This is episode 22 called Reconquista starts! Pelayo and Covadonga and in this episode you will learn:
- Why a Christian kingdom first emerged in Asturias and not in other regions
- A disucssion on the reliability of the Asturian Chronicles and the context in which they were written
- The Asturian origins of Pelayo
- Context of the Battle of Covadonga, the reasons for the revolt and the election of Pelayo
- The actual scale of the Battle of Covadonga
- Details of the Battle of Covadonga and its aftermath, with the rise of the caudillo Pelayo and the fragility of the newborn kingdom
- The importance of Pedro, the Duke of Cantabria
- The short reign of Favila of Asturias
- What is the Reconquista: as a historical period, ideology, and colonization
- What are the most common historiographic objections and challenges to the Reconquista
- My opinion on the accuracy of the idea of the Reconquista: why, not without some buts, I find the Reconquista as a valid idea
- Reflection about the use of exaggerations in historiography
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 22 called Reconquista starts! Pelayo and Covadonga. In this episode you will learn about the Battle of Covadonga, the foundation of the Kingdom of Asturias, and a discussion on the concept and term Reconquista. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
This episode is going to be entirely focused on Christian Spain, with the emergence of the Kingdom of Asturias, so don’t expect me to advance with the narrative of al-Andalus in this episode. The first question that I want to arise is, why a Christian rebellion first succeeded in Asturias and not in other areas of the Iberian Peninsula? Asturias is located not in a frontier with another state, like the Pyrenees with Frankish Aquitaine. Asturias is located between the central and western part of northern Spain, so it’s not even the westernmost region of the north. The thing is that Asturias is protected by the Cantabrian Mountains, a range that has made it difficult to go in and out of Asturias and Cantabria through land routes until the arrival of the railroad in Spain. That has been a geographic characteristic that had made the conquest and control of the northern peoples difficult, and Emperor Augustus himself had a bad time trying to complete the conquest of Hispania. The Visigoths also had problems dealing with the Asturians, Cantabrians and Basques, and the Muslims inherited that problem too. In the early 8th century there were few Muslim troops in Spain, the Umayyad Caliphate was overstretched, and it had financial problems, so instead of trying to control firmly the tough north they preferred to make raids in the richer lands of France. That explains why the first Christian post-Visigothic states emerged in the backward and inaccessible north, instead of in other regions.
Now that the geographic influence has been explained, let’s move on to the narrative. Much has been talked about the Battle of Covadonga and don Pelayo, the founder of the Kingdom of Asturias. It’s difficult to discern what is fact and what is legend, so historians present different interpretations about the mythicized Battle of Covadonga and the caudillo Pelayo. The first thing to notice is that the Asturian Chronicles were written in the late 9th century during the reign of Alfonso III, so the chronicles were talking about events that had happened a century and a half before the chronicles were written. This fact alone brings up doubts on the accuracy of the chronicles, but it’s even more interesting to see how the Latin Chronicle of 754 makes no mention about someone named Pelayo or about the Battle of Covadonga. Suspicious, isn’t it? Well, then wait, because contemporary Muslim sources don’t mention Pelayo either. Does it mean that Pelayo didn’t exist and that the Battle of Covadonga didn’t happen? No, but it means that you should lower your expectations about the actual military importance of the Battle of Covadonga.
Another important aspect to know about the reliability of the Asturian Chronicles is that they were written when Neogothicism was popular among the cult clergy. Neogothicism is the pretension to link the Astur-Leonese dynasty of Pelayo with the Visigothic Kingdom, to present the Kingdom of Asturias as the direct heir and restorer of the Catholic and Spanish Visigothic Kingdom. Neogothicism was a key ideological element of the Reconquista, as I will explain later in this episode, but how was the Astur-Leonese dynasty linked to the Visigoths? The chronicle made his founder, Pelayo, or Pelagius in English and Latin, the descendant of a Visigothic duke or king. One chronicle claims that Pelayo was a grandson of Chindasuinth and that Pelayo went into exile in Asturias after Wittiza blinded his father. Another chronicle says that Pelayo was the son of the Duke of Galicia, who was killed at the orders of Wittiza. And then another chronicle presents Pelayo as the leader of the royal guard of Wittiza and Roderic. In any case, these chronicles present Pelayo as somehow related to the Visigothic Kingdom, as a Visigothic nobleman who fled to the north, as a non-collaborationist with the Muslim conquerors and as a fervent Christian. He had the origins and traits that fitted best the Neogothic narrative.
