The Reconquista (Spanish, Galician and Portuguese for “reconquest”) was a period in the history of the Iberian Peninsula of about 781 years between the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in 711, the expansion of the Christian kingdoms throughout Hispania, and the fall of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada in 1492.
The beginning of the Reconquista is traditionally marked with the Battle of Covadonga (718 or 722), the first known victory in Hispania by Christian military forces since the 711 military invasion undertaken by combined Arab-Berber forces. The rebellion led by Pelagius defeated a Muslim army in the mountains of northern Hispania and established the independent Christian Kingdom of Asturias.
In the late 10th century, the Umayyad vizier Almanzor waged military campaigns for 30 years to subjugate the northern Christian kingdoms. His armies ravaged the north, even sacking the great Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. When the government of Córdoba disintegrated in the early 11th century, a series of petty successor states known as taifas emerged. The northern kingdoms took advantage of this situation and struck deep into al-Andalus; they fostered civil war, intimidated the weakened taifas, and made them pay large tributes (parias) for “protection”.
After a Muslim resurgence in the 12th century, the great Moorish strongholds in the south fell to Christian forces in the 13th century after the decisive battle of Navas de Tolosa (1212) – Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 – leaving only the Muslim enclave of Granada as a tributary state in the south. After 1492, the entire peninsula was controlled by Christian rulers. The conquest was followed by a series of edicts (1499-1526) which forced the conversions of Muslims in Spain, who were later expelled from the Iberian peninsula by the decrees of King Philip III in 1609.
Beginning in the 19th century, traditional historiography has used the term Reconquista for what was earlier thought of as a restoration of the Visigothic Kingdom over conquered territories. The concept of Reconquista, consolidated in Spanish historiography in the second half of the 19th century, was associated with the development of a Spanish national identity, emphasizing nationalistic and romantic aspects.
Concept and Duration
Since the 19th century, traditional historiography has stressed the existence of the Reconquista, a continuous phenomenon by which the Christian Iberian kingdoms opposed and conquered the Muslim kingdoms, understood as a common enemy who had militarily seized territory from native Iberian Christians. The concept of a Christian reconquest of the peninsula first emerged at the end of the 9th century. A landmark was set by the Christian Chronica Prophetica (883-884), a document stressing the Christian and Muslim cultural and religious divide in Hispania and the necessity to drive out the Muslims, considered as a restoration of the Visigothic Kingdom in the conquered territories. Both Christian and Muslim rulers fought amongst themselves. Alliances between Muslims and Christians were not uncommon. Blurring distinctions even further were the mercenaries from both sides who simply fought for whomever paid the most. The period is seen today to have had long episodes of relative religious tolerance. However, this idea has been challenged by scholars today.
The Crusades, which started late in the 11th century, bred the religious ideology of a Christian reconquest, confronted at that time with a similarly staunch Muslim Jihad ideology in Al-Andalus by the Almoravids, and to an even greater degree by the Almohads. In fact, previous documents from the 10th and 11th centuries are mute on any idea of “reconquest”. Propaganda accounts of Muslim-Christian hostility came into being to support that idea, most notably the Chanson de Roland, a fictitious 11th-century French version of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778) dealing with the Iberian Saracens (Moors), and taught as historical fact in the French educational system since 1880.
The consolidation of the modern idea of Reconquista is inextricably linked to the foundational myths of Spanish nationalism in the 19th century, associated with the development of a Centralist, Castilian and staunchly Catholic brand of nationalism, evoking nationalistic, romantic and sometimes colonialist themes. The concept gained further track in the 20th century during the Francoist dictatorship. It thus became one of the key tenets of the historiographical discourse of National Catholicism, the mythological and ideological identity of the regime. The discourse was underpinned in its most traditional version by an avowed historical illegitimacy of Al-Andalus and the subsequent glorification of the Christian conquest.
The motifs of “liberation war” and reconquest were also used by Francoism, establishing analogies between the “foreign Muslims” and the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (“Communists”), both depicted as enemies of (a Catholic) “Spain”. Their rebellious pursuit was thus a crusade for the restoration of the Church’s unity, where Franco stood for both Pelagius of Asturias and El Cid. The Reconquista has become a rallying call for right and far-right parties in Spain to expel from office incumbent progressive or peripheral nationalist options, as well as their values, in different political contexts as of 2018.
Some contemporary authors consider it proved that the process of Christian state-building in Iberia was indeed often defined by the reclamation of lands that had been lost to the Moors in generations past. In this way, state-building might be characterised – at least in ideological, if not practical, terms – as a process by which Iberian states were being ‘rebuilt’. In turn, other recent historians dispute the whole concept of Reconquista as a concept created a posteriori in the service of later political goals. A few historians point out that Spain and Portugal did not previously exist as nations, and therefore the heirs of the Christian Visigothic Kingdom were not technically reconquering them, as the name suggests. One of the first Spanish intellectuals to question the idea of a “reconquest” that lasted for eight centuries was José Ortega y Gasset, writing in the first half of the 20th century. However, the term reconquista is still widely in use.
Landing in Visigothic Hispania and Initial Expansion
In 711, North African Berber soldiers with some Arabs commanded by Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, engaging a Visigothic force led by King Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete in a moment of serious in-fighting and division across the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania.
After Roderic’s defeat, the Umayyad governor of Ifrikiya Musa ibn-Nusayr joined Tariq, directing a campaign against different towns and strongholds in Hispania. Some, like Mérida, Cordova, or Zaragoza in 712, probably Toledo, were taken, but many agreed to a treaty in exchange for maintaining autonomy, in Theodemir’s dominion (region of Tudmir), or Pamplona, for example. The invading Islamic armies did not exceed 60,000 men.
