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Spain in the Middle Ages

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In many ways, the history of Spain is marked by waves of conquerors who brought their distinct cultures to the peninsula. After the passage of the Vandals and Alans down the Mediterranean coast of Hispania from 408, the history of medieval Spain begins with the Iberian kingdom of the Arianist Visigoths (507–711), who were converted to Catholicism with their king Reccared in 587. Visigothic culture in Spain can be seen as a phenomenon of Late Antiquity as much as part of the Age of Migrations.

From Northern Africa in 711, the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate crossed into Spain, at the invitation of a Visigothic clan to assist it in rising against King Roderic. Over the period 711–788, the Umayyads conquered most of the lands of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania and established the territory known as Al-Andalus. A revolt during the conquest established the Christian Kingdom of Asturias in the North of Spain.

Much of the period is marked by conflict between the Muslim and Christian states of Spain, referred to as the Reconquista, or the Reconquest (i.e.: The Christians "reconquering" their lands as a religious crusade). The border between Muslim and Christian lands wavered southward through 700 years of war, which marked the peninsula as a militarily contested space. The medieval centuries also witnessed episodes of warfare between Spain's Christian states. Wars between the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile were sparked by dynastic rivalries or disagreements over tracts of land conquered or to be conquered from the Muslim south.

The Middle Ages in Spain are often said to end in 1492 with the final acts of the Reconquista in the capitulation of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada and the Alhambra decree ordering the expulsion of the Jews. Early Modern Spain was first united as an institution in the reign of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor as Charles I of Spain.


Early medieval SpainEdit

The Tolosanian Kingdom and the Visigothic conquest of HispaniaEdit

In 439 the Tolosanian Kingdom, with Toulouse as its capital city, became an independent state and the first Germanic Kingdom on Roman soil. By 456, as allies of the Roman emperor Avitus, the Goths had conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula under Theoderic II (r. 453–66). What the contemporary Hispanian bishop Hydatius described in his chronicle as an invasion, was, in reality, a campaign against the Sueves, directly prompted by Ravenna. In the same year, Theoderic began the conquest of additional territory in both Gaul and Hispania on his own authority. In 466 he was murdered by his brother and successor Euric, who no longer wanted to operate within a Roman context. Three years later, Euric (r. 466–84) expanded the Tolosanian Kingdom north to the Loire.

Tolosanian Kingdom around 500

When in 471 Italy was in a state of all-out civil war between different factions, the Ostrogoths rebelled against Ravenna. At the same time, the Visigothic king Euric adopted a strategy of pressure on the Romans for control over new territories in Gaul, arguing that the Franks and Burgundians were becoming increasingly hostile to the Visigoths. No longer able to deal with the strain building from different sides, the Romans undertook nothing when Euric conquered the Auvergne in 474, adding the Provence and Arelate (Arles) one year later. With the deposition of the last Roman boy-emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus by Odoacer in 476, Euric’s generals rapidly overran the remaining parts of north-eastern Hispania that were still administered directly by Rome. The fragile alliance between the empire and the Visigoths had now finally come to an end and Euric established an independent kingdom in Gaul and northern Hispania.

By about 480 the Visigothic kingdom extended from the valleys of the Loire and the Rhône to the Pyrenees and also encompassed the Iberian Peninsula, except for Gallaecia, which remained in the hands of the Sueves. When Euric died in 484 of natural causes, the greatly enlarged kingdom was taken over by his son Alaric II (r. 484–507). Alaric kept the royal court in Tolosa and married the daughter of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, who had made himself king of Italy in 493, after brutally murdering Odoacer and many of his followers. Despite the conquest of much of Hispania, southern Gaul remained the primary area of Visigothic occupation, with Tolosa as its administrative centre and principal royal residence.

Violent royal successions would remain typical for the Visigothic Kingdom. Unlike the Franks, the Visigoths would prove unable to establish stable royal dynasties. Sedition and civil war would almost be the order of the day. To avert these disorders the Iberian Church Councils of the seventh century tried to regulate the succession in accordance with the elective principle. In their anxiety to preserve stable government, the councils were prepared to acknowledge anyone who gained the throne, even if by questionable means.

Franco-Visigothic WarsEdit

In 498/9 the ambitious young Frankish king Clovis I converted to the Catholic faith, which brought him the support of neighbouring Christians as well as that of the influential clergy. In addition, it allowed him to undertake crusades to Christianise his new territories and to expunge Arianism, the Christian persuasion embraced by the Goths which was considered a heresy by the Catholic clergy. Predictably, it did not take long before Clovis began to challenge Visigothic control in Gaul. While diplomatic efforts were made by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic to contain the Franks and dissolve their alliance with the Burgundians, Clovis’ political ally the Byzantine Emperor Anastasios attacked Theoderic’s realm in the east. This action was most likely arranged to prevent Theoderic from providing support to his Arian brethren in the West.

When in the spring of 507 war broke out between Clovis and Alaric II, the Frankish army crossed the river Loire towards Poitiers, where the Franks met with their Burgundian allies. The Visigothic army marched to the north to cut them off in the hope that Ostrogothic reinforcements would arrive in time. The battle took place on the plain of Vouillé (Campus Vogladensis), about 20 km from Poitiers. Clovis had 40,000 men in his army, of whom 10,000 were cavalry. Without their Ostrogothic allies, the Visigothic army had fewer soldiers. Mainly composed of cavalry, the Gothic army lacked the battle-experience of the Franks. Though the Goths tried to ride down the enemy infantry, the shield-wall of the numerous Frankish foot soldiers managed to withstand the Gothic cavalry charges and the Franks were not fooled by the enemy’s feigned retreats. In the melee that followed, the Frankish troops killed King Alaric II. The death of their king caused the Visigoths to disband and large numbers were massacred by the Franks (“And when the Goths had fled as was their custom, king Clovis won the victory by God's aid.”).[1]


With Alaric killed, the Franks took southern Gaul, occupying Bordeaux, Tolosa and other cities, while their Burgundian allies entered Septimania. With the Franks as the new masters of most of Gaul, the Visigoths moved to Hispania in great numbers. The Gothic newcomers settled in relatively dense numbers in the sparsely populated upper regions of the central Meseta, between the rivers Tajo and Ebro, from Soria along the Duero River to the Campos Góticos (“Gothic Fields”), and especially in the triangle formed by the towns of Palencia, Toledo and Calatayud, also penetrating the provinces of Tarraconensis and Baetica.

A year later, Theoderic the Great (r. 511–26) drove the invaders out of Septimania and thus re-created a corridor between Gothic Hispania and Italy. After his rescue operation, Theoderic was elected regent of what was left of the Visigothic Kingdom, while Septimania would remain the sole Visigothic enclave in Gaul up to the Muslim conquest in 711. The Visigoths transferred their political centre from Toulouse to Narbonne. This involuntary shift of capital city made Septimania the new heartland of the Visigothic nation, which they referred to as Gothia. Until Theoderic’s death in 526, the kingdom remained an Ostrogothic dependency, ruled by Ostrogothic governors.

