Don Pelayo Starts the Reconquest

In the year 711, the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain fell to the invading Umayyad Muslim forces. This was due to the fateful victory of the Berber commander Ṭāriq ibn Ziyad, over Visigothic forces in the Battle of Guadalete. Spain’s monarch, King Rodrigo, was either killed in that battle or perhaps escaped to what is now Portugal. Either way, his tomb was found in Spain’s Iberian neighbor some time later. It was fellow Visigoths who, motivated by a petty political rivalry, betrayed their own people to the Muslims by revealing the Kingdom’s strategic vulnerabilities to the invader.

Soon, city after city of the Iberian Peninsula fell to the invading Mohammedans, comprised of North African Berbers with some Arabs, and aided by their traitorous Visigothic allies. Those who wanted to be free of alien dominion fled to the peninsula’s northwest, to Asturias, where the enemy had not yet penetrated. Situated in the mountain range known as the Picos de Europa (“Peaks of Europe”), part of the larger Cantabrian Mountain Range of northwestern Spain, Asturias is a rocky and austere place — knowns for its eagles, bears, wolves, and violent weather — that did not much interest the invaders.

One of the noblemen who fought in and survived the Battle of Guadalete was our subject, Pelayo. (His Latin name, Pelagius, is identical to that of the heretic of three centuries earlier.) Pelayo was the son of the Duke of Fafila, who had been killed by one of those traitors who were in league with the Muslims, a low character named Vitiza. Pelayo led the survivors of King Rodrigo’s army to Asturias, where they met with other refugees. Chosen by the Visigothic nobility to be their princeps (prince) some time in either 716 or 718, Pelayo assumed leadership of the army and began to resist the invaders, both by assaulting Umayyad military outposts and by refusing to pay the Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) to the new overlords of Spain.

Some time prior to the historic battle that made him worthy of our attention, Don Pelayo was chasing a criminal — apparently a member of his own army who had become unruly and fled — to bring him to justice. The fleeing man took refuge in one of the many caves of the area, which are among the deepest in the world. Pelayo caught up with him in the company of a hermit who had made the cave his oratory, having secreted there an image of the Blessed Virgin rescued from the iconoclast fury of the invaders. The hermit encouraged Pelayo to pardon the wayward soldier, and promised that he would be rewarded for his clemency by a great victory on that same spot, known as “Covadonga” — from the Latin Cova Dominica, “Cavern of the Lady.”

The Umayyad conquerers wanted to rid themselves of this pocket of resistance to their hegemony over the peninsula. To accomplish this, in the summer of 722, they sent a large and well-trained army under the commander Al Qama. Warned of the fact, Don Pelayo gathered his men at Covadonga.

Accompanying the Moslem soldiers was a relative of the treacherous Vitiza, Don Oppas, the Bishop of Seville. This unworthy successor of the Apostles, who was a Muslim collaborator, went into the cave to encourage Pelayo to surrender: “Brother,” he said, “I’m sure you labor uselessly. What good is it to put up resistance in this cave, when all Spain and her armies united under the power of the Goths could not resist the momentum of the Ishmaelites? Listen to my advice: Retreat to enjoy the many goods that were yours, at peace with the Arabs, as others do.”

To this, Pelayo replied: “I want no friendship with the Saracens, nor to be subject to their empire. Do you not know that the Church of God is compared to the moon, which being eclipsed, returns again to its fullness? Trusting in the mercy of God, we know that from this mount will emerge the health of Spain. You and your brothers, along with Julian [treasonous Lord of Gibraltar], minister of Satan, determined to deliver to these people the kingdom of the Goths; but we, having by counsel before God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, despise this multitude of pagans, in whose name you come, and by the intercession of the Mother of God, who is the Mother of mercy, we believe that this people of the Goths, reduced to 105, must grow and increase as much as grains out of a tiny mustard seed.”

Oppas then told his overlords, “March forth into the cave and fight, for without the sword, you will get nothing from him.” (Cf. “Don Pelayo, el vencedor de Covadonga” by Luciano López y García Jové.)

By modern estimates, Al Qama’s forces numbered from 800 to 1,400. Medieval accounts estimate Mohammedan numbers to be as high as 187,000. Against them, the Visigothic forces numbered 300. (Yes, the dialogue just related mentions 105. There are conflicting claims.) Placing a number of his men high up the cliffs, so that they had a strategic advantage, Don Pelayo and another group of his soldiers stayed in the cave, awaiting the arrival of the foe. A Spanish author tells us what happened next:

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. (From an article by José Maria dos Santos, published in Catolicismo (October, 2002), cited in “Don Pelayo and the Reconquista of Spain” by Felipe Barandiaran.)

The other Christian soldiers, still strategically placed in the mountains, send down boulders and trees upon the invaders, who were trapped in the valleys. Add to this a storm that suddenly arose, and a rout was in the making. The Moslems retreated, to be pursued by local Christians emboldened to join the battle. According to one account, a mountain fell on them, sending many to their deaths in the Deva River.

Al Qama was killed and Don Opas was taken captive. With only eleven men left of Spain’s fighters, including Pelayo, the cost of victory was a terrible one. Thus it was that Spain’s long Reconquest was begun.

From the time of his victory in 722 till his death in 737, Pelayo fought in defense of the newly founded Kingdom of Asturias, which the Moslems never managed to subjugate. When he died peacefully, Pelayo was buried next to his wife, Gaudiosa (her name means “joyful”), in the Cave of Covadonga. The epitaph of 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.”