Asturias. León. History of Early Christian kingdoms.

The Early Christian Kingdoms: 8th to 10th Centuries (1).
The history of early Christian resistance to Muslim forces is obscure, partly conjectural and partly dependent of chronicles written in the 9th century and later.  

The Moors (as the Muslim newcomers are commonly called in Spanish history) swept northward from Gibraltar through the Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 720 and into the south of France.

Resistance to the Moors in Spain centred on two areas: 1. the Cantabrian mountain strip along the north coast and, 2. the Pyrenees mountain range forming the border with France. In this page, we’ll focus on resistance in the Cantabrian mountains and on the formation of the early Christian kingdoms of Asturias and León.

The Cantabrian Mountains: Kingdom of Asturias.
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. 

Historians now agree that it was more likely to have been a skirmish rather than a battle, but it was a useful peg on which to place the beginnings of what, since the early 19th century, has been called the “Reconquista.” It is more of a symbolic and emotional source of reference than a decisive, historical battle. Later Moorish chroniclers dismissed it with the rhetorical question: “What are 30 barbarians perched on a rock?” (transl. from Lomax 41).

The leader of the Christians was named Pelayo (Pelagius in English), but little is known about him.

Statue of Pelayo at Covadonga.

He is not mentioned in the Chronicle of 754, the oldest chronicle that tells us of the Muslim invasion. According to two later chronicles, the Chronicle de Albelda (ca 881) and The Chronicle of Alfonso III (ca 911, akaChronicle of the Visigothic Kings) he was an Asturian noble who served the last Visigothic king, Roderic.

After Roderic’s defeat and death, Pelayo escaped north. Together with fugitives who accompanied him and native Asturians (Astures), he established a kingdom in the mountains of Asturias which he ruled until his death in 737.  For protection Pelayo chose as his headquarters the area around Cangas de Onis, deep in the mountains.

Pelayo’s successor, his son-in-law Alfonso I (r. 739-57) from neighbouring Cantabria, campaigned southwards into al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied) beyond the Duero river as far as the town of Coria in 754. This was made easier for Alfonso by civil strife in the 740s amongst the Muslims, e.g. factional dissension amongst the Arab elite and a revolt by the Berbers, who had been stationed in the wet, inhospitable and mountainous Cantabrian range.

As a result, Moorish forces were withdrawn from their garrisons in the north.  Also, despite internal unrest in al-Andalus, Muslim attention was focussed on battling Christian forces in France. It was a campaign that occupied the Moors from 722 to 759, when they were finally expelled from their last French outpost in Narbonne.

The result of Alfonso I’s raids and Moorish withdrawal was the creation of a very unstable, little populated buffer or frontier zone subject to raids from both Christians and Moors.

At the same time that Alfonso I (r. 739-57) was undertaking raids into al-Andalus, he –and later his son, Fruela I (r. 757-68)— also extended Asturian control westward into Galicia and eastward as far as Miranda de Ebro, on the upper reaches of the Ebro River.

With their power growing, Asturian monarchs might have been tempted to convert their raids into the buffer zone into permanent occupation, but any territorial expansion was precluded by internal conflict over succession to the Asturian throne and by the arrival in Córdoba in 756 of a charismatic personality.

This newcomer, the Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman I (r. 756-88), had escaped the slaughter of his family in the Middle East, quickly made his way across north Africa and arrived in southern Spain in 756. He soon gathered support from among the pro-Umayyad factions there and within a few months had deposed the governor of al-Andalus. He installed himself in Córdoba and  declared al-Andalus an independent emirate.  Despite challenges to his authority, he eventually ruled over all al-Andalus.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 8th century, the kingdom of Asturias –although still subject to raids– was safely entrenched in the mountains along the north coast with the frontier zone extending as far as the Duero River.

Iberian Peninsula ca. 800.

Perhaps the course of events would have been different had the Moors decided to secure strong garrisons further north, but their main defensive positions ran in a line roughly from Coimbra (in Portugal), Mérida, Toledo and Zaragoza.