After the establishment of a local Emirate, Caliph Al-Walid I, ruler of the Umayyad Caliphate, removed many of the successful Muslim commanders. Tariq ibn Ziyad was recalled to Damascus and replaced with Musa ibn-Nusayr, who had been his former superior. Musa’s son, Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa, apparently married Egilona, Roderic’s widow, and established his regional government in Seville. He was suspected of being under the influence of his wife and was accused of wanting to convert to Christianity and of planning a secessionist rebellion. Apparently a concerned Al-Walid I ordered Abd al-Aziz’s assassination. Caliph Al-Walid I died in 715 and was succeeded by his brother Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik. Sulayman seems to have punished the surviving Musa ibn-Nusayr, who very soon died during a pilgrimage in 716. In the end, Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa’s cousin, Ayyub ibn Habib al-Lakhmi became the wali (governor) of Al-Andalus.
A serious weakness amongst the Muslim conquerors was the ethnic tension between Berbers and Arabs. The Berbers were indigenous inhabitants of North Africa who had only recently converted to Islam; they provided most of the soldiery of the invading Islamic armies but sensed Arab discrimination against them. This latent internal conflict jeopardized Umayyad unity. The Ummayyad forces arrived and crossed the Pyrenees by 719. The last Visigothic king Ardo resisted them in Septimania, where he fended off the Berber-Arab armies until 720.
After the Islamic Moorish conquest of most of the Iberian Peninsula in 711-718 and the establishment of the emirate of Al-Andalus, an Umayyad expedition suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Toulouse and was halted for a while on its way north. Odo of Aquitaine had married his daughter to Uthman ibn Naissa, a rebel Berber and lord of Cerdanya, in an attempt to secure his southern borders in order to fend off Charles Martel’s attacks on the north. However, a major punitive expedition led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the latest emir of Al-Andalus, defeated and killed Uthman, and the Muslim governor mustered an expedition north across the western Pyrenees, looted areas up to Bordeaux, and defeated Odo in the Battle of the River Garonne in 732.
A desperate Odo turned to his archrival Charles Martel for help, who led the Frankish and remaining Aquitanian armies against the Umayyad armies and defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers in 732, killing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. While Moorish rule began to recede, it would remain in parts of the Iberian peninsula for another 760 years.
Beginning of the Reconquista
A drastic increase of taxes by the emir Anbasa ibn Suhaym Al-Kalbi provoked several rebellions in Al-Andalus, which a series of succeeding weak emirs were unable to suppress. Around 722, a Muslim military expedition was sent into the north in late summer to suppress a rebellion led by Pelagius of Asturias (Pelayo in Spanish, Pelayu in Asturian). Traditional historiography has hailed Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga as the beginning of the Reconquista.
Two northern realms, Navarre and Asturias, despite their small size, demonstrated an ability to maintain their independence. Because the Umayyad rulers based in Córdoba were unable to extend their power over the Pyrenees, they decided to consolidate their power within the Iberian peninsula. Arab-Berber forces made periodic incursions deep into Asturias, but this area was a cul-de-sac on the fringes of the Islamic world fraught with inconveniences during campaigns and little interest.
It comes then as no surprise that, besides focusing on raiding the Arab-Berber strongholds of the Meseta, Alphonse I centred on expanding his domains at the expense of the neighbouring Galicians and Basques at either side of his realm just as much. During the first decades, Asturian control over part of the kingdom was weak, and for this reason it had to be continually strengthened through matrimonial alliances and war with other peoples from the north of the Iberian Peninsula. After Pelayo’s death in 737, his son Favila of Asturias was elected king. Favila, according to the chronicles, was killed by a bear during a trial of courage. Pelayo’s dynasty in Asturias survived and gradually expanded the kingdom’s boundaries until all of northwest Hispania was included by roughly 775. However, credit is due to him and to his successors, the Banu Alfons from the Arab chronicles. Further expansion of the northwestern kingdom towards the south occurred during the reign of Alfonso II (from 791-842). A king’s expedition arrived in and pillaged Lisbon in 798, probably concerted with the Carolingians.
The Asturian kingdom became firmly established with the recognition of Alfonso II as king of Asturias by Charlemagne and the Pope. During his reign, the bones of St. James the Great were declared to have been found in Galicia, at Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims from all over Europe opened a channel of communication between the isolated Asturias and the Carolingian lands and beyond, centuries later.
Franks and al-Andalus
After the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian heartland of the Visigothic kingdom, the Muslims crossed the Pyrenees and gradually took control of Septimania, starting in 719 with the conquest of Narbonne through 725 when Carcassonne and Nîmes were secured. From the stronghold of Narbonne, they tried to conquer Aquitaine but suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Toulouse (721).
Ten years after halting their advance north, Odo of Aquitaine married his daughter to Uthman ibn Naissa, a rebel Berber and lord of Cerdanya (perhaps all of contemporary Catalonia as well), in an attempt to secure his southern borders to fend off Charles Martel’s attacks on the north. However, a major punitive expedition led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the latest emir of Al-Andalus, defeated and killed Uthman.
After expelling the Muslims from Narbonne in 759 and driving their forces back over the Pyrenees, the Carolingian king Pepin the Short conquered Aquitaine in a ruthless eight-year war. Charlemagne followed his father by subduing Aquitaine by creating counties, taking the Church as his ally and appointing counts of Frankish or Burgundian stock, like his loyal William of Gellone, making Toulouse his base for expeditions against Al-Andalus. Charlemagne decided to organize a regional subkingdom, the Spanish March, which included part of contemporary Catalonia, in order to keep the Aquitanians in check and to secure the southern border of the Carolingian Empire against Muslim incursions. In 781, his three-year-old son Louis was crowned king of Aquitaine, under the supervision of Charlemagne’s trustee William of Gellone, and was nominally in charge of the incipient Spanish March.
