Fernando III of Castilla: Saint, King, and Conqueror

Throughout history, the greatest leaders of nations invariably rise up during the most difficult times. This was certainly the case in Spain, when in the very middle of the 800-year Moorish occupation Ferdinand III became the king of Castilla. He is called Fernando el Santo in Spain, and he was the greatest of all of the Spanish kings. Not only was he a great military leader, taking back more territory from the Moors than anyone else had in 500 years, but he was also a just ruler, who was concerned above all with the propagation of the faith and the happiness of his subjects. He was careful not to tax his people too heavily, and he once said that he “feared the curse of one poor woman more than a whole army of Saracens.” He founded the University of Salamanca, known as the Athens of Spain; he built churches and monasteries; and the two highpoints of his military career were the reconquest of Cordoba and Sevilla. In order to understand the significance of St. Fernando III, however, let us first consider a few of the events in Spain that took place between the invasion of the Moors and 1217, when Fernando became king of Castilla.

Al-mansur and the Bells of Santiago          

After the Moorish armies invaded Spain in 711 they took control of nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula, going as far north as Compostela, and they even attempted to invade France. The centuries that followed were a dark time for Christian Spain. One particularly low point during the 800 years of Moorish occupation was when Al-mansur, the army commander for the Caliph of Cordoba, was at the height of his power. Al-mansur was unbeatable, and he ravaged Christian Spain, destroying fortresses, monasteries and churches in his path. In The Reconquest of Spain, Historian Derek Lomax writes, “only slowly did the Christians realize that Al-mansur had no intention of conquering them, since that would have prevented him from continually defeating them.”

In 997 Al-mansur marched through Viseu, Portugal, where he was joined by some Christian counts who had capitulated to him, and then to Oporto, where he was joined by reinforcements who arrived by sea. He then marched toward Compostela. When they arrived, Al-mansur and his army sacked the city and burned the basilica to the ground, leaving only the tomb of St. James intact. Al-mansur returned to Cordoba with captives and plunder, including the bells from the church of Santiago. He made Christian slaves carry these bells, which had called all of Christendom to pray for hundreds of years, back to Cordoba, to be used in the Mosque as braziers for burning incense. The bells of Christian churches held a huge significance during this time because they only rang in the areas that were under Christian control, but the bells from the basilica of St. James had an even greater meaning—they symbolized one of the most important pilgrimage sites in all of Europe and the remains of St. James at Compostela, which were the pride of Christian Spain.

Hope for Christian Spain

For nearly 240 years the bells of Santiago remained at the Mosque in Cordoba, until a great light arose who would lead Christian Spain out of the darkness of those years. King Fernando III was the leader Christian Spain had long awaited. A just ruler, a merciful conqueror, a man of prayer and strict aestheticism, a great protector of the mendicant orders, and above all, a devoted subject of Jesus and Mary; St. Fernando was a Third Order Franciscan, a loving husband and father, and the Spanish ruler who won more territory back from the Moors than any other Christian leader in the Reconquista to date. When Fernando became King of Castilla in 1217 the Moors still had control of most of the south of Spain, including the cities of Sevilla and Cordoba, but by the time of his death in 1252 they only occupied the tiny kingdom of Granada, which was required to pay a yearly tribute to the Spanish crown. Among the victories won by St. Fernando, the reconquest of Cordoba and Sevilla are among the most significant.

When St. Fernando took back Cordoba, he had Muslim captives carry the bells of Santiago back to Compostela, and he re-dedicated the mosque in Cordoba as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. This may appear to some as a vengeful act, but when one looks at the facts, one will see that it was done out of a sense of justice. It is necessary to remember that when the Moors invaded Spain it was a Christian country, and they turned churches into mosques. St. Fernando was simply taking back what had been stolen from the Church and from Spain.

The Reconquest of Sevilla

After re-conquering Cordoba and taking back the kingdoms of Murcia and Jaen, Fernando III laid siege to Sevilla. It took sixteen months for the Muslim inhabitants to finally surrender this magnificent city, but on November 23rd, 1248, the ruler of Sevilla, Ajatafe, surrendered Sevilla to Fernando, King of Castilla and Leon, after 500 years of Muslim occupation.

On December 22nd King Fernando and the people of Castilla and Leon entered Sevilla triumphantly with a brilliant procession. A beautiful carriage led by four white horses carried the white statue of “Our Lady of the Kings,” which Fernando brought with him to each battle, into the city. (This statue had been given to him by his first cousin, King St. Louis XIV of France.) The crowds spread flowers in front of the carriage as it passed, and after Archbishop Gutierre of Toledo purified the church, he celebrated Mass, using this carriage as a makeshift altar.

After 500 years of use as a mosque, King Fernando and his subjects knelt to pray to God in the building that would one day be replaced by one of the greatest cathedrals in the world. The Cathedral of Sevilla would become the home of not only the statue of the Virgin of the Kings, but it would also become the final resting place of Fernando III, saint, king, and conqueror. One can visit the Cathedral of Sevilla, and the “Chapel Royal” today to see the Virgin of the Kings, and the incorrupt body of King St. Fernando III, her devoted son, asleep at her feet.

image: San Fernando, rey de España by Antonio Casanova y Estorach


Sarah Metts is a freelance writer and an aspiring Spanish historian. She holds a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is inspired by the lives of the saints, beauty, and the writing of Leo Tolstoy. She and her husband Patrick reside in the Atlanta area with their sons Jack and Joseph.

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