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La rendición de Granada (1882) by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz.

The Reconquista (a Spanish and Portuguese word for "Reconquest"; Arabic: الاسترداد al-ʼIstirdād, "Recapturing") was a period of nearly 800 years in the Middle Ages during which several Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula succeeded in retaking (and repopulating) the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. The Islamic conquest of the Christian Visigothic kingdom in the eighth century (begun 710–12) extended over almost the entire peninsula (except major parts of Galicia, the Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country). By the thirteenth century all that remained was the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, to be conquered in 1492, bringing the entire peninsula under Christian leadership.

The Reconquista began immediately after the Islamic conquest and passed through major phases before its completion. The formation of the Kingdom of Asturias under Pelagius and the Battle of Covadonga in 722 were major formative events. Charlemagne (768–814) reconquered the western Pyrenees and Septimania and formed a Marca Hispanica to defend the border between Francia and the Muslims. After the advent of the Crusades, much of the ideology of Reconquista was subsumed within the wider context of Crusading. Even before the Crusades, however, soldiers from elsewhere in Europe had been travelling to Iberia to participate in the Reconquista as an act of Christian penitence.

Throughout this period the situation in Iberia was more nuanced and complicated than any ideology would allow. Christian and Muslim rulers commonly fought amongst themselves and interfaith alliances were not unusual. The fighting along the Christian-Muslim frontier was punctuated by periods of prolonged peace and truces. The Muslims did not cease attempting to reconquer their lost territories. Blurring the sides even further were mercenaries who simply fought for whoever paid more.

The Reconquista was essentially completed in 1238, when the only remaining Muslim state in Iberia, the Emirate of Granada, became a vassal of the Christian King of Castile. This arrangement lasted for 250 years until the Spanish launched the Granada War of 1492, which finally expelled all Muslim authority from Spain. The last Muslim ruler of Granada, Muhammad XII, better known as Boabdil, surrendered his kingdom to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Catholic Monarchs (los Reyes Católicos).


Major Dates

The Reconquista, 790-1300
  • 711: Muslim Invasion begins
  • 718: Muslim rule is at its widest extent, covering almost all of Spain and some of France.
  • 718: Reconquista begins in far north. Battle of Covadonga.
  • 800: The Franks complete the reconquest of all the Pyrenees as the Marca Hispanica.
  • 801: The Franks reconquer Barcelona.
  • By 914: The north-western corner of Iberia has been reconquered. Barcelona has been recaptured by Muslim forces.
  • 1130: Half of Iberia has been reconquered.


Islamic conquest

From 711 to 756, the Moors (mainly North African Berber warriors) swept over the Iberian Peninsula, conquering nearly all of it and establishing a foothold north of the Pyrenees in Narbonne. They put down local rebellions and established the Emirate of Córdoba.

Islamic decline

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, the first governor of the newly conquered province of Al-Andalus, was recalled to Damascus and replaced with Musa bin Nusair, 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, 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 bin Nusair, 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 emir of Al-Andalus.

The conquering generals were necessarily acting very independently, due to deficient methods of communication. Successful generals in the field — and in a very distant province to boot — would also quickly gain the loyalty of their officers and warriors and their ambitions were probably always watched by certain circles of the distant government with a certain degree of concern and suspicion. Old rivalries and perhaps even full-fledged conspiracies between rival generals may have had influence over this development. In the end, the old successful generals were replaced by a younger generation considered more loyal by the government in Damascus.

The Muslim conquerors had a serious weakness. Ethnic tensions existed between the Berbers and the Arabs. The Berbers were the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa who had been recently converted to Islam and had provided the bulk of the manpower for the invading Islamic armies. However they felt the Arabs discriminated against them. This latent internal conflict would jeopardize Muslim unity time and time again.

Beginning of the Reconquista

Around 718 Pelagius (or Pelayo in modern Spanish), a Visigothic noble, began a rebellion against Munuza, a local Muslim governor. Becoming a local rebel leader he gathered all available support and one of his most important allies was Duke Pedro of Cantabria.

The main strength of the Moorish army was absent; under the command of Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, emir of Al-Andalus, it had crossed the Pyrenees and overrun Septimania, located in southern France. This invasion force was severely defeated in 721 by Odo the Great, the Duke of Aquitaine, in the Battle of Toulouse. Al-Samh was seriously wounded and died shortly afterwards. A drastic increase of taxes by the new 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 military expedition was sent into the north to suppress the rebellion of Pelagius, but his forces prevailed in the Battle of Covadonga.

  • This battle, at the time probably considered little more than a small skirmish against local rebels would be considered by later Christian historians as the starting point of the Reconquista. Its true importance lies in the fact that Pelagius' victory secured his independent rule over the local area. The date and circumstances of this battle are very unclear, with several sources giving different dates. It is possible that the rebellion of Pelagius unfolded precisely because the greater part of the Muslim forces were gathering for the invasion of France, that it unfolded during this invasion, or even a bit later as the battered and weakened expedition returned and all available garrisons and reinforcements were probably re-called to bolster the army for its new invasion attempt.

Meanwhile Odo had married his daughter to Uthman ibn Naissa, a Berber and the Wāli - deputy governor of Septimania, fostering yet another rebellion. However a major punitive expedition led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the latest emir of Al-Andalus, defeated and killed Uthman. Abdul Rahman later managed to defeat Odo in the Battle of the River Garonne in 732. A desperate Odo turned to his rival Charles Martel, who decisively beat the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732 and where Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi died.

Meanwhile Pelagius began raiding the city of León, the main city in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. He was crowned king and successfully established the small Kingdom of Asturias. He also established a royal dynasty, marrying his son and heir Favila to Duke Pedro's daughter.

Iberia in 718 when the Islamic armies had completed the conquest of the Christian Visigothic kingdom of Hispania.

Abd ar-Rahman I establishes the Emirate of Córdoba

The rule of the Umayad dynasty was in decline. Weakened by a string of defeats, rebellions, and revolts, it lost the Battle of the Zab in 750 and was overthrown and replaced by the Abbasids. Most members of the Umayyad dynasty were hunted down and killed. However Abd ar-Rahman managed to escape and to survive, fleeing for the north of Africa. From there he went to al-Andalus and with Berber support was able to conquer it from the local governor Yusuf ibn 'Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri. Abd ar-Rahman proclaimed himself emir of the Emirate of Córdoba. By claiming the lesser title of Emir - provincial governor - he was technically acknowledging the sovereignty of the Abbasid Caliph, and proclaiming that his domain was a mere province of the Caliphate. However it was little more than a nominal gesture and he was de facto ruling an independent kingdom. Meanwhile the Abbasids transferred the capital from Damascus to Baghdad.

Franks invade Al-Andalus

The takeover of Al-Andalus by Abd ar-Rahman I was not unopposed. Certain local wālis decided to oppose him, but instead of appealing to the distant Caliph, they decided to enlist the Franks, their Christian opponents.

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 of conquest and annexation of new territories, 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 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.

Charlemagne decided to organize a regional sub-kingdom in order to secure the southern border of his empire. In 781 his three year-old son Louis was crowned king of Aquitaine and was nominally in charge of Spanish March.

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 the Franks. In the end his efforts were turned back by William of Gellone, count of Toulouse.

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 two years until the city finally capitulated on December 28, 801.

The main passes were Roncesvalles, Somport and Junquera. Charlemagne settled in them the counties of Pamplona, Aragon and Catalonia (which was itself formed from a number of small counties, Pallars, Gerona, and Urgell being the most prominent) respectively.

Four states appeared: the kingdom of Pamplona (later known as Navarre) and the counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe and Ribagorza. Navarre emerged as a kingdom around Pamplona, its capital, and controlled Roncesvalles pass. Its first king was Iñigo Arista. He expanded his domains up to the Bay of Biscay and conquered a small number of towns beyond the Pyrenees, but never directly attacked the Carolingian armies, as he was in theory their vassal. It was not until Queen Ximena in the 9th century that Pamplona was officially recognised as an independent kingdom by the Pope. Aragon, founded in 809 by Aznar Galíndez, grew around Jaca and the high valleys of the Aragon River, protecting the old Roman road. By the end of the 10th century, Aragon was annexed by Navarre. Sobrarbe and Ribagorza were small counties and had little significance to the progress of the Reconquista.

The Catalonian counties protected the eastern Pyrenees passes and shores. They were under the direct control of the Frankish kings and were the last remains of the Iberian Marches. Catalonia included not only the southern Pyrenees counties of Girona, Pallars, Urgell, Vic and Andorra but also some which were on the northern side of the mountains, such as Perpignan and Foix.

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 same capacity for expansion as Asturias had. Their mountainous geography rendered them relatively safe from attack but also made launching attacks against a united and strong Al-Andalus impractical. In consequence, these states' borders remained stable for two centuries.

