Kingdom of Asturias

Kingdom of Asturias
Regnum Asturorum

Preheraldic Emblem

Hoc Signo Tuetur Pius, Hoc Signo Vincitur Inimicus
(English: With this sign thou shalt defend the pious, with this sign thou shalt defeat the enemy)
The Kingdom of Asturias circa 814 CE
Capital Cangas de Onís, San Martín del Rey Aurelio, Pravia, Oviedo
Languages Latin, Vulgar Latin (Astur-Leonese, Castilian, Galician-Portuguese), a few speakers of Visigothic and Vandalic
Religion Christianity
Government Monarchy
   718–737 Pelagius of Asturias
  910–925 Fruela II of Asturias
   Established 718
  Battle of Covadonga 718 or 722
  Hereditary monarchy 842
  Divided 910
   Disestablished 924
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Visigothic Kingdom
Kingdom of León
County of Portugal
Today part of  Spain
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Kingdom of Asturias, circa 910 AD

The Kingdom of Asturias (Latin: Regnum Asturorum) was a kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula founded in 718 by the nobleman Pelagius of Asturias (Spanish: Pelayo). It was the first Christian political entity established after the conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom in the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in 718 or 722.[1] That year, Pelagius defeated an Umayyad patrol at the Battle of Covadonga, in what is usually regarded as the beginning of the Reconquista. The Kingdom of Asturias transitioned to the Kingdom of León in 924, when Fruela II of Asturias became king with his royal court in León.[2]


Indigenous background

The Asturian kingdom originated in the western and central territory of the Cantabrian Mountains, part of the Gallaecia, particularly the Picos de Europa and the central area of Asturias. The main political and military events during the first decades of the kingdom's existence took place in this region. According to the descriptions of Strabo, Cassius Dio and other Graeco-Roman geographers, several peoples inhabited the lands of Asturias at the beginning of the Christian era, most notably:

Picture of ḷḷagu del Vaḷḷe (Somiedo), showing typical Asturian cottages (called teitos), as already in use in the time of the Astures

Classical geographers give conflicting views of the ethnic description of the above-mentioned peoples. Ptolemy says that the Astures extended along the central area of current Asturias, between the Navia and Sella rivers, fixing the latter river as the boundary with the Cantabrian territory. However, other geographers placed the frontier between the Astures and the Cantabri further to the east: Julius Honorius stated in his Cosmographia that the springs of the river Ebro were located in the land of the Astures (sub asturibus). In any case, ethnic borders in the Cantabrian Mountains were not so important after that time, as the clan divisions that permeated the pre-Roman societies of all the peoples of Northern Iberia faded under similar political administrative culture imposed on them by the Romans.

This situation started to change during the Late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, when an Asturian identity gradually started to develop: the centuries-old fight between Visigothic and Suebian nobles may have helped to forge a distinct identity among the peoples of the Cantabrian districts. Several archaeological digs in the castro of La Carisa (municipality of Lena) have found remnants of a defensive line whose main purpose was to protect the valleys of central Asturias from invaders who came from the Meseta through the Pajares pass: the construction of these fortifications reveals a high degree of organization and cooperation between the several Asturian communities, in order to defend themselves from the southern invaders. Carbon-14 tests have found that the wall dates from the period 675-725 AD, when two armed expeditions against the Asturians took place: one of them headed by Visigothic king Wamba (reigned 672-680); the other by Muslim governor Musa bin Nusayr during the Umayyad conquest, who settled garrisons over its territory.

The gradual formation of Asturian identity led to the creation of the Kingdom of Asturias after Pelagius' coronation and the victory over the Muslim garrisons in Covadonga in the early 8th century. The Chronica Albeldense, in narrating the happenings of Covadonga, stated that "Divine providence brings forth the King of Asturias".

Umayyad occupation and Asturian revolt

Monument in memory of Pelagius in Covadonga.

The kingdom was established by the nobleman Pelayo (Latin: Pelagius), possibly an Asturian noble. No substantial movement of refugees from central Iberia could have taken place before the Battle of Covadonga, and in 714 Asturias was overrun by Musa bin Nusayr with no effective or known opposition.[3] It has also been claimed that he may have retired to the Asturian mountains after the Battle of Guadalete, where in the Gothic tradition of Theias he was elected by the other nobles as leader of the Astures. Pelayo's kingdom was initially little more than a rallying banner for existing guerilla forces.[4][5]

In the progress of the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the main cities and administrative centers fell into the hands of Muslim troops. Control of the central and southern regions, such as the Guadalquivir and Ebro valleys, presented few problems for the newcomers, who used the existing Visigothic administrative structures, ultimately of Roman origin. However, in the northern mountains, urban centers (such as Gigia) were practically nonexistent and the submission of the country had to be achieved valley by valley. Muslim troops often resorted to the taking of hostages to ensure the pacification of the newly conquered territory.

