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Orihuela Costa Web Guide - History of Spain
History of Spain

Starting in May and continuing over the next months, we will take a casual look at the history of Spain from pre-history to the present times. Hopefully by its completion, you and I will know a lot more about our adoptive country and of the people and events which shaped it to what it is today.

I hope you get as much enjoyment reading this as I did in researching it.

-> Thanks to the editor of the Dream Scene, Mick Clifford, who kindly gave the permission for publishing this serie on this website

A History of Spain - Part 7 - A Chink in the Moorish Armour.
Ferdinand I
Ferdinand I, according to a medieval miniature of the Cathedral of León.
Source: fundacion saber.es

As al-Andaluz flourished, towards the end of the tenth century, Moorish military might was in the grip of Mohammed ibn-abi-Amir, later called Al Mansur, ‘the Victorious (see Vignettes). Mansur managed to keep the disparate Moorish factions together and raided all the lands which the Christians had settled during the previous two hundred years. When he died in 1002, there was a collective sigh of relief throughout the Christian north as they never won a battle against him. As one Christain monk of the time wrote, ‘Al Mansur died in 1002 and now burns in Hell.’

Although the Moors still controlled two thirds of the peninsula, a succession of weak rulers were unable to hold al-Andaluz together. Revolt followed revolt among the Moors, the Caliphate of Córdoba, still the strongest power in Europe, collapsed in a matter of years. The dissolution of the caliphate had been the political prelude to the political and military decline of all of Al-Andalus. The various Arab and Berber factions fractured with political power coalescing around local leaders or individual ethnic groups.

Nearly all the first overlords were local commanders and notables who had achieved power through the political and military network created by al-Mansur. The result was that al-Andaluz fractured into as many as 39 independent taifas (from the Arabic muluk al-tawa’if, meaning rulers of the ‘parties’ or ‘factions.) The smaller taifas or party kingdoms were quickly absorbed by other larger and stronger ones; the most powerful were Sevilla and Granada in the south; Badajoz, Toledo and Valencia in a band across the centre of the peninsula; Zaragoza in the northeast. These party kingdoms collectively still controlled around 75% of the peninsula. When the military balance in the peninsula began to change in the middle of the eleventh century, the smaller taifas could not defend themselves in regional isolation and were absorbed or destroyed one by one. Despite the dynastic strife within the Muslim ruling families, the new kingdoms/ taifas vied with one another in public works, in building mosques or palaces and in the patronage of poets, scholars and artists. Moorish culture and the sciences still flourished.

For the first half of the eleventh century , the Christian rulers made little attempt to profit from this Moorish fragmentation, either territorially or otherwise. In the north-west, Alfonso V had his hand full dealing with a rebellious local aristocracy and bands of marauding Vikings who regularly devastated the Galician coast. East of the Pyrenees in the Caytalan counties and Spanish Marches, there was a progressive breakdown in public order, when the counts of Barcelona faced faced head-on opposition from the other nobles. When Sancho III of Navarre died in 1035, he undid 30 years of diplomacy and cajoling, by partitioning Navarre, Aragon, Ribagorza and Castile between his four sons.

However, two years later, one of these sons, Ferdinand I, who was enthroned as the first king of Castile, killed his brother-in-law, Vermudo of León, in a battle at Tamarón, thereby uniting León and Castille under his rule. He then defeated and killed his brother, García III of Navarre at Atapuerca near Burgos and similarly dispatched his remaining brother, Ramiro I of Aragón. Ferdinand was now preeminent and in 1039, proclaimed himself emperor of Hispania.


Now with his kingdom secure, Ferdinand started to exploit the political and military weaknesses of the Muslim taifas. Although he conquered large amounts of territory from the Muslims in what is now northern Portugal, his primary objective was to gain regular tribute, known as paria payments, from his significantly richer Moorish neighbours. This type of operation was nothing other than a ‘protection racket,’ whereby various Christian rulers offered their military services to the taifa monarchs in return for sizeable annual payments of gold, silver and luxury goods. This military protection meant that there were many occasions where the Christian kings and nobles (such as El Cid,see Vignettes), were taking up arms against other Christian kingdoms, or Moorish ones, on behalf of their Muslim paymasters.