Not long after Theoderic’s death, hostilities between the Franks and the Visigoths were resumed. At first Amalaric (r. 523–531), by marrying Clovis’ daughter Chlotilde, established friendly relations with his northern neighbours, but his ill-treatment of his Frankish wife and his attempts to force the Catholic Chlotilde to accept Arianism caused the Franks to renew their attacks. Amalaric was expelled from Narbonne and fled to Barcino (Barcelona), where he was murdered in 531. Subsequently, the Franks laid waste to Tarraconensis, seized Pamplona and besieged Zaragoza in 542, but their hope of extending their dominion south of the Pyrenees was not to be fulfilled. Visigoth forces, led by their general and later king Theudigisel, were able to block their egress and the Franks were eventually forced to buy their way out.

Visigothic societyEdit

The population of IberiaEdit

Though the Visigoths would dominate the political structure of the Peninsula for nearly three centuries, they were never more than a very small minority of the total population. Estimates concerning the actual size of the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman populations vary greatly. Collins is of the opinion that at the time of the invasion, the Visigoths probably numbered around 30,000 people and may never have exceeded 100,000 people in all, whereas the Hispano-Roman population almost certainly exceeded a million inhabitants.

O’Callaghan assumes far higher numbers and states that there must have been 200,000 to 300,000 Visigoths and six to nine million Hispano-Romans, while Kennedy estimates the total number of Iberians at the time of the Visigothic invasion at around four million: “(…) we can picture a very empty landscape, where settlements were few, far between, poor and primitive. Agricultural resources were in many cases neglected or underexploited (…)”.[2]

Gothic identityEdit

Whereas under Alaric intermarriage between Romans and, according to Roman Law, ”barbarians” was still forbidden, King Liuvigild (d. 586) abrogated this law in an attempt to unify the Peninsula and its people. His son Reccared (d. 601) resolved the last major differences between the indigenous population and the Gothic minority by the general conversion to Catholicism in 589. As there was no longer any need to preserve separate Gothic and Hispano-Roman identities, the Germanic language, clothing and probably the last remnants of the hereditary culture of the Migration Period were subsequently definitively abandoned.

There are good reasons to assume that by the later seventh century a common ethnic identity had developed. One simple indicator of the final Gothic integration and even “Gothicisation” of the indigenous population is the extraordinary prevalence of originally Gothic names in the copious documentation of the centuries following the Arab conquest in both north and south. The majority of Christians in Iberia after 711 had names of Gothic origin, several of which, such as Alfonso or Rodrigo, have survived to the present. By the seventh century, the word Gothic refers to both gens and patria and has not much to do anymore with ethnic identity.

The nobilityEdit

Visigothic society was broadly divided into two groups, the free and the unfree, of whom the former were the majority. Free men of talent could be admitted to noble rank, but by the late seventh century, the aristocracy as a whole was basically a hereditary class, constituted by Visigothic lords and survivors of the Roman senatorial class, sometimes with the titles dux (duke) or comes (count). They typically were owners of large, often underexploited estates cultivated by semi-free peasants (coloni), and also maintained their own companies of armed men (buccellarii, sagiones), who had taken an oath of allegiance and who were privately compensated.

Private bands like these were like the typical Germanic comitatus. According to Tacitus in his Germania, this was a company of warriors who freely pledged loyalty to a renowned chieftain in return for glory, booty, protection and maintenance. They did not only greatly increase the power and prestige of the nobility, and would prove to be a disturbing element in society and a threat to royal authority. In spite of laws against the integration of Romans and Visigoths, the fusion of Visigothic and Roman ruling classes through intermarriage and other social and political relationships had probably already begun with the first settlement of the Visigoths in the Peninsula. Nevertheless, for political reasons as well as to compensate the small proportion of Goths in the Iberian population, Visigothic Iberia shows the continuing predominance of the Germanic aristocracy.

The seniores Gothorum, magnates living in more or less closed societies, or the “very prosperous Gothic people” mentioned by Isidore of Seville at the beginning of the seventh century, progressively assumed politico-military power. In all, there were perhaps only some 500 families of primates, who with their protégés, their free and unfree domestic servants and their faithful followers, formed the truly solid part of the Visigothic army, to which the provincial levies hardly added anything of value. Through their stewards and other agents, the noble lords maintained order and exercised civil and sometimes criminal jurisdiction over the villagers living on their estates.

The Fourth Council of Toledo (633) determined that the nobility acted as electors of the king. Nobles could not be tortured or subjected to corporal punishment, except in cases of extreme gravity. At the same time, they were subject to heavier fines than those imposed on simple freemen, and frequently their properties were confiscated. King Wamba (d. 680) declared that nobles lost all their capital and estates before they were banished from the kingdom for failure to answer the royal summons of war, while Egica (d. 702) enacted the same penalty for refusal to take the public oath of allegiance to the king.


All freemen of Roman and Gothic origin (ingenui, minores or inferiores) could sue in court, but they were subjected more often to torture and corporal punishment than the nobility. Among the rural population, free proprietors, both Roman possessores and Gothic hospites, were the most prominent group. Difficult economic and political circumstances, however, caused many of them to surrender their property to great lords and to become tenants in return for protection.

In theory tenant farmers (coloni) remained freemen, but as the relationship tended to be for life, it ultimately often became hereditary, since coloni they could not leave the land, nor be expelled from it. Coloni also had to pay poll tax to their lords. The law required coloni to marry persons of the same social condition. If a colonus married a woman from another estate, the children were divided between the two lords, which in the end made his condition not much different from that of a slave.


As under Roman law, slaves (servi or mancipii) were totally lacking in liberty and possessed neither rights nor obligations. If slaves wanted to marry they needed the consent of their patrons. Children of slaves and of mixed unions between freemen and slaves were also slaves. However, there are numerous misconceptions about slavery among the Goths and Germanic tribes in general. Contrary to Roman custom, under Germanic law slaves had to be taken care of by their masters, whereas freemen had to fend for themselves so that in certain cases slaves had a better life than free men.

Another important difference with Roman law was that the slaves of a Visigothic household were not killed when the master died to make sure that they would not rebel. This did not only mean that slaves were considered too expensive to be killed, but it also reflects that Germanic law was based on a different mindset than Roman law. Whereas under Roman law a human life was generally not considered particularly valuable, Germanic law knew the concept of wergeld, which regulated the fines for the killing of another person in great detail. The following are a few examples of fines recorded in later Carolingian law:

Fine for someone who killed a

  • Frank: 200 solidi
  • royal retainer: 600 solidi
  • young freewoman: 200 solidi
  • pregnant woman: 600 solidi

Normally, punishments for slaves, regulated by the Lex Visigothorum VI, 5.12, ascribed to King Chindaswinth (d. 653), were prison and beatings. Masters should not kill their slaves without due process of law, so the power of the masters on their slaves was curtailed. An interesting detail is that if a master had incited a slave to kill someone, the slave would get the “normal dishonourable punishment”, such as decalvatio (shorn head), 200 lashes etc., whereas his master would get the death penalty. The Church also owned slaves, but it tried to mitigate the harshness of slavery and to encourage manumission.


