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The Christians called Santiago their protector saint (today
he is still the patron of Spain) under the rubric of
Santiago Matamoros ("St. James the Moor-killer").
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The Reconquista (Spanish and Portuguese for reconquest) was the military reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by Christian rulers, conducted from 718 to 1492, following the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Visigothic kingdom.

The Portuguese Reconquista culminated in 1272 with the conquest of Algarve by Afonso III, setting Portuguese borders almost to their present location. In what became Spain, the process culminated on January 2, 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella, Los Reyes Catolicos ("The Catholic Monarchs"), expelled the last of the Moorish rulers, Boabdil of Granada, from the Iberian Peninsula, uniting most of what is now Spain under their rule (Navarre was not incorporated until 1512).



In the 5th century AD, Visigoths or western Goths allied with Rome to keep other barbarians away from the limes or Roman border. These tribes received Roman Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) and Southern Gaul as foedus, a payment for their loyalty. However, once the last emperor was deposed by Odoacer (476 AD), the Visigoths took Hispania as their kingdom.

After several centuries (most of them marked by civil wars) the last elected king, Rodrigo, was betrayed by the count of Ceuta, Julian, who called for the Muslims (or Moors) to enter Hispania. This was caused not only by political but by religious reasons, as Julian, like most of the people in Hispania at the time, was an Unitarian Christian (Arianism) and disagreed with the Visigothic elite conversion to Trinitarian Catholicism. The rebels considered monotheistic Islam a related religion as opposed to "heretic" Trinitariasm.

During the battle of Guadalete in 711, king Rodrigo lost his life. His left wing turned against him, as it was led by bishop Oppas, a collaborationist of the moors and member of other royal faction. By the end of the battle the whole kingdom fell, and the throne was left empty, for the Moors did not allow the Oppas’ faction to regain it. One of the few survivors was Pelayo, a noble in charge of the royal guard (Comes Spatharius).

For three years, Moors ran all over Hispania gaining city by city, helped by the native population. This rapid conquest can only be understood as a continuation of the civil wars that had afflicted the Peninsula for centuries.

The Berber soldiers under Tariq and Muza continued conquering on the other side of the Pyrenees, until they were defeated by Charles Martel in 732 in the Battle of Tours. The Moors then settled in the Iberian Peninsula, installing an emirate dependent on DamascusCaliph. Hispano-Romans (the local population) kept their properties and social status, as the change of governors did not suppose a change in current life, which stayed the same since the Roman times. By 714, the Moors had replaced the Visigoths in Hispania’s government. The local administration was not changed and counties were respected. There was no religious repression, just an extra tax for Christians (which led to mass conversions). The different conquerors received different portions of land. Berbers stayed in the poor lands of the northern plateau and southwest Spain. Syrians and Arabs received the rich valleys and cities.

By 714, most of the Iberian Peninsula changed from Hispania to Al-Andalus.