Foundations of the Christian kingdoms in the peninsula

The Moorish occupation devastated Arian Christianity, a tradition which had been condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church and had largely been eliminated in other parts of Europe, but which had found a safe haven in the Iberian peninsula. The Visigoths had traditionally been Arian Christians, and it was the official religion of the Spanish Visigothic Kingdom until the conversion of Visigothic King Recared in 587 nominally eliminated it. However, because the Visigothic Monarchy (now Catholic) was detached from the public (Arian), the Arian undercurrent remained. The Moorish invasion left the Visigothic kingdom stuck between Moors in the south and the Carolingian empire (franks) in the north, which led to the quick destruction of the last remaining Visigothic province, in the north of the peninsula, at the hands of the Franks.

Early Moorish occupation

After the conquest of the majority of the peninsula, in 711 the emirate chose to press forward into Gaul. At the battle of Poitiers in 732 the Moors were defeated, this signified a slow decline in the emirate and eliminated the possibility of further conquest in Europe. After a quick succession of battles in the 8th century the Franks had created a series of feudal counties which would later form the Principality of Catalonia and the kingdom of Aragon. Possibly the largest mistake of the emirate however was the inability to eradicate resistance of Christians in the Basque county and Cantabrian mountains.

The two resistances (Navarre, the Basque; and Asturias, the Cantabrian), although extremely small demonstrated an ability to maintain independence. The Moors had made the same fatal mistake that the Visigoths and the early Romans had made, and that was the inability to finish off rebel hide outs.


By the end of the fifteenth century there had been a myriad of Christian autonomous kingdoms and principalities. The first Christian power was Asturias. The kingdom was established by a nobleman, Pelayo, who had returned to his country after the Battle of Guadalete in 711 where he was elected leader of the Asturians and founded the Kingdom of Asturias. However, Pelayo's kingdom initially was little more than a banner for the existing guerilla forces.

Because the Umayyad rulers based in Córdoba were unable to extend their power into Frankish territory, they decided to consolidate their power in all parts of Iberian peninsula. Therefore, Muslim forces made periodic incursions into Asturias. However the momentum was turning. Indeed if they tried to conquer the area earlier they may have succeeded but the prime reasons the Emirate didn't invade earlier however was because it suffered from poor industrial capacity, and because the Umayyads believed the Asturian forces posed a minor threat.

722 brought one of the first Asturian victories in the history of the Iberian peninsula. In the late summer a Muslim army overran much of Pelayo's territory, forcing him to retreat deep into the mountains. Pelayo and a few hundred men retired into a narrow valley at Covadonga. There, they could defend against a broad frontal attack. Pelayo’s forces routed the Muslim army, inspiring local villagers to take up arms, as well. Despite further attempts, the Muslims were unable to conquer Pelayo's mountainous stronghold. Pelayo's victory at Covadonga is hailed by some as the first stage of the Reconquista.

During the first decades, the Asturian control 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, Peter of Cantabria's son. Alphonse's children, Froila and Adosinda, married Munia, a Basque from Alava, and Silo, a local chief from the area of Pravia, respectively." (quote from 'The making of medieval Spain')

After Pelayo's death in 737, his son Fafila was elected king. Fafila, according to the chronicles, got killed by a bear in a courage trial.

Pelayo founded a dynasty in Asturias that survived for centuries and gradually expanded the kingdom's boundaries until all of northwest Iberia was included by roughly 775. However credit must be given to later rulers, not Pelayo. Alfonso I (king from 739-757) managed to conquer Galicia and an area of what was to be Leon. The reign of Alfonso II from (791-842) saw further expansion of the kingdom to the south, almost as far as Lisbon.

It was not until King Alfonso II of Asturias (791-842) that the kingdom was firmly established with Alfonso's recognition as king of Asturias by Charlemagne and the Pope. During his reign, the holy bones of St. James the Great were declared to be found in Galicia, at Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims from all over Europe opened a way of communication between the isolated Asturias and the Carolingian lands and beyond.

Basque kingdom, Navarre

The kingdom of Pamplona was the second Christian great power in the Iberian Peninsula, and chiefly a Basque polity. Although relatively weak up until the early eleventh century where it peaked under the ambitious ruler Sancho III (1004–1035), Navarre took upon a dominant Christian role after the late ninth century. The Kingdom of Pamplona (after 1100s, Navarre), was a European kingdom which occupied lands on either side of the Pyrenees alongside the Atlantic Ocean.