An owner could free his slaves by an oral act in the presence of witnesses, by a written charter, or by a will. The juridical condition of a freedman (libertus) was intermediate to that of a freeman and a slave. Corporal punishments were more severe and fines were higher than those imposed on a man born free, and a freedman could not testify against a freeman. He could not marry his former owner, and if he married a slave, his children would be slaves.

The JewsEdit

The Visigoths were generally intolerant of Judaism and its adherents. After Reccared’s conversion to Catholicism, matters became even worse. Instigated by the pope in Rome, the Visigothic kings embarked on an aggressive anti-Jewish policy that reached its climax in the seventh century. A succession of royal ecclesiastical councils at Toledo either decreed the forcible baptism of the Jews or forbade circumcision, Jewish rites and observance of the Sabbath and festivals. Jews were forbidden to marry Christians, to own Christian slaves, or to hold public offices in which they would have the power to punish Christians. The situation came to a head when in 694 King Egica (r. 687–702) denounced the Jews for conspiring against him. In punishment of their perfidy, Jews who obstinately refused to accept the Christian religion were reduced to slavery and their property was confiscated.

In 694, in response to king Egica’s complaint that the Jews were conspiring against him and entering into treasonous contact with their brethren and with the Muslims in North Africa, the bishops supported the king’s proposal to deprive the Jews of their property and to reduce them to the status of chamber servants. Their children were taken away to be raised by Christian families once they had reached the age of seven. Small wonder that the Jews would welcome the Moorish invasion in 711, and actively help the invaders to bring down the Visigothic Kingdom.

Farming soldiers and soldiering farmersEdit

At the beginning of the fifth century, Gothic military units received the usual treatment accorded to soldiers of the late Roman Empire in border areas. As they were meant for the defence of the towns and to prevent a possible usurpation of the local nobility, the Gothic garrisons were originally billeted in private town houses. Because Late Roman and Early Medieval society lived mainly by agriculture, these soldiers carried out military as much as rural tasks. In peacetime, they tilled the land as all the other people in the cities did.

Some scholars assume that in this period two groups of Goths developed: a military one which lived in the cities and was paid with money, while a second group cultivated the land and defended its territory. These soldiers lived off the incomes obtained from cultivating the land and carrying out any military duties, not necessarily under the command of the king of Tolosa. They received the usual anona and the five-year donative in money which the emperor granted to all his soldiers. Other Goths looked for additional income, from which they could distribute gifts among their soldiers and maintain a comitatus, by controlling the harbours and developing individual initiatives.

Visigothic church of Santa Comba de Bande, Ourense. Galicia, Spain.

Though the Roman Empire was organised in cities, being an agricultural society, the real power came from the land, and it was common for the Roman aristocracy to have vast landed estates. When the Goths arrived in Gaul and Hispania as allies of Rome in 418, the ius hospitalitatis entitled them to receive such land. The normal procedure was that two thirds (tertiae) of the land went to the Roman auxiliaries, whereas the original owner retained the remaining one third. In effect, however, Gothic and Roman consortes shared land, woods and pastures equally.

Though it is usually assumed that the ius hospitalitatis primarily affected the estates of the Roman senatorial class, it is likely that large parts of deserted lands in depopulated areas may have been involved, since by the end of the fifth century, in Hispania Roman villas had virtually all been abandoned as residential sites. Some villas may have been used as storehouses by local agricultural communities, or as a church. In others, the abandoned rooms were turned into places of burial. Similar employment of deserted Roman villas can be found in several parts of Anglo-Saxon England in the same period. From the time of Theoderic I (d. 451) onwards, the Goths had not only been granted land but had also been allotted sortes (fiscal resources). They gradually began to own more and more property and to control the taxation system. Not causing disruptions substantial enough for their contemporaries to realise any major change, the Goths were thus able to quietly take over the Empire’s heritage.


Like in other parts of Europe, the overall history of the Iberian city is characterised by periods of destruction and abandonment, at least of parts of the settlement, alternating with ones of rebuilding and reconstruction. The grand private town houses of the early empire had either been broken up into smaller units or been transformed into urban farmhouses. In many cities, evidence of the abandonment of the Roman public buildings can be found well before the end of Roman rule. Most of these served as quarries for good-quality building stones and particularly their columns and capitals were reused in the church buildings, which would be the principal construction projects of the Late-Roman and post-Roman centuries.

With the decline in the size of the population, together with the crop growing and animal husbandry taking place within the walls, the former Roman cities and their immediate surroundings became increasingly rural in character. Smaller towns followed similar patterns and a number of significant Roman settlements disappeared completely either in the seventh or the eighth century. In many areas, this “market-gardening within the decaying remains of the reoccupied Roman town houses”, as Collins puts it, is roughly datable to the seventh century.

Consequently, the clear distinction between town and country disappeared and was replaced by a spectrum of settlement types. At one end were the tiny hamlets of half a dozen or so small farmhouses and at the other the former large cities, which probably continued to serve as centres for production and distribution in the localised trade, such as ceramics and metalwork. Industrial production was probably limited to essential items, such as arms and tools. The imperial mines, worked by slaves, were still active, producing gold, silver, copper, iron and lead for the benefit of the royal fisc.

Between hamlets and larger cities, there were a variety of other settlements of different sizes, some of which were fortified and centred around a former theatre or amphitheatre as in Nîmes and Arles, or reoccupied hilltop fortresses of pre-Roman origin. On the east coast, Cartagena which remained under imperial control until the 470s and which would later become the capital of the Byzantine province of Spania, stayed reasonably intact, be it with a much-reduced population. Much of Cartagena was destroyed in the first half of the seventh century, which has been linked to the Visigothic re-conquest and sack of the city around 625, though there is no archaeological evidence for this.

The Toledanic Kingdom (569–711)Edit

In 568 Athanagild died in Toledo, which had become the civitas regia, the Visigothic capital, under his rule. Though a small and rather insignificant town at the time, Toledo had been chosen for its strategic position and particular ease of its defence, surrounded by the river Tajo at the top of a rocky hill. Athanagild’s successor Liuva I (r. 569–72) took the unprecedented step of dividing the kingdom and giving one-half to his younger brother Liuvigild. The latter established as a king in Toledo, where he married Athanagild’s widow Goswinth. Liuva based himself in Narbonne, probably to counter Frankish threats.

The imposition of unityEdit

We are much better informed about King Liuvigild’s reign (r. 569–86) than that of any of his sixth century predecessors, which is largely due to a short chronicle written by a Gothic monk and later bishop of Gerona, known from the monastery he founded as John of Biclarum. Liuvigild is presented by Isidore of Seville (560–636) as the formal renovator of the monarchy. He was the first one to present himself to his people on the solium, or sella (throne) and dressed in special royal robes. Beginning with Liuvigild’s reign, the Visigoths minted their own gold coins, in imitation of Byzantine coinage, with the king’s own image and inscription.

