Spanish Empire—Reconquista

1050 to 1516
Reconquest of Toledo to Death of Ferdinand

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Reconquista

Rise of the Christian Kingdoms—Several Christian kingdoms arose in the north of Spain in the centuries after the Moorish conquest, but they were of little importance until after the fall of the Cordova Caliphate in 1031 A.D. The legendary leader of the band of exiles that fled to the Cantabrian Mountains after the battle of Guadalete was Pelayo, a Visigoth prince. However, the kingdom of Asturias that he established was not Visigoth but rather it was a combination of indigenous Basques and Celt-Iberians, and exiles and refugees from various regions, including Spaniards, Visigoths, Suevi, and Franks.

christian spain
In the earliest years of its existence, the kingdom of Asturias was not recognized as an independent kingdom. The dominant Christian power in the region was the Franks, who successfully drove the Moors out of Gaul and under Charlemagne even crossed the Pyrenees to give battle to the Mohammedans on the peninsula. But in 778 the Franks retreated, leaving Asturias as the predominant Christian kingdom in the region.

During the early years of the Moorish empire, there was a large population of Christians still living within its bounds and paying special taxes while being denied full rights of citizenship. Considering the large population of tax-paying Christians in their realm and the ferocious Franks immediately to their north, the Cordova Caliphate was not inclined to take aggressive measures against the small and seemingly insignificant independent mountain kingdom.

The region immediately south of Asturias was Leon, and early on the northern Christians gained tentative control of this strategic region. The territory of Asturias-Leon expanded in the 9th and 10th centuries as a result of Christian victories against the reginal Moors, but also due to Christian migration from Moorish domains into Christian territory. In 910 the king of Asturias moved his capital to Leon and his was henceforth known as the kingdom of Leon. The kingdom of Castile, which was originally a duchy of Asturias was "declared independent" by Fernan Gonsalez in 932, but continued to be overshadowed by Leon until the reign of Alfonso VI, several generations hence.

Other Christian kingdoms in the region were Navarre in the Pyrenees, which became independent of the Frankish empire in 837, and Aragon, which split from Navarre in 1035 and expanded its borders to the south. Far to the west of were Galicia and Portugal, vassal kingdoms of Leon that achieved a certain degree of independence. The Christian kingdoms of Leon, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, Galicia and Portugal together controlled all of Northern Spain, and for several hundred years warred with each other as well as the Moors. The wars between the Christian kingdoms are generally known as the Castilian Wars , because Castile was of central importance and came to be the dominant kingdom on the Peninsula.

The Christians kingdoms were able to gain significant territory and autonomy during the ninth and tenth centuries while the power of the Cordoba Caliphate was at its height, mainly because the regions they dominated were poor and sparsely populated. The Moors controlled the cosmopolitan and prosperous regions along the Mediterranean coasts. Al-Andalus was the center of Moorish commerce and culture and the poor, remote Christian territories to the north seemed of little significance. In the late 900's, the Moslem general Almanzor briefly retook Christian territory, but the Cordova caliphate collapsed several years after his death and the empire became divided in to fiefdoms (called Taifas) of warring Moslem princes.

Victories against the Moors—The eleventh century was a critical one for the rising Christian kingdoms. Soon afterward the breakup of the Cordova caliphate, Ferdinand I of Leon united Galicia and Castile under the crown of Leon. He split his kingdom among his sons upon his death, but this only resulted in years of civil war during which Alfonso VI regained control of all three kingdoms. It was during this period that the famous El Cid, a knight loyal to Alfonso's brother, was banished from Castile and took Valencia, a prosperous Moorish trading city on the Western coast of Spain. Eventually Cid and Alfonso were reconciled and in 1085 they reconquered the old Visigoth capital of Toledo.

As a result of the Christian conquest of Toledo several Moorish princes invited the Almoravids of Morocco to help them regain their territory, a move they soon regretted. The Almoravid's were of little help in reconquering Christian territory, but they deposed many of the Taifa rulers, most of whom had become luxurious and decadent. The Almoravids, like the Alhomads who followed them, were desert warriors of a stern faith, who despised the cultured and religiously indifferent Moorish nobles, and the prosperous trading culture of Al-Andalus declined greatly under the new leadership.

The Christian victories against the Moors continued during the twelfth century, especially under the kings of Aragon and Castile. James I of Aragon added the prosperous coastal region of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands to the domain of Aragon during his reign, and the kingdom of Portugal rose to prominence under Afonso Henriques. The greatest twelfth century Christian warrior of all, however, was St. Ferdinand III of Castile, also known as St. Ferdinand, who conquered Seville and Cordoba, and brought Dominican and Franciscan orders to Al-Andalusa to help re-Christianize southern Spain.

The Moors, now under the rule of the fierce Alhomads, continued to lose territory until 1212 at which time they were utterly defeated at the terrific battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. In this key battle, the united Christian armies defeated and nearly annihilated a combined army of Spanish Moors and African Berbers. This effectively destroyed the power of the Moors, and by 1300 the Spaniards controlled the entire Iberian Peninsula, save only the vassal state of Granada. The conquest of Granada however, was delayed for nearly 200 years, due to the Black Plague and continued wars among the Christian Kingdoms.

Rise of the Trastamaras and Conquest of Granada—The late fourteenth century was a sorry one for all of Europe and it produced some unfortunate tyrants in Spain, including Pedro of Castile. He murdered a number of family members, instigated civil wars and impoverished his country, but was eventually overthrown by his illegitimate half-brother Henry Trastamara. It was several generations before a worthy successor rose to power in Castile, in the form of Isabel of Castile, a princess who descended from both the Trastamara and legitimate kingly lines. Her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon the Catholic united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and under their competent leadership the united Christians were able to drive the last Moorish kingdom from the peninsula. These monarchs, who reigned for over forty years, ruled competently, paid off debts, put down a rebellion in Portugal and brought stability, unity, and prestige to their kingdom.