The kingdom was formed when local Basque leader Íñigo Arista was elected or declared King in Pamplona (traditionally in 824) and led a revolt against the regional Frankish authority.

Throughout early history of the Basque kingdom, there were frequent skirmishes with the Carolingian Empire, and their fierce spirit of independence was the key feature in their history that helped them maintain independence until 1513. The reign of Sancho the Great not only expanded their dominions when they absolved Castile, Leon, and what was to be Aragon in addition to other small counties which would also unite and become the Principality of Catalonia, but it helped form the Galician independence. The conquest of Leon did not consume Galicia, as the Leonese king retreated and was left to temporary independence. Galicia was conquered soon after (it was conquered by Sancho's son Ferdinand around 1038) however this small period of independence meant that it was fashioned as its own kingdom and the subsequent kings named their titles as king of Galicia and Leon, instead of merely king of Leon even though Galicia was never to be independent again.

The Kingdom of Asturias

The kingdom of Asturias was located in the Cantabrian Mountains, a wet and mountainous region in the north of the Iberian Peninsula.

During the reign of King Alfonso II (791–842), the kingdom was firmly established. He is believed to have initiated diplomatic contacts with the kings of Pamplona and the Carolingians, thereby gaining official recognition of his crown from the Pope and Charlemagne.

Alfonso II also expanded his realm westwards conquering Galicia. There, the bones of St. James the Great were proclaimed to have been found in Compostela (from Latin campus stellae, literally "the star field") inside Galicia. Pilgrims came from all over Europe creating the Way of Saint James, a major pilgrimage route linking the Asturias with the rest of Christian Europe.

Alfonso’s military strategy consisted of raiding the border regions of Vardulia (which would turn into the Castile). With the plunder gained further military forces could be paid, enabling him to raid the Moorish cities of Lisbon, Zamora, and Coimbra. For centuries the focus of these actions was not conquest but raids, plunder, pillage and tribute. He also crushed a Basque uprising, during which he captured the Alavite Munia; their grandson is reported to be Alfonso II.

During Alfonso II's reign a series of Muslim raids caused the transfer of Asturian capital to Oviedo.

Despite numerous battles the populations of neither the Umayyads — using the southern part of old Gallaecia (today's northern Portugal) as their base of operations — nor that of the Asturians, was sufficient to effect an occupation of these northern territories. Under the reign of Ramiro, famed for the legendary Battle of Clavijo, the border began to slowly move southward and Asturian holdings in Castile, Galicia, and León were fortified and an intensive programme of repopulation of the countryside begun in those territories. In 924 the Kingdom of Asturias became the Kingdom of León.

Military culture in the medieval Iberian Peninsula

In a situation of constant conflict, warfare and daily life were strongly interlinked during this period. Small, lightly equipped armies reflected how the society had to be on the alert at all times. These forces were capable of moving long distances in short times, allowing a quick return home after sacking a target. Battles which took place were mainly between clans, expelling intruder armies or sacking expeditions.

The cultural context of the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula was different than that of the rest of Continental Europe in the Middle Ages, due to contact with the Moorish culture and the isolation provided by the Pyrenees (an exception to this is Catalonia, where Frankish influence remained strong). These cultural differences implied the use of doctrines, equipment, and tactics markedly different from those found in the rest of Europe during this period.

Medieval Iberian armies mainly comprised two types of forces: cavalry (mostly nobles, but including commoner knights from the 10th century) and infantry, or peones (peasants). Infantry only went to war if needed, which was not common.

Iberian cavalry tactics involved knights approaching the enemy and throwing javelins, before 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: royal knights, noble knights (caballeros hidalgos) and commoner knights (caballeros villanos). Royal knights were mainly nobles with a close relationship with the king, and thus claimed a direct Gothic inheritance. Royal knights were equipped in the same manner as their Gothic predecessors — braceplate, kite shield, a long sword (designed to fight from the horse) and as well as the javelins and spears, a Visigothic 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 the "charters" (or fueros). See "Repopulating Hispania — the origin of fueros", below. Both noble and common knights wore leather armour, javelins, spears and round-tasselled shields (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.

Typically armour was made of leather, with iron scales; full coats of chain mail were extremely rare and horse barding completely unknown. 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 head piece. 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. The spears and javelins were up to 1.5 metres long and had an iron tip. The double-axe, made of iron and 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 mercenary available and used in the conflict.

