legacy of the visigoths

Tyranny and Peace

This is episode 18 called Tyranny and Peace and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The steps that Chindasuinth followed to consolidate his power and prevent rebellions, which include executions and forced exiles
  • How Chindasuinth used the Spanish clergy to support the administration and how he played the nobility and clergy against each other
  • The codification of the most important Visigothic legal code, the Visigothic Code of Recceswinth
  • The uneasy succession of Recceswinth and how the rebellion of Froia marked his reign as he had to adopt a conciliatory policy, as opposed to the tyrannical policies of his father
  • How the succession was future monarchs was established to ensure the continuity of the ruling noble faction, not dynasty
  • The increasing social polarization and political division
  • Why the Visigothic Kingdom didn’t face external threats during the 7th century
  • The powers of the Spanish clergy and the collaboration between the Church and the state
  • The role of monasteries in Christianizing the most marginal areas of the Iberian Peninsula, that would later become bastions of resistance to Islam
  • The relationship between the Spanish Church and Rome during the Visigothic period
  • The legacy of the Visigoths in Spain, from intellectual to political and religious aspects
  • Reflection on why a long-lasting powerful state was impossible to establish in the Early Middle Ages


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 18 called Tyranny and Peace. In this episode you will learn about the tyrannical reign of the old Chindasuinth, the peaceful reign of his son Recceswinth, some aspects of the powerful Spanish Church, and the legacy of the Visigoths in Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

In the last episode titled Changing dynasties I talked about the rebellion of Chindasuinth that led to the overthrown of King Tulga, and in The Verdict I already mentioned that Chindasuinth took bold measures to limit aristocratic and ecclesiastical power. Without a doubt, the reigns of Leovigild and Chindasuinth defined the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo. Those kings represented the ideal of a centralized and caesaropapist state of the Late Antiquity. However, that brings up the question of why that ideal was challenged over and over again. The paradox is that the political structure of the Visigothic Kingdom was sustained by a landowner class of large estates. Those landowners formed noble factions through relationships of dependency and fidelity that were constantly fighting to achieve the hegemony that royal power represented. It’s quite easy to see the contradiction of having a quasi-feudal society while attempting to establish a strong and centralized state. In the long run, if there were no changes in the economic and social relationships, failure was granted for such an attempt to consolidate royal power.

Chindasuinth ascended the throne being 79 years-old, and he had a turbulent past of participating in several failed conspiracies. Needless to say, he understood the internal problems of the Visigothic Kingdom and he knew how noble factions and conspiracies were formed. I mean, that’s precisely what he did to usurp the throne. Chindasuinth exploited the structural political weaknesses of the realm to conquer royal power, but as he was now king, he had to fix those weaknesses to prevent rebellions against his rule. Therefore, Chindasuinth followed four steps for dummies to achieve his aims.

The first step was the execution and forced exile of hundreds of nobles and the confiscation of their properties. Second, Chindasuinth closed ties with a noble faction that supported him in exchange of several concessions and privileges. The third step consisted in enriching himself and his family with new estates, and the fourth and last step was about fusing even more secular and religious power.

Let’s go more into detail with each step. Chindasuinth executed 200 first-rank nobles and 500 of lesser standing, while many more went into exile in Frankish or Basque territory either to avoid being sentenced to death or charged for conspiring against the King. The confiscation of properties was the norm against those executed or exiled. Actually, not only their properties, but their widows and daughters were redistributed amongst the king’s supporters. It was certainly a major redistribution of political power and wealth, and even though it was a tyrannical and very harsh act, it produced a period of stability. Later on, Chindasuinth summoned the bishops of the kingdom in the Seventh Council of Toledo in 646, where the law against treason added excommunication on those who conspired against the King, and it extended the punishment to the clergy too. The bishops for sure feared Chindasuinth. Most of those labelled as traitors faced execution, but they could accept “royal benevolence” and be blinded instead. Chindasuinth sure was a nice guy.

As for the second step of creating a loyal noble faction, it’s something rather simple and common in world history: making your supporters wealthier or moving them up in terms of social status. Chindasuinth forced the marriage of the widows and daughters of those who were executed or exiled with his supporters, to restructure the alliances and kinship ties. More interestingly, he gave certain rights to royal slaves that occupied important positions in the administration of the state, such as giving them the right to testify, mainly to use them against their former masters. A truly clever policy once again.