The rebellion of the Astures and the early kingdom

The north of Iberia (the former duchy of Gallaecia), a wet, high and mountainous region full of valleys (the Cantabric Range) was home to the Astures, Cantabri, and Basques since the first millennium BC and recent genetic studies hint strongly that they were there long before that time. Conquered by Augustus in 14 BC, these tribes were not fully romanized (concerning their tribal and cultural heritage) even if they spoke Latin and were more or less Christian (many were pagans). These lands, even if conquered, were not the most ideal place for the Moors, who just sent a military force and collected taxes, and as with the Romans, not bothering the Astures and Cantabri. But by the late 710’s Al-Andalus suffered of revolts. The Berbers did not like the lands they were given and were repressed by the emiral forces in several battles until the rebellion stopped, but then the Berbers turned against the Astures, claiming higher taxes and setting punishment patrols against their villages. This forced the Astures to start a guerrilla war. In 722 A.D. a Goth noble, Pelayo, who had returned to his county after Guadalete, became the leader of the Astures and started a period of stronger attacks. This year, the Moorish patrol entered deep in the Astur territory, following direct instructions from the Emir, who wanted to stop those revolts immediately. The facts are not clear, but in 722 (maybe 724 or 718), the Moors were defeated in the valley of Covadonga. The most accepted hypothesis for this battle (epic described by Christian chronicles; mere skirmish in Muslim texts) is that, the Moorish column was attacked from the cliffs and then fell back through the valleys towards present day Gijón, but was attacked in its way by the retinue of Duke Pedro of Cantabria and was nearly destroyed. This first battle made the Astures grow stronger. Once expelled the Moors from the eastern valleys of Asturias and this “federation” was settled, Pelayo attacked León, the main city in north-west Spain and assured the mountain passes, isolating the region from the Moorish attacks. Pelayo continued attacking the Berbers which still stayed north of the Cantabric Range until these left. He then married his son with Duke Pedro’s daughter (which was relative of the former Visigothic dynasty). At his death in 734, his now called kingdom of Asturias stretched all through eastern Asturias and Cantabria. It was not until several years later, under king Alphonso II (791-842), when the kingdom was really settled down. He was recognised as king of Asturias by Charlemagne and the Pope. He conquered Galicia and the Basques. During his reign, the holy bones of St. James the Great were declared to be found in Galicia, in Compostela (campus stellae, literally "the field of the star"). Pilgrims from all over Europe opened a way of communication between the isolated Asturias and the Carolingian lands and beyond. St. James was probably not buried in Galicia (it is supposed to be an old Celt grave yard) but it was a way to maintain an armed force inside the rebellion-prone territory of the Galician counts. Alphonso’s policy consisted in depopulating the borders of Vardulia (which would turn into Castile) in order to gain population support north of the Cantabric Range. This growth meant an increase in defence and attack forces. Now the kingdom was strong enough to sack and attack the Moorish cities of Lisbon, Zamora and Coimbra. Not willing to conquer, for centuries on the major part of military actions were focused on pillage and tributes: weakening the enemy and getting fortunes and morale for their soldiers.

The Pyrenees’ block

The Spanish Marches were settled in 775 AD and allowed the growth of small states in the Pyrenees. Once the Franks had driven the moors out of France, the necessity of defending the mountain passes of the Pyrenees became an important point in Charlemagne’s policy. Fortifications were built, and protection was given to the inhabitants of the old Roman cities, such as Jaca and Gerona. The main passes were (eastwards) Roncesvalles, Somport and Junquera. In each of them, Charlemagne settled the counties of Pamplona, Aragon and Catalonia (which was formed from a number of small counties, Pallars, Gerona, Urgell being the most prominent).

In 778, the Frankish expedition against Saragossa failed and the army was destroyed while fleeing back to France. This fact is sung in the “Chanson de Roland” At any rate, this battle set the western Pyrenees free from Frankish rule and as a result, two different states appeared: the kingdom of Pamplona (later known as Navarre) and the counties of Aragon, Sobarbe and Ribagorza. Navarre emerged as a kingdom around Pamplona, its capital, and controlled Roncesvalles pass. Its first king was Iñigo Arista. He expanded his domains up to the Bay of Biscay and conquered a few towns beyond the Pyrenees, but never directly attacked the Carolingian armies, as he was in theory their vassal. It was not until Queen Jimena in the 9th century that Pamplona was officially recognised as an independent kingdom by the Pope. Aragon, founded in 809 by Aznar Galíndez, grew around Jaca and the high valleys of the Aragon River, protecting the old Roman road. By the end of the 10th century, Aragon was annexed to Navarre. Sobarbe and Ribagorza were small counties, with little importance to the Reconquista.

The Catalonian counties protected the eastern Pyrenees’ passes and shores. They were under the direct control of the Frankish kings and were the last remains of the Spanish Marches. Catalonia included not only the southern Pyrenees’ counties of Gerona, Pallars, Urgell, Vic and Andorra but also some which were on the northern side of the mountains, such as Perpignan and Foix. The most important of them all was Barcelona, once it was conquered in 801 by Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. Soon, in the late 9th century under Count Wilfred, Barcelona became the capital of Catalonia. It controlled the other counties’ policies in a union, which lead in 948 to the independence of Catalonia under Count Borrel II, who declared that the new dynasty in France (the Capets) were not the legitimate rulers of France nor, as a result, of Catalonia. Theses states were small and did have much capacity for expansion (except for Navarre), as Asturias had, and due to their situation in the mountains, they had no chance against a united and strong Al-Andalus. As results, their borders stayed the same for two centuries.