Meanwhile, the takeover of the southern fringes of Al-Andalus by Abd ar-Rahman I in 756 was opposed by Yusuf ibn Abd al-Rahman, autonomous governor (wāli) or king (malik) of al-Andalus. Abd ar-Rahman I expelled Yusuf from Cordova, but it took still decades for him to expand to the north-western Andalusian districts. He was also opposed externally by the Abbasids of Baghdad who failed in their attempts to overthrow him. In 778, Abd al-Rahman closed in on the Ebro valley. Regional lords saw the Umayyad emir at the gates and decided to enlist the nearby Christian Franks. According to Ali ibn al-Athir, a Kurdish historian of the 12th century, Charlemagne received the envoys of Sulayman al-Arabi, Husayn, and Abu Taur at the Diet of Paderborn in 777. These rulers of Zaragoza, Girona, Barcelona, and Huesca were enemies of Abd ar-Rahman I, and in return for Frankish military aid against him offered their homage and allegiance.
Charlemagne, seeing an opportunity, agreed upon an expedition and crossed the Pyrenees in 778. Near the city of Zaragoza Charlemagne received the homage of Sulayman al-Arabi. However the city, under the leadership of Husayn, closed its gates and refused to submit. Unable to conquer the city by force, Charlemagne decided to retreat. On the way home the rearguard of the army was ambushed and destroyed by Basque forces at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The Song of Roland, a highly romanticized account of this battle, would later become one of the most famous chansons de geste of the Middle Ages. Around 788 Abd ar-Rahman I died and was succeeded by Hisham I. In 792 Hisham proclaimed a jihad, advancing in 793 against the Kingdom of Asturias and Carolingian Septimania (Gothia). They defeated William of Gellone, Count of Toulouse, in battle, but William led an expedition the following year across the eastern Pyrenees. Barcelona, a major city, became a potential target for the Franks in 797, as its governor Zeid rebelled against the Umayyad emir of Córdoba. An army of the emir managed to recapture it in 799, but Louis, at the head of an army, crossed the Pyrenees and besieged the city for seven months until it finally capitulated in 801.
The main passes in the Pyrenees were Roncesvalles, Somport and La Jonquera. Charlemagne established across them the vassal regions of Pamplona, Aragon, and Catalonia respectively. Catalonia was itself formed from a number of small counties, including Pallars, Girona, and Urgell; it was called the Marca Hispanica by the late 8th century. They protected the eastern Pyrenees passes and shores and were under the direct control of the Frankish kings. Pamplona’s first king was Iñigo Arista, who allied with his Muslim kinsmen the Banu Qasi and rebelled against Frankish overlordship and overcame a Carolingian expedition in 824 that led to the setup of the Kingdom of Pamplona. 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, which then was just a county, was annexed by Navarre. Sobrarbe and Ribagorza were small counties and had little significance to the progress of the Reconquista.
In the late 9th century under Count Wilfred, Barcelona became the de facto capital of the region. It controlled the other counties’ policies in a union, which led in 948 to the independence of Barcelona 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 his county. These states were small and, with the exception of Navarre, did not have the capacity for attacking the Muslims in the way that Asturias did, but their mountainous geography rendered them relatively safe from being conquered, and their borders remained stable for two centuries.
Christian Military Culture
Medieval Christian armies mainly comprised two types of forces: the cavalry (mostly nobles, but including commoner knights from the 10th century on) and the infantry, or peones (peasants). Infantry only went to war if needed, which was not frequent. In an atmosphere of constant conflict, warfare and daily life were strongly intertwined during this period. These armies reflected the need for society to be on constant alert during the first chapters of the Reconquista. These forces were capable of moving long distances in short times.
Christian Cavalry and Infantry
Cavalry tactics in Hispania involved knights approaching the enemy, throwing javelins, then withdrawing to a safe distance before commencing another assault. Once the enemy formation was sufficiently weakened, the knights charged with thrusting spears (lances did not arrive in Hispania until the 11th century). There were three types of knights (caballeros): royal knights, noble knights (caballeros hidalgos), and commoner knights (caballeros villanos, or “mounted soldier from a villa”). Royal knights were mainly nobles with a close relationship with the king, and thus claimed a direct Gothic inheritance.
Royal knights in the early stages of the Reconquista were equipped with mail hauberk, kite shield, a long sword (designed to fight from the horse), javelins, spears and an axe. Noble knights came from the ranks of the infanzones or lower nobles, whereas the commoner knights were not noble but were wealthy enough to afford a horse. Uniquely in Europe, these horsemen comprised a militia cavalry force with no feudal links, being under the sole control of the king or the count of Castile because of fueros (charters) with the crown. Both noble and common knights wore padded armour and carried javelins, spears and round-tasselled shield (influenced by Moorish shields), as well as a sword.
The peones were peasants who went to battle in service of their feudal lord. Poorly equipped, with 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 longbow, the composite bow, and the crossbow were the basic types of bows and were especially popular in the infantry.
In the early Middle Ages in Hispania, armour was typically made of leather, with iron scales. Head protections consisted of a round helmet with nose protector (influenced by the designs used by Vikings, who attacked during the 8th and 9th centuries) and a chain mail headpiece. Shields were often round or kidney-shaped, except for the kite-shaped designs used by the royal knights. Usually adorned with geometric designs, crosses or tassels, shields were made out of wood and had a leather cover.
Steel swords were the most common weapon. The cavalry used long double-edged swords and the infantry short, single-edged ones. Guards were either semicircular or straight, but always highly ornamented with geometrical patterns. Spears and javelins were up to 1.5 metres long and had an iron tip. The double-axe – made of iron, 30 cm long, and possessing an extremely sharp edge – was designed to be equally useful as a thrown weapon or in close combat. Maces and hammers were not common, but some specimens have remained and are thought to have been used by members of the cavalry.
Finally, mercenaries were an important factor, as many kings did not have enough soldiers available. Norsemen, Flemish spearmen, Frankish knights, Moorish mounted archers, and Berber light cavalry were the main types of mercenaries available and used in the conflict.
This style of warfare remained dominant in the Iberian Peninsula until the late 11th century, when lance tactics entered from France, although the traditional horse javelin-shot techniques continued to be used. In the 12th and 13th centuries, soldiers typically carried a sword, a lance, a javelin, and either bow and arrows or crossbow and darts/bolts. Armor consisted of a coat of mail over a quilted jacket, extending at least to the knees, a helmet or iron cap, and bracers protecting the arms and thighs, either metal or leather.
Shields were round or triangular, made of wood, covered with leather, and protected by an iron band; the shields of knights and nobles would bear the family’s coat of arms. Knights rode in both the Muslim style, a la jineta (i.e. the equivalent of a modern jockey’s seat), a short stirrup strap and bended knees allowed for better control and speed, or in the French style, a la brida, a long stirrup strap allowed for more security in the saddle (i.e. the equivalent of the modern cavalry seat, which is more secure) when acting as heavy cavalry. Horses were occasionally fitted with a coat of mail as well.
Around the 14th and 15th centuries heavy cavalry gained a predominant role, including knights wearing full plate armour.
Northern Christian Realms
The northern principalities and kingdoms survived in their mountainous strongholds (see above). However, they started a definite territorial expansion south at the turn of the 10th century (Leon, Najera). The fall of the Caliphate of Cordova (1031) heralded a period of military expansion for the northern kingdoms, now divided into several mighty regional powers after the division of the Kingdom of Navarre (1035). A myriad of autonomous Christian kingdoms emerged thereafter.
Kingdom of Asturias (718-924)
The Kingdom of Asturias was located in the Cantabrian Mountains, a wet and mountainous region in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. It was the first Christian power to emerge. The kingdom was established by a Visigothic nobleman, named Pelagius (Pelayo), who had possibly returned after the Battle of Guadalete in 711 and was elected leader of the Asturians, and the remnants of the gens Gothorum (The Hispano-Gothic aristocracy and the Hispano-Visigothic population who took refuge in the North). Historian Joseph F. O’Callaghan says an unknown number of them fled and took refuge in Asturias or Septimania. In Asturias they supported Pelagius’s uprising, and joining with the indigenous leaders, formed a new aristocracy. The population of the mountain region consisted of native Astures, Galicians, Cantabri, Basques and other groups unassimilated into Hispano-Gothic society, laying the foundations for the Kingdom of Asturias and starting the Astur-Leonese dynasty that spanned from 718 to 1037 and led the initial efforts in the Iberian peninsula to take back the territories then ruled by the Moors. Although the new dynasty first ruled in the mountains of Asturias, with the capital of the kingdom established initially in Cangas de Onís, and was in its dawn mostly concerned with securing the territory and settling the monarchy, the latest kings (particularly Alfonso III of Asturias) emphasized the nature of the new kingdom as heir of that in Toledo and the restoration of the Visigothic nation in order to vindicate the expansion to the south. However, such claims have been overall dismissed by modern historiography, emphasizing the distinct, autochthonous nature of the Cantabro-Asturian and Vasconic domains with no continuation to the Gothic Kingdom of Toledo.
Pelagius’ kingdom initially was little more than a gathering point for the existing guerrilla forces. During the first decades, the Asturian dominion over the different areas of the kingdom was still lax, and for this reason it had to be continually strengthened through matrimonial alliances with other powerful families from the north of the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, Ermesinda, Pelagius’ daughter, was married to Alfonso, Dux Peter of Cantabria’s son. Alfonso’s son Fruela married Munia, a Basque from Álava, after crushing a Basque uprising (probably resistance). Their son is reported to be Alfonso II, while Alfonso I’s daughter Adosinda married Silo, a local chief from the area of Flavionavia, Pravia.
Alfonso’s military strategy was typical of Iberian warfare at the time. Lacking the means needed for wholesale conquest of large territories, his tactics consisted of raids in the border regions of Vardulia. With the plunder he gained further military forces could be paid, enabling him to raid the Muslim cities of Lisbon, Zamora, and Coimbra. Alfonso I also expanded his realm westwards conquering Galicia.
During the reign of King Alfonso II (791-842), the kingdom was firmly established, and a series of Muslim raids caused the transfer of the Asturian capital to Oviedo. The king is believed to have initiated diplomatic contacts with the kings of Pamplona and the Carolingians, thereby gaining official recognition for his kingdom and his crown from the Pope and Charlemagne.
The bones of St. James the Great were proclaimed to have been found in Iria Flavia (present day Padrón) in 813 or probably two or three decades later. The cult of the saint was transferred later to Compostela (from Latin campus stellae, literally “the star field”), possibly in the early 10th century when the focus of Asturian power moved from the mountains over to Leon, to become the Kingdom of Leon or Galicia-Leon. Santiago’s were among many saint relics proclaimed to have been found across north-western Hispania. Pilgrims started to flow in from other Iberian Christian realms, sowing the seeds of the later Way of Saint James (11-12th century) that sparked the enthusiasm and religious zeal of continental Christian Europe for centuries.
Despite numerous battles, neither the Umayyads nor the Asturians had sufficient forces to secure control over these northern territories. Under the reign of Ramiro, famed for the highly legendary Battle of Clavijo, the border began to slowly move southward and Asturian holdings in Castile, Galicia, and Leon were fortified, and an intensive programme of re-population of the countryside began in those territories. In 924 the Kingdom of Asturias became the Kingdom of Leon, when Leon became the seat of the royal court (it did not bear any official name).
