The Iberian Peninsula: Spain and Portugal inthe times of El Cid


The times of El Cid. The Iberian Peninsula. Spain and Portugal. The 9th century



The Omeyan emirate Al-Andalus had been independent from the Abbasid caliphate since 756. Following an initial period of relative peace (given that the struggle against the Christians had never stopped and no-one had ever imagined that the conflict would last for so long and have such enormous proportions), a series of sanguinary revolts broke out during the reign of al-Hakam I, promoted by the Alfaquis who had ruled in the same manner as his predecessor, the emir Hisham I, whose power al-Hakam now questioned.

All manner of uprisings took place during the century, such as those of the Muladis and Mozarabs in Bobastro which caused great instability in the emirate, along with the constant threats of its external enemies, mainly the Christians, who were launching attacks on the frontier of Córdoba from the north of the peninsula, and the Franks and Normans. All the above led to the crisis and fragmentation of the emirate, and this process reached its apogee during the reign of Abd-Allah (888-912). Obviously, the Christians obtained maximum benefit from this unstable situation and won many important victories during this century.



The Christian kingdoms

The Christians effectively took advantage of the problems of their opponents and their constant crises, and this, combined with the increasingly important military power they were amassing, led them to undertake a series of military campaigns that gave rise to a considerable increase in the extension of the Christian domains in the peninsula: Ordoño I (850-866) took advantage of the uprisings in the emirate to launch a powerful campaign and achieved an important victory in Guadalete, in addition to invading León, Astorga, Tuy and Amaya, and other important victories such as the one launched by Count Rodrigo on Talamanca.

Even so, the Christians also suffered great disasters such as the battle waged on the plain of Miranda (865), in which Count Rodrigo, who had previously defeated the Muslims in Talamanca, met his death. During his reign and that of his son Alfonso III, an important repopulation process took place in the Duero valley, through the “presura” system (i.e., all lands without an owner were annexed to the kingdom, which in turn, distributed them as it thought fit.

Alfonso III (866-910) fought the Muslims during a campaign in which the Moors marched towards Galicia and León with an enormous contingent.  During his reign, the northern part of Portugal and Porto were taken by the Christians, and the Asturian Count Hermenegildo took Coimbra in the name of King Alfonso. The monarch even succeeded in establishing the frontier near the river Montego and eventually signed a peace treaty with Córdoba which lasted for three years.


The 10th century. The Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal


In 929 the brilliant ruler Abd al-Rahman III established the caliphate of Córdoba, during which time Al-Andalus experienced its moment of maximum splendour.  Using his military and diplomatic expertise, Abd al-Rahman III was able to readdress the situation by defeating the rebels and halting the enemy, in addition to maintaining the trans-Saharan routes, which were the channels used to transport large quantities of gold to Córdoba, and by fighting the Christians from the north. 

The rise to power of Hisham II (976) would, perhaps, not have been so important in history if it were not for the fact that it was not the caliph who was exercising the power, but Almanzor, who was the real ruler of the caliphate, and re-launched the war. In 985 he sacked Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela, leading the military campaigns and destroying the city and its inhabitants in 997. There is no doubt that his death in 1002 was a great relief to the Christians, as he had been a real nightmare for them.


The Christian kingdoms

Alfonso III shared his kingdom between his sons, in the following way: García, his eldest son, was assigned Foramontana and the title of emperor; Ordoño received Galicia and Fruela was given Asturias. As had already occurred on other occasions (and this would not be the last as demonstrated by the sons of Fernando I during the 11th century), this decision did not please everyone, and García plotted against his father.

Alfonso III managed to lock him up in prison, but Munio Fernández, García’s father-in-law, helped him escape. García started a rebellion that forced the king to abdicate and go into exile, but he asked his son to grant him permission to wage a campaign against the Moors. After granting him permission, Alfonso undertook a brilliant campaign that enabled him to defeat the Muslims for the last time. After the campaign, he returned to Zamora, where shortly after his arrival, he passed away.

Following the death of Alfonso III of León, fortune no longer smiled on García the usurper, who died just four years later, childless. Ordoño II (914-924), who had helped García and been given the kingdom of Galicia, took over the throne. As soon as he came to power, the new monarch established the capital in León. He continued to fight the Muslims and was defeated in Mudonia, Guadalajara, Alcolea and Valdejunquera.

From that time on, he organised a series of campaigns that allowed him to enter Andalusi territory. Upon his death, new problems in succession arose, that would continue to be in evidence during the rest of the century. Fruela took over the kingdom, and on his death the following year, the kingdom was divided up between his sons Sancho and Alfonso. Sancho died and Alfonso (now Alfonso IV) took over the throne.  However, he abdicated in 931, and Ramiro II (931-951) took control. One year later Alfonso decided to take back the throne, but Ramiro II found out about it, took him prisoner and blinded him.

