This is episode 43 called Fernán González, Count of Castile, and in this episode you will learn:
- The legend of the Jueces de Castilla or Judges of Castile and why is this a founding myth of Castile
- A brief summary of the legendary Castilian hero Fernán González, as portrayed in the Poem of Fernán González
- The ancestors of Fernán González
- How and why did Fernán González manage to become Count of Castile and Álava
- The conflicts between León-Castile and the Caliphate of Córdoba in the aftermath of the Battle of Simancas
- The revolt of Fernán González of Castile and Diego Muñoz of Saldaña against Ramiro II of León and why the King couldn’t substitute them
- The reconstruction of Medinaceli, the last campaign of Ramiro II ‘the Devil’, and his death
- Summary of the dynastic struggles and civil wars of the Kingdom of León during the 950s and 960s and the role of Fernán González, until his death in 969/970
- The context in which Count Fernán González lived, why has he been mythicized as the champion of Castilian independence, and why the County of Castile of Fernán González cannot be considered an independent state
- A reflection on the importance of national myths
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 43 called Fernán González, Count of Castile. In this episode you will learn about who the Count Fernán González of Castile was, comparing the legendary hero to the real historical figure. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
The history of how the Castilian nation was born has been subject to historical manipulation and myths, like it happened with Asturias and Pelayo, Catalonia and Count Wifredo, or as it has happened to basically every country, like China or Japan with their legendary emperors or the adventurous settlers of the American Far West. Of the minstrel elements added to the history of the County of Castile in the 12th and 13th centuries, there are three stories that had continued to be influential in the collective imaginary of the Castilians: the existence of the Judges of Castile, the independence of Castile thanks to Count Fernán González, and the dispute between Castile and León to control the lands between the Cea and Pisuegra rivers. These three facts are legendary and aren’t supported by any contemporary document or chronicle, but we will examine them in detail and contrast the legendary history of Castile with the real, documented history, as I had already done with other mythicized figures like Pelayo of Asturias or Count Wifredo the Hairy of Barcelona. Let’s start with the legend of the Jueces de Castilla, the Judges of Castile.
There are two versions of this founding myth of the Castilian nation, one that sets the story at the death of Alfonso II of Asturias, during the civil war between Ramiro I and Nepociano, and another that sets it during the succession war after the death of Fruela II of León. In both cases, we are talking about a moment of weakness of royal authority, and the Castilians wanted to have political stability and they were unhappy for having the obligation of going to León to go to court. It was a long journey, and in the court of León the Castilians were treated with disdain and contempt. Moreover, according to the story set at the death of Fruela II, the Leonese were trying to stop Castilian expansion in the Pisuegra river, and for all these grievances the Castilians took the first action to free themselves from the Leonese yoke. They elected two knights named Nuño Rasura and Laín Calvo to deliver justice and govern them, passing judgements called fazañas based on the customary laws of Castile. A son of Nuño Rasura named Gonzalo succeeded him in the office, and Gonzalo was then succeeded by Fernán González, the man who would make Castile independent. Or that’s what the legend of the Judges of Castile says.
The first written reference of the two Judges of Castile can be found in a 12th century text, that linked the also mythicized Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid, to the judge Laín Calvo. In the 13th century the Chronicle of Lucas de Tuy presents the Leonese version of the story, where the judges are the product of the rebellious attitude of the Castilians, establishing a parallelism with the political situation of Castile and León in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The chronicle De rebus Hispaniae of archbishop Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada wrote the same story from the Castilian point of view, and later King Alfonso X, as a ruler of both Castile and León, made a synthesis of the two version in the First General Chronicle of Spain. Because of that, the legend of the Judges of Castile remained unquestioned until the late 18th century, however there are many reasons that explain why the Judges of Castile are an invention.
