If the Muslim conquest of Spain can be traced back to 711, there is a good claim that the Christian reconquest of the peninsula started just 11 years later with a small but symbolic victory over the Moors at Covadonga. This picturesque town in the heart of what is now the hiking and climbing region of Asturias, a gateway into Los Picos de Europa but a fascinating and beautiful place to visit in its own right, contains the tomb of Pelayo, one of the foremost heroes of the Reconquest, or Reconquista.
The struggle to drive the Muslims out of Spain, though, was to take more than 700 years, until Granada fell in 1492. It truly was a tortuous process complicated by the high degree of integration between Muslims and Christians in many parts of the country and also by the fact that the Christian states were often as much at war with each other as they were with the Muslims. However, a significant step was taken in 740 when the Arabs were distracted by a Berber uprising elsewhere and the Kingdom of the Asturians, established by King Pelayo, annexed the coastal region to its west – Galicia. By 757, although Pelayo himself was now dead, the Christians occupied nearly a quarter of the entire peninsula.
In the early 9th century, Galicia made a powerful contribution to the essential ingredients of the Reconquest. In 813 some human remains were unearthed, which were claimed to be those of Saint James the Apostle, martyred in Jerusalem but floated over in a stone coffin to land at Padrón from whence it was taken to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago – Saint James in Spanish – who was to become the patron saint of Spain, became the focal point for Christians and visions of the apostle were said to have appeared to Christian leaders as he became their special inspiration and protector. Santiago was given the dubious title of ‘Matamoros’ – the Moor slayer – and helped galvanise the Asturian people. By the early 10th century the Asturians moved their capital from Oviedo to León. The small principality to the east of León, Castile, achieved Kingdom status under Fernando I and subsequently became the dominant force of the region.
One of Fernando’s subjects, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, was not only to become a symbol of national and Christian awakening, but also one of Spain’s greatest ever heroes – El Cid, the Chief. His exploits against the Muslims, on his white horse Babieca, thrilled Spaniards for centuries although modern historians mainly see him as being more interested in power and financial rewards than religion. His impact, however, was of great significance. El Cid’s sword, Tizona, can be seen at the Army Museum in Madrid.
Meanwhile, in 785, Girona was captured by King Charlemagne and the Franks, followed by Barcelona in 801. This region, known then as Marcia Hispánica, was governed by the Counts of Barcelona on behalf of the Franks and by the end of the 10th century was the significant region of Catalonia. When, in 1150, the ruling count married the heiress from Aragón these regions were united. As Aragón was part of the Basque kingdom of Navarre with its capital at Pamplona, which was making its own inroads into Muslim territory, this new alliance was becoming quite formidable.
In 1212 the combined Christian armies of Castile, Aragón and Navarra achieved a decisive victory over the Muslims at Las Navas de Tolosa in Andalucía and this was followed quickly by taking cities in Extremadura, the Balearic Islands and Valencia. Then in 1236, Ferdinand III, El Santo, captured Córdoba and the great mosque there was reconsecrated as a cathedral. When Seville was taken 12 years later, ironically with the assistance of the Muslim state of Granada, Seville’s arch rival, then the Christian territory in the country had more than doubled.
When Portugal expelled the Muslims in 1249 Moorish political control was confined to the Emirate of Granada.
The son of Ferdinand III, Alfonso X, El Sabio (The Learned), had his capital in Toledo and had both Jews and Muslims in his court as well as Christians. Muslims who stayed on after the Reconquest, mudéjares, were allowed to practise their own religion and traditions, mainly because of the economic value of the Muslim traders and artisans, and many elements of Muslim culture were adapted by the Christians.
In 1476, though, the Emir Abu al-Hasan of Granada refused to pay further taxes to Castile and Fernando II of Aragón, who had married Isabel I of Castile in 1469, to form the mighty Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs), launched the final crusade of the Reconquista in 1482. Eventually, after a long siege, the monarchs themselves rode into Granada on 2 January, 1492. Boabdil, the final emir of Granada, was allowed to stay in the Alpujarras in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, south of the city, and Muslims were promised religious and political freedom, a promise that lasted only a few years. The story is of Boabdil turning from the Sierra Nevada to take one final look at his beloved Alhambra and weeping, only to be told by his mother ‘not to weep like a woman over what he had failed to defend like a man.’
The Christian Reconquest of Spain was complete, just 771 years after its beginning.