The third step was about amassing estates for the royal family, something essential to make his position more secure. It wasn’t difficult to own more estates, since he just made some of those estates he had confiscated his own. And the fourth step, that consisted in increasing his power over religious affairs, was materialized by making the word of a king equal to that of God. Disobedience was therefore sacrilege. And he managed to do that without increasing anti-Jewish policies, what an achievement!

To control more firmly the nobility and clergy on a provincial level, the King played them against each other. He allowed bishops to inspect the judicial sentences of the secular administration, which allowed him to control more closely the clergy as he used them as royal administrators. Even though Chindasuinth was a great benefactor of the Church, he had many enemies in the clergy. It’s not surprising, since they didn’t like the interference of royal power in ecclesiastical affairs nor how Chindasuinth removed some of their privileges. Nonetheless, he had collaborators, for instance the prominent bishop of Zaragoza, Braulio of Zaragoza. Braulio of Zaragoza, along other bishops, advised Chindasuinth to associate Recceswinth to the Visigothic throne. There are some possible explanations, maybe their supporters feared that the old Chindasuinth could die soon and with him everything they had obtained in exchange of their loyalty. Another explanation could be that there was an increasing opposition within the nobility and clergy, and Chindasuinth’s supporters needed to ensure the continuity of the regime, to again preserve their wealth. In the end, it’s all about money and power. Anyway, Recceswinth was made co-ruler in 649, and Recceswinth started his sole reign when his father died in 653.

visigothic code

Before he died, Chindasuinth commissioned a new codification of laws for the kingdom. In 654 the codification was finished and Recceswinth promulgated what became known as the Visigothic Code. In episode 15 titled Leovigild, restorer and unifier, I mentioned that King Leovigild not only essentially unified Hispania under Visigothic rule, he attempted to unify religiously and legally the Hispano-Roman and Gothic population. Apparently, the lost Code of Leovigild eliminated most legal differences between Goths and natives, but not all. On the contrary, the Visigothic Code of Recceswinth was applied equally to both groups that at this point presented no differences. The subjects of the kingdom stopped being Roman or Gothic, instead they became Spanish. The Visigothic Code combined elements of Roman, Catholic and Germanic customary laws, and it included laws that dealt with legal procedures, crimes, marriage and divorce, succession, financial transactions, and Jews. It was the most important legal code of the Visigothic Kingdom, as it outlived the kingdom and it was still used by the Mozarab population, that is, by the Christians under Muslim rule, until the 13th century. King Ferdinand III adopted the Visigothic Code almost entirely to apply it in certain towns, and it was used in parts of Spain as late as in the 19th century.

Going back to the dynastic succession, it wasn’t unquestioned. A Gothic political refugee named Froia made an alliance with the Vascones of Aquitaine and other Gothic refugees to support him. The rebels devastated much of Tarraconensis, but they weren’t able to capture Zaragoza. Froia and his forces decided to go all-in instead of retreating to Aquitaine to regain strength. But in the end, royal power won, many of the Gothic refugees and Vascones perished in the battlefield, and Froia was executed. Recceswinth suppressed the rebellion quick enough, but he needed to close ranks and his supporters for sure asked for rewards. That may explain why Recceswinth carried out a conciliatory policy with the nobility and clergy, as opposed to the tyrannical policies of his father.

The aristocratic requests were recognized in the Eighth Council of Toledo, a council with a very high attendance rate and the first to see the participation of royal officials. The King’s supporters agreed to allow Recceswinth the choice of pardoning those who were persecuted by Chindasuinth, although they didn’t allow a complete pardon. There were other measures to somehow facilitate the return of the political refugees, and that’s essentially in what consisted the conciliatory policy of Recceswinth, protecting the interests of his loyal supporters while reconciling with those who suffered the confiscations and executions of his father.

Neither his enemies nor his supporters liked how Chindasuinth had treated confiscated property as his own. Therefore, his son was forced to accept to clearly differentiate the property of the royal family and the property of the crown. That certainly made sense in an elective monarchy, and it sure limited any pretensions of establishing a long-lasting hereditary monarchy. It’s obvious that those nobles who backed Chindasuinth in his coup and who supported the succession of Recceswinth felt that the old king had kept too many estates for himself rather than for the crown or his supporters. These nobles didn’t have the guts to protest when Chindasuinth was alive, but instead had waited cautiously until they saw the opportunity to exploit the weakness of Recceswinth’s position.