However, most modern historians believe that the caudillo Pelayo was in fact an Asturian. His name, unlike that of all the other Visigothic kings, was not of Germanic origin. It was a Latin name that was apparently commonly used in north-western Spain. Furthermore, certain documents state that Pelayo owned important estates and fortifications of Asturias, so it’s difficult to believe that he was an exiled Visigoth. On the other hand, according to Arab sources, Pelayo was a native of Asturias, and they would have little to gain in lying. More hints confirm the Asturian origin of the Astur-Leonese dynasty, such as that at first a woman could transmit her rights of succession to his husband, a vestige of the matriarchal society of the Asturs, the assembly of chieftains in a mountain to elect Pelayo as their leader, or the burial of members of the royal family in a dolmen, as Pre-Roman Asturs did. So, to sum it up, the historical Pelayo was a local noble of Asturias, not an exiled Visigoth as later chronicles claimed.
Now the question is, which was the context of the Battle of Covadonga? In 714 Musa and Tariq conquered the cities and lines of communication of northern Spain, including the Asturian city of Gijón. It was probably the wali al-Hurr who stationed a small Berber garrison in Gijón, and the commander of that garrison was a man named Munuza. The poor Munuza was assigned the kind of job that no one wants. He was stationed in the remote region of Asturias, a mountainous region where control over the local population had to be enforced valley by valley. In addition to that, Munuza had the arduous job to collect the jizya tax and suppress any local rebellion, in a region well-known for its rebellions, and all with very few men. Meanwhile, the governor al-Hurr was having trouble conquering Septimania, a more interesting target than the backward Asturias.
In 718 Pelayo and other aristocrats of Asturias got together in the Cave of Covadonga, in the municipality of Cangas de Onís, located in eastern Asturias. The Cave of Covadonga wasn’t a random cave. Pagan Asturs treated the cave as a holy site, and it actually has a mystical aura with its beautiful fountain and the green, mountainous, and isolated place that surrounds Covadonga. In the assembly the local leading nobles elected Pelayo as their princeps, or leader. The reasons behind the revolt are unclear, but the strong sense of autonomy and independence of the Asturians is probably the most important one. The Asturians, along the Cantabrians and Basques, revolted from time to time ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, and they revolted because they saw no tangible benefit in being under Visigothic or now Umayyad control. They lived isolated, barely interacting with the rest of the regions, and they thought that they could govern themselves without the need of paying high taxes or serving in some army.
Pelayo and his allies refused to pay taxes, and since that was intolerable Munuza had to intervene. There were some skirmishes and actions of retaliation for a few years, but the local garrison of Gijón was insufficient to crush the guerrilla of Pelayo, so Munuza requested reinforcements from Córdoba in 722. The new wali, Anbasa, prepared an expeditionary force led by general Al Qama. The story mentions that Oppas, the half-brother of Wittiza, accompanied Al Qama as bishop of Seville to try to convince Pelayo to put the arms down. This is almost for sure made up, to portray Oppas as a collaborationist traitor, and in general as a way to accuse the Spanish clergy of collaborationism in al-Andalus.
