Camino de Santiago. The Role of Royalty.

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: