La Reconquista (722-1492): The Crusades made in Spain


N.S. de Covadonga Basílica

Our Lady of Covadonga (Basilica)

Bendita la Reina de nuestra montaña, que tiene por trono la cuna de España… ¡Es Madre y es Reina! Venid, peregrinos, que ante Ella se aspiran amores divinos. Y en Ella está el alma del pueblo español… / 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…

Given what recent tragic events have befallen an apostate Europe—the ruthless Islamic attacks in Paris and in Kenya, the bombing of a Russian airliner—and the renewed call to defend whatever remnants of Catholicism remain in the Old World, it seems appropriate to share this article with the kind readers of Harvesting the Fruit.

The article published herewith, however, is a renewed, combined effort of two different base articles: one originally appeared in the Spring 2015, Spain issue of Regina Magazine (  and the other recently published on OnePeterFive (

And so, with the inspiring words of the popular song—whose lyrical refrain is reproduced at the beginning of the article—dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Covadonga, sung with all solemnity at the beautiful Sanctuary of her tender advocation for the people of Asturias, we begin our adventure into the historical events which led to the epic, Catholic Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula. Covadonga is indeed the cradle of a Catholic Spain.

Yes, the Catholic Crusades against Islam actually began much earlier than the commonly referred to year of 1095, when a Christian Europe sought to defend the Holy Land from Islam.

We situate ourselves some three centuries earlier, in the year of Our Lord, 722. Just eleven years earlier, in 711, the Moors had invaded the southern lands of the Iberian peninsula, taking advantage of the decline of the Visigoth Kingdom, and were invading their way northwards.

The ancient Visigoths, the heirs of Imperial Roman rule, have waned, leaving ripe the lands for Moorish conquest. Thus, Islam dominates erstwhile Roman Hispania (Spain) and Lusitania (Portugal) at the beginning of the VIII century.

But up in the north of Hispania, where the Romans had named a certain region, the land of the Asturs—Lucus Asturum—there is an ancient city called Cangas de Onís, the capital of the princely Pelagius (Pelayo) (+737), chosen as kingly leader of the local Christian population in 718.

Don Pelayo en Covadonga (2)

Don Pelayo (+737) at Covadonga

And in this region, 12 kilometers away, there is a cave called Cova Dominica, that is, Cave of the Lady, a sacred place where since immemorial times, is a center of Marian devotion, where stands to this day a beautiful Sanctuary.

La Santina

La Santina (photo credit: Teresa Limjoco)

It was in this cave, carved in the rocks, where a group of Christians sought defence—and found celestial refuge by an appearance of Our Lady—from the invading Moors.

Covadonga is an ideal place for shelter, surrounded as it is by a beautiful range of mountains known as Los Picos de Europa / The Peaks of Europe, with narrow paths to and from. And so, in late spring, early summer of 722, the invaders came in for conquest.

But at the Battle of Covadonga, the Moors were surprised, halted, and made to retreat by some resolute Christians.

Naturally, since this took place many centuries before Vatican II’s ludicrous idea of “religious liberty,” whereby man apparently has a natural right to be wrong (sic) in religious matters, it turned out well for the Christians of early VIII century Asturias.

By stoutly defending their faith—the one, true Catholic faith—and land against the Islamic invaders, declared enemies of the Cross, the Reconquista had begun. And so began also the first Crusade… made in Spain.


Basilica of Covadonga (a perspective from the Lady’s Cave)

The Christians were not many in number, perhaps several hundreds only, and not only soldiers, but also women and children. They were considered “rebellious” by the Moorish governor since they refused to pay the tax imposed.

The Moors then began their disciplinary action against these rebellious subjects who would not submit. Persecuted as they were, ill-equipped and disorganized, they could not be expected to offer any credible 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 what would henceforth be known—as mentioned previously—Covadonga, the Cave of the Lady.

A view from the Holy Cave of the Lady (photo credit: Teresa Limjoco)

Pelayo was also a Visigoth soldier and leader of the Christians. But these rebels were mainly native, local Astures, residents who lived on the northern Cantabrian coast.

But in 722, there they were, these poor beleaguered Christians, in the caves looking down upon the much more powerful Moorish army. These had not really paid much attention to this insignificant rebellion. But Munuza, the Moorish governor in the north of the peninsula had learned to not trust the mere appearances of these weak Christians.

Having asked for help from southern Córdoba, he had at his disposition some 10,000 troops to subdue the few hundred of the obtuse Christians hiding behind their cave. But the terrain was better known to the Christians, who were thus able to take advantage of the circumstances in an apparently insignificant local battle.

