On a day like today: St James the Moorslayer

Christians commemorate on July 25 St. James the Greater, one of the apostles, known in scripture as one of the 'sons of thunder.' A martyr, he was later invoked by Spain for centuries in its reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from Islamic occupiers.

On the 23rd of May in the year of our Lord 844, near a place called Clavijo in the Rioja region of Spain, legend recalls that a miracle occurred that would alter the tide of history then washing over the Iberian peninsula.  José González de Tejada, a Spanish historian of the 19th century, wrote “It was at that time that Saint James appeared, mounted on a strong and beautiful white horse. The sight of him enlivened the Christians and so terrified the infidels who then cowardly turned their backs and retreated, leaving the field covered with Moorish corpses and running with rivers of their blood that, it is said, flowed to the Ebro River some two leagues away from that place.”

This image of the apostle of Jesus, James the Greater – so-called because he was the first of that time to heed the call of the Lord – would serve the resurgent Catholics of Spain well in their centuries of struggle against Muslim Moorish occupation. Muslims had come to Spain in 711 at the invitation of a Spanish Christian prince who had made war on a fellow Christian. Having established a foothold across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Moors would then advance and then cover the entire Iberian peninsula south of the Pyrenees and drive into France, only to finally break against the iron wall of Frankish infantry led by Charles Martel in 732 near Poitiers on the outskirts of Paris. Once the Moors retreated south of the Pyrenees, Spain and Portugal would become a prize to be contested by Muslims and Christians for centuries. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne himself would lead a crusade into Spain, only to retreat and come to grief over the death of his lieutenant Roland at the hands of renegade Basques.

The figure of a saint mounted on a white charger gave wings to Spanish resistance to Moorish occupation. Saint James himself was a martyr, killed by his own people over religious differences. But the mounted hero of the battle of Clavijo came to symbolize the beginnings of an Hispanic nationalism that was to carry Spain ultimately to its unification under the Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel and their endorsement of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to what he thought was the Spice Islands. The crusades against the Moors throughout Spain for nearly eight centuries became known as the Reconquest, since it was agreed that Muslim usurpers must be thrown back to Morocco from whence they came. Since Spain was occupied with its own crusades, very few Spanish knights and crusaders apart from some from Catalonia were to follow their English, French and German confreres to the Holy Land. And that Spanish Reconquest, with its religious and secular motivations, was to continue under the guise of conquest in the Americas like a relentless tidal wave that swept both pitiless Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, and pious and humane Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, to their destinies in a new land where Spain would be remembered for the implacable fervor of its sons, for good and for ill.

‘James’, in the Castilian and Catalonian languages, is rendered variously as ‘Jaime’, ‘Jaume’, ‘Jacobo’, and ‘Yago’. It is by the last of these names that the patron of Spain and its furious knights became known. ‘Santiago’ is, of course, ‘Saint James’ and it is Santiago by which he is known in Spanish history. The bones of the Apostle James are found in the cathedral at at Santiago de Compostela, which has been a place of Christian pilgrimage rivaled only by Rome and the Holy Land for more than 1000 years.  The saint’s name was invoked during the centuries of fighting between Moors and Christians: ‘¡Santiago y cierra España!’ – Saint James and Spain, charge!  This was the battle cry that had its origins at the Battle of Clavijo and that would be famously shouted at the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212 when rival kings and princes of the Iberian peninsula joined forces against the Almohad Caliph Muhammad al-Nasr.

Orders of knights were established in Spain both to protect pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, and to do battle with the Moors. At the bloody battle at Navas de Tolosa, the Knights of Saint James, the Knights of Calatrava, and the Templar Knights were heavily engaged and suffered great losses, only adding to their renown and mystique. The Knights of Saint James ‘Los Caballeros de Santiago’ became among the most prominent of Spanish cavalry, and later figured in the Conquest of the Americas – as evidenced by the many cities and towns in the Americas bearing the name ‘Santiago’. The legendary appearance of Saint James was the beginning of the Jacobean tradition, that through the centuries has become a peaceful pilgrimage of those seeking spiritual and corporeal health, walking along the Camino de Santiago – the Road to Saint James.

