Progress of the Reconquista 790 to 1300C.E.

The Reconquista (a Spanish and Portuguese word for "Reconquest") was a period of 750 years in which several Christian kingdoms slowly expanded themselves over the Iberian Peninsula at the expense of the Muslim Moorish states of Al-Andalus (Arabic الأندلس, al-andalus). The Muslims invaded Iberia in 722. The last Muslim stronghold, Granada, fell in 1492. In Portugal, it had ended in 1249, with the conquest of the Algarve (Arabic الغرب-Al-gharb) under King Afonso III of Portugal. The Christian rulers represented the many campaigns of the Reconquista as re-taking Christian territory previously lost to Muslim invaders. This helped to attract reinforcements from other Christian realms, especially because the Papacy in Rome continued to support such efforts. There was also a close relationship between the Reconquista and the Crusades. The latter took initial encouragement from the re-conquest of Toledo in 1085, while the former was subsequently perceived of as itself a crusade, so that even El Cid, who died a few years after the Crusading ideal was first preached (and who had sometimes served a Muslim ruler) was represented as an ideal Crusader.

In reality the situation was much more nuanced and complicated. Christian (or Muslim) rulers would, from time to time, fight amongst themselves and even support certain rulers of the "other side." Intermarriage happened at the highest level. (Alfonso IV of Castille (1065-1108) married Princess Zaida, daughter of the Emir of Seville.)1 Blurring the sides even further were groups of mercenaries who disregarded the religious sides on several occasions, fighting simply for whoever paid them better. It has been argued that there is a direct link between the Reconquista, and the Spanish conquest of South and Central America, especially with reference to attitudes towards the cultures and religions of the indigenous peoples encountered there. Psychologically, narratives such as the Story of Roland and the Chronicle of El Cid played a part in defining French and Spanish identity. Both demonize Muslims. For several centuries, however, the academies of Al-Andalus were among the most famous in the world, where scholars studied from across the Christian and Muslim worlds, as did Jews. Different narrators tell the story of the Muslim conquest and presence in Andalusia and of its Christian reconquest differently, making historical reconstruction challenging. What can be said is that the sins that Muslim did commit in Andalusia were repeated by the Spanish not only in their conquest of the Americas but in Africa as well. The world needs to rid itself of imperialism, cultural and religious rivalry and military conquest, which always results in efforts to recover what has been lost, or to gain independence from foreign domination.


The divided Visigothic Kingdom before the Muslim invasion. The accuracy of this map is disputed.

Around 711 C.E., the Visigothic Kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula was embroiled in a civil war. King Roderic was opposed by King Achila II. One version of the narrative has it that Muslims seized the moment, having recently conquered the western part of Northern Africa (modern Morocco), to launch a single, or perhaps several, raid(s) under the command of Tarif ibn Malluk across the straits.

It is unclear if there was a single large raid, several smaller ones, and of its initial purpose: The search of plunder, to evaluate the opposition, or, more likely, a combination of the two. Another version of the story adds to the complexity of the narrative, especially to the more straightforward claim that Muslim aggressors invaded and occupied Christian land which was after a hard and gallant struggle over many centuries eventually won back by the reconquistadores. It claims Christian complicity in the Muslim invasion. An account written in the mid to late ninth century mentions a Julian, count of Ceuta who aided the Muslims. According to Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, one of the daughters of Julian was a raped by Roderic while being kept as a hostage in Roderic's court and Roderic raped her. Julian could think of no other way to punish Roderic except by "sending the Arabs against him," which he did, acting as their guide.2

Roderic gathered his army and marched south to deal with the raiders only to be defeated and probably killed at the Battle of Guadalete by Tariq ibn Ziyad. A large part of the Visigothic nobility also fell in the battle. This created a sudden power vacuum without a clear political and military Chain of command leaving the kingdom widely disorganized. Taking advantage of this situation the Muslims, under the command of Musa bin Nusair, escalated their efforts into a full-fledged invasion. They succeeded in pushing Achila II, and later his successor Ardo, more and more into the north-west until conquering the remainder of the kingdom and conquering almost the entire Iberian Peninsula. Again, however, an alternative narrative suggests that some Jews welcomed the Muslims, while several cities may have surrendered peacefully including Córdoba, which surrendered without a fight. Constable comments that "areas may have been won by… peaceful means, using treaties… to enlist the cooperation of local administrators and inhabitants."3

The Moors established a local Emirate subordinate to Caliph Al-Walid I. The conquered were largely allowed to keep their property and social status, but most of the local rulers in key positions were replaced by Arab Muslims. While the conversion to Islam was always encouraged by the Muslim elite, Christianity and Judaism was largely tolerated. Non-Muslims were subjected to a series of discriminatory laws, although the severity of this varied from time to time as did the presence of Christians and Jews within government service. Given the relatively small size of the Muslim population, treating Christians and Jews well was also a political necessity.

Beginning of the Reconquista

Charles de Steuben's Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts a triumphant Charles Martel (mounted) facing 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

Probably in 718, Pelayo, a Visigothic nobleman, led a rebellion against Munuza, a local Muslim governor. Becoming a leader of the local nobility he gathered all available support and one his most important allies was Duke Pedro of Cantabria. Around 722, the Emir sent a military expedition to quell this rebellion resulting in the Battle of Covadonga, where the forces of Pelayo prevailed.

Meanwhile the main Moorish army had crossed the Pyrenees, beginning an invasion into southern France. Checked by Odo the Great in the Battle of Toulouse in 721 they retreated and regrouped, receiving reinforcements. A later invasion was defeated by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 732.

King Pelayo began raiding the city of León, the main city in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. He founded the small Kingdom of Asturias and started a royal dynasty, marrying his son and heir Favila to Duke Pedro's daughter.

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 gained plunder 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 program of repopulation of the countryside begun in those territories. In 924, the Kingdom of Asturias became the Kingdom of León.

The Pyrenees: A natural barrier

Once the Franks had driven the Moors out of France, the necessity of defending the mountain passes of the Pyrenees became an important point in Charlemagne's policy. Fortifications were built, and protection was given to the inhabitants of the old Roman cities, such as Jaca and Girona. 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.

In 778, the Frankish expedition against Saragossa failed and the rearguard of the army was destroyed while retreating to France, this event being recorded in the "Chanson de Roland." As a result the western Pyrenees were now free from both Moorish and Frankish rule. 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 ninth century that Pamplona was officially recognized 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 tenth 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. However, the most important role was played by Barcelona, once it was conquered in 801 by Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. In the late ninth 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.

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 eleventh 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-brace plate, kite shield, a long sword (designed to fight from the horse) and as well as the javelins and spears, a Visigothic double-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). Both noble and common knights wore leather armour, javelins, spears and round-tasseled 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 (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 armor 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 eighth and ninth 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 meters 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 armor, 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 ninth and tenth centuries, the "pressure" (or presura) system was employed. South of the Douro, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the presura led to the "charters" (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 feudalized 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 940s. The most important towns of medieval Iberia had fueros or foros. In Navarre, fueros were the main repopulating system. Later on, in the twelfth century, Aragon also employed the system; for example, the fuero of Teruel, which was one of the last fueros, in the early thirteenth century.

From the mid-thirteenth 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 tenth and eleventh centuries: Crisis and splendor

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

The Caliphate of Córdoba

The Caliphate around about 1000C.E.

The ninth 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 reorganized 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.4

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.

Civil war

The Taifa states in 1031.

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 neighboring kingdoms whenever they could gain advantage by doing so.

The Kingdom of León

Alfonso III of Asturias repopulated the strategically-important 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 Duero. 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 that finally defeated Almanzor and regained the control over his domains. Navarre, though attacked by Almanzor, remained.

Navarrese hegemony

In the late tenth century, King Garcia II of Navarre received Biscay from Castile and under his reign, Navarre became the hegemonic kingdom in medieval Iberia. His son, Sancho the Great, who reigned between 1004 and 1035, annexed Castile due to his marriage, conquered Sobrarbe and Ribagorza and made the Kingdom of Leon his vassal after killing the only son of king Bermudo III. But following the Navarrese custom, king Sancho divided his kingdom among his sons: Castile (and Biscay) for Fernando, Navarre and Rioja for Sancho IV, Aragon for Ramiro and Sobrarbe (with Ribagorza) to Gonzalo. Ramiro soon had his brother Gonzalo killed and annexed his domains, while Fernando (naming himself king) married the daughter of Bermudo III, becoming king of Leon and Castile.

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 militarily and financially. He also repopulated the Borders with numerous fueros. Following the Navarrese tradition, on his death in 1064, he divided his kingdom between his sons. His son Sancho II of Castile wanted to reunite the kingdom of his father and attacked his brothers, with a young noble at his side: Rodrigo Díaz (later known as El Cid Campeador). Sancho was killed in the siege of Zamora by the traitor Bellido Dolfos 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, for 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

Map of Iberia at the time of the Almoravid arrival

The Almoravids were a Muslim militia, their ranks mainly composed of African and Berber Moors, and unlike the

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 Huesca deep in the valleys in 1096 and building a fort 25 km away from 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 Almohad Dynasty

The Almohads and their neighbors in 1200 C.E.

The Almoravids started to collapse when a religious revivalist movement based in the Atlas Mountains, the Almohads, started a military campaign against them at the same time as Christians were pressing from the North. Even more zealous than the Almoravids, the Almohads considered them heretics. This was partly because they believed in God's attributes, which the Almohads called polytheist, partly because according to the Almohads, they had adopted Christian habits. By 1070 they had made Seville their capital. They did not regain much territory but they did rule Muslim Andalusia until they lost the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa on July 16, 1212 against the combined forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castile, Sancho VII of Navarre, Peter II of Aragon and Afonso II of Portugal. This was a severe blow to the Muslims of Andalusia. After this, only the Nasrid stronghold of Granada remained. The Almohad rulers used the title Caliph, as had the Umayyads of Cordoba.

The Fall of Granada

Between the beginning of the Nasrid emirate, and the Fall of Granada, twenty Muslim princes ruled the emirate. It was Boabdil, or Muhammad XII who finally, surrendered. On January 2, 1492, confronted by the armies of a recently united Christian Spain (after the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, Boadbil capitulated. The reconquest was complete after 750 years. Christopher Columbus may have been present.5

What became a day of celebration for some Christians is a day of mourning for many Muslims.

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 may originally have been merely war of conquest. Transformation into significant a religiously justified war of liberation may have developed over time. On the other hand, 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 promised the participants of an expedition against Barbastro a collective indulgence 30 years before Pope Urban II called the First Crusade. On the one hand, it was not until after 1095 and the Council of Clermont d