Subjugation of the Cantabrians by Visigoth King Liuvigild

As a legislator, Liuvigild revised Euric’s code and terminated the fourth-century imperial ban on intermarriage between Goths and Romans, an important step towards the ultimate assimilation of the races. He waged a number of successful wars, involving a raid into the region of Bastitania in the southeast of the Peninsula in 570 and the driving off of the imperial forces from Malaga. In 571 the king recovered Asinoda (modern Medina Sidonia, nr. Cadiz), apparently slaughtering its imperial garrison in the process. The following year Cordoba was recaptured. In 573 Liuvigild conquered the region of Sabaria to the northwest of Salamantica (modern Salamanca). In the same year, he made his sons Hermenegild and Reccared his consortes regni (“partners in the kingdom”). The following year the king made an expedition into Cantabria in the north of the Peninsula, killing “the invaders of the province” (the Sueves).

In 575 the king terminated an independent Hispano-Roman regime in the Argenses montes, probably on the eastern fringes of the modern province of Orense, capturing the ruler Aspidius, together with his family. Although Liuvigild is recorded as taking the wealth of the region and its ruler, there is no word on massacre and mayhem. The next year, he organised a campaign against the Suevic king Miro, who rapidly made a treaty and agreed to pay tribute, even if only “for a short time”. In 577 the region of Orospeda (location unknown: maybe part of the Byzantine province of Spania) was entered, where towns and fortresses were captured, and very soon afterwards the “rustic rebels” (Bagaudae?) were crushed by the Visigoths, who thus made themselves master of the province. In the course of six years, the Visigothic monarch regained large parts of the territory lost by his predecessors. In 578 he took a break from campaigning and founded the city of Recopolis, on a small plateau in a bend of the river Tajo, about a mile from the modern village of Zorita de los Canes in the Province of Guadalajara. Like Toledo, the city was situated at the top of a hill surrounded by the river Tajo. With 33 hectares, however, its urban surface was six times bigger than that of Toledo.

In spite of this major difference, Recopolis was endowed with the same architecturally monumental and royal instruments as Toledo. However, all that has been excavated up to date is a tiny part. Hence, it is still premature to establish whether it was a palace-city, used by the king and his court either as a temporary residence or as a permanent royal seat, or if it had an urban development similar to that of other cities of Hispania.

The year 579 saw the start of the most dramatic episode of Liuvigild’s reign, the revolt of his elder son Hermenegild in Seville. Married to a Catholic Frankish princess, Hermenegild had been appointed Duke of Baetica and had converted to Catholicism in that year. Summoned to Toledo, he declared himself in open rebellion and soon had the support of most (Catholic) towns in Baetica, as well as of the Byzantines and the still independent Sueves. Liuvigild apparently did not conceive the rebellion of his son in the south as a serious threat, given the fact that he went on a campaign against the Vascones in the north in 581, founding another town called Victoriacum (modern Vitoria-Gasteiz) on the fringes of their territory in the process.

The position of the KingEdit

Unlike the Franks, the Visigoths did not allow royal dynasties to develop in which heirs steadily divided the realm into equal parts. Though this secured the geographical unity of the kingdom, it did not do much to stabilize internal politics. The king, who in theory had unlimited power, was in reality subjected to an enormously powerful propertied class, which no legal principle impeded from ascending to the throne. Likewise, the king was the head of the army, but he did not have an army of his own and had to resort to private followers. Although the nobles in their oath of allegiance to the king promised to come at his call when required, the military laws issued by the end of the seventh century by Wamba and Erwig demonstrate that this promise was not generally complied with.

In practice, there was a constant power struggle between aristocratic Visigothic families, while the nobles systematically ignored their oaths of allegiance, which meant that the Peninsula was almost constantly in a state of political instability. To ensure the allegiance of the nobles, the Visigothic kings remunerated their fideles and gardingi with grants of royal lands, sometimes in full ownership, or subject to certain conditions. Stipendiary grants were benefices, which were gratuitous, temporal, and revocable at will. Grants of land, whether in full ownership or in usufruct, transformed the fideles and the gardingi into rural landlords whose continued fidelity was a source of great strength to the monarchy.

As the kingdom progressed, the balance of power gradually swung in favour of the aristocracy. However, this development did not prevent kings like Chindaswinth (d. 653) from inaugurating his reign with a violent killing, repression and exiling of nobility, accompanied with the usual confiscations. Chindaswinth even stated in the prologue to Lex Visigothorum II 1.8. that the king had to take up arms more often against his own subjects than against foreign enemies.

The development of elective kingshipEdit

The centrifugal power of the nobility always posed a potential threat to monarchical authority. Usurpers did not so much have the intention to break the kingdom into a number of independent fragments, as to replace the existent monarch by another of their own choice. Though with Amalaric’s death in 531, the monarchy had in theory become elective, it would take another hundred years, before the Fourth Council of Toledo would formally recognise the elective nature of the kingship. Nevertheless, the natural tendency for fathers to pass the crown to their sons would prove hard to eradicate.

The Fifth Council of Toledo in 636 established the requisite to belong to the Gothae gentis nobilitas (Gothic nobility) for the ascent to the throne. Though some scholars are of the opinion that this requisite does not strictly have an ethnic sense, there is no doubt that those who attained royal rank were always of Gothic origin, and certainly always from the highest nobility. As of the second half of the seventh century, elected kings were anointed by the bishop of Toledo. Although the anointing of Wamba (672) is the first recorded instance, the custom may antedate his reign. Anointing conferred upon the king a quasi-sacerdotal character and protected his person against violence. This practice was adopted subsequently by the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons and thus became common throughout Western Europe.

The Royal CouncilEdit

Once the Visigoths settled permanently in Western Europe, the traditional assembly of freemen by which they had regulated their affairs gradually disappeared. The dispersion of the Goths over a wide area in Gaul and Spain had made it impossible to convoke assemblies of this kind. In the sixth century, the king relied for advice and support on a much smaller council or senatus of prominent men (seniores), mostly of Gothic origin, which disappeared due to the increase of royal power in the following century.

In the seventh century, the function of the ancient assembly and senatus passed to an organism called the aula regia, which was composed of court officials bound to the king by special ties, magnates and bishops. The council had a consultative role, advising the king in matters of legislation, administration, war, foreign policy and sitting with him as a judicial tribunal. The king was not obligated to follow its advice, nor to submit his decisions for its approval.

The principal officers of the royal court (officium palatinum) were in continuous residence with the king and responsible for the day-to-day activities of the central administration. The aula regia also included magnates who resided at court (seniores, maiores palatii) without performing specific functions and who were also known as the fideles regis. Also in residence were the gardingi regis, who were armed retainers living in the palace, serving and protecting the king.

The fideles regis and the gardingi regis were especially bound to the king’s service by a private oath of fidelity. Whereas the fideles regis were magnates of the royal council, some of whom held offices in the royal household, the gardingi regis were of lower rank, but still enjoying high status among the aristocracy. Like the antrustiones of the Merovingian monarchy, they continued the tradition of the Germanic comitatus.