Don Pelayo and his forces retreated into the narrow valley of Auseva Hill, near Cangas de Onís and the Cave of Covadonga. This area is strategically favorable for the defender, as it weakens the capacity to maneuver of the attackers and reduces the potential numerical advantage. According to chronicles, Pelayo was leading a force of as few as 300 men, mostly native Asturians, but it’s possible that there were refugees from other regions. The Muslim force consisted in 187,000 men according to the Asturian chronicles, but calling that an exaggeration is a massive understatement. The numbers are exaggerated to make clear that the victory was of epic proportions and that the massacre can only be explained by divine intervention. The chronicles mention miracles and divine manifestations: projectiles mortally wounded the Muslim soldiers who had thrown them, the land swallowed the enemies, and corpses of Umayyad soldiers laid on the ground for generations as a testimony of the victory. Here each historian estimates different figures, but realistically we are talking about maybe 1,000 Muslim soldiers. It’s possible that both sides numbered a few thousand, but it’s a bit difficult to believe since that wouldn’t explain why both Christian and Muslim sources didn’t mention the battle in the 8th century. Some historians try to downplay the importance of the Battle of Covadonga saying that it was little more than a skirmish, and from the pure military point of view it’s true that it wasn’t something big. But from the perspective of historical significance, it became a very important battle because it secured the survival of a Christian kingdom that would later expand at the expense of the Muslims.
Anyway, Pelayo divided his forces, most were hidden in different points of the narrow valley while others were hidden in the Cave of Covadonga. The Muslim forces led by Al Qama fell into the ambush and the Asturians started shooting arrows and stones. Due to the limited room for maneuver, the Muslim forces could barely defend themselves or escape, then the rebels hidden in the Cave of Covadonga attacked too, dividing the enemy and provoking a chaotic situation. The rebels led by Pelayo slaughtered most Umayyad soldiers and Al Qama died, but a few managed to escape. In the aftermath, Pelayo earned much prestige thanks to this victory, and more Asturian, Visigothic, Galician and Basque nobles came to support him. With an enlarged army, the rebellion could succeed in securing the independence of a Christian bastion in Spain. When news of the disaster reached the governor of Asturias Munuza, he decided to abandon Gijón and move to a more secure position. Munuza attempted to move to León, but the guerrilla-fighters under Pelayo advanced rapidly and intercepted the remaining Muslim troops of Asturias. According to one account, the Muslim army was again defeated and Munuza was killed. However, according to other sources, Munuza survived and served as governor somewhere in the Pyrenees, where he betrayed the Umayyad Caliphate and sealed an alliance and marriage with the Duke of Aquitaine Odo.
The Battle of Covadonga marked the foundation of the Kingdom of Asturias. Nonetheless, the primitive Kingdom of Asturias could barely be called a kingdom. Pelayo, more than a king, was a caudillo, a military strongman, and in the early decades of the Kingdom of Asturias the realm was predominantly Asturian in character. That changed with the progressive integration of new territories and people, as well as the waves of Mozarabs who fled from al-Andalus. With those migrations, the kingdom gained a more Gothic character that influenced its political narrative. On the other hand, don Pelayo ruled independently from the Umayyad Caliphate the eastern half of Asturias, but he knew that the situation could change at any moment and that he was still at the mercy of the Muslims. If the Caliphate decided to crush the northern rebels, Pelayo and his men had no chance of surviving. Therefore, due to the fragility of the situation of the Kingdom of Asturias, Pelayo established the capital in the small and remote town of Cangas de Onís. Cangas de Onís had already proved to be easy to defend thanks to the Cantabrian Mountains, so it was more suitable as a capital than the most accessible and populated city of Asturias, Gijón.
I have yet to mention a very important ally of Pelayo, the Duke of Cantabria, Pedro or Peter of Cantabria, without whom the Asturian rebellion may not have succeeded. In 714 Musa and Tariq conquered and sacked the capital of the duchy, Amaya. The city doesn’t exist today, but it was located in what’s now northern Burgos, Castile, in a mountain massif more than 1,000 metres above sea level. Anyway, the Duke Pedro managed to take refugee on the other side of the Cantabrian Mountains, and eventually he came to support Pelayo. The importance of Pedro of Cantabria in the constitution of the Kingdom of Asturias is made clear with the marriage of Pelayo’s daughter Ermesinda and Pedro’s son Alfonso. Thus, territorial control was strengthened through marriages with the powerful noble families of the north.