Kingdom of Leon (910-1230)
Alfonso III of Asturias repopulated the strategically important city Leon and established it as his capital. King Alfonso began a series of campaigns to establish control over all the lands north of the Douro river. He reorganized his territories into the major duchies (Galicia and Portugal) and major counties (Saldaña and Castile), and fortified the borders with many castles. At his death in 910 the shift in regional power was completed as the kingdom became the Kingdom of Leon. From this power base, his heir Ordoño II was able to organize attacks against Toledo and even Seville.
The Caliphate of Córdoba was gaining power, and began to attack Leon. King Ordoño allied with Navarre against Abd-al-Rahman, but they were defeated in Valdejunquera in 920. For the next 80 years, the Kingdom of Leon suffered civil wars, Moorish attack, internal intrigues and assassinations, and the partial independence of Galicia and Castile, thus delaying the reconquest and weakening the Christian forces. It was not until the following century that the Christians started to see their conquests as part of a long-term effort to restore the unity of the Visigothic kingdom.
The only point during this period when the situation became hopeful for Leon was the reign of Ramiro II. King Ramiro, in alliance with 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 he had to give González the independence of Castile as payment for his help in the battle. After this defeat, Moorish attacks abated until Almanzor began his campaigns. Alfonso V finally regained control over his domains in 1002. Navarre, though attacked by Almanzor, remained intact.
The conquest of Leon did not include Galicia which was left to temporary independence after the withdrawal of the Leonese king. Galicia was conquered soon after (by Ferdinand, son of Sancho the Great, around 1038). However, this brief period of independence meant that Galicia remained a kingdom and fief of Leon, which is the reason it is part of Spain and not Portugal. Subsequent kings titled themselves kings of Galicia and Leon, instead of merely king of Leon as the two were united personally and not in union.
Kingdom of Castile (1037-1230)
Ferdinand I of Leon was the leading king of the mid-11th century. He conquered Coimbra and attacked the taifa kingdoms, often demanding the tributes known as parias. Ferdinand’s strategy was to continue to demand parias until the taifa was greatly weakened both militarily and financially. He also repopulated the Borders with numerous fueros. Following the Navarrese tradition, on his death in 1064 he divided his kingdom between 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 in the siege of Zamora by the traitor Bellido Dolfos (also known as Vellido Adolfo) in 1072. His brother Alfonso VI took over Leon, Castile and Galicia.
Alfonso VI the Brave gave more power to the fueros and repopulated Segovia, Ávila and Salamanca. Once he had secured the Borders, King Alfonso conquered the powerful Taifa kingdom of Toledo in 1085. Toledo, which was the former capital of the Visigoths, was a very important landmark, and the conquest made Alfonso renowned throughout the Christian world. However, this “conquest” was conducted rather gradually, and mostly peacefully, during the course of several decades. It was not until after sporadic and consistent population resettlements had taken place that Toledo was decisively conquered.
Alfonso VI was first and foremost a tactful monarch who chose to understand the kings of taifa and employed unprecedented diplomatic measures to attain political feats before considering the use of force. He adopted the title Imperator totius Hispaniae (“Emperor of all Hispania”, referring to all the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, and not just the modern country of Spain). Alfonso’s more aggressive policy towards the taifas worried the rulers of those kingdoms, who called on the African Almoravids for help.
Kingdom of Navarre (824-1620)
The Kingdom of Pamplona primarily extended along either side of the Pyrenees on the Atlantic Ocean. The kingdom was formed when local leader Íñigo Arista led a revolt against the regional Frankish authority and was elected or declared King in Pamplona (traditionally in 824), establishing a kingdom inextricably linked at this stage to their kinsmen, the muwallad Banu Qasi of Tudela.
Although relatively weak until the early 11th century, Pamplona took a more active role after the accession of Sancho the Great (1004-1035). The kingdom expanded greatly under his reign, as it absorbed Castile, Leon, and what was to be Aragon, in addition to other small counties that would unite and become the Principality of Catalonia. This expansion also led to the independence of Galicia, as well as gaining overlordship over Gascony.
In the 12th century, however, the kingdom contracted to its core, and in 1162 King Sancho VI declared himself king of Navarre. Throughout its early history, the Navarrese kingdom engaged in frequent skirmishes with the Carolingian Empire, from which it maintained its independence, a key feature of its history until 1513.
Kingdom of Aragon (1035-1706)
The Kingdom of Aragon started off as an offshoot of the Kingdom of Navarre. It was formed when Sancho III of Navarre decided to divide his large realm among all his sons. Aragon was the portion of the realm which passed to Ramiro I of Aragon, an illegitimate son of Sancho III. The kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre were several times united in personal union until the death of Alfonso the Battler in 1135.
In 1137 the heiress of the kingdom married the count of Barcelona, and their son Alfonso II ruled from 1162 the combined possessions of his parents, resulting in what modern historians call the Crown of Aragon.
In the following centuries, the Crown of Aragon conquered a number of territories in the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, including the kingdom of Valencia and the kingdom of Mallorca. James I of Aragon, also known as James the Conqueror, expanded his territories to the north, south and east. James also signed the Treaty of Corbeil (1258), which released him from the nominal suzerainty of the King of France.
Early in his reign, James attempted to reunite the Aragonese and Navarrese crowns through a treaty with the childless Sancho VII of Navarre. But the Navarrese nobles rejected him, and chose Theobald IV of Champagne in his stead.
Later on, Ferdinand II of Aragon, married Isabella of Castile, leading to a dynastic union which eventually gave birth to modern Spain, after the conquest of Upper Navarre (Navarre south of the Pyrenees) and the kingdom of Granada.
