This is episode 24 called Consolidation of the Kingdom of Asturias and in this episode you will learn:
- The transformation of Asturias from an Asturias chiefdom to a multi-regional kingdom under Alfonso I of Asturias
- How Alfonso I took advantage of the turmoil, famines and droughts of al-Andalus to conquer, raid, colonize and depopulate
- Formation of the Desert of the Duero, a large no man’s land that functioned as a buffer zone between the Kingdom of Asturias and the Emirate of Córdoba
- Economic and demographic changes due to the incorporation of new peoples (Mozarabs, Western Basques and Galicians)
- The revolts of the elites of Galicia and western Vasconia during the reign of Fruela of Asturias
- The role of monasteries in the processes of expansion and colonization of the Reconquista
- What was the royal court of Asturias like
- The causes of the anti-seignorial revolt during the reign of Aurelio
- The reign of Silo and how Alfonso II couldn’t yet rule due to the usurpation of Mauregato
- The controversy of Spanish Adoptionism and its role to reaffirm the independence of the Asturian Church and to bring Asturias closer to the Carolingian Empire
- The works of Beato de Liébana, the most prominent intellectual of the Kingdom of Asturias
- Reflection on why Alfonso I couldn’t annex the large area of the Duero Valley
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 24 called Consolidation of the Kingdom of Asturias. In this episode you will learn about the history of the Kingdom of Asturias from 739 to 783, when the Kingdom of Asturias expanded and consolidated, as well as the intellectual life of Asturias. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
In the first episode on the Reconquista I explained that Pelayo was a caudillo rather than a king. However, we can call the Kingdom of Asturias of Alfonso I an actual kingdom, and in this episode we will discover how he built it. In 739 the son of Pelayo, Favila, was killed by a bear, and while Favila’s children were too young to succeed him, his brother-in-law Alfonso was not. Alfonso was the son of the powerful Pedro, Duke of Cantabria, and he was married to Ermesinda, daughter of don Pelayo, so it’s not difficult to see how he was the best possible candidate. As I mentioned in episode 22, the early Kingdom of Asturias had a very Asturian character, which might seem obvious, but it’s not, because it later evolved to become more Gothic. We find a clear manifestation of that Asturian character precisely in the matrilineal succession of Alfonso, something that was unconceivable in patriarchal societies, such as that of Visigothic Spain or al-Andalus. The possibility of both a patrilineal and matrilineal succession lasted until the late 9th century, when Gothic influence removed any vestige of the Asturian matriarchal society.
The name Alfonso means something like noble ready to combat, which in this case is very suitable, and as we will see Alfonso will be a very common name for Spanish kings. The reign of Alfonso was one of conquest, expansion and consolidation of a kingdom. But that expansion didn’t happen out of luck, or because King Alfonso was a military genius. Important external conditions allowed that expansion, at the expense of al-Andalus, that was in a state of turmoil and civil war in the 740s and 750s. In al-Andalus, the Arabs were fighting among themselves, but more importantly the Berbers stationed in northern Spain abandoned their garrisons and went south of the Duero river to attempt to seize power in the core of al-Andalus, in southern Spain. Seeing that there were no more Muslim soldiers left north of the Duero river, the Asturians seized the opportunity to enrich themselves and consolidate the poor northern kingdom. Starting in 740, the Asturian forces led by Alfonso of Asturias and his brother Fruela of Cantabria conquered Galicia and northern Portugal, with the key fortified urban centers of Lugo, Tuy, Oporto and Braga. The old capital of the Suebi, Braga, lost the status of metropolitan see of Galicia and instead Lugo, located much closer to Asturias, became the main Catholic see, now independent from the Mozarab hierarchies of al-Andalus.
In the 750s, with al-Andalus still in turmoil, there were a series of famines and epidemics that especially ravaged central Spain, which caused the return to Maghreb of the few Berber families that were still there. This time the Asturian forces expanded southwards, occupying the Leonese strongholds of León, Astorga and Zamora, and going as far as Simancas, Segovia, Salamanca and Ávila. In addition to that, Asturias under Alfonso I annexed territories east of Asturias, incorporating all the territories of Cantabria, La Rioja and Álava, in modern Basque Country. On paper, these conquests seem incredible, but reality was far more complex than that. The campaigns of Alfonso I of Asturias were a mix of conquests, raids, and colonization and depopulation. The thing is that the Kingdom of Asturias didn’t have enough men to effectively control all these territories, so King Alfonso opted for a different approach.
