical work. How his remains ended up in Mérida is a mystery, but it is speculated that they would have been transferred to Santiago for safe keeping following the arrival of the Moors in 711.]

The discovery was conveyed to a certain Theodomir, Bishop of Iria Flavia (818-847). Another version attributes the discovery to Bishop Theodomir who was guided there by a star. In both instances, Theodomir then reported the finding to Alfonso II, King of Asturias (r. 791-842) who quickly visited the site and had a small church built there. Alfonso’s actions gave royal approval thereby to Theodomir’s claim for the legitimacy of the Saint’s tomb.

But on what was Theodomir’s claim based? There was nothing concrete, although the famous Asturian theologian and monk, Beatus of Liébana (c. 738-c.800) had confirmed in his widely disseminated Commentary on the Book of Revelation (c. 776) that Santiago had converted Spain to Christianity. [Liébana was then located in the Kingdom of Asturias, but now it is geographically situated in neighbouring Cantabria].

Significantly, Beatus’s assertion came some 65 years after one of the most momentous events in Spanish history: the invasion of the Peninsula in 711 by Muslim forces (made up of Berber soldiers under Arab leadership) from North Africa.

At the time of their arrival, the Peninsula was controlled by the Visigoths who, in 589, had declared Christianity the official faith of their kingdom. Political turbulence and civil war among the Visigoths in 710 allowed the Muslims (or Moors, the general term for the newcomers regardless of ethnic origins) to slip across the Straits of Gibraltar in 711. 

Between 711 and 720, the Moors conquered all of Iberia/Hispania, including Galicia. A significant exception, however, was a narrow strip along the mountainous north coast, roughly modern Asturias and Cantabria.  It was from here that armed resistance against the Moors started.

The first successful Christian resistance to the Moors is usually identified as the Battle of Covadonga, fought in a remote valley of the Cantabrian Mountain area of Asturias, sometime between 718 and 725. Amongst those Christians were fugitives from al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied) who carried with them their Christian Visigothic heritage. It was a heritage that played increasing importance in the reconquest of those lands lost to the Moors as successive kings laid claim to be heirs to the Visigothic tradition and linked their reigns to the dreamed-of return to the unity of the Peninsula under the Visigoths.

Precipitous mountains, steep valleys and a wet climate were sufficient disincentives to the Moors and allowed the kingdom of Asturias to entrench itself safely in the rugged terrain by around 810, when Alfonso II made Oviedo his capital. Nevertheless, regular raids from the Moors were a constant reminder of the “Other” and of the loss of territory to an alien culture.

The claim that the tomb discovered between 818 and 840/2 was that of St. James would, then, have resonated in both the religious and political circles and would have had special impact being found so near at hand. It meant that Christians could now call on the Apostle for divine assistance to counter the Moorish use of relics of the prophet Muhammad that they carried into battle. And Asturias could be seen at the vanguard of the Christian fight against the Moors. In other words, both worlds would benefit and be inspired by having a powerful figurehead to lead them in their struggles with the Moors.

But again, going back to the same nagging question … how do we know they were the bones of the Saint martyred in Jerusalem? We still don’t, but two factors may help to account for the popular belief that they were those of St. James. First, the tradition that St. James had preached the gospel of Christ in Spain, a “fact” confirmed by respected authorities such as Beatus of Liébana. Second, the active involvement of Bishop Theodimir and Alfonso II in propagating the news of the discovery and verifying the bones as those of James. [In the 1940s an ancient Roman burial site was found beneath Santiago cathedral, which Bishop Theodomir could have used to his (or the Church’s) advantage in making his claim that St. James’s bones rested there. Furthermore, the burial site contained a decapitated skeleton, a detail which coincides with the legend of the transportation of St. James’s remains to Spain. Also found there was the tomb of Bishop Theodimir, the man who verified the presence of St. James’s remains! 

Incidentally, the traditional understanding of “Compostela” is that it derives from the Latin “campus stellae” or “field of stars.”  It’s a poetic image but the word may in fact stem from “campus stelae” a “field of (grave)stones” or simply be a diminutive of the Latin “compostum” meaning “little cemetery.”] 

The cult of St. James, then, stems primarily from the words and actions of two authoritative and influential individuals, one ecclesiastical/ religious, the other royalty/ secular: Bishop Theodimir and King Alfonso II of Asturias. As a theologian, Theodimir would have a good knowledge of the lives of saints and of James’s supposed evangelization of Iberia/Hispania. Furthermore, he would have recognized the advantages for him and the Church of authenticating the bones found in Santiago as those of St. James, one of Christ’s “beloved” disciples. 

For Alonso, aligning himself with such a discovery would not only add status/ prestige to Asturias, but also help confirm Asturian sovereignty over Galicia, which had been retaken from the Moors by Alfonso I in the 740s. This is a significant detail because Galicia was at this time the first and only part of the Peninsula that Christians had reconquered from Muslim control. Although Alfonso I continued south, crossing the Duero and reaching as far Salamanca, Avila and Segovia, he did not retain those lands. He withdrew north, leaving a large area of the Duero basin relatively depopulated. Still, the reconquest of Galicia was an example of what could be achieved given the right incentives and determination.

So now, importantly for both the Church and Asturias, the relics of St. James could be harnessed to counter the ongoing and threatening presence of a common enemy: Muslim al-Andalus.

Post Note.
In the case of Bishop Theodomir, there may have been added purpose in confirming that the discovered bones were those of St. James. Theodomir would undoubtedly be very aware of the thriving devotion in Galicia to another martyr, the 4th-century Bishop of Avila, Priscillian (c. 340-385/6) who was beheaded by the Church for heresy. Priscillian was born in Spain, but his birthplace is disputed, some arguing for Roman Baetica (modern Andalusia and southern Extremadura), others for Galicia.

A committed ascetic, Priscillian advocated the reform of the church which brought him into conflict over ecclesiastical control with the more numerous non-reformists of the established hierarchy, a conflict which eventually led to his execution. Furthermore, he espoused ideas that drew on more esoteric sources, principally Gnosticism and Manicheanism, whose belief in the existence of two kingdoms (light and darkness or good and evil), challenged the established Christian narrative. His execution was viewed by his followers as martyrdom and martyrs merited devotion.

Our interest here is not in Priscillianism but in the fact that it flourished in Galicia and that for Bishop Theodomir, it must have represented a challenge to the orthodoxy of Catholic dogma. What better way, then, to counteract Priscillianism than to trump a 4th-century “heretic martyr” by an authentic martyr who was not only Christianity’s first martyr but also one of Christ’s closest disciples!

History shows us that the cause of St. James prevailed thanks to the symbiotic relationship between Church and State (Asturias, which in 910 morphed into León after the capital moved south from Oviedo to the city of León). It wasn’t long before St. James was co-opted by the State as an active, military defender of Christianity against Islam, appearing miraculously on horseback in battles. Not only did he earn the title of Santiago Matamoros (Moor Killer), but he was also riding forward to become Spain’s*** national saint. (***Catalan separatists might object to this broad characterisation and remind readers that Catalonia-Catalunya has its own national saint, St. George- Sant Jordi).

Brierley, John A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, Forres, Scotland: Camino Guides 9th ed. 2013.

Davies, Bethan and Cole, Ben Walking the Camino de Santiago Vancouver: Pili Pala Press 3rd ed. Updated by Daphne Hnatiuk 2009.
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London: Penguin 1992
Huxham, Trevor
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona: Editorial Critica 1984
Nickell, Joe The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, Chptr 13, Lexington 2004).
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Route to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987
Webster, Jason Violencia. A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West London: Constable 2019.
Image of Cabo/ Cape Finisterre by Deenstel:

Camino de Santiago. Routes and Pilgrims.

The Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”) scarcely needs introduction; the millions of entries you can find through Google are a testament to its fame. In addition, there is a bewildering amount of guide books as well as volumes chronicling personal reflections. 

A detail to keep in mind is that there are in fact several caminos leading to Santiago, many of them secondary and added to the list fairly recently. Some pilgrims have travelled more than one route at different times or have completed a camino in stages over more than one year.

What is the Camino de Santiago?
Briefly, the term Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”) most frequently refers to the best known and by far the most widely travelled pilgrimage road that runs about 790 kilometres (490 miles) inland along the north of Spain westward from the Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela, capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia in North West Spain. Its history goes back to the Middle Ages.

Camino frances.

The pilgrims’ destination is Santiago’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral where the remains of one of Christ’s closest disciples –St. James the Greater, or Santiago in Spanish– are believed to be enshrined.

The Camino de Santiago is also commonly called the camino francés owing to the large number of French pilgrims in the early days, many of whom settled permanently on the route. In France, they travelled along four major routes starting at Arles, Le Puy, Vezelay and Tours/Paris. In Spain, the roads converged at Puente la Reina (Navarra), after which the pilgrims headed west through Logroño, Burgos, Frómista, León, Astorga, Ponferrrada, Villafranca de Bierzo, O Cebreiro, and Portomarín.

Santiago Roads within the Iberian Peninsula.

But there are other Caminos!
Of course, not all caminos crossed France; there were pilgrims who began their journeys from different points in Europe. There is no total agreement as to the number of routes, but the following figure in most overviews of the roads, in addition to the camino francés:
1. The Camino portugués, approx 613 kilometres (380 miles), beginning in Lisbon, travels through Porto (also considered a starting point) and enters Spain at Tui, 107 kilometres (66 miles) south of Santiago.
2. The Camino del Norte, approx 830 kilometres (521 miles), runs from Irun/San Sebastian along the beautiful north coast to Ribadeo before cutting inland and southwards to Santiago.
3. The Camino primitivo, approx. 320 kilometres (204 miles) starting out in Oviedo, runs through mountains, then passes through Lugo and on to Santiago. It is called the primitivo (“original” or “first”) because it supposedly follows the journey made by Alfonso II, the Chaste, of Asturias (r. 791-842). Often called the first pilgrim to Santiago, he apparently walked the route shortly after 813, the year St. James’s tomb is said to have been discovered.
4. The Vía de la Plata, (“The Silver Road”). Approx 1,000 kilometres (621 miles), it sets out from Seville following an ancient Roman road northward via Merida, Cáceres, Salamanca, Zamora. It is considered by some to be the most difficult route because the travel infrastructure is not as well developed as the northern routes. Despite its name, the route is more likely named after the Arabic word al-balat (“the cobbled way,” or possibly the Latin lapidata” (“stone road”).
5. The Camino inglés, approx. 110 kilometres (68 miles), surely a surprising name and more so since it goes from the Galician port of El Ferrol (or A Coruña) to Santiago. Explanation? It harkens back to the days when pilgrims from Britain and Ireland (most of whom were English, hence inglés) found it easier and quicker to travel by sea than the demanding walk all the way through France and northern Spain.

