This is episode 34 called County of Castile and Portugal and in this episode you will learn:
- The repopulation of León, Astorga, Tuy and Amaya Patricia under King Ordoño I of Asturias
- Who was the first Count of Castile
- What do we know about primitive Castile, the County of Castile and County of Álava
- The role of Count Rodrigo of Castile as a military leader
- The troubled accession of Alfonso III
- What kind of king Alfonso III of Asturias was
- Neogothicism and the ideology of the Reconquista
- The foundation of the County of Portugal and County of Coimbra
- How was the repopulation of the Desert of the Duero done in practice
- Who participated in the Christian repopulations and property rights
- The cartas pueblas
- What were the colonists looking for
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 34 called County of Castile and Portugal. In this episode you will learn about the first repopulations of the Desert of the Duero during the reigns of Ordoño and Alfonso III of Asturias, and the foundation of the County of Castile and the County of Portugal. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
In the previous episode we saw how chaos was starting to reign in al-Andalus, with the emergence of several Muslim rebels of Hispano-Gothic origin defying the central authority of Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba. This episode will be entirely focused on what was happening in the Kingdom of Asturias, although I’ve already covered the disastrous Asturian intervention in Toledo, the Second Battle of Albelda where King Ordoño of Asturias decisively defeated the Muladi warlord Musa ibn Musa of the Banu Qasi clan, and the assistance that Alfonso III gave to the rebel Ibn Marwan and the Berber Banu Danis clan in the Lower March. With this recap, let’s start with the narrative, because today’s episode is a very important one.
King Ordoño had succeeded his father Ramiro in 850. His father had made the first attempt to expand southwards, from the safe Cantabrian Range to the less protected plains of the Meseta Central, the vast plateau that occupies a large part of the Iberian Peninsula. The repopulation of León in 846 failed, but Ordoño I of Asturias would follow the path of his father much more successfully, thanks to the weakness of Córdoba. The gradual conquests of the Desert of the Duero, a large depopulated no man’s land, didn’t involve many battles or resistance to these conquests. The Asturians basically showed up, established their administrative framework, and repopulated the newly incorporated lands of the Duero. Of course later they had to defend the cities and villages that they occupied from Muslim attacks, but that’s another part of the story.
The Chronicle of Alfonso III summarizes the repopulation efforts of Ordoño by stating: “(Ordoño had) the abandoned cities of León, Astorga, Tuy and Amaya Patricia enclosed in a wall, provided with high gates and filled with people, partly his own, partly arrived from Spania.” It’s quite significative to see how the Asturians referred to al-Andalus as Spania, and it also confirms the importance of the Mozarabs who were fleeing from the Emirate of Córdoba to enjoy full religious freedom in the north. Anyway, the repopulation of Tuy meant that modern Galicia was under complete Asturian control, since Tuy is located along the natural border that the Miño river draws between Galicia and Portugal. We know that Astorga, a city founded by a Roman legion like León, was repopulated in 854. The responsible for the repopulation of Astorga was the brother or brother-in-law of the King, who had also been responsible for the repopulation of the region of El Bierzo, located next to Galicia. About the repopulation of León, which would soon become the capital of the kingdom, we know that it occurred in the year 856, but we don’t know more details. The last city that the Chronicle of Alfonso III makes explicit reference to is Amaya Patricia, a village located at the top of the Amaya Crag, a strategic location to control the passage between the Cantabrian Range and the Meseta Central. Amaya was called Patrician Amaya because it had a very special meaning for the Asturian monarchy, since it used to be the seat of government of the Duke of Cantabria Pedro, the key ally of the caudillo Pelayo and father of Alfonso I of Asturias. If you go to the blog article at thehistoryofspain.com or just google Amaya Burgos, you will immediately understand why this site was strategically important.