After the first incursion of Tarik, who reached Toledo in 711, the Yemeni viceroy of Ifriqiya, Musa bin Nusayr, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar the following year and carried out a massive operation of conquest that would lead to the capture of Mérida, Toledo, Zaragoza and Lerida, among other cities. During the last phase of his military campaign, he reached the northwest of the Peninsula, where he gained control of the localities of Lugo and Gijón. In the latter city he placed a small Berber detachment under a governor, Munuza, whose mission it was to consolidate Muslim control over Asturias. As guarantee of the submission of the region, some nobles – some argue that Pelayo was among them, although his origin is unknown – had to surrender hostages from Asturias to Cordoba. The legend says that his sister was asked for, and a marriage alliance sought with the local Berber leader. Later on, Munuza would try to do the same at another mountain post in the Pyrenees, where he rebelled against his Cordoban Arab superiors. The Berbers had been converted to Islam barely a generation earlier, and were considered second rank to Arabs and Syrians.

The most commonly accepted hypothesis for this battle (epic as described by later Christian Asturian sources, but a mere skirmish in Muslim texts) is that the Moorish column was attacked from the cliffs and then fell back through the valleys towards present day Gijón, but was attacked whilst in retreat by the retinue and nearly destroyed. However the only almost contemporary chronicler accounting for the events of this time, the Christian Chronicle of 754, doesn't even mention the incident.

But, as is told in the Rotensian Chronicle (the chronicle of Alfonso III of Asturias in which Pelayo is considered the successor of the kings of Toledo, with clear goals of political legitimacy) as well as in that of Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari (a Maghrebi historian of the 16th century who died in Cairo, Egypt, and who could have used the Rotensian Chronicle and rewritten it eight centuries later, making it useless as a historical document), Pelayo escaped from Cordoba during the governorship of al-Hurr (717-718) and his return to Asturias triggered a revolt against the Muslim authorities of Gijón. The identity of Pelayo, however, is still an open subject, and this is only one of the theories. The leader of the Astures, whose origin is debated by historians, had at that time his home in Bres (in the district of Piloña) and Munuza sent his troops there under al-Qama. After receiving word of the arrival of the Muslims, Pelayo and his companions hurriedly crossed the Piloña and headed toward the narrow, easily defended valley of Auseva mountain, and took refuge in one of its caves, Covadonga. After an attempt at siege was abandoned due to the weather and the exposed position of the deep valley gorge, the troops are said to have taken to exit through the high ports to the south, in order to continue in the search and destroy action against other rebels. There the locals were able to ambush the Muslim detachment, which was annihilated. The rest of its survivors continued south to the plains of Leon, leaving the maritime districts of Asturias exposed and weakened of defenders.

The victory — relatively small, as only a few Berber soldiers were involved — resulted in great prestige for Pelayo and provoked a massive insurrection by other nobles in Galicia and Asturias who immediately rallied around Pelayo, electing him King or military Dux.

Under Pelayo's leadership, the attacks on the Berbers increased. Munuza, feeling isolated in a region increasingly hostile, decided to abandon Gijón and headed for the Plateau (Meseta) through the Mesa Trail. However, he was intercepted and killed by Astures at Olalíes (in the current district of Grado). Once he had expelled the Moors from the eastern valleys of Asturias, Pelayo attacked León, the main city in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, and secured the mountain passes, isolating the region from Moorish attack. Pelayo continued attacking those Berbers who remained north of the Asturian-Galician Mountains until they withdrew, but mostly deserted their garrisons at the wider rebellion against Arab control from Cordoba. He then married his daughter, Ermesinda, to Alfonso, the son of Peter of Cantabria, the leading noble at the still-independent Visigothic dukedom of Cantabria. His son Favila was married to Froiliuba.

Recent archaeological excavations have found fortifications in Mount Homon and La Carisa (near the Huerna and Pajares valleys) dated between the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries. These Berber fortifications included watchtowers and moats of almost two meters, in whose construction and defense many hundreds may have participated. This would have required a high degree of organization and firm leadership, probably by Pelayo himself.[6] For this reason, experts consider that it is probable that the construction of the defensive line was intended to prevent the reentry of Moors into Asturias through the mountain passes of Mesa and Pajares.[7]

After Pelayo's victory over the Moorish detachment at the Battle of Covadonga, a small territorial independent entity was established in the Asturian mountains that was the origin of the kingdom of Asturias. Pelayo's leadership was not comparable to that of the Visigothic kings. The first kings of Asturias referred to themselves as "princeps" (prince) and later as "rex" (king), but the later title was not firmly established until the period of Alphonse II. The title of "princeps" had been used by the indigenous peoples of Northern Spain and its use appears in Galician and Cantabrian inscriptions, in which expressions like "Nícer, Príncipe de los Albiones"[8] (on an inscription found in the district of Coaña) and "princeps cantabrorum"[9] (over a gravestone of the municipality of Cistierna, in Leon). In fact, the Kingdom of Asturias originated as a focus of leadership over other peoples of the Cantabrian Coast that had resisted the Romans as well as the Visigoths and that were not willing to subject themselves to the dictates of the Umayyad Caliphate. Immigrants from the south, fleeing from Al-Andalus, brought a Gothic influence to the Asturian kingdom. However, at the beginning of the 9th century, Alphonse II's will cursed the Visigoths, blaming them for the loss of Hispania. The later chronicles on which knowledge of this period is based, written all during the reign of Alphonse III when there was great Gothic ideological influence, are the Sebastianensian Chronicle (Crónica Sebastianense), the Albeldensian Chronicle (Crónica Albeldense) and the Rotensian Chronicle (Crónica Rotense).