Pelayo ruled over modern central and eastern Asturias, as well as western Cantabria, from 718 to 737, when he died. His son Favila of Asturias succeeded him, but the only remarkable achievement of Favila’s reign was the foundation of the Church of Santa Cruz de Cangas de Onís. It was built on a pagan dolmen and, according to tradition, it housed the original Cruz de la Victoria, or Victory Cross, that was an oakwood Christian cross carried by Pelayo during the Battle of Covadonga. Recent scientific studies have proved that the original oakwood cross that is inside the jeweled cross came from a tree cut down during the reign of 9th century King Alfonso III. So yeah, as many stories of the early Kingdom of Asturias, it was just a legend. Chronicles say that Favila was a big enthusiast of hunting, maybe too much, and that’s what got him killed, since King Favila died in 739 killed by a bear. The dynastic rights, instead of passing to his minor children, passed to Ermesinda, the daughter of Pelayo, who in turn automatically passed her rights of ruling to his husband Alfonso, the son of Pedro, the Duke of Cantabria. The reign of Alfonso I of Asturias became quite important for the expansion and consolidation of the Kingdom of Asturias, but I will cover his reign in two episodes.
As for now, the time to discuss the concept of the Reconquista and its accuracy has come. So, what’s exactly the Reconquista? The Reconquista consisted in a process of restoration of the Catholic Visigothic Kingdom and liberation of the territory and Christians of al-Andalus. This process started with the Battle of Covadonga, in 718 or 722, and ended in 1492 with the fall of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada. Therefore, we are talking about a very long time that lasted eighth centuries, which is most of the Middle Ages. Here is the thing, the process of the Spanish Reconquista is unique in world history. It’s an example of a successful reconversion from Islam to Christianity again, which is remarkably impressive since most places conquered by Islam never converted back to Christianity. The closest equivalent would be the reconquest of Sicily, but the key difference is that in the case of Sicily most of the job was carried out by external forces and it involved a much smaller territory.
The term Reconquista didn’t appear until the 19th century, with the rise of Spanish Catholic and liberal nationalisms, but the concept itself was something contemporary in Christian Medieval Spain. We are not sure if the idea was already present in the minds of Pelayo and his early followers, probably not, but at least since the 9th century the Kingdom of Asturias presented itself as heir of the Visigothic Kingdom, in an ideological attempt to legitimize their conquests. The idea of a restoration of the Visigothic Kingdom was an important element of the Christian Medieval propaganda, so it’s false to say that the idea behind the Reconquista is something made up in the 19th century. The Reconquista shouldn’t be seen only as a period or an ideology, but as a process of colonization and repopulation, and the conquest and colonization was almost entirely done by the native Hispano-Goths of Spain, with little and very sporadic foreign help of the Christian states beyond the Pyrenees.
Ever since the death of Franco, many historians have challenged the concept of the Reconquista, while others still defend it. What are the most common objections to this interpretation of history and to the term Reconquista? The most obvious one is that the Reconquista is ideologically terribly one-sided and that it omits the fact that many native Hispano-Goths converted to Islam, so there was no such thing as a national liberation. Secondly, a process that spans eight centuries cannot be called Reconquista, and you cannot treat the Muslims as occupiers since they were present in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. Third objection, there was nothing to reconquer since the Visigothic Kingdom fell when the last pretender, Ardo, was killed in 720. Fourth objection, there is no evidence that Pelayo tried to restore the Visigothic Kingdom in the 8th century. Finally, the lack of continuing commitment on the part of Christian rulers and the tactical alliances between Muslim and Christian states are often cited as arguments to reject the Reconquista.
