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Don Pelayo and the Battle of Covadonga

Sarah Metts

A statue of Don Pelayo. Credit: tnarik via Flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Around the year 722 A.D. a Visigothic nobleman named Don Pelayo, with a small band of poorly equipped Christian soldiers, defeated a much larger and highly skilled army of Moors in a battle that took place in Covadonga, located in the region of Asturias, in northern Spain. This victory began the Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain from the Moors, which would last for 770 years.

One of the interesting things about this story is that many historians writing today about medieval Spain would not acknowledge that this battle, the Battle of Covadonga, had any historical significance. Most would deny that it began the Reconquista and that it was fought to defend the Christian faith. If they include the battle in their account at all, they might call it a “local skirmish.”

Plato once said, “those who tell the stories rule society.” Perhaps it is too politically incorrect for historians to say that these Christians had a right to stand up to the Moors and refuse to give up their religion to live under Muslim rule, and maybe miracles and faith in God have grown unfashionable, but we should not allow an anti-Christian bias in the study of history to prevent stories that have been passed down for over a thousand years from being told today.

By the early 700s the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain was in decline. Their king, Don Rodrigo, did not have the loyalty of his subjects, his army had become weak, the Arian heresy had not yet been completely eradicated, and there were many opposing political factions vying for power. The Moors, informed by traitors that it was a good time to attack, invaded Spain from North Africa in 711.

The story of Don Pelayo and Covadonga begins in the same year, at the Battle of Guadalete. (This battle took place in southern Spain on the banks of a river that the Moors later named Guadalete, “river of death.”) After fighting bravely for two days, the Visigoths were betrayed by their own men--in the thick of the battle Don Oppas, the Archbishop of Sevilla, and his followers went over to fight with the Moors. Shortly afterwards, 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). In the absence of King Rodrigo, his kinsman, Pelayo, did what he could to rally the troops. But when he saw that defeat was inevitable, Pelayo led what remained of the Christian army to Toledo and then to Asturias. After a long and melancholy journey, they settled in an area of Asturias called Covadonga, from the Latin, Cova dominica, “Cavern of the Lady.” As the Moors took over other parts of Spain, many refugees came to Asturias to join Pelayo. They chose him as their leader and they prepared to face the Moors again in battle.

The Moors were not interested in Asturias—with its rugged 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 Guadalete, General Alcamah led an army to Asturias to destroy this last pocket of resistance. When news of Alcamah’s approach reached Pelayo he 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. When 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.” (1)

Pelayo granted the hermit’s request and dedicated the region and his army 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 it was there that he took his men to wait for the enemy, determined to either conquer or perish in the fight.

When Alcamah saw the steep rock face and the impregnable cave where the Christians stood, he wished to avoid a fight, so he sent Don Oppas, the traitor, to convince Pelayo to surrender. Don Oppas went to Pelayo and insisted that it would be impossible for him and his small, poorly equipped band of soldiers to defeat the army of Moors—a highly trained army of 60,000 men. He promised Pelayo honors and riches if he would surrender to the Arabs the way others had done. Pelayo answered him,

“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!” (2)

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, stationed in the rocky peaks above the valley, threw stones and trees down onto the enemy army. A miracle then occurred which helped the Christians to believe that God was helping them in the fight—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 Spain and the Kingdom of Asturias grew.

One can visit the tomb of the Great Pelayo today. It is located in front of the beautiful chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Covadonga. This chapel and 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 …”

(1) Isabel Allardyce, Historic Shrines of Spain (New York: Franciscan Missionary Press, 1912), 33.
(2) Allardyce, Historic Shrines, 35.

Topics: Church history , Culture , Marian devotion

Sarah Metts is a freelance writer, copy editor, and aspiring Spanish historian. She holds a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She and her husband Patrick reside in the Atlanta area with their sons Jack and Joseph.

View all articles by Sarah Metts

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November 23, 2014

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