Increased strength and cohesion amongst the Christians next led to the establishment of Oviedo as capital by Alfonso II (r. 792-842) around 810.  Oviedo, however, was north of the Cantabrian range, and most military action was now taking place south of the mountains.

Increasingly Oviedo became more isolated and its status as capital threatened when, in 856, Christians under Ordoño I (r. 850-866) succeeded in resettling the ancient Roman towns of León and Astorga, south of the Cantabrian Mountains. This resettlement was facilitated by a weakening of political unity in al-Andalus. Three Andalusi emirs, Muhammad I (r. 852-886) and his successors, Al-Mundhir (r. 886-88) and Abd-Allah (r. 888-912), faced constant rebellions from three major border garrisons: Zaragoza, Toledo and Mérida.

In the second half of the 9th century, Ordoño I and his son Alfonso III (r. 866-910) developed a strategic expansion plan to repopulate the frontier land along the Duero valley, bordering al-Andalus.  Alfonso also weakened Muslim territorial control by helping rebellious Muwallads (Christian converts to Islam) in their revolt against the leadership of Córdoba.

At the same time, he tempted settlers with incentives (e.g. land ownership for peasants, monasteries for monks), and encouraged Mozarabs (Christians living in al-Andalus) –who feared the loss of their Hispano-Visigothic heritage under the Moors—to come north. Towns that were repopulated under Alfonso III include Oporto (868), Zamora (893), Toro and Simancas.

By 910 the frontier zone had moved south, roughly from below the Duero to south of Coimbra and then following a north-east trajectory along the northern side of the Guadarrama mountains to Tudela and Huesca and from there to the coast just south of Barcelona (See map below).

Kingdom of León.
Alfonso’s III’s reign came to an end in 910 when he was deposed by his son, García, who declared León capital of the expanding Christian kingdom. Despite continuing Moorish raids, the Christians clearly felt sufficiently strong by now to move out from their mountain strongholds. In a short time, as the influence of León expanded, it took over the title of kingdom from Asturias**. From 910, then, we can begin talking of the Kingdom of León.

**However, Asturias has always been nostalgically remembered by Castilians and nationalists as the cradle of the Reconquista, and its contributions recalled in the title of the heir to the Spanish throne, even nowadays: the Prince or Princess of Asturias.

During the 10th century, the kingdom of León was subject to numerous raids (razzias) by the powerful Andalusi caliph, Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912-961), and the equally powerful vizier al-Mansur (de facto leader of al-Andalus from ca 976 to 1002).

Nevertheless, despite the fear provoked by these raids, the Moors did not have things all their own way.  In 939, for example, the joint forces of León and Navarre (plus some rebellious Muslims) soundly defeated Abd al-Rahman’s army at Simancas. This was soon followed by further territorial expansion by León into the frontier zone, repopulating Salamanca and neighbouring towns around 942.

The Iberian Peninsula ca. 910.

County of Castile.
In order to consolidate their hold over newly conquered territories, the kings of León delegated control of repopulated areas to representatives called counts. Dynastic dissention in the mid-10th century in León allowed one count, Fernán González, to act increasingly on his own initiative.

The area controlled by Fernán González was at the eastern extreme of the kingdom of León near the upper reaches of the Ebro River. Because of the numerous fortifications built in the region to protect it from Moorish attacks, it came to be known as Castella, from which we get Castilla (English Castile).

Supported by the people, who felt greater loyalty to their local lord than to some distant monarch, Fernán González soon accumulated sufficient power –by taking over smaller counties (condados)– to act independently of León.

For 20 years, from about 950-970, he ruled the county of Castile, fending off attacks and involving himself at the same time in the politics of León, the kingdom of Navarre and the Andalusi caliphate of Abd ar-Rahman III.  It was under Fernán González that the county of Castile expanded southward almost to the Guadarrama mountains (repopulating, for example, the town of Sepúlveda in 740).  With Fernán González, Castile makes its first important strides into Spanish history, although it was not yet a kingdom. That’s another story.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd. ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009.
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for the Cid London 1989
 “    Moorish Spain London 1992
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona 1984
Phillips, William D. and Carla Rahn A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010.
Image of Pelayo: