When the Apostles divided the earth and drew lots for their portions, Spain fell to Saint James the Greater. The seeds he sowed grew well, and the roots of the Faith in Spain go deep. Upon his return to Jerusalem in AD 42, Herod Agrippa I had him beheaded. His body was taken back to Spain and buried, first at Iria Flavia (now called Padron), and then to Liberum Domum, which is now the famous Compostela. The tomb had been hidden during the Mohammedan conquest, but it was found in the early 800s by Bishop Teodomiro of Iria, who was attracted by a heavenly light that shone over the spot.
A church was erected there which is, to this day, a place of pilgrimage. During the Middle Ages, Saint James’ tomb at Compostela competed for popularity with Rome (which had the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul) and Canterbury’s shrine of St. Thomas a Becket (whence travel the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). A custom was begun at Compostela of giving scallop shells to pilgrims as proof they had reached the shrine. These shells became a symbol of both pilgrims and of Saint James himself. For an Englishman, to make a pilgrimage to St. James’ shrine was to “take the cockle shell.” (This fact may explain a line in the Protestant rhyme about the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots: “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.”)
Shortly after the finding of his tomb, Saint James (Santiago) showed his patronage of Spain visibly. Rarniro I (reigned 842-850) was fighting the Moors, and his army had fallen into an ambush. They took refuge under the crag of Clavijo. That night, Saint James appeared to the king, promising his protection and victory on the morrow if the king’s men went to Confession, heard Mass, and received Holy Communion. The next day, having fulfilled the requirements of Saint James, the army went out to meet the Moors. Saint James appeared at their head, visible to all, and so inspired Ramiro’s army that the Mohammedans were completely routed, suffering great losses. It was in this battle of Clavijo that the Spanish battle cry: Adjuva nos Deus et Sancte Jacobe (Help us God and Saint James) was first used; and it is from this event that Saint James gets the title Matamoros (Moorkiller).
There are at least two possible etymologies for the word Compostela. The first is that it is an abbreviation of Campo de la Estrella, or Campus Stellae, the Field of the Star, after the light that marked his tomb. The second is that it is a corruption of James the Apostle: Giacomo Apcistolo, then shortened to Coma Postolo, and then to Campostelo.
(This was originally published in From the Housetops as a sidebar of an article called “Spain’s Crusade, 1936-39”)
Santiago De Compostela