Moreover, thanks to the 10th century Anales castellanos primeros, the First Castilian Annals, we known that the leader of the repopulation and fortification of Amaya was Rodrigo, the first known Count of Castile. It’s possible that Count Rodrigo was a brother of Ordoño, but we don’t know for sure and the only thing that’s clear is that he was closely related to the ruling dynasty. The repopulation of Amaya happened in 860, and that’s the first time that we find documented information about Rodrigo or the County of Castile as a county and not just a region. Before 860, we don’t know about the administrative situation of the eastern march of Asturias, we don’t know about any possible previous count, and we don’t know for sure if Rodrigo ruled both the County of Castile and the County of Álava. I know that it sucks not to be able to get answers, but that happens many times while talking about history because sources are scarce. We do know that the County of Castile wasn’t hereditary at first, just like it happened in the counties of the Marca Hispanica, but it later became hereditary and independent as Castile expanded and Leonese power diminished.
Now I want to make an effort to explain the demarcation of Castile and Álava, but to really understand it please go to thehistoryofspain.com and search this episode, because I will post some maps to help you understand this issue. Okay, first of all the glorious name of Castilla, or Castile in English, has had many historical meanings throughout history, first as a small Christian bastion and shield of the eastern march of Asturias, then as an independent kingdom, and later as a Crown that dominated the Iberian Peninsula and that had presence in 4 continents. I’m going to focus today on the demarcation of Castile in the 8th and 9th centuries. The original territory of Castile, of the late 8th century and early 9th century, is what’s referred to primitive Castile or Castella Vetula, meaning Old Castile. Old Castile was located in what’s now the northern part of the province of Burgos, with the region of Cantabria above Old Castile and with the Obarenes Mountains and the Defile of Pancorbo, known as the Doors of Castile, protecting the southern frontier. The plains of the Jerea and Nela rivers and several valleys of the Ebro constituted the original territory of Castile. But as the County of Castile expanded, Cantabria became the harbor of Castile and the central territories of the province of Burgos, including Burgos itself, were incorporated by the late 9th century. As for who colonized Castile, settlers were mainly Cantabrian and Basque, with very little Mozarab influence unlike León, Galicia or Portugal.
On the other hand, the County of Álava was the easternmost territory of the Kingdom of Asturias. Álava itself was located in the plains and valleys that roughly match the modern province of Álava, but the County of Álava controlled and was backed by the more mountainous province of Vizcaya, just like Castile always had Cantabria. However, being a relatively flat province made both Castile and Álava very vulnerable to Muslim raids, and they were in fact the most frequent target of the Cordoban aceifas. The western border of the County of Álava was adjacent to the County of Castile, while its southern border adjoined the lands of the Ebro controlled by the Banu Qasi. The province of Guipúzcoa is adjacent to the eastern border of Álava, but we have complete obscurity about what was going on there until the 11th century, which may indicate that Guipúzcoa was still ruled by some minor Basque chieftains who may have had to pay tribute to one of the surrounding powers.
With this basic geographic knowledge, let’s refocus on the political history of Asturias and Castile. I want to first highlight that Count Rodrigo of Castile didn’t limit himself to administrative and repopulation tasks, he was an important military leader too due to the borderland character of the county, as it happened in the Spanish March or in the Andalusi marches. In 860 the Asturians launched two simultaneous raids against al-Andalus, one led by King Ordoño himself and the other led by Count Rodrigo. Both penetrated deep into Muslim territory, reaching as far as Coria, in northern Extremadura, and Talamanca del Jarama, one of the most important urban and military centers of the Middle March. To give you a little context, after the rebellion of Toledo and the advances of the Christians Emir Muhammad decided to fortify several towns of the Middle March, including Talamanca del Jarama and the then small village of Madrid. According to the Chronicle of Alfonso III, both Ordoño and Rodrigo were successful and they occupied Coria and Talamanca, killing all their soldiers and enslaving and selling the rest of men, women and children. Yep, the Asturians could be just as brutal as the Andalusis. What’s interesting of this story is that the capacity of Ordoño I of Asturias to successfully penetrate so deep into Muslim territory evidences the consolidation of the Kingdom of Asturias and the weakness of Córdoba.