War tactics in medieval Iberian Peninsula

Daily life was reflected in its warfare. Small, lightly equipped armies reflect how the society (constantly at war) had to be on alert and be capable of moving long distance in short times, to return home once sacking the objective. The main battles were either between clans, expelling intruder armies or sacking expeditions.

Medieval Spain was in a different cultural context than the rest of Continental Europe, due to the contact with the Moorish culture and the isolation provided by the Pyrenees. As a consequence, war tactics were different from those in the rest of Europe (with the exception of Catalonia, which always was very influenced by the Franks).

Medieval Spanish armies were mainly formed by two groups of soldiers, cavalry (mainly nobles, but commoner knights from the 10th century onwards) and infantry, or peones, meaning peasants. Infantry only went to war if needed, which was not common. Cavalry fought in a typical Spanish way. Knights approached the enemy and then threw javelins, just before turning around and running back, so as to start all over again. Once the enemy formation was weakened enough, the knights charged with thrusting spears (as lances did not arrive to Hispania until the 11th century). There were three types of knights: royal knights, noble knights (caballeros hidalgos) and commoner knights (caballeros villanos). Royal knights were mainly nobles with a close relationship with the king, and had a Goth inheritance. They were equipped in the same manner as their Gothic ancestors - braceplate, kite shield, a long sword (designed to fight from the horse) and apart from the javelins and spears, the typical Visigoth double-axe. Caballeros hidalgos and Caballeros villanos were similarly equipped; the only difference among them was their origin. Noble knights were infanzones or lower nobles, whereas the commoner knights were not noble, but were wealthy enough to afford a horse. These horsemen had no feudal links, and only were under the control of the king or the count of Castile because of the fueros (explained in the Reconquista#Repopulating Hispania: the origin of fueros). They were a militia cavalry force unique through all Europe. Both types of knight wore leather armour, javelins, spears and round-tasselled shields (influenced by Moorish shields), apart from a sword.

The peones were the peasants who went to battle due to their feudal relationship, and served their lord. Poorly equipped (bows and arrows, spears and short swords), they were mainly used as auxiliary troops. Their function in battle was to contain the enemy troops until the cavalry arrived and to block the enemy infantry from charging the knights.

The typical armours were the leather ones; they usually had iron scales attached. Full coat of mails were extremely rare and horse barding was completely unknown. The head protections were the round helmet, with a nose protector (a Viking influence, result of the attacks of the 8th and 9th centuries) and a chain mail head piece. Shields were often round or kidney-shaped excepting those belonging to the royal knights, which used to be kite-shaped. Usually adorned with geometric designs, crosses or tassels, shields were made out of wood and had a leather cover.

Weapons were largely steel swords. Long and double-bladed if mounted and short and single-bladed if from a foot soldier. The guard of the sword used to be or half a circle or straight, but always very ornamented with geometrical patterns. The spears and javelins were up to 1.5 metres long and had an iron tip. The double-axe was perfectly designed to be thrown or to be used in close combat. It was iron-made and 30 cm long, with an extremely sharp edge. Maces and hammers were not common, but some have remained, and are thought to have been used mounted.

Finally, mercenaries were an important factor, as many kings did not have enough soldiers and could afford them. Norsemen, Flemish spearmen, Frank knights, Moorish mounted archers and Berber light cavalry were the main mercenaries available, and were who was more often hired.

This way of warfare remained in the Iberian Peninsula until the late 11th century, when couched lance tactics entered from France and substituted the traditional style of horse javelin-shot. Then, in the 12th and 13th centuries, horse barding, suits of armours, double-handed swords and crossbows definitely left the early Spanish tactics obsolete.