This influx of parias brought unheard of wealth to the previously impoverished Christian kingdoms. This allowed them to build bigger and better armies, with the new wealth passing through the agency of kings, enriching noblemen, soldiers, bureaucrats, churchmen and merchants. Christian rulers would vie with one another for the tribute from an individual taifa state, if necessary going to war to secure it. The tributes were substantial, Zaragoza agreeing to pay Sancho IV of Navarre 1,000 gold pieces every month. Abd Allah, the ruler of Granada, agreed to pay Alfonso VI, the son of Ferdinand I, 30,000 gold pieces. The Christian north was now becoming significantly richer and stronger.
[Uploaded: 13 March 2017]

A History of Spain - Part 8 - Ebb and Flow

In Part 7 we saw that the Christian north finally began to make some gains into Morrish territory. Many of the Moorish taifa or ‘party kingdoms’ paid substantial tribute to the various kings or generals from the north hoping to keep these ‘barbarous infidels’ at bay. Amongst these Christian leaders were Alfonso VI of León-Castilla and of course one of his generals, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, ‘El Cid’. Not content with taking tribute from the Moors, the Christian generals from the north also wanted to gain territory. After all the Moors still controlled four -fifths of the peninsula.

In 1085 Alfonso’s army recaptured Toledo, the old Visigoth capital, from the Moors. This was the first crucial victory of the Reconquest and a major morale boost for the Christians. The fall of Toledo however, caused panic in Muslim al-Andalus and led by the ruler of Sevilla, al-Mu’tamid, their leaders asked the current rulers in the Magreb (North Africa), the Almoravids, for assistance. The Almoravids were a fundamentalist and warlike sect whose name means ‘vowed to God.’ These dark-skinned nomads originally came from the Sahara and were expected to leave the península after defeating Alfonso. There was always the risk that they might remain. However as al-Mu’tamid remarked, ‘I would rather tend camels for the Almoravids than pasture swine under the Christians.’

The Almoravids arrived from North Africa in 1086 and in October of that year clashed with the army of Alfonso at Sagrajas, near Badajoz. The Christians were used to fighting man-to-man style, by which a collection of individual triumphs brought overall victory. They were totally unprepared for the Almohad invaders who used compact forces of infantry supported by lines of archers and a Negro guard equipped with rapiers and shields made from hippo hide. The Christians were routed and Alfonso was lucky to escape with his life.

Within a few years the taifa regimes of southern Spain had disappeared, now under the uniting and strict control of the Almoravids. Whatever tolerance Jews and Christians experienced under the previous regimes was now gone under this fundamentalist regime and streams of refugees now headed to the Christian north.

Disastrously for the Christian north, all the tribute payments were stopped. This had the effect of putting the Christian kingdoms into a state of fiscal crisis for the first quarter of the thirteenth century. The Almoravids also won back much of the newly acquired Christian territory including Valencia but were unable to re-capture Toledo.

Statue of Rodrigo Díaz - El Cid

Estatua del Cid por Anna Hyatt Huntington en la Avenida del Cid de Sevilla, Andalucía, España.


Almoravid persecution of the Christian communities helped fuel anti-Islamic feelings in the Christian kingdoms. This coincided with the commencement of the Crusades to the Holy Land and many of the knights, French and German, stopped-off in Iberia to ‘baptise their swords with Islamic blood.’ The Reconquest was gathering momentum.
Back in the Magreb the Almoravids were replaced by the similar sounding Almohades. The Almohades, whose name means ‘unitarian’ and who came originally from the Atlas Mountains now invaded al-Andalus. All churches and synagogues were raised and a Christian army was annihilated in Alarcos (between Toledo and Córdoba) in 1195. Here ‘the flower of young Spanish knights’ fell, the Castillian king, Alfonso VIII, narrowly escaping capture.

In 1212, and for the first time using artillery in Europe, Christian soldiers from throughout Spain and Europe gathered at Toledo and marched south to do battle with the Moors. On the rolling plains of Las Navas de Tolosa 60,000 Muslims were killed as against 50 Christian deaths - at least according to the chroniclers! After the battle hundreds of thousands of Moors fled to North Africa and the defeated Muslim commander drank himself to death.

A History of Spain - Part 9 - The Beginning of the Christian Ascendency
Isabella I of Castile
Isabella I of Castile, depicted in the painting Virgen de la mosca at The Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor (Church of Saint Mary the Great)

Following the defeat of the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, Moorish power was now limited to some ports around Cádiz and to the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, which endured until 1492 and was, with a total population of around four million, one of the greatest and most splendid of Muslim realms. Its Arabic name was Karnattah but the Christians called it Granada - full of seeds - because the abundance of pomegranate trees in the area.