It wasn’t until 3 years later that Muhammad was able to respond to the attack, with the already classic raid against Álava and Castile, which by the way is always mentioned in Muslim sources as The Castles. Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba also made a major offensive in 865, resulting in the Battle of the Morcuera, where the Castilian forces of Count Rodrigo suffered an overwhelming defeat. This victory of the Cordoban forces allowed them to tear down several forts and ravage the countryside of Castile and Álava. A few months later, King Ordoño I of Asturias died in 866. His 18-year-old son Alfonso succeeded him, but Alfonso III had to fight a pretender, the Count of Lugo, from Galicia, and it looks like the Count of Lugo managed to usurp the throne. Despite the setback, Alfonso III took refuge in Castile and with the protection and aid of Rodrigo of Castile Alfonso III retook the throne and the Asturian magnates assassinated the usurper. It’s clear that Count Rodrigo was a very faithful vassal of Ordoño and his son. However, while Alfonso and Rodrigo were concentrated in taking back the throne, Emir Muhammad took advantage of the situation and sent another expedition against Castile and Álava. The fields were devastated, and the inhabitants of these regions couldn’t organize a defense because they hadn’t been able to recover from the attack of the previous year yet. That year, 866 or 867, a terrible famine spread throughout all the Iberian Peninsula. Castile and Álava must have been in a complete state of misery and ruined, but for the next 14 years there weren’t more aceifas against them and the King of Asturias could continue his repopulation program. Later, in 873 Count Rodrigo of Castile died and Alfonso appointed Rodrigo’s son Diego Rodríguez to succeed him.
The long reign of Alfonso III, from 866 to 910, was the last and most outstanding period of the history of the Kingdom of Asturias, continuing the trend of intense efforts of conquest and repopulation. Above anything else, Alfonso III was a warrior king who wasn’t afraid of leading his men in battle. He was prudent and diplomatically skilled, and he was the kind of king who appreciates culture. He was also very pious, meaning that he financed several ecclesiastical constructions and listened to what the clergy had to say. That along his military and colonial success made him earn the nickname the Great, because Alfonso embodied the ideal of a Christian medieval king. Alfonso the Great could engage in an aggressive territorial expansion only because of the growing state of anarchy of the Emirate of Córdoba and the weakness of the Umayyads. King Ordoño I started the expansion of the kingdom south, to make Tuy, Astorga, León and Amaya the outposts of Asturias next to Muslim lands. But it was under his son and successor Alfonso when Christian expansion started a whole new phase. Then, with the kingdom pacified and the chaos that reigned al-Andalus, the Asturian king was able to repopulate and fortify new areas, resist Muslim attacks and launch decisive counteroffensives.
To justify his conquests and to legitimize the Kingdom of Asturias, he promoted Neogothicism, although that idea was probably developed already under Alfonso II. I’ve commented this idea other times but allow me to repeat myself just one more time. Neogothicism was a pretension of the Spanish Christian kingdoms, especially Asturias and its successors León and Castile, to consider themselves the legitimate heirs of the Visigothic monarchy. Actually, the mythical vision of the Battle of Covadonga, Pelayo and the continuity of the Visigothic monarchy originated in the Asturian chronicles written during the reign of Alfonso III. That idea, created by the native clergy and Mozarab refugees, provided the ideological basis to legitimize the conquests of Muslim lands, in what has been later called the Reconquista, and to rebuild the lost political and religious unity of Spain. The Asturian monarchy certainly presented itself as the hegemonic Spanish Christian kingdom and it had the ambition to unite the Iberian Peninsula under its rule. Neogothicism also provoked the use of the title Emperor of All Spain, Imperator totius Hispaniae, although it wasn’t formally used until the reign of Alfonso VI of León. Neogothicism, or the Reconqusita ideology if you prefer it, was political propaganda of Alfonso the Great, but in that context of anarchy in al-Andalus the dream of the Reconquista seemed possible to achieve. A contemporary monk expressed this conviction in the following terms: “Christ is our hope that upon the completion in the near future of 170 years from the entrance of the enemy into Spain they will be annihilated and the peace of Christ will be restored to the Holy Church”. This triumphalist optimism of the northern Christians would eventually prove to be wrong as far as that era is concerned.