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, Pelayo's daughter, was married to Alfonso, Dux Peter of Cantabria's son. Alphonse's son Fruela married Munia, a Basque princess from Alava, while his daughter Adosinda married Silo, a local chief from the area of Flavionavia, Pravia.

After Pelayo's death in 737, his son Favila (or "Fafila") was elected king. Fafila, according to the chronicles, was unexpectedly killed by a bear while hunting in one of the trials of courage normally required of the nobility in that era. But there is no other such incident known from the long history of monarchs and others at the sport, and the case is suspiciously similar to the Roman legend of their first king, Romulus, taken by a sudden storm. The immediate consequence was that the rule of the Asturians passed to his brother-in-law, ruler of the neighboring independent domain, through a marriage alliance to Fafila's sister. The female ties and rights of inheritance were still respected, and in later cases would allow the regency or crown for their husbands too.

Pelayo founded a dynasty in Asturias that survived for decades and gradually expanded the kingdom's boundaries, until all of northwest Iberia was included by ca. 775. The reign of Alfonso II from 791 to 842 saw further expansion of the kingdom to the south, almost as far as Lisbon.

Initial expansion

Favila was succeeded by Alphonse I, who inherited the throne of Asturias thanks to his marriage to Pelayo's daughter, Ermesinda. The Albeldensian Chronicle narrated how Alphonse arrived in the kingdom some time after the battle of Covadonga to marry Ermesinda. Favila's death made his access to the throne possible as well as the rise to power of one of the most powerful families in the Kingdom of Asturias: the House of Cantabria. Initially only Alphonse moved to the court in Cangas de Onís, but after the progressive depopulation of the plateau and the Middle Valley of the Ebro, where the main strongholds of the Duchy of Cantabria such as Amaya, Tricio and City of Cantabria were located, the descendants of Duke Peter withdrew from Rioja towards the Cantabrian area and in time controlled the destiny of the Kingdom of Asturias.

Alphonse began the territorial expansion of the small Christian kingdom from its first seat in the Picos de Europa, advancing toward the west to Galicia and toward the south with continuous incursions in the Douro valley, taking cities and towns and moving their inhabitants to the safer northern zones. This eventually led to the strategic depopulation of the plateau, creating the Desert of the Duero as a protection against future Moorish attacks.[10]

This depopulation, defended by Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz, is doubted today, at least concerning its magnitude.[10] Two main arguments are used to refute it. First, the minor toponymy was preserved in multiple districts. Second, there are biological and cultural differences between the inhabitants of the Cantabrian zone and those of the central Plateau. What is true is that in the first half of the eighth century there was a process of rural growth that led to the abandonment of urban life and the organization of the population in small communities of shepherds. Several causes explain this process: The definitive breakdown of the production system based on slavery in existence from the time of the late Roman Empire, the continuous propagation of epidemics in the area, and the abandonment of al-Andalus by the Berber regiments after the revolt of 740-741. All this made possible the emergence of a sparsely populated and ill-organized area that isolated the Asturian kingdom from the Moorish assaults and allowed its progressive strengthening.

The campaigns of kings Alphonse I and Fruela in the Duero valley were probably not very different from the raids that the Astures made in the same area in the pre-Roman era. The initial Asturian expansion is carried out mainly through Cantabrian territory (from Galicia to Vizcaya) and it will be necessary to wait until the reigns of Ordoño I and Alfonso III for the Kingdom of Asturias to take effective possession of the territories located south of the Cantabrian Mountains.

Fruela I, Alphonse I's son, consolidated and expanded his father's domains. He was assassinated by members of the nobility associated with the House of Cantabria.

Social and political transformations

Written sources are concise concerning the reigns of Aurelio, Silo, Mauregatus and Bermudo I. Generally this period, with a duration of twenty-three years (768-791), has been considered as a long stage of obscurity and retreat of the kingdom of Asturias. This vision, defended by some historians, who even named this phase of the history of the Asturian kingdom as that of the "lazy kings," originated because it appears that in that moment there were no important military actions against al-Andalus. However, during those years there were relevant and decisive internal transformations in the Asturian kingdom. They all prepared and provided a foundation, in all respects, for the strengthening and the expansion of Asturias.