Nowadays, the term “camino” has such resonance in the pilgrimage world that it has even been appropriated by lesser-known routes heading for different destinations. So, we can find pilgrims journeying along the Camino de Roma to the Italian capital, or a short camino inglés (from Finchale priory, via Durham cathedral to the Saxon church at Escomb in north-east England. See )

Typical house in the mountains. This one is in Bárcena Mayor, Cantabria.

For modern pilgrims, the camino roads, besides serving personal or spiritual needs, are also architectural treasure troves, from ancient villages with typical, locally-styled gems to large towns with medieval and later quarters.Houses of worship –predictably– figure prominently. These range from small Romanesque village churches in the north to the superstar, appropriately the destination of the pilgrims: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. 

The camino francés boasts two of Spain’s great Gothic cathedrals, Burgos and León. Oviedo’s cathedral is the star of the camino primitivo, while the Via de la Plata claims the world’s largest Gothic cathedral with a Moorish belltower and stunning Moorish/ Alhambra-styled Royal Residences –Reales Alcázares (Seville), magnificent Roman ruins (Mérida), an extraordinary Old Town virtually untouched since the 16th century (Cáceres), and one of the most beautiful Renaissance squares in Europe and a venerable university quarter (Salamanca).

Who were the pilgrims?
Many of the motives propelling Medieval pilgrims were similar to many of those that drive modern travellers, but there were some that reflect the customs and values of that period: e. g. convicts could avoid prison sentences by undertaking the journey (although wealthy criminals could circumvent the trip by paying someone else to do it); some travellers might be sent by their community to pray for relief from plagues or appeal for rain; some looked to escape feudal obligations. Or there was the fulfillment of a vow or an act of penitence, or the hope for miracles to heal various ailments. 

There were also cutthroats and thieves who travelled looking for easy pickings among the weak, which was why many pilgrims banded together for mutual protection. Gradually, many pilgrims settled down along the route as it became more established. They built churches, monasteries, hospitals and hostels, enriched themselves on the pilgrim trade and helped create a cultural and architectural highway leading to Santiago from various parts of Europe.

Since a pilgrimage could take years, depending on the point of departure, it was incumbent on pilgrims to set their affairs in order. Theirs was a journey of spiritual cleansing which they prepared for by making amends with their enemies, paying off debts, confessing their sins to their parish priest or bishop and seeking a blessing on themselves and even on the clothes they wore which, by the 13th century, had reached something of a recognisable form: tunic, pouch, large broad-brimmed hat and staff. Badges and tokens were gathered from shrines visited on the journey, the most significant of course being the emblem attached to the destination, in the case of Santiago, the scallop shell.

Such preparations are most unlikely nowadays, or they have a different emphasis. Santiago de Compostela is now a major travel destination not only for pilgrims on a holy mission but also for a wide variety of travellers –including non-believers– undertaking the camino trek for an equally wide variety of reasons: adventure and curiosity, spiritual (though not necessarily religious) renewal, a search for meaning, encouragement or recommendation from books or by someone who has already done the trip. In this secular age, simply the draw of history and/or architecture might be sufficient stimulus.

Irrespective of motive, many if not most find that the experience has changed them or will admit that the journey has enriched them in some way. Some pilgrims have travelled more than one route at different times or have completed a camino in stages over more than one year. There is a degree of satisfaction in completing the journey or a part of it on foot or horseback; it’s sometimes accompanied by a feeling of superiority in some over those who have driven, cycled or taken a coach for substantial parts. The caminos were made for walking they argue although travel by horseback or on a donkey is acceptable given their widespread use as transport in medieval times. 

Indeed, to claim the much sought-after certificate (la compostela in Spanish –sometimes erroneously called la compostelana), nowadays, pilgrims must have walked or ridden on horse/mule/donkey the last 100 kilometers or cycled the last 200 kilometres. To ensure that these requirements have been observed, pilgrims must also collect stamps from hostels, churches, monasteries, even cafes on their pilgrim’s passport (Credencial del Peregrino) issued by the Cathedral itself or authorised Camino de Santiago organisations). For the last 100 kilometres (for those on foot) or the last 200 kilometres (for cyclists), the Credencial must be stamped at least twice a day.

If you want brief history of who St. James/ Santiago was and how his remains allegedly ended up in Santiago de Compostela, click here.

And if you are interested in learning how Santiago de Compostela became such an important pilgrim destination (the most important in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome in the Middle Ages), see the role of royalty in popularizing the camino francés.

I must admit that I have not travelled any of the caminos myself, and am therefore not in a position to offer advice to would-be travellers. My wife and I have covered some stages of the camino francés, but by car!!

Of the numerous guide books I have consulted, I have found the following very useful:
Brierley, John A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, Forres, Scotland: Camino Guides 9th ed. 2013.
Davies, Bethan and Cole, Ben Walking the Camino de Santiago Vancouver: Pili Pala Press 3rd ed. Updated by Daphne Hnatiuk 2009.
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London: Penguin 1992
Map of The Way of St. James: This detailed Wikipedia page covers all the major routes plus numerous secondary ones.
For another detailed and excellent coverage of numerous routes, including secondary ones, see:
Photo of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor: By Turol Jones, un artista de cojones from Villanueva del Cascajal,

Camino de Santiago. The Role of Royalty.
The Camino de Santiago is one of the most popular of Christian pilgrimage routes with a history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The pilgrims’ destination is the city of Santiago de Compostela, capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia in North West Spain. It is there in the magnificent Romanesque cathedral, that the remains of St. James the Greater –one of Christ’s closest disciples– are believed to be enshrined.

Back in the early 9th century, when St. James’s burial place was discovered, Santiago was an obscure settlement in the isolated and primitive North West of Spain. How, then, did it become so significant a destination for European pilgrims that it was surpassed only by Jerusalem and Rome in importance as a Christian holy site in the Middle Ages?

Cabo/ Cape Finisterre with lighthouse.

It probably helped that Galicia was already associated with mystery and magical or religious rites from Celtic times. The Celts worshipped nature and the sun, and only about 90 kilometres/ 54 miles to the west of Santiago, on the Atlantic coast, was a stormy cape where the sun set to be replaced by darkness. The Romans gave it the ominous name Finis terrae (Finisterra), “the end of the earth,” an evocative name for pilgrims come to appease the gods!

So, Galicia was fertile ground for the cult of St. James to take root, but it required other intertwining factors for it to flourish and spread. Among those were: 1. the role of the monarchs of the emerging Christian kingdoms along the north of the Peninsula: Asturias, León-Castile, Navarra, Aragón, and the County of Barcelona; 2. The Moorish or Muslim threat and Christian reaction (generally summarized as the Reconquista); and 3. The French contribution, from royalty, nobility and religious orders, especially the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, to the thousands of French pilgrims. 

We’ll limit this post to the first factor.

1. The role of the monarchs of the emerging Christian kingdoms.
At the beginning, it was the kings of Asturias –neighbouring region to Galicia– who established the cult of St. James, starting with Alfonso II (r. 791-842). Hearing of the discovery of St. James’s tomb (between 818 and 842), Alfonso hastily visited the spot and was immediately moved to build a church there. This was the site that soon became known as Santiago de Compostela (Compostela from campus stellae, the “field of stars” that supposedly led to the discovery of the Saint’s tomb. However, the word might also in fact stem from “campus stelae” a “field of (grave)stones” or simply be a diminutive of the Latin “compostum” meaning “little cemetery”). Alfonso’s devotion was continued by his successors, Ramiro I (r. 842-850), Ordoño I (r. 850-866) and especially Alfonso III (r. 866-910) who combined his reverence for St. James with the argument that Asturias was the rightful heir to the Visigothic kingdom lost to the Moors).

Not only did these monarchs promote and confirm royal and state legitimacy to Santiago’s claims as a key pilgrimage destination but it was also politically expedient for them to popularise the burial place of one of Christ’s closest disciples, the first to be martyred and the only apostle known to be buried in Europe. To have such a prominent Christian martyr buried in their kingdom at a time when the collection of relics was in vogue was a major coup and supposed a significant increase in the monarchs’ status/ prestige and by extension that of their kingdom. As a bonus, it was also a useful means of retaining the loyalty of the Galicians.

By the early 10th century (910), the kingdom of Asturias had been replaced by that of León which was then conjoined with Castile from 1035 to form the kingdom of León-Castile. At the western end of the Pyrenees, the kingdom of Navarra appeared as a separate political entity in 905 but was reduced in importance with the elevation of Aragón from condado (county) to kingdom at the same time as Castile i. e. 1035. In 1137, Aragón joined with Catalonia (or the County of Barcelona) to form the political entity of Aragón-Catalonia, known at the time as the Crown of Aragón.

Christian kingdoms and Muslim taifa states in1037.