On one hand, the Kingdom of Asturias expanded radially, annexing and colonizing the regions that surround Asturias, mainly Galicia and Cantabria. This process of colonization shows that Asturias was growing demographically, but it’s not like they were colonizing empty lands, so the colonization consisted in the reorganization of the annexed regions too. Nonetheless, the colonization and conquests were resisted by the newly incorporated peoples, and these peoples soon contributed to transform the kingdom. On the other hand, the Asturian forces raided the urban centers and countryside of the Duero Valley and in general the territory of the northern half of the Meseta. As I’ve said, the peoples of the sparsely populated Duero Valley were suffering from droughts and famines, all while al-Andalus was immersed in a political and social crisis. Therefore, the limited Asturian forces barely faced opposition in their depredatory actions, and Alfonso I looted cities such as Ávila, León or Salamanca, teared down their walls, and took some of the inhabitants of the Duero Valley to settle them in the surrounding areas of Asturias that I mentioned before.
That resettlement of people of the Duero Valley, along famines and epidemics, led to the formation of what some historians call Desert of the Duero, a large, empty no man’s land that was ruled by neither the Kingdom of Asturias nor the Emirate of Córdoba. The Desert of the Duero essentially functioned as a buffer zone between the Kingdom of Asturias and the Emirate of Córdoba, since the Duero Valley isn’t as easy to defend as the mountainous northern regions. The region of the Duero Valley has always been sparsely populated, but in the 8th and 9th centuries you could walk around for hours and find no living soul. Urban centers disappeared and the very few people that lived in the northern Meseta were peasants under no central political organization. Living under no state may appeal to some, but believe me, you wouldn’t like to live there between the 8th and 10th centuries. Those people were victims of the endemic Andalusi raids, that impoverished and enslaved them, as well of the few Asturian raids that occurred before the progressive incorporation and repopulation of the northern Meseta. So no, living in the battleground between the Asturians and Andalusi was not the idyllic life plan.
While the Duero Valley was being depopulated, the core of the Kingdom of Asturias was gaining population, and that kickstarted the first phase of colonization and organization of the space. Remember that under Pelayo the Kingdom of Asturias was eastern Asturias and western Cantabria? Well, now under Alfonso I the core of the kingdom was the entire Cantabrian Range, the coasts of Galicia, and western Vasconia, territories that were well protected by the steep geography. The incorporation of these new territories transformed the Kingdom of Asturias, from a purely Asturian chiefdom to a multi-regional kingdom that ruled over different peoples. The conquests of Alfonso I helped to consolidate the Kingdom of Asturias, to accelerate the elimination of Paganism in Asturias, and to introduce more efficient ways of exploitation of the land. It’s important to note that the highlanders of northern Spain lived off the fruits and resources of the forest and stockbreeding, but their eating habits changed with the arrival of Hispano-Goths from the Duero Valley, who were used to consume cereals and drink wine. That was a very significant change in the economy and environment of northern Spain, that allowed for the sustained demographic growth of the north, which in turn allowed for the push to colonize the lands outside the Cantabrian Range that were more suitable for Mediterranean crops.
For around three centuries, the frontier line between Christian and Muslim Spain remained very imprecise and permeable, from both the military and politico-administrative point of view. The Muslims established frontier marches in the southern Meseta and Middle Ebro Valley, while the Christian Asturians established a defensive system based on fortifications and buffer zones. However, the frontier had a marked ecological character, because it divided two ecologically differentiated societies. On the Muslim side, you had fertile and densely populated lands, with advanced agricultural techniques and both Roman and Arab crops. On the Christian side, you had mountainous and sparsely populated lands, with barely any industry or commercial post. That meant that people had a harsh life and that scarcity was not the exception but the rule, although those harsh living conditions of the north made them stronger and more willing to fight for a brighter future. That will to improve their living conditions and end the insecurity caused by Muslim raids pushed the Christian expansion and largely influenced the Reconquista, the Spanish colonization of America, or the wars against the Ottomans and Barbary pirates.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about the reign of Alfonso I, since the Asturian Chronicles are very concise, unlike the much more detailed Andalusi chronicles. In 757 Alfonso died and was succeeded by his son Fruela. Don’t confuse it with Fruela of Cantabria who was the brother of Alfonso and father of the future kings Aurelio and Bermudo. According to Christian sources, Fruela started his reign fighting in Galicia the Andalusi forces of the new emir, Abd al-Rahman, where the Asturians would have won. The Christian chronicles state that hundreds of Muslim soldiers were killed and that a son of Abd al-Rahman was captured and decapitated. Nonetheless, Muslim sources don’t mention it and, as we will see in the next episode, Abd al-Rahman had yet to fight the many Arab and Berber rebels that opposed the authority of the Emirate of Córdoba. Since Abd al-Rahman had to consolidate his power and ruled Andalucía but not much more, I find very hard to believe that his forces could have gone as far as Galicia to fight against the Asturians, so I would say that this victory of Fruela over the Cordoban forces is made up. Later on, it is entirely possible the armies of Fruela and Abd al-Rahman clashed. The Muslim chronicles mention that Badr, the right hand of Abd al-Rahman, successfully campaigned in Álava and demanded tribute and hostages. This might be related to an alleged treaty of peace between the two, according to which the Asturians would pay tribute.