As we have seen, the first mention in a written text of the Judges of Castile can be found in a text written three centuries after the supposed existence of the judges, and none of the several Christian or Muslim chronicles of the 9th or 10th centuries mention them. There are also contradictory versions of the story, mentioning the Judges of Castile under different kings of Asturias or León, and their existence is incompatible with the type of government established in the County of Castile and it’s incompatible with all the Asturian, Leonese or Castilian documents and diplomas. Moreover, the Visigothic Code or Liber judiciorum was used in Castile too, as opposed to the trials based on customary laws. The self-image of the Castilians as free, independent and more democratic than the Leonese reflects how the Castilian perceived themselves centuries later, rather than that being a historical reality.
Similarly, the historical figure of Fernán González has been greatly magnified and credited with numerous deeds that didn’t actually happen. A monk of the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza wrote in the 13th century an epic cantar de gesta based on the oral stories that the minstrels told, and the monk had the clear intention to highlight the link between Fernán González and the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza, where the Count of Castile was buried. The Poem of Fernán González presents the protagonist as a champion of the independence of Castile and as the bravest defender of the Christian faith against the Muslims. The poem starts with the Visigothic Kingdom before the Muslim conquest, with the typical Christian idealization of the Visigothic past and no mention of the social unrest, famines, or continuous aristocratic revolts that characterized Visigothic Spain. Then it presents the Kingdom of Asturias as a crusader state, and primitive Castile as a sparsely populated region that had to suffer Muslim raids almost every year.
The poem claims that when he was young Fernán González was kidnapped by a coalman who raised him in the mountains, until the coalman told Fernán about his noble lineage. Seeing how his homeland was being attacked by the Muslims, the Castilian hero Fernán González decided to abandon the mountains, and the Castilians quickly recognized him as their lord. In the Poem of Fernán González the Count of Castile defeats the great Andalusi general and dictator Almanzor, something impossible since Almanzor wasn’t active in the campaigns against the Christians until the 970s, some years after the death of Fernán González. The epic cantar de gesta goes on with another made-up story of a war between Castile and the Kingdom of Pamplona and the County of Toulouse. Obviously, Castile is presented as a victim attacked by both Pamplona and the Caliphate of Córdoba, while being a subject of the Leonese oppressors.
After the Castilians defeated and killed the King of Pamplona and the Count of Toulouse, the poem talks about a legendary battle known as the Battle of Hacinas against the Muslim hosts of Almanzor. Before the battle, the Count of Castile heard the voice of Saint Aemillian, a venerated hermit of the Visigothic period who became patron of Castile and Pamplona, thanks to the prestige of the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla. Saint Aemillian gave him advice on the strategy to follow, because yeah death hermits have a vast military experience, and he also said that the battle would last three days. Then on the third day of the battle, the Castilians were in a critical situation until the Apostle of Spain, Santiago, appeared in the battlefield with his own host and the Christians managed to defeat the Muslims.
The Poem of Fernán González then tells a fabulous and absurd story of how our hero managed to free Castile from the Leonese yoke. After that campaign, Sancho the Fat, one of the Kings of León of the 950s and 960s, summoned the Count of Castile to the court of León. Fernán González arrived with his goshawk and a horse that used to belong to Almanzor, and King Sancho desired the goshawk and the horse so much that he offered a large sum to buy them. Sancho and Fernán set a payday and agreed that the debt would double every day if the King of León couldn’t pay by the due date. Years went by until the Count of Castile reminded Sancho about his debt, and when they calculated the debt, King Sancho was stunned and promised to free Castile if Fernán González forgave him the debt. So according to legend, it was an unpayable debt what allowed Castile to become independent, not an epic rebellion or battle. The poem goes on with a chivalric romance and another war with Pamplona and the Muslims, but what matters is how the protagonist is portrayed as the perfect knight and a mortal enemy of the Muslims. In the legends, Fernán González is often referred as el buen conde, the good count, a fair ruler, a pious Castilian, and an excellent warrior who defeated the enemies of Castile and liberated the Castilians from oppression.