The Basques (Vascones)Edit

The Vascones, Basques, or Euskaldunak, in their own language, who settled the Pyrenees as well as large areas south and north of the mountains, consisted of many independent clans and were never united under one single authority. There was one brief and never to be repeated period under the King of Navarre, Sancho Garcés III, known as the Great (1004–1035), when Vasconia (Gascony) under the name of the Kingdom of Pamplona or Navarre extended from Bordeaux in France to Zamora in Spain in 1033. For the Basques themselves, however, no sense of racial, linguistic or cultural unity seems to have existed. Due to their internal divisions and apparent looseness of social structure this did not go beyond the level of the extended family. Moreover, the lack of a servile class in Basque society meant that all of the available manpower was of free status, which intensified the individual sense of independence. This political divisiveness was enhanced by political separations imposed upon them from without.

Provinces of Visigothic Spain in the 7th century

The Vascones would prove a regular source of unrest, both for the Franks north of the Pyrenees and the Visigoths to the south. Gregory of Tours mentions that in 581 the Frankish dux Bladast led an army into Vasconia, only to have the greater part of it destroyed. In the same year, the Visigothic king Liuvigild launched an expedition against Vasconia, occupying parts of it and founding the town of Victoriacum. In his Historia Gothorum of 626, Isidore of Seville gives the impression that there was a need of periodic royal campaigning against the Basques, stirred by Basque raiding, with the aim of imposing firm government upon the region. King Gundemar “ravaged the lands of the Vascones in one expedition”, which probably took place in 611. King Swinthila is also recorded as initiating his rule in 621 with an expedition against the Vascones, who had been attacking the province of Tarraconensis, which resulted in the foundation of the city of Olite.

Other Gothic kings also had to organise campaigns to put down Basque revolts or punish Basque raids until the arrival of the Moors. Even the last Visigothic king Roderic (r. 710–11) had to hurry from the north with his army, where he was still fighting the Basques in the area of Pamplona to meet the Muslim invaders in 711. Also during the later Arab expansion on the Peninsula, there were regular clashes between Basques and Arab armies, starting around 750. We know that in 755 the Basques were again threatening the towns of the upper Ebro, and could take on and defeat Arab forces sent against them, at least on their own terrain, utilising characteristic “hit-and-run” guerrilla tactics.

Perhaps the most striking testimony to the Basques’ ability to inflict military humiliation on the forces of their powerful neighbours comes in their massacre of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army in the pass of Roncesvalles in the summer of 778. This was the only major defeat suffered by the Frankish ruler in the course of a long career of campaigning and conquest.


The final unhappy chapter in Visigothic history begins with the death of King Recceswinth (672) and the election of his successor Wamba. Scarcely had Wamba assumed kingship when a revolt broke out in the province of Narbonensis. In order to suppress it, he dispatched Duke Paul, who promptly allied himself with the rebels and proclaimed himself king of the east, while referring to Wamba as king of the south, apparently proposing a division of the kingdom along the lines of that made between Liuva I and Liuvigild in 569. Wamba (r. 672–80), who had been occupied with a Basque uprising, hastened through Tarraconensis to Septimania, where he easily defeated the rebels and captured Paul in 673, after besieging him in the amphitheatre in Nîmes. This is evidence to support other indications that former Roman amphitheatres were turned into fortresses and in some cases even densely packed fortified settlements in the early medieval centuries. Paul was condemned to death in Toledo, but his sentence was commuted to decalvation (his head was shaved completely bald), lifelong infamy and imprisonment.

Wamba had crushed the rebellion but had also encountered difficulties in raising troops. As a remedy, he decreed that in the future all nobles and simple freemen, including the clergy, would be obliged to answer the summons to the royal host. This law, re-establishing an old custom, aroused ecclesiastical opposition, as did the king’s erection of several new bishoprics. Maybe because of this decree, Wamba’s reign ended rather abruptly in 680, after a period of 17 years. On 14 October, he suddenly lost consciousness and his courtiers assumed he was dying. In accordance with custom, the bishop of Toledo tonsured the king and clothed him in penitential garb. When Wamba awoke from his coma, he found himself deprived of his right to rule, since the Sixth Council of Toledo had forbidden any tonsured person to wear a crown. Renouncing the throne to Erwig, Wamba retired to a monastery, where he ended his days.


Erwig tried to conciliate his subjects by pardoning those who had been punished by Wamba’s law on military service. The Twelfth Council of Toledo also condemned Wamba’s erection of new sees and declared that in future the metropolitan of Toledo, with royal consent, should have the right to name and consecrate the bishops of any diocese in the realm. Finally, Erwig asked the Council to approve his stringent legislation against the Jews.

Erwig’s successor Egica rather ominously asked the Fifteenth Council of Toledo in 688 to release him from his oath to protect Erwig’s family. When they did so, he set out to punish those whom he suspected of treachery in connection with Wamba’s deposition, confiscating their goods, sending them into exile, or reducing them to servitude.

The invasion of the MoorsEdit

Depiction of the Battle of Guadalete

Hoping to establish a hereditary monarchy in his own family, Egica associated his own son Wittiza on the throne in the same year. Wittiza, in turn, elevated his young son Achila, to whom he entrusted Septimania and Tarraconensis. There are no reports on the fate of Wittiza. It is normally assumed that his reign ended with his death in 710. The circumstances that led to the Muslim invasion a year after Wittiza’s death are involved in confusion. In later accounts of the conquest, it is not always possible to separate truth from legend and the sequence of events is difficult to determine. Although Wittiza’s son Achila was proclaimed king, his opponents in Toledo recognised the Duke of Baetica, Roderic (Rodrigo), as King. Roderic would rule for only one year and perish in the battle against the Muslims on 19 July 711.

Given these internal rivalries within the Visigothic Kingdom, it is not impossible that the Luwata Berber forces under the leadership of Tariq bin Zeyad, the governor of Tangier, invaded the Peninsula at the invitation of Roderic’s opponents, as is often suggested. Probably in prearrangement with the enemy to take revenge for Roderic’s coup a year earlier, Wittiza’s sons Sisbert and Oppa, who commanded the wings of the Visigothic army, abandoned their king in the midst of the battle. As a consequence, the Goths were routed and the battle ended in a crushing defeat, with the Visigoths losing more than half of their troops.

It is thought that, with the battle, Roderic also lost his life, together with many of Iberia’s greatest nobles. However, the victors never found his body; only his white horse, a golden saddle encrusted with rubies and emeralds, and a gold mantle. This defeat meant the end of the Gothic ruling classes in the Peninsula, who were never more than “a small military aristocracy perched on top of a large civilian subject population that, for all the best efforts of the church, did not greatly care whether they survived or not”.[3]

North of the Pyrenees in Septimania, Roderic’s rival King Achila II (711–14) had been able to survive the Moorish invasion. Based on the distribution of Agila’s coinage, it seems that Agila’s influence was limited to the northeast, chiefly the provinces of Septimania and Tarraconensis. Agila’s rule was stable enough to secure the throne for his son Ardo, who succeeded him in 714 and held out until the Muslims pushed north across the Pyrenees in 721 when he was finally defeated. Apparently, the Goths of Septimania made no attempt to negotiate with the invaders. Cities like Nîmes and Carcassonne managed to hold out against the invaders well into 725.