It would have been better for the Moors to have just besieged the Christians, until they were forced to surrender or die of hunger. Instead, in their despite, they 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.

The Moorish arrows, needing to go upwards from where their troops were positioned, meant greater difficulty for accuracy. Therefore, many of their arrows simply bounced back down upon them from the mountainside.

And so, unable to manoeuvre, with determined enemy arrows and also friendly arrows gone awry, along with large rocks being flung down upon them, the situation was ripe for a Christian counter-attack, consisting of a charge led by Pelayo himself.

In a vain attempt to reorganize themselves, the Moors ended up disbanding and fleeing into the mountains, with their leader, Al Qama, dead. Later, a defeated Munuza, the Moorish governor of the north, surrendered the coastal city of Gijón, dying as he fled from the Christians.

Don Pelayo Gijón

Rex Pelagius (Gijón)

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, turned traitor for political expediency. Sorry, but I can’t help but ponder how postconciliar this VIII century bishop seems…

The bishop tried to convince Pelayo that resistance to such superior forces was useless, by 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 Caldeans.

To which a resolute Pelayo responded:

Have you not read in Holy Scripture that the Church of the Lord would become like a mustard seed and will grow anew by the mercy of God?

To which the bishop replied: Indeed, it is thus written. Well, at least the bishop acknowledged Holy Scripture.

And thus, 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 Europe, and the first time that Christians had defeated them.

Basílica (4)

Interior of the Basilica of Our Lady of Covadonga

This would prove to be the start of an unprecedented epic campaign—the Catholic Reconquista of peninsular Spain—that would last nearly eight long centuries: until that emblematic year of 1492, when their Catholic Majesties, Isabel and Ferdinand, conquered the last Moorish bastion of Granada, in southern Spain.



Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragón (TVE series “Isabel”)

But throughout those long medieval centuries, Spain would be graced with many martyrs of the Islamic dominion of the Iberian peninsula. Notably in the X century, another Pelagius (+925), this time a boy of ten years of age, whose uncle was Bishop of Tuy (in the northwestern region of Galicia).

San Pelayo

St. Pelagius (+925), Boy Martyr

Henceforth, in the contests between the Moors and the Christians in neighboring Galicia (province to the west of Asturias), the Christians were on one occasion defeated, and a bishop, named Hermoygius, was taken prisoner by Abdurrahman, who carried him in chains to Córdoba and imprisoned him there.

Bishop Hermoygius was anxious for the welfare of his flock. He entered into terms with Abdurrahman. Hermoygius had a young cousin, named Pelagius, and the bishop offered him as hostage, while he himself returned to his people, either to raise the ransom-money or to effect an exchange of prisoners. The Caliph agreed, the child was handed over, and the bishop was set free.

By written historical accounts of the Passiones of the Martyrs, little Pelagius was a boy of extraordinary physical beauty and, as history would prove, he was spiritually beautiful as well. The Caliph of Córdoba wanted not only to convert the boy to Islam, he also desired him sexually. In this he was merely following the Prophet Mohammed, seemingly…

When Pelagius was brought to Abdurrahman, he was carefully eyed by the caliph, no physical feature escaped his gaze. His good looks were already renowned at court. When one of the young princes, doubtless jealous in his heart of this handsome young stranger, stepped up, the caliph made the children stand back to back, and noted with satisfaction their equal height, though the Spaniard was a year younger than the Moor, Prince Selim.

The caliph, already upset that Bishop Hermoygius had not as yet sent the ransom, decided to make Pelagius a page in court instead of sending him back to his cell.

Pelagius was anxious to be freed from his imprisonment, though it was not, certainly, the complete freedom to return to his native Galicia. But before he could be sworn into the caliph’s service, he had to renounce his Christian faith.

But that was something that Pelagius simply could not do. Knowing that if he only were to pronounce the words of his new, imposed faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” it would mean denying Christ. But hey, what does that matter… if Christians and Muslims believe in the same God, right?

Sure enough, Vatican II’s Nostra ætate #3 insinuates that Christians and Muslims believe in and worship the same God:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.

Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. 

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Really? Muslims adore the one, merciful, all-powerful God, living and subsisting in Himself, and Creator of heaven and earth? Which God is that, though? Even Nostra ætate concedes that they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, so… what does it matter if they revere Him merely as a prophet?

The fact that they don’t revere Jesus Christ as God—nor the Holy Ghost by extension, obviously—is all we need to conclude that Christians and Muslims most certainly do not believe in nor worship the same God: Christians are by definition Trinitarian, Muslims are not. Case closed.

