Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Iberia – part 7: The Beginnings of the Reconquista

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 293, March/April 2014 - the magazine of the Society of Ancients

The Birth of the Christian Kingdoms

In the remote regions of north-western Iberia and the middle Pyrenees the power of the Muslims in the south was scarcely felt. It was here that the foundations of the Christian kingdoms of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia were laid and from where the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula would start.  However, no coordinated attempt would be made to drive the Moors out. Like the Visigoths, the Christian kingdoms were mainly focussed on their own internal power struggles. As a result, the Reconquista took the greater part of eight hundred years, in which period a long list of Alfonsos, Sanchos, Ordoños, Ramiros, Fernandos and Vermudos would be fighting their Christian rivals as much as the Muslim invaders.

Further east, local Christians - with some help from the Carolingians - were able to take over Girona in 785 AD and Barcelona in 801 AD. Pamplona (Iruña, “the city” in Basque) was taken from the Banū Qasī by the Basques in 799 AD. Snatched away by the Franks in 806 AD, Pamplona was retaken by the native Basques in 810 AD, after which it gradually became the nucleus of the new Kingdom of Navarra under Iñigo Arista (Eneko Aritza in Basque), who died 851 AD. Incorporated into the Carolingian empire, Barcelona and Girona evolved into the centres of the Spanish March (Marca Hispanica).  Simultaneously, in the course of the ninth century the counts of Barcelona became increasingly estranged from Frankish control. As Catalonia had gradually been repopulated and the Muslims been driven south of Barcelona, the county was effectively independent by the time of Count Wilfred the Hairy’s rule (Guifré el Pilós in Catalan) from 873-98 AD.


The first and most well-known leader of the Christian resistance was the legendary Pelayo, or Pelagius, whose earliest testimony is given by the ninth-century Chronicle of Albelda. Allegedly a grand-nephew and spatiarius of the Visigothic King Roderic, he was expelled from Toledo by King Wittiza (died 708 AD) to settle in Asturias, where he had been elected princeps and organised a revolt against the Muslim invaders, possibly in 718 or 722 AD. To make Pelagius the legitimate successor of the last Visigothic King Roderic, the later Chronicle of Alfonso III, composed in the early tenth century, asserted that he was of royal blood. However, it is much more likely that he was simply the leader of an uprising by the Asturians and had no intention to resurrect the defunct kingdom of the Visigoths.
The chronicles record that a Muslim expedition was sent to punish the revolting Asturians, who had fled to the cave of Covadonga on mount Aseuva to make their last stand. In the battle that followed, probably on 28 May 722 AD, Pelagius routed his enemies, killing the Muslim governor of Gijón. In the wake of this the Muslim invaders evacuated their northernmost province and retired south of the Cordillera Cantábrica to the plain of León. Although later writers magnified the victory out of proportion, the immediate military consequences were minimal. Since the Chronicle of 754 has nothing to say about Pelagius or this event, it must have been regarded as a minor skirmish. Among the Asturians, however, Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance against Islam.

Alfonso I (739-57 AD)

Under Pelagius’ son-in-law Alfonso I the kingdom of Asturias became reality. The revolt of the Berbers in 740 AD (see part 4 of this series) and the withdrawal of many Muslims from the northern reaches of Iberia enabled Alfonso I to establish the kingdom on firm foundation. He was able to extend his rule to Galicia, the north of modern Portugal, Cantabria, Alava and la Rioja. The line of demarcation between Christian and Muslim territories followed the course of the Duero River from Porto in modern Portugal to Osma in the current Spanish province of Soria, and ran then northward into the Basque country. 

Pope Gregory VII
Lacking sufficient forces to occupy the whole region abandoned by the Muslims, Alfonso I systematically laid waste the Duero valley, which for many years remained a great area of no-man’s land separating Asturias and al-Andalus. Almost a century later, while Emir al-Hakam I (d.822 AD) was occupied with domestic strife, King Alfonso II (d.842 AD) would make a conscious effort to restore in Asturias the civil and ecclesiastical order of the Visigothic monarchy. Alfonso II used the characteristic titles of the Visigothic kings and surrounded himself with palatine officials whose offices were reminiscent of the Visigothic court. 
To the east of the kingdom of Asturias were the Christian kingdom of Navarra, the counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe, and Ribagorza, and the Catalan counties of Pallars, Urgel, Cerdagne, Roussillon, Besalú, Amurias, Ausona (Vich), Gerona and Barcelona. These Christian states expanded slowly, principally in times of disorder in al-Andalus. The greatest advance was made in the west where the rulers of Asturias occupied and colonized vast areas abandoned by the Muslims. Early in the tenth century the Asturian seat of government was moved from Oviedo in the north to León, which enjoyed better communication with the repopulated areas.
In the first half of the eleventh century, Sancho the Great, king of Navarra, united the counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe and Ribagorza, as well as Castile and León and upon his death in 1035 AD bequeathed these dominions to his sons. In the second half of the eleventh century, the Church of Rome began to become actively interested in organising the Reconquista of Iberia for the Christian faith. Pope Gregory VII (1073-85 AD), well-known for the legendary “Walk to Canossa” forced on the German King Henry IV, would attempt to a French crusade into Iberia in 1074 AD, led by Count Ebles of Roucy in Normandy, the brother-in-law of King Sancho Ramírez of Aragón.

