Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

The Christians of Northern Spain

A.D. 740-1065

It is time that I should tell you something about the Christians who lived in Northern Spain and made unending war upon the Moors.

If you look at the map of Spain, you will see that the northern part is divided into five provinces, thus following each other from west to east—Galicia, Asturias, the Basque country, Navarre, and Catalonia—and that south of these the two provinces of Leon and Old Castile dovetail into them and are geographically part of them. This part of Spain is much broken by mountain ranges, and is cold and windy. It is not barren, for it grows wheat, barley, and flax in abundance, and on the mountain slopes the cork-tree flourishes. But the climate is harsher than in the valleys of the South, where the vine and the orange and the lemon and the fig luxuriate in an almost perpetual summer.

The Moors were never able to conquer this northern country. They made raids into it, fought battles, won victories, and built forts; but after the victories were won the natives were ready to fight again next year; and when the forts were finished they were often taken by the races against which they had been built. These native races were Christians, of a mixed Gothic and Spanish stock; with them were allied some Berbers, whom the Moors of Arab race had driven into Galicia from the fertile valleys of Andalusia, and who professed to be Christians, though at that time I do not think their Christianity was very deep.

You remember old Pelayo, who with thirty men and ten women took refuge in a cave in a cleft of the Asturian Mountains and defied the Moors. When this old warrior had driven the Moors out of his province he took the name of King of the Asturias, and the people round about agreed to accept him as their king. When he died his son became king after him, and reigned until a bear ate him. After him his son, who was named Alfonso the First, succeeded to the throne, and, being a famous warrior, extended his kingdom from Galicia to the borders of Navarre. This was about the year 750, just at the time when your ancestors in England were first enabled to read the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed in their own language.

It was in the time of one of Pelayo's immediate successors that Bernardo, the champion of Spain, and one of the heroes of the Spanish legends, is said to have lived. He was the son of Sancho Diaz, Count of Saldaila; this count the king, from jealousy, had imprisoned and most cruelly maltreated. Bernardo, being unable to bear the tyranny of the king and the sight of his father's misery, fled to the woods, and at the head of a party of outlaws barricaded himself in a castle. The king besieged him there; but being unable to make a breach in the walls, he bethought himself of offering to Bernardo to set Don Sancho free if the castle were surrendered. The offer was accepted. The treacherous king forthwith had Sancho done to death in the prison. Bernardo came out of his castle, and cried:

"Where is my father, the Count of Saldana?"

"There he comes," said the king; and sure enough, in the distance a horse ridden by a knight in Don Sancho's armor was seen approaching.

Bernardo ran forward to seize his hand to kiss it; but the hand was cold, and the son perceived that his father was dead.

"What have I done?" cried he; "Don Sancho, in an it hour didst thou beget me!" For nearly a hundred years after that other kings reigned over the Asturias. Sometimes their dominions were large, and sometimes they were small; but whether they were large or small, the Asturians were always fighting, both with Moors and with their Christian neighbors. They must have been unpleasant fellows to live near.

About the year 942 there was a king named Ramiro, who was fierce and bold. He burned witches, and put out the eyes of robbers; but he swept the Moors out of his country, reclaimed the fields they had laid desert, rebuilt the churches they had pulled down, mended the forts they had wrecked. The old legend says of him:

"A cry went through the mountains

When the proud Moor drew near,

And trooping to Ramiro

Came every Christian spear;

The blessed San Iago

They called upon his name:

That day began our freedom,

And wiped away our shame."

He was king when the Moorish caliph demanded the payment of a tribute which the Christians had once, after a defeat, agreed to pay to Cordova. The tribute consisted of one hundred Christian maidens, the fairest of the Asturias. For an answer to the demand, Ramiro called out his fighting men, and went to meet the Moors near a village in Leon. The fight lasted two days, and the first day the Moors had the advantage. But in the night, says the legend, the blessed San Ingo appeared to the king and bade him be of good cheer, that he would be with him on the morrow. Sure enough, as the armies engaged, the saint appeared in a suit of white armor; on a milk-white steed, and scattered the Moors so that they threw their arms away in their flight. Thus the horrid tribute was abolished forever.