Despite almost incessant infighting and political intrigues between the Christian kingdoms as they struggled for supremacy (even consorting with the Moors at the same time that they fought against them and faced constant threats/ raids from them), the message about St. James/ Santiago percolated eastwards along the north and into neighbouring France. Enough, for instance, to inspire the visit of the first documented pilgrim, the Bishop of Le Puy, in 951 and ten years later the Archbishop of Rheims. But these were dangerous times. In 997, the marauding Moorish vizier and de facto ruler of al-Andalus, al-Mansur, laid the town of Santiago to waste and destroyed the church, leaving only St. James’s tomb intact.

With city and church destroyed, the pilgrimage suffered temporary suspension, but monarchs such as Sancho the Great of Navarra (r. 1000-1035), his grandson Sancho Ramírez of Aragón (r. 1063-1094), and Alfonso VI of León-Castile (r. 1065-1109) contributed significantly to revitalising and promoting the Camino.

San Juan de la Peña

It was about 1025, at the initiative of Sancho the Great, that monks from the famous Benedictine abbey of Cluny first entered Spain, establishing themselves first at the Aragonese monastery of San Juan de la Peña. From there, with royal encouragement, the Cluniacs moved westwards and were to play an important role in building hospices along the camino as well as having a significant impact on church liturgy in the Christian kingdoms.

Sancho Ramírez and Alfonso VI improved roads, constructed bridges and built shelters and actively encouraged French settlers –shopkeepers, craftsmen, hotel keepers– to establish themselves along the increasingly more popular pilgrim road.

As a further part of his contribution, Sancho Ramírez also disallowed his subjects from extracting tolls from pilgrims passing through his kingdom and founded the town of Estella as a commercial centre for foreign merchants.

Alfonso was, if anything, even more active, perhaps because by the end of the 11th century, León-Castile was the largest Christian kingdom in Spain and main territory through which pilgrims travelled en route to Santiago.

The Cathedral of Santiago. The great baroque facade.

Alfonso not only eased the pilgrims’ physical welfare with road and bridge construction/ improvements etc, he also encouraged the Cluniacs to found monasteries and hospices to care for the pilgrims. Indeed, between 1073 and 1077, Alfonso gave four Leonese monasteries as gifts to Cluny. Significantly, too, following a successful campaign against the Moors of Granada, Alfonso donated the booty to the construction of an imposing new church in Santiago, intended to be a fitting monument to St. James and an appropriate destination for the increasing number of pilgrims. Begun in 1075 as a Romanesque church under the direction of Bishop Diego Peláez (bishop 1071?-1088?, 1090-1094), and much enlarged by his successor, the dynamic Diego Gelmírez (bishop from 1100-1140, archbishop from 1120), the building is the heart of the present cathedral under its 17th/18th-century shell.

But Spanish monarchs also contributed in acquainting the French with Santiago and the camino through marriage with French royalty or aristocracy. For example, Ramiro I of Aragón (r. 1035-63), his son Sancho Ramírez (r. 1063-1094) and grandson, Pedro I (1094-1104), all married daughters of French nobility. Alfonso VI of León-Castile (r. 1065-1109) had several wives, two of whom were French aristocrats, while his daughters Urraca and Teresa married two French cousins, Raymond and Henry of Burgundy. In Catalunya (then known as the Condado –County– of Barcelona), Ramón Berenguer I (r. 1035-1076) married three times, each time to a French lady of noble blood; the wife of Sancho Garcés IV of Navarra (r. 1054-76) was from Normandy. And in addition to these royal alliances, there were also marriages between noble families from both sides of the Pyrenees.

Nevertheless, royal initiatives in popularising the camino and encouraging the participation of the Benedictines (and later other religious orders) did not always signal a religious motive. The camino soon became big business from which royalty, the church at Santiago, monasteries and secular entrepreneurs profited. Cluny’s involvement combined its religious vocation and introduction of the Roman liturgy into Spain (as opposed to the Visigothic rites then practiced in the Leónese-Castilian church) with cultivating power through the wealth it received from Christian monarchs, Alfonso VI in particular but also his father Fernando I (r. 1035-65). Both sent enormous amounts of gold they received as tributes –parias— from the politically weak Muslim taifa states directly to Cluny in return for Benedictine prayers and support of Castilian-Leonese victory over the Moors.

By the end of the 11th century, relationship between Christians and Muslims in the Peninsula deteriorated considerably when a fundamentalist Berber army –the Almoravids— from Morocco was invited by the ruler of the taifa of Seville to help counter the advance of Christians from the north. The request was triggered by the conquest of Toledo –and its related taifa territory– by Alfonso VI in 1085. It was significant, strategically, psychologically and territorially: for the Muslims, the loss of Toledo was disastrous and demoralizing, for Christians, its conquest meant that the centre of the peninsula was back in Christian hands for the first time since the early 8th century.

The tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Peninsula coincided with increased tensions between Muslims and Christians at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The Christian conquest of Toledo parallels in many ways the Battle of Manzikert (modern Malazgirt) in Anatolia (the Asia Minor part of Turkey) in 1071. It was a battle in which the army of Nicephorus III, Christian emperor of Byzantium (Byzantium was the Christian offspring of the eastern Roman empire, with its capital in Constantinople –now Istanbul) was destroyed by Muslim Seljuk Turkish forces. As a result of the Battle of Manzikert and the dangers posed by the Turks, appeals were made by Nicephorus’s successor, Alexius I (r. 1081-1118), to Pope Urban II to help fight the Turks. Urban’s response came in a stirring speech delivered at the Council of Clermont (France) in November 1095. It was a speech that set in motion what we know as the First Crusade when between 60,000 and 100,000 thousand Christians marched off to the Holy Land in 1096. But that is another story.

Fletcher, Richard The Quest for the Cid London: Century Hutchinson Ltd London.
Fletcher, Richard “The Early Middle Ages,” in Spain. A History ed Raymond Carr Oxford 2000.
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson, Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela London: Penguin 1992
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona: Editorial Critica 1984 (Translation of The Reconquest of Spain, 1978).
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Route to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987.
Williams, John “Cluny and Spain,” Gesta Vol 27 ½, pp.93-101. 1988. Retrieved from JSTOR
Map of Spain 1037:
Image of Cabo/ Cape Finisterre, by Deensel:



The Camino de Santiago.
Google Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”) and you’ll see that there are millions of entries, a daunting 160,000,000 when recently checked (July 2021)!!! And those entries don’t include the numerous guide books, personal diaries and chronicles, newspaper and magazine articles etc. that the Camino has generated! 

But what is the Camino de Santiago all about? Briefly, it refers to a pilgrimage route for Christians whose history goes back to medieval times and whose destination was the town of Santiago de Compostela, now capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia in North West Spain. There, pilgrims prayed at the tomb of Sant Yago/ Iago (in English, Saint James), one of the twelve disciples called upon by Jesus to spread the Christian message. It is from Sant Yago that we get “Santiago.”

The Saint’s remains, we are told, rest in a silver chest in a crypt below the high altar of the imposing Cathedral together with the bones of two of his followers, Sts. Atanasio (Athanasius) and Teodoro (Theodore).

Santiago de Compostela. Cathedral. Main facade.

But how did the remains of one of Christ’s disciples who was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 AD end up in what was then an obscure village in the isolated and primitive North West of Spain, so far removed from the Holy Land? And why did St. James become so revered that his resting place grew to be one of principal pilgrimage routes for Christians during the Medieval times, surpassed in importance only by Jerusalem and Rome?

But first, who was St. James or Sant Yago?
According to the New Testament Gospels, James (aka James the Greater) and his brother John were fishermen mending their nets by the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:21, Mark 1:19-20) when called upon by Jesus to become two of his twelve apostles. Christ also nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) possibly because of their evangelical fervour and fiery temper. 

Rembrandt: Saint James the Greater. Of course, we have no idea what St. James looked like, but interestingly Rembrandt has painted him with two symbols associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago: the scallop shell on his shoulder and the pilgrim’s staff in the background. 

However, there is no biblical evidence that James ever visited Spain, but medieval sources from the late 8th century asserted that James had answered Jesus’s call that His apostles should spread the word of God as widely as possible. James chose or was assigned to travel to the Iberian Peninsula. He apparently reached as far as Galicia via Mérida but seems not to have had much success at evangelisation, attracting only seven followers. 

On his way back to the Holy Land, James stopped at Caesar Augusta (modern Zaragoza). There, he built a church on the banks of the River Ebro following instructions from the Virgin Mary who had miraculously appeared before him while she was still alive. The location of the church was identified by the pillar to which Jesus had been tied and whipped (on Pontius Pilate’s orders) and which was transported to Zaragoza by the Virgin’s angels; it is the spot where the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora del Pilar now stands (this is the origin of the very popular woman’s name in Hispanic culture, Pilar).

After arriving back in the Holy Land, James incurred the wrath of the Jews with his proselytising and according to tradition was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD on the orders of Herod Agrippa and his body thrown to dogs.

So how then did James’s remains end up in north west Spain? We don’t really know, but tradition has it that the remains and detached head were recovered by two of James’s disciples who took them in a boat which, although having no rudder, oars, sails or even sailors, miraculously carried its precious cargo along the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and up along the coast of modern Portugal to Galicia. 

After seven days travelling, the boat landed at Iria Flavia, a hamlet now simply a parish in the town of Padrón, a name said to be derived from the pedrón (i. e. “big stone” in Galician), to which the boat was moored upon arrival.

Here, according to one legend, St. James’s body suddenly soared into the air and flew east, pursued by his disciples, until it landed in the kingdom of Queen Lupa, a pagan ruler. Another version has it that the disciples placed the apostle’s body on a large stone which immediately molded itself around him to protect him. During their search for a place to properly bury the Saint, his disciples entered the kingdom of Queen Lupa.

Both versions concur that Lupa set tests for the disciples if they were to bury the apostle in her territory. For example, they had to vanquish a ferocious dragon and pacify two wild bulls. They were so successful that Lupa converted to Christianity and bequeathed her palace as a burial place for James’s body.