King Ramiro II  was able to extend the frontier to the river Tormes. Upon the death of Ramiro II, who was succeeded by Sancho I (956-958). On being defeated by the Moors, the king was deposed by the noble class, led by Fernán González -Count of Castille-  and Ordoño IV the Wicked came to the throne (958-960). His brief reign is proof of his disastrous rule. However, during those two years, Sancho I had not been idle and was able to return to power thanks to his alliances with Abd al-Rahman III and the kingdom of Navarre, thus commencing his second reign (960-966).  This time, he was supported by the noble class who stood on his side. 

Sancho I died after being poisoned, and his son Ramiro III (966-984) took over. Following the defeats of Gormaz and Rueda, he was deposed, and his brother, the usurper Vermudo II (985-999) came to power, after plotting with several members of the noble class, including Gonzalo Núñez, who had murdered Sancho I. He confronted Ramiro III who, in turn, forged an alliance with Almanzor. Unfortunately, the death of the rightful monarch in 985 paved the way for Vermudo II and his disastrous rule.

Following the death of Ramiro III, the power had passed to his mother, the regent Teresa Ansúrez, but Vermudo had managed to forge a new alliance, this time with Almanzor, to rule over the whole of León. After forcing the regent to withdraw to the monastery of San Pelayo (Oviedo), the usurper tried to expel the Moors, who took their vengeance by attacking Coimbra (987), Zamora and León (988).

Vermudo II gave up his daughter to Almanzor in an attempt to repair their relationship, and apparently succeeded, but once again, he believed himself capable of defeating the legendary Muslim, and again broke off relations with him. As a result, the Muslims again attacked Zamora, León and Astorga. The king fled to Galicia while Almanzor sacked Santiago (10 August 997).


The 11th century. The Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal

As occurred in Europe, where the 11th century was a truly agitated period, during this century, Spain, too, suffered great changes, especially in terms of military aspects.



The 11th century bore witness to three radical changes in the structure of al-Andalus. Firstly, the caliphate eventually collapsed (1031) and the Andalusi territory was divided into many small factions where chieftains fought each other, moved by their lust for power.  These ambitions were taken advantage of by the Christians. In fact the power of the Christians was of enormous interest to the Muslims and so the chieftains paid large sums of money in peerages (taxes) to the great Christian lords, who in return, offered them protection against their enemies.

The small factions were much weaker than the former caliphate and this made is easy for the Christians to advance towards the south. However, at the end of the century, the Christian drive forced the factions of Seville, Badajoz and Granada to ask for help from the Almoravids.

The situation was about to change with the arrival of the Almoravids, who not only inflicted terrible defeats on the Christians but also became the enemies of their own coreligionists and annexed the factions. In this way, in less than one century, al-Andalus changed from being a united caliphate to a group of small factions and was again reunited, this time, with the arrival of a fierce adversary for the Christians.


The Christian kingdoms

Upon the death of Vermudo II he was succeeded by Alfonso V, who rebuilt León, gave it its code of laws and recovered the lost positions to the south of the river Duero. He married Urraca, sister of Sancho III of Pamplona, and Queen Regent (Vermudo III was not of age) for the purpose of solving the problems between Navarre and León. The king died during the siege of Viseo (1028).

At this point, a new site began to take on great importance: Pamplona. As already mentioned above, Sancho III the Great had wed his sister Urraca to Alfonso, and he in turn had married Mayor de Castilla, daughter of Count García Sánchez. This led him to control the fate of Castile on the death of his father-in-law (in May 1029). The king won back León (in January 1034, after which he received the title of emperor) and on his death he shared out his kingdoms among García, Ramiro and Gonzalo. His second son, Fernando, who had been given most of Castile, was eventually responsible for uniting all the kingdoms. 

Fernando, in fact, fought his brothers and was crowned Fernando I of Castile and León. His reign was extremely positive for the Christians, as he won back many sites, including Viseo, San Esteban de Gormaz or the historic taking of Coimbra (legend has it that this was possible thanks to the intervention of St. James the apostle) and defeated Vermudo III during the battle of Tamarón (1 September 1037), and he also forced his rule on several chieftains and forced them to pay him peerages.

