The Warrior Saint


The north of Iberia had evaded the Islamic invasion primarily because of its mountainous terrain, which afforded the Christian defenders a wealth of hiding places and ambush traps for invading troops. Also, in winter, many of the high passes were closed by snow, and there were easier gains for the Moors and better pastures in the lowlands. The Romans thought pretty much the same, and they left the north west of Iberia alone, too. In fact, the Romans had called Galicia the “finis terrae” or the end of the world. To them, the Atlantic Ocean stretched off into infinity, and they believed that Galicia was where the souls of the dead rested before making the long journey to the afterlife.


The encirclement by the Moors served to concentrate those of the Christian faith and strengthen their traditions and folklore. They were isolated, whilst Islam dominated most of Iberia and the holy land, the home of their faith. The future looked pretty bleak for Christians, and they needed something to rally around closer to home.


The Moorish forces led by Musa ibn Nusayr had already swept past the old kingdoms. Abd al-Rahman I took control of Arab forces in al-Andalus in 756 and consolidated his grip after his coup. The kingdom of Asturias was the strongest force in the Christian zone, and when its king, Alfonso I, conquered León and Galicia in 754, it became a safe haven for all the dispossessed Christians from the south. It was Alfonso who created the Desert of the Duero, a depopulated buffer zone between Muslim and Christian lands, so that invading armies would have to carry their supplies instead of looting them, and it was Alfonso who began the enormous task of taking back those lands that the Moors had captured.The first mention of Santiago was in a poem or song written around 783, but little is known about it. The name itself is a hint. Saint James in Vulgar Latin is, Sanctus Iacobus, which, when corrupted by the local Galician dialect Comes out as Santiago. St. James was beheaded in Jerusalem the year 42 on the orders of Herod, and the legend tells that his body was transported from the Holy Land to Galicia in a miraculous ship made of stone. Most historians consider this to have been a local home-grown legend.


It was during the reign of King Mauregato, around 820, that the legend gained momentum. In a hermitage called Peleo in the forest of Libradón, a group of devotees saw miraculous lights in the sky which seemed to fall to earth over a hillock in nearby woods. When the abbot of the hermitage reported this to his bishop, Iria Flavia, the bishop told his superior, Teodomira, who came with an entourage of clerics to witness the events for himself. Over a number of nights, they all watched the stellar display. They cleared the forest over the hillock and began excavating and soon found a stone sepulchre containing three bodies. Teodomira immediately rushed away to tell King Alfonso II about the miracle that he had seen and the bodies that he had found.


Alfonso was a shrewd king, and he saw the potential for a god given icon that his armies could unite under and fight for. He ordered the bishop to build a small church next to the tombs and use this as his seat of office. It was to be called Compostella, from the Vulgar Latin for burial ground, compostia tella, though there is another theory that the name is derived from campus stellae, “field of the star” but this is an unlikely corruption from Latin to medieval Galician. Whatever the name, it attracted the devoted in their droves, and they made pilgrimages to see the tomb of St. James from all four Christian kingdoms and as far away as Gaul. Coincidentally, Alfonso led several successful campaigns against the Moors after the discovery, which gave weight to the idea that St. James was aiding the Christians.



Giovanni Batista Tiepolo's painting of S. James


This is where the truth becomes entangled with myth. Alfonso died in 842 and his successor, Ramiros I, continued the fight against the Moors.  According to the legend, Emir Abd al-Rahman II demanded a jizya (a tribute) of 100 virgins, and Ramiros refused to comply.  This resulted in the two armies supposedly meeting at Clavijo, where the Christians were outnumbered, but fought valiantly. Before the battle began, Ramiros prayed for victory, promising to give a part of the booty from the battle to the hermitage of Santiago, along the first fruits of the harvest each year.


In truth, neither Christian nor Moorish records contain any mention of the battle. The legend was first written down about 300 years after the supposed event. Another embellishment that was added to the fictitious battle at an unknown date was that at the peak of the battle, when defeat seemed imminent, some of the soldiers reported seeing a vision of St. James on a white horse brandishing a raised sword leading them to victory. The year and date of the conflict is different depending on which account you read, and the history of the cult of Saint James is rich in such errors. But it doesn’t matter if it was true or not; the Christians had an icon to follow. The reconquesta continued, but what had been a war of conquest for gain through looting and slavery had become a religious war.


This was not lost on the leaders of the Muslim caliphate in Córdoba. The Shining City was nearly complete, but its penultimate benefactor, Emir Al-Hakam II died in 976, and Hisham II became the ruler of al-Andalus.  Hisham II was only a child when he took over a civilisation that was at its peak, and the avaricious regent, al-Hakam stood in for him. After around 200 years of nearly constant incursions on his caliphate from Asturius, al-Hakam decided to take the battle to the Christians. This was not altogether a religious or ideological assault, though he knew as well as the Christians did that the symbolism of a strike deep into Christian lands would bolster his support.


The cost of building Madina al-Zahira, and the bribes in land and gold that he had to give in order to maintain his position as caliph, plus the rising cost of the army that he needed to defend his northern borders required that he raise some money from somewhere, and the growing prosperity of the Catholic Church and the population of the four northern Christian kingdoms were a possible source.