Okay, now that you know the literary and heroic figure of Fernán González, let’s move on to talk about his real life. The first undisputable mention of Fernán González as Count of the reunified Castile can be found in a diploma of the 1st of May of 932, although another authentic diploma of 929 already mentions Fernán González as Count of Lara, a small county of Castile. But who were the ancestors of Fernán González? Castilian documents indicate that the Count of Castile was a descendant of Munio Núñez, one of the first nobles to lead the colonization of Castile with the fuero of Brañosera of 824. Therefore, the lineage of Fernán González was one of the most powerful of the County of Castile, along the Gómez and Ansúrez families. His mother was called Muniadonna and his father was Gonzalo Fernández, a nobleman who served as Count of Burgos and Castile in the early 10th century, and he was also the leader of the repopulation of San Esteban de Gormaz. About the youth of Fernán González we barely know anything, apart from the legendary tales described in the epic 13th century Poem of Fernán González or the Chronicle of Fernán González of the 15th century. Everything suggests that his family had their power base between the Arlanzón and Arlanza rivers, around Lara and Burgos, but how and why did Fernán manage to become Count of all Castile and Álava?
To understand that, we need to go back to the civil war between Ramiro II and Alfonso IV. Several Castilian magnates, mainly of the Gómez and Ansúrez families, instigated the revolt of the former King Alfonso IV of León, but Fernán González remained loyal to Ramiro II. As you all know, Ramiro defeated his brother and he then needed an influential Castilian who could be trusted, so basically the only option was Fernán González. The loyalty of Fernán González earned him the government of all the counties of Castile and Álava, receiving the Counties of Castile, Burgos, Lara, Lantarón, Cerezo and Álava in 932. Giving so much power to one man was a very dangerous move, but Castile and Álava were the preferred targets of the Muslim armies, therefore Ramiro needed a strong and united power in the eastern march capable of gathering troops quickly. This was required because the attacks of Abd al-Rahman III were becoming more frequent and devastating, and troops from León or even more distant territories like Galicia, Asturias or northern Portugal needed more time to be mobilized.
Circumstances reunified Castile and Álava for the first time since the rule of the Counts Rodrigo and Diego Rodríguez. Count Fernán González of Castile married Sancha Sánchez of Pamplona, one of the daughters of Queen Toda who had been previously married to King Ordoño II of León and to the previous Count of Álava. This marriage consolidated his rule in Álava and strengthened his position, as he was linked by marriage to the Jimena dynasty of Pamplona, while on the other hand Queen Toda gained influence in the Kingdom of León, as she had arranged marriages with both Fernán González and Ramiro II. Four sons and three daughters were born from this union, and it was the fourth son, García Fernández, the male descendant who would live long enough to succeed his father as Count of Castile and Álava in 970. During the 930s, we already saw in the previous episode ‘Battle of Simancas’ how Count Fernán González and Ramiro II of León were busy fighting Abd al-Rahman III, so I’m going to skip that for this episode and go straight to what happened after the Battle of Simancas.
In the 940s the Caliphate of Córdoba launched multiple expeditions every year and in multiple fronts to reestablish the morale of the troops and reduce the risk of a disaster like the one seen at Simancas. These minor raids and skirmishes against the Christian frontiers, from northern Portugal to Old Catalonia, proved to be very successful from an economic and propagandistic point of view, while it was also a way to force the Christian states to negotiate a favorable peace treaty for Córdoba and to hopefully make them vassals. The peace that León and Córdoba signed in 941 lasted only eight months, because there was a conflict in the Upper March with King García Sánchez of Pamplona and Ramiro decided to aid his brother-in-law by sending Fernán González against Muhammad ibn Hashim of the Banu Tujib. Although the initial Christian attack was successful, they were ultimately defeated, and some notable men lost their life, including the Mozarab Count of Gormaz, a member of the Gómez lineage, and a nephew of the Count of Castile.