The Asturian Kingdom (791-910 AD)

Almost all we know about the emergence of the Asturian kingdom comes from the evidence of later periods. The earliest document to bear the name of one its rulers was the grant of land to three priests and a group of monks to found a monastery, made on 23 August 775 AD by a certain Silo (774-83 AD), which survives as a very early copy of the lost original. Remarkably, this Silo bears no title, neither does a certain “Adefonsus”, almost certainly Alfonso II, whose name appears at the bottom of the charter as a later confirmation, again with no royal title attached to the name, unlike the royal documents of the Visigothic and Frankish periods, which always emphasized the king’s status and included his title along with his name.

Alfonso II (791-842 AD)
Alfonso II is recorded to have ruled for fifty years over the small Christian kingdom of Asturias in the recently created town of Oviedo, which would remain its capital until 910 AD. The long reign of Alfonso II is sparsely recorded in both chronicles and charters. To make things worse, hardly any of the remaining documents are completely genuine. As an extreme example, virtually all of the royal charters fall into the category of complete forgeries. The Asturian chronicles, written up to a century after the time of Alfonso II, however, have never been seen as fabrications, though their origins and compositional processes remain debatable.
For political reasons, Alfonso was denied the succession of his father Fruela I four times in a row and he must have been well into his twenties before obtaining the throne in 791 AD. Unsurprisingly in this context, he was deposed in 801/2 AD and entered the monastery of Ablania (modern Ablaña) in the centre of Asturias, but was restored after the usurper was killed in a counter coup. The unnamed ruler who replaced Alfonso after the coup was probably a member of his own family. Some military activity is described in Arab sources, but these probably cared less about purely internal events in the still small Asturian kingdom. Apparently, Alfonso II was not married and had no offspring.

Royal coat of arms of Asturias

Santiago de Compostela
An important event during Alfonso’s reign was the “discovery” of the tomb of St. James the Apostle (Santo Iago) by a hermit in a field near the town of Iria Flavia, at the site later known as Santiago de Compostela (Campus Stellae, Field of Stars) in about 830 AD. How the stone coffin got there is a story too wild to relate in this context. Anyway, it was a brilliant marketing move and provided the small kingdom with a powerful patron saint and a secure source of income as a place of pilgrimage. Santiago de Compostela would become one of the most popular and important centres of Christian pilgrimage in all of medieval Europe, outranked only by Rome. The ninth-century growth of the town indicated the strengthening of Christian control in the area

Ramiro I (842-50 AD)
When Alfonso II died, Ramiro staged a coup against the Count of the Palace Nepotian, who had taken the throne.  After a battle on a bridge over the river Narcea, Nepotian was captured in flight, blinded and then forced into monastic life.  Despite claimed victories over Muslim and Viking raiders, however, Ramiro would face rebellions led by two other Counts of the Palace, who were also severely punished.

Ordoño I (850-66 AD)
When he succeeded his father Ramiro, Ordoño was faced by a major revolt amongst the Basques in the east of the kingdom, which was successfully repressed. He had the advantage that his kingship coincided with an increasingly divided and weakened al-Andalus. This is illustrated by the frequent regional revolts in the three marches and requests for Asturian support by the local regimes. In the Chronicle of Alfonso III it is stated that Ordoño occupied the (originally Roman) cities of León, Astorga, Tuy and Amaya, which had long been abandoned. He fortified them with new high walls and gates and repopulated them with a mixture of his own people and immigrants from Spania (i.e. al-Andalus).
In 859 AD Ordoño besieged the fortress of Albelda built by Mūsa bin Mūsa of the Banū Qasī, who had rebelled against Córdoba and had been able to become master of Zaragoza, Tudela, Huesca and Toledo. Mūsa attempted to lift the siege in alliance with his brother in law García Iñiguez, the king of Pamplona, whose small realm was threatened by the eastwards expansion of the Asturian monarchy.

Gradual reconquest of northern Spain between 750 and 913 AD

In the battle that followed, Mūsa was defeated and lost valuable treasures in the process, some of which were sent as a gift to Charles the Bald of Francia. Seven days after the victory Albelda fell and, as the chronicler records that “its warriors were killed by the sword and the place itself was destroyed down to its foundations.” Mūsa was wounded in the battle and died in 862/3, soon after Mūsa’s son Lubb (Lupus), governor of Toledo, submitted himself to the Asturian king for the rest of Ordoño’s reign.
Other victories are recorded which suggest that Ordoño was not only the dominant power on the Meseta, but was raiding with great success as far south as the Guadiana River (wādī-yānah), which starts at around 100 km south of Toledo and flows into the Mediterranean on the Spanish-Portuguese border.