Kingdom of Portugal (1139-1910)
In 1139, after an overwhelming victory in the Battle of Ourique against the Almoravids, Afonso Henriques was proclaimed the first King of Portugal by his troops. According to the legend, Christ announced from heaven Afonso’s great deeds, whereby he would establish the first Portuguese Cortes at Lamego and be crowned by the Primate Archbishop of Braga. In 1142 a group of Anglo-Norman crusaders on their way to the Holy Land helped King Afonso Henriques in a failed Siege of Lisbon (1142). In the Treaty of Zamora in 1143, Alfonso VII of Leon and Castile recognised Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of Leon.
In 1147, Portugal captured Santarém, and seven months later the city of Lisbon was also brought under Portuguese control after the Siege of Lisbon. By the papal bull Manifestis Probatum, Pope Alexander III recognised Afonso Henriques as King of Portugal in 1179.
With Portugal finally recognised as an independent kingdom by its neighbours, Afonso Henriques and his successors, aided by Crusaders and the military monastic orders the Knights Templar, the Order of Aviz or the Order of Saint James, pushed the Moors to the Algarve on the southern coast of Portugal. After several campaigns, the Portuguese part in the Reconquista came to an end with the definitive capture of the Algarve in 1249. With all of Portugal now under the control of Afonso III of Portugal, religious, cultural and ethnic groups became gradually homogenised
After the completion of the Reconquista, the Portuguese territory was a Roman Catholic realm. Nonetheless, Denis of Portugal carried out a short war with Castile for possession of the towns of Serpa and Moura. After this, Denis avoided war; he signed the Treaty of Alcanizes with Ferdinand IV of Castile in 1297, establishing the present-day borders.
During the suppression of the Knights Templar all over Europe, under the influence of Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V requesting its annihilation by 1312, King Denis reinstituted the Templars of Tomar as the Order of Christ in 1319. Denis believed that the Order’s assets should by their nature stay in any given Order instead of being taken by the King, largely for the Templars’ contribution to the Reconquista and the reconstruction of Portugal after the wars.
The experience gained during the battles of the Reconquista was fundamental to Conquest of Ceuta, the first step to the establishment of the Portuguese Empire. Likewise, the contact with Muslim’s navigation techniques and sciences enabled the creation of Portuguese nautical innovations such as the caravel – the principal Portuguese ship during their voyages of exploration in the Age of Discovery.
Minor Christian realms were the Kingdom of Viguera (970-1005), the Lordship of Albarracín (1167-1300) and the Principality of Valencia (1094-1102).
Clashes and raids on bordering Andalusian lands did not keep the Christian kingdoms from battling among themselves or allying with Muslim kings. Some Muslim kings had Christian-born wives or mothers. Some Christian warriors, like El Cid, were contracted by taifa kings to fight against their neighbours. Indeed, El Cid’s first battle experience was gained fighting for a Muslim state against a Christian state. At the Battle of Graus in 1063, he and other Castilians fought on the side of al-Muqtadir, Muslim sultan of Zaragoza, against the forces of Ramiro I of Aragon. There is even an instance of a crusade being declared against another Christian king in Hispania.
After the defeat of Alfonso VIII, King of Castile, at Alarcos, Kings Alfonso IX of Leon and Sancho VII of Navarre entered an alliance with the Almohads and invaded Castile in 1196. By the end of the year Sancho VII had dropped out of the war under Papal pressure. Early in 1197, at the request of Sancho I, King of Portugal, Pope Celestine III declared a crusade against Alfonso IX and released his subjects from their responsibilities to the king, declaring that “the men of his realm shall be absolved from their fidelity and his dominion by authority of the apostolic see.” Together the Kings of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon invaded Leon. In the face of this onslaught combined with pressure from the Pope, Alfonso IX was finally forced to sue for peace in October 1197.
In the late years of Al-Andalus, Castile had the might to conquer the remnants of the kingdom of Granada, but the kings preferred to wait and claim the tribute of the Muslim parias. The trade of Granadan goods and the parias were a major means by which African gold entered medieval Europe.
The Reconquista was a process not only of war and conquest, but also of repopulation. Christian kings moved their own people to locations abandoned by Muslims in order to have a population capable of defending the borders. The main repopulation areas were the Douro Basin (the northern plateau), the high Ebro valley (La Rioja) and central Catalonia. The repopulation of the Douro Basin took place in two distinct phases. North of the river, between the 9th and 10th centuries, the “pressure” (or presura) system was employed. South of the Douro, in the 10th and 11th centuries, the presura led to the “charters” (forais or fueros). Fueros were used even south of the Central Range.
The presura referred to a group of peasants who crossed the mountains and settled in the abandoned lands of the Douro Basin. Asturian laws promoted this system, for instance granting a peasant all the land he was able to work and defend as his own property. Of course, Asturian and Galician minor nobles and clergymen sent 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 harsh climate, only attracted peasants with no hope in Biscay. As a consequence, Castile was governed by a single count, but had a largely non-feudal 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 provided a means of escape from the feudal system, as fueros were only granted by the monarch. As a result, the town council was dependent on the monarch alone and, in turn, was required to provide auxilium – aid or troops – for their monarch. The military force of the towns became the 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 Hispania had fueros, or forais. In Navarre, fueros were the main repopulating system. Later on, in the 12th century, Aragon also employed the system; for example, the fuero of Teruel, which was one of the last fueros, in the early 13th century.
From the mid-13th century on, no more charters were granted, as the demographic pressure had disappeared and other means of re-population were created. 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 those living under them, who were prepared to go to war to defend their rights under the charter. In the 19th century, the abolition of the fueros in Navarre would be one of the causes of the Carlist Wars. In Castile, disputes over the system contributed to the war against Charles I (Castilian War of the Communities).