First, the first internal rebellion, led by Mauregato (783-788), occurred during those years. The rebellion removed Alphonse II from the throne (although he became king again later, from 791 to 842), and initiated a series of rebellions whose principal leaders were members of ascending aristocratic palace groups and landowners who, based on the growing economic development of the area, tried to displace from power of the reigning family of Don Pelayo. The important rebellions of Nepociano, Aldroito and Piniolo, during the reign of Ramiro I (842-50), are part of this process of economic, social, political and cultural transformation of the Asturian kingdom that occurred during the eighth and ninth centuries.

Second, neighboring rebellions by Basques and Galicians failed, aborted by Asturian kings. These rebellions, in turn, took advantage of the internal rebellions of the central and Eastern part of Asturias, and, on occasions, provided help to one or another contender of the Asturian aristocracy: refuge to Alphonse II in lands of Alava, after his flight; the support to Nepociano's rebellion in some Asturian areas or the adherence of Galicians to the cause of Ramiro I.

Finally, other evidence suggests important internal transformations of the Asturian kingdom during this time. Rebellions of freedmen (serbi, servilis orico and libertini, according to the Chronicles) occurred during the reign of Aurelio I. The property relationship between master and slave broke down progressively. This fact, together with the growing role of the individual and the restricted family in detriment of the role that until that time had fulfilled the extended family, is another indication that a new society was emerging in Asturias at the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries.

Fruela I (757-68) is succeeded by Aurelius (768-74), son of Fruela of Cantabria and Peter of Cantabria's grandson, who will establish the court in lands of what is today the district of San Martín del Rey Aurelio, which previously belonged to Langreo, between the years of his reign. Silo (774-83) succeeded Aurelio after his death, and transfers the court to Pravia. Silo was married to Adosinda, one of the daughters of Alphonse I (and therefore, Pelayo's granddaughter).

Alphonse II was elected king after Silo's death, but Mauregato organized a strong opposition and forced the new king to withdraw to lands in Alava (his mother, Munia, was Basque), obtaining the Asturian throne. This king, despite the bad reputation attributed by history, had good relations with Beatus of Liébana, perhaps the most important cultural figure of the kingdom, and supported him in his fight against adoptionism. Legend says that Mauregato was Alphonse I's bastard son with a Moorish woman, and attributes to him the tribute of a hundred maidens. He was succeeded by Bermudo I, Aurelio's brother. He was called the deacon, although he probably only received minor vows. Bermudo abdicated after a military defeat, ending his life in a monastery.

Recognition and later solidification

It was not until King Alfonso II (791-842) that the kingdom was firmly established, after Silo's conquests to the west by subjugating Gallaecia and confirming territorial gains in western Basque Country.[11] Ties with the Carolingian Franks also got closer and frequent, with Alfonso II's envoys presenting Charlemagne with spoils of war (campaign of Lisbon, 797). Alfonso II introduced himself as "an Emperor Charlemagne's man",[12] suggesting some kind of suzerainty.[13] During Alfonso II's reign, a probable reaction against indigenous traditions took place in order to strengthen his state and grip on power, by establishing in the Asturian Court the order and ceremonies of the former Visigoth Kingdom.[12] During Alfonso II's reign or later, the holy bones of James, son of Zebedee were declared to have been found in Galicia at Iria Flavia. They were considered authentic by a contemporary pope of Rome. However, during the Asturian period, Eulalia of Mérida (located in Oviedo) became the prime religious site and icon of devotion.

Alfonso II also repopulated parts of Galicia, León and Castile and incorporated them into the Kingdom of Asturia while establishing influence over . The first capital city was Cangas de Onís, near the site of the battle of Cavadonga. Then in Silo's time, it was moved to Pravia. Alfonso II chose his birthplace of Oviedo as the capital of the Kingdom (circa 789).

With the forced abdication of Alfonso III by his sons in 910, the Kingdom of Asturias split into three separate kingdoms of León, Galicia and Asturias. The three kingdoms were eventually reunited in 924 (León and Galicia in 914, Asturias later) under the crown of León. It continued under that name until incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile in 1230, after Ferdinand III became joint king of the two kingdoms.


Remnants of Megalithic and Celtic paganism

The Santa Cruz dolmen, burial place of chieftains of the Eastern Asturian area since Megalithic times.

Although the earliest evidence of Christian worship in Asturias date from the 5th century, evangelisation did not make any substantial progress until the middle of the 6th century, when hermits like Turibius of Liébana and monks of the Saint Fructuoso order gradually settled in the lands of the Cantabrian mountains and began preaching the Christian doctrine to the locals.

Christianisation went slowly in Asturias without supplanting the ancient pagan divinities. As elsewhere in Europe, the new religion coexisted syncretically with features of the ancient beliefs. Still in the 6th Century, bishop San Martín de Braga complained in his work De correctione rusticorum about the attachment of the Galician peasants to the pre-Christian cults: "Many demons, who were expelled from the heavens, settled in the sea, in the rivers, fountains and forests, and have come to be worshipped as gods by ignorant people. To them they do their sacrifices: in the sea they invoke Neptune, in the rivers the Lamias; in the fountains the Nymphs, and in the forests Diana."[14]

The yew tree is still very important in Asturian folklore, where it stands as a link to the afterlife and is commonly found planted beside churches and cemeteries.