Repopulating Hispania: the origin of fueros

The Reconquista is a process not only of war and conquest, but mainly of repopulating. Christian kings took their own people to abandoned places, in order to have population capable to defend the borders. The main repopulation areas were the Duero basin (the northern plateau), the high Ebro valley (La Rioja) and central Catalonia. Repopulation appeared as the result of Berbers abandoning the land that they were given and the population growth of the Christian kingdoms. The Duero Basin was repopulated in two different ways, in two different periods of time. North of the river and between the 9th and 10th centuries it was used the presura system. South of the Duero (in the 10th and 11th centuries) the presura lead to the fueros. Fueros were used even south of the Central Range.

The presura meant a group of peasants which crossed the mountains and settled in the abandoned lands of the Duero basin. Asturian laws promoted this system with laws, as the one which gave a peasant in property all the land he was able to work and defend. Of course, Asturian and Galician minor nobles and clergymen set their own expeditions with the peasants they maintained. This led to very feudalised areas, such as Leon and Portugal, whereas Castile, an arid land with vast plains and hard climate only attracted peasant with no hope in Cantabria and Biscay. As a consequence, Castile was only governed by a single count, but had a big, low-feudalised territory with many free peasants. Presuras also appear in Catalonia, when the count of Barcelona ordered the Bishop of Urgell and the count of Gerona to repopulate the plains of Vic.

During the 10th century and onwards, cities and towns gained more importance and power, as commerce reappeared and the population kept growing. Fueros were charters documenting the privileges and usages given to all the people repopulating a town. The fueros were the way to escape from the feudal system, as fueros were only given by the monarch, as a counterpart, the town council (the concejo) only was dependant on him and had to help their lord (auxilium), and their military force was known as caballeros villanos. The first fuero was given by count Fernán González to the inhabitants of Castrojeriz in the 940’s. The most important towns of medieval Spain had fueros. In Navarre, fueros were the main repopulating system and also in Aragon (in a later stage: 12th century mainly), for example the fuero of Teruel, which was one of the last fueros, in the early 13th century. In the 13th century no more fueros were given, as the demographic pressure had disappeared and other ways of repopulation were created. While presuras allowed Castile to have the only non-feudal peasants in Europe other than cossacks, fueros remained as city charters until the 18th century in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia and until the 19th century in Castile and Navarre. Fueros had an immense importance for medieval people, and defended them with war if necessary. The abolition of the fueros in Navarre was one of the causes of the Carlist wars. In Castile they had a great importance and were the cause of the war against Charles I (Castilian war of the Communities).

The 10th and 11th centuries: crisis and splendour

Knowing the situation of Al-Andalus is important to understand the development of the Christian kingdoms. The 9th century saw the Berber revolts, and they returned back to Africa, and many governors of big cities far away from the capital (Cordoba) planned to separate. Then, in 923 the Emir of Cordoba (Abd-al-Rahman III), the last descendant of the Ummayad dynasty, declared himself caliph, independent from Baghdad. He took all the military, religious and political power and reorganised the army and the bureaucracy. Once he had regained the control over the dissident governors, the caliph decided to expel the Christians from the Iberian peninsula, attacking several times the kingdoms and making them retreat back to the Cantabric range. After his death his son became a puppet in the hands of the great Vizer Almanzor (al-Mansur, "the victorious"). Almanzor became the terror of all the Christian kings, as he attacked and sacked Burgos, Leon, Pamplona, Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela. Almanzor died in 1002, after being defeated by the Castilian army. Between Almanzur’s death and 1031, Al-Andalus suffered many civil wars which ended in the appearance of the Taifa kingdoms. The taifas were small kingdoms, result of the independence wishes of the governors of many cities. The result was many (up to 34) small kingdoms centred upon their capital, and the governors seeking only their benefit, attacking at any opportunity their neighbour kingdoms.