We are more certain about the regional revolts that Fruela had to suppress in the newly incorporated regions of Galicia and western Vasconia. The existence of different cultures and local aristocracies that refused to submit to the authority of Asturias contributed to incite separatist or particularistic revolts, that had to be solved mainly with the use of violence. The eastern frontier of the Kingdom of Asturias under Alfonso I was in the Nervión river, that runs through the provinces of Vizcaya and Álava, so the revolt of those Basques was also an opportunity to effectively integrate them and expand the influence of the Asturian monarchy. The Alavese Basques seems to have been the protagonists of the uprising, but Fruela crushed them. To seal the peace and integrate the Alavese Basques within the power structures of the kingdom, Fruela took hostages and married Munia of Álava, who was actually a second cousin of Fruela, since she descended from a Basque nobleman and a daughter of Fruela of Cantabria. On another note, King Fruela I had to suppress a revolt in Galicia, a region that had powerful landlords and that was much more Hispano-Gothic than Vasconia. According to the Asturian Chronicles, the revolt in Galicia was harshly suppressed and the Asturian army devastated the region, but that allowed for the settlement of Asturian colonists in Galicia.
Aside from military actions, Fruela founded several monasteries of the Order of Saint Benedict, among them one in honor of San Vicente, a Spanish martyr. The interesting thing is that the monastery of San Vicente was the germ of the future capital of Asturias, Oviedo, and the birth of towns provoked by the erection of monasteries was happening in other parts of the Kingdom of Asturias too. You see, monasteries had a very important role in the repopulation of new areas, but also to set up self-sufficient communities with up-to-date agricultural technologies and manufactures, to preserve and generate knowledge, and to Christianize the most remote areas and remove any form of Paganism. It was common that prominent men and women founded monasteries, together with other people who decided to use their wealth to form a new colony and production center, although there were monasteries of all kinds, from very austere to large ones. There were even family-owned monasteries that were necessarily mixed and that had no rigorous discipline, and it’s possible that these were founded to preserve the family wealth from the abuses of the powerful. Nonetheless, after several inheritances, family-owned monasteries usually ended up integrated within larger monasteries, or functioned as rural parishes, or just disappeared. Medievalist historian Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz once said that “the entire Kingdom of Asturias sometimes resembled one big monastery”, and he also wrote that “in no other country of the West you could find as many monasteries and churches in such a limited space”. To sum it up, monasteries were economic and religious centers that generated large positive externalities in the nearby areas and that had a profound impact on the society, identity and intellectual life of the Kingdom of Asturias.
Going back to the political narrative, both the regional and courtesan opposition that Fruela of Asturias had to face seemed too much for the Asturian king. Over the years he had grown suspicious, to the point that he suspected his own brother, Vimarano. It’s said that Vimarano was earning the sympathy of the aristocracy, so Fruela probably suspected that his brother was going to overthrow and possibly execute him. Maybe Fruela was being a paranoid, but he preferred not to discover if his brother would do that. Instead, Fruela decided to strike first and he executed Vimarano to avoid the risk. Nonetheless, the cure was worse than the disease, and opposition grew to a point that in 768 Fruela was assassinated in a palace coup in Cangas de Onís.
The nobility elected Aurelio as his successor, who ruled from 768 to 774. It’s important to note that, as in the case of the Visigothic Kingdom, the Asturian monarchy was elective, but the possible candidates were always members of the same ruling dynasty descendant of Pelayo and Pedro of Cantabria, related either by blood or marriage. It wasn’t until the death of Ramiro II in 850 that the Asturian monarchy became hereditary. Aurelio was a son of Fruela of Cantabria, the brother of Alfonso I, and he ruled not from Cangas de Onís, but from his residence in the city of Langreo, in the district that is now known as San Martín del Rey Aurelio.