Before the death of King Fernando, he divided his kingdom among his children Sancho (Castile and the peerages of Saragossa), Alfonso (León and the peerages of Toledo), García (Galicia and the reconquered area of Portugal, in addition to the peerages of Seville and Badajoz), and Urraca was given Zamora and Elvira, Toro. The two daughters also inherited power over all the monasteries in the kingdom on the condition that they never married. This division was not at all to the liking of Sancho, and so, on his father’s death, taking advantage of the fact that García had attacked Urraca, he used that event as an excuse to start a war against his siblings.

Consequently, García was the first to lose his possessions, whereas in the case of Alfonso, the battle of Llantada (1068) was a warning of what was about to happen. Sancho's victory was a crushing blow, in addition to that of Golpejera (1072), which was decisive and forced Alfonso to flee to the court of the chieftain of Toled, as an exile.

Only Zamora opposed resistance to Sancho. Despite the siege and the attacks, the people of Zamora put up a brave fight, but it was clear that sooner or later, the city would succumb. This would have happened had it not been for Vellido Dolfos, who, disguising himself as a deserter on the Zamoran front, deceived King Sancho by saying that he knew of a hidden passageway leading to Zamora. The king, who believed him, followed him to the place where Dolfos was to show him the entrance. But the only thing the monarch found was his death, by the hand of Dolfos.

According with the tradition , el Cid (Sancho’s right-hand man) played an important part in this event, as he realised that the king was missing and, on seeing the traitor escape and fearing the worst, left in hot pursuit of the murders, who was fortunate enough to find shelter in Zamora and escaped from El Cid. Although it was not known for certain, the people suspected that the dauphine Urraca was aware of the plot and asked Dolfos to murder the king, and this legend still exists to this day.

In this situation, without Sancho, with García in prison, and with the fervent support of Urraca, in addition to there being a kingdom that needed a king, Alfonso returned from exile and became lord of the kingdoms that his own father has shared out, which were once again unified. The monarch Alfonso VI, who is not described in a negative way in the Song of el Cid, was also a great king and warrior and, despite defeats such as that of Sagrajas (1086), it cannot be denied that he played an important part in driving back the Muslims. Indeed, it was he who recovered Toledo, reconverting the city into the capital it was once been in the times of the Visigoths.


The 12th century. The Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal


The Almoravid empire gradually extended further and further, eliminating smaller factions and finally, the Almoravids invaded Valencia 1102 (which was governed by Jimena following the death of El Cid).  In 1110 the Almoravids conquered what had until then been the bastions of Saragossa and Lisbon.

However, in the middle of the 12th century the Almohads took over from the Almoravids, and conquered Seville (1147), occupying Andalusia and recovering  Almería (1157), following which they once again succeeded in unifying Al-Andalus in 1172.


The Christian kingdoms

During the life of the king, his daughter married Count Raymond of Burgundy (the «Don Remont» quoted in “el Cantar de Mio Cid” who frequented the court of  Toledo), and he fathered the future emperor Alfonso VII. Upon the death of Alfonso VI (1109), Urraca, who was a widow, remarried, her husband being Alfonso I the Battler, which led to a terrible civil war. The royal couple's marriage was annulled in 1114, following which relations were severed between Aragón and Castile. The death of Urraca in 1126 brought a lasting peace, but also led to the changing of the borders, in favour of Navarre (1127) and the independence of the Portuguese kingdom. The throne was in dispute by Alfonso I and Alfonso VII, who eventually came to power through the peace treaty of Tamara (1127). The treaty of Tudellén was signed during the reign of the Emperor with Ramón Berenguer IV. It established the areas that had been won back from the Muslims and awarded the eastern coastal strip as far as Murcia to Aragón, and the rest of the peninsula to Castile and León.

During the reign of the emperor Alfonso VII, many conquests took place and all the kingdoms in the peninsula were placed under his rule (except Portugal), in addition to many possessions in the south of France. His victories included the taking of Almería (1147), which shows the extent to which the territory of al-Andalus had been won back by the Christians. The Almohads recovered the site in 1157 and Alfonso VII was unable to regain it, and died that same year. On his death, the kingdom was divided up again, with Fernando II ruling León and Sancho III Castile, after whose brief reign (1157-1158) he was succeeded by his son Alfonso VIII.

As opposed to what occurred with his father, Alfonso VIII ruled for many years (1158-1214), during which time he had the opportunity to fight the Almohads on different occasions, and to establish pacts with them when necessary. However, the Christians apparently only respected the treaties when it suited them, as they continued to attack Al-Andalus. After the reconquest of Cuenca in 1177 with the allied support of Aragón, the treaty of Cazorla was signed (1179), by which the lines of expansion of the reconquest were re-defined, and Murcia was also given to Castile. However, if there was one thing that Alfonso VIII was famous for, it was a crucial event that took place during the second century.


