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The Spanish Reconquista: Real Military Campaign or National Myth?

As it turns out, it's a bit of both.

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  • 'The Capitulation of Granada' by Vicente Barneto y Vazquez.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Spanish politician Iván Espinosa de los Monteros stirred up controversy in 2019 when he claimed the following: “Europe is what it is thanks to Spain...Thanks to our contribution, ever since the Middle Ages, of stopping the spread of Islam.”

Espinosa here refers to the Reconquista. Meaning “reconquest” in Spanish, the word refers to an 800-year long military campaign by a group of Christian kingdoms in the north of what is now Spain to take back the Muslim lands of al-Andalus in the south. The Reconquista is often portrayed as a unified effort on the part of the Spanish people to fight Islamic oppression and win back their lands.

But the reality is far more complicated. Contrary to popular belief, Muslim rulers were generally more tolerant of other religions than Christian rulers were during this period. Spanish national identity as it exists today also wouldn't evolve until much later. 

Overall, the Reconquista is a historiographical construction. It wasn't so much a struggle between a unified Spanish Christendom and an invading Islamic force, but a centuries-long squabble between a broad and ever-changing group of factions, spearheaded by power-hungry monarchs and nobles who often betrayed their allies just as soon as it suited their ambition.

Throughout history, many have called the Iberian Peninsula home, beginning with some of the earliest agricultural societies. Iberia passed through Carthaginian and Roman hands before being conquered by Germanic peoples. The Visigoths controlled most of Iberia until a 711 CE invasion by Tariq ibn Ziyad, a governor of the Umayyad Caliphate.

With the help of the military general Musa ibn Nusayr, Tariq took most of Iberia for his caliph over the next decade. The inscriptions on coins issued by the caliphate give us the name we now use when referring to the territory during its years of Muslim rule: al-Andalus. The southern region of Spain is now known as Andalucía, a derivation of that name.

Related: 8 Essential Books About the Spanish Civil War

Under the Visigoths there was a Christian majority, but also a significant Jewish population. The Visigoths were not kind to religious minorities, restricting their freedom with harsh punishments as stipulated by the 654 Visigothic Code. Under Muslim rule, however, Christians and Jews were permitted to practice their own religions, and even to elect local judges from their communities, provided they paid a tax and did not proselytize. Although many retained their faith, conversion was common. Some did not convert, but adopted Arab culture and the Arabic language. Together, the people of this rather diverse region would grow enormously in population, developing their agricultural techniques and building new cities along the way. 

What little information we have about the rise of the first Christian kingdom in Spain is as confused as it is biased. The earliest record, the Chronicle of Alfonso III, was written 150 years after the events it describes, by its titular Christian monarch who had a vested interest in expressing his right to rule. Moreover, it survives in multiple contradictory versions, which are further contradicted by later chronicles. 

These chronicles claim that in 718 (or 719, 722, or the 740s), a fallen Visigothic noble (of unclear lineage) named Pelagius instigated a rebellion (for unclear reasons) of Christians near the city of Covadonga in the far north of Spain. The Umayyads responded with a military force led by the decorated general Alkama and the Christian bishop of Seville Oppa. The rebels killed the former, captured the latter, and elected Pelagius ruler of the kingdom of Asturias.

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  • 'A Court in The Alhambra in the Time of the Moors' by Edwin Lord Weeks. The Alhambra is a palace displaying both Islamic and Spanish Renaissance architecture.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The succeeding rulers of Asturias began expanding its borders. By the ascension to the throne of Alfonso III in 866, Asturias included parts of León, Galicia, Cantabria, and Catalonia. But its rule would not last forever. In 909, Alfonso’s sons conspired to overthrow the aging king and take power. They failed, but escaped serious consequences when Alfonso retired later that year, splitting his realm between them. Fruela became king of Asturias, Ordoño of Galicia, and the eldest son García of León. For the next five centuries, these Christian kingdoms would be some of the major players in the squabble for land, alternately competing and collaborating as suited their needs.

There was no great singular Muslim entity on the other side, either. In 750, the Abbasid Revolution in present-day Iran and Iraq overthrew the caliphate, and Iberia came under rule of an independent emirate centered in Córdoba. By 929, the military general Abd al-Rahman was confident in his power, having had success raiding around Valencia, Toledo, and Navarre. He declared himself the first Caliph of Córdoba.

