By Father José Miguel Marqués Campo
Our story begins in 711 AD — Dark Ages Spain, when Muslims from North Africa have invaded the entire Iberian Peninsula. Legends tell us of Pelayo (Latin ‘Pelagius’) a Visigoth warrior who fought alongside the doomed King Roderigo at the Battle of Guadalete.
No one can withstand their terrible onslaught, with the exception of a few hundred Christian men, women and children in this lonely mountain valley, where they make their desperate last stand.
Blessed be the Queen of our mountain, whose throne is the cradle of Spain… She is Mother and is Queen! Come, pilgrims, before Her we inhale loves divine. And in Her is the soul of the Spanish people.
With the inspiring words of this popular song, dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Covadonga, sung with all solemnity at the beautiful Sanctuary of her tender advocacy for the people of Asturias, we begin our adventure into the events which led to the epic, Catholic Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula.
Legends tell us of Pelayo (Latin ‘Pelagius’) a Visigoth warrior who fought alongside the doomed King Roderigo at the Battle of Guadalete. Pelayo was captured by the victorious Moors, who brought him to their newly-chosen capital, Cordoba.
On the way, his captors taunted him with the news that his beloved sister had been forced into a Muslim harem. Determined and desperate, Pelayo escaped and made his way through the Cantabrian mountains to his home in the land of the Asturs— what the Romans had called Lucus Asturum.
There, in an ancient city called Cangas de Onís, the princely Pelayo was chosen to be king of the Christians, in 718.
The Christians were considered “rebellious” by the Moorish governor , as they refused to pay the tax imposed. The Moors then began their disciplinary action against these rebellious subjects.
Persecuted as they were, ill-equipped and disorganized, the Christians could not be expected to offer resistance to the powerful invaders. The Moors, however, disciplined and well-armed, fought the Christians in every valley.
Whatever damage the rebels could inflict on the oppressors was scanty at best. Providentially besieged in the valley of Cangas de Onís, the Christians sought refuge in the mountains. In this region, there is a cave called ‘Cova Dominica,’ (Cave of the Lady) a sacred place which since immemorial times had been a center of Marian devotion. Covadonga is an ideal place for shelter, surrounded as it is by a beautiful range of mountains known The Peaks of Europe, with narrow paths to and from the hidden caves.
It was in this cave, carved in the rock escarpment over a thundering waterfall, where a group of Christians sought and found celestial refuge. The legends tell us that as they prayed, Our Lady appeared to them.
The Christians were mainly native, local Astures; they made their living on the northern Cantabrican coast. In the summer of 722 AD, however, they found themselves in the mountain caves looking down upon a huge, powerful Muslim army.
At first, the Muslims had not really paid much attention to this insignificant rebellion. But Munuza, the local governor had learned to not trust the mere appearance of these ‘weak ‘ Christians.
Having asked for help from Córdoba, he had at his disposition some 10,000 troops to subdue the few hundred recalcitrant Christians hiding in their cave.
But the terrain was better known to the Christians, who were thus able to take advantage of the circumstances.
It would have been wiser for the Moors to have besieged the Christians until they were forced to surrender or die of hunger. Instead, in their contempt for their enemy, the Moors attacked.
But their attack had a major tactical and strategic error: as their army progressed through narrow, mountain paths, when fired upon by the entrenched Christians from above, by arrows and rocks, they were unable to retaliate effectively.
For the Moorish sharpshooters, needing to fire upwards from where they were positioned, their situation was difficult for accuracy. Many of their arrows simply bounced back down upon them from the mountainside.
And so, unable to manoeuvre, pinned down under a rain of both enemy and friendly arrows augmented by large rocks being flung down by the Astures, the situation was ripe for a Christian counter-attack.
This came, a desperate charge led by Pelayo himself.
In a vain attempt to reorganize, the Moors ended up disbanding and fleeing into the mountains, with their leader, Al Qama, dead. Later, a defeated Munuza surrendered the coastal city of Gijón, dying as he fled from the Christians.
The Reconquista had begun.
Obviously, the Christian chronicles of the events differ from the Moorish chronicles, in that the Christian accounts tell of the staunch heroism of Pelayo and his small group of “rebels”, whereas the Moorish accounts downplay the defeat of their much superior forces.
Be that as it may, the Moors had attempted a diplomatic solution to the Christian rebellion: before attacking they had sent as their envoy, a captured bishop, Don Oppas, who, through human frailty, had turned traitor for political expediency.
The bishop tried to convince Pelayo that resistance to such superior forces was useless, saying: “I judge, brother and son, that it is not hidden from you that not long ago, all of Hispania was under Goth rule, whose brilliance was greater than other countries, by doctrine and science. And that, notwithstanding, with all the Goth army united, was not able to withstand the impetus of the Ismaelites. Will you be able to defend yourself from the height of this mountain? It seems difficult to me. Listen to my counsel: Go back to your agreement; you will enjoy many goods and also the friendship of the Chaldeans.”
And so, the apparently insignificant Battle of Covadonga of 722, with tremendously adverse odds for the besieged Christians led by King Pelayo, was the first time the Moors had lost a battle in their conquest of Iberia, and the first time that Christians defeated them.
Even today, a popular saying holds that ‘Asturias is Spain; the rest of the lands were reconquered.’
Pelayo became the first King of Catholic Spain, the father, grandfather and great-grandfather of people who kept the light of the Reconquista alive.
His was the beginning of an unprecedented epic campaign – the Catholic Reconquista of peninsular Spain – that would last nearly eight centuries, until that emblematic year of 1492.