Alfonso III (866-910 AD)
Following the death of Ordoño, the throne was seized by a Galician count called Froila (Fruela), whereupon his son, the 13 year old Alfonso, was forced to take refuge in Castile until his followers succeeded in killing the usurper in Oviedo. The considerable territorial expansion of the Asturian kingdom under Alfonso III was largely made possible by the collapse of Umayyad control over many parts of al-Andalus at this time. Between 870 and 880 AD the Lower March (capital Mérida) and the Central or Middle March (capital Toledo) were in turmoil, so that campaigns were needed to repress revolts in Mérida, Toledo, Soria and elsewhere.
By the end of the decade a revolt in the province of Málaga opened a new front and intensified the crisis faced by the Umayyad regime. This is why Emir Muhammad was willing to negotiate a peace treaty with the Asturian king in 882 AD, which was concluded two years later. As part of the negotiations, the body of the Cordoban martyr Eulogius, executed in 859 AD (see part 5 of this series, under “People of the Book”), was sent to Oviedo as a diplomatic gift.
Between the years 866 and 881 AD, the western frontier of the kingdom in Galicia was expanded into what is now Portugal. Amongst other settlements, the towns of Braga, Oporto, Lamego and Coimbra were captured and repopulated. A number of towns in the middle of the Duero valley are also known to have been taken, such as Cea (875 AD), Burgos (884 AD), Zamora (893 AD), Simancas (899 AD) and Toro (900 AD).
In 878 AD a certain “Abuhalit” (Abū Walīd?), described as the consul of Spain and counsellor of King Muhammad, was captured in a failed raid in Galicia. He had to leave two brothers and a son as hostages, while he went back to collect a ransom of one thousand solidi in gold. The same year saw a Muslim assault on the towns of Astorga and León. The expedition consisted of two detachments, one of which was decisively defeated a Polvoraria (modern Polvorosa in the province of León) on the river Orbigo, with an alleged loss of 13,000 men. Thereupon the other detachment withdrew, opening the way for a three-year peace.
In 881 AD, Alfonso took the offensive, leading an army deep into the Lower March, crossing the Tagus River to approach Mérida. Then miles from the city the Asturian army crossed the Guadiana River and defeated the Umayyad army on “Monte Oxifer”, allegedly leaving 15,000 Muslim soldiers killed. Returning home, Alfonso devoted himself to building the churches of Oviedo and constructing one or more two palaces (aulas regias) for himself.

Santa María del Naranco, Oviedo, built in 848 AD as a royal palace; used as a church in the 13th C

Interestingly, the comments of the Arabic sources on these conflicts are rather muted. A certain Ibn al-Athīr mentions an expedition in 878 AD on “the city of Jilliqīya (Galicia)”, almost certainly León, which supposedly led to a battle with significant losses on both sides. Another source, Ibn ‘Idhāri, only speaks of a Muslim raid, which was a complete success, with no battle mentioned. In the last part of his reign Alfonso faced more difficulties, including an attempt by “a great army of Arabs” to take Zamora in 901 AD, the revolt of his brother Vermudo in Astorga, and various obscure plots against his life or throne, one of which his eldest son García was involved. García’s capture and imprisonment seems to have precipitated a revolt by all three of Alfonso’s sons, leading to the king’s enforced abdication.

The Kingdom of León (910-1037 AD)

Shortly after Alfonso’s death, the capital of the kingdom of Asturias was transferred from Oviedo to León, which had been resettled and refortified under King Ordoño in 855 AD.   This move marks the transition between the Asturian kingdom and that of León and followed a previous phase of gradual resettlement of the valleys that ran down from the mountains of the north onto the Meseta. The valleys and partly abandoned sites were resettled by new populations coming from the north and by Christian refugees from al-Andalus in the south.

The sons of Alfonso III (910-925 AD)
García is the first of the kings described by the charters as reigning in León. It is generally assumed that the old Asturian kingdom was divided between the three sons of Alfonso: García (León), Ordoño (Galicia) and Fruela (Asturias), as all three participated in the deposition of their father.  When García died in 913 AD, León went to Ordoño, who now ruled both León and Galicia as Ordoño II.  With the help of Sancho I Garcés, king of Navarra, Ordoño attempted to conquer La Rioja, the region between Castile and Navarra and won a substantial victory over the Muslims I 917 AD at San Esteban de Gormaz, which formed a major link in the defences of the Duero valley.  Encouraged by this success, the Christians made repeated incursions into La Rioja, attacking Nájera, Tudela, Arnedo and Calahorra.

Punitive expedition
In the summer of 920 AD ‘Abd ar- Rahmān III decided to punish the aggression of the kings of León and Navarra and advanced to the north, seizing Osma, Gormaz and Calahorra and routed the Christian kings on 26 July at Valdejunquera, southwest of Pamplona.  After ravaging Navarra, he returned to Córdoba believing that his enemies would refrain from attacking again. However, when the Christians renewed their raids, he returned and thoroughly sacked Pamplona in 924 AD.  After the destruction of Pamplona, Sancho’s chief stronghold in Navarra, the latter was reduced to impotence for the remainder of his career.  His son García Sánchez (-ez means “-son”) married the heiress of Aragon, linking the county to the kingdom of Navarra in a union that was to last for a century.

At Ordoño’s death in 924 AD, the throne went to his brother Fruela II (924-5 AD), who died of leprosy a year later.  His death was seen as a punishment for the killing of his first cousins Aresindo and Gebuldo, the sons of one of Alfonso’s brothers, who was a powerful figure in the Tierra de Campos, south of León.  Fruela’s death in 925 AD was followed by a civil war, after which Alfonso, the eldest son of Ordoño II, emerged as the new king Alfonso IV, ruling from 925–932 AD.