This style of warfare remained dominant in the Iberian Peninsula until the late 11th century, when couched lance tactics entered from France and replaced the traditional horse javelin-shot techniques. In the 12th and 13th centuries, horse barding, suits of armour, double-handed swords and crossbows finally rendered the early Iberian tactics obsolete.

Repopulating Hispania: the origin of fueros

The Reconquista was a process not only of war and conquest, but also repopulation. Christian kings took their own people to locations abandoned by the Berbers, 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 Duero Basin. Asturian laws promoted this system with laws, 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 León and Portugal, whereas Castile, an arid land with vast plains and hard climate only attracted peasants with no hope in Biscay. As a consequence, Castile was governed by a single count, but had a largely mostly 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 (the concejo) was dependent on the monarch alone and had to help their lord (auxilium). 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 Iberia had fueros or foros. 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 repopulation were created. While presuras allowed Castile to have the only non-feudal peasants in Europe other than Cossacks and Frisians, 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 defend their rights under the charter militarily if necessary. The abolition of the fueros in Navarre was 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).

The 10th and 11th centuries: crisis and splendour

The situation in the Moorish-ruled region of the Iberian Peninsula, Al-Andalus, during the 10th and 11th centuries played an important role in the development of the Christian kingdoms.

The Caliphate of Córdoba

The 9th century saw the Berbers return to Africa in the aftermath of their revolts. During this period, many governors of large cities distant from the capital (Córdoba) 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 Cantabric range. His Christian subjects were largely left in peace, however.

Christian political forces then openly accused Abd-ar-Rahman III of the pederastic abuse of a Christian boy who was later canonized Saint Pelagius of Cordova as a result of the event. This became a rallying cry for subsequent generations of Christian soldiers, and is reputed to have provided much political strength and popular support to the Reconquista for centuries. The episode is seen by some modern scholars as part of a pattern of demonization of Muslims, portraying Islam as a morally inferior religion.[1]

Later Abd-ar-Rahman's grandson 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 appearance of the Taifa kingdoms. The taifas were small kingdoms, established by the city governors establishing their long wished-for independence. The result was many (up to 34) small kingdoms each centered upon their capital, and the governors, not subscribing to any larger-scale vision of the Moorish presence, had no qualms about attacking their neighbouring kingdoms whenever they could gain advantage by doing so.

The Kingdom of León

Alfonso III of Asturias repopulated the strategically-important city León and established it as his capital. From his new capital, King Alfonso began a series of campaigns to establish control over all the lands north of the Douro. 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 León. 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 León. Navarre and king Ordoño allied against Abd-al-Rahman but were defeated in Valdejunquera, in 920. For the next 80 years, the Kingdom of León 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 Count Fernán González of Castile and his retinue of caballeros villanos, defeated the Caliph in Simancas in 939. After this battle, when the Caliph barely escaped with his guard and the rest of the army was destroyed, King Ramiro obtained 12 years of peace, but had to give González the independence of Castile as a payment for his help in the battle. After this defeat, Moorish attacks abated until Almanzor began his campaigns.

It was Alfonso V in 1002 who finally regained the control over his domains. Navarre, though attacked by Almanzor, remained.

Pamplonese hegemony of the Basque kingdom over the christian peninsula

In the late 10th century, under King Garcia II of Pamplona, the Basques and their polity of Pamplona became the hegemonic power in medieval Iberia. His son, Sancho the Great, king of the Basques, who reigned between 1004 and 1035, annexed Castile, with help of his marriage, and also conquered Sobrarbe and Ribagorza and made the Kingdom of Leon his protectorate after killing the only son of king Bermudo III. But King Sancho divided his kingdom among his sons: Castile for Fernando, the Basque nuclear land of Pamplona for Sancho IV, Sobrarbe and Ribagorza to Gonzalo and the County of Aragon (until then part of Pamplona) for his illegitimate son Ramiro. Ramiro soon had his half-brother Gonzalo killed and annexed his domains, while Fernando (naming himself king) married the daughter of Bermudo III, becoming king of Leon and Castile.

Kingdom of Castile

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 miltiarily 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. Then, 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 historically 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.

The Almoravids

The Almoravids were a Muslim militia, their ranks mainly composed of African and Berber Moors, and unlike the 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 Ramirez, 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, expanding the borders south, conquering Wasqat Huesca deep in the valleys in 1096 and building a fort, El Castellar, 25 km away from Saraqustat Zaragoza.