Medieval Islamic SpainEdit

For specific medieval Muslim dynasties, see:

Medieval Christian SpainEdit

The birth of the Christian KingdomsEdit

In the remote regions of north-western Iberia and the middle Pyrenees, the power of the Muslims in the south was scarcely felt. It was here that the foundations of the Christian kingdoms of Asturias, Leon and Galicia were laid and from where the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula would start. However, no coordinated attempt would be made to drive the Moors out. Like the Visigoths, the Christian kingdoms were mainly focussed on their own internal power struggles. As a result, the Reconquista took the greater part of eight hundred years, in which period a long list of Alfonsos, Sanchos, Ordoños, Ramiros, Fernandos and Bermudos would be fighting their Christian rivals as much as the Muslim invaders.

Further east, local Christians – with some help from the Carolingians – were able to take over Girona in 785 and Barcelona in 801. Pamplona was taken from the Banu Qasi by the Basques in 799. Snatched away by the Franks in 806, Pamplona was retaken by the native Basques in 810, after which it gradually became the nucleus of the new Kingdom of Navarre under Iñigo Arista, who died 851. Incorporated into the Carolingian empire, Barcelona and Girona evolved into the centres of the Spanish March (Marca Hispanica). Simultaneously, in the course of the ninth century, the counts of Barcelona became increasingly estranged from Frankish control. As Catalonia had gradually been repopulated and the Muslims been driven south of Barcelona, the county was effectively independent by the time of Count Wilfred the Hairy’s rule from 873–98.

The first and most well-known leader of the Christian resistance was the legendary Pelayo, or Pelagius, whose earliest testimony is given by the ninth-century Chronicle of Albelda. Allegedly a grand-nephew and spatharios of the Visigothic King Roderic, he was expelled from Toledo by King Wittiza (died 708) to settle in Asturias, where he had been elected princeps and organised a revolt against the Muslim invaders, possibly in 718 or 722. To make Pelagius the legitimate successor of the last Visigothic King Roderic, the later Chronicle of Alfonso III, composed in the early tenth century, asserted that he was of royal blood. However, it is much more likely that he was simply the leader of an uprising by the Asturians and had no intention to resurrect the defunct kingdom of the Visigoths. The chronicles record that a Muslim expedition was sent to punish the revolting Asturians, who had fled to the cave of Covadonga on mount Aseuva to make their last stand. In the battle that followed, probably on 28 May 722, Pelagius routed his enemies, killing the Muslim governor of Gijon. In the wake of this the Muslim invaders evacuated their northernmost province and retired south of the Cordillera Cantabrica to the plain of Leon. Although later writers magnified the victory out of proportion, the immediate military consequences were minimal. Since the Chronicle of 754 has nothing to say about Pelagius or this event, it must have been regarded as a minor skirmish. Among the Asturians, however, Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance against Islam.

Under Pelagius’ son-in-law Alfonso I (739–57) the kingdom of Asturias became reality. The revolt of the Berbers in 740 and the withdrawal of many Muslims from the northern reaches of Iberia enabled Alfonso I to establish the kingdom on a firm foundation. He was able to extend his rule to Galicia, the north of modern Portugal, Cantabria, Alava and la Rioja. The line of demarcation between Christian and Muslim territories followed the course of the Duero River from Porto in modern Portugal to Osma in the current Spanish province of Soria and ran then northward into the Basque country. Lacking sufficient forces to occupy the whole region abandoned by the Muslims, Alfonso I systematically laid waste the Duero valley, which for many years remained a great area of no-man’s land separating Asturias and al-Andalus. Almost a century later, while Emir al-Hakam I (d.822) was occupied with domestic strife, King Alfonso II (d.842) would make a conscious effort to restore in Asturias the civil and ecclesiastical order of the Visigothic monarchy. Alfonso II used the characteristic titles of the Visigothic kings and surrounded himself with palatine officials whose offices were reminiscent of the Visigothic court.

To the east of the kingdom of Asturias were the Christian kingdom of Navarre, the counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe, and Ribagorza, and the Catalan counties of Pallars, Urgel, Cerdagne, Roussillon, Besalú, Amurias, Ausona, Gerona and Barcelona. These Christian states expanded slowly, principally in times of disorder in al-Andalus. The greatest advance was made in the west where the rulers of Asturias occupied and colonised vast areas abandoned by the Muslims. Early in the tenth century, the Asturian seat of government was moved from Oviedo in the north to Leon, which enjoyed better communication with the repopulated areas. In the first half of the eleventh century, Sancho the Great, king of Navarre, united the counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe and Ribagorza, as well as Castile and Leon and upon his death in 1035 bequeathed these dominions to his sons. In the second half of the eleventh century, the Church of Rome began to become actively interested in organising the Reconquista of Iberia for the Christian faith. Pope Gregory VII (1073–85), well-known for the legendary “Walk to Canossa” forced on the German King Henry IV, would attempt to a French crusade into Iberia in 1074, led by Count Ebles of Roucy in Normandy, the brother-in-law of King Sancho Ramírez of Aragon.

The Asturian Kingdom (791–910)Edit

Alfonso II is recorded to have ruled for fifty years over the small Christian kingdom of Asturias in the recently created town of Oviedo, which would remain its capital until 910. For political reasons, Alfonso was denied the succession of his father Fruela I four times in a row and he must have been well into his twenties before obtaining the throne in 791. Unsurprisingly in this context, he was deposed in 801/2 and entered the monastery of Ablania (modern Ablaña) in the centre of Asturias, but was restored after the usurper was killed in a counter-coup. The unnamed ruler who replaced Alfonso after the coup was probably a member of his own family. In the summers of 792, 793 and 794 several Muslim attacks plundered Alava, and the heart of the Asturian kingdom, reaching up to the capital, Oviedo. In one of the retreats, Alfonso inflicted a severe defeat on the Muslims in the swampy area of Lutos, killing 70,000.[4]

Church of Santa María del Naranco, Oviedo, Asturias, Spain

When Alfonso II died, Ramiro I (842–50) staged a coup against the Count of the Palace Nepotian, who had taken the throne. After a battle on a bridge over the river Narcea, Nepotian was captured in flight, blinded and then forced into monastic life. Early in his reign, Ramiro was faced with a Viking attack at a place called Farum Brecantium, believed to be present-day A Coruña. He is credited with killing part of their horde and burning 70 of their ships.[5][6] In 859, a second Viking fleet set out for Spain. The Vikings were slaughtered off the coast of Galicia by Count Pedro.[7]

When he succeeded his father Ramiro, Ordoño I (850–66) was faced by a major revolt amongst the Basques in the east of the kingdom, which was successfully repressed. In 859, Ordoño besieged the fortress of Albelda built by Musa ibn Musa of the Banu Qasi, who had rebelled against Cordoba and had been able to become master of Zaragoza, Tudela, Huesca and Toledo. Musa attempted to lift the siege in alliance with his brother in law García Iñiguez, the king of Pamplona, whose small realm was threatened by the eastwards expansion of the Asturian monarchy. In the battle that followed, Musa was defeated and lost valuable treasures in the process, some of which were sent as a gift to Charles the Bald of Francia. Seven days after the victory Albelda fell and, as the chronicler records that “its warriors were killed by the sword and the place itself was destroyed down to its foundations.” Musa was wounded in the battle and died in 862/3, soon after Musa’s son Lubb, governor of Toledo, submitted himself to the Asturian king for the rest of Ordoño’s reign.