After a further power-struggle, Ramiro, the younger brother of Alfonso IV, became king in 932 AD, having captured his brother Alfonso, as well as the three sons of Fruela II – Alfonso, Ordoño and Ramiro (the list of popular boy names was very short in those days).  King Ramiro had the sons of Fruela and his brother, the former King Alfonso IV, blinded, thereby eliminating all potential rivals. Subsequently they were confined, together with various unnamed “other cousins”, in the Leonese monastery of Ruiforco. Alfonso IV may have died soon after, but he left two infant sons, called (as you had probably already guessed) Ordoño and Fruela.
Iberian peninsula around 1030 AD

A new frontier zone
The new king, Ramiro II (d.951 AD), proved to be one of the most effective of the Leonese monarchs.  He led various triumphal expeditions, including a victory over an Umayyad raid directed at Castile, followed by a successful expedition into the Ebro valley in 933 AD.  This led to the governor of Zaragoza Abū Yahya submitting himself. However, once Ramiro had returned to León, Abū Yahya promptly reverted to Umayyad allegiance.  In 939 AD ‘Abd ar-Rachmān III launched an invasion of the Kingdom of León, allegedly with an army 80,000 strong.  This raid was spectacularly defeated by the Christian forces in the Battle at Simancas, 10 km to the south-west of modern Valladolid.
The confrontation took place at an unidentified place called Alhandega in Spanish (from al-Khandaq,”the ditch” in Arabic) on the Duero River.  
‘Abd ar-Rachmān escaped only “half-alive” (semivivus), while most of his troops were slaughtered as they fled.  To vent his rage, ‘Abd ar-Rachmān had 300 of his officers crucified as traitors of the faithThe result was that a new frontier zone developed in the valley of the Río Tormes, some 40 km south of the river Duero.

In 944 AD Count Diego Muñoz and Count Fernán González of Castile (923-970 AD), who had ambitions of their own, rebelled against Ramiro II, but the revolt was quickly suppressed.  When Ramiro died in 951, he left two sons by two different wives.  When the elder son Ordoňo III, who ruled from 951-56 AD, suddenly died aged little more than thirty, he was succeeded by his younger half-brother Sancho I “The Fat” (956-66 AD), as Ordoño had failed to produce a legitimate heir.
The overweight Sancho could no longer mount a horse, which undermined his credibility as a war leader.  When early 958 AD an Umayyad raid into the Leonese kingdom in 957 AD brought back four hundred human heads and a large number of horses and beasts of burden to Córdoba, this military disaster prompted a revolt.  Sancho, who fled to his relatives in Pamplona, was replaced by Ordoño IV “The Bad”, the elder son of Alfonso IV.  Sancho’s grandmother Queen Toda of Navarra sent him to Córdoba by to request military assistance from the caliph, which was granted.  While there, he was cured from his obesity by the caliph’s personal Jewish physician Hasdai ben Yitzhak ben Shaprut.

A joint Umayyad and Navarrase invasion of León drove the bad Ordoño to flight into Asturias in 959 AD, whence he was ejected two years later and finally went into exile in Córdoba himself.  Sancho died in 966 AD, aged about thirty-one, in the course of an expedition against Count Gonzalo Menéndez, a leading magnate in the frontier region of the Duero in Galicia.  According to the Chronicle of Sampiro, Count Gonzalo had sent him a poisoned apple in the course of peace negotiations, thus putting a final end to Sancho’s weight problems.

Ramiro III (966-85 AD)
Sancho’s son Ramiro had been born in 961 AD and was only about five years old when his father died.  He was also the only legitimate member of the direct family line. His mother Teresa Ansúrez had retired into the recently founded monastery of San Pelayo, of which her sister-in-law Elvira was the abbess. Another nun, Sancho’s full sister Elvira Ramírez emerged as regent during his long minority. She sometimes features in Ramiro III’s documents with the title regina until Ramiro attained majority in 975 AD.  When León was besieged by the Moors in 982 AD, it turned to Vermudo, the son of Ordoño III, who had been proclaimed king of Galicia in December 982 AD. As from this time Vermudo (II) seems to have gradually replaced Ramiro III, who was finally driven out of León in 985 AD and retreated to Astorga, where he died soon afterwards, in circumstances about which we have no information.

Vermudo II (982/5-999 AD)
The reign of Vermudo II saw a sustained series of raids on his kingdom led by Almanzor.  These campaigns, which included the Muslim sack of Coimbra (987 AD), León (988 AD) and of Astorga (996 AD), as well as the defeat and death of the Count of Castile in 995 AD, climaxed with the destruction of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in 997 AD and the bells and doors of the cathedral being carried off to Córdoba.  Unable to mount and effective resistance to these attacks, Vermudo II took refuge in Zamora in 988 AD and then in Lugo.   Facing also internal revolts in both Galicia in 993 AD and in León, Vermudo saw the need to improve relations with the Navarrase kingdom, which shared a similar threat.
To fortify his alliance with Pamplona and reinforce ties with Castile, Vermudo repudiated his Galician wife to marry Elvira Garcés, the daughter of Count Garcia Fernández of Castile (970-95 AD) and niece of King Sancho Garcés II of Navarra. Elvira would provide Vermudo with the male heir - the future Alfonso V - that his Galician wife had failed to produce.  At the time of Vermudo’s death in 999 AD, the city of León was still in the same ruined state that Almanzor had left it in after his raid on the city eleven years earlier. I t had to wait restoration in the reign of Vermudo’s son Alfonso V
Portrait of Alfonso V by Mino da Fiesole (Louvre)

