The Mustard Seed Kingdom that Changed Christendom

His kingdom was no larger than a modern U.S. county. His army was a rat-tag band of 300 grizzled warriors. He had no castle, no capital city—only a cave on a mountain.

Pelayo was just a simple Visigothic nobleman.

But he was all that stood between invading Muslim armies and total domination of Spain.

A Muslim force of 7,000 soldiers had landed at the Rock of Gibraltar on April 27, 711 A.D. The Visigothic nobility thought the Muslims were interested in little more than plundering and marauding. But this army was there to stay. The battle-tested army of Moors and Berbers from North Africa finally met the Visigothic army in July, crushing it in an afternoon and killing its king.

By year’s end, Toledo, the national capital, had fallen. Nearly 20,000 more Muslim soldiers poured into the Iberian peninsula and Seville fell. Then, by 714, Zaragova and what would in the future be Aragon, Catalonia, and Galacia also yielded to the invaders.

Nearly the entire land, it seemed, was suddenly under the crescent flag. Writes Catholic historian Warren Carroll, “In exactly three years the Muslims had conquered the whole of the Iberian peninsula—a task which had been beyond the powers of Hannibal and was to prove beyond the powers of Napoleon Bonaparte, which had taken Rome at its height the better part of a century to accomplish.”

Pelayo had fought with the Spanish king at that first fateful battle with the Muslim forces in July 711. Afterwards he had made his way back to his homeland in northern Spain, known as Asturias, a flinty scrap of land on the northern edge of Spain, staring out across the Bay of Biscay at modern-day Brittany, France.

When Asturias came under Muslim rule, Pelayo was sent as a hostage to Cordoba, the new Muslim capital, near the southern tip of the country. On his way, Pelayo learned that his sister had been taken into the new Muslim governor’s harem.

Something in Pelayo snapped. Perhaps his sense of honor over his sister’s virtue had been stirred up. Perhaps the reality of it all had finally sunk in. Whatever it was, Pelayo made a break for it, eluding a cross-country manhunt and making it deep into the mountains of Asturias. He spent the winter in hiding.

The following spring, Pelayo gathered all the fighting men willing to rally to his cause. Just 300—a rough mix of mountaineers and veteran soldiers—answered the call. They met in a cave on Mount Auseva, where the assembly of warriors elected Pelayo king of a territory that was just twenty miles by twenty.

Pelayo’s kingdom was so small that it took three years for Muslims authorities to even notice its existence.

At last, sometime around 722, Muslim authorities decided to wipe Pelayo’s smudge of a Christian kingdom off the map of their new country, renamed Al-Andalus.

A Muslim army encamped around the cave, with a turncoat bishop in tow. Pelayo and his tiny army remained entrenched in the cave, known as Covadonga, after the Latin for “Cavern of the Lady,” because of a traditional association between the cave and devotion to Mary. According to the account of a ninth century chronicler, the bishop tried to coax Pelayo to come out and surrender:

I believe that you understand how the entire army of the Goths cannot resist the force of the Muslims; how then can you resist on this mountain? Listen to my advice: abandon your efforts and you will enjoy many benefits alongside the Moors.

Pelayo responded:

Have you not read in Sacred Scripture that the Church of the Lord is like the mustard seed, which, small as it is, grows more than any other through the mercy of God?…Our hope is in Christ; this little mountain will be the salvation of Spain and of the people of the Goths; the mercy of Christ will free us from that multitude,’ (Cronica de Afonso III, translation by Carroll).

Pelayo had his 300 men. Though no reliable estimates are available, historians agree that the Muslim aggressors outnumbered his at least several times over. Battle ensued. The Asturian force had the advantage of higher ground and they used it well, hurling down boulders, spears, and arrows down at the Muslims soldiers.

Pelayo’s warriors ultimately prevailed, routing the Muslims and killing their commander—along with the renegade bishop.

It was a small start—a mustard seed of a kingdom. But from it was to bloom the 700-year Spanish Reconquista, at the end of which Spain and Portugal would emerge as two of the most important and powerful Catholic countries in all of Christendom.

Today, the Spanish Reconquista seems like such an artifact of history today. It epitomizes a seemingly bygone era when people lived and died by their faith—a time of castles and knights, peasants and kings.

But the story of Pelayo nonetheless remains as relevant as ever.

As a writer for Catholic Exchange, I see a lot of commonalities between Palayo’s fight and the work of Catholic Exchange.

Just as Pelayo had to fight off the Muslim marauders, we too have to fight the work of the devil in our own lives and culture.  To do this, we need to keep our eyes on Christ, and I find that the articles Catholic Exchange are always pulling me toward holiness.

Pelayo also fought with only 300 men.  His resources were minimal, but two great Catholic countries emerged from his sacrifice and dedication.

Similarly, Catholic Exchange’s resources are minimal, but each day it reaches up to 20,000 readers — and hundreds of thousands of souls each month with articles on key doctrines of the faith, the Scriptures, figures and stories from the history of the Church, explanations of prayers and devotionals, and responses to the most pressing moral and spiritual issues in our Church and the culture at large.

When I saw that Michael Lichens (CE’s editor) and Charlie McKinney (CE’s president) had written to Catholic Exchange’s readers this week asking for your support, I wanted to express as well my sincerest hope that you will support this important work.

Content on the Internet is so unreliable.  But on CE, you know that what you read will be well articulated and faithful to the Church.

That’s why I write today and ask you to visit CE’s secure online donation form and give what you can— $10, $25, $50, $100, $250 or even $500 or more.

Charlie and Michael tell me that a pledge to give each month is most helpful because it enables them to plan out what CE can accomplish throughout the year.

We need Catholic Exchange.  Please keep the lifeblood pumping through CE’s veins so it can continue producing exciting, entertaining, passionate, and usable material for you to defend the Church and gather in souls for God!

Thank you for all of your help and prayers.

Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on and A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at

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  • Ioannes

    Great post, definetly moved me to contribute! Count me in as one of the ragtag 300! Wasn’t this the battle of Our Lady of Pilar as well?

  • Rachel

    Great article! Warren Carroll founded Christendom College, my alma mater. I made a donation to CE too. May God continue to bless you and Mary keep you.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    My many thanks, Rachel, with your generosity and comment!

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Thank you! We appreciate the prayers, comments and your generosity.