Following the death of Ordoño, the throne was seized by a Galician count called Fruela, whereupon his son, the 13-year-old Alfonso, was forced to take refuge in Castile until his followers succeeded in killing the usurper in Oviedo. The considerable territorial expansion of the Asturian kingdom under Alfonso III was largely made possible by the collapse of Umayyad control over many parts of al-Andalus at this time. Between the years 866 and 881, the western frontier of the kingdom in Galicia was expanded into what is now Portugal. Amongst other settlements, the towns of Braga, Oporto, Lamego and Coimbra were captured and repopulated. A number of towns in the middle of the Duero valley are also known to have been taken, such as Cea (875), Burgos (884), Zamora (893), Simancas (899) and Toro (900).

In 878, a certain “Abuhalit”, described as the consul of Spain and counsellor of King Muhammad, was captured in a failed raid in Galicia. He had to leave two brothers and a son as hostages, while he went back to collect a ransom of one thousand solidi in gold. The same year saw a Muslim assault on the towns of Astorga and Leon. The expedition consisted of two detachments, one of which was decisively defeated at Polvoraria on the river Orbigo, with an alleged loss of 13,000 men. Thereupon the other detachment withdrew, opening the way for a three-year peace. In 881, Alfonso took the offensive, leading an army deep into the Lower March, crossing the Tagus River to approach Merida. Then miles from the city the Asturian army crossed the Guadiana River and defeated the Umayyad army on “Monte Oxifer”, allegedly leaving 15,000 Muslim soldiers killed. Returning home, Alfonso devoted himself to building the churches of Oviedo and constructing one or more two palaces for himself.

The Kingdom of Leon (910–1037)Edit

Shortly after Alfonso’s death, the capital of the kingdom of Asturias was transferred from Oviedo to Leon, which had been resettled and refortified under King Ordoño in 855. García is the first of the kings described by the charters as reigning in Leon. It is generally assumed that the old Asturian kingdom was divided between the three sons of Alfonso: García (Leon), Ordoño (Galicia) and Fruela (Asturias), as all three participated in the deposition of their father. When García died in 913, Leon went to Ordoño, who now ruled both Leon and Galicia as Ordoño II.

At Ordoño’s death in 924, the throne went to his brother Fruela II (924–5), who died of leprosy a year later. Fruela’s death in 925 was followed by civil war, after which Alfonso, the eldest son of Ordoño II, emerged as the new king Alfonso IV, ruling from 925–932. After a further power-struggle, Ramiro, the younger brother of Alfonso IV, became king in 932, having captured his brother Alfonso, as well as the three sons of Fruela II – Alfonso, Ordoño and Ramiro. King Ramiro had the sons of Fruela and his brother, the former King Alfonso IV, blinded, thereby eliminating all potential rivals. Subsequently, they were confined, together with various unnamed “other cousins”, in the Leonese monastery of Ruiforco. Alfonso IV may have died soon after, but he left two infant sons, called Ordoño and Fruela. When the elder son Ordoňo III, who ruled from 951–56, suddenly died aged little more than thirty, he was succeeded by his younger half-brother Sancho I “The Fat” (956–66), as Ordoño had failed to produce a legitimate heir.

The overweight Sancho could no longer mount a horse, which undermined his credibility as a war leader. When early 958 an Umayyad raid into the Leonese kingdom in 957 brought back four hundred human heads and a large number of horses and beasts of burden to Cordoba, this military disaster prompted a revolt. Sancho, who fled to his relatives in Pamplona, was replaced by Ordoño IV “The Bad”, the elder son of Alfonso IV. A joint Umayyad and Navarrese invasion of Leon drove the bad Ordoño to flight into Asturias in 959, whence he was ejected two years later and finally went into exile in Cordoba himself. Sancho died in 966, aged about thirty-one, in the course of an expedition against Count Gonzalo Menéndez, a leading magnate in the frontier region of the Duero in Galicia. According to the Chronicle of Sampiro, Count Gonzalo had sent him a poisoned apple in the course of peace negotiations, thus putting a final end to Sancho’s weight problems.

Sancho’s son Ramiro had been born in 961 and was only about five years old when his father died. He was also the only legitimate member of the direct family line. His mother Teresa Ansúrez had retired into the recently founded monastery of San Pelayo, of which her sister-in-law Elvira was the abbess. Another nun, Sancho’s full sister Elvira Ramírez emerged as regent during his long minority. Under the regency of Elvira, fresh raids of the Northmen were repelled from the coast of Galicia. In 968, Gunrod, the Viking leader, established himself on Galician soil and held out for a year and a half: Bishop Sisnando of Compostela died fighting him, and his successor St Rudesind carried on the struggle until Count Gonzalo Sánchez defeated the invaders and killed Gunrod himself.[8]

The Kingdom of Leon in 1037

When Leon was besieged by the Moors in 982, it turned to Bermudo, the son of Ordoño III, who had been proclaimed king of Galicia in December 982. As from this time Bermudo (II) seems to have gradually replaced Ramiro III, who was finally driven out of Leon in 985 and retreated to Astorga, where he died soon afterwards. The reign of Bermudo II saw a sustained series of raids on his kingdom led by Almanzor. These campaigns, which included the Muslim sack of Coimbra (987), Leon (988) and of Astorga (996), as well as the defeat and death of the Count of Castile in 995, climaxed with the destruction of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in 997 and the bells and doors of the cathedral being carried off to Cordoba.

At the time of Bermudo’s death in 999, the city of Leon was still in the same ruined state that Almanzor had left it in after his raid on the city eleven years earlier. It had to wait for restoration in the reign of Bermudo’s son Alfonso V. King Alfonso V took advantage of the collapse of Umayyad rule after 1008 to recover land lost in the west and extending the Galician frontiers southwards. While besieging the fortress of Viseu, 100 km southeast of modern Porto, in 1028 he died from an arrow wound.

After having been in power for six years, Alfonso’s son Bermudo III saw much of his kingdom overrun by his sister’s father-in-law King Sancho III of Navarre, who took over León in 1034. Bermudo had to withdraw into Galicia and Asturias until he regained control of Leon following Sancho’s death in 1035. He launched a war against his brother-in-law Fernando, Count of Castile, to recover other lost territories. Killed in the Battle of Tamarón in 1037 his kingdom was inherited by his sister Sancha, who was married to Fernando. Thus, the kingdom of Leon passed into the hands of the Count of Castile, thereby creating the new kingdom of Castile and Leon.