So much for the tale, which is notable for its lack of historical confirmation and its dependence on miracles and tradition. Even the Catholic Church is cautious when it comes to the “authenticity of the sacred relic of Compostela” which, it acknowledges “has been questioned and is still doubted” (

The first mention of St. James in Spain surfaces in the 8th century when the monk Beatus (c. 738-c.800) of Liébana (in Cantabria) confirmed in his widely disseminated Commentary on the Book of Revelation (c. 776) that Santiago had converted Spain to Christianity. But Beatus has nothing to say about the Apostle’s miraculous arrival.

We next pick up the story when a certain Teodomiro (Theodomir) bishop of Iria Flavia (818-847) was led by shining lights to a site some 17 kilometres north of Iria Flavia. There Theodomir claimed to have found the tomb containing St. James’s relics and also those of his two disciples. (Another version has a Christian hermit, Pelayo, who having seen lights shining over a cave, served as guide for Theodomir.).

The discovery took place between 818 (year of the beginning of Theodomir’s episcpoate) and 842, the final year of Alfonso II’s rule as King of Asturias and the person to whom Theodomir relayed news of the discovery. Alfonso quickly hurried to the site of the tomb and ordered a small church to be built there, thus providing secular or state legitimacy to Theodomir’s religious claims. 

Soon news of the discovery began to attract attention with Alfonso frequently considered to be the first pilgrim. The settlement that followed the discovery came to be known as Santiago Compostela, the latter name alluding ostensibly to the field of stars (campus stellae) that had guided the way to the Apostle’s tomb (However, following the discovery of an ancient burial site –compostum– beneath Santiago’s cathedral, the descriptive “Compostela” might actually derive from the same source as the unpoetic English “compost heap,” as suggested by Michael Jacobs, Jacobs 2). With the establishment of a church, and the verificatiion of the Saint’s identity by a bishop and a king, the first steps towards the cult of St. James/ Santiago were under way.

Davies, Bethan and Cole, Ben Walking the Camino de Santiago Vancouver: Pili Pala Press 2009
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson, Linda K  The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2000
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela London: Penguin 1992
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona: Editorial Crítica Grijalbo 1984
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Route to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987
Image of Santiago Cathedral. Façade. By stephenD – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Image of St. James by Rembrandt: St. James By Rembrandt 1661 – Unknown source, Public Domain,





The Spanish Civil War was a tragic tearing apart of a society where civil discourse had failed and given way to violence. The war lasted from July 1936 to April 1939, and was initiated by a rebellious group of disaffected army generals frustrated by what they saw as the failure of Spain’s Second Republic, 1931-36.

The Second Republic was a valiant if misguided effort at coming to terms with the country’s past. It sought to address long-standing historic problems/struggles which had gathered force and been added to throughout the turbulent 19th century.

During that century new voices had been added to the ancient, traditional powers of monarchy, church and nobility with the rise of the army, political parties, workers’ movements, anarchism, Republicanism. To these we can add a reborn and revitalised historical reality, regionalism, with demands for some form of recognition in the Basque Provinces and especially in Catalonia.

In attempting to satisfy/resolve the interests of all these voices, the Second Republic attempted to do too much, too quickly and with too much passion. As a result the political pendulum swung, with increasing instability, from:
1. a left wing coalition government (June 1931 to November 1933);
2. a centre-right wing coalition government (November 1933 t0 Feb 1936);
3. another left wing coalition government (Feb 1936 to July 1936). 

The push to reform was central to the left wing agenda; resistance was equally paramount to the right wing. The left favoured:
1. educational reform (which brought it into direct conflict with the Church);
2. agrarian reform (which threatened the landed oligarchy, especially in parts of Andalusia and of Extremadura);
3. military reform (which challenged military control of its affairs);
4. regional autonomy (which undermined national unity);
5. free assembly and the right to strike (which subverted employer power).

By the first half of 1936, the rhetoric on both sides had become more strident and inflammatory and violence more frequent, e.g. assassinations, the torching of churches. The left accused the right of obstructionism and fascism; the right countered that they were fighting the forces of godless Marxism. To the left it was truth against obscurantism; to the right it was the truth of traditional Catholic values against heresy.

It was, as a recent history of Spain in the twentieth century summarizes succinctly, “a class war, between differing conceptions of social order; a war of religion, between Catholicism and ant-clericalism; a war revolving around the idea of patria (i.e. regionalism) and nation…. In short, the Spanish Civil War was a melting pot of universal battles between employers and workers, Church and State, obscurantism and modernization….” (Casanova 161).

The Military Moves In.
Soon after the elections of February 1936, right wing politicians and some anti-republican army generals began to plot a coup against the left-wing government. The Right tried and failed to overturn the election results and the most “difficult” generals were transferred to distant posts and replaced by loyalist officers.

Amongst the former was General Francisco Franco (later Commander-in-Chief –Generalísimo– of the rebellious armed forces), who was posted to the Canary Islands, a transfer which he viewed as demotion.     

The next few months saw a spiraling collapse of social order. The social dissatisfaction of the left was channeled into strikes, churches were burnt and there were threats of revolution. The right responded with its own creed of violence with gangs wearing paramilitary uniforms cruising Madrid on the lookout for the enemy.

The point of explosion came with the assassination in Madrid on July 13th of José Calvo Sotelo, leader of the far right Bloque Nacional. His murder was a tit-for-tat response by republican police officers for the slaying the day before by right wing gunmen of a police guard known for his socialist sympathies.

Calvo Sotelo’s death propelled the hard line, traditionalist generals to action. On the evening of July 17th, rebel soldiers in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (aka the Rif) –fearing that loyalist troops were about to arrest them– seized control of their garrisons in Ceuta, Melilla and Tetuán.

Early next day, Franco declared a state of war and that afternoon took a chartered plane from the Canaries to Tetuán. The objective at this point was Madrid. In the north, General Emilio Mola (who coined the phrase “fifth column”) headed the northern army, with the same objective as Franco: Madrid. There was no turning back.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd.  ed. 2009.
Casanova Julián & Andrés, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014.
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974.
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996.


Alfonso X. El Sabio: Histories and Translations.
Alfonso X, king of Castile (and León) from 1252 until 1284, had limited success as a politician but as a scholar he was a driving spirit behind a cultural awakening in Castile in the 13th century. It is for this that he was honoured with the title “el Sabio” (“the Learned”). He favoured Castile’s language and reorganised its laws, all with the aim of unifying the country and providing it with a coherent sense of identity.

Although language and laws help define a country’s identity, underpinning it all is a sense of a community’s history. Alfonso X sponsored two works of history, but entirely in keeping with his patriotic spirit, they were written in Castilian, not Latin, as was previous practice.

The earlier was the Estoria de Espanna which described the role of the different kingdoms in the peninsula in the formation of Spain. The second history, the General Estoria, was a much more ambitious project, a history of the world, intended as a moral guide for Christians. Begun around 1272, its scope proved too vast for Alfonso and his collaborators and it remained unfinished, reaching only as far as the parents of the Virgin Mary!

A beautiful page from the Estoria de Espanna.

The Estoria de Espanna  (EE), on the other hand, brought the history of Spain up to the reign of Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand III (r. 1217-52). It chronicled the highlights of Spain’s history –from earliest days through to the Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, and the loss and recovery of territory from the Moors, the role of the kingdoms of Asturias, León and Castile in the reconquista up to the time of composition, when the country stretched “from the north coast sea of Santander to the sea of Cádiz” (González J 269).

Alfonso drew on a wide variety of sources, from the Bible to classical literature, from medieval Latin chronicles to Arab historians, from ecclesiastic legends to vernacular epics. The intention was to produce a cohesive history, demonstrating that the different Christian kingdoms of Spain had a common origin in their Biblical, Roman and especially Visigothic past, and a common purpose in defeating the Moors.

It is history with a very nationalistic purpose, and Alfonso took issue with all those who had obstructed the evolution of Christian Spain. He took particular issue with foreign crusaders, especially the French, who contributed little or nothing to the crusades in Spain. Their withdrawal from the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) was portrayed as a betrayal; even the change of church liturgy from Mozarabic/ Visigothic to Roman in 1085 was attacked as a change to French liturgy. 

Alfonso’s nationalistic fervour is transparent in patriotic outbursts: Although God honoured all countries and provinces of the world with his gifts, among all the lands of the West, Spain was the most honoured, because He provided it with all that humans usually need. And that is why the Goths, who wandered all over the world, battling and fighting and conquering many lands in Asia and Europe … trying out many places to live and choosing the best, found that Spain was the best of all…
Spain, as it stands, is like God’s paradise, because it is watered by five large rivers, Ebro, Duero, Tagus, Guadalquivir and Guadiana; between them there are great mountains, lands … wide valleys which, given the quality of the land and the amount of water in the rivers, produce a lot of things and are very fertile. Most of Spain is irrigated by streams and fountains, which are never lacking where they are needed…
Spain abounds in pasture, is rich in fruit, abundant in fish, excellent for milk and milk products; she is full of venison and game, covered with cattle, plentiful in horses, profitable in mules, safe and well provided with castles, joyful in its wines, content in the abundance of its bread, rich in metals: lead, tin, mercury, iron, copper, silver, gold, precious stones, any type of marble, in salt from the sea and salt from the land, and many other minerals… plentiful in silk, and all kinds of candies made from honey and sugar….
Oh Spain there are no words nor any talent capable of praising you enough (Carrión G 130-31).

Alfonso’s nationalism, however, did not prevent him from turning to Muslim historians to fill gaps in Christian narratives. This provided an interesting historical balance and perspective (e. g. the conquest of the Peninsula).  In some cases, e. g. the defeat of Alfonso VI in the battle of Ucles (1108), both Christian and Muslim versions were included.

Muslim influence is also seen in the vivid, sometimes poetic descriptions and interest in small details that were normally omitted in the grand sweep of national histories. For example, describing the siege of Valencia by the Cid, the EE lists the costs of foodstuff, noting the rise in prices and the accompanying decline in quality.

