Thank you to Baguette Iselen for this history of Asturias! If you have wondered why this region has such strong Celtic roots, read on. To understand the story of Asturias, you have to start with its geography and work your way through the early kings and one important Queen.
Geography of Asturias
Asturias is different because of a geographical feature. The Cantabrian Mountain range runs along the north of Spain, and the part of the range called the Picos de Europa, “Peaks of Europe”, is the highest among those mountains.
These peaks create a tall wall that protects the south of Asturias against invasions. The Roman army tried to subdue the rebellious Asturias tribes unsuccessfully and Emperor Augustus himself had to come here to conduct the military operations. Asturias was the place where Christian nobles sought refuge when Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula, and even Napoleon had to send his best generals to defeat us. Only the locals know the mountain passes, which are dangerous and the perfect place to ambush enemies.
This “Asturias wall” is a determining factor that has shaped our lives and history to this day. We’re isolated, and it’s not easy to get into the region or go out. Even the weather is different since the high mountains trap the clouds. It’s cold and windy, it rains all the time, and we never reach high temperatures in summer.
Asturias has been called “Spanish Scotland.” It’s the price we pay for living in a natural paradise. The entire north of Spain is green, but the lushest forests, greenest fields, and most breathtakingly beautiful beaches and cliffs are in Asturias.
This wall also determined our culture: our background is Celtic. When Indo-European people invaded the Peninsula in the Bronze Age, Celtic tribes settled in Asturias, but no one else came after them. The rest of Spain developed the Iberian culture, but we remained isolated and looked north.
It was easier for our fishermen to trade with French Bretagne, Wales, and Ireland than for our shepherds to cross the mountains and contact the southerners. Even crossing the Cantabrian Sea is very dangerous. This happened throughout history. You won’t find bullfighters, flamenco dancers, mantillas, and ornamental combs here. There isn’t paella, sangria, or whatever comes to your mind when you think of Spain. Nope. You’ll find Celtic spirals and triskeles, bagpipes, geographical names of Celtic origin, endemic breeds of cattle, sheep, chicken, and pigs. We have our own dialect, which is a very old form of the Spanish language that developed differently because of the remoteness of our inhabitants.
Pelagius, First King of the Asturias
Let’s travel back to the year 711 when the Muslim army invaded Spain and killed the last Visigoth king. Everything was a mess. Panic spread and nobles surrendered all over the country. Pelagius, a member of the King’s guard, decided to hide in Asturias, behind the tall wall. He was familiar with the area because it was the land where his mother was born.
Pelagius gathered a group of loyal warriors and shepherds. They were all locals who knew the mountain passes, and they ambushed the Muslim troops hiding in a cave called Covadonga. Pelagius won. It wasn’t a big battle, only a skirmish, but, from a psychological point of view, it was crucial. Pelagius proved the Muslim army wasn’t invincible and other nobles joined him soon.
Here is where the Christian “resistance” started and Pelagius was proclaimed the new king. This is why the heir of the Spanish throne is the Prince of Asturias and the reason why Felipe, and later Leonor, took an oath to serve the country and Spanish people in Covadonga, right next to the graves of the first kings of Asturias. Covadonga is the cradle of modern Spain and no other place has this important symbolism. Pelagius founded a capital protected by the mountains, Cangas de Onís, and established a court.
Now the Game of Thrones begins. The Asturias monarchy was elective, following the Visigoth example. It’s true that they tended to choose members of the same family, but things turned ugly when they had several candidates.
King Pelagius died in 738 and his son, Favila, inherited the throne. Favila made a mistake: he let a bear kill him during a hunt only two years later. It was more than an accident. We’re Celtic people, remember? Killing bears was some kind of “rite of passage” back then, but it was also a way to provide cover for a planned assassination. Favila wasn’t worthy of being a king, he was seen as weak, and ruined the reputation of his children too.
King Alfonso I and Queen Ermesinda
So everybody turned their eyes to Pelagius’ daughter, Ermesinda, who was married to Alfonso, the son of the Duke of Cantabria. This is important. First, it’s evidence that women had rights to the throne and they passed those rights to their husbands. Secondly, everything that happened later, all the murdering, fights, and betrayals that lasted for 200 years, were the result of this marriage. From now on, two families will fight for the throne: Pelagius’ family, the rightful heirs, and the Duke of Cantabria’s family, the in-laws.
Ermesinda and Alfonso I had three children: Fruela, Vímara and Adosinda. When Alfonso died in 757, his son Fruela inherited the throne, and, immediately, founded a new capital: Oviedo. This is the city where the Princess of Asturias Awards takes place.
Freula founded it because he was in love: he married Munia, a pretty girl from the Basque Provinces who was the daughter of an important leader of the area, but not exactly royal or noble. She wasn’t welcomed by the court in Cangas de Onís and her husband decided to move to Oviedo where he built a palace for her. The palace chapel is still part of the Gothic cathedral.
Fruela and Munia had a son together, Alfonso II, who will be one of the most important and loved kings of my country. Adosinda lived with them happily and single. Fruela and Adosinda’s other brother, Vímara, the middle child, was less happy. He coveted the throne for himself, and Fruela sentenced him to death for treason. Some weeks later, Vímara’s friends killed King Fruela in revenge.
Chaos erupted in the kingdom and the heir presumptive was a baby. Nobles fought and the situation was unsustainable. Adosinda, who wasn’t a young lady anymore but a wise woman, decided to send her nephew to a monastery in Galicia where he’d get a good education far away from plots and potential murderers. She remained calm while her cousin Aurelio was named King.
Aurelio was the nephew of King Alfonso I, the son of one of his brothers. Aurelio was not a descendant of Pelagius. He came directly from the in-law’s family. The new king didn’t like Adosinda, who he saw as a dangerous woman who had more rights to the throne than he did. Adosinda felt her life was in danger, and rightfully so. She was almost 40 years old, and she decided to get married to Silo. Silo wasn’t of royal descent but was extremely rich. Her new husband could pay for a private army to defend his wife and to protect young Alfonso, who was growing up in Galicia and waiting for the right moment to come back.
Queen Adosinda and King Silo
When Aurelio died in 774, Adosinda and Silo were named new monarchs without opposition. The new queen had shown everybody that she was a skilled diplomat. She ascended to the throne without bloodshed: she not only married to a wealthy man with an army but she was the granddaughter of both king Pelagius and Pedro, the Duke of Cantabria. She had played the long game and gathered both succession rights.
Just to be on the safe side, she moved the kingdom capital to Pravia, closer to the vast properties of her husband, and brought back her nephew Alfonso, who was 10 years old, to be educated at her court. The tutor of the young prince was the most important cultural figure of the kingdom, Beatus of Liébana, who is famous for his Commentary on the Apocalypse. Even now, Beatus is an admired author but, as a person, he was an opportunist and a traitor. You will see why in Part 2 tomorrow!