During the first century of existence of the Kingdom of Asturias, the royal court was itinerant, and what we call a capital was just where the royal court was. The Asturian royal court was pretty austere and basic, although it grew in size and complexity as the Kingdom of Asturias expanded. The royal court, known as palatium or aula regia, was an institution constituted by the King and royal family, the most prominent noble magnates and ecclesiastical dignitaries, and the palatine officials. There were several functions and positions held by the palatine officials. The mayor of the palace was the right-hand of the king and managed the court and residence of the king, but unlike it happened in Merovingian France this position didn’t eventually assume political power to make the king a mere puppet. The chaplain and confessor of the palace organized the religious ceremonies of the court and served the spiritual needs of the royal family. The alférez was in charge of the private army of the king, and there were other positions such as the notary or the treasurer. As you can see, it was a pretty basic court, unlike the opulent court of al-Andalus.
With that said, let’s go back to the narrative with the reign of Aurelio. Unfortunately for us, the chronicles only mention one event of his reign, an anti-noble revolt that must have been pretty threatening to the social order. To understand better the rebellion of serfs we should pay attention to two simultaneous and related processes. On one hand, since the late Visigothic Kingdom slavery was in the process of disappearing, and in the Kingdom of Asturias there were barely any slaves. The slaves that remained in the Christian bastion were being freed and given their own small plots, so former slaves had more control over production. On the other hand, the colonization of the lands to the west and east of the core of Asturias liberated peasants from their former lords and broke ancestral clan ties. The combination of these two social changes entailed that serfs felt that their status was anachronistic and worse compared to those who were given their own individual estates, so in their will to improve their living and social condition they revolted to gain the status of free peasant. The revolt of the serfs was suppressed though, but the regional, aristocratic and peasant revolts are indicative of the social tensions and transformations within the Kingdom of Asturias.
Moreover, it’s important to point out that the expansion and consolidation of the Kingdom of Asturias under Alfonso and Fruela stopped during the reigns of Aurelio and his successors Silo and Mauregato. These monarchs had to focus their attention on the internal problems of the kingdom, but the good thing is that the Kingdom of Asturias enjoyed peace in relation to the Emirate of Córdoba. Abd al-Rahman focused his energies on consolidating his authority over al-Andalus, so there was no time or resources to engage in raids and jihad against the Asturians. In the case of King Silo, who succeeded Aurelio in 774, peace with al-Andalus was held thanks to the mother of Silo. That brief assertion with no further details has generated debate about its meaning, since it could mean that the mother of Silo was Muslim or that she had been taken as hostage in exchange for peace.
Anyway, Silo’s reign is as obscure as the other Asturian monarchs of this period. We know that he was married to Adosinda, daughter of King Alfonso I, and Silo probably became king thanks to that, as it had happened with Alfonso I who was married to the daughter of Pelayo. We also know that he moved the royal court to Pravia, which was more accessible and better connected to the peripheral regions of the Kingdom of Asturias. That made sense to really integrate Galicia and western Vasconia, and also because the kingdom wasn’t as threatened as it used to be during its early years. On another note, there was a second rebellion in Galicia, that was again put down. The good thing is that after this rebellion Galicia became very integrated within the political organization of the Kingdom of Asturias and there were no revolts worth to mention in the following decades.
Finally, Silo and Adosinda didn’t have children, so instead they named the future Alfonso II as mayor of the palace, to make the succession smoother. Alfonso II was the son of Fruela and Munia, while Adosinda was his aunt, and at the death of Silo in 783 Adosinda pulled strings to proclaim Alfonso as king. However, an illegitimate son of Alfonso I, whose mother was a Muslim serf, assembled an army of supporters and usurped the throne. This bastard king was Mauregato, and since he successfully usurped the throne Adosinda and Alfonso sought refuge in Álava, using the family ties of the mother of Alfonso. The Asturian Chronicles applied a sort of damnatio memoriae on Mauregato, to eliminate any details about his reign and portray him as an unworthy usurper and bastard, and centuries later there appeared legends that portrayed him as a ruler that couldn’t protect his subjects. I’m referring to the legend of the tribute of 100 virgins, a myth that was important to reaffirm the Reconquista ideology. According to this legend, Mauregato gave each year fifty virgin women of noble birth and fifty commoners to the Emirate of Córdoba, a repulsive tribute to depict Mauregato as undeserving of his royal position.
Nonetheless, the contemporary liturgical hymn O Dei Verbum refers to Mauregato as a pious king and asks for the protection of God. Maybe Mauregato wasn’t as bad as later chronicles said. More important than that, O Dei Verbum was important to originate the worship of Santiago, that is the Apostle James the Great, to name Santiago the national patron saint of Spain, and to a few decades later claim that the tomb of James the Great was found in Santiago de Compostela. This liturgical hymn was written during a period of great theological controversy, a controversy that was decisive to reaffirm the independence of the Asturian Church from the Mozarab Church of al-Andalus and to bring Asturias closer to the Christian West, then dominated by Charlemagne. The controversy I’m referring to is the Spanish Adoptionism, a doctrine that defends that the nature of Jesus was human and that he only became divine when God adopted him as his son and resurrected him. The most well-known proponents are Elipandus, bishop of Muslim-controlled Toledo, and Felix, bishop of Urgell in the Pyrenees, that had recently been incorporated into the Carolingian Empire.