Another decision taken at the council was referred to the succession of the king. They decided that the election of a new king had to take place in the royal palace, and that the electors would be the bishops and nobles of the court. In practice, that meant that only the bishop of Toledo and the nobles of the inner circle of the previous king had the power to elect a new king. It was a way to ensure, not the continuity of the ruling dynasty, but the continuity of the ruling noble faction.

We basically have no information about the remaining years of Recceswinth, even though he reigned alone for 19 years, from 653 to 672. It’s very likely that he had to send several expeditions to keep the northern peoples in check, and it seems like there were changes in socioeconomic terms that further weakened central power. The administrative reforms of Chindasuinth may have accelerated the process, because many civil positions disappeared and were assumed by military officers. Chindasuinth may have thought that simplifying the administration and concentrating power in a few hands would help him in controlling the nobility that supported him, but in the long run the opposite may be the case.

Territorial decentralization weakened political unity, in a moment where most of the peasantry didn’t consider the protection of their lords worth the price. The society of the Visigothic Kingdom was very polarized in the late 7th century, because the landowner elite of large estates was only worried about increasing their wealth and gaining more social connections, while the peasantry lived in very poor conditions. Would you happily fight and pay taxes for someone that gave you essentially nothing in return? For sure not. Many colonus, who were almost enslaved peasants, ran away from the lands they were associated to, and it seems like the colonus had kind of a class consciousness, because many helped those fugitive colonus. And what was the genius response of the Visigothic elite? Toughening laws against those fugitives and those who took them in. The peasantry only hated their lords more and more. Like before the fall of the Roman Empire, brigandage plagued the roads of the late Visigothic Kingdom, which is an indication that at the death of King Recceswinth the realm was suffering from great insecurity and social and political instability. This internal division and weak social unity was very effectively exploited later by the Muslim invaders, as we will see in a few episodes.

On the other hand, the Visigothic Kingdom didn’t have to worry much about external enemies during most of the 7th century. The Frankish lords were constantly fighting each other; the Franks aided some Visigothic usurpers and rebels, but the Franks weren’t the existential threat that they used to be in the early 6th century. The other old enemy, the Eastern Roman Empire, went from crisis after crisis during the 7th century. The Romans first fought the Persians, then the Arabs of the Caliphate, while also having to deal with the Slavs that were settling in the Balkans, as well as social and religious internal divisions. However, the Visigothic Kingdom remained very vulnerable to external aggression, because the political and social structure of the realm was inherently weak. Kings feared that groups within the realm could conspire with foreign powers, that’s why there were both civil and ecclesiastical laws that imposed penalties on those who dared to do so.

To talk a bit about the organization of the Spanish Church, the essential thing to know is that it was divided in 6 dioceses, following the Late Roman division of provinces: Tarraconensis, Carthaginensis, Baetica, Lusitania, Galicia and Narbonensis. As the Visigoths conquered Hispania and established the capital in Toledo, Toledo was made the metropolitan capital of Carthaginensis and the bishop of Toledo was superior to the rest. The close link between ecclesiastical and secular power is what made that happen, not without some opposition within the Church. Royal power and the bishop of Toledo sometimes intervened in the election of provincial bishops, but most of the time the provincial clergy elected their bishop themselves. Bishops had the duty to monitor the local clergy, to prevent spiritual corruption and the spread of wrong beliefs.

But in the Visigothic Kingdom, after the conversion of Reccared to Catholicism, bishops heavily intervened in the secular administration of the kingdom. Bishops were judges of ecclesiastical conflicts, but they also judged acts that transgressed certain civil laws or both ecclesiastical and civil laws. Again, this brings up the question of what kind of state the Visigothic Kingdom was, but as I said in previous episodes it was not a theocracy, it was a state where secular and religious power helped and watched each other. For instance, secular authorities could judge some strictly religious offenses and fine the offenders, a fine that went to the pockets of secular authorities. So what you need to understand is that the Church and the administration cooperated, in a way that was beneficial for both parties. The clearest example of that cooperation was the Councils of Toledo, where civil and ecclesiastical authorities discussed the most important political and religious issues. Nonetheless, there were some limitations to the role of judge of bishops in civil offenses, as for instance they couldn’t sentence someone to death.