But… was it possible to publicly renounce Christ and not do so interiorly? The dilemma faced by all martyrs. Just like the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire had been bidden to do: renounce Christ and acknowledge the Emperor as god. Could not they have done so publicly, enough to satisfy the pagan Romans, and yet in their hearts continue to honor the One and Triune God?

But would that not be hypocritical? Regarding situations like these, Our Lord says: Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in Heaven. But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in Heaven (Mt 10:32-33).

Catholics today, a half a century after Vatican II, can learn a great deal of the importance of professing the Catholic faith, authentically and valiantly, from those who lived centuries ago.

St. Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage (+258), would write a treatise on the “lapsi,” that is, on the “fallen” away from the true Catholic faith, the apostates who renounced their profession of faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ, for fear of Roman persecution and martyrdom.

If any were to be spared martyrdom and return to the Catholic faith and Church, St. Cyprian was not too keen on having them be readmitted, or at least only after having done some serious penance. Indeed, St. Cyprian always praised the Roman martyrs, of which he himself would be among their glorious numbers.

Some of these were young, too, like St. Eulalia de Emérita Augusta (Mérida), in Hispania—who did not fall away in their profession of faith. The first three centuries of Roman martyrs is a glorious chapter in Catholic history.

And that of little Pelagius, also from Hispania, seven centuries later under the Moors, martyr for his profession of faith in Christ, and also martyr of chastity.

Little Pelagius knew that if he would but say those few words once, the caliph would be satisfied. But that meant to deny Christ. True enough, that, as far as he knew, no fellow Christian would witness his denial, which would be a great sin. Even if he were at last claimed by his own people, they need never know of his momentary apostasy.

But surely his holy guardian angel stood at his side, and watched over him. He lifted brave eyes to the caliph. “I will, indeed, be true to thee and obedient in all else,” he answered; “but first, I am Christ’s. Nothing may part me from Him.”

The caliph grew angry, especially when being offered such an honor: to be one of his pages in court. But this outrage provoked the caliph and his aides, who now looked upon the handsome boy with anger since he was Christian, after all, and clearly wanted to remain Christian…

The impudence of this little Christian boy! How dare he! Pelagius, alas, was mercifully spared: you see, living in the X century, he was not influenced by Vatican II and postconciliar religious liberty. Nor by that postconciliar concept of “dialogue” that seems to have been elevated to the category of dogma. His “inter-religious dialogue” consisted of saying No! To Islam. And to sexual sin. And Yes! To Christ. Is not that what Our Lord also says?: But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil. (Mt 5:37).

“I am a Christian, and believe in Christ. Christ I will never deny.” One the caliph’s aides laughed. “He mocks you,” he said in his ear: “the Spaniard boy mocks you, as his uncle the bishop did, in his Christian insolence.”

He touched Abdurrahman on his weakest spot—his pride, a pride already hurt by the conduct of Bishop Hermoygius. The caliph became ever more infuriated. He had suffered enough at the boy’s bishop-uncle’s hands.

Should this boy too, here, in his own palace—a boy whom he wished to befriend and to place, as a companion, with his sons; a boy to whom he had openly offered all these advantages—should this youngster defy him to his face and shout aloud the name of his Christ, it would be simply too much insolence.

As the narrations of Passions of the Saints continue to tell, the caliph, already much infuriated, decided to at least take advantage of the young Christian boy’s comeliness.

But if little Pelagius showed great fortitude in his firm profession of faith in Christ, the boy also showed an admirable fortitude towards the caliph’s immoral sexual desire, and resisted just as resolutely.

Such impudence, such insolence, such tenacity from this young Christian Spaniard, was unheard of in the Moorish palace. There was nothing left to do but finish little Pelagius off. And so, the caliph ordered his torture: “Take him out,” he said to the executioner, “and hang him up by his wrists till the pain forces him to deny his Christ.”

When the executioner came back, he informed the caliph that Pelagius had fainted. The caliph ordered him to bring Pelagius back to court. He did so. The young boy was bleeding from his wrists. “Once more, and for the last time,” the caliph said, “infidel and ungrateful as thou art, I give thee another chance. Happy freedom, honor, my favor and protection—or death. Choose!”

And just as a true Christian martyr would say “I have chosen,” replied the boy resolutely, “Christ!” “Take him away,” said Abdurrahman; “cut off his hands and feet and throw him into the river.”