Catalonia came under intense pressure from the taifas of Zaragoza and Lérida, and also from internal disputes, as Barcelona suffered a dynastic crisis which led to open war among the smaller counties; but by the 1080s, the situation calmed, and the dominion of Barcelona over the smaller counties was restored.

The Almohads

After a brief period of disintegration (second Taifa period), the rising power in North Africa, the Almohads, took over most of Al Andalus. But they would be 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 as sovereign Muslim state in the Iberian peninsula.

Expansion into the Crusades and military orders

In the High Middle Ages, the fight against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula became linked to the fight of the whole of Christendom. The Reconquista was originally a mere war of conquest. It only later underwent a significant shift in meaning toward a religiously justified war of liberation (see the Augustinian concept of a Just War). The papacy and the influential Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy not only justified the anti-Islamic acts of war but actively encouraged Christian knights to seek armed confrontation with Moorish "infidels" instead of with each other. From the 11th century onwards indulgences were granted: In 1064 Pope Alexander II allegedly promised the participants of an expedition against Barbastro (Tagr al-Andalus, Aragon) a collective indulgence 30 years before Pope Urban II called the First Crusade. The legitimacy of such a letter establishing a grant of indulgence has been disputed at length by historians, notably by Ferreiro. Papal interest in Christio-Muslim relations in the peninsular are not without precedent - Popes Leo IV (847-855), John VIII (872-882) and John XIX (1024–33) are all known to have displayed substantial interest in the region. Whilst there is little evidence to invalidate the letter as a whole, both the recipient(s) of the letter and whether such a letter actually nominates Barbastro as the first 'crusade' are still a matter of dispute. Neither is there evidence to support the contention that the Cluniacs publicised the letter throughout Europe. It was addressed to the clero Vulturnensi. The name has been associated with the castle of Volturno in Campania but even this is not concrete. Baldwin, for example, stipulates that the name is simply "garbled" and that it was intended for a French bishopric. Not until 1095 and the Council of Clermont did the Reconquista amalgamate the conflicting concepts of a peaceful pilgrimage and armed knight-errantry.

But the papacy left no doubt about the heavenly reward for knights fighting for Christ (militia Christi): in a letter, Urban II tried to persuade the reconquistadores fighting at Tarragona to stay in the Peninsula and not to join the armed pilgrimage to conquer Jerusalem since their contribution for Christianity was equally important. The pope promised them the same rewarding indulgence that awaited the first crusaders.

Later military orders like the order of Santiago, Montesa, Order of Calatrava and the Knights Templar were founded or called to fight in Iberia. The Popes called the knights of Europe to the Crusades in the peninsula. After the so called Disaster of Alarcos, French, Navarrese, Castilian, Portuguese and Aragonese armies united against the Muslim forces in the massive battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). The big territories awarded to military orders and nobles were the origin of the latifundia in today's Andalusia and Extremadura, in Spain, and Alentejo, in Portugal.

Granada War

Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista with a war against the Emirate of Granada that started in 1482 and ended with Granada's complete annexation in early 1492. Granada's sultan Muhammad XII was exiled. By this time the Moors of Castile numbered "half a million within the realm, 100,000 had died or been enslaved, 200,000 emigrated, and 200,000 remained as the residual population. Many of the Muslim elite, including Muhammad XII, who had been given the area of the Alpujarras mountain as a principality, found life under Christian rule intolerable and passed over into north Africa" [2].


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

Some noble genealogies show the close relations (although not very numerous) between Muslims and Christians. For example, Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, whose rule is considered to have marked the peak of power for Moorish Iberia, married Abda, daughter of Sancho Garcés of Navarra, who bore him a son, named Abd al-Rahman, and commonly known in pejorative sense as Sanchuelo (Little Sancho, in Arabic: Shanjoul). After his father's death, Sanchuelo/Abd al-Rahman, son of a Christian princess, was a strong contender to take over the ultimate power in Muslim Al-Anadalus. A hundred years later, King Alfonso VI of Castile, considered among the greatest of the Medieval Spanish kings, designated as his heir his son (also a Sancho) by the refugee Muslim princess Zaida of Seville.

It has also been proposed that the war left the Iberian kingdoms with deep economic crises, leading to the expulsion of the Jews (who had lived in the Iberian Peninsula for over ten centuries) in order to confiscate their funds and property. It should be noted however that the Portuguese Reconquista ended in 1249 and that the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms were already profiting from their maritime expansion before the Jews were expelled (see Portugal in the period of discoveries and History of Spain).

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.