Castile and LeonEdit

García Sánchez II (died 1029) would be the last male descendant of Fernán González. During his reign, Castile became a protectorate of Navarre, whose king Sancho III was married to García Sánchez II’s sister. García Sánchez was murdered on a visit to the royal palace in Leon, as he was about to enter into a marriage with Sancha, the sister of Bermudo III. Sancho the Great’s son Fernando I (died 1065) turned Castile into a kingdom through his conquest of Leon, conveniently replacing the murdered Count García by marrying Sancha of Leon in 1037. Fernando I converted Castile into the most powerful of the Christian states, capturing the towns of Viseu and Coimbra and forcing the Muslim rulers of Toledo, Badajoz, Zaragoza and Seville to pay him tribute. When he died, he divided his holdings, giving Castile to his eldest son Sancho, who ruled it as Sancho II. Alfonso got Leon and García Galicia. He left cities to his daughters: Urraca received Zamora, Elvira got Toro and both secured income from monasteries throughout their father’s lands. Sancho II (1065–72) seized Galicia and Leon from his brothers but died at the hands of an assassin while laying siege to his sister’s town Zamora on the Duero. Alfonso, who had gone into exile in Muslim Toledo, then succeeded Sancho as Alfonso VI of Castile.

When the government of Cordoba disintegrated in the early 11th century, a series of petty successor states known as taifas emerged. The Christians took advantage of this situation and struck deep into Muslim territory; they fostered civil war, intimidated the weakened taifas, and made them pay large tributes for protection. Eventually, raids turned into conquests, and in response, the taifa emirs were forced to request help from the Almoravids. Their desperate manoeuvre would eventually fall to their disadvantage, however, as the Almoravids they had summoned from the south went on to conquer and annex all the taifa states.

In 1086, the Almoravid ruler of Morocco, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, was invited by the Muslim rulers in Iberia to defend them against Alfonso VI. In that year, Tashfin crossed the straits to Algeciras and inflicted a severe defeat on the Christians at the Battle of Sagrajas. The figure of 300,000 is quoted for the Spanish dead by a Muslim source, which also claims that their heads were piled high enough to form minarets for the Muslims' celebrations.[9] Other sources record 24,000–80,000 casualties among the Spanish cavalry alone, while the Muslims claim to have lost only 3,000 men.[9]

By 1094, Yusuf ibn Tashfin had removed all taifas in the peninsula, except for the one at Zaragoza. He also regained Valencia from the Christians. The Almoravids were succeeded by the Almohads after the victory of Abu Yusuf Ya'qub al-Mansur over the Castilian Alfonso VIII at the Battle of Alarcos in 1195. 20,000–25,000 Castilians were reputedly killed or taken captive in the battle, while legend has it that the Muslims lost only 500 men.[9]

The Battle of Río Salado (1340). It was said that 400,000 Muslims were killed.[10]

In 1212, a coalition of Christian kings under the leadership of the Castilian Alfonso VIII defeated the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa with a reported 100,000 Muslims killed.[9] The Almohads continued to rule al-Andalus for another decade, though with much reduced power and prestige. The civil wars following the death of Abu Ya'qub Yusuf II rapidly led to the re-establishment of taifas. The taifas, newly independent but now weakened, were quickly conquered by Portugal, Castile, and Aragon. After the fall of Cordoba (1236) and Seville (1248), only the Emirate of Granada survived, and only as a tributary state of Castile until 1492.

The last Muslim threat to the Christian kingdoms was the rise of the Marinids in Morocco during the fourteenth century. They took Granada into their sphere of influence and occupied some of its cities, like Algeciras. However, they were unable to take Tarifa, which held out until the arrival of the Castilian Army led by Alfonso XI. The Castilian king, with the help of Afonso IV of Portugal and Peter IV of Aragon, decisively defeated the Marinids at the Battle of Río Salado in 1340 and took Algeciras in 1344. Gibraltar, then under Granadian rule, was besieged in 1349–50. Alfonso XI and most of his army perished by the Black Death. His successor, Peter of Castile, made peace with the Muslims and turned his attention to Christian lands, starting a period of almost 150 years of rebellions and wars between the Christian states that secured the survival of Granada.

The conquest of GranadaEdit

In 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile signalled the launch of the final assault on the emirate. The King and Queen convinced Pope Sixtus IV to declare their war a crusade. The Catholic Monarchs crushed one centre of resistance after another until finally on January 2, 1492, after a long siege, the emirate's last sultan Muhammad XII surrendered the city. As many as 100,000 Muslims died or were enslaved in the military campaign, while 200,000 fled to North Africa.

Christopher Columbus himself referred to the Fall of Granada as an event that gave impetus to his voyages of discovery, since the Spanish were persuaded that it was their destiny to subdue other parts of the globe which remained outside the sphere of the true religion. Akbar Ahmed says that when the Spanish conquistadors reached the New World, they did so “fresh from the triumphs over the Muslims” and came with “the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other” and before long had destroyed “the Aztecs, the Mayas, and then the Incas, civilisations that stretched from Mexico down to the tip of South America” robbing the “Indians of their language, their culture, and their dignity” as they raped and looted. “The poor Indians,” he says, “did not know what hit them” and all this followed from their success at the Battle and Fall of Granada.[11] Fresh from the defeat of Muslim Granada, the Spanish were propelled by the impetus of this victory towards the New World not primarily to trade, or even to colonise, but to conquer and only then to convert those who remained alive to what in their view was the one and only true faith.

Medieval Spanish cultureEdit

In the post-Roman period before 711, the history of the Spanish language began with Old Spanish; the other Latin-derived Hispanic languages with a considerable body of literature are Catalan (which had a relevant golden age of Valencian), and to a lesser degree Aragonese. Asturian Medieval Spanish, Galician and Basque languages were primarily oral.

Main Spanish cities in the Middle AgesEdit

Medieval Spain was as much as a network of cities as it was interconnected provinces. Cities were cultural and administrative centres, the seats of bishops and sometimes kings, with markets and housing expanding from a central fortified stronghold. Medieval Spanish history can easily be followed through these major cities:

and at the great shrine of Santiago de Compostela.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Historia Francorum, II:37
  2. ^ Kennedy p. 2
  3. ^ Collins, Visigothic Spain, p.143
  4. ^ Roger Collins, Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031, 65.
  5. ^ Haywood, John (2015). Northmen: The Viking Saga, AD 793–1241. p. 166.
  6. ^ Flood, Timothy M. (2018). Rulers and Realms in Medieval Iberia, 711–1492. McFarland. p. 30.
  7. ^ J. Gil, Crónicas Asturianas, 1985, p. 176
  8. ^ a history of portugal. CUP Archive. 1971. p. 38.
  9. ^ a b c d Heath, Ian. Armies of Feudal Europe 1066–1300.
  10. ^ Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History.
  11. ^ Ahmed, Akbar. Islam Today. London: I. B Tauris, 2002. ISBN 1860642578

Further readingEdit

  • The Art of medieval Spain, A.D. 500–1200. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1993. ISBN 0870996851.
  • Linehan, Peter (1993). History and the Historians of Medieval Spain. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198219453.
  • O'Callaghan, Joseph F. (1975). A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801492648.
  • Collins, Roger, The Basques, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, New York, 1987
  • Collins, Roger, Visigothic Spain (409-711), Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, Oxford UK and Carlton, Victoria, Australia, 2004
  • Kennedy, Hugh, Muslim Spain and Portugal, Longman, London & New York, 1996