One of the most far-reaching of Isabel's policies in Spain was to fund the voyage of Christopher Columbus and lay Spanish claim to the New World he discovered. The following thirty years saw the discovery and conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico, the Inca Empire in Peru, the establishment of the Portuguese Empire in India, and many related feats of discovery. These early explorations were so important to world history that they are dealt with in a separate section.


Character/Date Short Biography

Early Christian Heroes

Visigoth hero who survived Moorish conquest in 711 and founded the Christian kingdom of Asturias.
~ 711
Visigoth general who used a ruse in order to make peace with the Moorish conquerors.
~ 711
Gothic Knight who defended Cordova after the fall of the Visigoths at Guadalete.
Bernardo del Carpio
~ 800
Legendary Spanish hero during the era of Charlemagne who battled both Moors and Franks.

Growth of Christian Kingdoms

Alfonso VI
King of Castile, who with his great warrior El Cid, reconquered Toledo from the Moors.
El Cid
Legendary Spanish hero of chivalry. Loyal to Alfonso VI in spite of treachery. Conquered Valencia.
Afonso Henriques
Founder of the Kingdom of Portugal. Defeated the Moors and declared Portugal independent from Leon.
Alfonso VIII
Led the victorious Christians against the Saracens at the decisive Battle of Navas de Tolosa.
St. Dominic
Founded Dominican Order of scholars, theologians, and teachers.
James I of Aragon
Long reigning warrior king who expanded the dominions of Aragon to include the Balaeric Islands and Valencia.
St. Ferdinand III
King of Castile who conquered Seville and Cordoba, and brought Dominican and Franciscan orders to southern Spain.
Henry Trastamara
Illegitimate son of Alfonso XI who usurped the throne of Castile from his half-brother, Peter the Cruel after many conflicts.
Pedro of Castile
King of Castile with reputation as dishonorable, murderous tyrant. Eventually deposed by half-brother Henry Trastamara.
Henry IV of Castile
Infirm and degenerate king of Castile, older brother of Isabella I. Named Isabella his successor.

United Spain

Isabel of Castile
Pious and stalwart queen of Spain, unified diverse kingdoms, reformed finances, conquered Granada, financed Columbus.
Ferdinand of Aragon
King of Aragon who ruled united Spain with Queen Isabel. Drove the Moors out of Granada.
Dominican priest who was a confessor of Isabella I, and was influential in establishing the Spanish Inquisition.
Hernan Perez del Pulgar
Spanish knight under Isabella and Ferdinand who gained famed during the Reconquista for daring exploits.
Gonsalvo de Cordova
Spanish general who fought in Granada and Italy; pioneered modern tactics of warfare.
Cardinal Ximenes
Influential cardinal-minister at the court of Isabel and Ferdinand. Did much to reform both Church and government of Spain.


AD YearEvent
720 Pelayo defeats Moors at Battle of Covadonga, founds Christian kingdom of Asturias.
837 Kingdom of Navarre in the Pyrenees gains its independence from the Franks.
910 Leon is united with Asturias and becomes the predominant Christian kingdom in Spain.
932 Fernan Gonsalez asserts the independence of Castile.
976 First conquest of Almanzor, who mastered nearly all of Spain; ruled until 1002.
1031 After 20 years of Civil war, Moorish empire breaks up into "tarifs" (Taifas).
1035 Ramirez I establishes the Kingdom of Aragon.
1072 Alfonso VI becomes king of both Leon and Castile. He quarrels with El Cid.
1085 Alfonso VI captures the Moorish stronghold of Toledo.
1095 El Cid captures Valencia; rules justly over Moorish and Christians.
1137 Catalonia united permanently to the Crown of Aragon, under Ramon and Petronilla of Aragon.
1144 Alfonso of Leon defeated the Moors; dynasty of the Almohads at Cordova.
1212 Victory of Christians over Moors at Las Navas de Tolosa decided the fate of Spain.
1228 James of Aragon captures the Balearic Isles.
1235 St. Ferdinand III captured Cordova.
1248 Ferdinand III. captured Seville; work on the Alhambra begun.
1367 Battle of Navarrete saves Pedro of Castile.
1369 Pedro of Castile overthrown by half-brother Henry Trastamara .
1469 Marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile united the Christian dominions of Spain.
1481 Establishment of the Inquisition.
1492 Granada captured. Voyage of Columbus sets forth. Expulsion of the Jews.
1504 Death of Isabella.
1512 Ferdinand conquers the greater part of Navarre.
1516 Death of Ferdinand; Hapsburg grandson Charles V inherits throne of Spain.

Recommended Reading—Reconquista

Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Ober - Spain: A History for Young Readers   Spain's Heroic Age to A Memorable Reign (7)
Horne - Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain   Rise of the Christian Kingdoms to Ferdinand and Isabella (2)
Bonner - A Child's History of Spain   The Christians of Northern Spain to The End of Ferdinand and Isabella (15)

Supplemental Recommendations

Abbott - The Romance of Spanish History   Spain a Battle-field to Domestic Sorrows (9)
Morris - Historical Tales: Spanish   Bernardo del Carpio to The Great Captain (11)
Howard - Isabella of Castile    entire book
Wilson - The Story of the Cid For Young People    entire book

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate