There I sat, in a restored 14th century Carthusian monastery in a small town in lower Austria, during the fall semester of my sophomore year, listening intently as our history professor delighted the class with story after story of Christendom. Professor Fougerousse was the kind of history teacher who made his subject come alive with stories that placed you in the middle of the action. If he already had my attention as he spoke about the Song of Roland, he definitely had it when he began to talk about the battle of Covadonga and its hero, Don Pelayo, the mountain king who held off the Moors in the North of Spain and prevented them from conquering all of the Iberian peninsula, advancing into France, and taking control of western Europe.
The story of Don Pelayo and the battle of Covadonga begins with the Visigoth invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 415 A.D. The Visigoths set up their monarchy in Toledo, but for many years their kingdom in Spain was divided. Up until the reign of King Leovigild, who ruled from 584-585 A.D., the nobility of Spain were Arians, while their subjects were mainly Catholic. This all changed, however, when Leovigild’s son Reccared became king and converted to Catholicism in 587, and the kingdom converted with him. The formal conversion of Visigothic Spain was confirmed at the Council of Toledo in May of 589 A.D. Under this newly unified rule, the Church in Spain flourished.
This unity was short-lived, however. The Visigoth monarchy faced repeated rebellions by opposing factions and the economy of the kingdom was unstable. In the year 710, when King Witiza attempted to put his son, Achila, on the throne, his enemies refused to recognize him as king and they selected a nobleman named Don Rodrigo instead. Fighting broke out between Achila’s supporters and those who wanted Rodrigo on the throne, and while Rodrigo eventually won, this instability would set the stage for coming invasion. Fr. Juan de Mariana, a Spanish historian from the 1700s, described the Visigothic kingdom during the reign of Don Rodrigo:
Such was the state of things in Spain when Don Rodrigo took over the Kingdom of the Goths (by vote, beating out Witiza’s sons), that neither could the people be unified (because of biases and opposing factions), nor did they have the strength to resist an external enemy. . . . They were good at fighting amongst themselves, but very unfit for battling against the enemy. Finally, the rule and dominion won by courage and effort was lost by extravagance—and the pleasures that usually accompany it.
As the Visigoth kingdom grew weaker, the coming invaders drew nearer. In the less than 100 years since the death of Mohammed in 632 Islam had spread throughout the Middle East and across North Africa, as far west as Tangier, which is only 36 kilometers from the southern tip of Spain. The Moors (a term which refers to all of the Muslims, both Berbers and Arabs, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula), informed by traitors that it was a good time to strike, mounted a few reconnaissance missions and then invaded Spain from North Africa in 711.
Because of the division within Visigoth kingdom, the Moors did not meet with much resistance. The first major battle they fought was the Battle of Guadalete, which took place in southern Spain on the banks of a river that the Moors later named Guadalete, or “river of death.” After two days of fighting, the Visigoths were betrayed by some of their own men, including a Don Oppas, and then King Rodrigo went missing. It is not known if he was killed in battle or if he escaped and lived the rest of his life in present-day Portugal, but in the absence of the King, his kinsman, Don Pelayo, took command of the Visigoth forces.
After the battle had raged for some time, Pelayo saw that his army would surely be defeated, so he decided to lead what remained of the Christian army north to Toledo, and then to Asturias. After a long journey, they settled in an area of Asturias called Covadonga, which comes from the Latin, Cova dominica, “Cavern of the Lady.” As the Moors swept through southern and then central Spain, many Christians fled to Asturias to join Don Pelayo. They chose him as their leader and they prepared to one day face the Moors again.
The Moors were not interested in Asturias, with its rocky terrain and steep mountain cliffs, but they knew that there was a remnant of Christians there who would not be ruled by them, and they did not want this rebellion to infect other parts of Spain. Seven years after the battle of Guadalete, the Moorish General Alcamah led an army to Asturias to destroy this last pocket of opposition. When news of Alcamah’s approach reached Pelayo, the Christian ruler chose one thousand of his best soldiers and led them into a large cave in Mount Auseva, now known as the cave of St. Mary of Covadonga.
