How Don Pelayo Saved Catholic Spain
Vastly outnumbered but armed with invincible faith, Don Pelayo's heroic spirit attracted God's blessing and changed the course of Spanish history.
One fascinating aspect of the Old Testament is God's interventions favoring those who do all they possibly can while facing overwhelming odds and counting on Him to do the impossible. As we read about David and Goliath, Gideon and the Battle of Jericho, the Maccabees and others, we have the impression that God actually dons armor and goes to battle on their side. New Testament history counts a number of such interventions. Among these is the marvelous story of the Reconquista, or recapture of Spain from Islamic domination.
Less than seventy years after the death of Mohammed in 632, his followers had already conquered most of the Middle East and North Africa. In the beginning of the eighth century, the leaders of the new religion turned their eyes to Christian Europe, dreaming of new Moorish conquests.
On the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, Visigoth Catholic Spain was in a state of decadence, undermined by the Arian heresy, steeped in vice, its army and people lax, and its leaders divided.
In 711, because of internal divisions, traitors informed the Muslims about the weak points along the Spanish southern coast. Not waiting for a second invitation, the Islamic army landed. The poison of treachery added to the ruthlessness of the scimitar conquered all of Spain in a few years.
But the Lord of Hosts had long prepared the Spanish David who would face the new Islamic Goliath.
A Warrior, a Cave and a Queen
The Cantabrian Range in northern Spain forms a natural fortress of lofty peaks, deep gorges, narrow valleys, steep cliffs and evergreen forests. This region ranks among the "Peaks of Europe" and was once the paradise of hermits, and the home of bears, mountain goats and soaring eagles. It is also known as the cradle of Catholic Spain, the starting point of our marvelous saga.
One day, around the year 718, a troublemaker clambered desperately up rocks and boulders fleeing from a young warrior intent on his capture. Suddenly, the pursued man dashed into a large cave and disappeared into its dark depth. Chasing after him, the warrior found the troublemaker clinging desperately to a venerable hermit. Beside the old man stood a small image of Mary Most Holy with the Infant Jesus in her arms. At the hermit's request, the warrior granted the troublemaker sanctuary and gave up the chase. "God will bless you for this, my friend," spoke the hermit.
The troublemaker's and the hermit's names perished with history, but the young warrior's name was Pelayo, a nobleman of royal lineage and fearless disposition. The cave is known to this day as Covadonga, and the little image of Mary venerated there as Our Lady of Covadonga, Deliverer and Queen of Spain.
In the beginning of the eighth century, Spain was ruled by the Visigoth King Vitiza, a man as insolent as he was corrupt. While still a prince, Vitiza murdered the Duke of Fáfila and exiled his son Pelayo.
After Vitiza died, his sons were unable to secure the throne because of their cruel father's unpopularity. Taking advantage of the chaos, the worthy Rodrigo, Duke of Bética, seized power and proclaimed himself king. At this, the supporters of Vitiza and his sons swore revenge. They sent messengers to Mohammed's followers across the Strait of Gibraltar in North Africa and revealed to them all the weak points along the Spanish southern coast.
Tariff bem Ziyad was the one chosen for the task by the shrewd Musa bem Nusayr, governor of Muslim Africa. Aided by yet another traitor, the Count of Olian, Lord of Gibraltar, then at odds with King Rodrigo, Ziyad won many successive battles in 711.
What began as a simple incursion became a full-blown war of conquest as many enemies of the Visigoth regime joined forces with Ziyad.
The Fateful Battle of Guadalete
Finally, King Rodrigo was able to gather an army of 100,000 ill-trained men and met the Muslims in Guadalete. In the heat of the battle, the supporters of Vitiza and his sons joined the invading Moors, and attacking from behind decided the day for Ziyad. King Rodrigo was killed and his body vanished. Centuries later his tomb was discovered in Portugal.
In that battle, Pelayo, whose father the Duke of Fáfila had been killed by Vitiza, also fought. After the defeat of Guadalete, Pelayo fled with family members to Asturias in northern Spain.
Meanwhile Nusayr grew jealous of Ziyad and decided to share in the glory and the spoils of conquering Spain. He crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with a powerful army and, with it, conquered Granada, Malaga, Merida, Seville and Zaragoza.
Continuing to join infamy to treachery, Vitiza's followers surrendered town after town to the invader. Like dominoes, region after region fell, leaving only a few towns free from Muslim domination in the Cantabrian region near the Pyrenees.
The Muslim Munuza was appointed governor of Gijón in this region and was to cross paths with Pelayo by falling in love with the Spaniard's sister. Pelayo opposed the match and was sent prisoner to the south of Spain. Evading his captors, he returned to his family to find Munuza planning a wedding. His opposition enraged the governor, who ordered his imprisonment.
The Resistance Begins
Warned by friends, Pelayo sought refuge in the mountains of the Cantabrian region and swore to resist the new regime. His natural leadership, his fame as a fearless warrior and his rank as a prince of royal lineage attracted many Catholics who wished to combat the invader. Around him gathered a force of about a thousand strong. Unanimously, they proclaimed Pelayo king in 716 or 718.
Tradition says that since the crimson flag of the Goths had disappeared in the fateful battle of Guadalete, the hermit who inhabited the cave of Covadonga placed in Pelayo's hand a wooden cross saying, "Behold the sign of victory." Pelayo positioned this cross at the top of his standard to be carried in battle.1
Noticing that Islamic attention was now focused on trying to conquer France, Pelayo launched forays against Muslim strongholds obtaining successive victories.