The horror of the situation is then brought home: And those who had some bread left buried it and did not dare show it because of what was being done to them…. And those who had nothing began to eat grass, and roots, and skins and sinews, and confections from apothecaries, and all this was very expensive.  And the poor ate human flesh (transl. from Deyermond 90).

Comments such as these give the Estoria a social dimension beyond its political narrative. They are part of the human experience that puts flesh on the bones of history.

Alfonso also made great use of epic poems, a number of which are summarised or prosified so extensively that we can resurrect large chunks of several for which there are no existing manuscripts.

As a result we get dialogues that dramatise human situations vividly.  For example, shortly before the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Alfonso VIII of Castile addresses his soldiers: Friends, we are all Spaniards, and the Moors entered our land by force and took it from us and the Christians on that occasion were almost exiled… and those who remained in the mountains turned around and killing our enemies … defeated the Moors winning back the land to the point where we are now… and now that you are here, you must help me to avenge and correct that evil that I and Christianity have suffered (Barkai 230). The use of epic poetry, with its popular appeal, was intended –like the use of Castilian– to reach out to the people and cement a feeling of solidarity with the king in a continuing crusade against Islam.

Alfonso’s enthusiasm for extending the use of Castilian had a further outlet in the numerous translations he commissioned of scientific works from Arabic. It had been long recognised that the Muslims were years ahead in scientific knowledge. When Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085, a school of translators had soon formed in the city (encouraged by Raimundo, Archbishop of the city 1126-52), taking advantage of the wealth of Arabic libraries and its established Jewish population, which was fluent in Arabic.

In those days, however, the translations were done in Latin, the language of knowledge and learning for Christians of the time.  These were written as a “draft,” or possibly even as an oral version in Castilian, which was then put into Latin by a Christian. It has been suggested that Alfonso X’s decision to have works translated directly into Castilian was a Jewish initiative since they hated Latin which was associated with the Church.

But it is more likely that Alfonso followed the same purpose that he had shown in writing the history and laws of Spain in the vernacular: they gave a sense of cohesion and identity to the kingdom, and at the same time increased public access and demonstrated the capacity of Castilian to express itself in areas previously reserved for Latin. It also represented a process of secularisation of culture, which had long been dominated by the Church.

The translation enterprise was vast and carried out not only in Toledo but also Seville, Alfonso’s favourite city. Many of the translations reflected the king’s passion for astronomy and astrology, among them the Libro del saber de astronomia (Book of Astronomical Knowledge), a collection of 15 treatises dealing with the different constellations and with descriptions of how to construct astronomical instruments, quadrants, astrolabes etc. Such instruments were used to prepare the famous Tablas alfonsinas (Alfonsine Tables) charts of the positions of the stars and planets which, ironically translated into Latin!!, were widely used for astronomical calculations in Europe until the late 16th century.

A beautiful page from Alfonso’s Lapidary.

In order to be able to follow and chart the movement of the stars with precision, Alfonso organised a team of scientists to take observations for 10 years in Toledo. His curiosity about astrology produced the Libro de los juicios de las estrellas (Book of the Judgements of the Stars) and the Lapidario (Lapidary). The latter examines the supposed magical properties of different stones and gems and their relationship to the signs of the Zodiac. It is a richly illustrated work, with drawings of animals and other figures representing the divisions of the Zodiac.

The observations made in these scientific works were done with a different eye from those done nowadays.  For the medieval mind, the universe was God-centred, and everything obeyed a divine purpose. As a result, these works are full of moral and religious reflections; the heavens were like a book, to be read and interpreted. For example, the man who contemplates the constellation of Cassiopeia –viewed as a woman seated on a throne– will recognise in the beauty of her form and in the virtue of her presence that everything that God does is for his benefit.

Alfonso’s interest extended even further. In 1251, when still only heir to the throne, he had a collection of Eastern exemplary tales, Calila e Digna, translated from Arabic into Castilian. Calila … was among the first fictional collections in Castilian, and its framed stories were to have a wide impact and influence in the development of prose fiction in Europe.

Alfonso also commissioned a celebrated book on games intended for relaxation: the Libro de Juegos also called the Libro de axedrez, dados e tablas (Book of Chess, Dice and Backgammon). There are discussions on the importance and benefits of games, especially physical activities such fencing, running, jumping, stone or javelin throwing, and activities on horseback. They gave both pleasure and made a man stronger. The book also talks of the desirability of non-physical games that can be played any time of the day, and can be entered into by older or weaker men, or those who are imprisoned or travelling by sea, or by women who do not ride or are shut in. These games not only give pleasure but prevent a person from becoming lazy.

At a time when the European vernacular tongues were still relatively immature and Latin the European language of diplomacy, science, business and high culture (the vernacular was limited to poetry), Alfonso’s decision to advance Castilian into those fields was a major innovation and helped to enrich the language immeasurably. Suddenly exposed to new ideas and new demands, the language acquired greater syntactic flexibility and a much wider vocabulary as it borrowed abstract, scientific and legal terms from Arabic or Latin. In addition, contact with Arabic historians brought a more vivid descriptive quality as well as social and economic interest to Alfonso’s histories, in comparison to the generally dry Latin chronicles that preceded them.

Barkai, Ron  Cristianos y musulmanes en la Espana medieval (El enemigo en el espejo Madrid 1991.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd ed. 2009.
Burns, Robert I ed.  Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth Century Renaissance Philadelphia 1990.
Carrión Gutiérrez, José M   Conociendo a Alfonso el Sabio Murcia 1997.
Deyermond, Alan A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages London 1971.
González Jiménez, Manuel Alfonso X el sabio 1252-1284 Palencia 1993.
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford1976, 1978 2 vols.
O’Callaghan, Joseph The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile Philadelphia 1993.
Page from the Estoria de Espanna:
Page from the Lapidary:, Public Domain,


Alfonso X. El Sabio: Language and Law.

A youthful looking Alfonso X, el Sabio from the Book of Games (1283).

Alfonso X, king of Castile-León from 1252 until 1284, figures prominently in Spanish history more for his cultural achievements than his political judgment. He recognised the need to unite the disparate Christian communities that he inherited from his father, Ferdinand III of Castile-León.

However, his political goal of administrative reforms and his ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor proved beyond his grasp. He ended up alienating the nobility and towns, deposed by his son, Sancho, and abandoned by his family.

Political failure, however, was more than compensated by his contribution as a scholar (hence his honorific title el Sabio: the Learned) in three fundamental areas vital for the identity and cohesion of a nation: language, law and history. In this he probably did more to establish the groundwork for a unified Spanish state than anyone before the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, ruled 1474-1516. 

As a scholar, Alfonso valued intellectual accomplishments whatever their source, and in the Iberian Peninsula he could draw upon his own Christian, Roman and Visigothic legacy as well as the wealth of Islamic and Hebraic traditions. His radical contribution was to disseminate with the authority of his royal status the wisdom of these multilingual legacies to his people in Castilian rather than Latin, the universal language of the time, used in diplomacy, education, business, and by the Church.

Amongst Alonso’s contributions, too, were commissions to translate scientific and literary works from Arabic or Latin into Castilian. The translation enterprise was vast and carried out in Toledo (already an established centre for translations, but up till then into Latin) and Seville, Alfonso’s favourite city. Alfonso’s decision to advance Castilian into these fields helped to enrich the language immeasurably. Suddenly exposed to new ideas and new demands, the Castilian language acquired greater syntactic flexibility and a much wider vocabulary as it borrowed abstract, scientific and legal terms from Arabic or Latin.

These were fundamental steps in elevating Castilian, and by extension an important step in making Castile synonymous with Spain. Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand III, had already set the trend, by using Castilian in his public record documents.

But Alfonso went further. He made Castilian the working language of his court, becoming one of the first European monarchs to elevate so completely the vernacular tongue. By replacing Latin with Castilian, then, Alfonso was using language as a unifying factor towards the creation of a national identity, with strong patriotic overtones, at a time of fluid boundaries, internal uncertainties and external pressures.

However, Alfonso’s privileging of Castilian over Latin should not be seen in isolation. It was part of a wider cultural phenomenon whereby the vernacular was gradually asserting itself in the face of Latin at a time when scholarship was increasingly secularised and challenging the authority of the Church as the source of learning.  

Already in the early years of the 13th century, Alfonso’s great grandfather, Alfonso VIII of Castile, had founded the largely secular University of Palencia, ca 1204. Early products of this climate of secularisation were the anonymous Libro de Alexandre (The Book of Alexander) and the Libro de Apolonio (The Book of Apollonius), both inspired by earlier works in Latin.

By this time, Castile’s most famous epic poem, the Cantar de mío Cid had been composed (around 1200) and the first known literary author in Castilian, the poet-cleric Gonzalo de Berceo (1196?-1264?) was composing a series of poems –the best know being the Milagros de nuestra Senora (The Miracles of Our Lady)— between roughly 1220 to 1260. Another contemporary poem in Castilian was the anonymous Poema de Fernán González (ca.1250) about the founding hero of Castile.

The point is that topics earlier written in Latin –epics, religious works– were now rendered in Castilian, even though –as was most likely the case—the authors of these works were members of the clergy and educated in Latin. This transformation suggests that Castilian was coming of age, and was now able to compete with Latin as a medium for learning (e. g. the Alexandre deals with the life of Alexander the Great, and his education as well as his military exploits) and for propaganda (e. g. the Milagros is meant to inspire devotion for the Virgin).

Like language, law is a potent means towards unity and identity, as the Romans and Visigoths had discovered.  Following the chequered advance of the different Christian kingdoms over hundreds of years, there was a pressing need to reform the chaotic state of the law in Castile derived from various sources, e. g. the Visigothic Fuero Juzgo (Code of Laws), municipal fueros (charters) and common law (i. e. stemming from customs and not statutes). Out of this reform came the Fuero Real (Royal Charter) in 1284.

However, it is the monumental Siete partidas (Seven Divisions) that have earned Alfonso the respect of all lawmakers. It drew on a wide variety of sources, the Fuero Juzgo, the Fuero Real, Roman and church law, the Bible, common law, even literature whose moralising could be molded into a guide for proper conduct. Its genesis seems to have coincided with Alfonso’s decision to put himself forward for the title of Holy Roman Emperor, 1256.

Alfonso X and Collaborators. From the Siete Partidas.

Divided into seven parts, the Siete partidas is an encyclopaedic work the content of which reaches far beyond the confines of law. As well as a code of law, It is a wide-ranging manual of customs and a guide of social expectations and behaviour. The first partida, for example, has a discussion on burials, the dimensions of a cemetery and how near to a church it should be, who could be buried in a church, why knights killed in tournaments were excluded, burial expenses and why valuables should not be buried with the dead.
Other partidas deal with:

  • Food –what should be eaten and drunk, the desirability of moderation;
  • The conduct of the king –how he should sit, dress, behave towards the queen, educate his children etc.;
  • The qualities necessary to become a knight;
  • The art of warfare –the role of the cavalry, infantry, military tactics, the use of spies, the function of sentries etc.;
  • The importance of universities (Alfonso founded appropriately enough the law schools of the University of Salamanca and established its library in 1254, in effect making it –with Oxford and Paris–one of the three great European universities);
  • Matters such as salaries, student bookstores and the benefits of fresh air, good food and rest;
  • The partidas set out, too, the full powers of the king, his right to issue laws, do justice, strike money, declare war or peace, establish taxes, fairs, appoint governors, delimit provinces (Hillgarth I 298).

There was resistance to the king’s authority from the nobility and towns, wedded as they were to their particular privileges and fueros, and it was not until well into the 14th century that the Partidas were finally made law in Castile.

Recognition of Alfonso’s contributions to the codification of laws can be found in a marble relief bust over the gallery doors to the US House of Representatives; his is one of twenty three recognised as the greatest legislators in world history. 

Marble relief of Alfonso X above the gallery doors in the US House of Representatives

Note on Language:  At the same time that Castilian was being promoted by Alfonso, Catalan was being advanced in the east of the Peninsula with the conquest of Valencia (1238) and an expanding empire in the Mediterranean. Although technically all this was undertaken by the Crown of Aragón, the driving force was the House of Barcelona, the dynastic name for Catalonia. Linguistically, too, Catalan was enriched by the enormous output of the multifaceted scholar, Raimundo Llull (1232-1315), author of e. g. Blanquerna the first major literary work in Catalan.

The linguistic minorities of Spain –notably Catalan, Basque, Galician– have long fought against the assumption that Castile is Spain. Their objections form the core of the struggle between centralisation and diversity especially since the country’s decentralisation following the death of the dictator, General Francisco Franco in 1975.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd ed. 2009.
Burns, Robert I ed  Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth Century Renaissance Philadelphia 1990.
Deyermond, Alan A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages London 1971.
Dodds, Jerrilynn. Menocal, MarÍa Rosa and Balbale, Abigail K The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture New Haven, London 2008
Gies, David T ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge 2009.
González Jiménez, Manuel Alfonso X el sabio 1252-1284 Palencia 1993.
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford 2 vols 1976,1978.
O’Callaghan, Joseph  The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile Philadelphia1993.
Image of Alfonso el Sabio:
Marble relief of Alfonso X: By USCapitol – Alfonso X, the “Wise” (1221-1284), Public Domain,
Alfonso X el Sabio and Colaborators in the Siete Partidas –, Public Domain,

Catalonia-Catalunya 15th Century.

Castile enters the picture.
Catalonia from the 12th century had formed part of the Crown of Aragón, while retaining its dynastic title of House of Barcelona. The Crown of Aragón also included the kingdoms of Aragón, Valencia and other lesser realms in the west Mediterranean.

When Martí I of Aragón died in 1410 without an heir, the question of succession became a vital issue for Catalonia because his son, Martí the Younger, had died in 1409 leaving an illegitimate son, Frederic.

The widowed and ailing Martí I hastily remarried after his son’s death in the hope of producing a legitimate heir but to no avail.  Eight months following the marriage he was dead, without making clear his choice as heir. There were several claimants to the throne, including the illegitimate Frederic and others who were descended from branches of the royal House of Barcelona.  

The most likely candidate was Jaume (Jaime, James) of Urgel, male descendant –like Martí I– of Alfons III (r 1327-36) and Catalan to the core. He had also been favoured by Martí I, who had named Jaume his viceroy in Aragón a position normally occupied by the heir to the throne. 

And yet the successful claimant turned out to be the Castilian, Fernando of Antequera. Admittedly, Fernando was the son of Martí’s sister Leonor (and King Juan I of Castile), but since he was a descendant by the female line, there were others considered ahead of him (and royal wills going back to Pere III -r. 1336-87- had excluded descendants by the female line).

The significance of Ferdinand de Antequera’s successful claim is that although the Crown of Aragón still existed, with Fernando it fell into in the hands of a new dynasty: that of the Trastámaras of Castile! The power that the House of Barcelona had exercised in guiding Catalonia’s destiny from the time of Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) in the 9th century), now passed to Castile.

A Tale of Political Intrigue.
How the Castilian-speaking Fernando of Antequera ended up as King of the Crown of Aragón is a tale of political intrigue, embracing also the famous and acrimonious Great Schism (1378-1417) that ruptured the medieval Church.

Jaume of Urgel’s main support came from Catalonia, but in Aragón many of the nobles opposed him because of the way he had treated them as viceroy. Indecision on the part of the Catalan Corts (guardian of the laws of Catalonia) in initially pushing Jaume’s claim when Martí I died, and then their willingness to look at other claimants also worked against Jaume. 

His cause received a further setback when one of his supporters murdered the prominent Archbishop of Zaragoza, a strong opponent of Jaume and supporter of Fernando. Fernando responded to calls from other opponents of Jaume by invading parts of Aragón and Valencia. 

It is here that the Church entered the picture in the shape of the aged antipope, Benedict XIII (1328 – 23 May 1423). Benedict –a noble by birth– was born in Aragón, and was a former soldier who had fought for Enrique/ Henry II of Trastámara, Fernando’s grandfather, in Henry’s war (1358-69) against his half brother, Pedro/ Peter the Cruel. And it turns out that Fernando had supported Benedict in the latter’s struggle against the rival pope in Rome! 

This background is important in view of Benedict’s role in the final decision. Most importantly, he managed to persuade Catalans, Aragonese and Valencians to overcome their differences by selecting nine compromisarios (judges) who between them would choose the next king.

A list was drawn up which, thanks to Benedict’s manipulation (he excommunicated the supporters of Jaume, who were tainted by association with the murder of the Archbishop of Zaragoza), ended up being the one submitted by the Aragonese.  At a conclave called by Benedict in June 1412, the three members from Aragón were clearly going to favour Fernando; in Catalonia and Valencia the outcome was not so clear.  Here again Benedict played a key role.

The most influential representative from Valencia was the Dominican preacher Vicente de Ferrer (scourge of the Jews and later a saint). Another was Ferrer’s brother. As it happened, Vicente de Ferrer was Benedict’s confessor and his brother had defended Benedict’s claims in the Great Schism. Predictably they threw their weight behind Fernando.

As for the Catalan judges, one was a servant of Benedict and long-time enemy of Jaume.  Six members, then, favoured Fernando, and that was enough to reach the majority of six, as required by agreement.  The Compromise of Caspe, as it was known (after the Aragonese town where the conclave met) was really a rigged election, but Fernando also increased the odds of his election with generous bribes from a large fortune he enjoyed from his wife’s estates.

The result was binding, but was not popular in Catalonia. Jaume, after some hesitation, decided that he had enough support to rebel, but it was too late and he was quickly defeated and reduced to a pitiable figure begging Fernando’s forgiveness on his knees. 

The shame –and with it a painfully humiliating moment in Catalan history– was complete:  A Catalan claimant to the Catalan-Aragónese throne (or Crown of Aragón) on his knees before a Castilian prince who had usurped his throne!

Castilians in Control.
Compounding the humiliation was the apparent lack of interest demonstrated by Fernando (now Ferrán I of Aragón) and his successors in establishing a close rapport with their Catalan subjects. They married Castilian princesses, preferred the company of Castilian courtiers and installed Castilians in positions of authority. 

Alfons IV, the Magnanimous (V of Aragón), Ferrán’s son and longest ruling Aragonese monarch of the 15th century (r 1416-58) spent 20 years campaigning for the Kingdom of Naples and asserting Aragonese presence in the central Mediterranean. After conquering the Kingdom of Naples in 1442-43, the city became the seat of Alfonso’s government and he never returned to Aragón. A patron of the arts and founder of the Academy of Naples, Alfonso also delighted in hunting, fine clothes and dancing.

After Alfonso’s death in 1458, he was succeeded by his brother Joan/ John II (r. 1458-79), who was born and spent much of his youth in Castile where he inherited large estates at the death of his father, Ferrán I, in 1416. In 1419, Joan married Blanche I of Navarra, and as a result he became king consort of that kingdom.

After Blanche’s death in 1441, civil war broke out between those who supported Joan’s claim to the throne and those who championed his son, Carles/ Charles of Viana. Joan won, but his victory had repercussions in Catalonia. There was a brief reconciliation between father and son, but that became undone when rumours reached Joan that Carles had been in contact with Enrique/ Henry IV of Castile with a view to marriage with his half sister, Isabella of Castile.

Since Joan had plans for Carles to marry the Portuguese princess, and for Ferdinand, his son by his second marriage, to marry Isabella, he saw Carles’s plan as insubordination and not to his interests. Joan met Carles in Lérida (Lleida in Catalan) in 1460, and had him arrested and then imprisoned in the castle of Morella. Carles’s imprisonment provoked a wave of protests in Catalonia and his death two years later triggered a civil war which lasted until 1472.