Muslim Decline and Defeat
Fall of the Caliphate
During the 9th century the Berbers returned to North Africa in the aftermath of revolts. Many governors of large cities distant from the capital, Córdoba, had planned to establish their independence. Then, in 929, the Emir of Córdoba (Abd-ar-Rahman III), the leader of the Umayyad dynasty, declared himself Caliph, independent from the Abbasids in Baghdad. He took all the military, religious, and political power and reorganised the army and the bureaucracy.
After regaining control over the dissident governors, Abd-ar-Rahman III tried to conquer the remaining Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, attacking them several times and forcing them back beyond the Cantabrian Mountains. Abd-ar-Rahman’s grandson later became a puppet in the hands of the great Vizier Almanzor (al-Mansur, “the victorious”). Almanzor waged several campaigns attacking and sacking Burgos, Leon, Pamplona, Barcelona, and Santiago de Compostela before his death in 1002.
Between Almanzor’s death and 1031, Al-Andalus suffered many civil wars, which ended in the division into the Taifa kingdoms. The taifas were small kingdoms, established by the city governors. The result was many (up to 34) small kingdoms, each centred upon its capital. Their governors had no larger-scale vision of the Moorish presence in the Iberian peninsula and had no qualms about attacking their neighbouring kingdoms whenever they could gain advantage by doing so.
The split into the taifa states weakened the Islamic presence, and the Christian kingdoms further advanced as Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile conquered Toledo in 1085. Surrounded by enemies, taifa rulers sent a desperate appeal to the Berber chieftain Yusuf ibn Tashfin, leader of the Almoravids.
The Almoravids were a Muslim militia composed of Berbers, and unlike previous Muslim rulers, they were not so tolerant towards Christians and Jews. Their armies entered the Iberian peninsula on several occasions (1086, 1088, 1093) and defeated King Alfonso at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086, but initially their purpose was to unite all the taifas into a single Almoravid Caliphate. Their actions halted the southward expansion of the Christian kingdoms. Their only defeat came at Valencia in 1094, due to the actions of El Cid.
Meanwhile, Navarre lost all importance under King Sancho IV, for he lost Rioja to Sancho II of Castile, and nearly became the vassal of Aragon. At his death, the Navarrese chose as their king Sancho Ramírez, King of Aragon, who thus became Sancho V of Navarre and I of Aragon. Sancho Ramírez gained international recognition for Aragon, uniting it with Navarre and expanding the borders south, conquering Wasqat Huesca deep in the valleys in 1096 and building a fort, El Castellar, 25 km from Saraqustat Zaragoza.
Catalonia came under intense pressure from the taifas of Zaragoza and Lérida, as well as from internal disputes, as Barcelona suffered a dynastic crisis that led to open war among the smaller counties. But by the 1080s, the situation had calmed down, and the dominion of Barcelona over the smaller counties was restored.
After a brief period of disintegration (the second Taifa period), the Almohads, the rising power in North Africa, took over most of Al-Andalus. However they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) by a Christian coalition, losing almost all the remaining lands of Al-Andalus in the following decades. By 1252 only the Kingdom of Granada remained intact but as a vassal state of Castile.
Granada War and the End of Muslim Rule
Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista with a war against the Emirate of Granada that started in 1482 and ended with Granada’s surrender on 02 January 1492. The Moors in Castile previously numbered “half a million within the realm”. By 1492 some 100,000 had died or been enslaved, 200,000 had emigrated, and 200,000 remained in Castile. Many of the Muslim elite, including Granada’s former Emir Muhammad XII, who had been given the area of the Alpujarras mountains as a principality, found life under Christian rule intolerable and emigrated to Tlemcen in North Africa.
In 1497 Spanish forces took Melilla, west of Oran, and the island of Djerba, south of Tunis, and went on to more important gains, with the bloody seizure of Oran in 1509, and the capture of Bougie and Tripoli in 1510. The Spanish capture of Tripoli cost them some 300 men, while the inhabitants suffered between 3,000 and 5,000 killed and another 5,000-6,000 carried off as slaves. Soon thereafter, however, they faced competition from the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire in the east and were pushed back.
Conversions and Expulsions
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, Christians and Jews were allowed to retain their religions, with their own legal systems and courts, by paying a tax, the jizya. The penalty for not paying it was imprisonment and expulsion.
The new Christian hierarchy demanded heavy taxes from non-Christians and gave them rights, such as in the Treaty of Granada (1491) only for Moors in recently Islamic Granada. On 30 July 1492, all the Jewish community – some 200,000 people – were forcibly expelled. The next year the Alhambra decree ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews, leading many to convert to Catholicism. In 1502, Queen Isabella I declared conversion to Catholicism compulsory within the Kingdom of Castile. King Charles V did the same to Moors in the Kingdom of Aragon in 1526, forcing conversions of its Muslim population during the Revolt of the Germanies. Many local officials took advantage of the situation to seize property.
Most of the descendants of those Muslims who submitted to conversion to Christianity – rather than exile – during the early periods of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, the Moriscos, were later expelled from Spain after serious social upheaval, when the Inquisition was at its height. The expulsions were carried out more severely in eastern Spain (Valencia and Aragon) due to local animosity towards Muslims and Moriscos where they were seen as economic rivals by local workers who saw them as cheap labour undermining their bargaining position with the landlords.
Making things more complex were the many former Muslims and Jews known as Moriscos, Marranos, and Conversos, who shared ancestors in common with many Christians, especially among the aristocracy, causing much concern over loyalty and attempts by the aristocracy to hide their non-Christian ancestry. Some – the numbers are debated – continued to secretly practice their religions and use their languages well into the sixteenth century. Those that the Spanish Inquisition found to be secretly practicing Islam or Judaism were executed, imprisoned, or exiled.