Alphonso III of Asturias repopulated Leon and set there the capital, as it was in a more strategic position (the kingdom became at his death Kingdom of Leon). From his new capital, king Alphonso started a series of campaigns which gave him control over all the lands north of the Duero. He reorganized his territories into the major duchies (Galicia and Portugal) and major counties (Saldaña and Castile), he also fortified the borders with many castles. At his death in 910 his heir Ordoño II was able to organize attacks to Toledo and even Seville. The Caliphate of Cordoba was gaining power, and started to attack Leon. Navarre and king Ordoño allied against Abd-al-Rahman but were defeated in Valdejunquera, in 920. For 80 years on, the kingdom of Leon suffered civil wars, the devastating attacks of the Moors, intrigues and assassinations, and the partial independence of Galicia and Castile. The only moment when the situation seemed to change was under Ramiro III, until he was killed. King Ramiro, in alliance with Count Fernán González of Castile, and his retinue of caballeros villanos, defeated the caliph in Simancas, in 939. After this battle, when the caliph barely escaped with his guard and the rest of the army was destroyed, King Ramiro obtained 12 years of peace, but had to give González the independence of Castile as a payment for his help in the battle. After this defeat, Almanzor was the next to attack the Christians. It was Alphonso V in 1002 who finally defeated Almanzour and regained the control over his domains. Navarre, even if suffering from attacks from Almanzor was able to keep it safe. Alphonso annexed Aragon in the 10th century and expanded its control over southern France. King Garcia II (late 10th century) received Biscay from Castile and under his reign, Navarre was the hegemonic kingdom in the medieval Spain. King Sancho the Great, who reigned between 1004 and 1035 annexed Castile due to his marriage, conquered Sobrarbe and Ribagorza and made Leon his vassal after killing the only son of king Bermudo III. But following the Navarrese custom, king Sancho divided his kingdom among his sons: Castile (and Biscay) for Fernando, Navarre and Rioja for Sancho IV, Aragon for Ramiro and Sobrarbe (with Ribagorza) to Gonzalo. Ramiro soon had his brother Gonzalo killed and annexed his domains, while Fernando (naming himself king) married the daughter of Bermudo III, becoming king of Leon and Castile. Fernando I was the leading king of his era. He conquered Coimbra, in Portugal and attacked the taifa kingdoms, not willing to conquer, but to receive the tributes known as parias. Fernando’s strategy was to ask for parias until the taifa was too weak. King Fernando also repopulated the Borders with numerous fueros. Following the Navarrese tradition, he divided at his death in 1064 his kingdom upon his sons. His son Sancho II of Castile wanted to reunite the kingdom of his father and attacked his brothers, with a young noble at his side: Rodrigo Díaz (later known as El Cid Campeador). Sancho was killed while in the siege of Zamora by the traitor Bellido Dolfos in 1072. His brother Alphonso VI took over Leon, Castile and Galicia. Alphonso VI, “the brave”, gave more power to the fueros and repopulated Segovia, Avila and Salamanca. Then, once he had secured the Borders, king Alphonso conquered the powerful Taifa kingdom of Toledo in 1085. Toledo, which was the former capital of the Visigoths was a very important landmark, and gave Alphonso renown all through the Christianity, and named himself Imperator totius Hispaniae, or "Emperor of all the Spains" (all the Christian kingdoms of Spain). Of course, this meant an important change in the policy about Taifas, and all the Taifa kings feared Alphonso, so they asked the African Almoravids for help. Almoravids were religiously fanatic and were mainly Berber. Their armies entered several times in the peninsula (1086, 1088, 1093) and defeated king Alphonso, but their purpose was not to conquer the Christian kingdoms (for the moment) but to unite all the Taifas in a single Almoravid Caliphate. Anyway, they stopped the Christian expansion south, excepting their only defeat, at Valencia in 1094, which was defended by El Cid. Meanwhile, Navarre lost all importance under king Sancho IV, for he lost Rioja against Sancho II of Castile, and was nearly the vassal of Aragon. At his death, the Navarrese chose as their king Sancho I of Aragon, who became Sancho V of Navarre and I of Aragon. Sancho Ramírez I gave Aragon international recognition, as united Aragon and Navarre, expanded the borders south, deep in the valleys conquering Huesca in 1096 and building a fort 25 km away from Saragossa. Catalonia suffered lots of pressure from the Taifa of Saragossa and of Lleida, and also internal disputes, as Barcelona had a dynastical crisis which lead to open war among the smaller counties, but by the 1080’s, the situation calmed, and the domain of Barcelona over the smaller counties was restored.