Between the area around León itself and the County of Castile there were two other important counties, the long but narrow County of Monzón and the County of Saldaña, respectively controlled by the Ansúrez and the Gómez. Some historians had formulated the hypothesis that the County of Monzón was created after the Battle of Simancas to restrain the expansionists ambitions of Fernán González, as if he desired the lands between the Cea and Pisuegra rivers. The truth is that the Count of Castile was a great friend and soon brother in arms of Diego Muñoz, the Count of Saldaña of the province of Palencia, so it’s difficult to believe that Fernán ambitioned the lands of his ally. Moreover, the chronicles of Ibn Hayyan demonstrate that both the Gómez and Ansúrez were considered very important and they had counties of their own before Simancas. So in this episode I’ve already debunked the legend of the Judges of Castile and this hypothesis of the territorial ambitions of Count Fernán González, so now I only need to answer the most important question: did Fernán González secure the independence of Castile?
Sadly, the incredibly valuable 5th chronicle of Ibn Hayyan ends its narration in 942, so after that we are poorly informed about the late reign of Abd al-Rahman III or what happened in León and Castile. In the Leonese Chronicle of Sampiro, we are unexpectedly informed about the revolt of Count Fernán González of Castile and Count Diego Muñoz of Saldaña, and I say unexpectedly because we weren’t informed about anything that could make us suspicious about tensions between the Count of Castile and the King of León. We don’t know why they revolted, and we can only speculate that they desired more autonomy or they opposed a particular decision of Ramiro II that we don’t know about. The Castilian revolt took place between February and May of 944, so it was suppressed pretty quickly and Ramiro put in jail the instigators. After imprisoning Fernán González and Diego Muñoz, Ramiro II named his minor son Sancho as Count of Castile and the infante Sancho, future King of León, grew up in Burgos. However, as Sancho was still a minor, Ramiro had to name the Count of Monzón Asur Fernández regent of Castile. The regency of Asur Fernández didn’t last long, because the following year we already find Count Fernán González ruling Castile again and Diego Muñoz ruling Saldaña. Indeed, King Ramiro freed the rebels after they renewed their oath of fidelity, and to strengthen the relationship between Fernán and Ramiro, the infante of León Ordoño married a daughter of the Count of Castile named Urraca.
As it happened in the Caliphate of Córdoba with the frontier lords, this episode of the rebellion and restitution of the Counts of Castile and Saldaña illustrates the limitations of royal authority in the Middle Ages. Except for some relatively centralized states like the Caliphate of Córdoba, in general Medieval states didn’t have a proper standing army, and because of that kings depended on their own private armies as well as the necessary support of noble and religious magnates. Ramiro II of León couldn’t remove Fernán González or Diego Muñoz from their office for the same reason Abd al-Rahman III couldn’t remove the Banu Tujib from the Upper March. When a regional revolt occurred, the monarch needed to be very careful and think twice about replacements in the public offices, because a ruler needed to consider the support of the leading regional families.
Meanwhile, during these years the Caliphate of Córdoba was more focused on the intervention of North Africa to counter the power of the Fatimids. As I said earlier, there were small-scale Muslim incursions in the 940s, but the most relevant event was the reconstruction of Medinaceli and the relocation of the capital of the Middle March from Toledo to Medinaceli. The Caliph of Córdoba was more worried about securing the Muslim frontiers than of launching devastating aceifas, therefore in 946 he entrusted his general Ghalib with the reconstruction of the abandoned city of Medinaceli, a town that was much closer than Toledo to the Muslim-Christian border. Apparently, Leonese troops attempted to thwart the plans of the Caliphate, but the Umayyad troops led by Ghalib and the Banu Dhi-l-Nun successfully defended Medinaceli, a frontier capital that would see bitter struggles between Christians and Muslims in the decades to come.