In the middle of the Sella valley (where Cangas de Onís is located) there was a dolmen area, which dated back to the megalithic era, and was built probably in the period 4,000 - 2,000 BC. In this place, particularly in Santa Cruz Dolmen, the ritual burials of the surrounding regions' chieftains were performed. Such practices survived the Roman and Visigothic conquests to a point that even in the eighth-century king Favila was buried there, in the same place were the bodies of ancient tribal leaders had their final rest. Although the Asturian monarchy fostered the Christianization of this site (ordering the edification of a church), even today there are still pagan traditions linked with the Santa Cruz dolmen: It is said that xanas (Asturian fairies) appear to visitors, and magical properties are ascribed to the soil of the place.

According to an inscription found in the Santa Cruz church, its consecration took place in year 738 and was presided by a vates called Asterio. The word vates is uncommon in Catholic documents and epitaphs, where the word presbyterus (for Christian priests) is preferred. On the other hand, vates was used in Latin to denote a poet with clairvoyance powers and according to the Ancient Greek writers Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Posidonius, the vates (ουατεις) were also one of three classes of Celtic priesthood, the other two being the druids and the bards. Some historians think that Asterio held a religious office which combined elements of the pagan and Christian religions, while others think he may be linked to the Brythonic refugees that settled in Britonia (Galicia) in the 6th century: The Parrochiale Suevorum (an administrative document of the Kingdom of the Suebi) tells that the lands of Asturias belonged to the Britonian see, and it is a fact that some features of the Celtic Christianity penetrated in Northern Spain, like the Celtic tonsure which was condemned by the Visigoth bishops who assisted to the Fourth Council of Toledo.[15]

Still today there remain in Galician legends related to monks who travelled by sea to the Paradise Islands, like those of Saint Amaro, Trezenzonio or The Legend of Ero of Armenteira. These stories have many parallels with those of Brendan the navigator, Malo of Wales, and the stories of the Irish immrama.

Christianization was fostered by the Asturian kings, who did not base their power on the indigenous religious traditions (unlike other medieval European kings, e.g. Penda of Mercia or Widukind), but on the texts of the Christian sacred scriptures (particularly, the books of Revelation, Ezekiel and Daniel) and the Church Fathers, which furnished the new monarchy with its foundational myths. They did not need to design new laws; the Visigothic Code was the referential code at least since the arrival of new influences (exiles, prisoners) from flat, central areas of al-Andalus in the 770s along with their mixed Berber-Arabic and Gothic legacy, as well as the governmental and religious ideas imported from Charlemagne's Frankish Kingdom (Alcuin-Beatus of Liébana link).


The foundations of Asturian culture and that of Christian Spain in the High Middle Ages were laid during the reigns of Silo and Mauregatus, when the Asturian kings submitted to the authority of the Umayyad emirs of the Caliphate of Córdoba. The most prominent Christian scholar in the Kingdom of Asturias of this period was Beatus of Liébana, whose works left an indelible mark in the Christian culture of the Reconquista.

Beatus was directly involved in the debate surrounding adoptionism, which argued that Jesus was born a man, and was adopted by God and acquired a divine dimension only after his passion and resurrection. Beatus refuted this theological position, championed by such figures as Elipando, bishop of Toledo.

The adoptionist theology had its roots in Gothic Arianism, which denied the divinity of Jesus, and in Hellenistic religion, with examples of heroes like Heracles who, after their death attained the apotheosis. Likewise, as Elipandus's bishopric of Toledo was at the time within the Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba, Islamic beliefs which acknowledged Jesus as a Prophet, but not as the Son of God, influenced the formation of adoptionism. However, the adoptionist theology opposed strongly by Beatus from his abbey in Santo Toribio de Liébana. At the same time, Beatus strengthened the links between Asturias, the Holy See, and the Carolingian Empire, and was supported in his theological struggle by the Pope and by his friend Alcuin of York, an Anglo-Saxon scholar who had settled among the Carolingian court in Aachen.


The Angel of the Fifth Trumpet, an example of a Beatus manuscript.

The most transcendental works of Beatus were his Commentaries to Apocalypse, which were copied in later centuries in manuscripts called beati, about which the Italian writer Umberto Eco said: "Their splendid images gave birth to the most relevant iconographic happening in the History of Mankind".[16] Beatus develops in them a personal interpretation of the Book of Revelation, accompanied by quotes from the Old Testament, the Church Fathers and fascinating illustrations.

In these Commentaries a new interpretation of the apocalyptic accounts is given: Babylon no longer represents the city of Rome, but Córdoba, seat of the Umayyad emirs of al-Andalus; the Beast, once a symbol of the Roman Empire, now stands for the Islamic invaders who in this time threatened to destroy Western Christianity and who made raids on the territories of the Asturian Kingdom.