Although the new caliphate occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula, it proved to be short-lived. In 976, Hisham II took the throne at just 11 years old. Behind him was the boy king’s tutor al-Mansur, who soon took over as Hisham’s premier and de facto ruler of the caliphate. While Hisham’s army was occupied with the fight for León in 1009, Muhammad II al-Mahdi seized the opportunity to usurp, becoming caliph—until November of that year, when he was overthrown by his own army. 

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In the ensuing years, many claimants occupied the throne for brief periods, and the title Caliph of Córdoba lost much of its legitimacy. By 1031, the caliphate in Iberia had split into a group of independent taifa kingdoms. They would intermittently be reunited throughout the coming centuries. 

Similar intrigue was ongoing behind the scenes of the Christian kingdoms. Alfonso VI of León is remembered for helping to legitimize Christian rule by appointing bishops, welcoming papal envoys, and allying with Christians overseas. Since he had, at varied times, dominion over Galicia, Portugal, and Castile, he styled himself Emperor of All Spain. Before his death in 1109, Alfonso VI arranged the marriage between his daughter Urraca and Alfonso I of Aragon. He hoped the capable warrior Alfonso I would help defend León from the advancing Almoravids, a Muslim Berber dynasty centered in present-day Morocco.

Alfonso and Urraca split up within the year, having no heir. Power over Aragon passed back to Urraca, who entered into an alliance against her ex-husband with Count Gómez González of a Castilian noble family. Alfonso allied with Henry, Count of Portugal, against Urraca. Henry killed González in the field during the 1111 Battle of Candespina.

Urraca had another son, Alfonso Raimundez, from an earlier marriage. Although he was only six years old, she had him crowned king of Galicia in 1111; in 1125, he inherited the kingdom of Toledo, and in 1126 the kingdom of León after Urraca’s death. He returned to war against Alfonso VI, seized control of Castile, and was crowned King Alfonso VII of León and Castile. 

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The rest of the 12th century saw the Almoravids replaced by the Almohad Caliphate, while Alfonso VII expanded his borders around Toledo and Portugal. The borders of Al-Andalus were shrinking; while all five of Iberia’s fertile river basins had once been under Muslim rule, only two remained so by 1140. The Almohad caliphs would mount military expeditions into Iberia, most notably those of Abu Yaqub Yusuf beginning in 1171. They won some important victories, but had to split their efforts between Iberian conquest and revolts in North Africa, returning from one front to find their enemies had made advances in their absence.

By the 1300s, the Almohads turned their attention toward their western border, where the Zayyanid dynasty was gaining traction. There was only one independent Muslim kingdom remaining in Iberia—the Emirate of Granada. The Christian kings again took this opportunity to seize new territory. The last great incursion of a Muslim empire into Iberia was that of the Marinid Sultanate in 1340, which was repelled by Alfonso XI of Castile and Afonso IV of Portugal. 

spanish reconquista
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  • Wedding portrait of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The unification of the Christian kingdoms of Iberia into the nation of Spain is usually credited to the 1469 marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Together they would establish the Spanish Inquisition, fund the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and lay siege to Granada, forcing a surrender on January 2, 1492. The Christian conquest of Iberia would result in the forcible conversion and expelling of Jews and Muslims.

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While proponents of the romanticized Reconquista portray the final defeat of Muslim rule as a righteous moment in which Spanish freedom and identity prevailed, the reality was different, as we've seen. It would take some time for a Spanish national identity to develop. Historically, the region consisted of loosely allied kingdoms, each of which had its own distinct culture and language. Spain did not have a national anthem until 1770, or a flag until 1843. Its political unification was a slow process that would take shape under the later rule of the Bourbons, then finally solidify with the establishment of the Cortes of Cádiz (Spanish parliament) in 1810. 

Even so, the story of the Reconquista became an important part of Spain’s national identity and founding myth. Under Francisco Franco, the far-right Spanish dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, educational materials spoke of the Reconquista as the rightful institution of Catholic Spain’s heavenly mandate. Today, the Reconquista is still seen similarly by the modern Spanish right; as Espinosa describes it, a unified Spain purging Muslim influence from Catholic Western Europe.

Sources: The Medieval Spains by Bernard F. Reilly; Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 by Roger Collins; PBS; History.com