Spain History - Re-conquest Period (739 - 1479)

This period in the Peninsular which has become known as the Re-conquest Period, possibly can be taken as commencing when the previously named Count Pelayo started his excursions in 718 into parts of the northern area. The Asturias, from where he originated, first made their capital at Oviedo but as they spread their control they later moved south and established a new power base at León. His son-in-law King Alfonso I created the Kingdom of León in 739. This was to eventually become the capital of the Kingdom of Asturia-León. Some of their rulers enjoyed descriptive names like Sancho the Fat, Wilfred the Hairy and Ordoño the Bad!

(To assist any reader we have below the old provinces and their major towns in mainland Spain, moving across and downwards from the north-west to the south-east.)

Galicia (North West)
Main Towns: El Ferrol – La Coruña - La Toja - Lugo – Orense - Pontevedra - Santiago de Compostela - Vigo
Asturias (North)
Main Towns: Gíjon – Luarca – Oviedo – Ribadesella
León (Central North West)
Main Towns: Astorga – León – Medina del Campo - Palencia - Riaño – Salamanca - Valladolid - Zamora
Old Castílle (North & Central)
Main Towns: Ávila - Burgos – El Escorial - La Granja – San Rajael - Santander - Sartillana – Segovia
Biscay (North)
Main Towns: Bilbao – Guernica – San Sebastián – Victoria
Navarre (North)
Main Towns: Irún - Pamplona – Sanguesa
Aragon (North East & Central)
Main Towns: Canjrane – Huesca – Saragossa
Cátalunia (North East)
Main Towns: Barcelona - Gerona – Lérida - Lioret del Mar - Puigcerda – Ripoll - Seo de Urgel – Sitges – Tarragóna – Tarrasa
Estremadura (West Central)
Main Towns: Badajoz – Mérida
New Castílle (Central)
Main Towns: Aranjuez – Cuenca - Guadalajara – Madrid – Toledo – Manzanares
Valencia (Central East)
Main Towns: Alicante - Bencarló - Castellón de la Plana – Elche – Valencia
Andalusía (South)
Main Towns: Algeciras – Almeria - Arcos de la Fronteira – Baeza - Cádiz – Córdoba - Granada - Huelva – Jaén – Málaga - Palos – Ronda - Seville – Úbeda
Murcia (South East)
Main Towns: Cartegna - Murcia

As the influence of the Christian forces increased so did their number of Kingdoms. After the defeat of his forces on the Zaragoza expedition, Emperor Charlemagne took control of the north-east corner of the Peninsular including Barcelona. This area became know as the Spanish March (Marca Hispanica). Between this area and the Kingdom of León was created the Kingdom of Castille and that to the north that of Navarre. In 932 Fernán Gonzalez became the first Count of Castille. In 951 the Moors recognized the independence of both León and Navarre. Lying between two kingdoms was the the state of Basques which remained as always quite untouched and independent. History records that the marital ties were essential in staying alive and in control of each Kingdom. Family feuds were a constant threat. The mother of the Queen of Navarra was Fernán Gonzalez's mother-in-law, the great aunt to Abd-er-Rahman, and also the grandmother to Sancho the Fat.

The vision that appeared to a hermit in the 9th Century relating to the almost neglected story of St. Santiago and the subsequent sudden appearance of his possible corpse gave ready fuel to the Christian movement. Conveniently, and just before a major battle, King Ramiro I of Galicia announced prior to combat that he had experienced a visitation from this Saint. His army later charged into battle waving banners carrying red crosses on a pure white background shouting Santiago. The Moors were then recorded as immediately fleeing for their lives and Saint Santiago thus became the patron Saint of Spain.

As the rule of the Moors declined the rule of the northern Christians grew. A system of Fueros was introduced giving limited power to local representation - this move was to be 100 years before such steps were taken in England. Then popular representation (mainly nobles), was instituted in the creation of the Cortes which acted as a Parliament under the control of the ruling King. However, the progress of the Christians was slow mainly due to their internal struggles and the threat of Moor attacks on isolated outposts. The situation was fuelled upon the death of any King then by the established system the Kingdom was divided between his surviving sons and thus creating certain jealousy.

