Historic Account of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela


SANTIAGO (Saint James): One of the twelve disciples of Christ, James the Greater, son of Zebedee and Salomé, plays an important role in the Scriptures as one of the first and closest followers of Jesus. Called upon service by Jesus himself while fishing with his father and his brother, John (later to become John the Evangelist), James remained a faithful Christian even after his guide’s crucifixion. He embarked upon the preaching mission commanded by Christ after his resurrection, initially spreading the teachings of his master in Iberia, before travelling back to Jerusalem, where in 44 AD he became one of the earliest Christian martyrs, following his execution by order of Herod Agrippa I.

The tradition of Santiago in Spain is closely linked to the regional struggles to rid the peninsula from the strong Muslim presence that assailed it from 711 AD to the end of the XV century. Even its original location, in the north-western corner of the peninsula, obeys the migration of Visigothic nobles fleeing the Muslim invaders and settling in the safety of the mountainous regions of Asturias and Galicia. It was here where, apparently, a curious hermit by the name of Pelayo spotted a bundle of stars shimmering from underneath a pile of scallop shells on the ground that harboured the carcass of James and that for this very reason came to be known as Campus Stellae, or the ‘field of stars’.

Portrait of Santiago by El Greco. Source:

Perhaps the earliest account of the Apostle’s intercession for the Christian cause comes in 844 AD, when, prior to the mythic beginning of the reconquista in the battle of Clavijo, Santiago purportedly appeared in the dreams of Ramiro I King of Asturias, who defied the Moors by retaining payment of the traditional tribute of 100 maids. With the aid of Santiago (henceforth known as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James ‘the moor-slayer’), the Asturian camp managed to achieve victory, giving rise to the pledge acquired by the inhabitants from Asturias and León to acknowledge James as the patron saint of their kingdom and to celebrate his benevolence with a yearly pilgrimage to the wooden shrine previously erected in his name by Alfonso II in Campus Stellae or Compostela.

The popularity of the pilgrimage spread immediately to all regions of Christian Iberia and it became so prominent that eventually it would become the favourite Christian destination after Jerusalem and Rome. The first recorded pilgrimage to start outside Spanish territory originated in Le Puy (home to another important place of mediaeval pilgrimage, the shrine of Our Lady of Le Puy) in the heart of Auvergne, and was carried out and sponsored by bishop Godescalc in 950-51. The route he followed gives its name to the Via Podiensis, one of the four paths to cut through France, and the main linking route to Geneva and the rest of Central Europe.

Despite the progress of campaigns against the Moors carried out by Sancho Garcés I of Pamplona (later Navarre) in the east, and Alfonso III of Asturias in the west at the beginning of the X century, the attainment of autonomy by the Caliphate of Córdoba brought back internal stability to the Muslim territory, which gradually ate into the gains of the Christian kingdoms, culminating in the devastating reign of the tyrant Almanzor who pushed the borders of the Christian territories as far north as the river Ebro, and instilled terror in his enemies by pillaging Pamplona, León, Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela during the dying days of the first millennium.

Almanzor as depicted by Francisco de Zurbarán. Photo:

However, upon Almanzor’s death in 1002 and, subsequently, his son’s in 1008, the Caliphate suffered a period of turmoil which was duly embraced by the Christian kingdoms to recoup and regain strength. Sancho Garcés III of Pamplona carried out a successful campaign of consolidation among the Christian kingdoms, bringing them together (except for Catalonia) and declaring himself Imperator totius Hispaniae in 1035. While his death one year later opened the way for the bellicose feud among his four children that was characteristic of mediaeval succession, the situation eventually played in favour of Sancho’s second son, Fernando who acceded the Castilian throne in 1029, incorporated the Leonese territory in 1037 and finally overcame his brother García III of Pamplona in 1054 in the battle of Atapuerca, pacifying the kingdom, establishing a new Castilian hegemony and allowing him to look outwards to develop the foreign policy that would shape the region for another century.

Two elements were fundamental in the furtherance of economic stability and the development of the pilgrimage to Santiago: the first one corresponds to the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba, which was replaced by numerous small kingdoms, a number of which became suzerain to the Castilian ruler. The weakened state of the Muslim presence in the peninsula made possible the repossession of vast amounts of territory, principally along the western coast (Coimbra, modern Portugal) but also along the southern borders, where the frontiers were pushed beyond the river Duero for the first time in centuries. However, it soon became apparent that allowing the presence of tributary Muslim kingdoms would be more lucrative than to stretch resources to conquer the land. Hence, Fernando soon compelled the petty monarchs (reyes de taifas) from Badajoz, Seville, Toledo and Zaragoza to pay levy, introducing for the first time the feudal system in Iberia, and gaining control of a large majority of the peninsula.