In the prologue to the second book of the Commentaries is found in the Beatus map, one of the best examples of a mappa mundi of the high medieval culture. The aim of this map was not to represent the world cartographically, but to serve as an illustration of the Apostles Diaspora in the first decades of Christianity. Beatus took data from the works of Isidore of Seville, Ptolemy and the Bible. The world was represented as a land disc surrounded by the Ocean and divided in three parts: Asia (upper semicircle), Europe (lower left quadrant) and Africa (lower right quadrant). The Mediterranean Sea (Europe-Africa), the Nile River (Africa-Asia) and the Aegean Sea and the Bosphorus (Europa-Asia) were set as boundaries between the different continental masses.

Beatus was persuaded that the Apocalypse described in the book of Revelation was imminent, which would be followed by 1290 years of domination by the Antichrist. Beatus followed the views of Augustine of Hippo, whose work, The City of God, influenced the Commentaries which followed the premise that the History of the World was structured in six ages: the first five ones extended between the creation of Adam, and the Passion of Jesus, while the sixth, subsequent to Christ and contemporary to us, had to end with the unleashing of the happenings prophesied by the book of Revelation.

For Beatus of Liébana, the Whore of Babylon (Revelation, 17.4-5)[17] (a Christian allegory of evil) was incarnated by the Emirate of Córdoba.

Millennialist movements were very common in Europe at that time: between 760 and 780 a series of cosmic phenomena caused panic among the population of Gaul; John, a visionary monk, predicted the coming of the Last Judgment during the reign of Charlemagne. In this time appeared the Apocalypse of Daniel, a Syriac text redacted during the rule of the empress Irene of Athens, wherein wars between the Arabs, the Byzantines and the Northern peoples were prophesied. These wars would end with the coming of the Antichrist.

Events taking place in Hispania (Islamic rule, the adoptionist heresy, the gradual assimilation of the Mozarabs) were, for Beatus, signals of the imminent apocalyptic aeon. As Elipandus describes in his Letter from the bishops of Spania to their brothers in Gaul, the abbot of Santo Toribio went so far as to announce to his countrymen the coming of the End of Time in the Easter of the year 800. On the dawn of that day, hundreds of peasants met around the abbey of Santo Toribio, waiting terrified for the fulfilling of the prophecy. They remained in that place, without having had a bite to eat, during a day and half, until one of them, named Ordonius, exclaimed: "Let us eat and drink, so that if the End of the World comes we are full!".

The prophetic and millennialist visions of Beatus produced an enduring mark in the development of the Kingdom of Asturias: the Chronica Prophetica, which was composed circa 880 AD, predicted the final fall of the Emirate of Córdoba, and the conquest and redemption of the entire Iberian Peninsula by king Alfonso III. Millennialist imagery is also reflected throughout the kingdom in the Victory Cross icon - the major emblem of the Asturian kingdom - has its origins in a passage of the Revelation book in which John of Patmos relates the following vision of the Second Coming: He sees Jesus Christ seated in his Majesty, surrounded by clouds and affirming: "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty".[18] It is true that usage of the labarum was not restricted to Asturias, and, moreover, dates back to the time of Constantine the Great (who used this symbol during the battle of Battle of the Milvian Bridge). But it was in Asturias where the Cruz de la Victoria attained a general use: In nearly every pre-Romanesque church this icon is engraved,[19][20] often accompanied with the expression "Hoc signo tuetur pius, in hoc signo vincitur inimicus",[21] that became the royal motto of the Asturian monarchs.

El Camino de Santiago

Another of the major spiritual legacies of the Asturian kingdom is the creation of one of the most important ways of cultural transmission in European history: the Camino de Santiago. The first text which mentions St. James' preaching in Spain is the Breviarius de Hyerosolima, a 6th-century document which stated that the Apostle was buried in an enigmatical place called Aca Marmarica. Isidore of Seville supported this theory in his work De ortu et obitu patrium. One hundred and fifty years later, in the times of Mauregato, the hymn O Dei Verbum rendered St. James as "the golden head of Spain, our protector and national patron" and a mention is made of his preaching in the Iberian Peninsula during the first decades of Christianity. Some attribute this hymn to Beatus, although this is still discussed by historians.

The legend of St. James gained support during the reign of Alfonso II. The period was marked by Alfonso II's reaching out to Charlemagne for military assistance and importation of similar royal ceremonies and governmental structures. Galician hermit Pelayo claimed to observe a mysterious brightness during several nights over the wood of Libredón, in Iria Flavia diocese. Angelic songs accompanied the lights. Impressed by this phenomenon, Pelayo appeared before the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomirus, who – after having heard the hermit – visited the location with his retinue. Legend has it that in the depths of the forest was found a stone sepulchre with three corpses, which were identified as those of St. James, son of Zebedee, and his two disciples, Theodorus and Atanasius. According to the legend, king Alfonso was the first pilgrim who had come to see the Apostle: During the travel he was guided at night by the Milky Way, which from then on acquired in Spanish the name Camino de Santiago.