The King of León was the initial leader in the Re-Conquest until the setbacks suffered from the attacks by Al Mansur. The state of Navarra took up this position under King Sancho III (1005-1035). He had married the sister of the Castilian ruler and gained control of Castille placing in power his son King Fernando (1035-1065). The son then occupied the kingdom of León and assumed the title of Emperor Fernando I (Emperor of the Spains) and later in 1055 his army commenced the future conquest of the Peninsular. The Kingdom of Aragón went through a period of having many different Monarchs each ruling for a short time. In the north-east the future region of Catalonia was in the 11th Century controlled by the able Count Ramon Berenguer I. When the ambitious King Fernando I took possession of both areas of Castile and León he made both the towns of Toledo and Zaragoza his vassals. ln his lifetime the area of the captured territory stretched from Valencia across to the Atlantic coast in the west.

Unfortunately for the immediate future the then divided kingdom was inherited by his sons and war commenced between King Alfonso VI of León and Sancho IV of Castille. The young knight El Cid (Rodrigo Diáz de Bivar) from near Burgos fought on the side of King Sancho and went on to make history in many ways. The romantic side of history attached to El Cid is a combination of truths and fable. The Christians adopted him as their national hero. After King Sancho was murdered possibly by his brother in 1081 El Cid was sent into exile. He moved to Zaragoza, a Moorish city under vassalage to the new King Alfonso VI. This new king became a military leader and swept his army all the way south to Gibraltar. He also reintroduced the Latin Mass in place of the Mozarabic rite previously performed in churches. The King's most outstanding achievement was when he captured Toledo in 1085 but again with the able assistance of El Cid.

The defeat of King Alfonso VI at Badajoz in 1086 by the Almoravids under the able leadership of Yusuf who promptly made the town of Toledo his capital was usurped by the Almohades. The northern Kings were close to panic, the Galicians even made a request for protection to William the Conqueror who had now been ruler of England for twenty years. King Alfonso sought the help of El Cid who had in the meantime become in most respects the ruler of the city of Valencia. Sadly, the hero died in 1099 and the story told is that they won the ensuing battle by lashing his body to his charger and upon believing him to be alive the Moors turned and fled. Apparently, the true story is that his followers held Valencia against the Moors for three years before they had to capitulate.

The intrusion on the scene of a new tribe of Moors by the name of Almoravids caused the northern kingdoms to solve their differences and unite as a single force. In 1118, King Alfonso I of Aragón led his forces to retake Zaragoza and making it his capital. His brother, who was a monk, was supposedly the father of the Infanta Petronilla who was married to Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Catalonia in 1137. This marriage was to unite the wealthy trading state of Catalonia to the more impoverished Kingdom of Aragón. It is reputed that in the 12th and 13th Centuries not a fish dared show itself in the Mediterranean without having the markings of Aragón on its tail.

Meanwhile, on the western side of the peninsular the country of Portugal was born. King Alfonso IV had two daughters, one marrying Raymond of Burgundy and their son reigned Castille as King Alfonso VII, the other marrying Henry of Burgundy and as a wedding present in 1093 they received land that was to become the future Portugal. Alfonso Henriques was to inherit this land in 1112 to later declare Portugal and in 1139 as an independent Kingdom.

It was about this time that the idea of a Holy War began to take hold in the minds of the Christian Kings. To kindle this fire the rebuilding of the shrine at Santiago de Compostela was commenced and it soon became the most celebrated point of pilgrimage in Europe to be undertaken by the faithful. At the same time a chalice claimed to be the Holy Grail (the drinking cup from the Last Supper), that was originally brought to the Peninsular in the 4th Century became another very popular shrine. To add to this religious movement the Knights banded themselves into monastic Orders and rode to battle in white mantles bearing large red crosses. They vowed war on the infidel and vowed devotion to God and the ladies. These successful knights received land in conquered territory as their reward for participating in the battle. Many of the present day aristocrats can trace their estates back to this period.