In 950 the 50 years-old warrior-king Ramiro II led what would be his last military campaign. The main objective was the city of Talavera de la Reina, in the province of Toledo, and the Leonese army could return to the capital victorious and with thousands of captives. A few months later, while he was in the Galician city of Oviedo Ramiro II of León fell gravely ill, and he quickly returned to León to receive the last rites. On the 5th of January 951 Ramiro abdicated in favor of his son Ordoño and the old Leonese king died soon afterwards. In this episode I will not explain in detail the dynastic struggles of the Kingdom of León of the 950s and 960s, but I will summarize them because it’s important to understand the historical figure of Count Fernán González. At first, the succession went smoothly and King Ordoño III could rule pacifically, and Fernán was happy because he was the father-in-law of Ordoño III.
But soon the half-brother of Ordoño, Sancho the Fat, took refuge in Pamplona with his uncle King García Sánchez and the real ruler of Pamplona, his grandmother Toda. Around 954 Sancho the Fat tried to depose Ordoño III with the support of the Kingdom of Pamplona and the County of Castile, although his pretensions were frustrated, and Fernán González recognized again Ordoño III. Based on some late chronicles, it was suggested that Ordoño had repudiated his wife Urraca and that’s why we see Fernán González trying to depose his son-in-law, but that seems unlikely. We don’t know why the Count of Castile allied his brother-in-law García Sánchez to depose Ordoño, but Fernán was an opportunist and he clearly expected to gain something in return. In 956 Ordoño III died at the age of 30, and he was succeeded by his half-brother Sancho, the same who had tried to depose Ordoño. Nonetheless, Sancho didn’t enjoy the sympathy of the Leonese and Galician magnates and the fact that he was extremely obese made him the laughingstock of the kingdom, because he couldn’t even mount a horse. Because of that there was a coup d’état in 958 and Sancho the Fat had to take refuge again in Pamplona, while the instigators placed a son of the former King Alfonso IV on the throne, ruling as Ordoño IV. The Count of Castile didn’t participate in the coup, but he delayed his adherence to Ordoño IV to set a high price for his loyalty, and in consequence Ordoño IV married Urraca, the daughter of Fernán and widow of Ordoño III.
Meanwhile, the Queen dowager of Pamplona Toda requested the aid of his nephew, the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, to cure the obesity of Sancho and reinstall him on the Leonese throne. With the support of the Muslim troops, Sancho quickly took back the Leonese throne and Ordoño IV took refuge in Asturias. The Count of Castile decided not to support the machinations of Toda of Pamplona and Abd al-Rahman, and he continued to recognize his son-in-law Ordoño IV as the legitimate ruler of León for two more years. It’s not entirely clear, but some chronicles suggest that King García Sánchez fought Fernán González and made him his captive for some months. Then Ordoño IV was expelled from Asturias in 961 and he travelled to Burgos, where its citizens, not Fernán González, expelled Ordoño and forced his wife Urraca and his children to stay in Castile. Ordoño IV then had no other choice but to try his luck in Córdoba, in the court of the new Caliph, al-Hakam II.
Seeing how King Sancho started to attack the frontier of his former Muslim allies, al-Hakam decided to protect Ordoño IV and to force him to accept that he would be a vassal of Islam and that he would not ally Count Fernán González. It’s notorious how even the Muslim sources highlight the autonomy of the Count of Castile, as if he could make alliances without consulting the King of León. García Sánchez of Pamplona also broke his alliance with Córdoba and refused to hand over Fernán González to the Caliph, that’s why he freed him and made him his ally again. What’s more, when his first wife died, Fernán once again married a member of the Jimena dynasty, a daughter of King García Sánchez. The Count of Castile also reconciled with Sancho of León, while al-Hakam II abandoned his plans to support Ordoño IV when he received an ambassador of King Sancho to negotiate a treaty. King Sancho the Fat died in 966 and he was succeeded without problems by Ramiro III, his minor son, under the regency of the nun Elvira, the sister of Sancho. Fernán González and the other counts accepted the succession, in part because they gained more autonomy than ever and central power weakened. Finally, in late 969 or early 970 Count Fernán González passed away after almost four decades ruling Castile and Álava, and he left his position to his son García Fernández.