The second element corresponds to the introduction of the Cluniac order in Spanish territory and plays a fundamental role in the establishment of the pilgrimage to Santiago as one of the most important routes in the Middle Ages. Cluny was gifted to the Papacy by Guillaume I of Aquitaine in 909, to establish a new monastic order that would restore observance of the early Benedictine rule without being subjected to any lay influence (i.e. being accountable to no other lord or king than the Pope himself). The first abbey of Cluny was finished in 927, briefly after the death of its first abbot, Breno, but it was destroyed by the Magyar incursion to the west in 953. The expansion of the Cluniac order began under its second abbot, Oddo, and by the time Cluny II was finished in 981, the order was among the most important religious institutions in Europe.


Chronology of the Reconquista. Source: University of Texas Library.

Under the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile and León, second son of the aforementioned Fernando I of Castile, the Cluniac order reached the climax of its influence both in Spain and in the rest of Europe. After being defeated and imprisoned by his older brother Sancho II of Castile, Alfonso inherited the unified throne when Sancho was murdered in 1072. The extent of the doubt cast upon his integrity following this crime is evident in the well documented oath he was forced to take in the church of St Gadea in Burgos, where he had to swear to the Castilian nobility, among them the renowned ‘Cid’ Rui Diaz de Vivar (who himself had carried the pilgrimage to Santiago in 1064), that he had played no part in the assassination of his brother. Henceforth, Alfonso’s undisputed position as monarch allowed him to cement his dominance over the Muslim kingdoms, which he subjugated, deriving great profit from the duty imposed upon them. His foreign policy looked northward in the direction of Aquitaine and the rest of France in a concerted effort to incorporate Spain to the mainstream of European dwellings, and it was during his reign that the pilgrimage to Santiago reached its prominent status. The role in this process of the Cluniac order, championed by his second wife, Constance of Burgundy, was not negligible.

Alfonso VI adopted a strategy that mirrored the policy of occupation and fortification of the kingdom’s borderlands sponsored by Alfonso III of Asturias through the systematic edification of walled burgs and castles at the end of the IX century. Once ridded of the Muslim threat, the need to promote commerce in the re-conquered land became evident. An early attempt to achieve this was Sancho Garcés III’s redirection of the pilgrims’ route, shifting it southward as far as Nájera and building a new castle in the vicinity of Estella. Alfonso VI went beyond the military operation of his predecessors, granting special privileges to the Cluniac monastery of Sahagún, the order’s administrative centre in Spain. Hence, with important priories in Villafranca del Bierzo and Sahgún, in Leire, Norón and San Juan de la Peña, in Figeac and Moissac, the Cluniac order attained a dominant position as protector and caretaker of a majority of the routes leading to Santiago.

Plan of Cluny III, built between 1088 – 1130. Source: wikipedia

In the Cluniac order Alfonso VI found another vehicle to introduce, disseminate and instil ideas from the culturally dominant French into Hispanic territory. At the same time, it was an effective way to increase the role of the Spanish kingdoms in the affairs of Europe, so he backed the order like no other monarch and helped expand its already considerable circle of influence in the continent. The tribute imposed on the Muslim petty kingdoms had made Castile one of the most opulent courts of its time and had allowed Alfonso to provide a large proportion of the financing required to carry out the construction of the new abbey of Cluny. Built between 1088 and 1130, Cluny III was to become the largest religious building in Western civilization, until the erection of St Peter’s Cathedral in 1505

While by 1130 the decline of the order was well underway, the process of development and consolidation of the route had been all but completed, which would ensure a long spell of splendour for the pilgrimage to Santiago. In terms of infrastructure important advancements had been made with the completion of bridges at Puente la Reina and Ponferrada; the new Cathedral at Santiago, begun in 1075 under the auspice of Alfonso VI, was operational; and new lodges along the way had been opened in a number of locations such as Aubrac (Aveyron), Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Frómista (Castile). These communities, designed almost exclusively for the convenience of travellers, soon became important centres of trade where not only riches but ideas, fashions, culture were exchanged at an exhilarating pace.

Puente la Reina (2)_14A

River Ega and Puente La Reina

The Francophile tendencies of Alfonso VI and the increased affluence of the Castilian court for the first time placed Spanish affairs within the exclusive circle of European influences. Meanwhile, his imperial aspirations led in 1085 to the ambitious siege of the city of Toledo, the most important city of the entire peninsula, henceforth to remain in Christian hands. Nevertheless, the loss of their capital and the surge of Alfonso as ‘Emperor of both religions’ triggered in the Moorish kingdoms a wave of fear that, in turn, translated in the emergence of the Almoravids first, the Almohads later, as unifying forces among the Muslim states, inevitably rendering them a more potent, more purposeful, enemy in the south. The holy war had just hit yet another deadlock – one that would last one hundred and fifty years.