Earlier Christians fighting the Moors, such as Pelayo, could plausibly be described as natives opposing foreign invasion and conquest; however, by the time most parts of Muslim Iberia were (re)conquered by Christian forces, the Muslim population there was centuries old, and much of it undoubtedly composed of converted Iberians rather than migrants from other Muslim lands. Granada at the time of its conquest in 1492 was as thoroughly Arab and Muslim a city as were Cairo or Damascus at the time.

Moreover, the ease with which the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula was directly and immediately continued by the exploits of conquistadors beyond the Atlantic clearly shows that for Spaniards at the time, conquest of non-Christian territory and its transformation into a Catholic, Spanish-speaking land were legitimate, whether or not a claim of prior possession of the land could be advanced.

Nevertheless, the expression "Reconquista" continues to be used to designate this historical period by most historians and scholars in Spain and Portugal, as well as internationally.

Christian in-fighting

The battle against Moors did not keep the Christian kingdoms from battling among themselves or allying with Islamic kings. For example, the earlier kings of Navarre were close to the Banu Qasi of Zaragoza and Tudela (who, from their part, originated in the 7th century conversion of Christian Count Cassius). Some Moorish kings had wives or mothers born Christians (for years the Moors demanded a yearly tribute of young Christian girls for their harems).

Also some Christian champions like El Cid were contracted by Taifa kings to fight against their neighbours. Indeed, El Cid got his first battle experience at the 1063 Battle of Graus, where he and other Castilians had taken the side of al-Muqtadir, Muslim sultan of Zaragoza, against the Christian forces of Ramiro I of Aragon.

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

Expulsion of the Muslims and Jews

Moor head featured on a Majorca family shield.

During the Islamic administration, Christians and Jews were allowed to retain their religions by paying a tax. Penalty for not paying it was death: It was considered as an attack on the supremacy of Islam, and since the tax was for protection from outside invasions, refusal to pay was considered to weaken the empire. Attitudes towards dhimmis were variable, as well. During the time of the Almoravids and especially the Almohads they were treated badly, in contrast to the policies of the earlier Umayyad rulers.

The new Christian hierarchy demanded heavy taxes from non-Christians and gave them nominal rights, but only in heavily Islamic regions, such as Granada. In 1496, under Archbishop Hernando de Talavera, even the Muslim population of Granada was forced to accept Christianity. In 1502, the king and queen declared submission to Catholicism officially compulsory in Castilian domains. Emperor Charles V did the same for the Kingdom of Aragon in 1526, validating the forced conversions of much of its Muslim population during the Revolt of the Germanies.[3] These policies were not only officially religious in nature but also effectively seized the wealth of the vanquished.

Most of the descendants of those Muslims and Jews who submitted to compulsory conversion to Christianity rather than exile during the early periods of the Inquisition, the Moriscos and Conversos respectively, were later expelled from Spain and Portugal when the Inquisition was at its height. The expulsion was 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 the citizenry. A major Morisco revolt happened in 1568, and the Moriscos were officially expelled in 1609, and, in Aragon, in 1610.

Because some Muslims, and Jews, shared common ancestors with Christians, it was difficult to expel all of those with non-Christian ancestors from Iberia. However the Spanish state had success in expelling the "Moriscos". Those descended from practicing Muslims or Jews at the time of the Reconquista, however, were for a long time suspected of various crimes including practicing Islam or Judaism, or crimes against the Spanish state and finally expelled from the peninsula.

Social types under the Reconquista

The many advances and retreats created several social types:

  • The Mozarabs: Christians in Muslim-held lands. Some of them migrated to the north of the peninsula in times of persecution bringing with them elements of the styles, food and agricultural pracitices picked up from the Moors, but also stubbornly preserving their Christian identities, laws, older forms of Catholic worship and their own versions of the Latin language within Moorish controlled areas.
  • The Muladi: Christians who converted to Islam after the arrival of the Moors.
  • The Renegades: Christian individuals who embraced Islam and often fought against their former compatriots.
  • The Jewish conversos (pejoratively known as "Marranos"): Jews who either voluntarily or compulsorily became Christians. Some of them were crypto-Jews who kept practicing Judaism. Eventually all Jews were forced to leave Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, and Portugal some years later. Their Converso descendants became victims of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.
  • The Mudéjar: Muslims dwelling in land conquered by the Christians, usually peasants. Their characteristic architecture of adobe bricks was frequently employed in churches commissioned by the new lords. Their descendants after 1492 were called Moriscos and the entire population was pushed into extinction by the end of the 16th century.