Nevertheless, all those deemed to be “New Christians” were repeatedly suspected of illegally continuing in secret to practice their religions various crimes against the Spanish state including continued practice of Islam or Judaism. New Christians were subject to many discriminatory practices starting in the sixteenth century. Exactions imposed on the Moriscos paved the way to a major Morisco revolt happening in 1568, with the final expulsion of the Moriscos from Castile taking place in 1609; they were driven from Aragon at about the same time.
Classifications and Later Consequences
The many advances and retreats created several social types:
- The Muwallad: Christians under Islamic rule who converted to Islam after the arrival of the Berbers.
- The Mozarabs: Christians in Muslim-held lands. Some of them migrated to the north of the peninsula in times of persecution bringing elements of the styles, food and agricultural practices learned from the Andalusians, while they continued practicing their Christianity with older forms of Catholic worship and their own versions of the Latin language.
- “New Christians”: Jews converting to Christianity called conversos, or pejoratively Marranos. Jews converted to Christianity voluntarily or through force. Some were Crypto-Jews who continued practicing Judaism secretly. All remaining Jews were expelled from Spain as a consequence of the 1492 Alhambra Decree, and from Portugal in 1497. Former Jews were subject to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, established to enforce Christian faith and practice, which often resulted in secret investigations and public punishments of conversos in autos-da-fé (“acts of faith”), often public executions by burning the victim alive.
- The Mudéjar: Muslims in Christian-held lands.
- Moriscos: Muslim conversos. Muslims who converted to Catholicism. A significant number were Crypto-Muslims who continued practicing Islam secretly. They ranged from successful skilled artisans, valued and protected in Aragon, to impoverished peasants in Castile. After the Alhambra Decree the entire Islamic population was forced to convert or leave, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century a significant number were expelled in the expulsion of the Moriscos.
Real, legendary, and fictional episodes from the Reconquista are the subject of much of medieval Galician-Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan literature such as the cantar de gesta.
Some noble genealogies show the close, though not numerous, relations between Muslims and Christians. For example, Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, whose rule is considered to have marked the peak of power for Moorish Al-Andalus Hispania, married Abda, daughter of Sancho Garcés II of Navarra, who bore him a son, named Abd al-Rahman and commonly known in a pejorative sense as Sanchuelo (Little Sancho; in Arabic: Shanjoul).
After his father’s death, Sanchuelo/Abd al-Rahman, as a son of a Christian princess, was a strong contender to take over the ultimate power in Muslim al-Andalus. A hundred years later, King Alfonso VI of Castile, regarded as one of the greatest medieval Spanish kings, designated his son (also named Sancho) by the Muslim princess refugee Zaida of Seville, as his heir.
The Reconquista was a war with long periods of respite between the adversaries, partly for pragmatic reasons and also due to infighting among the Christian kingdoms of the North spanning over seven centuries. Some populations practiced Islam or Christianity as their own religion during these centuries, so the identity of contenders changed over time.
Festivals in Modern Spain and Portugal
Currently, festivals called moros y cristianos (Castilian), moros i cristians (Catalan), mouros e cristãos (Portuguese) and mouros e cristiáns (Galician), which all mean “Moors and Christians”, recreate the fights as colourful parades with elaborate garments and many fireworks, especially on the central and southern towns of the Land of Valencia, like Alcoi, Ontinyent or Villena.
A 2016 study found that the “rate of Reconquest” – how rapidly the Christian frontier was expanded – has persistent effects on the Spanish economy to this day. After an initial phase of military conquest, Christians states incorporated the conquered land. When large frontier regions were incorporated at once, the land was mostly given to the nobility and the military orders, with negative effects on long-term development. The incorporation of small regions, on the other hand, generally allowed for the participation of individual settlers and was more likely to fall under the auspices of the crown. This led to a more equitable distribution of land and greater social equality, with positive effects on long-term development.
On the conclusion of Iberian victory over the Moors, Spain and Portugal extended the conflict against Islam overseas. The Spanish under the Habsburg dynasty soon became the champions of Roman Catholicism in Europe and the Mediterranean against the encroaching threat of the Ottoman Empire. In a similar vein, the conquest of Ceuta marked the beginning of Portuguese expansion into Muslim Africa. Soon, the Portuguese also warred with the Ottoman Caliphate in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia as the Portuguese conquered the Ottomans’ allies: the Sultanate of Adal in East Africa, the Sultanate of Delhi in South Asia and the Sultanate of Malacca in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the Spanish also went to war against the Sultanate of Brunei in Southeast Asia. The Spanish sent expeditions from New Spain (Mexico) to conquer and Christianise the Philippines, then a territory of the Sultanate of Brunei. Brunei itself was assaulted during the Castilian War. Spain also went to war against the Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao, and Lanao in the Spanish-Moro conflict. The primary inspiration for these wars[which?] against Muslim states overseas was the Reconquista.
Together with the crusades, the rhetoric of ‘Reconquista’ serves to the political discourse of the contemporary far right in Spain, Portugal and, more broadly, Europe. References to Reconquista and crusade are often allegorically played as internet meme by 21st-century online far-right groups to convey Anti-Muslim sentiments. The theme has been used as main rallying point by identitarian groups in France and Italy. The commemoration of the surrender of Sultan Boabdil in Granada on 02 January every year acquired a markedly nationalist undertone after the early years of the Francoist regime and, following the death of the dictator in 1975, it has served as glue for extreme right groups by facilitating their open-air physical gathering and providing an occasion to make explicit their political demands. The far right has also waged a culture war by claiming Reconquista dates such as the aforementioned 02 January or 02 February regional festivities for the related autonomous communities (Andalusia and Murcia).