For the next two centuries the peninsula consisted principally of a Christian Portugal, a small Christian Navarre, a Muslim Granada enclave and the two great Christian kingdoms: in the west Castile (and León), which included Asturias, Córdoba, Extremadura, Galica, Jaén, and Seville; and in the east, Aragón, which included Barcelona, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Aragón also annexed Sardinia and Sicily and even established a duchy in Athens where Catalan was the official language for 60 years! Both Castile and Aragón were characterized, as a legacy of their previous history, by a diversity of dialects, by composite populations (including Christians, Moors, and Jews), and by divergent political forms. The country of Portugal took shape during the 12th and 13th century largely at the expense of the Moors in the south. The Portuguese also continued to snipe at Castile over various succession issues, right up to the mid and late 1,400’s but the history of Portugal is another story.

One would think it would be logical for the Christian kingdoms (particularly Castile, which was the largest and strongest) who now controlled the majority of the peninsula, to press on and finish the Reconquest by taking Granada. There were however, three major impediments to this.

Firstly, the kingdom of Granada was extremely well fortified. On its northern and western frontiers there was a chain of castles, on average about every five or six miles apart. There was also an enormous number of watchtowers constructed to serve as local strongpoints in the event of an attack, not only on the frontiers but throughout the kingdom.

A contemporary Muslim historian put the number of these at 14,000, dozens of which can still be seen today. Town defences were kept in good repair and any attempt by the Christians to take even a Moorish village was dearly paid-for in blood. The Merinids, who emerged as the heirs to the Almohads in the Maghreb, also intervened forcefully on behalf of Moorish Granada on a number of occasions, once routing a Christian army at Écija. But unlike the Almoravids and the Almohades, they eventually went back to Morocco to deal with the continuing power struggles there and the territory of Granada was now only a fragment of its previous al-Andalus footprint.

Secondly, around 1340-1342, Europe was devastated by the Black Death (bubonic plague). Throughout the península it is estimated that a third of the population perished and in some areas up to a half. Aragón, with the busy port of Barcelona, was particularly hard hit, its previously buoyant Mediterranean shipping trade reduced by four-fifths. The crippling effect of the plague led to the breakdown of civilisation in many areas and would, of course, severely deplete any military resources as well. Food output also diminished drastically during the plague years as many farms lay un-tended.


Finally, both the Castilian and Aragonese monarchies had their own major internal political concerns. These included a number of civil wars, weak rulers and a very difficult and uncooperative noble or baron class. Aragonese nobles were a particularly feisty lot and enjoyed a great deal of political independence based on the concept of a contract with the monarchy. Parliament’s oaths of allegiance to the king read: ‘We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, do accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you accept all our liberties and laws; but if not, not!’

On the other hand, aside from the internal conflicts, at times the Castilian monarchy found itself fighting on three fronts in the peninsula, one Muslim and two Christian! A succession of weak or distracted monarchs (more on these in another issue) and inter Christian rivalry meant that the Moorish Granada enjoyed a two hundred year period of sporadic warfare punctuated by intermittent peace treaties. Granada also became a vassal to Castile by paying occasional tribute, which gave it some protection, but would often in its own interests, play off Castile against Aragón.

Although it has sometimes been claimed that within Christian territories, a state of convivencia, or harmonious co-existence between Christian, Muslim and Jew then prevailed, in reality there was rising religious intolerance and discrimination against both Jews and Muslims. This was often stoked-up by the clergy. In many areas the Jews were blamed for introducing the plague and famines, and in the ensuing pogroms many thousand Jews were massacred.
Neither of these religious minorities were treated equally by the Christians when it came to the law and taxation and they were actively encouraged and sometimes forced to convert to Christianity.

In the 14th century Castile began to build-up its naval power and in 1372 a Castilian fleet linked up with the French to defeat the English at La Rochelle. Three years later the Castilians attacked and burned English ships in the Bay of Bourgneuf. They also attacked Rye, Lewes, the Isle of Wight, Plymouth, Hastings, Portsmouth, Dartmouth, Winchelsea and even sailed up the Thames and burned Gravesend.

In 1469 the marriage of the 18-year-old Isabella 1 of Castile and 17-year-old Ferdinand V of Aragón laid the foundations for a new Spain. They became joint rulers of Castile in 1474 and of Aragón in 1479. Although no actual union of the two kingdoms occurred at this stage as each monarch exercised sovereign power only in his or her own realm, in reality being formidable characters who loyally supported each other, they reigned as a team.

The dynastic union of these two heavyweights would in due course reassert the authority of a single monarchy in Spain and would initiate developments that would not only open up the New World, but propel Spain to the position of a formidable world power, having the first empire on which, it could truly be said, that the sun never set. It would also unfortunately lead to the merciless Spanish Inquisition and to the decimation of a number of civilisations in South America.

History of Spain
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