Currently, the festivals of moros y cristianos (Castilian or Spanish), moros i cristians (Catalan), mouros e cristãos (Portuguese) and mouros e cristiáns (Galician), these meaning "Moors and Christians", recreate the fights as colorful parades with elaborate garments and lots of fireworks, especially on the central and southern towns of the Land of Valencia, like Alcoi, Ontinyent or Villena.



  1. ^ Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı, The Age of Beloveds, Duke University Press, 2005; p. 2.
  2. ^ Henry Kamen, Spain 1469 - 1714 A Society of Conflict Third edition, pp 37-38
  3. ^ Censorship and Book Production in Spain During the Age of the Incunabula, Ignacio Tofiño-Quesada. Graduate Center, CUNY.


  • Lunde, Paul (1993): "Ishbiliyah, Islamic Seville" in Saudi Aramco World, pages 20–31, January/February 1993 issue (available online)
  • Payne, Stanley, "The Emergence of Portugal", in A History of Spain and Portugal: Volume One.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan, The Atlas of the Crusades. Facts On File, Oxford (1991)
  • Tofiño-Quesada, Ignacio, "Censorship and Book Production in Spain During the Age of the Incunabula", Graduate Center, CUNY.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery: A History of Islamic Spain. University Press of Edinburgh (1992).
  • Watt, W. Montgomery: The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. (Edinburgh 1972).
  • Reuter, Timothy; Allmand, Christopher; Luscombe, David; McKitterick, Rosamond (eds.), " The New Cambridge Medieval History", Cambridge University Press, Sep 14, 1995, ISBN 0-521-36291-1.
  • Bishko, Charles Julian, 1975. The Spanish and Portuguese Reconquest, 1095–1492 in A History of the Crusades, vol. 3: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, edited by Harry W. Hazard, (University of Wisconsin Press)
  • Bronisch, Alexander Pierre: Reconquista und Heiliger Krieg — die Deutung des Krieges im christlichen Spanien von den Westgoten bis ins frühe 12. Jahrhundert, Münster, Aschendorff, 1998, ISBN 3-402-05839-1
  • O´Callaghan, Joseph F.: "Reconquest and crusade in Medieval Spain", Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, ISBN 0-8122-3696-3
  • Lomax, Derek William: The Reconquest of Spain. Longman, London 1978. ISBN 0-582-50209-8
  • Sénac, Philippe: La frontière et les hommes — (VIIIe-XIIIe siècle) le peuplement musulman au nord de l'Ebre et les débuts de la reconquête aragonaise, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose, 2000, ISBN 2-7068-1421-7
  • Villegas-Aristizábal, Lucas, "Norman and Anglo-Norman Participation in the Iberian Reconquista," Ph.D Thesis, Nottingham, 2007. (online)

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Spanish reconquest


Wikipedia has an article on:




Reconquista (uncountable)

  1. The process by which the Christian countries of Spain and Portugal were reconquered from the Moors

Simple English

The Reconquista (a Spanish and Portuguese word for "Reconquest"; Arabic: الاسترداد, "Recapturing") was a period of 800 years in the Middle Ages during which the several Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula expanded themselves (grew) by fighting the Muslim states of al-Andalus (Arabic الأندلس), the muslim states on the Iberian Peninsula, and pushing them out of the peninsula.

The Reconquista began shortly after the Islamic conquest. Much of the ideology of the Reconquista was common to most Crusading: soldiers from all Europe travelled to Spain to fight the Muslims as an act of Christian repentance.

The Reconquista came to an end on the 2 January 1492 with the capture of Granada. The last Muslim ruler of Granada surrendered (gave up) his kingdom to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Catholic kings (los Reyes Católicos). This event marked the end of Muslim rule in Iberia.

= Bibliography


  • Watt, W. Montgomery: A History of Islamic Spain. University Press of Edinburgh (1992).
  • Watt, W. Montgomery: The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. (Edinburgh 1972).
  • Timothy Reuter, Christopher Allmand, David Luscombe, Rosamond McKitterick (eds.), " The New Cambridge Medieval History", Cambridge University Press, Sep 14, 1995, ISBN 0-521-36291-1.
  • Bishko, Charles Julian, 1975. The Spanish and Portuguese Reconquest, 1095–1492 in A History of the Crusades, vol. 3: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, edited by Harry W. Hazard, (University of Wisconsin Press)

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