Over the next twenty years, he made around 56 assaults during 9 campaigns on the kingdoms, primarily to deter and weaken the Asturian king, but also to return with as much booty as his troops could carry. In modern day values, they were little more than well organised bank raids.


One of them was on the church of Santiago de Compostella, which had grown over the centuries to be a rich area by virtue of the peregrinos , who had brought what was in reality medieval tourism into the area from Northern Iberia and France. The caliph’s troops would never have found the church had it not been for their hired Christian mercenaries who led him to the town. According to history, the caliph rode his horse into the church and allowed it to drink holy water from the font. The captive Christians of Santiago could only watch in horror as he ordered the church burned to the ground.


Hisham’s troops found little of real value, but the church had expensive cast bells in the belfry. They were removed and carried the 860km back to Cordoba, where they were melted down and cast into lamps to be hung in the Great Mosque.


Two and a half centuries later, in 1236, the Castilian King, Ferdinand the Third ("The Saint") reconquered Cordoba. His first action was to avenge the humiliation caused by Al-Mansur. He had the lamps carried back to the shrine of Saint James, where they were melted down again to make a new set of bells.


The not so golden age of al-Andalus was coming to a close, and the turn of the century would see the beginning of a thousand years of religious intolerance and warfare. It was never really the peaceful Camelot that the wistful dream about, but it was a good try. By the end of the first century, Christian troops were blessed and said mass before going into battle to slaughter and loot. Popes, Bishops and even one of the disciples of Jesus would lead armies and carry a sword.As a final irony, when the conquistadores invaded the Americas, they carried banners and icons of St. James Matamoros to rival the indigenous gods and protect and sanctify the Spanish troops as they robbed the entire continent of its gold and enslaved the population.




The statue of Pope Urban II by the  sculptor  Henri Gourgouillon in the Place de la Victoire in Clermont-Ferrand.


But the doom of al-Andalus was decreed by an event in the homeland of its Arab rulers. In 1070 the Seljuk Turks had taken Jerusalem and began a systematic torture of the Christians who lived there. By 1095, the situation had become so bad that Byzantine Emperor Alexios I sent his envoys to Pope Urban II with an urgent message, asking for help from western Christians to liberate the region from the infidels. The pope gave a historic sermon at the Council of Clermont and urged the knights, princes and people of the Western Roman Empire to take up arms and to embark on the journey to "liberate" Byzantines or Eastern Christians from the "pagan race."


He said that "whoever for devotion alone, not to obtain honour or money, sets out to liberate church of god in Jerusalem, this will be counted for all his penance." The appeal by the Pope marked the beginning of the First Crusade. The incentive to drive Islam from Iberia had become a holy war.


Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar

This statue of El-Cid  stands in Seville on El Parador de San Sebastian next to the Plaza de Espña. It is one of 5 editions sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1927. The others are located in Valencia, Lincon Park San Francisco, Balbao Park San Diego and Buenas Airies, Argentina. She also sculpted the four Castilian warriors around the statue.


Whilst the looters were still ransacking the remains of The Shining City, a young boy born to minor nobility was working in the court of Ferdinand I of León under the wing of one of his sons, Prince Sancho. When the king died in 1064, his will divided the kingdom between his three sons. Sancho’s brothers became Alfonso VI of León and García II of Galicia and Sancho became king Sancho II of Castile. Sancho immediately began a series of campaigns during which he captured land from his two brothers as well as the Muslim kingdoms in al-Andalus. The young boy, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, grew in Sancho’s court, and rose to become a military commander and the royal standard-bearer for Castile. He fought in many major battles against Sancho’s brothers, and his reputation grew as a general.  But he found himself at the centre of a royal murder trial when Sancho was lured into a private meeting and assassinated in 1072 at the siege of Zamora. 

This depiction of the "Santa Gadea Oath" was painted by Armando Menocal in 1889 and is one of several paintings showing the famous trial. Armando was a native of Cuba, but came to Spain in 1880 where he discovered the work of Joaquin Sorolla and others. He exhibited in Spain, winning several awards before returning to Cuba to become the director of the Academy of San Alejandro  


Rodrigo was now in the difficult position of having bear witness for Alfonso who had been accused of killing his own brother. Alfonso was cleared of the charges, and became King Alfonso VI of Castile and León, but Rodrigo was never fully trusted again, and was demoted in the new king’s court. He carried on serving the king for a while, but finally in 1081, he was forced into exile.

Allegiances had to be fluid to survive in those times, and Rodrigo went to fight for the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, who were warring against the Christian states of Aragon and Barcelona. He distinguished himself as a general during campaigns against the Muslim rulers of Lérida and their Christian allies. It was around about now that he earned his Arabic nickname, al-Sayyid; the Lord. It was corrupted by Christian tongues into El Cid, and the name was carried into history along with the fame of Rodrigo.