Alfonso V (999-1028 AD)
Born in 994 AD, the later Alfonso V was, at the age of five, doomed to a lengthy and contested period of regency. Initially exercised by his mother queen Elvira, the responsibility for the young king’s military upbringing had been entrusted to Count Menendo González of Porto, the most powerful member of the Galician aristocracy.
In 1003 AD something of a coup seems to have taken place, after which Elvira retired into monastic life.  In 1004, Elvira’s brother, Count Sancho Garcés of Castile (died 1017 AD), challenged the right of Menendo González’ to act as a regent
.  Because the treaties with the Muslims of 1003 AD had made León and Castile effectively dependencies of Córdoba, the case was brought before the judge of the Christians in Córdoba, who applied Visigothic law.  A compromise was eventually reached in 1007 AD, leading to the reappearance of the dowager queen Elvira at court until her death at 1017 AD. Count Menendo had been killed in 1008 AD, in unknown circumstances.

King Alfonso V took advantage of the collapse of Umayyad rule after 1008 AD to recover land lost in the west and extending the Galician frontiers southwards. While besieging the fortress of Viseu, 100 km southeast of modern Porto, in 1028 AD he died from an arrow wound.

Vermudo III (1028-1037 AD) and the Kingdom of Castile and León
After having been in power for six years, Alfonso’s son Vermudo III saw much of his kingdom overrun by his sister’s father-in-law King Sancho III of Navarra, who took over León in 1034 AD. Vermudo had to withdraw into Galicia and Asturias, until he regained control of León following Sancho’s death in 1035 AD.  He launched a war against his brother-in-law Fernando, Count of Castile, to recover other lost territory.  Killed in the battle of Tamarón in 1037 AD his kingdom was inherited by his sister Sancha, who was married to the above Fernando. Thus, the kingdom of León passed into the hands of the Count of Castile, thereby creating the new kingdom of Castile and León.

The Kingdom of Navarra (799-1035 AD)

The native inhabitants of Navarra, the Basques, always resisted assimilation to other cultures.  The impact of Roman culture on the region had not been negligible, but had left a much fainter impact on Basque lands than it did on other parts of Iberia.  Also Christianity made slow headway among the Basques.  Unsurprisingly, like the Visigoths, and later the Franks, the Arabs never succeeded in subduing the Basques.  Hence, the origins of the kingdom of Pamplona (Navarra) are badly documented and the initially very small realm produced no chronicle of itself earlier than the twelfth century.  The first royal dynasty was replaced by another around 905 AD, which seemed to have had no interest in preserving the memory of its predecessor.

Being a strategic settlement on the route from the fertile and prosperous Ebro valley into Aquitaine via the Pass of Roncesvalles, the former Roman civitas of Pompeiopolis (after its founder Pompey the Great), later corrupted into Pompaelo, was occupied and garrisoned by Berber troops somewhere between 714 and 741 AD. This is testified by a cemetery containing 190 burials of individuals buried according to Islamic custom. A smaller adjacent Christian graveyard of similar date contains ceramic pieces and finger rings of Muslim origin, suggesting rapid cultural assimilation between the two communities.

Early flag of Navarra
Christian enemies
During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Basque tribes were expanding southwards into Iberia and northwards into Gascogne  (Vasconia).  From the Navarrese perspective, their Christian neighbours in the north (the Franks) and to the west (the expanding Asturian/Leonese kingdom) were as much threats as were the Umayyads.  Probably even more so, as the latter were further away and after 799 AD showed no interest in imposing their rule of Pamplona.

This Christian threat is clearly illustrated by Charlemagne’s campaign against Zaragoza in 778 AD.  Failing to take this town Charles was forced to retreat.  On his way back to Francia, he subdued the Basques, took Pamplona and levelled its walls.  In retaliation, the Basques destroyed the Frankish rearguard in the Pyrenees near Roncesvalles.  In this fight several Frankish commanders, amongst whom the well-known Count Hruodland (Roland) perished with their men.  Pamplona was then ruled by the Banū Qasī, until in 799 AD a revolt took place in Pamplona and the Muslim governor was killed.  What prompted the revolt and its immediate effects is unknown, as there are no further references to Pamplona before 806 AD, when the city was taken by the Franks again.

Four years later Pamplona was retaken by the Basques and a certain “Velasko the Basque” (Balask al-Galaskī in Arabic) became lord of Pamplona and governor of the region.   When in 816 AD a Muslim expedition was sent against him, Velasko and his allies were defeated after thirteen days of daily fighting.  After this battle Velasko is not heard of again.  By 824 AD Pamplona emerged as a kingdom under its first ruler Eneko Aritza, or Iñigo Arista, after which Frankish involvement came to a decisive end. Iñigo’s son and successor García Iñiguez was taken prisoner by Viking raiders in 859 AD.