It is said that Pelayo found this cave years before, one day when he was chasing a criminal. As Pelayo chased the man into this cave he was stopped by an old hermit who had hidden the fugitive. The hermit asked Pelayo to have mercy on the criminal who had sought refuge in the holy cave of Our Lady, whose image had been honored there for centuries. The hermit said,
If thou wilt pardon this culprit, and give him time to repent of his sins, thou, too, wilt some day find a haven in this holy cave, and through thee there will be born a new and powerful empire, which shall make thy name a glory to thy people for all time.
Pelayo granted the hermit’s request–he let the fugitive go free and then he dedicated the region and his band of soldiers to the Blessed Mother. He also prayed that he and his small army would be able to defeat their powerful enemy, and that the Christian faith would be preserved. Not long after this incident, when Alcamah and his army approached, Pelayo remembered this cave and decided to take his men there to wait for the enemy. Pelayo’s men were determined to either defeat the Moors or die defending their kingdom.
When Alcamah and his troops approached the steep rock face and the opening to the impenetrable cave where the Christians stood, he wished to avoid a fight, so he sent Don Oppas, one of the traitors from the Battle of Guadalete, to convince Pelayo to surrender. Don Oppas went to Pelayo and attempted to persuade him that it would be impossible for his small, poorly equipped band of soldiers to defeat the highly trained army of Moors. He promised Pelayo honors and riches if he would surrender the way others had done. Pelayo replied,
…thou wouldst now try to persuade us to bend our necks to the yoke of a servitude worse than death? No, Don Oppas, we are determined to put an end to the evils we suffer, either by defeating our enemies, or by giving up this miserable life for eternal happiness!
At dawn the next morning the Moors advanced into the valley. Pelayo and his men watched the enemy march towards them and then stop when they reached the forbidding cliffs. The Moorish archers shot a volley of arrows towards the cave, but the arrows bounced off the rocks and killed many of their own soldiers. The Christian soldiers then began throwing stones and trees down onto the enemy army, from the rocky peaks where they were stationed. After that, a miracle occurred which helped the Christians to believe that God was helping them—a terrible storm suddenly broke out, and so much rain fell that the nearby Deva River overflowed and flooded the valley. Seeing this, the Moors fled and the Christian army was victorious. Pelayo was declared King of Asturias, the first King of the Spanish monarchy. As news of Pelayo’s victory spread, Christians came from all over the Iberian Peninsula to the Kingdom of Asturias.
During his reign Pelayo defended his kingdom, encouraged learning, had many churches built, and preserved Christian writings and the relics of the Saints. Pelayo’s daughter Ormesinda married a young prince named Alfonso, who was of the royal bloodline of King Reccared. When Pelayo’s son Favila died without an heir, Ormesinda and Alfonso were declared King and Queen of Asturias, and tradition says that they had the first chapel built on the mountain for Our Lady of Covadonga. This chapel was destroyed by a fire in October of 1777, but the altar and the tombs of Pelayo and Alfonso I were preserved. The present day Basilica of Our Lady of Covadonga was commissioned by Carlos III and finished in 1901.
One can visit the tomb of Don Pelayo today. It is located in front of a beautiful chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Covadonga in the region of Asturias, in northwestern Spain. This chapel and Don Pelayo’s tomb are situated in the hollow of the cave where the Christian soldiers stood during the battle. The epitaph on 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 . . .
The Battle of Covadonga is often considered the beginning of the Reconquista, the 770-year effort to drive the Moors out of Spain, which was completed in 1492. The feast of Our Lady of Covadonga is celebrated on September 8th when crowds come from all over Asturias to pay homage to Our Lady, whose intercession helped Pelayo and his army preserve the last Christian stronghold in Spain, and planted seeds of hope for a Christian Reconquest.