Church at Valencia.


It was about these times that Fernando Gonzales was Count of Castile, and in love with Saneha, the daughter of Garcia, the King of Navarre. He was on his way to Navarre to court her when her father treacherously seized him and thrust him into a dungeon. A Norman knight heard of his capture, and the old ballad tells what happened:

"They have borne into Navarre

The great Count of Castile,

And they have bound him sorely

They have hound him hand and heel:

There is great joy and feasting

Because that lord is ta'en;

King Garcia in his dungeon

Holds the doughtiest lord in Spain,

The Moors may well be joyful,

But great should be our grief,

For Spain has lost her guardian,

When Castile lost her chief;

The Moorish host is pouring

Like a river o'er the land;

Curse on the Christian fetters

That hind Gonzales's hand."

The knight bade Sancha try to set him free, for her love's sake.

"The lady answered little,

But at the dead of night,

When all her maids are sleeping,

She bath risen and ta'en her flight:

She hath tempted the Alcayde

With her jewels and her gold,

And unto her his prisoner

That jailer false bath sold."

Then she married her true love, and years afterwards, when he was made prisoner in the wars and again locked up in a dungeon, she prayed leave to visit him just once. The favor granted, she changed clothes with him. He escaped in the gown of a woman, and when the jailer came round he found the countess in the cuirass and boots of a knight.

Other kings followed Ramiro, but nothing happened in their reigns which you would care to hear. The provinces waged incessant war against each other; and in one of the wars the King of Leon, whose name was Garcias, overthrew the King of the Asturias, and annexed his kingdom. He and his descendants held the throne for a quarter of a century, and then the King of Navarre, Sancho Mayor, swooped down upon Leon and Asturias, conquered both, and extended his kingdom from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic. He left his dominions to his son Ferdinand, who in 1035 became monarch of all Northern Spain except Catalonia.

That fine province, which is separated from Aragon by the river Ebro, is one of the richest portions of Spain. It contains the City of Barcelona, which was a famous place of trade in the time of the Carthaginians, and is a lively seaport to-day. Eight hundred and fifty years ago it was ruled by a family named Berenguer, who called themselves counts, and were independent of Moor, Christian, Spaniard, and Frank. You hear much of them in the history of the Crusades. Two of them, father and son, both named Raymond Berenguer, went to the Crusades at the head of their fighting men, and both died in Palestine. One of them was a Knight Templar, whose exploits made much noise at the time. These counts set King Ferdinand at defiance, and he did not care to molest them. So Catalonia was the only northern province of Spain which did not form part of the Christian league against the Moors.

Ferdinand, King of Northern Spain from 1035 to 1065, led a life of toil and strife; when he felt his end approaching he had himself carried to a church, where he prayed and confessed to the priests, took off his royal robes, put on the garment of repentance, and laid down and died.

Before we begin the long story of the death grapple between Moor and Christian, you may care to hear something of what was happening in other countries at that time.

In the year following the death of Ferdinand, William, Duke of Normandy, fought the battle of Hastings and conquered England, which was then a wild country, without learning, or wealth, or trade, or good roads, or fine buildings, except monasteries and churches. In France, about the same time, a Church decree forbade the marriage of priests, and this, among other things, caused the separation of the Catholic and the Greek Churches. In Italy a love for letters broke out, schools and colleges were founded, and interesting works were written; the courts of the Pope and of some of the nobility were polished, and were frequented by learned men. At this time the Empire of the East, of which Constantinople was the capital, began . to be molested by Moslem raids; the long fight between Moslem and Christian, which, after lasting four hundred years, was destined to end thirty-seven years before the same fight in Spain—though in a different way—had fairly begun.

And, finally, thirty-four years before Ferdinand became king, a Norman or Norwegian sea-rover named Leif, is said to have crossed the Atlantic and to have landed in Rhode Island. This story is legend, and you are not required to believe it if you think it improbable—though it may quite possibly be true.