The 13th century. The Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal

During this century, the advance of the Christians reached its apogee: on 16 July  1212, the troops of Alfonso VIII of Castile, together with Sancho VII of Navarre and Pedro II the Catholic of Aragón, confronted the fearsome Almohad army in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

The victory of the Christians was a milestone in history, and symbolised the beginning of the end of Al-Andalus, which was again split up into small factions, and the Almodah army was destroyed. All this gave wings to the Christians.

Furthermore, Fernando III was crowned king of León in 1230 (this kingdom was under the rule of Alfonso IX following the death of his father Fernando II in 1188), and so the armies from Castile and León constituted a fearsome enemy, to the point that only the kingdom of Granada remained to be conquered. On finally reaching the frontier between the kingdom of Aragón and that of Castile and León (the force of Jaime I had enabled him to dominate the whole of the eastern seaboard), a new pact was signed, that of Almizra, which ratified that of Cazorla.

Following the rule of Fernando III, his son, Alfonso X, made history due to his incredible cultural achievements, which outweighed his military success (for instance, the conquests of Jerez or Cádiz). Alfonso X allowed the kingdom of Granada to oppose resistance, although not out of cultural interest but his concern for resolving internal affairs.

He was succeeded by Sancho IV, who disputed the throne with the dauphins of Cerda (the nephews and legitimate heirs of Fernando de la Cerda, elder brother of Sancho, who died without ascending to the throne). He signed a pact with France and Aragón whereby power was retained by him and his descendants. However, his relations with Aragón were not particularly good, and this kingdom defeated Castile in Pajarón (1290). Not even the wedding of Jaime II of Aragón with Isabel, the eldest daughter of Sancho, was able to prevent various confrontations.

The heir of King Sancho IV was his son, Fernando IV, who failed in his attempt to win back Granada at the beginning of the 14th century. Granada continued to resist until the coming of the Catholic Kings, but the end of the Reconquest was only a matter of time.


The Crown of Aragón: Jaime I

In the 13th century, the Crown of Aragón reached its period of maximum splendour.  Until then, its policy had mainly been devoted to political affairs in the regions of Catalonia and its neighbours in Castile and León and France, but its expansion had not been as important as that of Castile and León, despite their being allies in different campaigns over the centuries (e.g., in the attack on Almería in 1147 or the battle of Navas de Tolosa).

However, things were about to change following the death of Pedro II the Catholic in the battle of Muret (1213) when his son, Jaime I, ascended to the throne.  His rule lasted from 1213 to 1276.  Due to the fact that he was under age (he was born in 1208 in Montpellier), problems arose during the first part of his reign. But after halting the revolts of the nobles in Aragón (1227), he followed the example of Castile and León and concentrated on the reconquest.

There is no doubt that the greatest of the monarchs of the Crown of Aragón certainly caused an impression on his fellow men, due to his red hair and enormous stature, which he had inherited from his father. Both his appearance (which no doubt made anyone he met consider him a superior being) and his great political and military genius enabled him to advance inexorably along the eastern seaboard and Balearic Isles: in 1232 he conquered Majorca and then Ibiza in 1235.

The campaign in Valencia was an example of how the different towns and cities fell into his hands, one by one, culminating in the most important of all his conquests, Valencia, which he entered on 22 August 1238. He got as far as Alicante and helped Alfonso X to control the uprisings in Murcia, by invading the city and handing it over to Castile, as was established in the pacts of Cazorlan and Almizra, with respect to sharing out the conquered areas.

In addition to all this we should add his flair for diplomacy and campaigns he waged in the Mediterranean, which opened up great trading and military prospects for the Crown of Aragón in the maritime aspect (the fearsome and legendary Almogavars acted for the first time under his rule). He most certainly deserved his assumed name, «the Conqueror» by which he is known in history.



As can be seen, the history of Portugal during the Middle Ages is to a large extent similar to that of Castile and León, both regarding the reconquests by the monarchs of those kingdoms, and due to the aggression inflicted by the Muslims, not so much on Portugal but rather on León, of which Portugal had formed a part for many years. At the beginning of the 11th century, Alfonso VI gave Portugal to Henry of Burgundy. At that time Portugal was merely a county, but the French nobleman, who frequented the court of Toledo according to “el Cantar de Mio Cid”, declared it independent following the death of the monarch at the beginning of the 12th century. During the next two centuries, Portugal expanded towards the south, undertook its own reconquest and acquired its own laws, governmental structures and characteristics.


Author: Alfonso Boix Jovaní

Rev. ALC: 10.10.18