And so, the liturgical feast of St. Pelagius, boy-martyr, is 26 June. As the traditional Roman Martyrologium recounts at the Hour of Prime on the eve, 25 June:

Cordubæ, in Hispania, natalis sancti Pelagii adolescentuli, qui, ob confessionem fidei, Regis Saracenorum Abdarameni jussu forcipibus ferreis membratim præcisus, martyrium suum gloriose consummavit / At Córdoba, in Spain, the holy child Pelagius, who crowned his confession of the faith with a glorious martyrdom, by being torn to pieces with iron pincers, by order of Abdu’l-Rahman, King of the Saracens.

Yes, little Pelagius was literally torn to pieces with cruel iron pincers, back in the early X century. As the psalmist sings (cf. 115 Vulgate) in the Office of Martyrs: Pretiosa in conspectu Domini, mors sanctorum eius / Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his saints.

What can we say with respect to the horrible, modern-day images of Syrian and Iraqi Christian children, cruelly beheaded by members of the so-called Islamic State? You know, that have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam (sic), as some keep insisting? Well, this is not really new, alas…

Such was the dear price St. Pelagius paid for his Catholic faith and his chastity. And so many other martyrs in that time in Moorish-dominated Córdoba, including St. Eulogius and St. Lucretia.

His remains and relics were later brought to León and thence to Oviedo, Asturias, the province where the Catholic Reconquista began with King Pelagius, resting finally at the Benedictine Sisters Monastery of San Pelayo, very near the Cathedral.

Pelagius, boy martyr, is also the patron saint of the Minor Seminary in the diocese of Tuy—where his uncle was bishop—in the neighboring province of Galicia.

And so, as we have seen, the Reconquista began in the province or Principality of Asturias in 722. There is a popular saying here: Asturias es España, el resto son tierras conquistadas!  / Asturias is Spain, the rest are conquered lands!

The year 1517—when the notorious heretic and schismatic, Martin Luther, was revolutionizing the Church in the German principalities, would welcome the arrival in Asturias by sea, of a young Charles I of Spain (the future Charles V Holy Roman Emperor), son of Joanne I of Castile and Philip the Fair of Austria (Habsburg), and grandson of Queen Isabel I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragón, who would complete the Reconquista in 1492.

Carlos V

Carlos I of Spain / Charles V Holy Roman Emperor (TVE series “Carlos, Rey Emperador”)

By a special grace, the year 1492 was likewise the beginning of the Age of Exploration, Discovery, and Evangelization of the Americas and later the Philippines by a then unified Catholic and missionary Spain.

But the oldest “modern nation” in Europe was actually forged by a medieval crusading spirit of nearly eight centuries, being a providential union of those Catholic Kingdoms of Asturias, León, Castile, Aragón, and Navarra.

And it was this same medieval crusading spirit of the Reconquista, that made possible the extraordinary apostolic and missionary activity of a Catholic Spain, spanning four centuries: from 1492 to 1898, when Spain eventually lost her remaining overseas provinces, thanks to Protestant and Masonic-inspired independence movements of the XIX century. Those same independence movements that Pope Francis dedicated the most enthusiastic words of praise (sic) in his recent visit to South America.

But, there can no doubt whatsoever that these centuries were providential. And certainly, the Catholic faith was not only maintained in peninsular Spain, (with Sir Winston Churchill’s permission) at the cost of blood, sweat, and tears, it was also exported to her overseas provinces. I suppose that Pope Francis might accuse Spain of being guilty of proselytizing…

If you, dear reader, have been patient enough to read this far, it should be obvious the point I am now trying to make. Nonetheless, I would like to impress upon the kind readers of this blog, that none of this crusading and evangelizing spirit—absolutely none of this—could possibly have taken place with Vatican II’s doctrinal practice on religious liberty, ecumenism, and inter-religious dialogue. Of that we can be reasonably sure.

The steadfast Catholic faith of kings, martyrs, and saints, is what helped Spain maintain her deep, Catholic soul—at home 1) against the very serious threat of Islam; 2) against the early Trinitarian and Christological heresies that threatened the entire Church; 3) and against the heresy and schism of the Protestant Revolution (not Reform). And away, 4) against poor misguided pagan peoples of the Americas, who—according to reliable anthropological and archaeological experts—were sacrificing thousands of their very own, every year, to their false gods and demons.

Surely, we Catholics of the XXI century, some fifty years after the doctrinal, pastoral, and liturgical headache that is Vatican II—and sadly, given the synodality and de-centralization planned for the Church by Pope Francis, with no remedy in sight for the foreseeable future (i.e., things will get much worse before getting better)—would do well indeed to heed and take heart, from such resolute Catholics who lived centuries before our un-Catholic postconciliar times…

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