This idea that Jesus was human, considered heretic by the Catholic Church, wasn’t new, but why Adoptionism spread throughout Muslim Spain? Some historians have suggested that it happened because the Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, but not as the ultimate prophet nor as the Son of God. The spread of this heretic doctrine alarmed the Catholic clergy of both the Kingdom of Asturias and the Carolingian Empire, especially since it was defended by the head of the Mozarab Church. The proponents of Spanish Adoptionism didn’t expect the battle that a monk of the mountains of Cantabria presented. This monk was Beato de Liébana, who became the greatest intellectual of the Kingdom of Asturias, and a teacher and friend of other opponents of Spanish Adoptionism, such as the Mozarab refugee Eterio de Osma and the English intellectual Alcuin of York. Pope Hadrian III and the Carolingian Empire supported the suppression of Spanish Adoptionism and by the early 9th century it was removed from the teachings of the Mozarab Church.
Beato de Liébana is also remembered for his book Commentary on the Apocalypse, an influential work that was reproduced and studied for centuries in Medieval Spain, including Mozarabs who made versions of it with beautiful illustrations. The interest in the Apocalypse and what’s known as millennialism revived in the late 8th century throughout Christian Europe, in part due to different cosmic phenomena and the rise of Islam. Beato de Liébana interpreted the Muslim expansion, Spanish Adoptionism and progressive assimilation of the Mozarabs as signs that the Antichrist was coming. Some theologians, including Beato de Liébana, predicted that the year 800 marked the beginning of the sixth millennial of the creation of the world, which was interpreted as the End of Time and the coming of the Last Judgement. The Commentary on the Apocalypse is a commentary on the Book of Revelations, but it’s not a very original work. In fact, Beato mainly compiled texts of many authors such as Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Isidore of Seville or Ticonius. However, it’s creative with his own commentaries and how he connected different sources and quotes. Moreover, what made the Commentary on the Apocalypse very popular was the symbolism of the Apocalypse related to the Muslim conquest of Spain, since the Emirate of Córdoba replaced the Roman Empire as the oppressor and evil state towards Christians.
What’s sad is that Beato de Liébana is almost the only intellectual of the Kingdom of Asturias worth to mention. The intellectual and cultural development in Early Medieval Europe was in general very low, since the monopoly of written culture was at the hand of a few clergymen and monks. Books were scarce and expensive to buy, produce or reproduce, and in the mountainous and economically backwards Kingdom of Asturias there barely existed an authentic and original literary creation. Instead, monks focused their efforts in preserving books and manuscripts written centuries before, and the only significant original works of Asturian literature are the works of Beato de Liébana and the Asturian Chronicles of the late 9th century. Meanwhile, the Muslim world was culturally on the rise, and that would resonate throughout al-Andalus soon.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the constraints on military expansion and why Alfonso I couldn’t annex the large Duero Valley. The main constraint Alfonso faced was the shortage of military manpower. The Kingdom of Asturias that Alfonso inherited consisted of roughly Asturias and western Cantabria, and although it’s difficult to estimate the population of the primitive kingdom, it was probably well under the 250k inhabitants. Even though Alfonso annexed Galicia and Western Vasconia, it would take decades to really integrate them within the power structures of the Kingdom of Asturias, meaning that Alfonso couldn’t take full advantage of the potential manpower of the conquered peoples. We also need to consider that the administration, taxation and economy of Medieval states was very rudimentary compared to modern states, but even compared to its time the Kingdom of Asturias was backwards in those senses. Therefore, the manpower, administrative, and economic constraints explain why the Kingdom of Asturias couldn’t annex the urban centers of the plains of the Duero Valley. In the end, most of the time material reasons restrain the will of people. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the reign of the first emir of Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman, as well as the role and meaning of interfaith relations between Muslim men and Christian women. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and material to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
LAS ESPAÑAS MEDIEVALES. Bernard F. Reilly
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA IV. ESPAÑA MUSULMANA (711-1031). Ramón Menéndez Pidal
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. AL-ANDALUS: MUSULMANES Y CRISTIANOS (SIGLOS VIII-XIII). Editorial Planeta
HISTORIA MEDIEVAL DE LA ESPAÑA CRISTIANA. Editorial Cátedra
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license