However, despite the ups and downs of the reconquista, in stead of the zestful fervour spontaneously generated by Pope Urban II’s call to liberate Jerusalem, and, indeed, beyond the shift in the sensibility of western Christianity which would see the condemnation of the lavish lifestyle of the Cluniac priests, the pilgrimage to Santiago remained a fundamental practice among penitents, which continued to gain favour throughout the XII century. In 1122 Pope Calixtus II, a Cluniac Benedictine himself, decreed a ‘Jacobean jubilee’ on every year in which the feast of St James (25 July) fell on a Sunday, the first such being 1126. In 1140 Alfonso VII of Castile, grandson of Alfonso VI, granted the monastery of Fitero to the Cistercian monk Raymond, effectively introducing the monastic reform in Iberian territory. The subsequent propagation of the contemplative orders would continue to shape the Spanish landscape with remarkable examples of Romanesque architecture, in the same way that the rooting of the Cluniac order previously had done.

Then, in 1175 Alfonso VIII of Castile, invested with the authority conferred by a Papal bull from Alexander III, conceded the city of Uclés to a Leonese military order of knights, thus creating the new religious Order of Santiago. Protectors of the Christian faith, it was through military exertions that this order achieved the highest regard among the Spanish knighthood.

Sancho VII of Navarre before the battle of Las Navas of Tolosa (stained glass inside the Colegiata of Roncesvalles). Source: wikipedia.

By 1195, when the truce with the Muslim Almohads came to an end, the order already enjoyed much repute. In 1212 Alfonso VIII, with the auspice of Pope Innocent III, called for a crusade to rid the peninsula from Muslim rule. The knights of the Order of Santiago, as well as those of the Order of Calatrava, together with troops from Castile, Aragón, Navarre and Portugal and thousands of crusaders from France took to the field, eventually confronting the Arab army at Las Navas de Tolosa. The Christian victory culminated 500 years of struggle to repossess the land invaded by the Muslin tribes and began the final decline of Moorish culture in Andalucia, which nonetheless would be partially occupied for over two more centuries.

Meanwhile, far away from the field of battle, in the antagonistic kingdom of León, St Francis of Assisi carried out his pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago, which had been consecrated in the presence of Alfonso IX of León in 1211. Four years later, St Francis would found the first Franciscan monastery in Santiago, bringing with it the latest developments in monastic rules – that of mendicant orders. The times were changing; the role of the clergy and the social status of priests were being transformed; the ancient Romanesque that had populated the countryside was being replaced by Gothic structures is Roncesvalles (Colegiata de Santa María), in Pamplona (church of San Cernín), in Burgos (Cathedral); the feudal system faced new and uncharted challenges; and all this was being made accessible to the territory stretching to the farthest corner of Iberia through the commercial and intellectual interaction triggered by one common destination of piety: Santiago de Compostela.

During the XIII century, the process of sophistication undergone by the Castilian court reached its climax. The affinity with the French nobility initiated by Alfonso VI was continued by Alfonso VIII, whose only wife, Eleanor Plantagenet, was the first daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry II of England. Like her half sister, Marie de France, Eleanor Plantagenet favoured refinement and established in Castile a learned court that harboured artists, entertainers and troubadours and that sponsored the foundation of the first centre of general studies – the first university, as it were – known in Spanish territory at Palencia. Furthermore, through the accession to the Castilian throne of Fernando III the stage was set for the rival kingdoms of Castile and León to be reunited. The first son of Alfonso IX of León with his wife Berenguela of Castile, herself the first-born child of Alfonso VIII of Castile, Fernando was as enthusiastic about continuing the reconquista as his grandfather, Alfonso VIII, had been. While Fernando eventually achieved the repossession of the entire peninsula but for the fiefdom of Granada, he was also a consummate scholar who furthered the status of the university at Salamanca, entrusted the mendicant orders with the mission to evangelise the south and adopted the ancient Visigothic legal body, which he established throughout the land.

At the same time, his marriage to Elizabeth of Hohenstaufen, grand-daughter to Frederick Barbarosa, extended the circle of Castilian influence beyond French quarters and placed his court at the heart of the Ghibelline camp. It’s largely due to Fernando’s judgement and foresight that his son and successor, Alfonso X, was able to host what arguably was the most cultivated court to have graced Europe since the times of Charlemagne. His tolerant disposition and avid quest for knowledge led to the establishment of the court’s scriptorium in Toledo, where important collections of manuscripts were translated and compiled. But beyond his encyclopaedic interest in all kinds of topics ­– from literature to arithmetic, history, law and even board games – Alfonso’s ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor through his maternal line ultimately determined the ruin of an enlarged country which no longer profited from the tribute of petty kingdoms.

Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ and his court. Source: wikipedia.

During the reign of Alfonso X the advantages of lay governance had been exploited to the utmost through the promotion of a policy of cohabitation of the three religions in which knowledge could successfully be sapped from each culture and combined in a cosmopolitan society. But upon his death in 1284 an impoverished kingdom with a weakened church and no clear successor to the throne was left to face a period of strife that eventually led to the Castilian civil war. It was to be the end of two hundred years of cumulative enlightenment in Castile and León.

Simultaneously, increased political turmoil in Europe made the pilgrimage to Santiago lose some of its ancient international profile. Precarious relations between Rome and the French court eventually led to the move of the Papal seat to Avignon, which, in turn, led to further internal conflict within the church. Additionally, despite a long tradition of communion between the house of Poitiers and its French and Hispanic neighbours, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s decision to divorce Louis VII of France to marry Henry II of England carried important consequences of succession for the future, which would reach unforeseeable dimensions towards the end of the first half of the XIV century with the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict that, at one point or another, involved practically every country west of the German borders.

While initially the war was mostly fought in the northern region of Normandy and Brittany, much of the later encounters were disputed in the region of Guyenne, which had passed to English hands through Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II. Still today, much of the French routes’ landscape is shaped by military constructions which, through the centuries, have remained as testament to past aggressions, such as the Château de Calmont d’Olt in Espalion and the Valentré Bridge in Cahors. But the series of belligerence that comprise the Hundred Years’ War affected much more than just the landscape of France: decimated by the recent ravages of the plague, the people of Castile and Aragón faced another war, as Peter IV of Aragón and Peter I of Castile got sucked into the international conflict. Furthermore, the war of the two Peters spilled onto the Castilian civil war, which in 1369 saw Peter murdered and replaced as king by his half brother Henry. When Peter’s daughter Constance married John of Gaunt two years later, the Duke of Lancaster began a movement for the restitution of Peter’s line of heritage to the Castilian throne that would entail his wife’s coronation as Queen and his own elevation to the rank of King. John’s ambition took him on a military expedition in 1386 in which, with the aid of John of Portugal, he swept through Galicia, entering with his troops into Santiago de Compostela. Eventually, however, John of Gaunt had to give up his aspirations, negotiating a good fee with John of Castile for the relinquishment of his succession rights in favour of a concerted marriage between the Duke’s daughter and John of Castile’s son.

The shrine of St James had survived another foreign invasion but, despite the fact that its popularity would once again rise in the middle of the XV century and, later on, during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, the heyday of the pilgrimage to Santiago was certainly in the past. Centuries of discord within the Christian religion would trigger the rebellious Protestant Reformation during the opening third of the XVI century, making the Catholic place of worship repellent to roughly half the Christians of Europe. The antipathy felt towards Catholicism by the breaking factions is perfectly evident in Sir Francis Drake’s desire to attack and destroy the city and its temple. While such attack never took place, the apostle’s relics were hidden underground in 1589 to protect them from impious enemies, and remained sepulchred for centuries. The long demise of Santiago de Compostela as an inspirational site of reverence had begun, and would continue through the ages of discovery, Enlightenment and secularisation. Even domestically, the interest in the journey to Santiago diminished dramatically after the discovery of the new world and the promises of richness, adventure and glory that came with it. Thus, while the cult for Santiago never died out, and even though dozens of new cities in Hispanic America were being named after him, the importance of the Saint’s resting place as a centre of devotion subsided to the point where, in 1878, no more than 45 pilgrims were recorded to have celebrated the Feast of Santiago in the Cathedral.


Today, the remarkable renaissance of the interest for the pilgrimage to Santiago has once again placed the destination at the forefront of not only the religious but in fact the cultural world – a phenomenon that was perhaps initiated by Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the Cathedral during the ‘Jacobean Jubilee’ of 1982 and confirmed by his second peregrination in 1993, and by the declaration of the route from Roncesvalles to Santiago as UNESCO World Heritage Site. The procession to Santiago has become an important modern challenge that combines piety with adventure, history with nature and individual effort with a shared goal. The uniqueness of these characteristics has boosted the popularity of the trek in a matter of three decades to the point where nowadays several dozens of thousands of pilgrims carry out at least a portion of the journey every year. With the next Jacobean Jubilee looming in 2010 we can expect to see record figures of travellers further enhancing the history and the heritage of Saint James the Greater and continuing a tradition that has lasted well over 1000 years.



(View Spanish version.)

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