In any case, Alfonso III showed his boldness and determination to expand his realm early in his reign. He sent his vassal Vímara Peres south of the Miño river to gain control of the mouth of the Duero river. In 868 Vímara Peres conquered Portucale, now Porto, a landmark event in the history of Portugal because it led to the establishment of the County of Portugal. Under the Peres family, Porto became a flourishing town that by the end of the century already had its own bishop. Vímara Peres also founded Guimarães, from where the Peres family continued to play a key role in the politics of the region until the late 11th century. Quick note here, Guimarães is sometimes called the Cradle of Portugal because the first King of Portugal, Alfonso Henriques, secured the independence of the Kingdom of Portugal nearby in the 12th century. The main tasks of the Counts of Portugal were to repopulate the lands between the Miño and Duero rivers, mainly with Galician and Mozarab settlers, and to defend this region from Muslim attacks. Parallelly but I would say in an interconnected way, Ibn Marwan rebelled against the authority of Emir Muhammad. Remember that the Emir later pacified the region of Extremadura and Ibn Marwan had to take refuge in the Kingdom of Asturias for some years.
With this victory, Muhammad launched an attack against Galicia, but the operation was a fiasco, leading to a Christian counteroffensive that ended up with another landmark event of Portuguese history, the conquest of Coimbra in 878. The leader of the conquest was Hermenegildo Gutiérrez, a powerful Galician nobleman that served as Mayor of the Palace of the Asturian court, the highest position below the King himself. Hermenegildo then became Count of Coimbra, co-governor of Porto, and the owner of many estates of modern Portugal. He expelled the Muslim population of Coimbra and Porto, but the Mozarab population had been pretty Orientalized and the Arab influence marked the character of these cities for several centuries. Emir Muhammad tried to counterattack by sending a fleet against Galicia, but a storm destroyed the fleet. By 880, all modern Galicia and northern Portugal were part of the Kingdom of Asturias. Braga, Porto, Chaves, Lamego and Viseu had been recovered by the Christians, and the conquest of Coimbra set the western frontier of the kingdom along the Mondego river.
A key question to answer is how the repopulation of the Desert of the Duero was done in practice. The colonization of this no man’s land was most of the time a decision of the Asturian monarch, as opposed to the colonization of Old Catalonia that usually was a private initiative. The Chronicle of Alfonso III makes crystal clear that Ordoño ordered the repopulation of Tuy, Astorga, Amaya and León, and that Alfonso III for instance ordered the colonization of Porto and Coimbra. It’s true that some small villages were founded by abbots, monks or free peasants, but they never formed any important urban center. The reason to centralize this decision was because private initiatives and the principle of squatters’ rights proved to be a slow and ineffective method to truly expand the kingdom. The king of Asturias entrusted an infante, that is a Spanish title given to princes and princesses, or the mission was entrusted to an important nobleman, but in every case the delegate of a repopulation was always closely related to the Asturian monarchy, through either blood or marriage. The delegate and some men first built a castle in a hill or mountain, and that’s because the priority of border towns was to protect themselves from Muslim raids. That was especially true in the County of Castile, since the Muslims attacked the eastern flank of the Kingdom of Asturias much more frequently than other areas, and settlers of Castile built castles in virtually every village, and that’s why the region was named Castile. Then the count organized the distribution of lands to settle the colonists and any other family who later decided to settle in the area too. The few people that already lived in the Desert of the Duero probably remained unaffected by the distribution of lands, and the only thing that changed for them was that now they had to recognize an authority and pay taxes.
All social groups participated in the repopulations. Nobles and their serfs founded new villages and appropriated some estates; free men and their families occupied new plots and became tenants; and other free men and women embraced a religious life, founded churches and monasteries, and cultivated communal lands. That was the regime of distribution and exploitation of the colonized lands of the Desert of the Duero, but I need to talk about the confusing mess that property rights were in the 9th and 10th centuries. Moreover, I will also explain the local or regional privileges known as fueros, called cartas pueblas during the first repopulations, translated as municipal charter. Okay, so we distinguish between two types of ownership of land, beneficial ownership, in Spanish dominio útil, and fee simple, in Spanish dominio eminente or directo. Beneficial ownership means that you have the right to exploit a land and to sell or cede that right too, and in exchange the beneficial owner had some duties in relation to the legal owner, who could be the king, a lord, or an ecclesiastical institution. On the other hand, the fee simple was the full legal ownership of land and the jurisdiction of that area. In theory, all the conquered lands were realengo, meaning that they were property of the crown. In practice though, many times the king ceded the usufruct and full property rights to a noble, some ecclesiastical authority, or some prominent free men due to the merced, meaning that the king recognized the merits of one of his subjects.