Hearing of the insurrection, Munuza sent word to Alahor, the Emir of Córdoba, who in turn sent his lieutenant Alkama with a large force to crush the rebels. With him, Alkama brought Don Opas, the bishop of Seville, a relative of Pelayo and a Muslim collaborator, hoping that he might convince Pelayo to give up the impossible task. Meanwhile, Pelayo had distributed his small force throughout strategic positions of the Cantabrian Range while he, with a few men, took their positions inside the cave of Covadonga where the image of Mary Most Holy was venerated.
Interview with Bishop Opas
Before the battle, Alkama sent Bishop Opas to try to persuade Pelayo to put down his sword by promising pardon and many benefits. Bishop Opas is quoted as saying, "Brother, I am sure that you work in vain. What possible resistance can you put up when all of Spain and its armies could not resist the Islamites? Listen to me. Settle down, and enjoy your many possessions in peace with the Arabs like everyone else is doing."
Pelayo answered: "I want no friendship with the Islamites and will not be subject to their empire. Don't you know that the Church of God is like the moon that once eclipsed returns to her fullness? We trust in God's mercy and know that from this mountain will emerge the health of Spain. You with your brothers as well as Olian, minister of Satan, decided to give to these people the kingdom of the Goths. But we, having Our Lord Jesus Christ as our advocate before God the Father, despise this multitude of pagans in whose name you come. And by the intercession of the Mother of God, who is Mother of mercy, we believe that this small army of 105 Goths will multiply like seeds from a tiny grain of mustard." 2
Realizing there was no compromise in Pelayo, Bishop Opas returned to the Muslim army and said, "Go on to the cave and fight because only the sword will obtain anything from him."
The Battle (718–722)
On that day, two different civilizations and religions faced each other. Islam, which had triumphed over the Middle East and North Africa, was now poised to crush the last stronghold of a ruined country, a destroyed civilization, an enslaved people and a profaned religion. There, at Covadonga, was to be decided whether Spain would be an extension of Islam or the spearhead of Christian Civilization.
As Pelayo and his men looked down from the cave of Covadonga they saw a massive Muslim horde. Alkama and his men jeered, sure of an easy victory. A chill of fear compounded the chill of the cave, but the indomitable leader, pointing to the small image of Our Lady of Covadonga, reminded his brave men to place all their confidence in her protection. This little Lady "beautiful as the moon, brilliant as the sun, terrible as an army in battle array," 3 could not disappoint their trust. Thus began that terrible, unequal fight.
At a signal from Alkama, a multitude of stones and arrows were hurled against the men in the cave. It was then that a wonderful thing happened. The acclaimed sixteenth-century Spanish historian, Father Juan de Mariana, describes the battle:
They fought at the entrance to the cave with all sorts of weapons, and a shower of stones. Then it was that God's power was manifest, favorable to ours and contrary to the Muslims because the arrows and spears that the enemy launched returned to them causing great harm among them. The enemy was astounded at such a miracle. Heartened and on fire with the hope of victory, the Christians emerged from the hideout, few in number, soiled and ragged, and engaged in a melee. They fell fiercely upon the enemy who, thrown off balance, turned and ran. 4
Meanwhile, the other warriors, placed in strategic positions throughout the mountains, pushed down huge boulders and tree trunks on the Muslim army now trapped in the deep valleys of the region. Others shot their arrows. At the same time, a frightful storm broke out, which added to the panic, and caused the Muslims to flee in disarray. Pursued by the Christians, they were killed in the Cangas Valley in a terrible battle.
The traitorous Bishop Opas was taken prisoner, and Alkama was slain along with thousands of Muslims. The remaining Moorish army took flight only to be buried by a mountain close to the Deva River that suddenly fell upon them and drowned them in the river. For centuries after that, whenever the river swelled in winter, bones and parts of armor floated to the top.
Back in Gijón, on hearing of the astounding defeat, Munuza fled with his troops, only to be pursued by the Spaniards who caught up with him near Oviedo, killing him and his men.
Don Pelayo Began the Restoration of Spain
Encouraged by such a victory and Pelayo's example, an increasing number of Christians joined him. One of them was Alfonso, the son of the Duke of Viscaya, who left his father and his lands to join the fight at Pelayo's side. Alfonso later married the hero's daughter, Ormisinda, and at the premature death of Pelayo's son Fávila, became King Alfonso I the Catholic.
Rather than establishing his court in Gijón, the most important city of Asturias, Don Pelayo chose Cangas de Onis, in the region of the "Peaks of Europe," since it was a more defensible position.
Pelayo did not enjoy much peace. He neither sought it nor could he expect it from the Muslims. He spent the rest of his life battling the Moorish invader. He died from natural causes in Cangas de Onis in 737 and was buried by his wife Gaudiosa near the altar of Our Lady in the Cave of Covadonga. The epitaph on his tomb reads:
Here lies the holy king Don Pelayo,
elected in the year 716, who in this
miraculous cave began the
restoration of Spain…
1. Later, Alfonso III had this cross covered in gold and precious stones. Today, it is kept in the Cathedral of Oviedo with the name of "Cross of Victory." http://www.arbil.org/(31)pely.htm
3. Canticle of Canticles 6:9.
4. From an article by José Maria dos Santos, published in Catolicismo (October, 2002), based on Father Juan de Mariana, Historia General de España, vol. I, enriched and completed by Eduardo Chao (Imprenta y Libreria de Gaspar Roig, Editores, Madrid, 1848), 308.