A great deal of ink, as well as blood, has been spilt since the alleged appearance of Saint James with sword in hand and astride a white horse, some twelve centuries ago.  It is said that the Moors also saw the vision, and cried “Allah has come to the aid of Santiago!” – the heaven-sent mounted knight thereafter known as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moorslayer.  History and legend, religion and the affairs of state, were forged into a story that would sustain and unify an embattled Hispanic nation for centuries, giving it a character that would last well into the 20th century.

It has long been said, and repeated by balladeers, chroniclers and historians, that King Ramiro of Asturias, the son of Alfonso the Chaste, had refused to render a nefarious tribute to the Moors that had been imposed by long before. According to legend, the Kingdom of Asturias had long suffered under what became known as the annual Tribute of One Hundred Maidens. This was a tribute of Christian souls sent to pacify the Emir of Córdoba,  that included not only the 100 unmarried girls, but also more than 50 women. Shamed by this sacrifice to the minotaur in Cordoba, Ramiro decided to do battle instead.

Uniting the entire region, Ramiro gathered a powerful army that he hurled against the Moors at Albelda de Iregua, near Logroño – the capital of La Rioja. The Moors proved to be nearly matchless opponents, having been reinforced by levies from Morocco. These encircled Ramiro’s forces, who were then thrown back towards Clavijo where they took refuge at the castle there. On the night of his defeat, Ramiro had a dream which promised a victory against the Moors arrayed around him. Assured of being accompanied by the heavenly knight Santiago, Ramiro and his men went to battle on the next day, defeating the Moors at a place that has ever after been known as the Field of Slaughter.

Just a day later, while Moorish and Christian corpses still littered the ground, Ramiro declared in the nearby town of Calahorra that all Christians should go as pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James at Compostela in gratitude for what appeared to be a victory sent from God.  Linking the martial victory to Christian religion in 1270, King Alfonso the Wise wrote in his General Chronicle the words of Saint James in Ramiro’s dream before the Battle of Clavijo, “’Know that Our Lord Jesus Christ divided among the Apostles all of the provinces of the earth. And to me he gave only Spain to guard. King Ramiro, strengthen your prayer and be strong and firm in your deeds, knowing that I am Saint James. And it will come true tomorrow that you will have victory over all of those Moors, with God’s help.’”

So the legend began. When it seemed that the Moors would carry the day, a brilliant Santiago appeared on his white horse and wielding an enormous sword that decapitated 70,000 Muslims at once, thus earning a humble Jewish fisherman of the 1st century, James the son of Zebedee, the sobriquet of Moorslayer.

Invocations of Saint James, an apparent atomic weapon of the medieval age, only multiplied after his brilliant sword was unsheathed at Clavijo. And it was Spain as an entity that also emerged from the forge of battle. Spain, which remains divided by mountains and valleys, language and custom, was unified at least while disparate kingdoms such as Aragon, Asturias, Navarra, Catalonia, and Valencia were killing Muslim Moors.  It was at the Battle of Coimbra in 1064 that Santiago again intervened in favor of Christian Iberians when the troops of Fernando I  of Leon encountered a Moorish army in Portugal. It was there that the battling of Christians against Muslims became known as a Crusade to rid European soil of Islam. Thus, gradually, Catholic religion became an identifying identity long before the Castilian language would become the Spanish lingua franca by the 15th century and the Age of Discovery.

Oddly enough, it was a Mozarab – a Christian of Moorish or Jewish ancestry – who urged him to seize CoimbraSisnando Davidiz became the count of Coimbra and ruled during the apogee of Mozarabic culture on the peninsula. Known for fostering relative peace with Muslim neighbors to the south of the city,  he nonetheless hedged his bets and fortified the region with peerless castles. The bones of Davidez rest in the cathedral of Coimbra, even while it is not noted for visits from pilgrims, despite Davidez's efforts in the cause of Santiago.
 



Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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