san pedro de montes monastery fructuosus of braga

Now I want to talk about the role of monasteries in this period. Ever since the reign of Leovigild, monasteries had expanded in the Iberian Peninsula, thanks to the will of many African, Greek and Spanish clergymen. Monks and hermits lived an ascetic life and sought their own spiritual salvation in isolated areas, living alone or in group. Due to their establishment in isolated areas, they spread Christianity in communities that were still pagan, for instance certain areas of Asturias and Cantabria, or in the north-western Pyrenees where the Vascones lived. We know the name of some of those Christian proselytizers, such as Aemilian or Valerius of Briezo. A very prolific founder of monasteries was Fructuosus of Braga, a Gothic hermit and bishop who founded no less than 20 monasteries, throughout Galicia, Lusitania and Baetica. But we don’t know the name of many other monks and monastic founders that ensured the Christianization of the most marginal areas of the Iberian Peninsula. The Christianization of those mountainous regions would eventually transform them from the most backward parts of the peninsula into bastions of resistance to Islam and birth places of new Christian kingdoms.

Regarding the relationship of the Spanish Church with Rome and other foreign churches, the Spanish Church recognized the supremacy of the Pope and made efforts to align their doctrines and decisions in line with what was decided in universal councils. Despite that, it’s obvious that the Spanish Church wasn’t as close to other churches as it used to be during the Roman period. This is kind of logical, because the Western Roman Empire disintegrated into several kingdoms that were developing a kind of national or unitary consciousness. But to be more specific, a major reason is that the Eastern Roman Empire controlled Rome. As the Spanish Church became closely linked to the Visigothic monarchy, relationships with Rome became more complicated because the two states were foes. Another reason is that the Spanish Catholic Church gained strength after the conversion of the Visigoths, so it could deal with their own problems without the assistance of other churches. That doesn’t mean that the Spanish Church was an independent Church opposed to Rome, as some historians say, on the contrary it means that the Spanish Church was strongly organized, so they just needed to consult a few times Rome to solve some issues.

san juan de baños visigothic church

Lastly, I want to talk about the legacy of the Visigoths. Their contributions have often been ignored or even seen in a negative light. They left few artistic works, no substantial unique architecture, and little linguistic legacy. However, the Visigoths did leave an important legacy. As I explained in the previous episode, Muslim Spain has often been regarded as the reversers of the cultural and scientific decadence that the Visigoths brought. That’s far from being true, because under the Visigoths Spain produced great intellectual works, such as those of Saint Isidore of Seville, and the Spanish clergy preserved classical works that would have been lost otherwise. They also preserved the Roman bathing culture, just as the Muslims did later. The Visigoths also made the free Hispano-Roman and Gothic population equal in law, and under them the Spanish clergy unified the liturgy of the kingdom in what became known as the Hispanic or Mozarabic rite, that Christians preserved in Muslim-ruled territories.

More importantly, the Visigoths unified Spain politically and religiously. The idea of Spain as a distinct entity emerged then, defined by the boundaries of the Iberian Peninsula, and that political unification is exactly what the Christian Medieval kings pursued during the so-called Reconquista. With the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism, the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans shared the same religion, something that had a profound impact on the history of Spain and all Spanish countries. For instance, it meant a long relationship of close collaboration between the Church and the state, or the persecution, forced conversion or expulsion of Jews for the sake of religious unity. It was the memory of the Visigothic Kingdom, as an independent Spanish and Catholic kingdom, that was used to justify ideologically the Reconquista.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss why it was impossible to establish a strong and long-lasting royal dynasty, which is kind of a continuation of The Verdict of the previous episode. The efforts of Chindasuinth to end forever the endless internal struggles between noble factions failed, even though he had executed many important nobles. Chindasuinth ruled using fear, and no one dared to oppose him when he was alive. But as Tyrion told Daenerys in season 7 of Game of Thrones, fear is all Chindasuinth had. That made his position brittle, because many beneath him wanted to see him death. Even his faction of loyal supporters didn’t approve his disproportionate confiscations to enrich himself and his family. So, once the tyrant died, a rebellion was all what was needed to make his regime crumble. The rebellion was suppressed, but the price was the idea of establishing a strong royal power. If you think about strong monarchs of Visigothic Spain, they either used military expansion, such as Leovigild, or repression, as Chindasuinth, to strengthen the crown. Those efforts worked in the short-term, but they are not sustainable in the long-term. In the end, I think it was impossible to establish a powerful monarchy due to the very nature of the society and economy of the European kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages. Too often we look at individual kings as if their ability alone determined the outcome of a kingdom, but we overlook the circumstances that define their time. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode I will end the period of Visigothic Spain, covering their history right before the start of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. 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!




VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins




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