The third king, Fortún Garcés, may have succeeded his father in 880 AD, having endured a period of possibly as much as twenty years as a hostage in Córdoba following his capture in 860 AD.  Fortún’s reign probably came to an end in 905 AD in circumstances that are unknown.  According to the genealogies, he had four sons, but since the Arista dynasty seems to end here, he and his line were probably overthrown in a coup.

Sancho Garcés I (905-25 AD) was the founder of a new line of kings, who would rule Navarra in unbroken succession until Sancho Garcés IV, nicknamed “the Noble” (1054-76 AD) and his brother Ramón, nicknamed “the Fratricide”, in case you wonder how Sancho Garcés IV’s succession came to pass.  Sancho Garcés changed the alignment of his kingdom from alliance with the terminally declining Banū Qasī to military alliance and cooperation with León.  He expanded his kingdom into the upper Ebro valley, largely at the expense of the Tujibids, who replaced the Banū Qasī as the dominant Muslim dynasty in the Upper March.  Taking Arnedo in 908/9 AD and Nájera in 924 AD, he was faced with a major retributive raid from Córdoba in 924 AD, in which Pamplona was taken and sacked.

Sancho III (1004-35AD) “the Great” became the principal beneficiary of the collapse of Umayyad rule in al-Andalus.  Moreover, his reign also coincided with a time of weakness and division in the Leonese kingdom.  Marriage ties, military intervention, and, as Collins puts it, “perhaps also a well-chosen assassin”, also resulted in the annexation of Ribagorza by 1025 AD and then by his securing control over Castile in 1029 AD.  In his last years Sancho drove the last of the Leonese dynasty, Vermudo III (d. 1037 AD) from most of his kingdom, taking León itself in 1034 AD, and exercised a de facto hegemony over both Gascony and the Catalan counties, now almost united under Berenguer Ramón I (1017-35 AD).  However, the short-lived Navarrese “empire” evaporated on Sancho’s death when it was divided between his sons.


In 797 AD the governor of Barcelona Zeid rebelled against the Umayyad authority in Córdoba and, failing to establish an independent county, he handed Barcelona to the Franks.  The Umayyads, however, recaptured the city in 799 AD.  As a reaction, Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, marched the entire army of his kingdom, including Gascons, Provençals and Goths over the Pyrenees and besieged the city for two years, wintering there from 800 to 801.  He conquered Barcelona in 801 AD and re-asserted Frankish authority over Pamplona and the Basques south of the Pyrenees in 813AD.  Attempts to occupy Tarragona and Tortosa in the years 808 and 810 AD were repulsed, as were similar attempts by the counts of Barcelona one century later.
Arms of Ramón Berenguer IV of Barcelona
Nevertheless, as the land to the south of Barcelona began being resettled, the frontiers of the county were slowly extended southwards, requiring the construction of local defences against frequent Muslim raids.  Throughout this period all of the Catalan counties remained formally subject to the Frankish kings of the Carolingian and later the Capetian dynasties.  Until 987 AD, when Count Borrell II refused to recognise Hugh Capet as king of France and thus became de facto independent of the French crown.  Bera, the first count of Barcelona from 801 to his deposition in 820 AD, was of local origin.  In 878 AD the local Guifré, or Wilfred, was appointed, who later received the nickname “the Hairy” and who controlled all of the Catalan counties south of the Pyrenees.

Guifré the Hairy

Under Guifré the resettlement of the largely depopulated and devastated valleys of the Ter and Llobregat began to accelerate.  Guifré was a major monastic founder and his interests lay firmly in this region and not in the politics of the Frankish court, to which he always remained loyal. He died in 897 AD, following a defeat at the hands of Lubb bin Muhammad, the Banū Qasī lord of Lérida (Lleida), whom he tried to prevent from building a strategic new fortres.

The county of Barcelona would exist for over nine centuries.  Martí I the Humanist would be the last direct descendant of Guifré the Hairy to rule, until he died without legitimate heirs in 1410 AD.  From then on the County of Barcelona formed a constituent part of the Spanish Crown under the rule of the House of Habsburg until 1716 AD, when Philip de Bourbon declared that all the territories from the Crown of Aragón (with which Barcelona formed a political union since 1162 AD) should merge into Castile, building the centralized Kingdom of Spain.


Castile had its origins in the Basque speaking region known to classical authors as Vardulia (or Bardulia), which included most or all of the present provinces of Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa on the Biscay coast and at least some of that of Alava to the south of it.  As in Asturias in the eighth and ninth centuries, the period of territorial expansion and resettlement involved the foundation of numerous small monasteries, many of whom were later absorbed into a limited number of large onesMany of the immigrant settlers came from the Basque country and have left traces in the landscape in the form of place names such as the modern settlements of Ezcaray, Uyarra, Zorraquin, Azarrulla and others. Most minor names of fields, streams hills, etc. are Basque, too.