The founding of the alleged St. James tomb was a formidable political success for the Kingdom of Asturias: Now Asturias could claim the honour of having the body of one of the apostles of Jesus, a privilege shared only with Asia (Ephesus) where John the Apostle was buried, and Rome, where the bodies of Saint Peter and Saint Paul rested. As of the early 12th century, Santiago de Compostela grew to become one of the three sacred cities of Christianity, together with Rome and Jerusalem. In later centuries, many Central European cultural influences travelled to Iberia through the Way of St. James, from the Gothic and Romanesque styles, to the Occitan lyric poetry.

However, the story of the "discovery" of the remains of the Apostle shows some enigmatic features. The tomb was found in a place used as a necropolis since the Late Roman Empire, so it is possible that the body belonged to a prominent person of the area: British historian Henry Chadwick hypothesized the tomb of Compostela actually hold the remains of Priscillian. Historian Roger Collins holds that the identification of the relics (at any rate nothing close to a full body) with Saint James is related to the translation of the remains found under a 6th-century church altar in Mérida, where various saint names are listed, Saint James among them. Other scholars, like Constantino Cabal, highlighted the fact that several Galician places, such as Pico Sacro, Pedra da Barca (Muxía) or San Andrés de Teixido, were already draws for pagan pilgrimage in pre-Roman times. Pagan beliefs held these places as the End of the World and as entrances to the Celtic Otherworld. After the discovery of Saint James' tomb, the gradual Christianization of those pilgrimage routes began.


Ercina lake, Covadonga. According to the legend, under its waters a village -or perhaps a city- is hidden.

Since the Chronicles of the Asturian kingdom were written a century and a half after the battle of Covadonga, there are many aspects of the first Asturian kings that remain shrouded in myth and legend.

Although the historicity of Pelayo is beyond doubt, the historical narrative describing him includes many folktales and legends. One of them asserts that prior to the Muslim invasion, Pelayo went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the sacred city of Christianity. However, there is no extant evidence of this.

Likewise, it is also said that the Cruz de la Victoria was at first carved in an oak's log by a lightning strike.[22] The core of this story contains two elements of major importance in the Asturian folklore: On one hand, lightning was the ancient symbol of the Astur god Taranis, and in Asturian mythology was thought to be forged by the Nuberu, lord of clouds, rain and wind. On the other hand, the oak tree is the symbol of the Asturian royalty and in reliefs of the Abamia Church (where Pelayo was buried) leaves of that tree are shown.

In one of the caves on the Kyffhäuser, lives Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor surrounded by his cavaliers, somewhat similar to those of Fruela and Bernardo del Carpio. The Covadonga area is also rich with astonishing stories, such as the one which is said to have happened in a shepherd village where today Enol and Ercina lakes are situated. Mary, mother of Jesus, disguised as a pilgrim, is said to have visited that village and asked for food and shelter from every house of that village. She was rudely rejected by every person, except for a shepherd who gave her refuge and warmly shared everything he had. On the following day, as punishment for their lack of hospitality, a flood of divine origin devastated the village, which completely covered everything except the cottage of the good shepherd. In front of him, the mysterious guest started to cry, and her tears became flowers when they reached the floor. Then the shepherd realized that the pilgrim was actually Mary.

This is a pan-Celtic myth which is also found in other countries of the Atlantic Arch. In Galicia, it is said that at the bottom of the Lake of Antela there are remnants of the ancient population of Antiochia, which was eradicated from the face of earth by a night deluge, in punishment for the sins of its inhabitants. On the opposite side of the coast of the Biscay Bay, in Brittany, there are traditions related to the story of Ys, situated in the gulf of Douarnenez, in lands claimed from the sea and protected by a dam. The daughter of the king, Dahud, gave the keys of the city to Satan, who had disguised himself as a beautiful prince: This resulted in the flooding of Ys by the waters of the Ocean.

Illustration of Hezekiah's Canticle belonging to the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The Asturian monarchs often took the kings of the Old Testament as their models.

There are also myths about the Asturian monarchy that are rooted in Jewish and Christian traditions rather than pagan ones: the Chronica ad Sebastianum tells of an extraordinary event that happened when Alfonso I died. While the noblemen were holding a wake for him, there could be heard celestial canticles sung by angels. They recited the following text of the Book of Isaiah (which happens to be the same that was read by the Mozarabic priests during the Vigil of the Holy Saturday):

I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.
I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.
Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.
Is. 38,10-14

This canticle was recited by Hezekiah, king of Judah, after his recovery from a serious illness. In these verses, the king regretted with distress his departure to sheol, the Jewish underworld, a shady place where he would not see God nor men any more.