So, what’s the truth behind the Reconquista? There will be varying opinions here, you can have yours, but I think that it’s not so incorrect to talk about the Reconquista. The will to expel the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula and restore the Visigothic Kingdom was in the mind of many Christian kings and priests. Nonetheless, that will of reconquest was adapted to the circumstances of each period, so it wasn’t a static concept. The first literary evidence of this crusade ideology came from the reign of Alfonso III of Asturias, in the late 9th century. It was expressed during that precise time because the Emirate of Córdoba was suffering from internal strife, and that gave the Christians hopes that al-Andalus might collapse. That didn’t happen though, and Abd al-Rahman III and Almanzor revitalized the Caliphate, which meant that the Christian principalities had to accept again the payment of tribute and stop their expansion.
From generation to generation the application of the crusade ideology varied, and sometimes Christians had to accept the supremacy of al-Andalus, while other times they could have conquered more territory but found more profitable to impose parias, a form of tribute, to the Muslim states. Therefore, it’s true that some Christian monarchs didn’t care about waging a holy war against Muslims, it’s true that many times Christian rulers fought among themselves, but it’s also true that the Spanish Christian states incorporated in its DNA, at the heart of its institutions, the crusade ideology. They founded more crusading orders of monk-combatants than anyone else, they conceded privileges to those who actively participated in the wars against al-Andalus, and they imposed special crusade taxes on their subjects. Unlike other Christian states, such as England or the Germanic principalities, the Spanish Christian states were at the frontier of a great religious rival, and that defined the national identity of the Iberian Kingdoms, that had a more religious and militaristic component than the average Christian kingdom of Europe. That’s why later Spain under the Catholic Monarchs and the Habsburgs presented itself as the defender of the Christendom against the infidels and the heretics. I’ve brought all this up to say that it’s undeniable that the Reconquista as a crusade ideology did existed. For me, what matters to determine the accuracy of the term Reconquista is the fact that some contemporary intellectuals and rulers legitimized their holy war claiming to be the heirs of the Visigothic Kingdom. The Reconquista as a period is more arguable, and it’s true that there were times when Christian rulers didn’t attempt to expand at the expense of the Muslims. Still, in the end the Iberian Christian states won and were eventually unified under one ruler, just as the Visigothic Kingdom, although sadly that didn’t last forever.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the use of hyperboles, exaggerations or straight fake facts in history. The pursuit of the rigorous truth is a modern phenomenon in historiography. Instead, chroniclers used to exaggerate the number of soldiers of the enemy to exalt their own victories, and sometimes they even mentioned divine intervention or the aid of religious saints in the battlefield. In retrospect, the Battle of Covadonga was without a doubt an important battle, as it was the founding event of the Christian Kingdom of Asturias, and if it wasn’t an important battle we wouldn’t be talking about it in a podcast of the 21st century. But if we look at the battle itself in its context, it was a small battle where religion wasn’t a prime motivation. The prime motivation seems to have been the typical desire of autonomy of the Asturians, and it was only later that for purposes of political legitimacy and expansion the origins of Pelayo and the Kingdom of Asturias were linked to the Visigothic Kingdom, and the religious factor was heavily emphasized due to the religious fervor of the later Catholic priesthood of Asturias. There are many examples of historical events exaggerated to fit a certain narrative. Exaggerations can be done to justify a conquest, the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty or regime, or more recently for nationalistic purposes. Be skeptical and have a critical thinking, even to what I tell you in this podcast like the controversial Reconquista, because many historical events or interpretations can be and must be questioned. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover a tumultuous period that led to the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate and the establishment of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
EARLY MEDIEVAL SPAIN: UNITY IN DIVERSITY, 400-1000. Roger Collins
HISTORIA DE LA ESPAÑA DE LA EDAD MEDIA. Vicente Ángel Álvarez Palenzuela
SPAIN: A UNIQUE HISTORY. Stanley G. Payne
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
LA CONQUISTA ÁRABE, 710-797. Roger Collins
LA FORMACIÓN MEDIEVAL DE ESPAÑA. Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada
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