It was not until later centuries that the Christians started to see their conquests as part of a effort of centuries to restore the unity of the Visigothic kingdom.

The battle against Moors did not keep the Christian kingdoms from battling among themselves or allying with Islamic kings. For example, the earlier kings of Navarre were family of the Banu Qasi of Tudela. The Moorish kings often had wives or mothers born Christians. Also Christian champions like El Cid were contracted by Taifa kings to fight against their neighbours.

In the late years of Al-Andalus, Castile had the military power to conquer the remains of the kingdom of Granada, but the kings preferred to claim the tribute of the parias. The commerce of Granadan goods and the parias were a main way for the African gold to enter medieval Europe.

In the High Middle Ages, the fight against the Moors in Iberia was linked to the fight of the whole of Christendom. Military orders like the order of Santiago, Montesa ,Order of Calatrava and the Temple Knights were founded or called to fight in Iberia. The Popes called the knights of Europe to the Crusades in the peninsula. After the so called Battle of Alarcos, French, Navarrese, Castilian and Aragonese armies united in the massive battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212).

The mixing of Christians, Muslims and Jews was later officially ended by the rules of ethnic or religious purity of the Modern Age, namely the Spanish limpieza de sangre and the expulsion of Jews by Manuel I in Portugal.

The big territories awarded to military orders and nobles were the origin of the latifundia in today's Andalusia and Extremadura, in Spain, and Alentejo, in Portugal.

Cultural influence

Real or imaginary episodes of the Reconquista are the subject of much of Mediaeval Spanish- and Catalan-language literature, such as the cantar de gesta.

Modern views

Modern historical theories dispute the idea that the Reconquista was merely a war of Christians versus Muslims. These theories note that the Muslims had occupied significant parts of the Iberian Peninsula for eight centuries, over which time it would had been impossible to keep ethnic groups separated. Noble genealogies clearly show the close relations between Muslims and Christians. More evidence supporting those theories is that the Portuguese and Spanish languages themselves have a high number of words of Arabic origin. Instead of the term 'Reconquista', the concept of a civil war has been proposed. This has not gained wide acceptance, however, although its supporters attribute this to sociopolitical forces. Regardless, it is not disputed that these wars had a strong religious component.

It has also been proposed that the war left the Iberian kingdoms with deep economic crises, which would be the reason behind expelling the Jews (who had lived in the Iberian Peninsula for over ten centuries) in order to confiscate their funds and property. It should be noted however that Portuguese Reconquista ended in 1257 and that the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms were already profiting from their maritime expansion before the Jews were expelled (see Portugal in the period of discoveries and History of Spain).

It is accepted that the Reconquista cannot be seen as a single war, but as a long military, political and social process with times of war and times of peace.

Social types under the Reconquista

The advances and retreats created several social types:

  • The Mozarabs: descendants of Visigothic or Romanic dwellers who did not convert to Islam. Some of them migrated to the North in times of persecution.
  • The Muladi: Christians who converted to Islam after the invasion.
  • The Renegade: Christian individuals who embraced Islam and often fought against their former compatriots.
  • The Jewish conversos: Jews who either voluntarily or forced became Christians. Some of them were crypto-Jews who kept practicing Judaism. Eventually all Jews were forced to leave Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, and Portugal some years later. Their Converso descendants became victims of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.
  • The Mudejar: Muslims dwelling in land conquered by the Christians, usually peasants. Their characteristic architecture of adobe bricks was frequently employed in churches commissioned by the new lords. Their descendants after 1492 were called Moriscos

Currently, the festivals of moros y cristianos (Spanish) and mouros e cristãos (Portuguese) both meaning "Moors and Christians" recreate the fights as colourful parades with elaborate garments and lots of fireworks, especially in the Spanish Mediterranean coast.

See also

External links


  • Payne, Stanley, "The Emergence of Portugal", A History of Spain and Portugal: Volume One. Available online at [1].

Further reading

  • Bishko, Charles Julian, 1975. The Spanish and Portuguese Reconquest, 1095-1492 in A History of the Crusades, vol. 3: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, edited by Harry W. Hazard, (University of Wisconsin Press)
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