Asturias also has examples of the king in the mountain myth. According to the tradition, it is still today possible to see king Fruela walking around the Jardín de los Reyes Caudillos[23] (a part of the Oviedo Cathedral), and it is said that his grandson, the famous cavalier Bernardo del Carpio, sleeps in a cave in the Asturian mountains. The story tells that one day a peasant went into a certain cave to retrieve his lost cow

Church of Santa María del Naranco. Eastern façade. This is probably the finest example of Asturian architecture.

and heard a strong voice who declared to be Bernardo del Carpio, victor over the Franks in Roncevaux.[24] After saying he had lived alone for centuries in that cave, he told the peasant: "Give me your hand, so that I can see how strong are men today". The shepherd, scared, gave him the horn of the cow, which, when seized by the giant man, was immediately broken. The poor villager ran away terrified, but not without hearing Bernardo say: "Current men are not like those who helped me to kill Frenchmen in Roncevaux".[25][26]

There are evident parallels between these stories and those which surround other medieval characters like Barbarossa or King Arthur. It is said that Barbarossa did not die, but retired to a cave in the Kyffhäuser mountain, and that one day, when the ravens no long fly around the mountain, he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness. King Arthur, according to many traditions, lives in many hills and caves of the island of Great Britain. His most famous dwelling is the Eildon Hill in Scotland, where he took refuge after the battle of Camlann.


The Kingdom of Asturias was, in its infancy, an indigenous reaction of Astures and Cantabri to a foreign invasion. These people had already fought the Romans in the Cantabrian Wars, and initially resisted Romanisation. Although they preserved many characteristics of their pre-Roman culture, their Celtic languages were later lost in favor of Latin.

This kingdom is the birthplace of an influential European medieval architectural style: Asturian pre-Romanesque. This style of architecture was founded during the reign of Ramiro I.

This small kingdom was a milestone in the fight against the Adoptionist heresy, with Beatus of Liébana as a major figure. In the time of Alfonso II, the shrine of Santiago de Compostela was "found." The pilgrimage to Santiago, Camino de Santiago, was a major nexus within Europe, and many pilgrims (and their money) passed through Asturias on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

See also


  1. Collins, Roger (1989). The Arab Conquest of Spain 710-797. Oxford, UK / Cambridge, USA: Blackwell. p. 49. ISBN 0-631-19405-3.
  2. Collins, Roger (1983). Early Medieval Spain. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 238. ISBN 0-312-22464-8.
  3. Collins, Roger (1983). Early Medieval Spain. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 229. ISBN 0-312-22464-8.
  4. Encyclopedia of African American History - Google Břker. 2010-02-28. Retrieved 2014-01-21.
  5. Encyclopćdia metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge ... - Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Google Břker. Retrieved 2014-01-21.
  6. La Nueva Espaa. "La Nueva Espaa - Diario Independiente de Asturias".
  7. La Nueva Espaa. "La Nueva Espaa - Diario Independiente de Asturias".
  8. The Asturian writer Juan Noriega made him one of the main characters of La Noche Celta (The Celtic Night), set in the castle of Coaña.
  9. Doviderio, Príncipe de los Cántabros.
  10. 1 2 Glick 2005, p. 35
  11. Collins, Roger (1989). The Arab Conquest of Spain 710-797. Oxford, UK / Cambridge, USA: Blackwell. p. 165. ISBN 0-631-19405-3.
  12. 1 2 Collins, Roger (1983). Early Medieval Spain. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 132. ISBN 0-312-22464-8.
  13. Sholod, Barton (1966). Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncesvalles. Librairie Droz. p. 42. ISBN 2600034781.
  14. In Latin: "Et in mare quidem Neptunum appellant, in fluminibus Lamias, in fontibus Nymphas, in silvis Dianas, quae omnia maligni daemones et spiritus nequam sunt, qui homines infideles, qui signaculo crucis nesciunt se munire, nocent et vexant".
  15. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, "Historia de los heterodoxos españoles I", Madrid, 1978, chapter II, note 48
  16. Umberto Eco wrote an essay about them, Beato di Liebana (1976)
  17. "And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH."
  18. Revelation, 1.8.
  19. "The ''Cruz de la Victoria'' engraved in stone". Retrieved 2014-01-21.
  20. Archived February 2, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
  21. "With this sign thou shalt defend the pious, with this sign thou shalt defeat the enemy".
  22. Simbología mágico-tradicional, Alberto Álvarez Peña, page 147.
  23. Relatos legendarios sobre los orígenes políticos de Asturias y Vizcaya en la Edad Media, Arsenio F. Dacosta, Actas del VII Congreso Internacional de la Asociación Española de Semiótica (Volumen II).
  24. In medieval Spain, it was commonly thought that it was the Asturians or the Moors, and not the Basques, who beat the Franks in this battle
  25. Bernardo del Carpiu y otros guerreros durmientes Alberto Álvarez Peña
  26. Los maestros asturianos (Juan Lobo, 1931)


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