In the ninth century, numerous castles that gave the province its name (in territorio Castelle or al-Qilā in Arabic) were erected as a buffer against Muslim expeditions against Asturias and León.  By the middle of the ninth century Castile formed a county of the kingdom of Asturias and in 882 AD the district around a small fort or burgus, the nucleus of the future town of Burgos, was repopulated.  It is perhaps ironic that the earliest references to Castile can be found in Arabic rather than in Latin narrative sources.

Flag of Castile

The earliest ruler of Castile for whom we have a name is Eylo, or Geylo, who led a revolt against Alfonso III (866-910 AD) early in his reign. Another recorded ruler is Count Rodrigo (d. 873), whose son Diego Rodríguez (d. 885 AD) founded Burgos in 884 AD.  Although technically subject to the authority of the kings of León until 1037 AD, its counts allegedly did not acquire their office by royal appointment, but received it by virtue of election by the freemen of the county, until it became hereditary in the family of Count Fernán González (932-970 AD), the most famous hero of Castilian legend before El Cid (d.1099AD).

In 1009 AD Count Sancho García of Castile responded positively to the appeal of Sulaymān, a descendent of ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III and rival caliph of Muhammad II al-Mahdī (“the rightly guided one”) to join forces and to march on Córdoba.  They defeated the badly trained and equipped Cordovan town militia of Caliph Muhammad II in November of that year, whereupon Sulaymān entered the city and was proclaimed caliph with the title al-Musta’īn (“he who asks [Allah] for help”).  Muhammad fled to Toledo and in his turn appealed for aid to another quarter of the Christian north.  In response to his appeal, the two most prominent figures of Catalonia, the count of Barcelona and the count of Urgel were willing to help.  They supplied 9,000 troops at the exorbitant pay of 2 dinars a day, in addition to supplies, while the counts were to receive 200 dinars each.  Leading their armies to ‘Aqabat al-Baqar, the current El Vacar, 30 km north of Córdoba, they defeated Sulaymān and his Berbers in May 1010 AD and again in June near the river Guadiaro near RondaMuhammad retook possession of Córdoba, but was murdered in July, whereupon the deposed Hishām II al-Mu’ayyad was reinstated as caliph. But this would only be the beginning of the end.

Rampaging Berbers

Thereupon Sulaymān and his Berbers gained possession of the palace of Medīnat az-Zahrā, where he established a base for his troops, while Córdoba was besieged by the Berbers from 1010 and 1013 AD. Simultaneously, they rampaged uncontrollably over the south-eastern parts of al-Andalus, doing untold damage and extorting protection money from the cities.  When Córdoba surrendered in 1013 AD, the city was wrecked and plundered and enormous numbers of citizens were massacred. Among them, over sixty distinguished scholars met their deaths. The same Berbers had already wrecked the palace at Medīnat az-Zahrā.

Caliph Hishām II disappeared from view, presumably murdered, and Sulaymān presided as caliph for three years, though it cannot be said that he ruled. His Berbers followers treated Córdoba as a city under occupation and instituted a reign of terror, killing and looting as they pleased.  This situation would last for a further fifteen years, during which a number of short-lived caliphs came and went, until in 1031 AD the last of them, Caliph Hishām III was expelled from Córdoba and disappeared into obscurity. He was not replaced and with his disappearance the caliphate of Córdoba had come to an end, making room for a shift in the balance of power between Muslims and the Christians in the peninsula.

The Taifa Kingdoms (1031-1086 AD)

After al-Andalus had lapsed into a state of anarchy between 1008 and 1031 AD, the frail unity of the peninsula eventually disintegrated into a number of regional successor-states known to historians as the Taifa Kingdoms, or taifas. The Arabic word tā’ifa stands for “faction” or “party”. Some taifa kingdoms controlled only a principal city and its immediate surroundings, while others controlled large regions. The most important taifas were Seville, Zaragoza, Toledo and Badajoz, which were ruled by Arabs. Granada was ruled by Berbers and Valencia by military kings, descendents of Slavic slaves.
This disintegration of the state of al-Andalus was to the irreversible advantage of the Christian realms in the north. Christian leaders intervened in the squabbles among the taifas, forming alliances with some against others, or launching attacks to sack cities and capture territories, or coercing vulnerable taifas into paying protection money. Religious differences were secondary motivations in the conflicts of the eleventh century and during peaceful intervals there were social, cultural and political exchanges across religious frontiers. The Christian states also disputed amongst themselves a lot, while, like the Franks, its rulers had a tendency to divide the new territories among their heirs, thus dissipating part of their power. Sancho III the Great (see the section on “The Kingdom of Navarra”) is a good example of this. 

Taifa of Seville in the 11th century
The taifa period produced a brilliant cultural flowering, as their kings prided themselves on maintaining glittering courts. They built palaces and civic buildings, amassed large libraries and recruited distinguished scholars in contention with their rivals. While the Córdoba area remained desolate after it had been wrecked by the Berbers, other areas maintained or increased their prosperity, such as Valencia. In the eleventh century this city became an important power base, while Seville almost certainly became the largest city in al-Andalus and came to eclipse Córdoba as a centre of regional power in the Guadalquivir area.
Granada, close to the old abandoned settlement of Elvira in the plain some six miles away to the north-west, became a major city when the later seat of power was moved to a more defensible site on a mountain in 1013 AD. The rulers of Zaragoza, who were able to defend their kingdom from the Christians, built themselves a sumptuous new palace.