The cartas pueblas or municipal charters emerged in the context of the Christian repopulations, not only in the Kingdom of Asturias but also in Pamplona, Aragon or the Catalan counties. A carta puebla was a document given by Christian kings or the high nobility and clergy to a certain municipality. The cartas pueblas had several objectives: to attract settlers granting them several privileges like the exemption of some taxes; to legally regulate the relationship between the lords and settlers, the distribution of lands and limits of the town; to revitalize the economic exploitation of the conquered lands; and to limit the power of landlords, therefore cartas pueblas were also a political instrument for kings. The oldest carta puebla still preserved is the Carta Puebla of Brañosera of 824, a town located in the province of Palencia, outside the Cantabrian Range. This municipal charter was granted by Munio Núñez, who was the ancestor of many Counts of Castile and the House of Lara, an important noble family of Castile.
Free peasants were especially important in Castile, as given the exposure of Castile to constant Muslim raids the monarch and nobility had to concede full ownership of lands to make Castile attractive enough. Over time though the insecurity caused by Muslim attacks, civil wars and famines induced many free peasants and free men without means of subsistence to commend themselves to a lord for protection, food, clothes and shelter. In Galicia and Portugal, they had a pact called incomuniatio that consisted in ceding part or all their legal ownership, while retaining the right of usufruct subject to the payment of a rent. In Castile we have an agreement called behetría, which means that smallholder farmers freely choose their lord and they could seek another lord at any time, retaining their lands and freedom of movement and with the only obligation to pay a rent. I can’t think about any other country having a system like that, with free peasants having so much power. Many of the nobles who decided to populate the Desert of the Duero were actually infanzones and hidalgos, who were petty nobles looking for opportunities to gain ownership of estates. Then you also had the caballeros villanos, who were peasants who owned a horse and participated in the defense of the kingdom in exchange of certain privileges, although they weren’t nobles. In any case, the peasants of borderlands always enjoyed much more freedom and privileges than those in the core areas of the kingdom. To assume the risks of living in the frontier settlers were granted more freedom and several privileges and opportunities. What both northern Christians and Mozarabs were looking for was freedom: freedom from the oppression of the nobility, freedom of movement and freedom of religion.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss what made the Christian repopulations succeed. Let’s first compare it with the Arab colonization. There’s a very notorious lack of research about the Arab and Berber colonies in the Iberian Peninsula, but we know that they were organized following a tribalistic organization. I would say that the tribal nature of the Muslim colonization and the limited number of Arabs and Berbers during the period of Umayyad rule limited their capacity to occupy the large Iberian Peninsula. Moreover, the lands of northern Spain have never been very attractive to cultivate, therefore the Arabs had limited incentives to colonize those lands, and some Berbers tried but because of the famines they depopulated the northern half of the Meseta in the mid 8th century. On the contrary, the Asturians, Cantabrians, Galicians and Basques had many incentives to occupy new lands. Some of the mountainous regions of the north were overpopulated and the interests of all the social classes were aligned to get involved in this colonial mission, that continued up to 1492 and beyond. The nobles wanted to get richer and expand their domains; the peasants needed new plots, if possible in more fertile lands than in the north; the clergy desired to cultivate new lands too and maintain and spread Catholicism while creating new centers of learning; and the king wanted to expand his kingdom, keep all his subjects happy, and reduce the chances of famines and social unrest. While the different peoples that lived in al-Andalus had divergent interests, the common interests of the Christians at that point in time made them succeed. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the conflicts between Christians and Muladis, the dynastic change in Pamplona, and many other topics, but you will have to wait until the second half of April to listen to it. 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, Facebook and LinkedIn. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
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