The complex political maneuvers and loyalty switches of Fernán González after the death of Ramiro II must be understood in the context of the troubled successions of the Kingdom of León, the rising power of the Jimena dynasty of Pamplona, and the omnipotence of Abd al-Rahman III in his late reign. Fernán González has gone down in history as the first independent and sovereign Count of Castile, but throughout the episode we have seen that there is no historical testimony confirming that. He was sometimes a rebel who acted on his own self-interest, especially during the dynastic struggles subsequent to the death of Ramiro II, but it’s not very different from the attitude of other magnates that haven’t been labelled as independent. But if that is the case, how is it possible that his figure became mythicized to the point of presenting him as the champion of the Castilian independence? First of all, hindsight was one key factor, because centuries later Castile grew to become the most important Spanish kingdom. If Castile had never become an independent kingdom, then Fernán González would have only been one of the countless counts of León. Secondly, the forty years of government of Fernán González over all Castile and Álava consolidated the emergence of a new identity, and his power allowed the voice of Castile to be heard. Moreover, we don’t have documentation to support this, but it’s likely that from the rule of Fernán González on the Count of Castile could appoint people in Castilian public offices as he wished, and therefore Leonese authority became more limited. Despite that, Fernán González never considered himself an independent count, and Castile was not the only county that became a hereditary domain, as this phenomenon was happening throughout the Kingdom of León.
However, as I said in episode 36 ‘Birth of Catalonia’, someone can only be mythicized if he or she achieved something great, leaving an influential legacy. Fernán González became the founder of the comital dynasty of Castile, that continued to rule the County of Castile until the family merged with the monarchs of Navarre. Count Fernán González was able to hand his office on to his son García Fernández, and this was similar to how royal offices became hereditary in the Carolingian Empire. Nonetheless, as compared to the Catalan counts in relation to France, the ties between Castile and León remained much stronger for many more years, as Castile didn’t become an independent kingdom until the year 1037. It’s true that Castile was the region with the greatest autonomy in the Kingdom of León because it was the most exposed region to Muslim raids, but a higher degree of autonomy doesn’t mean that the County of Castile was independent. To make a parallelism, it’s similar to the autonomy that the Banu Tujib of the Upper March enjoyed, or to make a modern parallelism, the privileged status of Basque Country and Navarre within Spain. Please, always keep in mind that in the Middle Ages relationships between feudal domains and kingdoms were not that simple, and that political independence was often a gray rather than a black-or-white thing.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss why national myths are important. National myths are legendary or at best half-truth narratives about a nation’s past, usually about a foundational event or something that set the identity, purpose, and values of a nation. National myths are seen everywhere in this world, even before the rise of modern nationalisms in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that’s because they are useful to create a sense of unity among the peoples of a tribe, ethnicity, or state. Moreover, political elites need to justify their actions and regime with some ideology, so national myths are perfect to legitimize them, and this doesn’t only apply to authoritarian or despotic regimes but also to liberal democracies. Most liberal democracies praise values like freedom, equality, tolerance, and pluralism, and that’s also a national myth to legitimize democracies. If a political regime changes, you will notice also a change in the historical narrative to fit the contemporary reality and how people currently interpret their nation’s past. As someone who educates other people about history, I need to combat national myths and try to get as closer to the truth as possible, but that doesn’t prevent me from being aware of why national myths and narratives were, are, and will continue to be important. And with that, The Verdict ends.
The next episode is going to be another thematic episode dealing with the Jews of al-Andalus, slavery and captivity. 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 materials 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, Pinterest and LinkedIn. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
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