Initially there existed some three dozen taifa principalities, but by the mid-century half a dozen larger states had swallowed the smaller ones and stood out as pre-eminent: Seville and Granada in the south, Badajoz in the west, Toledo in the centre, Valencia in the east and Zaragoza in the north-east.

Castile and León

García Sánchez II (died 1029 AD) would be the last male descendent of Fernán González. During his reign Castile became a protectorate of Navarra, whose king Sancho III was married the García Sánchez II’s sister. García Sánchez was murdered on a visit to the royal palace in León, as he was about to enter into a marriage with Sancha, the sister of Vermudo III. Sancho the Great’s son Fernando I (died 1065 AD) turned Castile into a kingdom through his conquest of León, conveniently replacing the murdered Count García by marrying Sancha of León in 1037 AD (see above under “Vermudo III and the Kingdom of Castile and León”). Fernando I converted Castile into the most powerful of the Christian states, capturing the towns of Viseu and Coimbra and forcing the Muslim rulers of Toledo, Badajoz, Zaragoza and Seville to pay him tribute.
When he died, he divided his holdings, giving Castile to his eldest son Sancho, who ruled it as Sancho II. Alfonso got León and García Galicia. He left cities to his daughters: Urraca received Zamora, Elvira got Toro and both secured income from monasteries throughout their father’s lands. 

Sancho II (1065-72 AD) seized Galicia and León from his brothers, but died at the hands of an assassin while laying siege to his sister’s town Zamora on the Duero. Alfonso, who had gone into exile in Muslim Toledo, then succeeded Sancho as Alfonso VI of Castile.

Turning the odds
In the meantime, Christian power had become pretty wide-ranging. For example, when al-Mu’tamid (”the one who relies on [Allah])”, the taifa king of Seville, tried to pay his tribute to Alfonso in debased coinage and had Alfonso’s Jewish envoy Ibn Salīb crucified when he protested, Alfonso raided deep into the lands of Seville in revenge, until he reached Tarifa, overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar.  The highlight of his reign was the conquest of Toledo on 25 May 1085 AD, the very city that had kindly offered him shelter when he had been driven from his kingdom León by his late brother. Taking possession of the city without any serious resistance, however, the people of the city were assured that they would keep their lives, property and their mosques. He took control of most of the Toledan kingdom and established a far south-eastern outpost at Aledo, 60 km west of Cartagena, where his castle could dominate the important road from the Muslim south to the Muslim Levante. In the spring of 1086 AD Alfonso began to besiege Zaragoza, while the troops of one of his nobles reinstalled the deposed al-Qādir in Valencia. 

Call the Almoravids!
The Christian capture of Toledo marked the beginning of a new stage in Christian-Muslim relations. As military victory was backed up by expanding Christian settlement in the Tagus valley, al-Andalus lost its geographical heart and its kingdoms were now scattered on the southern and eastern frontiers of the meanwhile vast domains of the king of Castile and León. No part of the country could be wholly secure of Christian raids and no Muslim force would ever again penetrate north of the Sistema Central, the mountain chain that runs north of Madrid, from Siguenza in the east to Coimbra in the west.
In 1086 AD, when Alfonso besieged Zaragoza and had al-Qādir reinstalled in Valencia, a group of surviving taifa kings swallowed their misgivings and their pride and turned to the Berbers of Morocco for help against the expanding Christian power. This was not an easy decision, because the newly established and militant fundamentalist regime of the Almoravids had taken power in the Maghreb and the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus knew about their fanaticism. For them it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. In making up his mind, al-Mu'tamid of Seville is reported to have said that he preferred to be camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile. Eventually, he would indeed end up in Morocco, be it as a captive rather than as a camel driver.

The next and last instalment will feature the legendary El Cid.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Collins, Roger, The Arab Conquest of Spain, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK, 1989, 1994
  • Collins, Roger, Caliphs and Kings, Spain 796-1031, Wiley- Blackwell, Chichester, UK  2012
  • DESPERTA FERRO, No 7, Al-Andalus, de la conquista a la quiebra del califato, Desperta Ferro Ediciones, SLNE, Madrid, 201
  • Fletcher, Richard, The Quest for El Cid, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991
  • Fletcher, Richard, Moorish Spain, Orion Books Ltd., London, 2001
  • Hattstein, Markus and Peter Delius, Spanje en Marokko, Islam - Kunst en Architectuur, pp. 208-278, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Köln, 2000
  • Kennedy, Hugh, Muslim Spain and Portugal, Longman, London & New York, 1996
  • Kennedy, Hugh, The Armies of the Caliphs, Routledge, Abingdon & New York, 2001
  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F., A History of Medieval Spain, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1983
  • Phillips, William D. Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, A Concise History of Spain, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010
  • Reilly, Bernard F., The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain 1031-1157, Blackwell, Oxford UK & Cambridge MA USA, 1992
  • Wasserstein, David J., Inventing Tradition and Constructing Identity: The Genealogy of ‘Umar ibn Hafsūn between Christianity and Islam, Tel Aviv University, al-Qantara XXIII, 2, 2002 pp. 269-97, http://al-qantara.revistas.csic.es

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