The war was triggered in part by Joan’s high-handedness in applying Castilian laws, which allowed virtually unlimited authority to the king, in Catalonia. Catalonia, however, had its own laws (usatges) that imposed contractual limitations whereby the king acted together with the Corts and could not arbitrarily change laws. In denying Carles’s right of succession, Joan had meddled with the laws of succession and violated the laws of Catalonia.

Such high-handedness was seen as a threat by most of the Catalan nobility, the urban bourgeoisie and the landed gentry, whose power base was in Barcelona. Collectively these were known as the Biga. Opposed to them were the peasants and workers, known as the Busca. Each side fought for control of Barcelona’s City Council (the Consell de Cent: Council of One Hundred), which had been set up in the 13th century and whose members were elected from the citizens, included men from the working class (tradespeople, artisans etc.)

Peasants working the land (known as payeses de remença) in Catalonia also took the opportunity of the discontent to air their grievances against a feudal system that tied them to their lord’s land. They could only be freed from feudal obligations by paying a hefty sum of money, which was beyond the means of the majority.

Their appeals to Joan were looked upon favourably, especially since both he and the peasants had a common enemy in the Catalan ruling class. The conflict finally exploded into a 10-year civil war (1462-1472) with monarchy and peasantry pitted against the ruling class. Joan prevailed over the rebels, but the war left Barcelona and Catalonia financially strapped. Businessmen and their families abandoned Barcelona –many to neighbouring Valencia– and trade and growth stagnated.

One significant outcome of Catalan commercial stagnation and internal conflict was a vital loss of trading influence in the Mediterranean to Barcelona’s long-time rival Genoa. There was also an impact when Castile conquered the kingdom of Granada (1492), the last Muslim enclave of al-Andalus (the name the Muslims gave to the land they occupied). It was the Genoese, not the Catalans, who moved into Cádiz and Seville and secured control of exports from Spain’s southern ports.

A Fateful Marriage for Catalonia.
Joan continued as King of the Crown of Aragón until his death in 1479, but in the meantime a marriage had taken place in Valladolid (Castile) in 1469 that had an immense impact on the future of Spain.

It was the marriage between Isabella, heir to the throne of Castile, and Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragón. Together, they are better known as the Catholic Monarchs and are generally recognized as the founders of the modern state of Spain.

Of the two kingdoms, Castile was by far the larger partner, being about 3 times larger geographically and about 6 times larger demographically. Important, too, Castile experienced at the end of the 15th century a period of rapid expansion with the completion of the conquest of Granada and the discovery of America —Las Indias— both in 1492.

Then in 1516 Spain acquired vast territories in Europe when the Hapsburg heir, Charles I, succeeded to the Spanish throne. It was primarily to Castile that Charles looked both financially and militarily for support during his reign, even though he spent most of it outside the country defending the interests of the Catholic Church as Holy Roman Emperor (as Charles V, the title for which he is better known).

Predictably, under these conditions, the interests of an economically and politically weakened Catalonia were subordinated to those of Castile. As a result, Catalonia was sidelined from any really influential part in Spain’s imperial ventures (headed by Castile) in the 16th century, (e. g. in 1518 the Catalan fleet was prohibited from trading with the newly discovered Indias, i. e. Latin America).

Simmering discontent produced a revolt in the 17th century, which was suppressed after 12 years (1640-52), but the lowest point in Catalonia’s history was still to come: the 18th century, which was a political disaster.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. 2009.
Carrasco, Juan et al  Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008.
Elliott, John Imperial Spain 1469-1716 London 1963.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford1992.
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford 1976.
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992.
Mestre I Godes, Jesus Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.


Catalonia-Catalunya 14th Century.
Note: The titles given to the monarchs of the Crown of Aragón (a confederation of monarchies of which Aragón and Catalonia –also known as the House of Barcelona– were the founding states) can be confusing. Non-Catalan historians tend to use the Aragonese chronology in numbering the kings, thus the heir to Ramón Berenguer IV and Petronilla (whose betrothal in 1137 united Aragón and Catalonia), is Alfonso II of Aragón, whereas to Catalans he is Alfons I of the House of Barcelona!

For a succinct explanation of the difference between the “Crown of Aragón” and the Kingdom of Aragón,” see

14th-Century Monarchs: Jaume II/ Jaime II –James in English– of Aragón r. 1291-1327, Alfons III/ Alfonso IV of Aragón r. 1327-36, Pere III/ Pedro IV of Aragón r. 1336-87, Joan I/ Juan I of Aragón r. 1387-96, Martí I/ Martín I (r 1396-1410

Catalonia: The 14th Century.
By the beginning of the 14th century, Catalonia exercised significant power in the Mediterranean, with its sphere of influence especially extensive in the western end.  Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca, Sicily and Sardinia, formed part of what has been loosely called the Catalan “empire” although strictly speaking they belonged to the Crown of Aragón.

Widespread overseas commercial and trading activity headed by merchants from Barcelona was the source of Catalan wealth. It also gave Catalonia a cosmopolitan air, more so than landlocked Aragon. Furthermore, trade led to the establishment of Catalan consulates and ensured that the Catalan language was heard in numerous areas of the Mediterranean, including North African cities.

Another source of Catalonia’s influence was its ability –following reconquest practice within the Iberian Peninsula– to exact tributes from many North African Muslim cities (e. g. Tunis) in return for protection or payment for troops or ships.

Pere III/ Pedro IV, the Ceremonious.

The 14th century is dominated by the reign of Pere III (Pedro IV of Aragón r 1336-87). Known as “the Ceremonious,” he was an ambitious, obstinate ruler with questionable moral scruples and a pronounced streak of cruelty (there is a celebrated story of him ordering some Valencian rebels killed in 1348 by pouring molten lead down their throats).  Short in stature, he believed himself to be divinely appointed, wore magnificent robes and insisted on elaborate court ceremonials. 

His long reign was punctuated by many conflicts. Early on –1337 to 1342– Catalan ships were engaged in the Strait of Gibraltar helping Castile fight against the invading Merinids from Morocco. In 1343, Pedro invaded Mallorca, whose king James III (Pedro’s cousin) had taken an independent course; in 1347-48, nobles rebelled in Aragón and Valencia at the same time that there were uprisings in Sardinia. Genoa –Barcelona’s maritime rival– was a constant source of irritation and naval battles with the Italian city state were frequent.

Finally, Aragón-Catalonia got caught in the fratricidal war (1358-1369) in Castile between Pere III’s Castilian namesake, Pedro the Cruel and his half brother Enrique of Trastámara.  Truces came and went as a number of nations became embroiled: Navarre, England, France, the Papacy, Portugal, and Genoa, not to mention mercenaries and adventurers. 

Where did Pere III stand in all of this?  The Castilian civil war between Pedro and Enrique began in 1358, but Catalonia and Castile had already started sparring over land in Murcia in the 1340s. In the 1350s the conflict spread to Valencia and to the sea, with Castilian galleys attacking the Balearics.

When it became clear that Pedro I of Castile had a serious challenger in his half brother Enrique, Pere III had little trouble in supporting the latter since he was promised vast tracts of land in Murcia and along the frontier with Castile. However, when the dust had settled and a triumphant Enrique sat astride the Castilian throne, all the promises came to nothing, and Pere III could not do anything about it. 

The constant wars had taken their toll, and Aragón-Catalonia, with perhaps 1/6th the population of Castile, was financially crippled, and Pedro had already used up all possible financial sources. For an exhausted Aragón-Catalonia, it was effectively the end to any dreams of further territorial gains at the expense of Castile.

On top of the political turmoil and financial pressures, Pere III also had to contend with social unrest, ranging from the revolt of the discontented nobles in Aragón and Valencia to the constant challenges of the Corts (guardian of the laws of Catalonia which Pere had sworn to observe).

Then there were the ravages of the Black Death especially between 1347 and 1351, which probably slashed the population of Catalonia by 20-40%. This and subsequent lesser outbreaks, compounded by several bouts of famine bred chaos, resulted in economic depression, and brought the social fabric to the point of collapse.  

Like other parts of Europe, Catalonia survived but it was scarred by increased social conflicts as nobles and peasants fought over lands abandoned during the Plague.  The aristocrats grabbed whatever they could or brought in other peasants to farm disputed land. The result was a series of uprisings that broke out in the 1370s and simmered for over a hundred years.

Pere’s long reign was spectacular in many ways, but his many political tangles left Aragón debilitated and in serious financial crisis. And matters were not to improve. 

His heir Joan I (r 1387-96) had little interest in politics, pursuing instead his love for spectacle: horse riding, hunting, dancing, fashion, food and music: Joan I could eat as much, when journeying, as 4 partridges at a sitting.  His court ordered for him cheeses and African dates from Majorca, trout from the Pyrenees, sturgeon for fast days, Greek wine, Calabrian red, good claret, and Beaune.  He drank his wine spiced after dinner.  His sugar was specially prepared by a convent in Barcelona.  He ordered fine green and Indian ginger from merchants returning from Alexandria.  Joan was not only a gourmet but a dandy … Damascus silk, scarlet cloth from Brussels and ermine from Paris… Joan welcomed French, Castilian, and Sicilian musicians at his court…Hillgarth vol. II, 52 ). Joan also wrote poetry, and dabbled in astronomy and alchemy. 

Temperamentally unsuited to rule, Joan left the running of his kingdom in the hands of a clique that only sought to benefit itself, selling off almost all the royal patrimony (inherited estates) that remained. Joan died suddenly in May 1396 while hunting, leaving no male heir. 

Joan was succeeded by his brother, Martí I the “Humanist” (r 1396-1410), totally unlike him temperamentally, being deeply religious and devoted to solitary contemplation, sacred relics and monastic ritual.  This did not prevent him actively pursuing political ends, the main being the reconquest of Sicily, which he left in the hands of his son, Martí the Younger. 