 The Almoravids 

King Alfonso strengthened his borders with the caliphates which were organised into separate, autonomous taifas led by local lords. Castile had the same system, where the fueros were administered by a local duke, and Alfonso fed them arms and soldiers until they were ready to creep forward and take Muslim lands. He repopulated the cities of Segovia, Avila and Salamanca, but his biggest prize was the conquest of the taifa of Toledo.  

Alfonso was a very clever king, who used all diplomatic means to achieve his aims and only used force as a last resort. His taking of Toledo was over several decades and Alfonso played the infighting lords of the Muslim city-states against each other and encouraged Christian settlers to move into Muslim lands until there was a mix of both living in the Muslim controlled city. The most powerful of the Islamic leaders was al-Quadir of Toledo, but he found that he was under attack from other Muslim states and was forced to ally himself with Alfonso to defend them. The inhabitants of Toledo, now sick of the constant power-plays, gladly allowed the Christians to “take” Toledo, even staging a fake siege to let everybody keep face. In fact, the capture of Toledo was entirely bloodless.  


Toledo had been an important Visigoth city, and was still powerful under the Arabs. Its inclusion into Castile earned Alfonso great respect throughout the Christian world. He added Galicia and León to his kingdoms, and began a campaign to take Zaragoza, too. As his power and fame spread, he gave himself the title of Emperor of all Hispania instead of just King of Castile. This was the first time that the title Hispania had been used in the context of a unified country of kingdoms.

Alfonso’s campaigns into Muslim lands greatly worried the taifas, and they realised that they needed help to defend their lands. There had been a vicious civil war amongst the taifas resulting in the destruction of Córdoba which had left them isolated and weak. They sent a request for help to the powerful African Almoravids, and their emir, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, crossed the straits to Algeciras and from there to Seville, where he set up a base camp. He was joined by the caliphs of Málaga, Seville and Granada and their troops marched as one army to Badajoz where they were joined by the troops of that taifa. The Muslim army now numbered between 60,000 to 80,000 men and Alfonso quickly abandoned the siege of Zaragoza and marched his army toward Badajoz. He sent out a request for assistance to Sancho I of Aragon for help, but when he met the Muslim force north-east of the city, he had only 2,500 troops under his command, many of whom, incongruously, were Jewish.

The Battle of Sagrajas took place after a brief period of negotiations. Alfonso asked for terms, and Tashfin offered to allow the Christians to convert to Islam, pay a crippling tribute, or fight. Alfonso chose to fight. The battle began at dawn, and an initial charge by the Christians resulted in the sacking of one of the taifa camps and the killing of several of their leaders. By the afternoon, however, Alfonso was encircled by the superior forces, and the battle was clearly lost. By the evening, half the Christian army lay dead on the battlefield.

The losses were heavy on the Muslim side, too, and this prevented the Moors from capitalising on their gain. Castile had not lost the psychologically important city of Toledo, and many of the taifas had lost so many leaders and troops that it would take months to rebuild their armies. At this crucial time, Tashfin had to return to Morocco because his son and heir had died. Though a decisive battle had been won at great cost by the intervention of the Almoravids, it would prove to be indecisive in the long term war. It was the first battle in a war of attrition that would only end four hundred years later. Now known as The Battle of Sagrajas, it took its name from the Arabic description of the battlefield, az-Zallaqah, or "slippery ground" because the warriors had difficulty fighting on the bloody soil.

Alfonso returned to Toledo and immediately swallowed his doubts about El Cid. He asked him to join his army as a general. They fought many campaigns together against the Moors, but El Cid began to distance himself from Alfonso and concentrate his efforts on the city of Valencia. By 1092 the city was under his control and the Islamic ruler, al-Qadir was forced to pay him parias, or tribute.

The Almoravids by now controlled many of the smaller city-states and stirred up an uprising against El Cid. In the battle to regain control Valencia, al-Qadir was killed. El Cid took control and created an independent principality, with the support of both Muslims and Christians. When the troubled Muslim princes had asked the Almoravids to intervene on their behalf, they had made a big mistake. The Arab princes who ruled al-Andalus had been replaced by Almoravid leaders, and by 1094 the Almoravid lord, Ibn Tashfin ruled Muslim Iberia. They had only been invited to help as a last resort. Even other Berber tribes thought them ruthless uncultured radicals.

 The Almohads 

In their homeland of western Africa, another Muslim faction was growing and gnawing at the Almoravid’s power base. The Almohads began their climb to ascendancy in the Atlas Mountains led by Ibn Tumart. They were a coalition of the Masmuda tribes from southern Morocco, who by 1147, had overthrown the Almorovid leaders and controlled Morocco under their Caliph, Abd al-Mu’min al-Gumi. By 1172 they had extended their dominion to al-Andalus as well where they encountered a coalition of Christian kingdoms and were defeated in 1214 at the battle Las Navas de Tolosa. Christian forces pushed back the Moors taking Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248.

Whilst all this had been going on in al-Andalus, across the straits in North Africa, a civil war was eroding the Almohad control, and yet another tribe was rising to dominance. The Marinids gradually gained control of all the districts, finally cornering the last Almohad lord in Marrakesh, where he was murdered by a slave. The Almohad dynasty was over, and Marinid power spread into al-Andalus during the next decade.