The Moors had now united under the leadership of Add al-Mumin and his new reinforcements from the North African tribe of Almohades. They were very successful in destroying the cream of Christian knights in battle in 1195 at Alarcos near Toledo. The ruling Pope called for a new crusade and in June of 1212 knights and men from various parts of the Peninsular and Europe gathered at Toledo to march to the south. On the plains at Las Novas de Tolosa they met with the Almohades and severely defeated them claiming that they had killed some 60,000 of their enemies. This battle was the beginning of the eventual fall of the Moors rule in the Peninsular. Apparently, after the dust of this battle had settled the victorious Christians did not enter into a period of bloody revenge, instead they slowly returned again to an open type of society that on the surface enjoyed religious tolerance.

In Portugal King Afonso III with European assistance drove the Moors out of the Algarve and thus ridding his lands completely of Moorish control. Aragón successfully took possession of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, and King Ferdinand III of Castille celebrated in 1248 his victory in taking the city of Córdoba by re-consecrating the Great Mosque as a Cathedral and reinstalled the original bells having been brought back from Santiago. In return for the help in taking Seville he granted Mohammed-ibi-Alhamar and the ruler in Granada, their independence as vassals of his much enlarged kingdom. A paradox of the history of the Peninsular to this date is the example of King Fernando's tomb in the Cathedral in Seville which has an epitaph in four languages, Latin, Castilian, Hebrew and Arabic. In 1253 Castille ends their ongoing war with Portugal, whilst in 1285 France briefly invaded Cátalunia.

The successor to King Ferdinand's throne was his son Alfonso X who was instrumental in binding the three religions together under his rule. He was also a man of great cultural interests and wrote the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria which records for prosperity medieval society. He also had translated many major Latin works into the Castilian language thus making it the official one of the Kingdom. The remaining Moors scattered through the many towns were allowed to stay and fitted into the new society but bearing the title of mudejars (permitted to stay). The later abdication of King Alfonso brought his son Sancho to the throne. The nobles turned against him and he died soon afterwards. The Queen Mother Maria de Molina stepped in to successfully defend the throne against the nobles in favour of her grandson. Meanwhile on the south coast of the Peninsular the Moors had once again landed and taken possession of Gibraltar, Algeciras and Tarifa. The siege of Tarifa is marked in history because its defender Perez de Guzman, when told he had to surrender or the Moors would murder his son, threw down his knife from the rampart and said Here is the weapon to do it, but I will never surrender. The Moors were destroyed using artillery for the first time in European history at the battle of Rio Salado in 1340. Algeciras was retaken four years later by King Alfonso XI.

The kingdom of Aragón-Catalonia spread its wings by sea and began to conquer territories to the east. They added Sardinia and Sicily and later in the early 1300s they also succeeded in acquiring a small Duchy close to Athens. These successes were mainly made in the reign of King Pedro IV who created Barcelona into the centre of Iberia's greatest ship builders and the most powerful trading city. Their great cathedral was commenced in 1298. The Castilians were always very independently minded. When their Parliament made the oath of allegiance to a new King they used the following words. We who are as good as you, swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you accept all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.

The Castilians were quick to note the activities of their neighbours and promptly developed their sea port of Cartagena and the then readily accessible port of Seville. The Genovese merchants took control of the trading and kept it for the next two centuries. The Castille crown was permanently in debt and through the centuries turned to the Jews for monetary loans. In the middle 1300s the various Kingdoms began to show less tolerance in society and Muslims were forced to wear certain style of clothing and hair styles. Jews began to be blamed for topical problems and there commenced an undercurrent of anti-Semitic feeling although no positive step was taken. This was in contrast to other European countries such as England and France where Jews had already been expelled en masse. For example the Jews tended to carry the blame for spreading the plaque named the Black Death that swept Europe in 1340s. One third of the Europe’s population died from this disease and although all the States and Kingdoms were affected, the state of Aragón was one of the worst to suffer.