Given the precarious economic situation of the Crown of Aragón, Martí I spent much of his time trying to recover the royal patrimony, something he managed to do quite well by convincing the affected towns that they would be better off under his jurisdiction than under the nobles.

Still, it was not an easy reign, and worse was to come –certainly from the point of view of Catalan historians– when Martí died I without legitimate heir in 1410 (his son, Martí the Younger had died in 1409).  Why? Simply put, it represents for Catalan historians the beginning of the decline and “denationalisation” of Catalonia and its “Castilianisation”. 

There were several claimants to the Crown of Aragón, including Martí the Younger’s illegitimate son, Frederic, and others who were descended from branches of the royal House of Barcelona.  Nevertheless, the successful claimant turned out to be the Castilian, Fernando of Antequera.

This marked the end of the House of Barcelona which had guided Catalonia’s destiny from the time of Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) in the 9th century), and that of the Crown of Aragón since 1137 (see first paragraph above). The Crown of Aragón still existed, but with Fernando de Antequera it was in the hands of a new dynasty: that of the Trastámaras of Castile!

Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd ed. 2009.
Carrasco, Juan et al    Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford 1992.
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford 1976  2 vols.
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992.
Mestre I Godes, Jesus Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.
Image of Pere III/ Pedro IV:


Catalonia-Catalunya 13th Century.
Note: The titles given to the monarchs of Aragón-Catalonia (a confederation of monarchies of which Aragón and Catalonia –also known as the House of Barcelona– were the founding states) can be confusing. Non-Catalan historians tend to use the Aragonese chronology in numbering the kings: thus the heir to Ramón Berenguer IV and the Aragonese princess, Petronilla (whose betrothal in 1137 united Aragón and Catalonia), is Alfonso II of Aragón, whereas to Catalans he is Alfons I of the House of Barcelona!

13th-Century Monarchs: Pere I/Pedro II of Aragón r. 1196-1213, Jaume I/ Jaime I –James in English– r.1213-76, Pere II/ Pedro III of Aragón r. 1276-85, Alfons II/ Alfonso III of Aragón r. 1285-91, Jaume II/ Jaime II of Aragón r. 1291-1327.

The 11th century saw the emergence of Catalonia as a major player among the early Christian kingdoms. However, its identity was threatened in the 12th century when it merged with the kingdom of Aragón following the engagement in 1137 of the young Aragonese princess, Petronilla, to Ramón Berenguer IV.

From that point, Catalonia’s history was subsumed under that of Aragón although it retained its dynastic title of House of Barcelona.  With its own language and laws, Catalonia had the basic infrastructure to defend its interests, and in Barcelona it had a port slowly growing in importance in the Western Mediterranean.

Jaume I and Catalan Expansionism.
The 13th century was one of expansion with Aragón-Catalonia’s conquest of Muslim-held lands, primarily in the Mediterranean. Here Catalans played a leading role.

Jaime/ Jaume I in 16th century altarpiece in Palma de Mallorca.

Under the young, energetic king, Jaume I (r. 1213-1276), they first captured the Balearic Islands (Mallorca in 1229, Menorca 1231 and Ibiza 1235) and then Valencia in 1238.

Jaume next eyed Murcia, but here he ran up against the interests of Castile. After some sparring, both sides reached an agreement in 1244 whereby Jaume recognised Castile’s title to Murcia. 

The accord, which effectively put an end to Catalonia’s expansion southwards, has been lamented by many Catalan historians for preventing Catalonia from taking advantage of Castile’s internal dissensions and weaknesses in the late 13th and 14th centuries and challenging that kingdom for the conquest of Granada.

Shut out by France to the north and Castile to the south, Catalan aspirations found an outlet in the Mediterranean. That turned out to be fruitful because Catalan ambitions coincided with the increasing importance of Barcelona as a port and trading centre.  Mixing political opportunism, crusading and reconquest rhetoric, and commercial promises, Jaume I appealed to a wide constituency, from nobility to merchant. 

First objective was Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands.  Strategically placed some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Catalonia and in hostile Almohad (i. e. Muslim/Moorish) hands, it was a serious obstacle to Catalan maritime trade, condemning it to shore-hugging activities.

Justification for the attack was easy in an age of crusades backed by papal encouragement and indulgences.  On a more practical level, piracy practiced by the Moors had to be overcome. What it amounted to really was that the merchants of Catalonia wanted in on a lucrative trade possibility covering the western Mediterranean at a time when there was not much to distinguish pirate from trader.

By taking Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, Jaume I opened up the Western Mediterranean with the result that trade prospered and Catalan consulates were soon dotting the coast of North Africa from Tunisia westwards.  Not only did the merchants of Barcelona benefit, so too did Catalan cloth manufacturers and wine and oil producers.

In return, Catalan ships brought back gold, black slaves, paper, sheepskins, leather, wool and spices from the Barbary coast. It was a satisfying victory, and furthermore willed by God –so Jaume claimed! 

The conquest of the taifa of Valencia (1238) –with its rich and highly irrigated “garden”– from the Muslim Almohads, was also satisfying but posed a problem. Over the objection of the Catalans, many Aragonese nobles wanted to incorporate the newly conquered land to their kingdom and its fueros (privileges). To neutralise these demands, Jaume elevated the region to a kingdom endowing it with its own fueros (which were much like those of Catalonia).

It is from this moment that Valencia forms the third confederate member of the **Crown of Aragón. At the same time, Jaume came to an agreement with the Muslim population that they could retain their religion and customs. It was a pragmatic arrangement since the Christians lacked manpower to take over the land and, importantly, the Muslims were expert workers of the fields and vital to the economy of the region.
For a succinct explanation of the difference between the terms “Crown of Aragón” and “Kingdom of Aragón,” see

Jaume I and Language.
Jaume I’s initiative in expanding Catalonia’s territory and its trading contacts was accompanied by a surge in the importance of the Catalan language, akin to what was happening to other Romance tongues.

Although Jaume’s contribution may be considered less profound than that of his son-in-law, Alfonso X, in Castile, Jaume made Catalan the working language of the court, and gave it added impetus by penning –or probably dictating– his autobiography, the Llibre dels feits (Book of Deeds), in Catalan. 

The lives of kings were normally chronicled in Latin, but Jaume’s decision to write in Catalan conferred on the language immediate prestige through association. “Great deeds” were no longer the domain of Latin! Jaume was also influential in the compilation of the Llibre del Consolat de Mar (1283 Book of the Consulate of the Sea), a manual of maritime law governing trade in the Mediterranean.

Jaume I’s reign was not without internal dissensions and rebellions; nothing unusual in the uncertain world of Medieval Europe.  He did not help the cause of unity when he divided his kingdom upon his death that in time led to smaller kingdoms –Mallorca, Sicily, Naples– which frequently had different agendas even when they all recognised the king of Aragón as the head of the dynasty to which they belonged. 

It was a family division, but family interests did not always coincide, even between the elder members, Aragón and Catalonia.  Undoubtedly, the general primacy of Aragón-Catalonia as the driving force behind the politics of expansion, and strong-minded monarchs provided the impetus and formulated the policies.

Dynastic rights were probably paramount in the monarchs’ minds, but such concerns went hand in hand with the commercial interests of the merchants of Barcelona (it helped too that the crown was also involved in commerce).  The result was a fortuitous merger of interests that benefited the city so that by the 14th century it could compete with the already established Western Mediterranean cities of Genoa, Pisa and Marseille in the trading wars in the Mediterranean.

Pere II (1239-1285).

Pedro III of Aragón giving audience.

A major step in the expansion of Catalan interests was the marriage of Jaume I’s oldest son, Pere II (Pedro III of Aragón r. 1276-85), to Constance, the daughter of the Germanic king of Sicily, but it was a union that brought Catalonia directly into conflict with other interests –French, German and papal. 

A French invasion of Sicily in 1266, urged by the pope, led to French occupation of the island. Discontented with French rule, the Sicilians rebelled in 1282 and sought out Pere II’s help. Pere answered immediately by invading the island in the name of his wife and claimed the throne for both. 

At this point the kingdom of Sicily became part of the Crown of Aragón and the growing Catalan “empire.” Equally important the island was a major grain producer, a fact that was not lost on the merchants of Barcelona, some of whom helped finance Pere’s conquest.      

Soon after, Catalonia turned its attention to Sardinia, like Sicily rich in grain as well as salt and silver.  It was also a strategic post for Barcelona’s rivals, Genoa and Pisa, so that Catalan control would clearly hurt the two Italian city states.

By 1324, Sardinia was in Catalan hands, but being a very large island, it was never effectively controlled, and numerous rebellions over the years –abetted by the Genoese– were very costly in Catalan lives and money. As a result, it never became anything more than a colony, a savage land with its inhabitants despised by the Catalans and sold into slavery whenever possible.

Beyond Sicily, Catalan presence was less notable.  There were diplomatic contacts with Egypt and Constantinople, but territorial gain was limited to the duchy of Athens. 

However, this conquest, in 1310, was not the result of royal or commercial sponsorship but initiated by a band of Catalan mercenaries of the so-called “Catalan Company” whose political link with Aragón-Catalonia was tenuous, since it fell under the authority of the Kingdom of Sicily. It appears to have produced little commercial benefit.

All in all, Catalan expansion by the early 14th century was impressive: Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca, Sicily, Sardinia, and its sphere of influence especially extensive in the Western Mediterranean.  Not only did it have trading links with numerous North African cities, it also –following reconquest practice within the Iberian Peninsula– exacted tributes from many (e. g. Tunis) in return for protection or as payment for troops or ships.

It might have been tempting to consider conquest, and establishing a Catalan colony for the greater glory of Christendom, as some of the chronicles of the period urged; that certainly was a powerful image, but in reality the logistics of distance and lack of manpower made that impractical.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd ed. 2009.
Carrasco, Juan et al  Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford 1992
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford 1976
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992
Mestre I Godes, Jesús Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.
By anonymous – Unknown, Public Domain, Image of Jaume I
Image of Pedro III By anonym –