In the reign of King Pedro I of Castille (1350-1369) the anti-Semitic feeling was further aroused when the King chose to surround himself with Jewish advisers. His reputation for cruelty was well earned after he inherited the throne at the age of 15 he murdered brothers, half-brothers, cousins, friends, an archbishop, and he was also suspected murdering his own mother. When living in the Alcazar he added the Red King of Granada and 37 of his courtiers to his list. All were supposedly murdered as King Pedro had decided to possess a priceless ruby worn in the turban of the Muslim ruler. This same ruby was given later as a reward to Edward the Black Prince of England who had helped King Pedro in 1367 to defeat an army of rebels led by his half-brother Enrique. This same jewel now resides in the imperial crown on show in the Tower of London. The aristocrats of Castile and León according to recorded history were noted at the time for being very aggressive and also subject to strong envy. Fittingly, King Pedro was later killed by this same brother in a heated discussion. History records that a fleet composed of French and Castilian boats was defeated in 1380 off the coast of Ireland. The most historically event in this period was the crushing defeat in 1385 of the Castilian army at Aljubarrota in Portugal ensuring the Portuguese enjoyed their independence for a long period. Later King Enrique II was to wear the crown bringing the House of Trastamara to the throne of Castille which ruled until the Hapsburgs in 1516.

The 15th Century opened with little change of the Iberian map of States since 1250 but a change was on the horizon. A weak King Juan II was to rule Castille from 1454 for a period of 48 years as a puppet of a courtier named Alvaro de Luna who really ran the state until jealous nobles talked the King into cutting off his head. This King and those who were to follow were subject to manipulation and the aristocracy grew in wealth and power. One such person was Leonor de Alburquerque who could pass from one side of Castille to the other without leaving her own estates. The King Alfonso V of Aragón had added Naples to his possessions in 1435 and was recognized as the King of Naples in 1442 by the Pope. At the death of King Martin I of Aragón ended the dynasty commenced with the marriage of Petronilla and Berenguer. A minor cousin by the name of Fernando of Antequera was crowned as the new King but he was soon to be involved with a civil war and trading problems due to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Castille was not in a much better state with a lack of quality in a succession of Kings. King Juan was succeeded by his perverse son King Enrique IV. When the Queen gave birth to a daughter named Juana she was nicknamed La Beltraneja after her attractive courtier Beltran de la Cueva. The King's younger sister was Isabel who was later to become the Queen and rule with great shrewdness. As Isabel had to be politically used in marriage the choice given to her was between the King Afonso of Portugal, or Fernando the heir to the Kingdom of Aragón. First, a peace agreement was signed in 1411 between Castille and Portugal as the preference was for the first suitor on the list. Unfortunately, he was much older than Isabel whilst the other was handsome and young. Isabel had her way and a wedding took place in October of 1469 between Isabel and Fernando. Unfortunately, when Enrique IV died in 1474 he named Juana as his legal successor. The Castille nobles decided to name Isabel as Queen, taking into consideration that they regarded Juana as illegitimate. Juana raised an army with the support of the other previous suitor King Alfonso of Portugal and they met in battle in 1476 at Toro where Juana army was defeated. The Treaty of Alcobaça in 1479 confirmed the claim of Isabel to the throne of Castille and in so doing set in course the creation of today's Spain.

In the same year the father of Fernando died so that the throne of Aragón passed to his son. This meant that the two greatest Christian powers in the Iberia were as one in marriage and Spain in theory was born as we recognize it today. The Queen was noted for her wily intelligence and they proved very capable in ruling together and built in their lifetime a well defended, strong and successful Kingdom. Like all marriages this does not mean that it was to be without friction. The Castilians were greater in numbers and did not accept the Aragóns readily into their midst. Politically they were very different, with the nobles from Aragón having real power through their Parliament as against the less effectual nobles from Castille who were much subject to the will of their King.


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